The Charred Tree

Farewell! Away! Down River!

“Wake up, sleepyhead. It’s time to get ready to go to the river.”

Big Daddy’s voice spoke softly into his ear and woke him, without alarm, to the dim light of a candle set on the stool beside his pallet. Luke’s first inclination was to pull the hand-sewn quilt tight around his chin and go back to sleep—it was obvious from the fog that accented his grandfather’s breathing that the morning’s chill might be a bit more than just “pre-dawn.” The warm lump of Czar, the family shepherd, was almost toasty compared to the crispness that Luke was breathing in through his nostrils and made getting up that much harder despite the promise of a day of fishing. Mammaw had tried to get him to sleep in the house last night but Luke had insisted on sleeping on the back porch where he had slept for most of the summer. Now he was grateful that his grandmother had come out and put the quilt over him while he slept because the dog would not have been enough to keep him warm through the whole night.

“But it’s still dark, Big Daddy!” Luke knew that argument would not make any difference, but the very act of making the statement bought him a few more moments under the quilt with the shepherd.

Big Daddy picked up the candle. “Well, the fish don’t wait for sunup to start bitin’. Get yourself up and dressed so ya don’t freeze, ya hear. And don’t be making a lot of noise now; Mammaw’s still asleep and I don’t want to wake her. I’m gonna go make us some breakfast. You,” and Big Daddy pointed his gnarled finger at Luke’s sleepy face, “get dressed and put the gear in the boat. The egg’s’ll be ready by the time you get back in here.” Big Daddy turned and started to shuffle back toward the warm glow of the kitchen door.

“OK. Don’t forget that I like mine over easy.”

“I hear ya, but you’ll just have to eat ‘em scrambled like mine. I’m doing the cookin’ this mornin’, not Mammaw.” They both chuckled as the old man closed the back door with a wink. Big Daddy was strictly utilitarian when it came to eating. His only exception was the barbecued pork that he prided himself on. He would spend a whole afternoon and even into the evening fussing over the coals and roasting meat to make sure it was just right; but if it wasn’t barbecue, the word of the day was simple.

Luke sat up on the small mound of quilts, pillows, throw rugs, and discarded clothing that had been his make-shift bed. He quickly found his pants and pulled the cold material over his warm legs. “Gee whiz! What a way to wake up in the morning!” he muttered through teeth just beginning to chatter. Czar stretched, yawned, and trotted to the screen door while Luke buttoned his flannel shirt. The dog looked back at the shivering boy with a pointed look that seemed to say, Ahem…the door?

“OK, OK, I’m coming.” Luke walked to the door, flipped up the latch hook and pushed it open just enough to allow the big dog to nose his way out. The floor felt like ice to his bare feet and he quickly minced his steps back to the warm quilt where he pulled on thick socks and heavy boots. The smells of coffee coming to a boil and bacon beginning to sizzle on the wood stove wafted from the back door and Luke’s stomach rumbled. “Well, you ninny, get your job done and you can get in there where it’s warm.”

The door cracked open and Big Daddy handed out a steaming mug of coffee just as he reached the screen door to follow the dog. “Here ya go, son. Warm up a bit while you get them poles into the boat.”

“Oh thanks! Does it usually get this cold this early, Big Daddy?” The heat radiating through the thin walls of the mug was a painful pleasure to Luke and he held the steaming liquid close to his face to breath in the warming steam before taking a tentative swallow. Dad had only recently started allowing Luke to have a half-cup of coffee in the mornings, but Big Daddy had given it to him (privately, and with no comment) since he had first asked for it. Luke liked the bitter bite from it as much as the way it warmed all the way down to his bones.

“Not usually, but then it’s been a strange year all around. Now get hoppin’! The bacon’s almost done. Don’t want your eggs to get cold before you eat ‘em.” Big Daddy waggled the long-tined fork toward the screen door.

“All right. Be back in a jiffy.” Luke moved to the door with an energy renewed by the hot liquid and the prospects of spending a morning on the river with his grandfather.

“Don’t let the door…” The spring pulled the screen door back with a loud “slam!”  Big Daddy shook his head and smiled at the never-changing antics of youth. He had been just like that when he was a young’un, too. He closed the kitchen door and turned back to the cooking.

Luke walked through the back yard, careful not to spill his coffee. The grass was covered with thick dew and he could see the trail that Czar had made through it earlier. As cold as it felt, he was surprised there wasn’t frost. He walked past the pumphouse toward the workshop where Big Daddy kept the fishing gear when it wasn’t being used. They lived way out in the country so the door was always unlocked and he pushed right in. He gathered his own rod and reel and then, almost reverently, picked up Big Daddy’s rig. Fooling around with Big Daddy’s special rod and reel was a spanking offense and Luke felt more than a little nervous handling it, even with permission and under orders. Two more poles, the tackle box, and the can of nightcrawlers they’d gathered the night before and he headed to the boat, which was already hitched to the truck.

Luke stowed the gear and couldn’t help but hear Mammaw’s voice in his head, A place for everything and everything in its place. He chuckles as he jogged back to the workshop to retrieve the coffee mug. If he didn’t bring it back in with him, he’d hear about it from his grandmother when they got back.

Mug in hand and feeling the excitement of the day before him, Luke quickly walked toward the back door of the house with Czar at his heel. At the back door, he held the door open for the dog and found that he was no longer beside him. Luke heard a low growl from behind him and turned to see what had the big shepherd angry. Czar was facing away from the house, down the path Luke had just come, and was crouched low to the ground with his ears laid back against his head. His lips flicked up and down to show glimpses of his teeth in a savage snarl. His hackles stood up from just behind his head all the way down his back and to his tail and Luke had to look again to make sure this was the same pet he’d known since he was a toddler.

“What is it, boy? Someone down that way?” Luke peered through the darkness and ground fog back toward the workshop. The sky was starting to lighten up with hints of gold and orange beginning to show through the tops of the trees. He could see all the way to the edge of the woods and there was nothing there that should alarm the dog. Czar’s growl deepened for a moment and then he stopped. The dog raised his ears and looked inquisitively toward the woods. “I don’t see anything down there, boy.” Czar sat and stared at the woods for a moment before letting out a quick but aggravated wruff and trotted to the screen door, leaving the bewildered boy looking hard at the woods. Luke shivered and turned to enter the house where his breakfast was waiting—he could smell it and his stomach rumbled. There was no telling what had gotten into that dog and he told himself that it was nothing to worry about.

Luke let the dog into the kitchen and then closed the kitchen door behind them both. The warmth of the kitchen after the chill of the early morning was wonderful on his face. He poured himself another mug of coffee and went to the table where Big Daddy was already eating. The other plate was piled high with crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and sliced tomatoes. A jar of fig preserves and a glass of cold buttermilk were next to it.

“Come on and eat, Luke. We need to get down to the boat ramp soon as you finish up. I want to be on our spot before the sun gets up.” Big Daddy used his fork to put the last of his eggs on a corner of toast with some preserves on it. He popped the last bite of his breakfast in. “Mmmm-MMM! Mammaw sure makes good preserves, don’t she?”

“She sure does.” Luke spread some figs on his toast and used it to push eggs onto his fork. Even though he preferred his eggs over easy so he could sop up the yolk with the toast, Big Daddy scrambled eggs in bacon grease and butter and they were just as good as anything he’d ever tasted. He swallowed the first bite and followed it with a gulp of buttermilk. “Czar was actin’ kinda funny out there just before we came in.”

“He was, was he? What’d he do?” The old man picked up his plate and fork and put them in the sink.

“He started growling and acting mean. He was looking down toward the river but I didn’t see anything out that way. He ever do that before?” Luke stuffed another bite of breakfast in his mouth.

“Hmmm. Not that I can recall. Oh, well, it don’t matter. You ready to go fishin’?” Big Daddy took the old thermos bottle from the drain rack and started pouring the remainder of the coffee into it. “There; that’ll help keep the chill off.”

Luke nodded as he wolfed down the rest of his breakfast, making sure to get an extra spoonful of figs before Big Daddy put the lid on the jar and put it away. He drained the last of his buttermilk while taking his plate to the sink. “Let’s go. Come on, Czar!”

The truck jounced along the bumpy dirt road. It was only a mile down to the boat ramp but the road wasn’t the best. Luke looked through the back window at Czar. The big dog had ridden down this road so many times that he had learned to lie down in the bed of the truck or risk being thrown out because of the rough ride. Big Daddy kept his eyes on the road in order to avoid the deer that would sometimes surprise unwary drivers. Luke smiled. He loved these mornings out with his grandfather. A brown sign to the right of the road caught his eye. They had arrived at the boat ramp.

“Help me back ‘er up. Just remember to stay off to the left where I can see you and don’t get behind the truck.”

“Sure thing!” Luke jumped out of the passenger door and ran to the water’s edge. From his vantage point he helped his grandfather by giving directions on which way the trailered boat needed to go to stay centered on the ramp. When the boat got close tot he water, he reached in took the end of the bowline. “OK, straight back now!” The truck backed the boat down into the water where gently floated off the trailer. The tethering line stretched across the water beneath the mist, giving the appearance that the boat was under the control of an unseen power. “That’s it, Big Daddy! She’s clear!” Big Daddy drove the truck back up the hill and Luke pulled the boat to shore and caught the bow to ease it in to the muddy bank. At the top of the hill the truck’s engine went silent and Luke heard the door slam as if it were there on the creek bank with him. Everything seemed so much cleaner in the crisp early morning hours while the rest of the world slept. Luke pulled on his life vest and it was only a minute before Big Daddy came walking down to the boat with Czar at his heels, wriggling with the excitement of going on the river.

“Let’s go catch some fish. Sun’ll be up real soon and burn off this fog.” Big Daddy said as he climbed aboard the little boat. Luke looked down the creek and across the river where the sky was pale yellow streaked with orange and red above the movement of the current that could just be seen through the mist. It was beautiful and peaceful and exactly what he had come to expect from fishing trips with his grandparents on the ‘Bigbee.

“Czar? What it is, boy?” Big Daddy’s question to the dog brought Luke out of his reverie. He realized the big shepherd was glaring the same direction he had been looking. There was something about the peaceful scene that put the dog on alert because he was growling.

“That’s exactly what he did in the back yard. Ain’t it strange? There’s nothin’ out there.” Luke held the boat steady while Big Daddy took his seat in the stern of the dinghy and pulled a paddle from the floor.

“Czar! Behave or you’ll have to stay here. I’m not gonna take a skittish dog out on the river. First thing you know, he’ll’ve done capsized us out in the current.” The dog began splitting his time between growling at the river and whining at Big Daddy. Luke pet the shaggy head trying to calm him down, but Czar seemed frightened. His big brown eyes seemed to be pleading with his master. He appeared torn between the loyalty of getting into the boat and the safety of staying ashore himself. “That’s it. Czar! Go to the truck! Now!” The big shepherd, never stopping this pitiful growling, took several steps up the ramp before returning to the boat. His whines became more prevalent than before when he realized that Big Daddy was not getting out of the boat to go with him.

“Aw, Big Daddy, why not just let him stay here while we fish. We’re only going out there to the point and maybe he’ll stay quiet here on the bank if he can see us.”

“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. He’s not given to carry on like that and he’s been on this river for most of his life. All right. Czar! Lie down!” Big Daddy’s command got through to the shepherd and he lay down at the water’s edge, whining. “Climb on in, Luke, and let’s get going. We’ve wasted enough time this morning already.” Luke pushed the boat out into the creek as he boarded and then turned and sat on the bench in the bow. Big Daddy began to turn the boat and paddle the couple hundred yards to the point where the creek emptied into the ‘Bigbee river. Luke watched Czar lying on the bank where he’d just been standing. The dog’s whines carried over the water and it made him feel sorry for him but there just wasn’t anything out there that should spook him so bad. The dog watched pitifully as the boat took them farther and farther away.

“Get your hook baited and wet a line. Might catch a bass with us moving.” The light sparkled in Big Daddy’s eyes as he smiled at Luke. Luke grinned back, the frightened dog already forgotten, and deftly threaded a large earthworm on the hook. It was a trick that he’d first learned from Big Daddy and had perfected under Mammaw’s tutelage. Big Daddy didn’t know about Mammaw’s helping him practice and Luke had no intention of telling him. The mass of wriggling goo went overboard and Luke let out the line to put the bait behind the boat.

“How long have we been coming down here to fish?” Luke enjoyed talking about his family with his grandfather.

“Since before I was born, son. Pappy…remember him? He was MY ‘Big Daddy.’ Pappy used to tell us young’uns that his grandfather, a man called Fearless Bill, came out here from the Carolinas back in the early 1800’s. Said he was a trapper ‘round here and got along with the indians well enough before a lot more folk began comin’ out this way. He built a cabin right where the house is now. Pappy showed me this place to fish and told me that the indians had told old Bill that this was the best place around to catch fish. Said they used to pull up those big turtles, too. Remember that stew we made last winter when you and your folks came to visit?”

“Yes, sir! Was that one of those turtles?” Luke vaguely remember someone saying something about turtles back then, but that was so long ago and it hadn’t registered with him at the time.

“Yep! Best tastin’ turtle I’ve had in quite a long time. That old fell’s why I have this new paddle—he bit the old one clean in half when we were gettin’ ‘im in the boat. Mean devil, too. Uh…catch that root up there and tie us off.” Luke did and then carefully sat back down. Big Daddy lobbed his baited hook out toward the river current. “Good job there. You’ve been practicin’ your knots I see. Good! That’s something…”

“…every man needs to know.” They finished the statement together with a chuckle. Big Daddy’s bobber moved a bit more than the eddies that swirled around it. The old man eyed it suspiciously.

“I learned ‘em all from the best. You’re the best river man in the history of the ‘Bigbee!” Luke felt pride in his grandfather swell up in his chest as he made the statement.

“Well, thank you very much. I was pretty fair in my time, I’ll admit.” Big Daddy set the hook and the rod bent under the weight of a struggling fish. “Hee hee! Lookee this, Luke! Got one already!”

“He sure is fightin’! How big is he?”

“Nice sized on by the feel of it. Get that dip net ready. It’d be a shame to lose the first catch of the day just because we weren’t ready with the right tools.” Luke picked up the landing net and waited for his grandfather to guide the fish to the side of the boat. One quick dip just the way he’d been taught and the large yellow catfish was flopping in the bottom of the boat. “How much you figure, Luke? Four or five pounds?” Big Daddy threw the live fish trap over the back of the boat. The fish flopped around and ended nose down in a corner formed by the boat’s bottom, side, and one of the bench supports.

“I’d say closer to six; he’s a big one!” Luke carefully reached down and picked up the big fish the way Big Daddy had taught him—thumb under one side fin, palm on the belly, and the fin on the other side between the first two fingers. He loved the feel of the live fish in his hand. “Here ya go.” He handed the fish to his grandfather.

“Thank you, son. My, he is a fat one, isn’t he?” Big Daddy paused a moment to admire the fish before guiding it into the fish trap where it would stay alive until they left the river.

“Several more like that and we’ll have more than we can all eat tonight even if we have company come over.” Luke pointed out across the river. “Sure is a pretty sunrise.”

“Sure is.” Big Daddy started re-baiting his hood. “Nothing like starting your day with a light mist on the water, a beautiful sunrise, and a bent rod with a fighter on the end of the line.” He threw his line back to the same place at the edge of the current and began to hum a tune that Luke had often heard from his grandfather. This time, Big Daddy softly sang the words:

       “Farewell! Away! Down river!”

            I called to my mates at parting.

                 They were loaded full heavy with cargo—

                      a load they were bound to deliver.

 

       But me, I’ve turned from the water,

            e’en though it flows in my veins.

                 For I’ve duties on land to meet:

                      to provide for my wife and my daughter.

Luke watched the red sun creep above the line of trees on the opposite shore. It was almost mesmerizing the way the light from it reflected off the water and through the mist, creating little rainbow colored halos with every ripple in the water. A pair of mallards took off from up the creek and flew down its length to the river. They gradually disappeared into the distance downstream. Big Daddy’s song had sparked Luke’s curiosity.

“Why did you quit working the river? I mean, everybody says you were one of the best river men around but you quit the river and went to work for the warehouse. Why did you leave it?

Big Daddy was quiet for a few moments and then a pained look crossed his features while he considered how to answer Luke’s question. “Well, son, I’m gonna be straight up with you if you will give me your promise on something. OK?”

“Promise on what?”

Sitting forward in his seat Big Daddy looked Luke straight in the eyes. “Don’t go tellin’ any of your cousins or your Pa or Mammaw or anyone what I’m going to tell you. Will you promise?” He spit into his palm and held it out.

Luke realized that he was serious and that taking this oath would bind his lips forever unless Big Daddy released him from it. He lifted his own hand to his face, spit, and took Big Daddy’s hand in as firm a handshake as his smaller hand could manage. “I promise.”

Big Daddy took a deep breath as if he was building up his courage to start. He took out his pocketknife and began to whittle on the paddle. “Son, have you ever heard of the Eliza Battle?”

Luke thought a moment. “No, sir. Where was it fought?” Like everyone in his family, Luke had learned not only the history that was taught in school but also the history of the area where he lived and he had never heard of a place called ‘Eliza.’

“Naw, Luke, the Eliza Battle was a steamship on the ‘Bigbee back over a hundred years ago. She was a sidewheeler and by all accounts was one of the grandest ships in this part of the country. Didn’t last long, though—she burned and sank down yonder a ways,” he gestured downstream, “only a few years before the War Between the States.” Big Daddy looked up from the whittling and gazed out over the quickly disappearing mist. He could feel the sunshine on his face and it felt good to let the warmth seep in. He was proud that Luke held his tongue and waited for him to continue. He resumed his whittling—it made the telling of the story easier.

“Pappy told me the story when I was about your age. His pa died when she went down. He was her pilot for this section of the river. It was cold winter that year and the river was way up. The Battle was on some special trip down to Mobile. She was runnin’ the whole river that trip. They say she started all the way up in Aberdeen with a bunch of the rich planters and their families and carrying all sorts of cargo. Every stop they made along the way, the took on more people and more cargo until she was completely loaded down with rich folk and cotton stacked high all along her decks. She was a grand sight and people lined the river just to see her steam past and hear the well-to-do folks party. Pappy said that her stacks had flames roarin’ out of ‘em like they were trying to burn all the coal in the state to get to the coast. He said it was like the Eliza Battle knew something bad was going to happen and she was trying to outrun it. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.” And she’s still out there, isn’t she?

Luke’s curiosity got the better of his patience and he asked, “What happened?”

“You remember I said she was loaded with cotton? Well, all those flames comin’ out her stacks must’ve thrown off some sparks and—whoosh!—up she went. It was dark and the water was real cold and starting to freeze but the people on board had little choice but to try to swim for shore. Those that made it, and there were precious few of ‘em, started coming up on shore over at the old Pettigrew place, but it was so cold that some of ‘em froze to death right there on the river bank. Widow Pettigrew had her servants build bonfires to light the river so they could help rescue people stuck in the treetops out in the river and to help warm those who made it to shore. She even had them slaughter several of her cows to provide food to the victims and rescuers alike. It’s pretty safe to assume that most who survived that night on the other side of the river could rightfully thank her. But Pappy’s pa wasn’t one of ‘em. They never did find his body.”

Luke’s fingers had gotten stiff with cold as he had listened to Big Daddy tell the tale and he wondered what it would feel like to freeze to death. It must hurt like the dickens if his fingers felt like this just because of a cold morning.

“Pappy saw it happen,” the old gentleman continued. “He was right up there on the point next to that big sweet gum tree.” He pointed to the massive tree above their heads. “Told me his ma didn’t want to let him go down to the river at night so he sneaked out. When the Battle came around the upstream bend she was already ablaze and trying to make for the far shore and people were jumpin’ overboard to swim for it. It was a terrible sight for a young boy to see, but Pappy didn’t panic. Nosiree! He ran and told Parson James what he’d seen and Parson James got the folks on this side of the river movin’ to help save those up in the trees that could be saved; they were hangin’ on to keep from being swept away and they were freezing and dying while they waited.” Big Daddy stopped and looked out over the impassive water.

“But what does that have to do with why you left the river? That was over a hundred years ago.” Luke enjoyed his grandfather’s stories and he felt bad for the people who died in the shipwreck but he couldn’t figure out how it related to his question.

Big Daddy looked at him, smiled, and asked, “Son, do you believe in ghosts?”

Luke almost laughed, but the somberness in his grandfather’s manner stopped him. Could he be serious? Ghosts were in stories to scare little kids and he had stopped believing in them about the same time he quit believing in the tooth fairy. He decided to answer cautiously, “I’m not sure. What do you mean by ‘ghosts’?”

“Well, I don’t mean what you see runnin’ around at Halloween. What I’m talkin’ about is something—or someone—that just couldn’t be there, but is; something from the past that you know passed a long time ago. I know you’ve heard Mammaw talk about seein’ the people down in Old Cahaba. That sort of thing.” Big Daddy leaned forward on his seat as if to make Luke see what he meant.

Luke thought about that for a bit before answering. “Then I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Do you believe in them?” The strange direction of the conversation surprised and unnerved him.

Big Daddy went back to whittling. “I’d heard the stories—about how some river man would see her and then something bad would happen to his ship—but I hadn’t put much stock in ‘em. River men can yarn with the best of ‘em, especially when they’re drinking their pay. But back in ’34 while I was working for Tannager’s and standing a night watch, I saw the Eliza Battle come burning up out of these waters. I could even read her name on the side. I heard the music. I heard the fire. I heard the screams. But what made me leave the river was seeing Pappy’s pa at the helm. I knew it was him ‘cause he looked just like Pappy. He waved and called out to me. He said, ‘Get off the river, son! It’s time for someone to join us, but it ain’t you this time!’ The ship steamed by with fire all over it until it disappeared around the bend. The next morning we delivered our shipment at Coffeeville and I told Captain Turnbull that I couldn’t work the river anymore. After I told him why, he understood and wished me luck. Said a lot of river men had seen the same thing.” Big Daddy blew some of the wood splinters from the paddle and looked up at Luke. “That make any sense to you, Luke?”

The story sounded incredible to Luke. He knew Big Daddy was capable of some tall tales, but he could usually tell when the old man was yarning. This time he was dead serious. He nodded. “Yes, sir. Pappy’s pa was warning you that you were in danger, right?”

“Yep. That’s about the gist of it. Two weeks later Captain Turnbull’s tug lost a load of barges. While they were trying to recover them the man who replaced me on the boat was killed in an accident.” Big Daddy gave Luke a significant look. Luke just sat there and absorbed what he’d been told.

Big Daddy took a deep breath, stretched, and looked up into the clear blue sky. The sun had risen and the air had lost its crispness about the same time the water lost its mist. It really was a pretty day. “You catch us some fish. I think I’m just gonna stretch out back here and nap for a bit. Wake me if you need help with a fish.” The old man settled back against the seat and pulled his hat over his eyes.

Luke checked his bait and tossed it back out toward the current. It was hard to believe Big Daddy’s tale. Could he be pulling my leg? Maybe, but he had seemed quite serious about it and was answered the question Luke had asked. No, Big Daddy was telling him the truth and he’d just have to believe it.

He caught several fish while Big Daddy slept. It got warm enough that he took off his jacket and pondered taking a nap himself since he’d been awakened much earlier than usual. He watched his bobber swirl in the eddies and thought about what it must have been like to see the burning Eliza Battle come floating around the bend. He could almost hear the music and screams from it himself—the pipes from the steam calliope, the cries for help, the fiddles and pianos, the roar of the fire.

Czar’s frantic barking from the bank above his head woke him to a dimmer world than the one where he’d fallen asleep. What is that dog doing down here? He was supposed to wait back at the ramp. Clouds had rolled in from the west and obscured the sun and the wind had started to rock the boat with small waves—but music still floated across the water. With unbelieving eyes, Luke looked up the river and saw the faint but unmistakable lines of an old-style riverboat, a sidewheeler, steaming down the river. Even though the dim sky obscured the flames, Luke knew they were there because he heard them—and more. The screams etched themselves on his memory with every shriek and Luke watched with macabre fascination as the ship pulled down the river and he saw the pilot waving to him from the helm. What was it Big Daddy said? Is that Pappy’s pa?

The shepherd’s barding mixed with the various snarls cut through the spectral noise and Luke saw that it was the ship that held Czar’s attention. The dog’s eyes rolled in their sockets with fear. He was frightened, yes, but it was obvious to the boy that Czar was furious, too. What about the ghost ship would anger their dog?

Luke looked back at the ship. She was nearing the downstream bend and quickly fading from sight in the sunlight that was beginning to break through the clouds. The music and screams had faded with her and now, with the exception of Czar’s mad barking, the river was as peaceful as it had been earlier. The dog’s barking subsided into pitiful whines until he let our a heart-rending howl from the river bank. Luke thought it was the most sorrowful sound he’d ever heard, as if the dog was telling the world of a desperate loss.

“Big Daddy, did you see that? Was that the ship you saw? That was the Eliza Battle, wasn’t it?” Luke turned to his grandfather in the stern of the boat. Big Daddy was still asleep. Between the boat and that dog how can he nap through all the noise?

“Big Daddy?” Luke carefully made his way back to the old man and gently shook his shoulder. Czar’s renewed howl stretched over the water and seemed to flow down to the lower notes as his breath ran out again.

“Big Daddy?” Luke shook him harder but he still did not wake up. Big Daddy did not move.

“Big Daddy, wake up! Did you see it?” Tears welled up in his eyes. Was Pappy’s pa waving to me? “Big Daddy, you’ve got to wake up! We’ve got to get off the river!” The dam holding back the tears burst and little rivers of sorrow ran down Luke’s face. He threw his arms around what was left of the old man that had been his grandfather and his best friend. Big Daddy had told him that big boys don’t cry, so he let the tears flow as quietly as he could while he sat there holding the past, too afraid to face the fact that his grandfather was gone. He sat there for a long time with only the sounds of the water lapping against the boat and Czar’s whining intruding. He knew he couldn’t stay on the river. It was up to him to do what needed to be done and get them back to shore and to the house where someone else would know what to do next.

Luke stood, turned from his grandfather, and picked up the paddle from the floor of the boat. After untying the bowline from the tree root, he started to paddle the boat back toward the boat ramp. It was only then that he looked at the paddle in his hands and read what Big Daddy’s whittling had carved into it. The message brought a new round of tears to Luke’s eyes.

“I love you, too, Big Daddy.” He sniffled. “I love you, too.”

Note:  The wreck of the Eliza Battle still stands as the greatest maritime disaster on the Tombigbee River. On the night of March 1, 1858, while fully loaded with passengers and a cargo consisting primarily of baled cotton, the Eliza Battle caught fire. The ability to steer the vessel was quickly lost when the rudder ropes burned through and the Eliza Battle drifted down river as she burned. Passengers were forced to abandon ship or burn to death. Abandoning ship meant trying to swim to shore through the flood-swollen and icy waters. Mrs. Rebecca Coleman Pettigrew assisted as described in the story and is credited for saving most of the lives that were not lost that night. Official estimates are 26 deaths out of 100-105 passengers and crew. Reports of sightings of the ghost of the Eliza Battle are still made to this day.  DBJ

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