Now in Paperback and Kindle!

Prev | Next

Chapter 19...continued

A Long Walk; A Short Voyage.

“Don’t say a word, Pratt,” Jack said as the train chugged off into woods, trailing billows of black smoke, “I wasn’t about to tolerate any nonsense from that woman.”

I considered pointing out to Jack that she had a wide array of options available between tolerating nonsense and flashing her breasts in a public train car, but I thought better of it. Instead, I just sighed and said, “It’s alright Jack, I’ve traveled with you before, and I did not expect the trip to be peaceful.”

We had no way to determine where we were. From the spot where we left the train, we could see nothing but track to the left and the right and nothing but woods to the front and back. The question at hand was how best to proceed to our destination.  If another train came by it would not stop here; we would have to jump on while it was moving. We entertained that idea for a moment then rejected it as too dangerous. Besides, there was no telling when another train was due.

“We should go by canal,” said Jack, “We’re just about at the Long Level; no locks between here and Syracuse. We can make good time.”

“I’m not going back to the canal,” I said, “I’m still a wanted man there. You are too.”

“That’s old news; no one’s going to remember us, specially not this far west.”

“Won’t the canal folks recognize you anyway?” I asked.

“Not if I dress like a woman.”

I was still reluctant to return to the canal, but Jack convinced me it was the fastest way west, given our situation. Though slower than the train, canal travel was more reliable and the boats ran much more frequently than the train. But the thought of Jack dressed as a woman convinced me; she would have to behave more demurely to make the costume work, and that alone made me feel safer.

Regardless of what we did next, at the moment we had no choice but to travel on foot to the next town. We set off following the railroad track, the only guarantee we would arrive someplace useful. Fortunately for us we had been put off the train just a few miles outside of Utica. After about an hour walking the cross ties, we started seeing the buildings of the city. Utica was a factory town boasting huge steam-driven textile mills with loading docks on the track. As we passed, we could see the women inside busily tending their machines.

“Things could be worse, Pratt,” said Jack, “We could be them.”

We decide that the safest course was to keep following the tracks until we hit the passenger depot. As we approached the depot, one of the workmen attached to the railroad hailed us, and we went over to speak with him.

“You boys been walkin’ the track long?” he asked.

“About an hour,” I said.

“You didn’t happen to see a lunatic in your travels did you?”

“We didn’t see anybody.”

“There’s one out there,” he said. “The last train through had to throw one off.”

“You don’t say,” I said.

“A woman dressed as a man.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yes sir, she was raving mad, screaming at the passengers and baring her breasts as brazen as you please.”

“Good thing we didn’t run into that one,” Jack said.

“Don’t worry, they’ll catch her,” said the workman, “Put her in the asylum with the rest of the loonies.”

Jack wasn’t too concerned that she was now a wanted lunatic at large, but we both agreed that the sooner she dressed as a woman, the better off we would be. There was an alley between the depot and the building next door, and I stood guard at the entrance while Jack went down the alley to change her clothes.

She came out wearing a new turquoise colored dress, a bit wrinkled from the rucksack, but stylish nonetheless. The Know-Nothings had outfitted Jack for just such an occasion as this, where a quick change of identity was necessary. This dress was finer and less flashy than the one I had bought for her. Now she could easily pass for one of the ladies on her way to the women’s rights convention.

Then, for good measure, I went down the alley and changed into my good suit. There was a possibility that the authorities had my description as well, so it made sense to change. Besides, we now looked like a distinguished young couple who belonged together.

Finding the canal was easy; these towns are all arranged for the convenience of the canal. We found a ticket agent and booked passage on a packet all the way to Rochester. The agent assured us that we could board the very next boat that arrived. But as we watched that boat pulled towards us, what we saw was more trouble heading our direction. Jack saw it first, but I was the first to say something.

“My God, it’s the Mary Claire!”

We ducked back into the ticket office to discuss the matter. I insisted that we wait for the next boat, but Jack was anxious to get aboard her old boat and was sure that, dressed as a woman, she could fool Jason and Caleb. I was afraid that my appearance had not changed enough and Jason would instantly recognize me. He would assume that I had been in league with Jack to steal his money and would murder me on the spot.  Jack assured me that Jason never paid attention to the male passengers and she was certain that he would not recognize me even if he had met me the day before.  So with the gravest of misgivings, I agreed to get on the Mary Claire.

I went down the gangplank to board the boat, as I had done several months before and just as then, Captain Jason Horne stopped me. He gave me a quizzical look then said, “Ain’t you a preacher?”

I chucked, as if the notion were preposterous, “No sir, I am a speculator from New York.”

“You look mighty like a preacher I once had aboard.”

“I assure you, sir; I have never before been mistaken for a man of God. “

He tried to catch Jack’s eye then. She wore a large bonnet that matched the dress, the sides of which concealed her face unless one looked directly at it. She looked down and away from her brother.

“She’s a bit shy,” I said, and Jason seemed to accept this. He allowed us to board his boat.

Jack and I stowed our bags in the sleeping areas then went up to sit with the rest of the passengers atop the cabin. It was all so familiar—the smell of the canal water, the sound of Jason’s trumpet, the periodic ducking for low bridges. Memories of my first canal voyage came rushing back until I half expected Jack to start tormenting me again. Instead, as the canal boat moved slowly through the lush summer greenery, we began to reminisce about those days. Sure she laughed at how green I was when I first boarded the boat, and how frightened I was at the Scotsman’s death, but when we spoke of the day we drank cider by the waterfall, Jack and I both were overcome by waves of nostalgia. Jack leaned over to kiss me, and I did not resist, I kissed her back all the harder.

We were as content as could be riding the canal boat, and I had to agree that canal travel was indeed preferable to train travel (though in all honesty, we had not given the railroad a fair test).  But Jack had never ridden a canal boat as a passenger before and had difficulty staying relaxed for very long. She would get up and stroll the deck, viewing the entire boat as if looking for signs of neglect and indications that her brothers were not taking proper care of the boat that she loved.

Jack sat down once more and tried again to relax but soon got up and excused herself to visit the privy. I sat by myself trying to focus on my mission to save Mirabile. It had been aboard this very boat where Mirabile had turned distant towards me, so much so that I believed my hopes for her dashed forever. Was she now truly waiting for me to rescue her?  Would that be enough? Would she then be mine forever? If her father had truly gone as mad as she described it would be unconscionable not to help. Whatever the outcome, I thought, I must rescue Mirabile.

Then, from inside the cabin, the peace was shattered by the sound of a violent argument. I could not make out the words, but I knew it was Jack and her brother. I stood up and tried to assess the situation. Then Jack came out of the cabin, and I could hear her quite plainly.

“Goddamn you Jason, you can go straight to hell.”

We were not far from the banks of the canal, and I saw Jack make a bounding leap ashore then run toward the woods, her skirts fluttering as she ran. Jason’s leap was less graceful, and she had too much head start for him to catch her. I knew I had to move now as well. I ran to the opposite end of the boat and took a flying leap off the top of the cabin. It was a dangerous jump, but I made it safely, though I tripped upon landing and had to scramble to my feet. It gave Jason Horne enough time to change his direction, let his sister go and come see about me. He grabbed me before I fully had my footing and tackled me to the ground.

I thought that I was a dead man; I thought Jason would murder me. Instead, without a word, he tied my hands and pulled me to my feet. He called Caleb to hold the boat and wait for his return; then he led me to the Sheriff of Oneida County.