Authors: Ramona K. Cecil
Tags: #Romance, #Christian, #Fiction
Copyright © 2008 by Ramona K. Cecil. All rights reserved. Except
for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole
or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means,
now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of
Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box
Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
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PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
Ohio River at Madison, Indiana, April 1845
Tap, tap, tap.
Rosaleen Archer fixed her attention on the silver tip of Bill McGurty’s walking stick.
Tap, tap, tap.
Its hypnotic cadence against the floor of her riverboat cabin held her in a terrified trance.
“You’ll be a good girl this evening, won’t you, Rosaleen?” The corner of his black clipped mustache twisted in a tiny sneer.
Rosaleen nodded, swallowing hard past the wad of fear in her throat.
“There’s my good girl.” The reflection of the wall sconce taper’s flame danced in his small black eyes. “I’d hate to have to punish you again.”
Tap, tap, tap.
He reached his hand out toward her, and Rosaleen moved away, pressing her back against the cabin wall. Shivering, she turned her face from the cold touch of his fingers on her cheek.
“You know what to do.” The silky sweetness left his voice as he glanced at his silver watch then slipped it back into the pocket of his scarlet brocade vest “Wait about an hour, till we’re well into the game and they’re well into their cups, then you can join us.”
Again she nodded. Anything to make him leave her alone.
He pinched her chin hard between his forefinger and thumb.
Rosaleen fought nausea as he pressed a whiskey-laden kiss on her lips.
“Make me some money tonight.” He lifted his dark beaver hat from the wrought iron hook beside the door to the Grand Saloon. With a parting wink, he set the hat at a jaunty angle atop his slicked-down black hair.
Long moments after her cabin door closed, Rosaleen sat trembling on the little bunk affixed to one wall of the cramped room. She looked around the dimly lit, whitewashed cabin that was, for all practical purposes, her prison cell. The bunk and a tiny washstand against the opposite wall were the only comforts afforded by the five-by-six-foot area.
Tonight marked exactly six months since her husband’s death aboard the steamboat
. Shivering, she relived the sight of Bill McGurty accusing Donovan of cheating at cards. She’d watched Bill pull out the wicked little derringer, heard the shot, and saw Donovan jerk back then fall forward.
As awful as that sight had been, what followed eclipsed it in terror. Bill McGurty declared the act self-defense since Donovan also carried a derringer. No one at the table dared dispute his claim. Pronouncing himself Rosaleen’s “protector,” he quickly became the opposite, forcing her to move with him from riverboat to riverboat.
For Rosaleen, the months since had amounted to a swift descent into a horrible existence. The shame of how Bill had used her night after night burned inside her like a spirit-consuming flame.
I’ll die before I let him touch me again.
In an act of defiance, she snatched her little black velvet reticule from the beside table, fished out the gold ring Donovan had placed on her hand eight months ago, and slipped it back on her finger. She would leave the cabin tonight—but not to help Black Jack Bill McGurty. Her plan of escape had begun when they’d boarded the
two days ago in Cincinnati
and she’d learned Arthur Ellis piloted the boat.
During their short marriage, Donovan had mentioned Mr. Ellis, a fellow riverboat pilot, as a friend. If she could only manage a moment alone with him, perhaps he’d protect her and make Bill answer for his crimes when they docked at Louisville, Kentucky. Somehow she must make her way to the pilot’s cabin on the Texas deck at the top of the boat.
Rosaleen glanced at the two doors on either side of her cabin. One led to the outer deck, the other to the Grand Saloon. Their first night on the
, she’d attempted an escape through the door to the outer deck. But a couple of Bill’s gambling cronies had caught her on the promenade deck and returned her to her captor. She pressed her fingers against her ribs, still sore from the beating the thwarted attempt had elicited. Tonight she would try again. But this time she had a different strategy in mind.
It had been no more than a half hour, she guessed, since Bill had left her cabin. Yet if she waited longer, he would be expecting her to appear beside him at the gambling tables. Gathering her courage along with the purple silk folds of her skirts, she stood and walked to the door that opened to the Grand Saloon.
The beginnings of a prayer withered inside her as the scowling visage of her former guardian assembled itself in
her mind. Reverend Wilfred Maguire, the elder brother of
her late adoptive father, had made it quite clear—because of her illegitimacy God wanted nothing to do with her.
She must depend upon the gambler’s luck of Rory Maguire, the man who’d raised her as his own and who in her heart would always be “Papa.”
All that’s required is but a little smile from Lady Luck.
Remembering her father’s frequent maxim, Rosaleen hoped Lady Luck would beam tonight.
She touched her mother’s brooch pinned to the bodice of her dress. A gift from her father on her tenth birthday, the bejeweled cameo had always helped Rosaleen feel closer to the mother she’d never known. . .and the adoptive father she still missed.
Rosaleen blinked back hot tears.
Oh Papa, how I wish you were here to help me.
The strong odors of cigar smoke and whiskey assailed her nostrils as she entered the Grand Saloon. A lively banjo tune blended with the cacophony of conversation and hearty laughter.
A Persian carpet of maroon, gold, and blue covered the entire floor area, stretching over two hundred feet long and nearly twenty feet wide. A row of brass and crystal chandeliers hanging along the center of the ceiling lit the opulent expanse. Rosaleen thought the saloon, richly decorated with silk upholstered chairs, horsehair sofas, and ornately carved marble-topped tables, one of the nicer ones she’d seen during her life aboard the steamboats.
As she moved along the wall of cabin doors, her heart pounded. She shot quick glances across the room where Bill sat laughing at a gambling table, chewing on an unlit cigar. Perhaps Lady Luck would continue smiling and Bill would not notice her.
Her heart dropped. Managing a shaky smile, she made her way toward Bill McGurty and the half dozen other men around the table.
“A bit early, ain’t ya?” Bill’s smile never reached his black eyes.
“Sorry.” She remembered the sting of his ebony walking stick against her back, and a cold shiver slithered through her.
“Here’s a V-spot. Be a good girl and go get us another couple of bottles of whiskey from the bar.” He tucked the five-dollar note into the bodice of her dress.
Rosaleen nodded, realizing Lady Luck had just begun smiling like crazy. The bar was at the front end of the Grand Saloon, next to the door that led to the outer deck. With just a bit more luck she might be able to steal away without Bill’s seeing her.
Just a few more steps.
When she slipped through the door, a fresh breeze welcomed her at the outside promenade of mid-deck. She rubbed her bare arms in the chill night air of early spring.
With a nervous glance over her shoulder at the door to the Grand Saloon, Rosaleen stepped toward the short stairway to the Texas deck. There, just below the pilothouse, were the cabins of the crew, including that of pilot Arthur Ellis. Pausing at the bottom step, she rehearsed the petition she would present to her late husband’s friend.
Suddenly, the night exploded in a deafening flash of orange and yellow. The deck bucked like an unbroken colt, sending her flying against the rail.
Bruised and stunned, Rosaleen pulled herself up by the rail. In shock, she looked around at her altered surroundings. The pilothouse and much of the steamboat’s stern no longer existed. All her life, she’d heard horror stories of boiler explosions.
Is that what just happened?
Fire engulfed the back half of the boat. Its hungry crackle mixed with the screams and trampling sounds from the boatful of hapless humanity. The conflagration brightened the night as if it were day.
A stiff breeze blew searing heat and smoke into her face, causing Rosaleen to cough. Earlier, she’d decided she would die before she allowed Bill and his gambling cronies to have their way with her another night. Now, death seemed a distinct possibility. She glanced at the spreading flames behind her then down at the dark cold waters of the Ohio River beneath her. Grasping the riverboat’s rail, she wondered which would be the easier way to die.
The sound of Bill’s voice barking from somewhere in the darkness sealed her decision. Gulping a lungful of smoke-laced air, she vaulted over the rail.
Hitting the cold water, she gasped, the enveloping river causing her to lose precious oxygen. The wet heaviness of her clothes pulled her down farther into the dark depths of the Ohio River.
Her burning lungs felt as if they might explode. How easy to just open her mouth and surrender to the death she’d contemplated only an hour earlier. Yet as fear wrapped her heart in its crippling grasp, panic sprang from deep within her, bursting into a determined resolve. She wanted to live.
The terror in her heart turned to anger. She wouldn’t let the river take her. Given this chance of escape, she’d not surrender to death without a fight.
Her arms flailing, she kicked out her legs bound by the heavy wet folds of her skirt and petticoats. Her head emerged from the water, and she sucked in grateful gulps of air. Blinking water from her eyes, she continued to kick her legs while pushing and pulling her arms, treading water just as Papa had taught her years ago.
She looked through the darkness at the blazing riverboat, now several yards away. The orange flames licked at the night sky. Unearthly screams filled the air. Curses blended with prayers, causing her to wonder if she really had died and this was hell.
She could hear splashes that indicated other passengers were also abandoning certain death on the
, choosing to seek dubious refuge in the river. Was Bill McGurty among them?
Rosaleen’s shivers had little to do with the cold water. She pushed her arms harder, attempting to put more distance between herself and the boat. Her legs fought the strong current as the undertow threatened to pull her beneath the surface.
As frightening and uncertain as the dark abyss of death seemed, Black Jack Bill McGurty was far more terrifying.
Donovan had been a good man. If heaven existed, surely Donovan had gone there. Maybe if she begged God—if there
a God—He’d take her to Donovan. Even if she was undeserving, they’d been married. Didn’t that mean they belonged together?
A sob tore from her smoke-filled throat.
Oh God, if You’re really out there somewhere and can hear me, if I die, please take me to Donovan.
Oh Lord, I can only wonder how many died without knowing You.
The prayer rose from Jacob Hale’s heavy heart. Standing at the corner of Broadway and Second Street, he gazed through the early morning mist toward the Ohio River. There, in the dark of the previous night, unnumbered souls had glimpsed this world for the last time, propelled into the next by the explosion of the steamboat’s boiler and subsequent blaze.
Sighing, he set his toolbox in the shade of the old willow. Its supple green tresses of new spring foliage were bent as if in sorrowful benediction.
It bothered him to think that bodies still lay beneath the river with nothing to mark their watery graves. Hopefully, all could be recovered, identified, and given Christian burials. But sadly he knew that often, after such accidents, bodies remained trapped under debris or were swept downriver by the current.
He looked down at the modest, flat stone caressed by the willow’s tender branches. “At least, my old friend, you have a marker.”
Rev. Orville Whitaker, b.1782 d.1845.
Two months ago, Jacob had buried his friend and mentor on the plot they’d planned for the new church. His gaze swept over the nearly completed foundation. “It should be finished by the end of the summer, Orville.”
Jacob liked to imagine his friend looking down from heaven and smiling upon his efforts.
The congregation Orville had established still met on Sunday mornings in Opal Buchanan’s boardinghouse parlor to hear Jacob’s sermons. But God willing, they’d be listening to them this fall from pews in this church he was helping to build with his own hands.
Jacob’s gaze drifted back to the river, his thoughts turning once more to the steamboat accident. The sound of the explosion had jolted him awake. Although he’d hurried to join others from the Fair Play Fire Company, he’d soon returned home, realizing nothing could be done to save the doomed steamboat.
Compelled to be nearer the scene of last night’s tragedy, he walked a block down Broadway to Ohio Street and the river’s edge. A lingering smell of wood smoke clung to the morning air, competing with the odors of Madison, Indiana’s pork-packing industry.
He looked across the river’s surface glinting in the morning sun to the charred remains of what had been the steamboat
Listing hard starboard, it lay snagged on a sandbar near the Kentucky shore. Blackened, jagged pieces of the boat, along with unidentifiable debris, littered the water.
Jacob said a prayer for the souls of those who’d died in the accident then blew out a long, deep sigh.
Many others are still alive and could hear the Word before it’s too late—
His musings were cut short when he caught sight of an odd-looking object a few yards to his left down a sandy embankment. Curious, he made his way toward what looked like a purple bundle. As he drew nearer, his heart sank.
The body of a woman lay half hidden amid a cluster of sapling willows. He could see she was only partially out of the river with her legs still in the water, swathed in the wet folds of her purple dress. She lay facedown, her hair splayed out around her head, covering her features. The sun shone on the wavy, mahogany-colored strands, revealing tinges of burnished copper.
What beautiful hair.
The thought pricked Jacob’s conscience the moment it formed in his mind. This had been a person. Someone’s daughter. Perhaps someone’s wife. Most probably, a victim of the riverboat explosion. She would need a Christian burial. He reached a tentative hand out toward her shoulder.
Oh Lord, I don’t want to do this.
He’d seen several dead bodies in his twenty-six years of life, but it never got any easier. Jacob grasped her shoulder to turn her over.
She groaned, causing him to jump back in surprise.
As the morning sun touched her features, he detected a faint blush of pink staining her pale cheeks and full lips. This was no dead body!