8 June 1861, Mississippi River
“He killed the Matlock brothers with a two shot derringer,” St. George said.
“So he’s a good shot and don’t waste bullets,” Sally Skull acknowledged.
The steamer fought against the Mississippi, paddle wheels churning muddy water. To the right, the lights of Vicksburg glittered on a bluff overlooking a sharp bend in the mighty river. Skull and St. George sat on crates up top of the boat, just behind the pilot house, left alone by the rest of the passengers out of tacit acceptance this was the boat owner’s private area.
“He more than that,” St. George said. “He—“
“I know who Nathan Bedford Forrest is,” Skull cut him off. “You think I was born yesterday? He one of the biggest men on the river and worth over a million Yankee dollars. I know he’s mean as a rattlesnake and cold as a blizzard. I know he owns this boat we riding on. I wouldn’t be here for this meeting if I didn’t know who I be meeting.” She took a swig from the whiskey bottle on the shipping crate that served as a table between them. “The thing you got to remember, St. George, is that he smart. Wicked smart. He started with nothing, now he one of the richest men on the river. And he didn’t get it cause his pappy gave it to him.”
St. George bristled. “What you saying?”
“Just what I’m saying,” Skull said, earning a confused furrow in the middle of St. George’s forehead. She handed the bottle to the overseer. “Listen. This war that’s here now. It aint gonna be short, it aint gonna be easy, and your people, they aint gonna win.”
“What do you mean my ‘people’?”
“The south” Skull said. “I was down in San Anton when Texas voted to secede. I—“
“Why was you there?” St. George interrupted.
“Always deals to be made,” Skull said. “Especially to armies. Some Confederate big-wigs went to the old Alamo and got the Federal commander to surrender the arsenal, hand over ten thousand rifled muskets.”
“That’s good,” St. George said, eyes always on the immediate.
“Let me finish,” Skull said. “There was another Fed officer there, Robert Lee, a Virginian. I heard of him from the Mex War and he the one that trapped old John Brown. And I could tell he was surprised things was happening so fast. Heard him talking to another officer, saying the secces was fools. When they paroled him, he went back to Virginia, back to the Union. Struck me as a sensible man. And Sam Houston, the governor, let me tell you, he fought a lot of battles and he a smart man too and he was against seceding.”
“Why?” St. George asked.
In response, Skull reached into one of the many pockets on her dress and retrieved a folded newspaper article. “Here what Ole Sam said and the damn fools still out-voted him to secede: ‘Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives you may win southern independence, but I doubt it. The north is determined to preserve this union. They are not a fiery impulsive people as you are for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche and what I fear is that they will overwhelm the South with ignoble defeat.’”
“’Ignoble’?” St. George spit. “I don’t know what that mean, but it sound bad and he damn wrong. Any southerner worth ten Yankees.”
“Houston’s right,” Skull said. “And that’s why I’m here. Your tit at Palatine is going to run dry.”
“We can grow cotton forever,” St. George argued.
The steamer rounded the bend and Vicksburg was behind them. The sound of revelry from whiskey, gambling and other dark arts echoed up from the main deck.