I remember a trip we took around my tenth birthday. A mighty blizzard had been blowing for over a day, with snow like I had never seen. We were on board a steamer, the Carrie Martin, heading to Falmouth, Virginia to visit General Hooker and his army. There was Pa and Ma, and me, and Pa’s friends, Mr Henry, Mr Brooks, and Mr Bates.
The weather forced us to anchor for the night in a cove on the Potomac, near Indian Head. Everyone settled at the benches in the mess room for a drink and Pa began telling us a tale. I knew the story. One of his favourites about a very slow horse he had been lent back in Springfield. It had been such a dawdling beast; it had almost meant he missed speaking at an important convention. When Pa returned the horse, he asked the Liveryman if he kept the animal for funerals.
‘Oh no, not at all,’ the Liveryman exclaimed.
Pa replied, ‘Well, I’m glad of that, for if you did, you’d never get a corpse to the grave in time for the resurrection.’
The room erupted with laughter. Mr Henry banged the table and a toast was proposed to both the horse and Liveryman. There were calls for Pa to spin another yarn and I saw my chance to escape. I went below to the kitchen, to see Cook.
Cook was worried. Worried with deep lines etched across his fat face as he chopped onions faster than a carriage piston. He told me the extra stop meant supplies were spread thin.
‘They give me the food and I will cook it. I will cook it fit for anyone breathing. But I cannot make dishes out of thin air.’ He pointed upwards and scrunched his nose. ‘What’s he going to say, huh?’
‘What’s God going to say?’ I asked, confused.
‘No.’ He waved me away. ‘Your father.’
I laughed. I shouldn’t have laughed. It wasn’t right to. But it was funny to think Pa might care about what he ate. Pa would have eaten stale old hardtacks if Ma let him.
Cook stopped chopping and leant down towards me. ‘Tad,’ he said and a line of spit seeped out the corner of his mouth. He smelt sickly sweet, like rotten apples. ‘You can laugh because he is your father. I can’t laugh because he’s the President, and I do not want to be remembered as the cook that let Old Abe Lincoln starve to death.’ He returned to the chopping board. ‘No sir. Not me.’
I didn’t like to see Cook all riled up like that and felt bad, watching him dice those onions. I shouldn’t have laughed at him, and I saw how I could make it up—I was gonna catch some fish for dinner. I’d been hankering to do some fishing since we boarded and had my rod with me. I figured, come dinner time, no one could complain if they each had a nice juicy bass to tuck into.
I didn’t hang around in the kitchen to tell Cook my plan. It was gonna be a surprise. I ran straight to our cabin, set my reel, and picked up my bait box. I was in such a rush, I forgot my hat and jumper, and didn’t notice until I arrived on deck.
It was mighty unpleasant out of doors. The cold stole the breath from my lungs and icy gusts blew from all directions. The riverbank was all gloom with thick snow. I feared the sight of spirits as the wind pricked against my face and rattled my bones. Yet, I was determined. Cook needed fish and there wasn’t long before supper. I settled, shivering on the port rail, and cast off into the flurry.
Strange now, to think our little steamer was out on that river completely alone. No guard to speak of, or even a solder on watch. Mr Brooks had said we were so close to the rebels; if they knew, they might have gobbled us up without firing a single shot. Funny, the whole time no one seemed fussed over the fact we might have been attacked at any second. The gripes were reserved for the darn nuisance weather.
The conditions did not make for easy fishing. Part of the river had frozen over with slushy ice and floating snow and it was difficult to hold a decent line. Soon, I began to figure that if the fish were anywhere near as cold I was, they weren’t gonna be in any mood for eating. I was colder than a pair of snowman’s scratchers. My teeth chattered fierce together and my face ached with freeze.
I was close to calling it a day after less than ten minutes when I got my first bite. The line under my finger bobbled up and down, instead of side to side. It took me by surprise and I struck too hard at that fish, hoping it would be the size of a whale so I’d only have to catch the one to feed us all plenty.
No such luck. The line slackened and I pulled my bait-hook clear free of the water. It made me topple backwards off my perch and I whacked my backside hard on the deck. I was dazed for a second. That’s why I didn’t instantly react to the sound of coughing. I was too busy finding my feet. Then, when I got up off my knees, there it was again, a man coughing, the splutter arriving in the howling wind.
I dusted off my trousers and stepped forward to investigate. The noise had come from near the stern rail and I approached slowly. Briefly, it crossed my mind to go and get Pa, only I couldn’t stop myself edging closer and closer to the back of the steamer. The nearer I got to the rail, the more certain I grew that I was not alone. It was a thrill the good side of terrifying and knotted my stomach right up to the throat.
I ran out of deck and stopped still. The storm blew in my eyes and put the chill of fresh snow under my nostrils. I mumbled my chattering teeth into a prayer and concentrated hard on listening out for anymore coughing. I reached up to peer over the stern…
‘Thomas Lincoln, for the love of all things holy, you’ll catch your death out here,’ Ma cried out behind me. Her voice darn near made my heart explode in fright.
‘Ah Ma, we need the fish for dinner,’ I tried to explain, turning round and sniffing deep. ‘Cook says supplies are thin.’
‘Cook can go jump if he thinks you’re sitting out here to fish.’ Ma had my hat and jumper, and took a firm hold of my neck to force them onto my body. ‘Look at you; you’re soaking and frozen stiff.’
‘Ah, Ma!’ I protested.
‘Ah, Ma, nothing.’ She wiped my nose with her sleeve. ‘You need to get inside next to the fire and warm up. You know your chest is weak, and this weather just won’t do to be out in.’
‘Ma,’ I wasn’t done arguing. ‘The snow’s not so bad no-more.’ I pointed over the rail. ‘And I just had a bite…’
‘And I would say that is quite an achievement, Mother, in such trying conditions.’ Pa arrived with Mr Brooks.
‘Well, the weather has certainly eased some,’ Mr Brooks said while puffing on a thick cigar. ‘Unpleasant I grant you, but passable.’
‘Indeed,’ Papa replied. ‘We’ll be on our way again come morning.’
‘Pa, I was catching some fish for supper.’ I wrestled free of Ma’s embrace and took a firm grip of his arm.
‘And catching his death on this terrible wind.’ Ma had tears in eyes. I knew why she was sad. She was thinking on my brother, Willie, in heaven. She often thought of him and got herself lost in grieving his memory.
‘Now Mother, we would be harsh parents who put a stop to their son fishing on his birthday excursion,’ Pa replied. ‘But Tad, you need to be better prepared for the inclement conditions. Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.’ He took hold of my hand. ‘Come now, I have just the ticket.’
Pa led me back through the boat to his cabin, and took off his old woollen coat. It was black and thick, and always warm to the touch. I recall the label said Brooks Brothers of New York. He draped it over his arm and picked up a gas lantern.
‘You may find these useful if you’re intent on catching us our supper,’ he said, beaming a smile at me.
We met Ma and Mr Brooks in the gangway. Ma was still not happy. She protested at Pa for letting me go back outside to fish, and when he wouldn’t relent, she made do with yanking my hat over my ears in a fuss.
On deck, Pa settled me near the port rail, closer to the stern, and neatly arranged the lantern so the light lit my bait box. He encouraged me to cast off, suggesting I keep a short line. He nodded his pleasure at where my effort landed and draped his coat across my shoulders. Its weight was a welcome barrier against the cold.
‘There now Tad, my boy,’ he said and patted me on the head. ‘I believe you are prepared to fish. I want immediate reports on any successes.’
‘Pa,’ I said as he turned to leave.
‘Yes, my boy,’ he answered. I opened my mouth to tell about the coughing I’d heard, but my tongue stopped wagging, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure on the words to say.
‘Thanks, Pa,’ I eventually said.
‘You’re most welcome.’ He bowed and disappeared below deck.
The moment he was gone, I wriggled out of the coat and abandoned my line. I went straight back to the stern, freeing my ears to listen. The sensation that I wasn’t alone returned, stronger than before, and I was happy with listening on the wind for a time. I prayed to brother Willie to make sure I was protected from any ghosts and witches. This gave me courage. I was sure brother Willie wouldn’t let me down and finally took a step forward to peer over the rail.
The shock I received froze my insides more than the bitter cold. Below me, a pair of hands gripped the low rung of the steamer’s stern. The hands belonged to the face of a man, bobbing in the water. His eyes were closed and his skin was pale as ice. I thought he was dead. I’d seen dead people before—old ones, young ones, bloody ones—such sights didn’t fret me. But then those closed eyes burst wide open, and the man lunged up toward where I stood.
I stumbled back, keeping my balance, and watched his hands climb his body up the rail. The thought of running away crossed my mind, but I forced my legs to stay firm. The man pulled himself right up onto the deck, shivering something terrible and making all the spluttering sounds you can imagine.
I trembled, not with cold or fright but high excitement. I instantly spied he was a soldier by his uniform. One of ours. I would know those colors and stripes anywhere. I had the same uniform in my cabin trunk.
I couldn’t stop gawking at him there in front of me, struggling to breathe like a fresh trout off the line. Pa used to say, the Lord prefers common-looking people, that’s why he makes so many of them. Well, the man in front of me must have been one of God’s very own. He had an uneven beard, mattered together with river water, and a pink-white scar, not yet old, that curved above his left eye.
He wheezed his body flat on its back and gasped heavy as after a fast run. His teeth rattled together, and a vein on his head throbbed bigger than any I’d ever seen on anyone. He smelt of our stables at the White House after the rain has mulched all the animal smells together.
‘Mister, you okay?’ I squealed.
The man didn’t answer. His eyes wobbled in their sockets and he groaned water out his mouth.
‘Are you a soldier?’ I asked on. ‘Are you lost? What division you in? We’re off going to meet General Hooker ourselves, right here now.’ The words burst out me as fast as my heart raced.
The man lifted an arm. ‘Bread,’ he said.
‘I can get you some bread,’ I cried and left him on the deck. I shot through the gangway to the kitchen where Cook was muttering at a pan on the stove. He didn’t notice my arrival. I saw what I needed, the last loaves in the corner.
I crept over and grabbed the smallest one on the end, then charged back down the gangway. As I went by the mess room, there was more laughter, and talking. I could hear Mr Bates’ voice above the rest. I pocketed the loaf and ran into the room, singing at the top of my lungs:
‘No fish for dinner. They’re too cold to bite.
No fish for dinner. We’ll have ‘em another night.’
Ma tried to shhh me, but I was too quick for her. I threw myself into Pa’s arms, gave him a hug, kissed his whiskers, and flew out the door before anyone had a chance to say Tad Lincoln.
Back on deck, I was surprised to find the soldier in my place at the port-rail, wearing Pa’s coat, fishing. He had my line in the water and was working it between coughs and splutters. It was clear he was sick man. Everything about him seemed as if it was wasting away with a strong danger there’d soon be nothing left at all.
‘I had a bite,’ he said.
‘I got one, earlier,’ I answered. ‘I’m not sure if the fish care much for the cold.’
‘The cold don’t fuss’em none,’ he gruffed. I approached him, dragging my feet, and took out the bread.
‘I got you a loaf, mister,’ I said.
‘Ah.’ His eyes lit right up and he leant toward me. ‘Break a piece off and put it in my mouth, boy. My hands are stuck fast on this here fishing line.’ I did as he asked. ‘More,’ he said, gulping down what I’d given him without hardly chewing.
I fed him another piece. ‘Why were you in the water, mister?’ I asked.
The soldier chomped hard on the last crumb before he spoke. ‘I’m a running,’ he said.
‘Running?’ I didn’t understand. ‘Where you running?’
The soldier swallowed and sort of growled. ‘I’m a Goddamn Skedaddler, boy. I’m running from the fight.’
‘A Skedaddler,’ I gasped. I knew about Skedaddlers all right. Me and brother Willie used to have a soldier doll called Jack. Poor Jack was always getting caught trying to flee the frontline, or sleeping at his post. He got hanged a lot for his crimes, or shot at dawn after a court-martial. We were following Mr Stanton’s orders. At home, we’d heard him call Skedaddlers yellow, the whole bunch of them. He reckoned they all deserved a neck stretchin.
I needed to tell Pa, but just then the Skedaddler went rigid still.
‘What is it?’ I whispered.
‘Gotta bite…’ he said and my innards leapt with pleasure. Any thoughts of going to Pa vanished out my head. I watched in awe as he made the strike. ‘Got him!’ The Skedaddler grunted. ‘Quick, take the reel over my hands.’
I did straight as he asked and got involved in the fight. It was a jo-fired hard battle with that sneaky bass. It tried its darndest to get the better of us, swimming at the boat, then away from the boat, and all over the Potomac. But we held tight the two of us, and wore him down, and after a mighty struggle, landed him on deck right in front of the Skedaddler.
‘Fine fish, well caught,’ he grunted, struggling to gasp his breath back.
I confess the thrill of the catch got the better of me. I ignored the Skedaddler’s laboured breathing and stole the prize as my own. I triumphantly paraded the half-dead fish to Pa and the rest of the travelling party. Mr Brooks declared it a fine effort before Mr Bates insisted on a description of how I caught it.
I gave an account of the catch, obviously not telling of the Skedaddler, and got a generous round of applause. I bowed and went and told Cook the same tale, who asked if I wanted to help gut. I said no and explained I’d rather catch more so we could have a feast for supper. Cook let me taste a spoonful of gravy to warm my insides.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got back on deck to see the Skedaddler was in the midst of bringing in another fish. Lord knows where the man got the strength from, but I witnessed him, clear as my hand in front of my face, land another bass on the boat.
He trapped the head under a sodden sock. I hadn’t realised before then that there were no boots on his feet. A shameful truth be told, I still paid more heed to the fish, gasping its last between his rotten stinking toes.
The Skedaddler simply nodded with a raw cough while I shrieked, dizzy with delight. I crouched low at his knees to retrieve the bass and paid no attention to the man’s welfare. I couldn’t resist turning on my heels to show-off the second bass in the mess room. I was tenderly applauded once more and again encouraged to give an account. I didn’t make it quite so dramatic this time. Partly because I hadn’t helped at all, so I had to make up the tale from scratch.
Pa then insisted on holding the fish and inspecting it carefully by the lamplight. Despite not being partial to hunting, he praised the fine specimen and my skill in landing it, which made me feel real bad for taking all the credit for the Skedaddler’s efforts. I took the first excuse to take the fish to Cook, who rewarded me with a whole cup of gravy. I pretended to sip some then requested permission to finish the rest on deck. Cook obliged.
Outside, the Skedaddler was still working the fishing line through the falling snow, Pa’s coat buttoned up tight against the chill.
‘I brought you some gravy, mister,’ I said, thinking it was the least he deserved.
‘Put it to my mouth, boy,’ he mumbled. I leant up to do as he said, and watched his mouth slurp the warm broth. Gravy dripped off of his beard and steam rose out of the bristles into the lamplight. He smacked his lips together messily. It made it seem like he might be breathing fire. ‘Well, I’m peaked, boy,’ he grimaced. ‘Two bass and I’m truly tuckered out here.’
‘I could ask Pa if you could stay and eat with us proper,’ I said, stepping away. The man was still clearly ravenous hungry.
‘Eat with you?’ The Skedaddler shot me a puzzled expression and retched something powerful out his throat. ‘Tell me, boy. What’s a picnic steamer doing so close to the fight?’ he asked.
‘It’s carrying my Pa to visit General Hooker and his army,’ I answered. ‘We’re gonna inspect the troops.’
‘My Pa, Abe Lincoln. The President.’ I loved to say those words. I said them like I was telling nothing much at all. Normally the reactions were a real picture but I was disappointed this time. The Skedaddler didn’t gasp or smile, or flinch like others had done in the past. He just stared at me, sort of blank.
‘Old Abe,’ he mumbled quietly. Then that stillness came over him, like he might have iced up solid to the deck. I knew what it meant.
‘You got another bite, ain’t you, mister?’ I shrieked.
The Skedaddler nodded. ‘I’m too played out to snag him though. You’re gonna have to take the reel over my hands again.’ I did not have to be asked twice. I wedged my body in front of his and took a firm grip of his filthy, freezing fingers. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now, on three, we’re gonna strike. One, two…’
I jumped the gun and struck with all my might. The Skedaddler controlled our movement and the line went tight with the weight of a fish on the end. Another mighty encounter ensued, and this time, I did most of the reeling. The Skedaddler directed me and said when to heave for a fight and when to ease up and let the fish wear itself out. He was a real fine tutor ‘cause I landed that bass under my own steam in no time at all.
I was pleased as punch. It was the biggest fish of the night and I was all wrapped up in beaming pride at my efforts. I ducked down at the Skedaddler’s feet and ran my bare fingers along its icy scales. I felt kinda sick with glee at the shine and splendour of the body. Giggling, I put the gaping mouth right close to my face and enjoyed letting that big old bass squirm in my hands with its last bit of life, imagining how good it was going to taste on the plate.
A dreadful sound of choking interrupted my merriment. I looked up to see the Skedaddler making the same hurt expression as the fish while he fought just as hard to breathe. I recognised the torture. Many times had I struggled the same way to suck air into my own weak lungs.
I stood up, shamed with guilt at how selfish I had been. ‘You need a doctor, mister,’ I said and knew the time had come to sing out about our visitor.
The Skedaddler shook his head. ‘Too late for a doctor, now,’ he winced.
He was right. I knew it straight. There was that empty rattling in his chest. It meant death was close and put the urge to help him in my heart. It’s what brother Willie would have done. And I knew exactly how I could be of service. I was going to get Pa to pardon him. One time, I’d got old Jack an official pardon. I reckoned I could do the same here.
‘I can introduce you to Pa?’ I said at a lull in his hacking. ‘Usually I charge a nickel for an introduction, but seeing as you’ve helped me fish for supper, I’ll make an exception this one time.’
The Skedaddler didn’t answer right away. He wheezed some long gulps of snowy air and shrunk his shoulders into Pa’s coat tight as they’d go against the cold. He appeared not to be paying me any heed when he spoke.
‘You know, we talk to one another,’ he said. ‘That’s how close we are. We talk to Secesh down there on the picket waiting for the ball. They call over: “I say Yankee, put down that there cannon.” And you know, we reply: “Oh, it’s down Secesh. You’re welcome anytime.” And we hear them chuckling, “Much obliged,” like we’re neighbours sharing a joke. Next day, we butcher each other like dogs…’
He swayed forward as if about to fall, but righted himself at the last. There was enough light to see blood dripping in his beard.
‘I ain’t in no fit state to meet anyone tonight, boy,’ he rasped and hauled his body onto a perch at the boat rail.
‘Pa won’t care none about how you look,’ I protested, getting agitated to tell about him.
‘I’d be grateful if you’d just leave me out here now,’ he said. ‘I think you’ve done well enough with your catch tonight.’
‘I guess I have.’ I answered and fixed on a ploy to get Pa on his own, and bring him out to the Skedaddler for a private audience. ‘I’m gonna take this fish inside to Cook,’ I said, not intending to share my scheme, but the man was no goose.
‘I know your mind, boy.’ he said. ‘I know you’re plotting to bring your father back with you. Now, don’t hustle me. Seems like if I don’t have no option about meeting the President, I can at least be cleaned up some.’ I nodded. ‘I’m in his coat, ain’t I? I don’t want to be no fool wearing the man’s coat if I’m about to meet him. Help it off me.’
‘Pa won’t care nothing about you wearing his coat.’
‘I’d be obliged if you’d do as I ask.’
I gave up arguing and tucked the bass under my arm. I undid the buttons and pulled Pa’s coat off his back. The wool was soaked with snow and heavy for me to lift. It smelt nasty bad, too. I let it drop at the rail. The Skedaddler shivered hard.
‘Now, use your cuff to mop my brow and get the blood and filth off.’ I did as he asked, careful to avoid touching his scar. ‘I want to be standing to meet him,’ he said. ‘Help me stand.’ I helped him get to his feet, which was a real labour as he could hardly keep his own balance and had to swing his weight against the rail for support. ‘There now.’ He smiled thinly. ‘I think I’m about ready to meet the President of this here United States of America.’
I collected my rod and bait box, and told him my plan to separate Pa from the rest of the party so he could have a private audience. I explained it might take some time. He grunted an approval and I left him standing in the snow. I remember his lopsided body outlined in the lamplight, still appearing pale and sickly without there being any color to him.
In the gangway, I was pondering how best to approach Pa with the news of our visitor when I heard the splash. I knew then, I’d been bluffed. I dropped everything and ran back onto an empty deck. I reached the port rail and leant overboard. It was no use. There was only enough light to make out a snatch of snow falling and the occasional swirl lapping at the steamer’s edge.
I struggled with all sorts of instincts telling me to do this, that and the other, but here’s a confession—in the end I did nothing. I tidied up on deck and did not acknowledge the corn to anyone about him. It occurred to me that I might have cost a man his life this night, and I was plain terrified that if I told, I’d be labelled with some portion of blame. This resolved me to keep my mouth well and truly shut.
Don’t judge me harsh. Pa used to say it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. That evening, I took his counsel to the letter, and fought every urge to burst and tell my tale. I acted through going into the mess room with the last fish. I accepted more praise and presented the bass to Cook, who insisted I took the first taste after grace.
In the mouthful, I tasted an awful guilt for taking credit for the Skedaddler’s fishing and not telling folk about him when I had the chance. Still, I peacocked good and proper and boasted to the table that it was the best bass I’d ever eaten. All the while, my insides ached with deceit.
Pa knew me too well to be duped. He read something was amiss and took me onto his lap to eat his portion. He declared the fish more delicious with each bite he took. When I didn’t react with suitable merriment, he pulled me tight and commented:
‘Why Tad, you look so glum after playing the heroic fisherman. Whatever can be the matter?’
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t face to tell. I buried myself in his warm embrace and stayed there, comforted by the smell of him. I didn’t surface again until the table had forgotten me and the fishing, and safely moved onto the usual talk of politics and war.
TL – Frankfurt 1869