By day Captain Frederick Brewster sat in the parlor of the Leesburg boarding house sipping black coffee from a bonechina mug and telling the town’s children stories of his adventures at sea. The time in Cuba he’d fought four men single-handed as they advanced up his gangplank to rob him, him armed with nothing but a broom handle in one hand and a glass lantern in the other. And the time he’d spotted an enemy privateer despite their false colors and so thwarted their attack. An older boy asked if he’d ever met the pirate Lafitte and he winked and said he had, though in truth Lafitte had died before Captain Brewster was even born.
Other people told stories, too, about the people Captain Brewster had saved in the shipwreck that stranded him here. The captain lashed to the hull of the capsized ship and throwing lines, hauling folks in, one after the other as the storm raged against the grounded and broken yawl. The pretty red-haired girl whose parents had died, not in the storm but later, and how he’d offered to stand in her father’s place and give her away when she married a local boy.
In the evenings Captain Brewster sat alone in his room gulping whiskey from the same bonechina mug and remembering the stories he couldn’t tell. The wife and child he’d left in New York and might never see again. The command he’d lost when the war began, him loyal to his home state of North Carolina but not to the Confederacy and unwilling to fight so foolish a cause. The desperate runners he’d helped flee their homes aboard whatever small ships he could procure. The people he’d seen die—the people he’d let die—in the shipwreck just a mile from here.
He could hear their voices sometimes, distant cries rising and crashing with the surf of the Gulf. So like the cries of hungry gulls, though he’d been asea long enough to know the difference.
2. Grand Chenier, March 1864
Captain Brewster was neither a Jayhawker nor a hunter of Jayhawkers. He avoided the mess of it and kept to the docks, loading and unloading blockade runners and hoping each day to be taken aboard, though each time he met a captain they said they’d no use for a mate and wouldn’t hire a master seaman in any lower position. They seemed to have little trouble letting him hang in the rigging over the side and scrape barnacles from the hull before they shipped out without him.
The Mermentau Jayhawkers had grown to two hundred men, even some women, near the size of Grand Chenier itself. Meat became scarce, the chickens and hogs mostly stolen. The whiskey was scarcer, and Captain Brewster resorted to sneaking casks of turpentine and creosote from shipments, which he passed on to a crude sutler from the bayou in exchange for his foul homemade batches of busthead. The drink left him reeling and defenseless in the night and twice he’d been robbed by Jayhawkers and once, late at night, he’d fallen from his stool and when he stood he’d discovered a panther in his front window, the great paws on the sill and the dark round head near filling the frame.
He mentioned it as a dream to the dockman who rousted him in the morning and the dockman explained that panthers were known to come in from the marsh. That they were driven into town by something more fearsome. There were rumors of the rougarou, the demon man-wolf that the Cajuns and the Indians sometimes whispered of.
It was foolish as the stories of mermaids and sea serpents he’d spun yarns about for the children. But there were times, out at sea, when he’d see a thing he had no words for. And there were sounds in the bayou, not quite the ghostly voices that had haunted him from the shipwreck but not quite the natural howls of a wolf. Somehow both. There was something out in the bayou, something hunting.
Soon, the Jayhawkers were dead, and the panthers had disappeared. Though sometimes late in the night he would wake half-drunk and see a shape in the window, if not a panther then something like it.
3: Negro Island, May 1865
Captain Brewster still watched the dock each morning and each afternoon, though there’d not been a ship in months and he was busy as a stockman in the mercantile. Then one muggy spring afternoon he spied the square topsail of a hermaphrodite schooner coming up the river and he ran to the dock to greet it. A ship that size, the war a month behind them, they were bound to unload crew eager to be home and take on men eager to be back asea.
The man who met him had long black hair blown mad in the wind and small eyes that seemed to see everything at once. One heel tapped on the dock in a rapid tattoo as he asked after sacks of rice, maybe a coopful of chickens, maybe a pen of hogs. Captain Brewster said he might know of a farmer with a load of cotton and maybe a load of cane. But the man wasn’t interested in shipments, he was interested in food, said he had some two hundred head of stock to feed up before selling them at market.
Captain Brewster eyed the schooner, heavy in the water but no room in it for two hundred head of anything, and then he realized what it was. He explained to the man that the war was over and Lincoln’s Proclamation had become a Constitutional Amendment, that slavery was outlawed and slaverunners would hang for pirates. The man’s small eyes grew smaller, his heel tapped faster against the wood. He asked if Captain Brewster might like to buy some slaves for himself, though he used a different word, but Captain Brewster assured him that he wouldn’t, advised him to free his passengers and flee. The man spat the word back at him, passengers, half a question and half an accusation.
The schooner sailed within the hour, for some reason upriver. His skin crawled to think of the man, the horrors in his hull. He wished he'd had the courage to detain him for arrest or else just kill the man, the whole damned crew, to fling open the hatches and unchain everyone aboard. Captain Brewster climbed to the roof of the store and he could still see the topsail bobbing in place on the northern horizon like a fishing cork. He was glad he was not aboard. The next morning it sailed back at a higher draft and out to sea forever.
For weeks afterward the nights were filled with windborn wails and screams that seemed to come from the river itself, though no one spoke ever of it. Captain Brewster came to wonder if he alone could hear them. Sometimes he could see dim firelight from the upriver lake, some island therein. Sometimes he would catch sounds like dying songs. No one ever went to investigate. Then the voices faded, and then they were gone, and Captain Brewster had only their memories to keep him company in the night.
Epilogue: The Mermentau, March 1867
Two men docked a sloop in Grand Chenier looking for a bit of high ground where they might plant cotton. They were told the land about was spoken for but there might be some unclaimed island in the wider river to the north. They brought aboard Captain Brewster to help them navigate the Mermentau and seek out an unpopulated island, and for that first night aboard the still-docked sloop, cradled in a canvas hammock slung on the deck and barely swaying so still was the current of the river, for the first night in near five years and for the last night in his long and haunted life, he slept in peace.
About the Author: Samuel Snoek-Brown lives in Portland, OR, where he teaches writing and serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. Online, he lives at snoekbrown.com. His short fiction has appeared in WhiskeyPaper, Bartleby Snopes, Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, Eunoia Review, SOL: English Writing in Mexico, and others. He's the author of the flash fiction chapbook Box Cutters, and of the novel Hagridden, for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship.
Story Song: "My Father's Father" by The Civil Wars
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Cox