People seemed to enjoy The Powerful Bad Luck of DD Dupree (posted a link to the story a few blogs ago -- if you missed that one, click here to read the whole story, for free) so I'm going to post the first part of another Haunted South story in today's blog.
This one is called Passing the Narrows. It was first published by Weird Tales in the spring of 2000, where it was later voted favorite in the issue. It's one of my favorites too, because it's the closest thing I've ever written to a straight horror story.
Landing a sale to Weird Tales was a milestone for me. That was no easy market. Big names made regular appearances in those pages, Stephen King among them.
I think I'd submitted one other piece to Weird Tales before putting Passing the Narrows in the mail. That piece was The Mister Trophy, which they liked, but wouldn't run because it was too long. I went on to sell The Mister Trophy twice, once to Adventures of Sword and Sorcery, and then again to Samhain Publishing as part of the Markhat series.
The editors at Weird Tales were sticklers for historical accuracy. Even though Passing the Narrows is set in an alternate South where magic works, the folks at Weird Tales were insistent that every detail of the story was consistent with historical and geographic fact.
That insistence had me sweating. I'd written the story after a cursory glance at a couple of maps and a brief remembrance of canoeing down in south Mississippi. I'd looked up the names of a few famous Civil War generals and sprinkled them here and there.
Given the enthusiasm and knowledge of Civil War buffs, I was taking a huge risk with my casual attitude. One wrong name. A single misplaced river. A battle put a few miles too far one way or another -- any of these mistakes could have seen me torn to whimpering little shreds in the letters section of Weird Tales magazine.
The editors knew that too, so they checked my fictional downriver route against maps. They checked the names. They made sure I had my riverboat references right.
I got lucky. The story passed muster, and saw print, and I learned a valuable lesson about research, which is that blind dumb luck is a perfectly good substitute. Once. And I've used my free pass!
I'm pasting the first part of the story below. If you like it, well, it's for sale here (about a buck) at Amazon, if you have a Kindle (or you have the free Kindle app on your PC or other device).
Anyway, enjoy the excerpt!
Passing the Narrows
by Frank Tuttle
The Yocona surged ahead, paddle-wheel churning, cylinders beating like some great, frightened heart.
"Dark as Hell and twiced as hot," muttered Swain from the shadows behind the clerk's map-table.
A ragged chorus of ayes answered. The Captain checked his pocket watch; ten o'clock sharp. Old Swain and his hourly announcements hadn't lost a minute in twenty years.
The Captain snapped his pocket watch shut and peered out into the darkness. There, to port, loomed a hulking mass of shadow twice the height of any around it -- Cleary's Oak, last marker before the riverboat landing at Float. "We're an hour from Float, Mr. Barker. Notify the deck crew we'll be putting in for the night."
"She won't like that," said Swain, whispering. "Fit to be tied, she'll be. Full of fire and steam."
"You know who. The wand-waver. The Yankee."
"Go back to sleep."
"I heard her talkin' while the boys were hauling me up the deck," said Swain, gesturing with the stump of his missing right arm. "Said she was aimin' to make Vicksburg 'fore the moon came again. Said she had orders, and papers, and -- "
"I give the orders here, Swain. Not any damn Yankee wand-wavers."
Swain cackled. The Yocona churned past Cleary's Oak, picking up speed as the Yazoo River turned narrow and straight. The Captain rang three bells, and the thump-thump-thump of the pistons slowed.
The Yocona’s running lamps began to touch the trees on each bank of the Yazoo River. Shadows whirled and twisted, caught mid-step in some secret dance before fleeing back into the impenetrable murk beyond the first rank of trees. Some few seemed to run just ahead of the light, capering and tumbling like shards of a nightmare given flesh and let loose to roam.
The shadows reminded the Captain of Gettysburg and Oxford and a hundred other haunted ruins left in the wake of the war. The Yazoo River was the only safe route through the countryside now, unless you were a sorcerer, a Yankee, or a fool.
"Eyes ahead, boys," said the Captain, softly. "They're only there if you look."
The pilothouse door flew open and slammed like a rifle-shot. The Captain whirled, cursing.
In the dim red glow of the pilothouse night-lamps, the Yankee in the doorway looked little more real than the shadows in the trees. A long blue Union sorcerer's robe and hood concealed all but angry green eyes and long, pale hands.
"Why are we stopping at Float?" said the sorceress.
"Warned you," whispered Swain.
The sorceress stepped forward and glared down at Swain. "You are the Captain of this vessel?"
Swain guffawed. "No ma'am," he said. "I'm the clerk. If you want a freight book marked or a Federal river-map copied I'll be happy to oblige." Swain cocked his head. "Tell the truth, now -- don't them robes get awful hot?"
The sorceress turned, traded frowns with the Captain.
"You gave the order to put ashore at Float?" she said.
"I did," said the Captain.
"You will rescind your order. We will proceed on to Vicksburg. Tonight. With all possible speed."
The Captain turned his back to the sorceress and listened to the paddle wheels for a time. Far off in the night, he heard the shriek of another riverboat's steam-whistle.
"Get off my bridge," said the Captain, staring out into the shadows. "Get off, and stay off."
"We go to Vicksburg."
"Tomorrow. First light. Not before."
The sorceress stepped forward. "I am an official representative of the United States government," she said. "I have Papers of Empowerment which authorize me to commandeer this vessel, if necessary. Is it?"
"Just like a Yankee," said Swain. "Commandeerin' stern-wheelers without no notion of how to steer one. How far you reckon you'd get before you found a sand-bar or a snag?"
"Vicksburg," snapped the sorceress.
"Hell," said Swain. "In pieces, you might." Swain scooted himself sideways on his bench, grinning as he saw the sorceress look down at the stumps of his legs and then look quickly away.
Another steam whistle rang out, and another. "Hear that?" asked Swain. "Two more boats puttin' in at Float. Probably twenty there, maybe more, every one of 'em losin' time and money by stoppin' for the night." Swain cackled. "Ain't many things tighter than a Mississippi river-boat master's fist, wand-waver, and there's some that would steer for Hell itself if they thought the devil had a penny in his britches. But not a one of 'em will pass the Yazoo Narrows without a moon, and that's a fact."
"One will tonight," said the sorceress. "Or he'll get off and watch me take his craft. I don't care which." Papers rustled. "This is a Presidential writ, Captain," she said. "This craft and my cargo are going on to Vicksburg. Tonight. Any further obstruction will be met with force. Is that clear?"
"Go to Hell," said the Captain, not turning. "Go to Hell and take Lincoln with you."
Paddle-wheels churned. Tiny flickers of light played over the backs of the sorceress's hands.
"We'll need half a hour at Float to unload the passengers and such of the crew that ain't eager to die, ma'am," said Swain. "Course, since Yer Mightyness is in a hurry, we could just throw the women an' babies off now."
The sorceress let out her breath in a long weary sigh. The glow at her fingers vanished. "You may have half an hour at Float," she said. "No more."
The Captain was silent. The sorceress turned and stepped through the open door and then turned again to fix the Captain's back with a glare. "I will forget your insubordination if there are no further difficulties between us, Captain," she said. "And I may have neglected to mention that you will be reimbursed for any losses you incur if passengers remain behind." The Captain didn't stir.
"The War is over," muttered the Sorceress. "Why can't you people accept the peace?"
"I reckon," said Swain, nodding toward the haunted night beyond the pilothouse, "because it ain't any too peaceful south of Memphis these days, yer Yankeeship."
The door slammed. The sorceress's heavy footfalls faded, buried under the Yocona’s steady throbbing.
"Well, Captain," said Swain quietly, "Guess I just saved your ass from the Yankees. Again."
The Captain shook his head and lit a cigar. Purple-grey smoke drifted wraithlike through the pilothouse. "You believe the stories about the Narrows, Swain?" asked the Captain. "Because if you do, you just sent us all to Hell."
Swain pulled himself back into the darkness behind the map table. "Bound for it anyway, ain't we?" he said. "This way, maybe we get to take a Yankee wand-waver with us."
The Captain took a long draw of the cigar and watched the shadows tumble all the way to Float.