The River Queen Sample Chapter


Blasted pirates. Dirty, filthy, rotten—

Emmett Carter concentrated on keeping his head above churning dark water. The Wicked River could swallow a man whole in a matter of moments. Faster in the dark. And he’d heard one too many stories of alligators as long as a man in these parts.

Kicking his legs, he forced his body toward the Mississippi’s muddy shoreline. Pirates. Of all things. River pirates.

He spit out water and fought against the swirling current thick with sediment until his fingers brushed the shore. Digging, clawing, he struggled through the mire like a crawfish until he emerged on the bank as filthy as any backwater crustacean.

Jeers and laughter floated around the next bend before being swallowed by the raucous cacophony of bullfrogs and cicadas.

Heaving, he flopped onto his back. Mud clung to his hair, fingers, and shoes.

He breathed deep and sent forth a prayer for a thimble’s worth of grace for the scallywags. He couldn’t bring himself to give them a drop more. Overboard was better than dead, and cursing the rabble wouldn’t get his boat back or save his sinking investment.

He’d only made it twenty-five miles downriver from St. Louis before disaster struck. He and Jacob should have never taken such a risk. What had possessed him to agree to help with one of his brother’s schemes?

Emmett coughed, his expanding ribs sore from the hit he’d taken when they’d thrown him over the rail.

“Ho, there!”

He forced himself to his feet, fists at the ready.

“Mr. Carter? That you?”

Emmett released a breath and lowered his hands. The gray-haired engineer approached in the dusky light, his grin grating on Emmett’s good manners. What right did this man have to smile while Emmett’s entire livelihood slipped away down the Mighty Mississippi?

“They left the crew alive, sir. Only two are any worse for wear, and that’s on the account of Lester and Leroy thinkin’ they was strong enough to take on a gang of armed men on their own.” Derwood snorted. “Boys. More bravado than brains, most of the time. Why, I ain’t known a one of them two to—”

“They made it to shore?” The man could ramble at the most inopportune times.

“Well, now, about that.” He scrubbed his beard. “All of the crew excepting me, you, and them two boys stayed on the boat.” His lips twisted before he shrugged. “Looks to me like most of that crew you hired done went turncoat.”

Meaning the crew went along to save their hides or they were in on the thievery? It didn’t matter. Whoever had been plotting against them, they’d taken his inheritance downriver.

“Lester and Leroy. Are they hurt?”

“Nothin’ but a bump on the head and a cut that’s going to need a few stitches.” Derwood studied the rippling eddies as the sun’s final rays glistened on the churning silt. “Alive is fair enough, by my reckoning.”

“I envy your outlook.” Emmett fished out his soggy wallet. “Wish I could do more, but this should get you and those boys a dry room and a hot meal.”

“Much appreciated.” Derwood accepted the dollar bills with a smile. “Nearest town is just up the bank.”

Emmett pointed to a hazy shape in the distance. “Is that a boat?”

Derwood followed his gaze as he tucked the money into his breast pocket. “Yes, sir.”


Derwood lowered his brows. “One of them big showboats, so… yessir. Most likely. But they ain’t the kind to take you on board. Not unless you’re looking to buy a ticket and watch a show.”

Emmett would spend his last dollar on a two-bit vaudeville act if it meant a way off this muddy riverbank and an opportunity to contact local law enforcement.

Electric lights flashed to life, illuminating a floating theater. Swells of gaudy music followed from what sounded like a steam-powered pipe organ.

“Best of luck to you, Mr. Carter.” Derwood plopped a dripping hat over his long hair, unconcerned water rivulets streaked down his face.

“Wait. What about our contract?”

A sly grin revealed yellowed teeth. “This job’s done, so I’m headin’ back to be findin’ the next.” He turned out his palms. “Unless you got another boat up your sleeve and a new load of cargo that needs deliverin’.”

When Emmett failed to answer, Derwood tipped his hat and marched up the bank. He disappeared into the shadowed embrace of a cottonwood cluster.

Emmett hesitated, judging the trek to town against the flashy boat. Derwood’s way led to a dry room but maybe not to a law officer. Emmett lifted one shoe, dumped out the water, and did the same with the other.

The music drew swells of farming families from the nearby woods like rats to the Pied Piper. Likely everyone in town would come. Perhaps even a lawman.

Resisting the urge to shield his ears against the shrill whistles belting out a jaunty tune, he made his choice and trudged through the mud.

Better than the riverbank.

He repeated the line to himself as he trudged to the staked gangplank, but for some reason, unlike the sediment, the sentiment wouldn’t stick. Town made more sense. So why did he keep sloshing toward the inviting lights like an addlepated moth?

Dressed in their Sunday best, the laughing swarm of townsfolk surged around him. No one took interest in the soggy man in a once-white suit as they hurried up the gangplank to a gleaming white boat. Two stories high, the showboat boasted porches all around its massive rectangle. People filled the bow as they waited to make their way inside, a festive flair sweetening the humid air. He’d never visited one of these floating theaters. Perhaps he could see the appeal for people far from big cities and their opera houses.

The music settled into a more reasonable volume, and the cheery notes accompanied the persistent slosh of his shoes as he shuffled up the walk. He stood in the line, ignoring a family who cast him curious glances.

Bold red letters at least three feet high marked the upper deck—The River Queen.

A flamboyant dash of peacock blue danced past the letters. He blinked, sure he’d swallowed too much muddy water.

A woman stepped up to the railing. Her blazing red hair hung in loose, thick ringlets down the back of her striking costume. Strands escaped from underneath a beaded headband and caught in the breeze, whipping around behind her like a dancing flame. Her brilliant-blue gown cascaded with peacock feathers matching the ones erupting from the sapphires set over her temple. Stunning.

“Welcome! Welcome!” The woman thrust her arms wide, grinning at the crowds.

Never had he seen a woman arrayed as though she’d stepped out of a tale from Italy’s famed carnival. The electric lights danced off the shimmering gown that hugged every feminine curve. The voluminous skirt billowed in feathered waves along the deck railing.

“Sir? Could you move along?”

A woman’s pinched voice behind him snapped Emmett from his stupor. He shook his head and hurried to fill the gap left ahead as the woman above him began to sing in a clear, strong voice.

“Welcome, welcome,

All my friends,

Welcome, welcome,

This is where the story begins,

Bring your sorrows,

Bring your joy,

Every man, woman, girl, and boy,

Welcome, welcome,

To The River Queen,

Where every moment is but a dream.”

The fanciful lyrics followed him as he stepped beneath the upper deck and headed deeper onto the boat. He scanned the crowd to get his senses in order. He must locate a lawman. Perhaps best done by first finding a crew member.

No one other than the beautiful bird above seemed to be a part of this production, however, so he bustled along with the crowd until he passed inside a hallway and stopped in front of a ticket window.

“Welcome!” A woman in her elder years with sparkling blue eyes flourished a hand. “Do you already have a ticket, or will you be purchasing one?”

“I don’t want a ticket. I need…” The word help stuck in his throat. He cleared it and tried again. “Do you know where I can find a member of the local law enforcement?”

The woman cocked her head like a confused parrot. “Sir, are you aware this is a showboat?”


Nodding to his state of disarray, she lifted a brow. “Fell into the river, did you?”

He clenched his teeth. “Something like that.”

“I’m sorry for your misfortune.” She brightened and flashed him a brilliant smile with perfect teeth. “Nothing cures a sorrowful day like a night at the play.”

Emmett ignored the quip. He didn’t have time to see a play. Of course, he now stood in line to do exactly that while people behind him grumbled with impatience. And he dripped water all over the floor.

He was about to murmur an apology and remove himself from the counter when the door behind the older woman opened and the lady from the balcony flounced inside.

Her presence filled the tiny space. “So excited to see the show you swam to the boat, did you?”

The laughter in her voice arrested all rational thought.

“Ah, poor dear.” She patted the older woman on the shoulder. “Let’s give him a pass, shall we?” Cobalt eyes focused on Emmett. “Not the best seat in the house, mind you, but I can’t have you soaking one of my good seats. Now, can I?”

The other woman grumbled something and passed Emmett a ticket. He accepted the slip of paper and shambled away from the lady tsk-tsking behind him.

What had just happened?

The paper granted him standing room at the back of the theater. Perhaps he should let himself dry and rest a bit. The crowd pressed before and behind, ushering him down a sloping hallway to another set of large doors. A tall man with a gray mustache from another era motioned to see Emmett’s ticket.

The man barked a laugh, then scanned Emmett from tousled hair to sodden foot. “Found her another stray, did she?” The words rumbled out of him with a touch of lilting Irish brogue. He pointed to a rear corner. “You can stand back there. I’ll get Freddie to bring a towel.”

“Appreciate that, sir.” Emmett hesitated. “May I ask the favor of an announcement to request a lawman meet me after the show?”

The fellow blinked at him. “Why would I do that?”

“I assume the entire population of the nearest town is under your roof. My best hope of speaking to such a person is here.”

The old man waved Emmett away. Did that mean he would make the announcement or not? Seeing no other option than to take his place, Emmett scooted behind a row of chairs and leaned up against the wall. Scents of popcorn and taffy caught in his nostrils, hinting at the time his mother had taken him to see a circus. A pleasant distraction from the musty smell wafting from his suit.

At the bottom of the sloping seating area, an orchestra pit stood in front of a grand stage lit at the edges by electric lights. Box seats swept along the narrow room’s upper reaches, holding a single row of chairs almost all the way down to the stage itself.

Fine curtains hung alongside a backdrop depicting a window to a seaside scene. As people continued to file in, a juggler took the stage, tossing two, four, and then six red balls into the air, flinging them higher and higher until they nearly struck the ceiling. Children giggled while adults clapped.

“Here, mister.” A boy of about twelve with a mop of brown hair thrust a rough white towel into his chest.

“Thank you.” Before the boy could scurry off again, Emmett caught his elbow. “I’ve got a nickel if you’ll do me a favor.”

The boy’s eyes rounded at the proffered coin. “What sort of favor?”

“I need you to make an announcement asking for a law officer to stay behind and speak with me.”

He pinched his lips.

“After the show, of course. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

The boy plucked the nickel from his fingers and disappeared into the crowd.

Hopefully that meant he’d accepted the job. Nothing to do now but wait. Unnoticed in the tucked-away corner, Emmett scrubbed his hair and then made a pitiful attempt at drying his jacket. Better to take it off and drop it to the floor behind him. Pride and propriety be hanged. He’d rather stand here in soggy shirtsleeves than a jacket he could swear had begun to steam.

Cooler, he tugged his collar loose and dabbed the towel over his ruined shirt. What would Jacob think? His brother probably would have fought the pirates and single-handedly saved the steamboat. He’d always been the risk-taker while Emmett stayed behind to handle the mundane responsibilities. Something he should be doing now instead of letting Jacob talk him into hauling a load of tobacco downriver.

Music flared to life from the orchestra pit, and the din increased as people hurried to their seats and settled in. The juggler took his final bow, and the lights dimmed before they brightened again.

A clear feminine voice rang out over the crowd. “The River Queen welcomes you to the 1923 season!” The flame-haired woman took center stage, her extravagant gown catching the light with a thousand sparkles. She dipped into a deep curtsy. “May your troubles be forgotten as you step into our dream.” Her gaze found his while she rose, and a slow smile curved mischievous lips.

Troubles, indeed. This woman might well make him forget every logical thought he’d ever had. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, every care he’d had this night—his stolen steamboat, his scattered crew, his sodden clothes—drifted away. Transfixed, he could do nothing more than surrender to the spell of this strangely beautiful river queen.

Copyright 2023, Stephenia H. McGee. May not be copied, reproduced, or distributed in any manner without the author’s written permission.

"Reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, The Whistle Walk paints a vivid picture of America at the start of the War Between the States. The treatment of slaves, the economic conditions of the South, the concerns of the soldiers on both sides were brought to life in this breathtaking novel.”

— Christine Sharbrough, The Christian Manifesto

"It is obvious that McGee knows the time period, etiquette standards, building structures, food offerings, and much more. The Civil War atmosphere is very much present and I was reminded of the novel, Gone with the Wind, in quality of the writing and content."

— Susan Faloon, The Christian Manifesto

"It is beautifully told, exquisitely crafted, examining the harsh realities of slavery while allowing one to see the fire of hope and courage. It also shows the kindness and compassion of a young white lady expected to act as others yet yearning to change those expectations. It is realistic and sometimes heartbreaking yet it delivers a message of hope, love and faith against all odds and in all circumstance and it does this to absolute perfection! Bravo Ms. McGee!"

— In'Dtale Magazine


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