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I will tell you how it happened.
It unfolded.

My name was Christopher Cooper, and I gambled for my money like a good little sinner. The big-stakes games in Texas, and out in California—they kept me very well fed, and dressed in all the imported clothes I could stand.

I was a big man—once a hard-working man with lots of muscles, but I admit in time that it all ran to fat. It took a lot of cash to clothe me.

I liked big jackets with deep pockets, and I liked boots with quiet heels. No sense in announcing yourself everywhere, I always said. Sometimes I wore bolo ties, but I never resorted to cowboy hats like some of the fellows out west. I always preferred to think of myself as a northeastern lad. The bolo was merely a concession to fashion and a conversation piece.

Women seemed to like it. They'd touch it with their pretty-smelling fingers and twist it around their nails, asking me where I got it from. Once upon a time there was a turquoise slide on it—a fine polished stone set in silver. It matched a pocket watch I carried, and I liked to have them together.

The watch was a gift from a married woman who wouldn't let me keep her. She had it engraved, so I'd always remember why I loved her, and that she'd sent me on my way. She was a cruel little beast. I worshipped the ground she walked on.

Think of me every moment.

If I was very lucky, she might have thought about me once in a blue moon. I didn't need a reminder, but the watch was too beautiful to discard in some sentimental gesture. It was worth a small fortune. She'd commissioned it from a jewelry maker in San Francisco. He was an Austrian, she said.

In time, the nuisance longing I felt for her faded to a dull pang noticed only on occasion. But I always did love that watch, shining merrily on its matching silver chain. And every time I considered the time, until the day I died, I thought of her.

* * *

Those first, lazy nights onboard that damn boat, we came and went from our rooms to the main decks—back and forth from the galley to the prow, starboard to port or however they put it when you're talking about a water vessel. We wandered around, is what I mean to say. There wasn't much else to do except stare at the water and play cards downstairs on the first level.

So that's where I spent most of my time, when I could find someone to play with me. After a while, the pickings got slim. I'm awfully good, and most of my traveling companions weren't willing to bet in earnest, so there wasn't much to win. Even so, by a few days into my journey I was willing to bet in buttons or clamshells. Anything to eat up the time.

No wonder the captain drank so much.

Boat was one hell of a dull way to travel. I shuddered to think of my grandparents, who crossed an ocean in a bigger boat than this one. The Atlantic? I would have killed myself from the sheer dullness of it all.

But I must confess, the boat was a pretty thing—and I can appreciate a pretty boat or a pretty woman as well as the next man. The Mary Byrd they called her. I want to say it was named for the captain's wife, but I don't think that's the case. I think he bought it from another man and the name came with it.

Some other man's wife, more likely—or a daughter. Or a mistress.

I hope she was named for someone beautiful.

On the outside she was painted white, or a bright ivory—and her name was splashed on the side in bloody yellow-orange letters with curlicues. She had a paddlewheel on her stern too, and it matched the lettering. The rails on the deck were lined with that curious latticework you see on houses sometimes; it cast shadows in the afternoons, like eyelets in the fabric of a lady's nightgown.

On the inside, she was dressed in red and orange that looked like nothing so much as a high-class whorehouse. If I'd said as much out loud, people would wish to know how I was qualified to make such a comparison.

I was qualified. But I kept it to myself.

Where the floors were scuffed and shined wood, they were run with low rugs; and the lamps were all set with glass, brass, and crystal dangles that looked like earrings.

* * *

The other passengers gathered that I had money, and most of them probably knew (or could guess) how I'd gotten it. I thought maybe the nun would look down her nose about it, gambling not being sanctioned by the Lord, and all; but if she cared or noticed, she didn't say anything. She was a papist, after all—and open to her own set of criticisms from the other passengers.

To think of it that way—and I guess I should—we all had something like that about us. Perhaps it was just coincidence, or merely the time of year; but the Mary Byrd was a ship of misfits, in a most uninteresting way.

That last trip from Knoxville to Chattanooga was more empty than full; and those of us who were left were those without more proper, permanent places to be. As far as I could ascertain, we were all passing from one thing to another, as is ordinary enough when it comes to traveling companions.

But none of us were coming from home—or going there. So I don't suppose it's strange that when we were lost, we were forgotten.

There were signs that should've told us to expect trouble from the very start—or from our last stop, at Lenoir City. Whatever went wrong, we picked it up there; and I can only think of one person for sure who boarded then.

I shouldn't be so veiled about it. After all, by the end, we all knew. And it doesn't much matter to us now. I'd like to think he's been waiting all this time, though I can't imagine why he would. Maybe he lost something when the boat went down. Maybe he left something behind, and he can't rest until he gets it back.

I doubt it, though. If he watches at all, he watches because he's afraid. He's afraid, and he wants to make sure that it stays buried, and burned up there in the water where he left it.

He wants to make sure that she stays buried, and he's afraid she hasn't.

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