As part of our Summer Reading Series, we present here an excerpt from The Legacy of a Steamboat Cabin Boy by James Magner, MD. This mystery/romance set in 1880s mid-America is based on the adventures of a 17-year-old Irish farm boy, Niall MacCarthy, who works on a steamboat as a cabin attendant. Niall is staying temporarily with a farm family, and he is seen to be an excellent reader of the routine after-dinner Scriptures. The pretty and highly intelligent farmer’s daughter, Sarah, who is also 17, has had little schooling, and the family requests Niall to assist Sarah each evening to improve her reading skill. The novel is in part a lighthearted celebration of Irish Catholicism in 19th-century America—Ed.
The next evening the dinner dishes were cleared and washed, and the Bible reading proceeded as usual. With that finished, Jonathan and Jeremiah exited to take seats on the front porch to have a smoke and listen to the crickets. Sarah was sitting by the small round table on one side of the parlor; the kerosene lamp by her gave a warm glow to the whole room. Niall stood and moved his chair over next to Sarah, who had her hand on an open page of the book of Joshua. Loretta stepped first to one table and then another to put out the two other lamps in the room. She was always economical, and there was no need now to have three lamps burning.
Loretta took her chair again and announced, “I’ll sit here and listen a while, but then I need to attend to work in the kitchen.” She glanced at the wide doorway with a view of the kitchen table just a few steps beyond.
Niall smiled at Sarah. “You’re gonna do great with this because you mostly are getting flustered by the unusual names. Don’t let those names bother you. Skip ’em for now. We’ll focus on the common words like you’d see in a regular newspaper.”
Sarah leaned forward in her chair, “When did you learn to read?”
“My parents taught me letters and numbers. I walked a mile to a nearby schoolhouse when I was seven and attended there for seven years. Mrs. Patterson at school was very dedicated during my first year, so I learned a lot. Teacher changed every year or so. We only had thirty different books in the schoolhouse, so I read all those. Toward the end I was the oldest boy in the school, and during my last years we mostly read from the Bible.”
“No wonder you read the Bible so well.”
“When did you learn letters, Sarah? And how old are you now?”
“Mama taught me letters and numbers when I was seven. I only went to school one year when I was eight. I just turned seventeen. Pa brought me a fairytale book from the general store when I was nine, and Mama taught me readin’ as best she knew. And I learned some as we read the Bible.” Sarah looked into Niall’s eyes. “I want you to teach me. Please teach me everything.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Sarah smiled, and she looked down at the open book, “Shall I start here?”
“Well, Sarah. I hate to say this, but Joshua is a very strange book and not one that I would recommend to focus on.”
“Really?” she responded, surprised by Niall’s judgment of the holy book.
“The Israelites needed to enter and take possession of the Promised Land. So there’s lots of killin’ and violence in that book. Yes, it’s the Bible, but probably folks just getting to know the Bible shouldn’t start there.”
“My goodness. You might be right, I guess.” She was uncertain how to reply because she had never heard anyone say that some parts of the holy book might be holier than others.
“Turn to Matthew chapter 25. I like verses 31 to 46.”
“Why do you like that?”
“Well, it’s about the importance of helping other people. When you help people you’re doin’ the Lord’s work. If someone is hungry we need to feed ’em, or if they’re thirsty we need to give ’em a drink.” Niall paused and smiled, then added, “And a big bonus for you is that there aren’t any strange names in those verses!”
Sarah laughed, then read the verses aloud, and she needed only a half dozen minor corrections. She was pleased she had done so well for Niall.
Loretta stood. “Good job, Sarah. Keep workin’ while I head back into the kitchen now.”
Sarah watched her mama leave the room, then whispered to Niall, “I liked those Matthew versus, too. Niall. But you’ve stirred my curiosity. About those other parts.”
“I think Father O’Hare never preaches about the other parts. You know. The less holy parts,” she whispered.
Niall immediately realized that he might be about to veer off the right path with this first lesson. He was certain now that he really liked Sarah, and he was desperate to salvage the conversation. He stared into Sarah’s unblinking blue eyes—the prettiest eyes he had ever seen—and swallowed hard as he began to breathe faster.
Sarah sensed that Niall was a little uncomfortable and smiled. “So you’re shy, I think! You’re shy about showing me the unholy parts!”
“I’m not shy!”
“Yes you are! I can tell!” And Sarah smiled broadly.
Niall’s mind raced. Verses about King David spying on Bathsheba while she took a bath popped into his head. And how David then seduced her. Niall looked away from Sarah and shook his head. No, I can’t be thinking about that.
Sarah flipped the pages until the Bible was open at the start of the book of Joshua. “Look, Niall, these verses may be unholy, but they’re a part of the Bible. I want to know about the less holy parts of the Bible, too.”
Still a little stunned, Niall looked back into Sarah’s eyes, then down to where her finger was pointing at Joshua chapter 1. He took a deep breath and relaxed a little. Joshua wouldn’t be too bad if he avoided all the killin’ parts. Better to read Joshua than about David spying on Bathsheba. Then Niall had a brainstorm.
“The book of Joshua does have a funny part,” Niall started.
“Funny?” Sarah answered, a bit perplexed. “I didn’t know that anything in the Bible was funny.”
“This sounds terrible, but when the Israelites took a village or town they generally killed all the inhabitants. That way there would never be any opposition in the future to their occupation of the land.”
“My goodness,” Sarah responded, eyes wide.
“But this one time, as the Israelites were approaching the small enemy city of Gibeon, some of the inhabitants put on ragged clothes and worn-out sandals. They put patched sacks and old wineskins on their mules, and moldy bread in their bags. Then they snuck out of the city and walked around the Israelite army to approach them in the morning from another direction. The Gibeonites told the Israelites that they were travelers from far away who had just arrived in the area. As proof of their long travels they showed off their worn-out sandals and bags, and their moldy bread. Then they asked to be laborers so that they could live peacefully among the Israelites and help them. Joshua made a holy peace pact with these fakers, and swore to do no violence to them. But three days later Joshua realized that he had been fooled, and the travelers were actually just local Gibeonites. Joshua was bound to his holy oath not to slay them, however, so those deceivers were safe among the Israelites.”
“I never heard that story,” replied Sarah.
“Now I’ll have you read that story to me, and I’ll help you. It’s chapter 9.”
Sarah read the story to Niall, and because she already understood the overall plot, she fully comprehended what she was reading. Niall could see that she was very pleased with herself.
“But now I have a question for you, Niall.”
“If you’re waiting for a steamboat, why are you working here on the farm now? You could just get a job on a boat and go.”
“Well, Sarah, I actually have some business I have to finish in the area before I can leave.” He decided not to mention the strongbox on the bottom of the Ohio. He didn’t know how he was going to retrieve that box, but he was determined that he would find a way. And he also didn’t mention that he had wanted to meet her. He smiled as he wondered whether he was really more interested in the strongbox or Sarah.
“Business? What business do you need to finish?”
“I’ll tell you about it sometime, but we had better quit for tonight. I think your mama might need some help in the kitchen.”
James Magner, MD is an endocrinologist and scientist who spent years studying the biochemistry and physiology of the pituitary hormone, TSH, and providing medical supervision for several projects within the pharmaceutical industry. He is an avid chess player and expert poker player who placed 27th in the world in 2015. Dr. Magner is married and has two adult daughters. Seeking Hidden Treasures, his third book and debut collection of fiction, was published in 2019 by Archway Publishing. He is a member of the board of directors of Today’s American Catholic.