Mississippi jack, p.10
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       Mississippi Jack, p.10

           L. A. Meyer
 

  THE BOATMAN HE'S A THRIFTY MAN,

  THERE'S NONE CAN DO AS THE BOATMAN CAN.

  I NEVER SEE A PRETTY GIRL IN THIS LIFE

  THAT SHE AIN'T SOME BOATMAN'S WIFE!

  Another shouted chorus and he wraps it up.

  "Beautifully done, Mr. Fink. Thank you. I shall add that fine song to my repertoire."

  "Well you may. 'Course you won't be able to do it as good as me, but then, none can."

  We share a few more tunes to pass the time of day, but eventually Mike Fink grows hoarse with bellowing and returns to his tiller.

  I get with Jim up forward, out of earshot of our Captain.

  "It ain't like a regular rudder, Missy," he tells me, "'cause it ain't got water streamin' past it. Y'see, the current's movin' at the same speed as the boat, so it's like you're dead in the water, no steerageway, like. So you've got to move the oar back and forth like a fish tail to get the boat to do anything. But I'm getting the hang of it."

  "That's very good, Jim," I say, putting my hand upon the strong right arm of my stout coxswain, "because that skill is going to come in real handy, very soon."

  He blushes and nods.

  Katy doesn't have much luck bagging ducks this day—"Plenty o' bullfrogs sittin' on the banks, though. Too bad Lissette ain't here"—so she rigs up some fish lines, baited with balls of dough made up with lard and flour, and drops them over the side to see what that effort might bring.

  Her mentioning my French classmate brings home to me just how recently the three of us, the serving girl Katy Deere, the aristocrat Mademoiselle Lissette de Lise, and I, sat knee to knee in a circle on the lowest deck, deep in the dark hold of the filthy slaver Bloodhound, munching on roasted rats, or "millers," as we called 'em, and glad for the meal. What a difference a month can make.

  I go below to see Higgins and find that the dear man has made up a bath for me. It is only a large washtub full of clean, steaming water, but I shall be able to fit in it quite nicely. I notice that Higgins's hair is wet and he smells of fresh cologne, so it is plain that he is already washed.

  "The hair first, Miss," he says, "if you would."

  I doff my serving dress, beg Higgins not to drip water on my undergarments, and kneel next to the tub, my head over the edge. I close my eyes. After Higgins takes the pins from my hair and pours a pot of water over my head, I feel his strong fingers working in the soap.

  "Mmmm, Higgins, that feels so good. Nobody can take care of me like you can."

  "Well, you do require a bit of upkeep, Miss. The word tomboy continues to come to mind when thinking of you."

  "Surely I have come some distance in the way of refinement, Higgins."

  "Some, but may I remind you that you have spent the last hour or so stomping on the deck overhead with that rough buffoon of a boatman. I notice the back of your shirt is quite damp with perspiration. I shall have to wash it. Refinement, indeed."

  "Ladies don't sweat, Higgins?"

  "Not so it can be noticed, they don't. Rinsing now." I squeeze my eyes tighter shut and feel the rinse water wash over my head. Higgins takes my hair and wrings it out and piles it on my head. "All right. I'm going to put another pot of water on the fire. You finish undressing and hop in, now."

  Gratefully, I do it. I have to sit cross-legged to fit, but fit I do. Then I wash the rest of myself.

  "Higgins," I say, putting the soap to my feet, "when we get to this Kennerdell town, you will, of course, go off to buy some provisions. I also want you to buy some decent whiskey. One bottle, if you would, and, oh yes, see if you can pick up two glasses, too."

  I can't see his eyebrows, but I know they go up in surprise.

  "Why, Miss, your vow never to let spirits pass your lips, I—"

  "Don't worry, Higgins, it's not for me. You'll see."

  After I am dried and dressed in the fresh clothes that Higgins has brought me, I remark, "Ah, Higgins, how you do spoil me. What would I do without you?"

  I go over to my bunk, on which rests my seabag, and I get paper and quill and ink, as there is something I wish to accomplish today. "I'll send Jim to come wash up in this water, then if you could make up a fresh tub for Katy, that would be good. When it's time, I'll wash her hair as I think she might be shy around you. Thanks, Higgins."

  ***

  It is late afternoon when I sit myself down on the cabin top near where Mr. Fink stands steering the boat onward to Kennerdell. Higgins stands near me, gazing out across the water. We are ready to do our little act.

  "Oh, Mr. Fink, is it not the most lovely day? Why, I fully expect to see nymphs and naiads frolicking about on yon sylvan shore. 'Oh, what is so rare as a day in June,' Mr. Fink?" I warble. I have spread out paper and have pen in hand. "I feel some wonderful poesy coming over me and just must get it down for the ages."

  "What's she on about now, Higgins?" growls our Mr. Fink.

  "Ah, Sir, 'tis the curse of the modern age," says Higgins, ruefully shaking his head. "It is the overeducated female in full feather."

  "Huh! That's what I thought." Fink snorts. "Me, I likes 'em barefoot and preg-grunt. Them girls what signs their names with an X is good enough for me."

  I see the opportunity and I seize it. "Can you sign your name, Mr. Fink, in addition to all your other accomplishments?"

  "Sign my name? Sign my name? Hell, yes, I kin sign my name."

  "Would you do it for me, then, Mr. Fink? In my travels I have taken up the hobby of collecting the autographs of the famous people I meet, and I would dearly love to add your name to that list of the renowned." I simper, holding up the quill. "I'd be ever so grateful."

  Fink sticks out his lower lip and considers this challenge. He's trapped and he knows it. "All right, I'll do it. Boy, take the oar."

  Jim, standing by as instructed, takes over the tiller, as Fink marches toward me. Not very happily, I notice.

  He takes the quill and leans over the piece of folded paper.

  "Right there, Mr. Fink. I will display your signature right next to Dr. Franklin's, I will. Oh, this is so exciting!"

  He writes his name, very slowly and carefully. The letters are askew, not straight, and wander all over the page, but they do spell, to anyone's eye, Mike Fink.

  "Hey, I've got one," calls Katy from the bow. There is the sound of a large fish thrashing about in the water. As Fink and Higgins hurry forward to see, I blot the paper, refold it, and place it in my vest. I give it a satisfied pat and smile as I, too, rush forward to see what Katy has caught.

  That night, as I lie next to Katy, her freshly clean hair in my face, I think on the events of the day—the singing, the dancing, the stop at tiny Kennerdell, and the wonderful dinner of baked bass with all the trimmings that Kennerdell could provide. Then I let my thoughts go to Jaimy.

  Poor Jaimy, you who are out there on that vast ocean, far from me, far from any of your friends ... Here I lie snug and comfortable and safe in the company of loved ones while you lie in peril. It's not fair that you should be treated so cruelly, it's not. Oh, how I pray that they will be kind to you on that ship, and I hope you will be treated well when you reach England. Higgins assures me that it will be so, but I worry, especially in the dark of night when fears feel so much like reality. Know, Jaimy, that as I fall asleep, my last thoughts are thoughts of you. I pray that you are safe.

  Chapter 17

  Jaimy Fletcher

  Somewhere in America

  On the road to the Allegheny

  Jacky,

  We sleep wrapped up together in our blanket, as it is the only one we have. Most nights our bed is the hard ground beneath the stars, but that has been not that unpleasant, since the weather has been mostly kind. As we travel ever westward, several times we have been given a pallet in the house of some poor but kind and generous farm family, and to them I will be eternally grateful. But mainly we have been sleeping under the open sky, with Daisy grazing contentedly nearby, and the sound of a nearby babbling brook, the songs of the wild birds, and the nearn
ess of each other our only comforts.

  Clementine has proved most knowledgeable in what wild plants and mushrooms we can eat and those we cannot. With the rifle, I have brought down game, which is plentiful here. We cook over open fires and bathe in the many streams we cross. Clementine had the foresight to bring soap along with us on our headlong flight, and she washes our clothes in those streams and hangs them on branches at night, and they are dry by morning when we rise to continue our journey.

  When we left the Jukes place, all those days ago, we rode farther and farther into the wilderness astride the very broad back of the good plow horse Daisy. When, on that first day, we had got about ten miles from Clementine's father's place, we came upon a well-kept farm and stopped to water Daisy. The farmer and his wife and all the many children came out to greet us.

  "Good day to you, Clementine. It's good to see you."

  "Good day, Mr. Parrish, good to see you, too. Is ever'body well?"

  "Yes, God be praised."

  "This here is Jaimy Fletcher. I'm goin' off with him."

  "Cain't say's I blame you, Clementine. Your life's been hard, I know, since your mama died."

  "Uh-huh. Anyway, Pap's lying back there in his barn with a broke leg."

  "Uh-huh. Well, we'll be seein' to him. You best be gettin' on."

  "Uh-huh. Thanks, Mr. Parrish. You always been kind to me. Missus Parrish, too. We'll be gettin' on."

  I have told Clementine about my life in the Navy and the places I have seen, and she is a most rapt audience, her most common expression being "Oh, Jaimy, that must have been so wonderful. I ain't never seen nothin' like that." I tell her of the lofty ships, of the terrible battles, and of our friends, but I do not tell her of you. Right now she knows that I must find and follow a "Jacky Faber," whom I know she thinks to be a boy or a man. She does not ask what I want with you—she is happy enough just to be with me. I know that by the way she looks at me with those incredible blue eyes. Jaimy Fletcher, Heaven-sent to her. What a mess.

  But sometimes as I lie upon my back and point out the constellations to her, her head resting on my chest, and listen to her murmured replies, I do not think it a mess. She usually falls asleep with a long, contented sigh. I listen to the gentle sound of her breathing. I wrap my hand in the softness of her hair. I'm sorry.

  You ask how I could have gone off with this girl, and I ask you, what else could I have done? Leave her with her beast of a father? Abandon her in the next town? Leave her on the road? No, I could do none of those things. The poor girl has nothing in the world, nothing save an essential goodness that shines in her pretty face. She saved my life. It is the least I can do to offer her my protection. And my friendship. I am not sorry. And I ask you, Jacky, how often have you gone off from me?

  I vow that when I do part with her, her life will be much improved, considering what it was like when I happened upon her ... or she happened upon me. I will decide what to do later about this. Things will resolve themselves.

  I writhe in mental anguish, but for now, my main thought is to get to the river, which, I am told, is three days up ahead.

  I don't know what else to say....

  Chapter 18

  The next day dawns bright and full of expectation. I pop out of bed ready to get on with it. I nudge the still-sleeping Katy. Off with nightshirt, on with regular gear, tell Jim to get his lazy butt up and commence ship's work. Things're gettin right lax around here, by God, and I won't have it. Higgins, of course, is already up and hot tea is ready at hand.

  We are moored alongside the only dock in the town of Kennerdell.

  "Thanks, Higgins. Any sign of our stalwart Captain?"

  "I believe he came in about two in the morning at the behest of the townspeople who prodded him back aboard by many a pitchfork aimed at his backside. It is possible that he has worn out his welcome in this burg."

  "He was not brought back unconscious?"

  "No, he was his usual charming self."

  "Hmmmm. Where did he sleep?"

  "On the deck, next to his tiller. I believe he's still stretched out back there."

  "At least we can be thankful for that, that he didn't come roaring into the sleeping quarters, disturbing our slumbers."

  "That is true."

  I have a suspicion that Higgins had stayed up the entire night, seated at the entrance to our sleeping quarters, his two pistols at the ready in case Fink returned with evil on his mind. More than a suspicion. Rather, more of a certainty. Good Higgins, are there any better than you in this world?

  As we gather on deck to find out our sailing plans for the day, the recumbent Mr. Fink stirs, groans, and sits up. It is a very bleary but not totally subdued Mr. Fink who rises to face the day.

  He stumbles to the side, leans over, and thrusts his head into the water, keeping it under there an impossibly long time. Long after we think him quite drowned, he jerks his head back out and shakes it as a dog shakes himself when he comes out of the water.

  "Ah, that's better. Boy, cast off."

  Jim takes in the lines and then pushes our boat out into the stream with one of the long poles. I reflect that I chose well in taking on Jim Tanner as my coxswain. He is really getting the feel of this kind of navigation.

  "Are we suffering the effects of our carousing last night, Mr. Fink?" I ask, as prudish as I can make it.

  He glares balefully up at me through red-rimmed eyes, but he is not to be subdued. "What? Hell, no! I ain't never had a hangover in my whole life, and that includes the night I drunk George Washington, Ben Franklin, Dirty Mary, and Man Mountain Murphy all under the table at the Dew Drop Inn down in Roarin' Springs." Mr. Fink pauses here to expel a huge rolling belch, and I believe he feels some benefit from it, as he resumes his tale with increased vigor.

  "Ol' George was out West surveyin' somethin' 'fore he got to be President, and he fancied that he could drink with the likes of us. Can you believe it? Pshaw! Thought he could dance, too. Pshaw! That East Virginny pantywaist was the first to fall, and us only four bottles into it. I drug him out and throwed his powdered butt in the horse trough. Went back in and found Dirty Mary a-sittin' and a-squirmin' on ol' Ben's lap and him a-laughin' away, but game as he was, and mighty good company, too, Ol' Lightnin' Rod didn't last too long after that. Hell, another bottle and he giggled and keeled over, his bald head thrown back, a smile on his face.

  "Dirty Mary lasted a few more rounds, but finally she stumbled over and laid her head on Ben's slumberin' chest and passed clean out herself. I gotta say, for a woman she could sure hold her likker. Didn't look half bad, neither, if'n it was dark and you'd already had a few.

  "Man Mountain Murphy, though, he took some doin', him bein' three hundred and fifty-five pounds o' pure dirt-dog meanness. Me and him was eye to eye over our cups till way in the mornin', but then he finally stood up and said, 'Lord, I'm a-goin' home,' and he keeled right on over." Fink rubs his chin as if he's recalling all this. "Yep. He fell straight down like a tree dropped with a sharp ax. 'Course it didn't hurt him none, him being so hairy from his beard to belly, to his bare and hairy toes, it was like him fallin' into a soft mattress, it was. Some fellas are lucky that way, I suppose."

  "That must have been quite an ordeal, Mr. Fink," I comment, reminding myself to double his dose when the time comes.

  "Ah no, girly-girl, far from it." Fink chuckles. "After I'd disposed of Man Mountain Murphy and the rest, I went 'round and drank what was left in their cups, then went outside and greeted the dawn. I butchered a hog, made up a four-foot stack o' pancakes, ate it all down, the hog included, from snout to trotters, and finished it off with a gallon o' coffee so strong you could melt nails in it. Then I took two promenades around the town square, got a shave and a haircut, shot a man for lookin' at me funny, and then went back to my boat, scrubbed her down from stem to stern, and cast off and went on my way. The town o' Roarin' Springs voted itself dry the very next day. Still cain't get a proper drink within fifty miles of the place, no sir, and it's
a shame. I don't go there no more. Damn tight-ass teetotalers. Gimme that tiller, boy, and somebody get me some-thin' to eat."

  The morning passed uneventfully, with all of us doing our usual things: Katy the Huntress, with her bow and arrows, looking for food; Jim next to Fink, feigning admiration and pumping him for river lore; and Higgins and me casing things out down below for the final time.

  "There are many tools, Miss, and they seem in excellent order," says Higgins.

  "And that is good, Higgins, as we will need them. Oh, and rope, too. Let's put that coil next to the hatchway, shall we? Good."

  We examine the hold till we feel we have exhausted all its possibilities, and then I say, "The whiskey, Higgins, if you would," and he produces the bottle.

  I go over to my bunk and open my seabag and stick my hand in and rummage around till I feel what I am looking for—it is a small bottle, corked tightly with a coat of protective wax on the neck. I break through the wax and hand the bottle to Higgins. "If you would uncork it, please."

  Higgins always keeps certain implements close at hand, one of which is a corkscrew. He produces it and quickly uncorks the little bottle and hands it back to me.

  "Now the whiskey bottle, if you please."

  He applies his corkscrew to that bottle and expertly draws the cork from it. He gives the cork a quick sniff and says, "Excellent."

  "Good. Pour a bit out of it. Have a drink yourself, if you'd like."

  "A bit early, Miss. However, I will save it for later." He surmises what I am up to and pours out into a cup an amount equal to what is in my little bottle and places the cup on a shelf, then hands me back the whiskey bottle.

  I pour the contents of my bottle into the bigger bottle and hand it back to Higgins, who puts the cork back in and gives it a bit of a shake.

  Ah, Mother's Little Helper, we meet again, I think. Whatever would I have done without you, throughout this life of mine? You helped me find a home for my baby Jesse, you eased my pain when I was beaten, you helped my men when they were grievously wounded, and now you shall help me do this.

 
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