Mississippi jack, p.11
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       Mississippi Jack, p.11

           L. A. Meyer
 

  That done, I go back up into the light and compose myself for the coming little drama.

  Mr. Fink, now fully recovered from the revels of the night before, regales me with at least ten more tall tales as the day wears on. I contentedly sit and watch the panorama of the riverbanks slipping by in all its infinite variety—here a cove, there a beach, here a shady grove of trees hanging over the bank, there a quiet pool that makes me long for a lazy swim. Perhaps with a certain James Emerson Fletcher, sans culotte, hmmm...

  "And then ol' George, he..."

  "Excuse me, Mr. Fink, but might you get in trouble for blaspheming the name of General Washington?" I ask. "Back East he is hailed as the Father of His Country, you know." Several of Mr. Fink's stories have figured the late President in them.

  "Not out here, girly-girl. He tried to slap a whiskey tax on us when he was Prez-ee-dent, and you know that bird didn't fly, father or not," replies Fink, with firmness. "We rose us up a rebellion and ol' George sent out the federals to put us down, but we whupped the hell out of 'em. I did most of the whuppin', of course. Was gonna make us a new country, but me and a feller named Shay couldn't come to terms on what to name it, so the rebellion fizzled." Fink shakes his head sadly over the vagaries of politics. "They took back the tax, though."

  I reflect that, in most places in the world, the affairs of men are driven by love of country, by war, or by religion. Here, however, they seem to be driven by whiskey.

  "What a shame," says I. "To think we could be traveling through the country of Finklandia right now."

  He looks at me sharply. "You know, girly-girl, I git the feelin' sometimes that you're laughin' at me." He growls, not at all friendly. "You know, for all your ladylike airs, you got a mouth on you, and I mean to remind you just who's Captain of this ark and if'n I take a notion to pitch you over the side, I'll do it. See if'n I don't!"

  It is the opening I've been looking for.

  I gasp and put the back of my hand to my forehead and go into a swoon, as if I am struck to my very core to be addressed so harshly. Me, who's been called every dirty name in the book, and generally deserving of it.

  "Oh, Mr. Fink, how could you think that of me?" I cry, squeezing out a tear. "Why, I-I feel faint. I..."

  Higgins is instantly at my side to lend comfort. He casts an accusing eye on the now slightly alarmed Fink. "Sir, please! She is of such a delicate nature! I fear you've brought on an attack of the female vapors." To me he asks, "Are you all right, Miss?" as he puts his hand to my back to steady me.

  "Oh, Higgins, oh, please don't let him hit me! I fear I shall die!" I wail, as I bury my face in my hands.

  "Ah, now, I warn't gonna hit her, you know I warn't. Oh, damn, please, girly-girl, stop crying now," pleads Fink, completely flummoxed.

  "Shall I make up your bed, Miss, that you might lie down?" asks Higgins.

  "No ... no, it's too stuffy down there," whines I. "Perhaps if you helped me down the deck a bit, and then if you could bring up my medicinal spirits, I think I would be myself soon."

  Higgins helps me limp about ten feet down the deck. While I sit back down, Higgins hurries below. He quickly returns, bearing a tray with the bottle and a glass upon it. He sets it down on the cabin top and pours an ounce or two into my glass.

  I hold it up to the sunlight so Mr. Fink can truly appreciate the warm, deep amber color, a color with which I know he is very familiar.

  I lift it to my lips and pretend to sip.

  "Ah, that's much better," I sigh. "I'm sure my spirits will soon be restored."

  Mr. Fink responds with a profound snort. "Here, boy, take the tiller." Then I hear his boots tromping toward me. He lifts the bottle and sniffs it. "Why, that's straight corn likker with some sugar in it! What doctor give you that?"

  "Oh, no, Sir. This is a very special tonic. It has the most potent medicines from the mysterious Orient in it, and I fear for your health—"

  "Aw, come on..."

  "Nay, Sir, as weak and frail as I am, my constitution is used to the power of this restorative, and I fear that yours is not."

  That does it, as it is a direct challenge to his manhood.

  "I will have a drink of that bottle, as is my right as Captain of this here boat," he says, firmly.

  "Very well," I sigh. "If you insist, but I shall bear no responsibility for what results. Is that understood, Mr. Fink?"

  He nods and licks his thick lips, not a pretty sight. The little sniff of whiskey he has had so far has merely whetted his appetite, as I knew it would.

  "Very well. Higgins, will you bring up another glass?"

  Higgins goes below and comes back with the glass, places it on the tray, pours in the liquid, and hands the glass to Fink, who promptly upends it.

  "Ah," he says with great satisfaction, "give me another."

  "Sip, Mr. Fink. You must sip it like you would sip the finest of liqueurs," say I, in warning. At my nod, Higgins refills his glass.

  "Sip, hell," says Fink. "This is how a man sips the finest lee-koors." And again he drops the opium-laced whiskey down his throat. "Candy," he says. "It tastes like candy. Give me another."

  "Others have said that, Mr. Fink," I say, noticing that Fink is starting to sway a bit on his feet. "But I fear for the consequences, I do." I nod again at Higgins and the glass is refilled, and again downed in one swallow.

  Mike Fink places the glass back on the tray with what seems like extreme concentration. He then turns and gazes out over the water. He lifts his arm and points at something I know only he can see.

  "Swans," he says. "White swans. Look at that ... I ain't never seen swans on the river before ... and there's women ridin' 'em like they was horses, with their legs wrapped 'round them birds' necks ... nekkid women..."

  Then Mr. Fink sinks down to the deck and keels over, a smile of wonder on his sleeping face.

  "Quick!" I say, jumping up. "We've got to move fast. Jim! Steer over to the bank!"

  Everybody leaps into action. Jim puts the tiller over and we turn toward the shore. Higgins dives below and brings up the coil of rope. Katy runs over and crouches next to the aft anchor. I watch for the proper place to do what we're going to do, and as I watch, I take off my shoes, dress, vest, and stockings. Higgins slips the rope under Fink's arms and ties it at his back and then stands ready at the side, holding the end of the line.

  "There!" I shout, pointing at a stretch of open beach where a tree with overhanging branches is growing. "Jim! Take 'er in! Katy! Drop the anchor!"

  It is done. The anchor catches and holds, and the boat swings in to the shore.

  I leap over the side into the shallow water, which is a mite colder than I thought it would be. I fall over but my feet find the bottom and I can stand. I reach up and hold out my hand as Higgins tosses me the end of the rope to which Mr. Fink is tethered, and I half walk, half swim to the shore. When I am there, I take the rope up to that overhanging tree and wrap it around the trunk, taking up the slack so it is taut.

  "All right, Katy!" I shout, and I see her let slide the anchor rope around the butt to which it is wound.

  The boat, pulled by the current, moves forward, and though I can't see him, I know that Fink's bulk is being pulled back toward the stern. In a moment I see his head appear over the edge, then his shoulders, the rope under his armpits, and then the rest of him plunges into the water.

  Please don't wake up, Mike! I'm thinking as I pull him to shore, fearful that the shock of the water might restore him to consciousness. This was the only way we could do this, him being so huge and heavy and all.

  "Hold the anchor!" I cry, and Katy ties it off and the boat stops moving. There is another splash as a shirtless Jim Tanner jumps into the water, as planned, to come help me drag my burden to the shore.

  My fears are groundless—Fink doesn't wake up, but snores peacefully on as he is hauled to shore.

  "Damn, he weighs a ton." I grunt as we pull him out of the water so that only his feet remain submerged. "But that's
good enough. Let's go." Jim unties the rope from both tree and Fink and we start off.

  Fink stirs and we freeze, but he only smiles and says, "Swans..."

  Jim and I swim back to the boat and are pulled aboard. Jim goes to the steering oar and the anchor is hauled and taken aboard and we are under way again.

  "I wish you the joy of your new command, Miss," says Higgins, smiling. "I shall lay out some dry clothes."

  Still dripping, I jump up onto the cabin top and plant a wet foot on each side of the centerline, the better to feel the action of my boat.

  Oh, how good it feels!

  Chapter 19

  We arise this morning at dawn as masters of our own fate—or masters of our own boat, anyway. We breakfast on biscuits, maple syrup, and bacon, and then head back out into the current to continue our journey.

  Yesterday, after we had parted company with the redoubtable Mr. Fink, we continued on our way with much singing and revelry and bragging about what clever scammers we were, but it turned out to be not quite as easy as we had supposed—the current had picked up some, likely the result of a heavy rain upriver, and we were pitched about in a most unseaman-like way. I know that Jim was mortified at not being able to keep the boat's head up when we got spun around several times. We brought up two of the long oars—sweeps, as Mr. Fink had called them—and fixed them in their oarlocks and went to work, with Katy and me on one and Higgins on the other, and we were able to keep her bow to the west till evening, when, exhausted, we pulled in to the shore as night was falling.

  Higgins whipped us up a good dinner from the provisions he had bought back in Kennerdell—some bacon, salt pork, a kind of dried beef called jerky, and even a good smoked ham. And a halfway decent bottle of wine made, it was said, from the fruit of the wild grapevines we had seen growing along the shore. "Fox grapes," Katy announced. "Ain't good fer nuthin' 'less you add pounds and pounds o' sugar to 'em." So we were rewarded for our labors and our good cheer was restored.

  As we sat watching the evening sun go down in a glorious sunset, I got up and poured a libation of fox-grape wine over the bow, then said, "I christen thee the Belle of the Golden West! Long may you sail! Or float ... or drift ... or whatever..."

  "Hear, hear," cheered my crew, raising their glasses.

  Today, however, the water flows smoothly and the winds stay calm, and we are able to ship the sweeps and rely only on the steering oar. I set up a watch rotation such that every one of us four would become skilled at the handling of it. Under Jim's now-expert tutelage, we all do attain a measure of proficiency, but I certainly wouldn't want to do it for a living, as it takes a certain amount of brute strength to move the thing. There were several times when my feet were lifted from the deck in my efforts to make the damned oar behave.

  It is plain that we shall have to hire more crew when we get to the mighty Ohio. How we will pay them, I don't know, but I'll worry about that later. Maybe we'll pick up some paying passengers in Pittsburgh. Going to have to get some good maps there, too, so's I can gauge distances and figure out what to charge my customers. By the mile, I think, and the money up front.

  ***

  In the afternoon, as things are going smoothly, I sit with Higgins and we discuss the events of the past day.

  "You do not think he will cry bloody murder when he gets up and finds his bearings but not his boat?" asks Higgins. "While it has been my pleasure to serve you these past years, still I would prefer not to be hanged by some unwashed, illiterate American mob for flatboat theft in this benighted wilderness. I had fancied a rather more elegant end to my days—something more in the line of a peaceful death after an honored life, followed by a stately but tasteful funeral featuring endless ranks of weeping but well-dressed mourners covering the casket containing my mortal remains with mounds of perfect yellow roses."

  "Very poetic, Higgins," I say, "and I hope all that comes to pass for you, but not all too quickly, for I need you here by my side and not reclining elegantly dead in some vault in Westminster Abbey."

  "Westminster Abbey," muses Higgins. "I do like the sound of that."

  "Anyway," I say, breaking into his self-elegy, "when Mr. Fink wakes up, he will think that he fell overboard during a drunken stupor and he'll consider himself lucky to be alive. I'm sure he is right now making up a tall tale to fit the occasion. Shall I give it a shot? Very well: Thar I was, throwed overboard by the biggest wave ever seen east of the monster waves of Bor-nee-oh, tossed down to the bottom o' the river whar I sucked up enough mud to chink all the log houses from Ohio to Saint Louis. I come back up to the surface and spit up all the dirt inta one big pile and that pile become Mount—"

  Higgins laughs, then says, "All right, Miss, very well composed. I think Mr. Fink himself would be pleased."

  "Besides, Higgins, do I not have in my possession a Bill of Sale for this boat, signed by Mr. Fink, himself? Any court in the land would surely honor it." I had taken the piece of paper upon which Mike Fink had so laboriously penned his signature and I had written the Bill of Sale for the boat above it, all legal-like. The price was fifty dollars, the amount I had already paid him, which I think was fair. Serves him right, too, 'cause he shouldn't have been so greedy. Mr. Fink has found to his sorrow that it's not a good idea to try to cheat an old Cheapside hand.

  "Yes, you have shown me the paper. I think Ezra Pickering, while aghast at the speciousness of the whole thing, would nevertheless be proud."

  "So you see, Higgins," say I, "there is absolutely nothing to worry about. And, furthermore, if you think I feel guilty because of this, think again. Think how he cheated us on the fare he was charging us to Pittsburgh. And if you really think that Mike Fink came by this boat in any way honestly, well, I've got some stock in an under the English Channel tunnel company I'd like to sell you."

  "Very well, Miss," replies a jocular Higgins, "I shall pass on the stock, put legal concerns out of my mind, and concentrate my thoughts on dinner. If you'll excuse me."

  I go up to sit for a while with Katy and watch the shore slip by, all deep and dense and green. The cleared farms are growing fewer and farther between, as are the tiny towns. I wonder if there are any Indians lurking just beyond the edge of the forest?

  Katy and I are both delighted to shed our dresses now that Mr. Fink has left our company—it's back to undershirt and drawers without stockings, just as we were dressed in the hold of the Bloodhound. Higgins expresses some concern that our attire might keep poor Jim in a state of constant excitement, but I reply that he'll have to get used to it, as the rivers are long and the work will be hard and dresses get in the way. I promise, however, to sew us up some heavier canvas trousers as soon as we can get the cloth. Meanwhile, randy Jim should keep his mind on his nautical studies and not on us. Boys, I swear...

  We neither see nor catch anything edible, and so I go back to the spot on the cabin top right up in front of Jim, at his steering oar, and flop down on my back. Lolling about in the sun, I decide to call this spot the quarterdeck. I think on that: the quarterdeck of the Belle of the Golden West, Lieutenant J. M. Faber, Commanding.

  Yes, I do like the sound of that, I do. And so, my bully crew, on to this Pittsburgh, where we shall see what we shall see.

  Chapter 20

  Jaimy Fletcher

  Kittanning, Pennsylvania

  USA

  Jacky,

  We reached the Allegheny four days ago at the town of Kittanning. It was a wretched little town with very little to offer, but it did have a dock from which I hoped to gain us passage downriver.

  It was noon, with the sun high overhead, so we had time to take care of some things before finding a place to sleep for the night. I went to question the people at the dock as to our chances of finding a boat going downriver, while Clementine had the sad duty of taking Daisy off to sell her, the forests around the river getting so thick that we could not think of taking her farther.

  I was informed that without money "y'ain't got the chance of a snowball in
Hell of gettin' on a boat, but mebbe if one comes down needin' a hand, well, mebbe ... You'll just have to wait and see what comes by."

  Clementine came back, disconsolate, with a sack that contained two smoked hams and a jug of whiskey.

  "It was the best I could do, Jaimy, I'm sorry, but at least the people seemed like they'd be kind to her." She turned away as her fingers brushed at her eyes. I knew, from the way Clementine would lay her face against the mare's neck on our journey here, that Daisy was the only thing in her former life that she could love and be loved by in return, if only in the simplest of ways: a neigh, a welcoming whicker, a happy toss of the head when the girl would come into the old plow horse's sight.

  I assured Clementine that she had done well by both Daisy and me, and I put my arm around her and drew her to my side to lend her comfort. Then we trudged off to see what we could do in this town till opportunity presented itself. At least, finally, I had made it to the river.

  There was a livery stable, owned by a Mr. Owens, and he offered me the job of shoveling manure and sawing and chopping wood in exchange for breakfast, dinner, and supper for Clementine and me. We could sleep in their barn if she would help Mrs. Owens with the house and laundry chores. We gratefully took the offer.

  So, for the next four days, I endured some of the most grueling work I have ever done. I shoveled manure into barrows and then took those barrows out to fields and spread that same manure around, countless trips back and forth, back and forth.

  Once, when I wheeled the barrow nearby the Owens's house, I heard Clementine inside singing as she went about her tasks.

 
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