Mississippi jack, p.12
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       Mississippi Jack, p.12

           L. A. Meyer
 
Come all ye fair and tender ladies,

  Take warning how you court young men,

  They're like a star of a summer's mornin',

  First they'll appear and then they're gone.

  They'll tell to you some loving story,

  They'll tell to you some far-flung lie,

  And then they'll go and court another

  And, for that other one, pass you by.

  If I'd a-knowed before I'd courted

  That love it was such a killin' crime,

  I'd a-locked my heart in a box of golden

  And tied it up with a silver line.

  I stood there and listened, and it humbled me that while she sang happily in her present state, I grumbled and cursed. I picked up my barrow and moved on.

  When I was not moving manure about, I chopped, sawed, and split wood for the coming winter's fires. I thought often, Jacky, whilst trying to neatly split a log with one blow of my ax, how you have often observed that no skill is worthless and that something can be learned from the meanest of jobs. And, while I cannot claim to like it, I have grown quite lean and sinewy in dealing with this harsh American life. I am probably in as good a physical condition as when we belonged to the Dread Brotherhood of the Dolphin and swung through the rigging like crazed little apes.

  Not having the luxury of a razor, my beard has grown out, too. I have never been unshaven before, and I find my whiskers grow out black and fine. Clementine says she likes it, saying that while my chin formerly rasped her cheek, now it is all soft and silky. On our journey here, she was fond of smoothing it out with her fingers as we lay abed for the night. Yes, and she'd stroke it sometimes in the daytime, too, when we would lie on a verdant creek bank, taking the sun and ... well, resting.

  I caught my reflection in a horse trough one day and was quite shocked. With my long dark hair and pointy beard, I looked every inch the bloody pirate, except, that is, for my clothes. No piratical elegance there. My only two garments were Pap Jukes's overalls and the shirt that Clementine had sewn for me. The shirt, actually, was quite fine, but the rough overalls and bare feet made me appear to be the simplest of country bumpkins.

  The nature of my situation is not lost on me: I cross the American wilderness in pursuit of one girl, while yet another girl stands by my side. If those two brigands had not waylaid me, none of this would have happened. I know that I would have caught up with you and things would be vastly different right now. But then Clementine, too, would have been stuck back at that awful place with no joy, no hope, no future, only vain wishes and prayers uttered by mountain streams, heard by nobody.

  I do not know what to think and so I shall think about nothing. After our day's labor, we return exhausted to our nest in the hay and burrow in. She lies down next to me and we sleep deeper than I have ever slept before. I shall take it day by day.

  I know I can only take one day at a time, but I also know I grow more and more fond of her every day.

  ***

  It was on the morning of the fifth day in Kittanning, while I was filling yet another barrow with ordure, that I heard a commotion down by the river. It sounded like a boat coming in to the dock! And here I had been despairing of spending the rest of my life as a manure-hauler! With hope surging, I ran down to see. On my way, I saw Clementine up in the kitchen window of the Owens place and called out to her to come running and she did, catching up to me at the foot of the dock.

  "I'm a-gonna kill 'er, that's for sure!" came the call across the water. "I'm a-gonna kill 'er! Oooooweeeeee! I'm a ring-tailed roarer who has been brought down sad, but I'm a-gonna kill her, I'm a-gonna flay her, I'm a-gonna skin her, I'm a-gonna tan her hide, and then I'm a-gonna wear her skin for my hat, and then ever'thin' will be all right! Ooooooooweeeee! Ain't nobody in this whirly world kin steal Mike Fink's boat and live, so I got to kill 'er and I will! I'll do it, you'll see! Ooooooweeeee! I'm a hidebound walloper born in a canebrake and ready to roar! Oooooooweeeee!"

  I hurried to the end of the dock to see what this hullabaloo might be. The other people on the dock, formerly concerned with their daily occupations, suddenly got up and ran the other way, crying, "Christ, it's Fink!" which should have been a warning to me, but I was anxious to be on my way, so I stood my ground at the end of the dock. Clementine grabbed my hand as we watched this apparition approach.

  He was in an open rowboat of about fifteen feet in length. There was little else in the boat except him, but of him there was a lot. Dressed in dark trousers, white shirt, boots, and wide-brimmed hat, he seemed a good four hundred pounds. He was also clothed in a good deal of hair—his great beard billowed from his chin almost to his eyebrows, which were equally bushy. Beneath those brows gleamed two beady and angry eyes.

  "If you please, Sir," I ventured. "Mr. Fink, is it? We are desirous of a passage downstream, and—"

  "What the hell you talkin' about?" demanded this Fink, while he brought the boat alongside the dock. I grabbed the lines and tied them securely to the posts.

  "Please, Mister," pleaded Clementine. "We needs t'get downriver and we was hopin' you might help us."

  "Wal, little girl, tha's more like it. How come he cain't talk straight like you?" Fink crawled out onto the dock and stretched his considerable bulk.

  "He's from away and don't know how to talk right sometimes," explained Clementine. "But he's my man and I love him."

  "Wal, there's some straight talk, I'll own," said Fink. "Now what about goin' downriver?"

  "Well, Mr. Fink," I began earnestly, "while we have no money—"

  "If'n you ain't got money, you ain't gettin' on my boat," said Fink, firmly.

  "Yessir," piped up Clementine, blinking her eyes and wringing her hands. "But we got two good hams and a jug o' whiskey, and Jaimy could help you row the boat, and I could wash up things and—"

  "Well, hell, whyn't you say so?" said Fink. "Get in the goddamn boat."

  ***

  We made our good-byes to Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who, by and large, had been very good to us, Mrs. Owens even packing a bag of food for Clementine, and Mr. Owens clapping me on the back and saying that if I ever wanted a job as manure-hauler again, well, it was here waiting for me. I thanked him for his kindness, and Clementine and I went back to the boat.

  I handed the jug of whiskey down to Mr. Fink, and then I got in and reached up my hand for Clementine and she hopped in and sat down on the bow seat. I picked up the oars and dug them deep in the water. This was how it was done in the Royal Navy, Mr. Fink, in case you didn't know.

  I pulled us out into the stream and we were bound for the town of Pittsburgh, wherever the hell that is....

  PART III

  Chapter 21

  "Hooray!" I exult as we finally bring the Belle of the Golden West to Pittsburgh. "It's a town, a real town! Look! Factories! Smoke! Dirt! Stink! I love it! Hooray!"

  I am a city girl at heart.

  The trip down was calm and leisurely, made more enjoyable because I was on a watercraft under my own command again. If I felt like it, I could order us anchored and we could go ashore to enjoy the charms of the land. We picnicked on grassy banks, swam in glassy pools, and explored the many small streams that emptied into the river. Jim would go off with his rifle into the woods in search of game, but it was mostly fish that we ate. While onshore we dug worms and with them baited our hooks, and we were most successful. We cut poles to tie our fishing line to, and it was most pleasing to sit on the cabin top with the baited line in the water, waiting for that thrilling jerk. That is, when we did not have to row, or take our turn at the tiller. Yes, and we practiced shooting, too, gaining proficiency with both pistol and rifle and alarming the bird population no small degree with our noise.

  Along the way, we provisioned at various tiny towns along the river's banks, and while there, we let it be known that we would carry passengers to Pittsburgh. But, alas, we got no takers, even though we promised them nightly musical entertainment. So we stuck to eating fish, buying only flour and lard and such to
conserve our money, which was getting very low.

  All in all, it was a most enjoyable cruise. But still, I was glad to see smoky, gritty Pittsburgh. It smelled, but to me it smelled like money.

  "Jim! See the docks down there at the end!" I shout, pointing. "Steer for them. Man the sweeps!"

  "Aye, aye, Missy," says Jim.

  "The sweeps shall be manned, Captain," says Higgins. "But first you and Katy must dress, else I fear arrest."

  "Oh, right," I say. I had forgotten.

  Katy and I get into our Lawson Peabody serving-girl gear as fast as we can and then run back up on deck. We are much closer now, and I pick out a likely looking open space on a large dock as our destination.

  "I'll take the helm, Jim," I say, placing my hand on the steering oar. "Take the starboard sweep with Katy." He does not protest.

  With Higgins on the port oar and the others on the starboard, we start up the rhythm of the row.

  "All pull," I say, and they do. These sweeps are curved in such a way that the rower can stand on the low cabin roof and put his full weight behind the pull or push. Very ingenious, I have thought, and even quite elegant, or as elegant as a boat can be that is not under sail. "All pull."

  I see with mounting excitement that there are many taverns on the street running along the docks. I can't wait!

  "Port, pull; starboard, hold," I call, judging the distance and the drift of the boat. Higgins pulls back on his oar, while Katy and Jim hold their oar out of the water. I swing the tiller bar to the right. "Port, pull; starboard, back." Higgins puts his oar in the water and pulls, while Katy and Jim dig theirs in and push. I put my rudder amidships.

  We are swinging in. "Port, pull; starboard, ship your oar." Jim pulls in their oar, lays it on deck, and goes to tend the lines. I throw the tiller to the right and we slip alongside the dock, pretty as you please. Jim jumps over and ties her up. The Belle of the Golden West is moored.

  The dock turns out to be a public pier, so the dockage fee is quite reasonable. Higgins goes to see the dockmaster and signs us up for a week, as there is much we have to do here. While he is gone, I go below to get myself into my remaining riding habit, the one I had bought in London. Tight dark green jacket with black velvet lapels and gold epaulets sitting up all jaunty on my shoulders and much creamy lace spilling out at my throat. On with the long black pleated skirt and my jockey boots. I figure why put on stockings when none can see them, as only the toes of my riding boots peek out 'neath the bottom hem of the skirt. Higgins comes back in time to fluff me up and brush me off. I top off my outfit with my rakish Scots bonnet, which, thankfully, Clarissa Howe did not grab when she raided my seabag to outfit herself on the Juno.

  There. That oughta show these bumpkins what a true international entertainer looks like. A puff of powder on the cheeks and we are ready to be off on the town.

  "All right, let's go. Katy, you can pretend to be my maid..." I get a snort for that, but a nod as well. "Higgins, be your usual self, and Jim, stay here and watch the Belle.'" I know he is disappointed, but his time will come. He nods and picks up a fishing rod, baits the line, and drops it over as he sits down to wait.

  We stride out into the town.

  The streets are muddy and pigs roam freely about and evidence of the passage of many horses is everywhere underfoot. The smell of coal fires and furnaces fills the air, but through it all, we can see the signs of many taverns—the Black Bear, the Harp and Crown, the White Horse, and there, the Sign of the General Butler.

  I spy a passerby who looks like he might be of the sporting type, and I beg him to stop to tell me about the taverns that exist in this town and what sorts of entertainment they provide.

  "Well, little lady," he replies, looking me up and down and grinning, "maybe you'd rather be checkin' in at one of the fancy houses uptown, like maybe Gypsy Sally's or—"

  Higgins opens his jacket to expose the butts of the two pistols holstered there.

  "Or then again, maybe not." The chastened sport gulps.

  "A straight answer, if you please, Sir," I demand, my eyes demurely cast down. "And then we will be on our way, grateful for what information you may provide."

  "Ahem. Well, Bob Erwin runs the White Horse, and he's a decent sort, and John Irwin, he does the Black Bear, and Molly Murphy owns the General Butler, and—"

  "Thank you, Sir, you have been most helpful," says I, having heard enough. "A very good day to you, then." I dip down in a half curtsy as we leave him astounded in the dusty street.

  "We will go to the General Butler," I pronounce, seeing the sign for the establishment swinging up ahead, "to see what we will see."

  The interior of the General Butler is dark, smoky, and gloomy, but that is how it is supposed to look, and so I advance to the bar. I have found that I like working with landladies more than landlords, as the lords often tend to want a somewhat different kind of performance out of me than I'm willing to give.

  "I wish to speak to Miss Molly Murphy," says I to the person behind the bar, who I suspect is Murphy herself.

  I find I am not wrong.

  "So, that's me," she says, without affectation. "So, what is it you want, dear?"

  I like her already.

  I puff up and say, "I am a musical and theatrical performer. I sing, I dance, I tell stories, I recite poems, I play the pennywhistle, fiddle, and concertina. If allowed to set up in your fine establishment, I will double your customers, guaranteed," I say.

  "And how old are you, dearie," asks Molly, eyeing me not unkindly, "to be promisin' me all this?"

  "Old enough, Missus," I answer, slipping into the Irish way of speaking. "Will you listen to this, then?"

  Higgins hands me the Lady Gay, and instead of the raucous tunes I usually rip out at a time like this, I play a medley of the sad songs "Mountains of Mourn" and "Broom o' the Cowdennelles" and "Londonderry Air." It's the last one that nails her, which is good—if ever I can't make an Irishman cry with my fiddle, then I should hang it up and sit quietly by the fire forevermore.

  The deal is struck. We get room and board for the four of us, and I will do two sets, one early evening and one that night. Katy will help out with serving the increased crowds, and Higgins'll provide security, with Jim to help out where he can.

  We scope out where the stage is to be and then go back to the Belle to get ready for the night's revels.

  Oh, I will be so glad to be back where I belong!

  Chapter 22

  Jaimy Fletcher

  In the company of Mike Fink

  On the Allegheny River

  Pennsylvania, USA

  Jacky,

  It soon became apparent that Mike Fink intended for me to do all the rowing, as he plunked himself down in the stern, with his hand on the extra oar that he was using as a rudder, and guided us along while I provided the sole power. When I am done with this American odyssey, I shall be able to hire out as a circus strongman.

  Clementine perched behind me in the bow seat and kneaded my shoulders to lend them relief. I had taken off my shirt in the heat and her hands felt good on my aching muscles.

  Fink slumped in the back, mumbling curses over some recent bad luck he had recently experienced.

  "Goddamn ... goddamn ... best boat I ever had, it was, too, and she stole it. Goddamn her to Hell and back. Fooled poor Mike Fink, who was good enough to give her a ride on his boat, then she stole it from him, bighearted, stupid Mike Fink. Damn! But I'm a-gonna catch her and I'm a-gonna kill her..."

  I was sure this was just another interesting tale of mischief on the river, no doubt perpetrated on the wounded Mike Fink by some river slattern of low moral character, but I didn't ask for details. I knew it would come out, Fink being the braggart he most plainly was. It occurred to me that he was bragging even about being bested by this woman who had robbed him.

  He left off his rant for a moment to peer closely at me and ask, "How come you're tryin' to get to Pittsburgh? Looking for work, I reckon."

  "
Yes," I said, mindful of Clementine listening behind me. "I am also trying to locate a friend, and furthermore, I would not mind catching up with the two men who robbed me on the road, taking all I had." I then recounted to him, between strokes of the oars, the story of my downfall and my rescue by Clementine.

  "Hmmm," he mused, stroking the massive mat of his beard, "so you mean to kill them fellers, I suspect."

  "The thought had crossed my mind," I wheezed, pulling at the oars, "being that they clubbed me and stripped me and shot me and left me for dead."

  "All right," said Fink, "we'll get down there and you kill them fellers and I'll kill that thievin' little bitch. Here's how I'm a-gonna do it: I'm a-gonna wrap my two hands around her skinny little neck till her face turns blue and them big brown eyes pop right outta her skull!"

  Right about then a cold suspicion began to dawn on me. It was the "little bitch" that first alerted me to an awful possibility. No, it could not be...

  It was.

  "She was there with those three others, her big fancy man and the boy and the other girl," Fink went on. "But you could see plain that she was the boss of all of 'em. 'Oh, thank you, Higgins,' she'd say for any little thing he done for Her Royal Majesty. And, oh, she'd prance around like the most frail and delicate thing, ready to swoon and faint away at the sound of any decent cussword. 'Oh, Mr. Fink, you are so very big and strong, you must be the very finest man I have ever met! Oh, please, tell me another story of your adventures!' she'd plead, and flutter those big brown eyes at me, and me, the fool, just lapped it up, when all along she was plannin' to steal my boat. It ain't right, t'ain't right, and I got to kill her."

  I continued pulling away at the oars, hoping he would not pronounce your name. It was, of course, a vain hope.

  "Yep, it won't be long now, as she's only got about three days' head start on me. Yep, Miss Jacky Faber has got about four days left on this earth," said Fink, with great satisfaction.

 

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