Mississippi jack, p.13
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       Mississippi Jack, p.13

           L. A. Meyer
 

  Oh, Lord...

  Clementine's hands tightened on my shoulders, and then I felt them drop. Her freckled face appeared next to my left cheek, her blue eyes drilling into mine.

  "I thought you said Jacky Faber was a boy," hissed Clementine into my ear, but loud enough for Fink to hear. "Why're you chasing her, Jaimy? You tell me. You tell me now."

  I didn't have to respond, for Mike Fink exploded in rage. He pointed his finger at my nose and shouted, "You know her! Goddammit! You're part o' her filthy gang o' thieves! It comes to me now—you talk funny, jest like that Jacky Faber and her fancy man. Well, by God, yer gonna get it!"

  With that, he threw over his improvised rudder, and we hit the shallows next to the bank. He jumped out of the boat, remarkably light on his feet for such a huge man. He paused to throw back his head and cry out with a mighty roar, then he lunged at me.

  I rolled over to the opposite side of the boat to evade his grasp, but he managed to grab the suspenders of my overalls and hurl me onto the muddy bank on which we had just landed. I tried to gain my feet, but could not. Fink whipped me around like a toy and slammed me down face-first in the muck, his foot planted on the back of my neck. All my circus strongman illusions were gone, for I realized that the man was incredibly strong.

  But he was also immensely vain. While he took a moment to rear back to beat his chest and loudly bray out his superiority to a pansy weakling such as the likes of me, I managed to scramble out from under his foot and jump to my feet.

  I steadied myself enough to face him. I was breathing hard and thinking that I had endured just about enough of America and its brigands and river louts. Propelled by all my pent-up anger, I pulled back my right fist and punched him in the face where I thought his chin might be under all that matted hair. I hit with all the force and anger within me. Pain radiated up my arm—I feared that my knuckles were shattered and my wrist was broken.

  Fink stepped back, surprised. He put his hand to his whiskered jaw and looked off, thoughtful. "Wal, now," he asked, working his jaw like a ruminating steer, "was that a fly, a mosquito? Nah, must have been a gnat. A baby gnat ... Must've been. C'mere, boy, I'm about to show you what real river fightin's like."

  With that he snaked out a hand to catch me behind the head and pulled me to him and smothered me in a great bear hug, my arms pinned to my side, a hold I could not break from.

  "Y'see, boy," he whispered into my ear, "on the river we don't box like little dancin' fairies. Nope, on the river we rassles!"

  Back we went, down into the mud again. On the way down, he shoved a knee into the small of my back and wrenched up my right arm behind me.

  "See, boy, tha's how we do it," he snarled as he yanked my arm further up my back. I shrieked with the pain of it. "Steal my boat, will you?" he growled, grabbing a handful of my hair in his other fist and pushing my head down into the mud. When I cried out in pain, the muck oozed into my mouth, my nose, and my eyes.

  I was convinced that I would end my days here in this stinking swamp, killed by a maniac. It was then that I heard a steady Thump! Thump! Thump!

  In my distress I thought it was a troop of marines, marching to my rescue, but no. My vision cleared enough for me to see that Clementine, wielding a four-foot-long driftwood log, was standing over Fink and repeatedly swinging it and bringing it to bear on the back of his head.

  His eyes crossed on the first several blows, but he shook them off. She, however, was relentless and kept on pounding him. Eventually, his grip on my arm weakened, then let go. Mike Fink rolled off me and slumped back in the mud.

  "All right, girl, you kin stop now. Mike Fink's done." He groaned, his chest heaving. "And I don't blame you now for standin' up for your man. You're a good girl, I kin see. Just don't hit me no more. Ol' Fink's done." He shook his head to clear it. "We'll all go down this river. This boy'll kill them two fellers and then I'll kill this Jacky Faber and get my boat back and ever'body'll be happy. He kin bed her 'fore I kills her if'n he wants to, but that'll be the end of that. Jest put that log down now, y'hear?"

  Clementine flung the log aside and stalked off to sit alone in the woods as Fink and I picked ourselves up.

  Afterward, Fink and I stripped off our muddy clothes and Clementine washed them in the clear river and hung them on branches to dry, then we turned in for the night, Fink wrapped in a blanket in his rowboat, and me and Clementine under a bush on the shore.

  Me, anyway. Clementine kept a good distance away from me. I could hear her crying in the darkness. Sobbing, Jacky, like I have heard you sob in the past, crying like your whole body was going to come apart. I lay back and waited. It didn't take long.

  "I thought I was your girl."

  "You are the best of girls, Clementine."

  "Tell me this Jacky Faber and you is jes' friends," she demanded.

  "We are friends. We were children together on that British ship I told you about."

  "Tell me you ain't been with her like you've been with me."

  Well, that's true, anyway.

  "No, Clementine, I have not."

  She sniffed in the darkness.

  "What you gonna do, just leave me in the woods someplace when you find her?"

  "I will tell you this, Clementine. Whatever happens, I will never leave you in a sorry condition. I will always do my best to take care of you as you have taken care of me. Do you believe me?"

  She believed me enough to come to my side. She started out the night with her back toward me, which she had never done before, but in the morning we were again entwined as one....

  Chapter 23

  Jacky Faber

  The Sign of the General Butler Inn

  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

  At the headwaters of the Ohio River

  July something, I've lost track

  1806

  Lieutenant James Fletcher

  Somewhere in England, probably

  Dear Jaimy,

  I am writing to you in the same spirit that you once wrote to me—such that we might someday look back on these letters and have a good laugh at their contents. I cannot actually send it, of course, for it might be intercepted and read by those who pursue me. I will write to Ezra, however, and actually dispatch it, for I think that will be safe enough. I will tell him my news, and if you are in contact with him, well then, you, too, shall hear it.

  Pittsburgh is a booming town, throbbing with commerce and industry. There is the sound of hammers everywhere, and buildings and factories are going up all around. It is music to my mercantile ears. I almost wish I could stay to join in the progress that is going to be made here, but, alas, I cannot. I must journey down these rivers so as to get back to you, which, of course, is what I really want to do. I do miss you so.

  I have a boat again, Jaimy, can you even believe it? I have named her the Belle of the Golden West. She is a river flatboat. Well, technically, she is a keelboat, because she has a hull that is built on ribs, not like the regular flatboats that are just floating boxes. She is pretty flat, though, because of the shallow water she has to navigate as we travel downriver, but she does have pointy ends, not like those other scows. She is quite elegant, in her way, in spite of the fact that she lacks sails. For now, anyway. I do have plans in that regard.

  I am back to singing and dancing in the taverns. I know you don't want to hear that, as you always seem to want to have me tucked down in some safe, domestic place, but we must have money. Plus, I enjoy it hugely, and if you don't want the children to hear that their mother was a saloon singer in her youth, well, just don't read them this part.

  The first night in Pittsburgh, I played at the Sign of the General Butler and was most pleased with both my performance, rusty as I was, and the warm reception I received. How I do love applause! We had sent Jim Tanner out into the town as a crier, telling the populace that Jacky Faber, the Toast of Two Continents, would be in solo performance at the General Butler, singing songs both happy and sad, fast and slow, telling funny stor
ies, etc. You know, Jaimy, my usual patter.

  Anyway, we had a good house that first night, and the owner, Molly Murphy, a dear soul, pronounced herself most satisfied, so I was invited to stay as long as I liked. The second and third nights were even better, the crowd larger on each succeeding night. I think you would enjoy, Jaimy, the spectacle of a ninety-pound female sawing away on her fiddle while being guarded by a very large English gentleman's gentleman in full rig—a rig that includes the butts of two pistols peeking discreetly from beneath his jacket. Katy, too, proved valuable, helping out a grateful Molly with serving the drinks to the crowd. She was capable and efficient and earned herself some nice tips, too.

  We have been hired to play at a wedding on Saturday and a barn dance on Sunday afternoon—no blue laws here, so it's my kind of town.

  It is good we are making some money—for one thing, I get to pay Katy and Jim something for their labors to date. Upon receiving their coins, they hied off together into the town. Jim came back proudly wearing a black boatman's hat adorned with a red grosgrain band, and Katy returned with some new stockings and cloth for making a new shirt. I believe it was her first shopping trip ever, and it warmed my heart to see her quiet self pleased about something. I also have bought a boatman's hat for myself and one for Higgins, too. After all, I must keep my fair complexion away from this fierce American sun while we are on the water, and also I need to blend in with the river folk. Higgins, too, wears his, though it offends his sense of style, but he does realize the importance of blending in when we are under way. On shore, of course, he remains his well-dressed self.

  The food is good at Molly's, and believe me, it sure was fine shoving my face into a big bowl of thick beef stew after all that fish. Good wines hereabout, too. I shall certainly stock the Belle's wine cellar before we leave. For the passengers, of course—I do intend to offer a quality cruise.

  Speaking of the wine cellar, we have hired a carpenter—labor and lumber are plentiful and cheap around here—to help us make some changes to the boat. We have built a partition across the back of the hold such that it makes a stateroom for me and my mates—two bunks, one over the other, on each side, and a curtain between. So Katy and I will be on one side and Higgins and Jim on the other. There is a door at the back so we have a private entrance, right back by the steering oar. A command post, as it were.

  In the passenger section, Katy has sewn muslin curtains for each bunk, and Jim, under Higgins's supervision, has installed locks on the cargo section where the wine and spirits and kitchen supplies will be stowed. There is a bunk in the kitchen area for the cook we will have to hire. Higgins will cook for me, but not for ten or twenty.

  I have also bought this journal in which I'm writing this down. I shall start keeping a ship's log like I did on the Star and the Emerald. I must now, however, put up my quill and get ready for this evening's performance.

  It is my most fervent hope that you are safe and well. Higgins tells me not to worry about any trouble you might be in because of me, so I shan't.

  Know that I think of you all the time, Jaimy, and that I remain,

  Your girl always,

  Jacky

  Chapter 24

  Jaimy Fletcher

  On the Allegheny River

  Pennsylvania, USA

  Sometime in the summer of 1806

  As I have lost track of the actual day

  Jacky,

  Fink has been pushing me to the limit, such was his determination to attend to your quick execution and to reclaim his boat. I pull on the oars and hope for the best, having one angry but somewhat mollified female seated behind me and one female up ahead of me who will be very angry, too, should she meet either Mike Fink or Clementine Jukes. One day at a time, I continually tell myself. Just pull at your oars, Mr. Fletcher.

  Mike—for I have been allowed to call him that, since we are now partners in pursuit of you—is dead set on your grisly demise. I have tried appealing to his better nature, hoping that one exists there in that mountain of hair and muscle and bone, but he persists in calling for your end. He has gone through many versions of what he hopes will be your last moments on this earth, some of which are quite colorful. The one concerning cramming a charge of powder up a certain posterior part of your anatomy and lighting the fuse with his cigar being one of them. I myself, in the past, have thought of paddling that same part of you into some sort of submission for your depredations against both society and my own well-being, so I had some perverse sympathy with his scenario, but still I pled your case.

  "She really is a good girl at heart, Mike," I said. "And, yes, while it is true that on occasion she is given to larceny—it is, admittedly, one of her less admirable qualities—still I wish you would give her the chance to explain her actions. She does sometimes have a good, reasonable motive for the things she does."

  "You sure do talk funny, boy," said Mike, ruminating on what I had just said. Upon some serious consideration, he went on. "Nope. Gotta kill her. Y'see, my reputation on the river depends on it. Why, if it got out that I was bested by that little twig of a girl, I'd be a goner. Ever'body'd be laughin' at me, and I couldn't have that. I've come to like you, boy, even if you do talk like a Baton Rouge girly-man, but no, my mama'd roll over in her watery grave and swamp two, three dozen boats in the process, and we can't have that, surely. Nope, Jacky Faber's got to go down." He clamped his jaw shut, and the case was closed.

  I decided to keep silent on the subject and just row—for one thing, talking about you upsets Clementine. Sometimes she continued to knead my shoulders as before, sometimes not. Sometimes I felt her teeth gently nibbling on my neck, sometimes not ... not gently, I mean. What I really plan on doing when we catch up to you is to get between the warring parties and appeal to sweet reason in both of you and arrange for you to give him his boat back with your apologies.

  "But, Mike, they will hang you if you kill her," I said.

  "Nah. They tried to hang me once for horse thievin' down in East Lick but it didn't take. Nope. I 'member it clear as day. The judge, he got up on his hind legs and hammered down with his little wood hammer and said, 'Mike Fink, you stand accused of stealing this man's horse and fer that I find you guilty! Guilty as hell, you thievin' rascal, since we found you a-ridin' on that very same horse and braggin' about it to boot!'

  "Well, I couldn't deny that, so I tol' them to get on with it as I was a busy man. Then the little judge got up again and must've been consumed with his own eloquence, 'cause he said, 'Mike, there's gonna be a big card game tomorrow and all the local sports'll be there, a-sittin' at a big ol' table 'neath the big oak in the town square, and thar'll be piles o' money on the table and around that table will be the best gamblin' men in the country. But you ain't gonna be there, Mike Fink, 'cause tomorrow morning we're gonna take you out and hang yer sorry ass for the stealin' of this man's horse, and we're gonna hang it from that very same oak tree hangin' over that big card game. No, Mike, the cards'll be slappin' down but you'll never hear 'em 'cause yer dead butt'll be hanging over the game as a lesson to all those miscreants and yer soul'll be twangin' its harp up in Heaven or else be roasted by all the demons down in Hell, which we all find much more likely!'

  "So they brung me out the next mornin' and done it, sheriff and preacher and all, and they put me on a box, put the rope around my neck, and swung me off into eternity."

  Mike paused to shake his head in wonder at the perfidy of the human race and then went on.

  "Or so they thought. Y'see, the problem was that my neck muscles was too thick and strong, so I wouldn't choke t'death like they wanted. Oh, I gasped a bit and all, but nothin' serious, nothin' worse than a little ol' sore throat, the kind you get if'n you been drinkin' bad whiskey for a week or so. Anyways, after about ten minutes o' swingin' there, when ever'body was startin' to go home, tired of it all, I looked down and saw that the card table with all the sharpers was at my danglin' boot tips, and, damn, I couldn't let that go, so I begged for someone to com
e and take my boots and socks off, and who should come up but my good ol' girlfriend Sugartail Sophie, and it was she who pulled off my boots and socks, and bein' familiar with me and all, she didn't faint away when they come off, jest staggered a bit, is all. Good girl, she was."

  Fink again stopped his narrative to make sure I'm rowing hard enough. Satisfied with our progress, he went on.

  "So I played in that game with my toes four inches off the table. Had Sophie pull out the three quarters I had in my pocket so as to get in the game. Won the first hand o' Five Card Stud with two queens up and one in the hole and then won ever' hand—or, in my case, every foot—after that. Seven Card Stud, Low Ball, Texas Sweat, Razzle Dazzle Pass the Trash, didn't matter which game, ol' Mike Fink's luck was with him. I had Sugartail pull in the winnin's, but I handled the cards with me toes. Got so's I could deal pretty neat with them toes, too. Shuffle, even."

  He took another deep breath and then concluded.

  "Eventually I won all the money and most o' the real estate in that town. Told 'em I'd give 'em all their money back if'n they let me go and rename the town after me. And if'n they didn't, I was gonna give it all to Sugartail Sophie to set up the biggest whorehouse in the territory. Damned if they didn't agree. They cut me down and tol' me to get out of town and to never come back, which was all right with me 'cause I was sick and tired of their hard hospitality, anyways. I thanked Sophie for her help and lit out of Finktown fer good. Never been back there since, nope."

  Mike Fink relaxed against the transom and said, "Tomorrow, we'll be there. Time to get some killin' done."

  With that he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, leaving Clementine and me to navigate that last stretch on the Allegheny River.

  What will tomorrow bring? I cannot help but shudder at the possibilities....

  Chapter 25

 
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