Mississippi jack, p.14
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       Mississippi Jack, p.14

           L. A. Meyer
 

  This town calls itself the Gateway to the West, so I guess we ain't seen nothing yet in the way of real wilderness, though it sure seemed wild on the way down here. I have heard tales of the West and I worried some about that. River pirates and wild red Indians and all. I had also learned that much of Pittsburgh was made of the bricks from an old fort upriver that was torn down after it fell into disuse. It was named Fort Pitt and was used in what the locals call the French and Indian War, and so I resolved, first chance I get, to go exploring the warehouses and supply houses of this town to see what I might find in the way of discarded firepower.

  My performances, both in the General Butler and elsewhere, have been going very well—I don't know whether it's the quality of the music and the entertainment, or the fact that there's so little of it out here that anything in that regard is welcome. I don't know, but I'll take it, either way. The tips have been most generous.

  The barn dances that we've entertained at have been the most riotous affairs, fueled with high spirits and, of course, with the ever-present whiskey. The couples arrange themselves in squares, and "callers," men who call out instructions to the dancers in time to the music, sing out: "Swing your partner, bow to your corner, do-si-do, and promenade!" It is all good fun, and sometimes I wish someone else was playing the fiddle so I could join in the dance. There is much sparking going on among the young people, that's plain, and there's more than one good-looking lad.

  On this particular morning, however, I put my mind back on the business of self-protection, and Higgins and I suit up and go off to scour the warehouses and supply houses that abound. That is the purpose, but it's also an excuse to sashay around in all my finery, nodding to them on the streets who recognize me, and, I must say, there are many. I can scarcely walk down the street without being recognized by my public. I love it.

  Sure enough, we soon find a nice little three-inch swivel gun. That's a cannon mounted on a swivel so that it can be easily aimed. The three inches is the measurement across the barrel's mouth. We also buy a deadly looking four-inch cannon. These guns are small enough that they won't tear the deck of the Belle apart when they are fired, but they are large enough to be effective. We haggle over price and pick them up for a song, since to these people who are no longer at war, the cannons are only worth the brass that is in them. I order them brought to the Belle. They will shine up beautifully. I look forward to drilling my crew in gunnery.

  I also buy powder and shot, a dozen cannonballs for each gun, and some bags of rock salt—I've no wish to kill anybody, and a tail full of rock salt can discourage even the most persistent of pests.

  The hot work of munitions shopping done, we roll back up the street and into the General Butler and stick our noses in a couple of pints and pack in some lunch while I get a report from Molly. I had posted some hand-lettered notices about the docks, advertising the fact we were taking on passengers for a trip downriver and anyone interested could sign up at the General Butler.

  "You got five passengers to Cincinnati. One man alone, a man and wife with two kids. All paid up. There's some more say they're goin' but need some time to scrape up the dollars."

  "That's good, Molly, thanks."

  "Oh, and a man named Cantrell wants to talk to you. Tol' him you'd be playin' tonight and he could talk to you then."

  "All right."

  "Looked like a real slick fella to me." Molly sniffs, with a bit of warning in her eye.

  "Well, he'd best not try to flimflam an old Cheapside scammer like me." I laugh.

  "And he's got a young black girl with him."

  "What? Well, I won't have that," I say, firmly. "There is to be no slavery on my ship."

  "Look, dearie, you can fluff up your feathers all you want, but if you're goin' all the way down to New Orleans, you're gonna have slave states on your left side all the way down, so you'd best get used to it."

  "Well, I'll talk to him, anyway," I say and turn my full attention to the food in front of me, it being chops and gravy. "This is really good, Molly. You are some great cook."

  Molly smiles, pleased, and wipes down the bar at which we are seated.

  "Speakin' of that, Jacky, I recall you sayin' that you were lookin' for a cook for your ark?"

  I nod. "Still am," I say around a mouthful of chop.

  "Well, Crow Jane's in town and she's lookin' for work. She's good—can cook for five, can cook for fifty. Injun woman. Knows how to run a kitchen. Started off workin' for French trappers goin' up the Missouri, then she got onto the riverboats."

  An Indian! I had seen some people that I thought might be Indians on my way here, but none definite, and none I could see up close.

  "A very colorful name," I say, careful of my words, my mind conjuring up visions of painted faces and tomahawks.

  "If you want, I'll send a boy to find her and tell her you want to talk. You gonna be back on your boat this afternoon?"

  "Yes," I say. "And, yes, do send her by." I look at Higgins and shrug, and he shrugs back.

  Quelling my usual urge to wipe my mouth on the back of my sleeve, I pull my handkerchief out of that selfsame sleeve and pat my lips.

  "Come, Higgins, we must return to the Belle," I say, rising. "The guns will be delivered soon and I want to see them put in place. Cheers, Molly."

  We are off.

  The Belle of the Golden West is a hive of activity this afternoon.

  The guns are brought aboard at one o'clock and we haul the four-inch cannon up forward and secure its carriage tightly down there, with the barrel sticking out over the bow. Katy will now have to straddle the gun if she wants to sit in her usual spot, but she says she doesn't mind, it's all the same to her.

  We mount the swivel gun on the cabin roof, right in front of the quarterdeck. We make sure the apparatus holding the swiveling post that allows the gun to be aimed is anchored in good solid wood. Even though this is only a gun with a three-inch mouth, still, the recoil would be quite powerful.

  When we get them in place, with the help of our carpenter, Mr. MacCauley, I stand back and admire them.

  "Once again, Miss," says Higgins, with a certain dryness in his voice, "you stand in command of a warship. My congratulations, Captain."

  "Thank you, Higgins," I say. "I know you are saying that with just a touch of sarcasm, but still, I like to hear it."

  I set Jim to polishing the cannons and Katy to sewing up canvas covers for the armament—it's best that one's capabilities in that regard be kept from those who might be watching. Higgins takes off into the town to buy plates and other gear we will need for the feeding of passengers. The sign painter I had hired has arrived to paint Belle of the Golden West on either side of the cabin walls in big fancy gold and black letters. He sets up his buckets and brushes and gets right to work.

  Having gotten some good maps and a set of dividers on one of my forays into the town, I spread out the maps on the quarterdeck cabin top and start figuring out distances so as to be able to charge the proper fares. The day is calm with no wind, so the maps do not blow around, and the sun is warm on my back. All is good, I reflect, taking a satisfied breath and then bending to my task.

  "Miss Faber, I presume," I hear from the dock, and look up to see a very well-dressed man taking off his hat and bowing to me. Instinctively, now, I drop into a bit of a curtsy, then rise to look at him. He is dressed in black from bottom to top. Black trousers, black coat pulled back to reveal a black vest. His hair, which he wears cut short and not tied back, is wavy and black, except for gray at his temples. His hat, which he now puts back on his head, is curled in the brim, high in the crown, and black. The only spot of color is his red cravat, which is worn instead of lace, at his neck. I put his age at about forty-five, fifty, or so. I also put on the Lawson Peabody Look—back straight, chin up, lips together, teeth apart, and eyes hooded.

  "Yes?"

  "My name is Mr. Yancy Beauregard Cantrell, and I am bound for New Orleans." He smiles, and I see that, unlike many around her
e, his teeth are white and even. Except for a neatly trimmed mustache, he is clean shaven, which is also a rarity around here. All in all, he is a very handsome man.

  "That is good, Mr. Cantrell, as I plan to journey there myself, on my boat."

  "Alas, Miss Faber, I have only enough fare to travel halfway to Cincinnati, but I assure you, in all confidence, that I will gain the rest of the fare as we travel on. If I do not, then you shall be free to put us off wherever you choose. Agreed?"

  I do not yet agree. I see some telltale bulges under his jacket and comment upon it.

  "All guns are checked at the gangway, Mr. Cantrell, and believe me, you will be checked," I say, in warning.

  "That is a very wise rule, Miss Faber," he replies, bowing again, apparently to my wisdom. He broadens the smile.

  "What do you mean by 'us'?" I ask, suspicious. I have seen the Colored girl hanging back behind him.

  "I have my girl, Chloe, here with me. She will be no trouble."

  "I'll have no slaves on my ship, Mr. Cantrell."

  "She is not my slave. She is my servant, and she is free to go at any time." He reaches back and brings the girl forward. She is clad in a dingy white shift, her slightly maturing figure evident through the thin cloth. From the bottom of her shapeless dress extend possibly the longest legs I have ever seen on any human around the age of sixteen, which age I suspect she is. Her hair is tied up in small braids, and on her face she wears an expression of the purest indifference.

  "You agree with what was just said, girl?" I demand.

  The girl nods, not looking me in the eye.

  "She is mute, Miss Faber. That is all the answer you shall get from her, I'm afraid."

  I think on all this, and I decide.

  "Give me your hand on it, Mr. Cantrell," I say, as I walk to the gangway and extend mine. I feel the touch of his palm and know that his hand has never felt labor of any kind. He squeezes my hand and then raises it to his lips.

  "Thank you, Miss Faber. I do not think you will regret your decision."

  "I hope I shall not, Mr. Cantrell," I reply, withdrawing my hand and looking at him with my level gaze.

  "And now, Miss Faber, I would like to move aboard, as I would rather give what money I have to you, rather than to some inn. Is that agreeable?"

  We are more than a few days from departure, but what could it hurt?

  "That will be acceptable, Sir. However, you shall have to take your dinners onshore, as we have not yet set up our kitchen," I explain.

  "That will be just fine, Miss Faber," answers Mr. Cantrell. "I will take my leave now to go collect our luggage." With that, he bows again and turns to leave, walking back up the dock, the long-legged black girl loping in his wake.

  Well, I think, and turn back to my task. According to my calculations with my dividers, Cincinnati is about four hundred and seventy-five miles downstream, so at twelve cents a mile, that works out to fifty-seven dollars, more or less, which seems fair, considering the fact that we are providing both food and entertainment. So that means that passage to Cairo in Illinois Territory will cost—

  "Faber?"

  Hearing this, I lift my head and look to the dock. Standing there is a woman, about five feet tall and three feet wide, a solid woman built like a door. She is dressed in a skirt of what I take to be leather, a fringed shirt of the same, and a red headband around her brow. Her hair is black, with streaks of white, and it is braided into two pigtails that are bound with bright ribbons. In her hands she holds the hilts of at least three knives and several pans.

  "You must be Crow Jane," I say, somewhat taken aback at her appearance.

  "Yep. Cook. Lookin' fer work. You the boss?"

  "Yes, I suppose I am."

  "Whatcha got?"

  "Well..."

  "Lemme look at yer fire," she says, and with that she steps aboard, her saucepans clanking about her. She heads for the hatchway down into the hold. I meekly follow her.

  She rattles around the stove, opening doors and lifting lids. She checks out the wood stacked next to it, picking up a piece and holding it to her cheek. She nods in apparent approval and then examines the sleeping quarters.

  "All right. What pay?"

  "Uh...," I stammer, "...a dollar a day, room and board. A cut of any prizes." That last part sort of slipped out.

  She turns to look at me, with black eyes 'neath lowered black brows. "Prizes? I ain't heard of prizes before."

  "Prizes are anything we can take ... steal, like," I say, lamely.

  She gives a grunt of a laugh. "All right, then." She puts her pans on the stove and throws a sack I had not noticed before on the bunk that was to be hers. Her knives go into a slot on the side of the stove. Then she looks at me, sizing me up, I suspect. "Whatcha got fer crew?"

  "Well, we have two girls, me being one of them, one young lad, and one big man," I say.

  "You'll need more. At least two strong men. You got the Rapids of the Ohio to get through. Cave-in-Rock, too. More stuff after that. Where's yer supplies—flour and lard and such?"

  "Down here below," I say, showing her the entrance to the lower hold. "Do you know of any that might serve?"

  "Might. The Hawkes boys are both in the jailhouse. Due to get out tomorrow. Nathaniel and Matthew Hawkes. They're good boys if you can keep 'em away from strong likker and wild women. Good boatmen, too. Grew up on the river. If you want 'em, best pick 'em up right from the jailhouse and bring 'em here. Don't give 'em no money or they'll just get in trouble ag'in. I'll go with you when you pick 'em up. They'll mind me."

  What could I say to that? I now have a cook and some additional crew. I hope I have done right.

  But now I must put all that out of my mind. I must finish up my distance figuring, compose an advertising poster for the Belle, and then take it up to the printer on Market Street. When I return, I need to get ready for tonight's show.

  That night, during the second show, all was going really well, when, in the midst of me doing "Billy Broke Locks," there was the sound of a tremendous fight going on down the street. There were shouts and gunfire going off, and in the midst of it all, there was an oddly familiar roar that I could not quite place. Higgins went to the door to see what was up. He was gone for a short while, and when he returned, he reported, "It was a big riot going on down at the White Horse. The sheriff and his crew arrived and are beating men to the ground with truncheons. It seems to be ending. Even as we speak, men are being dragged off to jail."

  "None of our concern, mates!" I crow. "Stay here and be gay, for there's nothing but trouble down there, and nothing but good fun here!"

  And so they stayed and so we played, far, far into the night.

  Chapter 26

  Jaimy Fletcher

  At Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

  Jacky,

  We got into Pittsburgh in the early evening and I suggested to Mike that we might put up for the night along the wooded shore and resume our search in the full light of day, the better to give me some time to work things out between you two, but he would have none of it.

  "No, b'God! Mike Fink don't wait when there's killin' to be done! Nope, he gets right down to it and sends them souls directly to Heaven or Hell, dependin' on their inclinations, and I suspects that Jacky Goddamn Faber is goin' to the lower regions 'cause God don't put up with people who steal other people's boats. No, he don't," said Fink with great resolution and firmness of purpose in his voice. "Hey!" He sat up straight and pointed off to port. "That looks like my boat! Pull over there!"

  With Clementine steaming behind me, I rowed in that direction.

  ***

  Clementine has been steaming a lot, ever since she found out that not only are you not a boy, but, worse yet, my betrothed.

  "That mean you gonna marry her, Jaimy?" she asked last night when we finally camped onshore, her hot eyes brimming with tears.

  "I don't know what anything means anymore, Clementine," I answered wearily, "but I meant what I said: I won't leav
e you."

  "What you gonna do, keep me in a shed out back of yer place when you marries her? Is that what you mean to do, Jaimy?"

  "No, I don't. Now come over here and give me a kiss, and hush, now. Hush."

  "Do you love me, Jaimy?"

  I took a breath, held it, and then exhaled.

  "Yes, I do, Clementine."

  She waited a moment and then came over and lay next to me and put her hot, tearful face next to mine.

  "I was so happy then, Jaimy, before ... when it was just you and me on the road." She snuffled. "So happy..."

  "Now, now. You'll be happy again, Clementine," I said. "I promise."

  "It shore looks like my boat, but what are them lumpy things on deck? And what does that say on the side?" asked Fink, squinting in the gloom.

  "It says 'Belle of the Golden West,' and I don't know what those things are," I said, trying to figure a way to divert his attention. It was his boat, all right, and I knew damned well what those canvas-covered things were: They were guns. I reflected that it did not take long for La Belle Jeune Fille sans Merci to commandeer a ship and rearm herself. "Let's put in there and then go check out the taverns. That's where she's most likely to be, night falling as it is."

  "All right," growled Fink. "I could use a drink, anyhow. Do it."

  I steered toward a landing, breathing a small sigh of relief as we hit the shore. If he had gone directly to the boat, all hell would have broken loose. I had recognized Jim Tanner standing guard on the deck of that boat. There's no mistake. You are somewhere in this town, Jacky.

  Mike jumped out of the boat and headed toward the lights of the town, which were just now being lit.

  I jumped out after him and said to Clementine, "You stay here and watch our stuff. Give me the pistol."

  She handed it to me and said, "Oh, Jaimy, stay here with me! She ain't worth it, please, Jaimy..."

  "Now, Clementine, I will be careful. You'll see."

 

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