Mississippi jack, p.16
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       Mississippi Jack, p.16

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "Wait, wait!" cries the girl. "I'll go with you!"

  "Thought you might," says Crow Jane, releasing her ear, which now glows a bright red from the pinch.

  "Got our rowboat over there. Got our stuff in it," she says, rubbing her ear.

  "Matty," says Crow Jane, and nods in that direction, "we're on the next dock over. The boat with all the fancy stuff on the sides."

  Matty Hawkes, glad to get out of range of Jane's switch, lopes over to the rowboat.

  It's plain who is the Captain of the Belle, and also who is First Mate. It's now also plain who is the Bo'sun.

  "I'm glad you decided to do the smart thing, girl," I say to the sullen Clementine.

  In all her sullenness I think I see a new look of cunning come over her face.

  "I will come along with you, Miss Jacky Faber, oh, yes, I will," she whispers low. "It is the right thing to do, I see that now."

  Could it be that I see a warning of danger in her hot blue eyes?

  Chapter 28

  Jaimy Fletcher

  In the Pittsburgh Jail

  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  In the Goddamned United States of America

  Jacky,

  I have been chained ankle to ankle with Mike Fink and various other lowlifes in this stinking jail cell since our arrest last night outside the White Horse Tavern. I have been massaging my swollen jaw and amusing myself by thinking up variations on USA. How about Ubiquitous Swine devoted to Anarchy? No? Then how's this: Unwashed Savages of Abysmal ignorance? I find myself longing for a civilized drawing room in London. Perhaps a soiree or a grand banquet, or at the Captain's table on a first-rate ship of the Line of Battle just before some Glorious Action? I, who have sat at the same table as Lord Nelson, himself, now sit on a cold stone floor in a squalid prison, shackled to ... no, wait... squalid's a good word ... let's see ... Unabashedly Squalid and Asinine. That's a good one. Or, as my present companions would say, "Tha's a good 'un, har-har, lesh haf another."

  Oh, Jacky, how I languish in this land that you seem to thrive in.

  Mike was standing up at the window, yelling at someone outside a little while ago, and it took my battered mind a while to realize that it was you he was addressing, and by then it was too late. Always too late, I moaned to myself. You, right outside this wall ... Damn, my head hurts! I vow vengeance on yet another bloody bastard who has brought pain and anguish to me. That grizzled cove who last night caught me unawares, he shall pay, too, count on it. I have been making plans for what I shall do upon my release.

  Earlier in the day, we were taken to court, Justice of the Peace Judge Otto Stottlemeyer sitting in judgement. It was my considered opinion, upon viewing this court, that this judge was only half literate and, similarly, only half sober—there being a glass of whiskey, which was constantly replenished, at his elbow during the entire proceedings.

  The first cases were disposed of quickly—drunkenness, ten days on the work gang; fighting, twenty days; petty theft, ninety days; horse stealing, remanded for trial; and so on. I would have found the proceedings intensely boring if not for the fact that I was to be very similarly judged. That, and the judgement of a prisoner who came up just before us.

  "Amos Beatty, you are charged with possession of stolen property, that bein' this man's saddle and bags. How do you plead?"

  "Not guilty!" shouted this Beatty.

  "Wha've you got to say, Mr. McWhirtle?"

  McWhirtle stood and said, "I saw him take 'em off me horse, plain as day. Woulda stole the horse, too, if'n I didn't come upon him."

  "Guilty!" said the Judge. "Guilty as hell! Fifteen days on the road gang for you, and give the man back his goddamn saddle. Next case!" Down came the gavel, and Mr. Amos Beatty was led away to serve his time. I smiled to myself ... Mr. Amos Beatty, one of the two highwaymen who laid me low and left me for dead on that fateful day. Well, well, I thought, with some satisfaction, sometimes Fate is, indeed, kind.

  Mike and I were up next.

  We were stood up in our shackles while the Judge read out the indictment, there being no Clerk of Courts as far as I could see. Or any other court official, aside from the sheriff and his very burly deputies.

  "Mike Fink, who is well known to this court, and uh ... a Mr. James Fletcher, are each accused of Being a Public Nuisance," pronounced Judge Stottlemeyer. "What do you have to say for yourself, Mike?"

  "Jeez, Judge, we just went in to the White Horse to have a drink and that little weasel of a landlord sicced Man Mountain Murphy on me for no good reason. 'Course I had to break his jaw; wouldn't you do the same thing?" asked Mike, the voice of sweet reason.

  I looked over to see the wounded Mr. Murphy in the witness area, a very large man, to be sure, taking up two seats and looking very mountainous, and very aggrieved, as well. His jaw is bandaged and, I am sure, missing more than a few teeth. He shaked his massive head in denial.

  "Guilty!" said the Judge, slamming down his gavel. "If you ain't guilty of this, you polecat, yer guilty of somethin' else twice as bad. Twenty days on the road gang and not a minute less! Next!"

  Mike took a great deep breath and opened his mouth and I knew that he was going to go into one of his fits of braggadocio, and he barely got out a "whoooeee" before I rammed my elbow into his gut, cutting off both his air supply and the coming rant. He doubled over and coughed but said nothing further.

  "Now for you, James Fletcher, how do you plead?" said the Judge.

  I like to think that my sense of self-preservation never leaves me, especially in times of great stress or pressing danger, but at this moment, I started, unaccountably, to laugh. And to laugh uncontrollably. Me, Lieutenant James Emerson Fletcher, of His Majesty's Royal Navy, Decorated Veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, charged with Being a Public Nuisance by these barbarians in this barbaric land, and this barely literate so-called judge about to pass sentence upon me! A Public Nuisance! It and the events of the past few weeks were all too much. I laughed out loud and I could not stop.

  "I plead insanity, Your Honor," I crowed out. "Absolute and complete insanity! Ha-ha!"

  "See if you find this funny, boy!" spit out the Judge. "Five dollars or five days, hard labor!"

  Mike stepped on my foot to stop me from laughing. "This boy didn't have nothin' to do with the fight, Judge," said Fink, rather gallantly I thought, and I fought to bring myself under control.

  "Your Honor," I managed to say without much giggling, "I am Lieutenant James Fletcher, an officer in His Majesty's Royal Naval Service, and I..."

  I noticed that the place suddenly went dead silent. The Judge leaned over his desk.

  "You mean you're a British officer, like the ones who've been runnin' around here tryin' to get the Injuns riled up ag'inst our settlers?" he asked, his unforgiving eye on me.

  "No, Sir, of course, I—"

  "I am sorry, I misspoke, Lieutenant Fletcher," said he. "Make that ten dollars or ten days at hard labor! Court's adjourned! Get 'em outta here!"

  We were taken out, stripped of our clothing, hosed down with cold water, treated with delousing solutions to our heads and nether parts, and then thrown into our cells. We were given crude trousers and shirts, all imprinted with broad black and white stripes, and were told we would be working to build up the seawall on the southward side of the Ohio River come dawn tomorrow.

  At night, the one window of the jail becomes a place for those connected to the inmates to come to talk and to lend support to those within, and to tell of news of family and friends. There are wives and sisters and brothers and friends, and in some cases, there are sweethearts who profess profound feelings of longing and of love.

  Clementine, however, does not appear when it is my turn at the window, and a worm of worry begins to work itself into the mind of one poor prisoner....

  Chapter 29

  "You're gonna sweeten up, Clementine, if you're gonna stay with us for a week, and I mean that, girl," I snarl, pointing my finger between the girl's sullen eyes when we g
et back to the Belle on this, her first day aboard. "Your job will be Cook's Assistant. You will take orders from Crow Jane, Mr. Higgins, and me. You will wash dishes, scrub floors, do laundry, and anything else you are asked to do in return for your keep. You will also be paid some money so that you'll have a little when your husband gets out, and maybe it will help you on your way. Is that clear?"

  The girl nods, without expression. She stands there with a sack that holds what little she owns. It sounds like it contains a few pots, muffled like maybe they are wrapped in a blanket. There was a long old-fashioned rifle in the rowboat, too, but that we put away, as per the ship's rule about checking firearms before boarding. "What you want me to do now?"

  "Stow your stuff down in the after cabin," I say, jerking my thumb back in the direction of our sleeping quarters. "That's where you'll be sleeping. Then report to Crow Jane. She'll tell you what to do. If she ain't got nothin' for you, then report back to me. This deck back here needs scrubbin'."

  She nods again, and then goes to do it.

  "Sure wish I had some holystone, Higgins," I say, looking down at the deck, which could surely use that kind of scouring.

  "I shall check for availability, Miss," says Higgins, who had observed this last exchange, "but I fear I shall not have much luck. Very few Royal Navy ships dock here in this place."

  "There is one here now, Higgins," say I, proudly. "HMS Belle of the Golden West, manned and ready for sea. Or river. Or creek. Or puddle. Or whatever comes."

  "The girl?" inquires Higgins with one of his raised-eyebrow questions.

  "A country girl. Says she's married to one of the men inside the jail. Mike Fink asked me to look out for her till the man's release, which'll be a few days after we leave. I said I'd do it."

  "How very commendable of you, Miss. I knew there was a tender heart beating 'neath that cold, hard captain's chest of yours."

  I cast my stern eye on him. "You are, of course, referring to how I have been treating this girl, Higgins, and think less of me for it?"

  "Um."

  "Well, Higgins, when dealing with those whom you will command, you may start off harsh, and then later go softer as everyone finds their place and knows how things go, but," I say with teacher's finger in the air, "you can't do it the other way around."

  "I suppose that's wise, Miss," he says.

  "You, however," I say, "may be nicer to her. After she is done with her chores, draw her a bath, if you would be so good. Back in our quarters. She is likely to be shy with you, so ask Katy to scrub her head and check her for lice. Is there anything you can do with that straw thatch of hers?"

  "Well, after Katy washes it up, we'll see what we can do."

  "Good. For now we must deal with our two new recruits. Remember what I said about starting out hard? Well, I think it truly applies to these two louts."

  We both look forward and see the Hawkes boys lounging about the bow, smoking vile-smelling pipes and talking, talk that is punctuated with snorts and guffaws. They are facing away and cannot hear us approach.

  "Garsh, Matty! Three girls aboard and all of 'em purty. Four, you count Crow Jane! Hot damn! This is gonna be the best job ever!"

  "Well, I ain't that hard up, to count that Crow Jane," says brother Matthew, "but I gotta agree. You see the ass on the boss lady? She be skinny and meaner'n a snake, but that tail's still nice and round and fine," says he, describing a shape with his hands.

  "Wouldn't kick it outta my bed, me neither, no sir, hot damn! This is the best boat we ever been on, Brother," says 'Thaniel. "Geeeeeeeez, we done died and gone to Heaven!"

  "That Katy girl, now she some long and tall, but that don't mean she ain't pretty, oh, no. Lord."

  "And that little Clementine, Matty," added 'Thaniel, "if'n she ain't cuter'n a speckled pup, I don't know what is."

  "Seems like these men need some cooling down," say I, loud and clear, "before Katy Deere puts a couple of arrows deep into their ardor, or I have them thrown in the river with some heavy chain around their necks."

  The boys' heads jerk around, startled to find me standing there in a state of high indignation.

  "Sorry, Boss, we didn't know you was listening," says Matthew, trying to stop his giggling but failing in the attempt.

  "You two were supposed to be rigging the new oarlocks. Why are you not doing that?" I ask, with my stony Look firmly in place. "And stand up when I'm talking to you."

  "Now, Boss, we're jest waitin' for the parts. That boy Jim went to get 'em. Here he comes now," says Nathaniel, getting to his feet and beginning to look a little worried.

  "Never thought I'd ever say this, Mr. Higgins, but this ship just might need a cat-o'-nine-tails."

  "Indeed, Captain," says Higgins. "One can easily be made."

  "We'll get right on it, Boss ... er ... Captain, right now," says Nathaniel, putting an elbow in his brother's ribs.

  Jim Tanner comes aboard bearing the hardware needed to rig up the oarlocks for the two additional sweeps, just as the girl Clementine comes out of the hold hatchway with a basin of dirty dishwater to throw over the side. He looks at her, and she looks at him and then goes back down below.

  Yes, I had told this Clementine Fletcher to sweeten up, and against all odds, she did.

  Oh, it was a slow process, from the surliness she showed on the first day aboard to a gradual lightening of mood on the second day, as she grew to know us and become more comfortable. She still continues to study me, like she did on our first meeting, though, as if she's trying to make up her mind about something—about what, I don't know.

  I decided to have her bunk in the after cabin with us, what with those randy Hawkes boys sleeping up front, and so she put her belongings on the bottom bunk, under Katy and me. We sleep on the top bed, because we've installed some portholes for light and ventilation, and that's where the porthole is. I like to be able to look out when we're all locked down, and I also like the air.

  That first night, Clementine started quietly crying.

  "She's just homesick," I whispered in Katy's ear.

  "Don't think she's got a home, from what she's said to me," whispered Katy back.

  I rolled over and reached out my hand in the darkness.

  "Come on, Clementine," I whispered. "It'll be all right, you'll see. Here, take my hand."

  "No. I'll be all right," came the choked voice from below. I withdrew my hand.

  The sound of weeping subsided. I had the feeling that she had shoved a corner of her pillow into her mouth to stifle her sobs.

  "Prolly just misses her man," whispered Katy.

  "That's gotta be it," I agreed, but didn't quite believe it. There's something else going on here, I was thinking. Then I put it out of my mind and went to sleep.

  The next night, after a long day of boat work and a full evening of performance, we once again turned in for the night, and once again the weeping started up.

  This time I said to Katy, "We'll switch beds. Send her up here. She's disturbin' everybody's sleep."

  "Huh, it'd be a pleasure," said Katy, slipping out of the bunk, "what with you twitchin' and hollerin' and talkin' in tongues in your sleep half the time, then goin' stiff as a board sometimes and sweatin' the bed wet. Hell, yes, I'll send her up and git me a full night's sleep for a change."

  I know she doesn't mean it, her and me being like sisters, and all.

  Clementine slipped in next to me, not protesting but still sniffling. I put my hand on her shoulder and drew her to me.

  She stiffened.

  "Now, Clementine, you don't have to like me, but you do have to be quiet. Jim and Mr. Higgins are on the other side of that curtain and you are disturbing their rest. You don't want that, do you?"

  I could feel her head shake. "No," she whispered.

  I had noticed that in the doings of this past day, when work was stopped and meals were served at a long table set up on the bottom hold hatch between the rows of passenger and crew bunks, it was Jim Tanner and Clementine Fletcher who
most often sat together. I further noticed that, when the work was done and all took their ease, it was Jim and Clementine who sat together with fishing poles to idle away the time. I even heard her laugh one time at something he had said.

  I noticed also that before she would eat, she would put her hands together, close her eyes, and mumble some words, when none of the rest of us did.

  "Good. Now go to sleep. Tomorrow will be a brighter day, you'll see. Soon we'll take you to the General Butler with us so you can see the show. Would you like that?"

  I felt her head bob up and down.

  "Good. Now go to sleep."

  She settled into my side and gradually grew quiet. After a while her breathing became slow and regular. And then, after a while, so did mine.

  ***

  That night, as I lay tossing and turning as usual, I had the most unusual dream—I dreamed that Clementine had gotten out of bed and gone down, as I supposed, to use the pot. Some dream time went on and I dreamed that there was, of all things, a cold pistol put to my temple, and I heard the sound of a hammer being drawn back and cocked. What a strange dream, I remember thinking. It's not one of the things that I regularly dream and scream about. Funny, ain't it? Then I dreamed I heard the sound of a hammer being brought back safely down to half cock, and presently Clementine crawled back into bed and I stopped dreaming till I woke in the morning, her flaxen hair across my face.

  Chapter 30

  J. Fletcher, Convict

  On a road gang

  Somewhere in the God-awful USA

  Miss Jacky Faber

  Also somewhere in this God-awful USA

  But no doubt in a state higher than my current one

  Jacky,

  We shuffle out of the Pittsburgh prison at dawn, clad in our prison stripes, left legs shackled by the ankles to a long chain, after having been fed a ration of oatmeal, molasses, and weak coffee, made from some plant that grows wild here and isn't even remotely related to a coffee tree. Sailors on the meanest ship would complain of this fare, but so be it. I shan't complain. It is my lot and I will accept it.

 
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