Mississippi jack, p.17
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       Mississippi Jack, p.17

           L. A. Meyer

  Then we are all loaded onto a rough cart and taken on a jolting trip to the outskirts of the town, to a place next to the Ohio River where some seawall work needs to be done, and we are, of course, the ones chosen to do it.

  I am, as Fate and the ever-so-humorous gods would have it, fettered next to Mike Fink, my supposed partner in my crimes against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and must listen to his rants both night and day. He says he has taken a shine to me. God help me.

  On the first day, we were shown the work that had to be done. There was a quarry where tons of what appears to be a sandy stone were blasted out of the quarry wall and hauled on carts by some convicts up to the rest of us, who would then use our hammers to break the bigger pieces into littler pieces that would be tamped into the space behind the seawall. It was called, not very poetically, the Rockpile.

  While I was slaving away at the Rockpile, I added meaning to this deadly drudgery by picturing the many heads that I would very much like to have seen split, from Midshipman Bliffil to the pirate LeFievre to Captain Scroggs to Captain Blodgett to Captain Rutherford to many others I have met in this life. In my fury I even conjured up some half-buried jealousies and pictured smashing the knees of Robin Raeburne and the same of Randall Trevelyne. I am sorry, Jacky, but I am beyond rational thought. I swing my hammer with great gusto: Here's one for your toes, Randall! Smash! You like that, you arrogant son of a bitch? Try to get on my girl, will you? Well, here's another! Smash!

  I was in an absolute orgy of jealous destruction, but I was restrained in time by my mentor.

  "No, no, boy, y'see, y'gotta just do the least bit they require," said Mike with all the reasonableness of a schoolmaster. "Otherwise, if you do too good a job, they'll just nail you again as soon as you step outside the calaboose, 'cause they'll want you back. Y'see?"

  I did see, and I slowed down my hammering and let my simmering resentment burn off. But I did not stop thinking and nurturing my resentments: There was the man Beatty to consider. Since I had grown a beard and pulled the ribbon from my hair to let my hair hang loose about my face, and affected an idiot's slow drawl when in his hearing, I do not think he recognized me. In fact, I was able to hear him talk to one of his compatriots to the effect that he and his partner, McCoy, would be heading south to a place called Johnstown after he got out of this hole. It warmed my heart to know that.

  But my heart was not warm for long, for once again, that night Clementine did not appear at the jailhouse window.

  Mike was sympathetic, in his way. "Should've kep' that one and got rid o' the other one. She seems like a good girl."

  A good girl, indeed, I thought, as I grasped the cold bars and looked out onto the empty street....

  Chapter 31

  Clementine continues to sweeten. She arose singing from our bunk this morning and went straight to her work, helping Crow Jane get the stove started up from last night's coals and the breakfast on the table.

  I had thought to take my meals in my cabin, separate from the others, as befits my station, but I decided against it. For one thing, I didn't want Higgins to appear to be waiting on me hand and foot, which, of course, I certainly enjoy, but it would damage his image as First Mate. Second, I liked the conviviality of sitting at the head of the long table and eating and drinking with my mates. Oh, sometimes I will take my dinner solitaire, when the occasion demands, but not now. The passengers will also join us at this table. The Hawkes boys must be taught some manners before that, though. I invite Mr. Cantrell to join our table and he does. I insist that the girl he has with him join us also, but she shakes her head and takes her plate to a corner to eat.

  After serving, Clementine sits down next to Jim, who seems to appreciate the company. After the breakfast cleanup and the day's laundry are done, I'm sure the two again will be sitting on the bow, fishing and talking, their heads together.

  The Hawkes boys sit at the very foot of this table, but they are learning their manners, very slowly but surely. There is hope for them, I think, crude as they now are.

  I decide to take Clementine to the performance tonight, as a reward for her new cheerfulness, and I think it would be good for her to broaden her horizons some—I have the feeling she has seen very little of the world. I'll take Jim, too, since we can leave the Belle in the very capable hands of Crow Jane.

  After the day's labor is done, Higgins and I set to work on Clementine's appearance. The hair is freshly washed and Higgins steps back and considers it, scissors in hand.

  "Hmmm. We'll snip a little bit off here"—he applies the scissors quickly and surely—"and here. And we'll curl this, then tie this up in a bow. I think that will do it."

  The girl does not know quite what to think, but she goes along with it. Higgins heats up the curling iron and goes to work.

  "There, what do you think of that?" I ask, holding the hand mirror up for her to gaze upon her newly coiffed self. Two curled ringlets hang by either side of her face, the rest of her hair being swept up top and tied with a blue ribbon.

  She is amazed.

  "And what do you think your young man will think?" tease I.

  "Ooooh. I don't know what he'll think," she says. "I don't know what to think myself."

  "What's his first name, anyway?" I ask, putting away combs and pins.

  "Jai—" she begins, and then coughs. "Jake. His name's Jake, short for Jacob."

  "Is he a good man?" I ask. "And how old is he?"

  "Yes, he's a good boy. 'Bout eighteen, I figure."

  "Did he put those there?" I ask, pointing to some old yellow bruises high up on her arms.

  "No. Pap done that. That's why I run away."

  "Ah. What's Jake in jail for, if you don't mind me askin'?"

  "Got caught up in a fight that warn't none of his concern."

  "Ah, well, that happens, doesn't it? When the boys want to fight, sometimes you just gotta let 'em."

  "I reckon," she agrees, softly. "Still, it tore me up to see him hurt like that."

  "Well, he'll be out soon," chirps I, "and you'll have a most joyful reunion."

  Strangely, she does not smile at the prospect but only nods and looks down at her hands.

  "But as for now," I say briskly, "let's get you out of that dress and into something more suited to the evening. I shall lend you my serving-girl gear, which is what I usually perform in, and I shall wear my blue dress instead ... Now, Higgins, don't look at me that way. I know it's a bit scandalous, but is not 'scandal' my middle name? Come on, be a sport and stuff me in."

  I had fashioned my blue dress after a dress I'd seen worn by a Mrs. Roundtree. I had sewn it while I was on the Dolphin and figuring I was about to get kicked off. In which thinking I was absolutely right, by the way. Mrs. Roundtree was a lady in Palma de Mallorca, who practiced what is sometimes called "the oldest profession," but who was very kind to me in explaining how things work. I, myself, do not think hers is the "oldest profession"...I think runnin' a scam is the oldest, but let that go. As everybody who knows me realizes, I am a somewhat eccentric Biblical scholar. However, it is possible I could have picked a more modest model for my first dress, I will allow that.

  With a heavy sigh, Higgins hauls the dress out of my seabag and goes to set the iron on the stove, and I turn to strapping Clementine into my serving-girl rig.

  We are about the same size, but I think that's because she maybe ain't stopped growing yet.

  So anyway, on with the black stockings—she's got a tattered pair of drawers, so that's good 'cause I don't have to give her one of mine—then she dons the blousy white shirt, black skirt, and then the black vest to top it off. I stand back and survey my work.

  "Good," I say. "You look the very picture of the hard-workin' barmaid. When we get there, I'll set it up with Molly so that you'll be helping Katy—pickin' up and washin' the empty mugs, wipin' off the tables, carryin' in the trays of food and drink. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it right quick. When you learn to count change, you can wait on tabl
es in your own right."

  She nods, smoothing out the unfamiliar cloth under her hands.

  "All right, we are off to the merry dance," I crow as we leave the Belle, me and Higgins and Katy and Clementine and, right next to her, Jim Tanner.

  Jane lights up her pipe and sits by the gangway, Jim's rifle over her knees, as we depart. Behind her the Hawkes boys sit with their long legs dangling over the side, whining, "How come we'uns don't get to go, too?"

  "'Cause yer a pair o' no-good drunken louts who'd drink up all the profits and then start fightin' with each other and then get thrown back in the calaboose ag'in," says Crow Jane, "after we'uns been trainin' y'uns all week and y'uns eatin' up all the food and bein' nothin' but trouble. Nope. We got a 'vestment in y'uns and yer gonna pay it off if'n I got anythin' to say about it."

  Aw, Janey...

  The Sign of the General Butler is very nearly full when we get there to prepare for the night's show. I wear my cloak about my shoulders as if for warmth, though the night is warm enough.

  I set it up with Molly as to what Clementine's duties will be, then I step up on the small stage we have had built, with Higgins taking his usual station behind me. I pick up my concertina to accompany the first song. Jim, without being told, goes to help Clementine. Hmmmm... In the beginning, I had half hoped that some sparks might work up between Katy and Jim, but nothing happened. Oh, they are good friends and trade jokes and gibes and all, but it's a brother-sister thing. But with Clementine, now, I think I can feel the heat between them. But Jim, she says she's a married woman...

  I put that out of my head and turn my mind to performance.

  "Good evening, gentlemen, and yes, ladies, as I do see some of the fair sex in the audience. All are welcome to the Sign of the General Butler, and none may fear coarse or vulgar language. I will begin tonight's show with 'Handsome Molly' in honor of our gracious hostess!"

  A cheer goes up for Molly Murphy, who acknowledges with a tankard held high, and I go into the song.

  I wish I was in London,

  Or some other seaport town,

  I'd set my foot on a sailing ship

  And sail the ocean round!

  While sailin' round the ocean,

  While sailin' on the sea,

  I'll dream of Handsome Molly,

  Wherever she might be!

  That gets a round of cheers for both Molly and me. I play the melody on my squeeze box and look about and see that Clementine has wiped down a table and is looking about for more to do. Good girl. I do the next verse and another chorus.

  Don't you remember, Molly,

  You gave me your right hand?

  You said if you should marry,

  I would be the man.

  I see that Jim Tanner is hangin' right close to our Clementine, and I suppose that is good. We've got to watch out for each other, don't we? I do the last verse, wherein Handsome Molly begins to stray.

  I went to church last Sunday,

  You passed me right by,

  I could tell your mind was changin'

  By the rovin of your eye.

  Clementine brings a tray of tankards up to a table and sets it down. Katy is there and she deals the drinks out to the table and Clementine is about to take the tray back to the bar when one of the gents reaches out his hand and runs it right up the back of her skirt. Uh-oh, forgot to warn her about that...

  She stands up straight, shocked, and not knowing what to do while this cove runs his hand over her rump. I'm about to stop the song and sic Higgins on him when Jim appears at her side and grabs the bloke's hand and throws it down and sticks his balled-up fist in his face. The man looks up into the enraged eyes of the boy and decides not to push it. Clementine looks into Jim's eyes and I can feel the heat from here. I sing while playing the last verse and chorus.

  While sailin' round the ocean,

  While sailin' round the sea,

  I'll think of faithless Molly,

  Wherever she might be.

  As I round the song off, I notice Clementine heading back to the bar with her tray. Could that be Jim Tanner's hand on the small of her back, guiding her on her way?

  Amid the applause, I whip off my cloak and reach back for the Lady Gay and put the fiddle to my chin and rip into "Billy in the Low Ground," and the crowd roars its approval, whether it's more for the tune or the costume, I don't know, but I'll take it either way. I made this dress three years ago, and while it still fits me, the parts of me that might have grown a little bit since that time tend to be my upper works, parts that seem to be trying to work their way out of confinement as I saw away at my fiddle. Perhaps Higgins is right—it might be time to retire this garment. Or at least alter it. Ah, well, who cares, as I am not shy in that regard.

  After three or four more tunes, I do a poem, "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck," and manage to wrest a few tears out of many a manly eye, then lighten the set with a reel, a couple of jigs, a sailor song, and then I take a break.

  "Thanks, Molly," I say, putting my nose in the foam on top of a tankard of ale and drinking down a long swallow. "Oh, and my throat was so dry, I tell you true."

  "Ah, well, Jacky," says Molly, "you've been doin' just fine. Sad to think you'll be gone in a coupl'a days."

  "There'll be someone else who'll come along soon to play the old tunes, Molly, you'll see. I ain't the only songbird in the bush," I say, somewhat regretfully. I have enjoyed playing here, but I know I got to push on.

  On the other side of the bar, Clementine and Jim are head to head and elbow to elbow, washing mugs and glasses. I know this is a chore that Jim would rebel at in ordinary times, but these, apparently, are not ordinary times for young Jim.

  I finish off the mug, push it away, and again mount the stage. There are whoops and hollers as I launch into another set of songs, instrumentals, and patter. There are times when I look up and notice that Clementine, when not involved in work, or engaged with Jim, continues to study me with those cold blue eyes.

  I reflect also that it is a lot of work holding a crowd in the palm of your hand all by yourself, and it is often that I long for the company of my old partner Gully MacFarland, he of the magic fiddle and the knowledge of a thousand songs. True, he was a drunk and a no-account, but still he had his charms. I think of one of his old jokes, which he used to break up a set, and looking around at the females in the crowd and judging that they're a quite bawdy bunch of women, I decide to recount it. I put up my bow and begin telling the joke.

  "There once was a Scotsman who was far from his native land, in Pennsylvania it was, and not far from here, in fact. He had drunk his fill in the local tavern and then stumbled out into a nearby field, to answer the call of nature..."

  "Hear, hear, go on, go on!" says the crowd.

  "...and he did relieve himself, but in trying to return to the revels in the tavern, he found that he had already drunk his fill and so keeled over on his back, fast asleep in the heather..."

  "Sounds like a damned Scotsman," says some bloke, and another tells him to shut his gob. Peace, all, please, I think to myself.

  "...and he lay there till mornin', peacefully slumberin' away, when who should come upon his sleepin' form but two young maidens out to take the cows to pasture. Seein' him there, one says to the other, 'I've heard that Scotsmen wear nothing under their kilts. What say we find out, Sister?'

  "And so, being bold Pennsylvania girls, they go and lift up the front of his kilt and find..."

  Guffaws and snickers all around.

  "...and find that he indeed has nothing on 'neath his kilt. 'Lord,' says one of the maidens, 'look at that, will you!' and the other says, 'We must be going on, Sister, but how can we leave him a message that we have been here to observe him in all his manliness?'"

  I give a bit of a pause to build it up a bit, then proceed.

  "'We will do this, Sister,' and she pulls the blue ribbon from her hair and ties it ... about ... well, you know what she ties it about," say I, blushing mightily, my eyes
cast down in fake modesty. "Then she pulls his kilt back down, smooths it out, and the two girls go off on their way."

  I take a deep breath and look off into the rafters, as if the story is done. I give it a beat or two, and then I resume.

  "Presently, our Scotsman wakes up, and again feels the call of nature and goes off to the nearest bush and raises his kilt." I look all wide-eyed and innocent about the place. "He looks down at his ... uh ... member, with the blue ribbon around it, and exclaims, 'I don't know where you've been, laddie, but wherever it was, it looks like you won first prize!'"

  And with that, I slam down my bow and tear into "Scotland the Brave," and the place explodes in laughter. That's one thing I like about the frontier: You can tell the oldest joke and it'll be new here.

  The rest of the night went well, and all left very satisfied. When I ended off with, as I always did, "The Parting Glass," me and Gully's closing song, I noticed that Jim and Clementine were off in a darkened corner, slowly dancing to the tune.

  Chapter 32

  This will be our last day in Pittsburgh and we are making the most of it, doing our last-minute outfitting, loading on supplies, and saying our good-byes.

  I've arranged with Molly for Clementine's lodging till her man gets out. She'll do chores at the General Butler in return for her room and board. Today she's here doing our laundry, the tubs being set up outside on the deck to keep from steaming up the hold. I've given Jim an errand to run in town so maybe she can get some work done. He has been most attentive to her this past week, and I don't think she has minded the attention. He's getting all gloomy now that we'll be gone tomorrow and she'll still be here. Ah, the pangs of young love. Poor Jim.

  We've got a total of nine passengers, most of them bound for ports this side of Cincinnati—'tis plain that the passenger trade ain't going to do it for us in the way of getting rich, that's for sure. Nope, performance has got to be the way. They've gotta be hungry for entertainment out in the wilderness, that's what I'm thinking. Higgins reserves judgement on this.

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