Mississippi jack, p.18
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       Mississippi Jack, p.18

           L. A. Meyer
 

  In that regard I've had Carpenter MacCauley make up some wide boards that hook together at their edges, which we can lay from the Belle to any dock we might be next to, making a sort of stage area, where we can put on shows for the people in these port towns and thereby not have to find an accommodating tavern in which to perform. Jane says taverns are going to get scarcer and scarcer as we move on, anyway, so I think it's good we're doing this. We have also built some light benches for future audiences, which we've stowed down in the still-empty cargo hold—wasn't able to find a cargo yet, 'cept for livestock, and I don't want to smell up my newly beautiful Belle with any of that.

  I'm glad we are moving on. It's not good to grow stale by staying in one location too long—first whiff of that and you are toast, and old, cold toast at that. Nope, always leave 'em wantin' more, as Gully MacFarland used to say. Our good-byes were said last night at the Sign of the General Butler and all pronounced themselves sad to see us go, and that is as it should be.

  Come time for lunch, I have my private table set up on the quarterdeck, as it is a lovely, mild day, and I invite Mr. Cantrell to join me, as he is amusing company even though I know he is a rounder of some sort—just what kind, I don't know yet, but if he stays with us long enough, I'm sure I will find out.

  "Thank you for inviting me, Miss Faber," he says, pulling out my chair for me. Ah, I do like gentlemanly manners.

  "My pleasure, Mr. Cantrell," I purr, and slide into the chair as Katy comes up with the tray. The tea is poured and the food is served and we fall into a wide-ranging conversation that winds up with me lamenting the lack of a cargo to take down the river.

  "It's got to be clean and compact, and short of carrying a cargo of gold, I can't think what that could be." I sigh, re-signed to having an empty hold.

  "I have a suggestion, if you don't mind," he says, smiling. He smooths back his mustache with the top of his forefinger.

  "Please. I'd like to hear it," I say. I've noticed that men with mustaches do that smoothing bit a lot.

  "It seems to me that..."

  From up forward I hear Clementine's voice, raised in song.

  Hmmm.

  I stand up. "If you'll please excuse me for a moment, Mr. Cantrell? And please hold your thought on my cargo problem."

  He stands up as I do and says, "Of course."

  I recognize the song as "Fair and Tender Ladies." I know that song, 'cause Katy taught me the words. 'Course there's an old English version, but the American tune is much more sorrowful. Wonder why that is with the Americans—they're so wildly optimistic about their burgeoning country, yet their songs are so sad and lonesome?

  Come all ye fair and tender ladies,

  Take warning how you court young men,

  They're like the stars of a summer's mornin',

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

  I walk over the cabin top and look down upon her bent over the scrub board. She has a good voice and she sings with great feeling. She does the verse about love bein' a killin' thing, and she sounds like she really means it. I wonder where she's been, to have such intensity. Then she does the bit about wanting to be a tiny sparrow ... spay-row is how she says the name of the little bird.

  I wish I was some little sparrow

  And I had wings and I could fly,

  I'd fly away to my false true lover,

  And all he'd say, I would deny.

  As she starts the last verse, I join in. She starts at the sound of my voice joining hers, but she doesn't miss a beat, nor stumble on a word.

  But I am not some little sparrow,

  I have no wings, and I can't fly,

  So I'll stay right here in my grief and sorrow

  And let my troubles pass me by.

  She turns to look up at me as we finish the duet.

  "You have a very lovely voice, Clementine," I say. "And I think we sounded very good together, don't you?"

  "Yes, Miss."

  Well, I guess you have to answer that way, Clementine, whether you think it or not. I consider the girl, who returns to her scrubbing. "You say your husband is a good man, and I believe you. You have proved to be a good worker in your own right. That said, should you catch up with us in your rowboat, I will give you both employment. What do you think?"

  She turns to look at me and a slight smile crosses her features.

  "I'll ask him," she says. "Tonight. I'll be leavin' this evenin', since you're goin' in the mornin'."

  From the corner of my eye, I notice that Jim Tanner has chosen this moment to return from his errand and has heard this exchange. I see his shoulders sag.

  "All right," I say.

  "And, Miss," Clementine goes on, "you said you might pay me somethin' for my work..."

  "You shall have it, Clementine. It was good having you aboard," I say, and with that I return to my lunch with Mr. Cantrell.

  "That was a lovely duet," says Mr. Cantrell, as we settle back in. "I must say that my first thought when you got up from the table was that you were going to chastise the girl for disturbing our luncheon."

  "Voices raised in song never disturb me, Mr. Cantrell," I reply, a bit severely.

  "Nor me, Miss Faber," says Yancy Cantrell, with a slight bow. "I, too, take delight in music, all music, however simple the source." The mustache is stroked yet again. "I must say that over the past week I have perceived depths in your character that I had not previously discerned. My compliments."

  Oh, you are so smooth, Mr. Cantrell.

  "I, too, am a very simple sort, Mr. Cantrell, having been raised as a homeless orphan on the cruel streets of London. But let that go," I say. "Now, what were you saying on the matter of cargo?"

  "Simply, Miss, that instead of hauling gold, you might consider amber," says Mr. Cantrell.

  "Which means?"

  "Whiskey, Miss, is what I mean. The very finest of bourbon whiskey," he says, pulling out a long cheroot. "Do you mind if I smoke?"

  "Not at all, as long as the smoke doesn't drift my way and you don't set my ship afire," I say. "Whiskey?"

  He pulls out one of the newly invented matches and fires up the foul thing. "Yes, Miss. It is clean, compact, and, ounce for ounce, very valuable."

  "Hauling whiskey to New Orleans sounds to me much like hauling coals to Newcastle," I answer, doubtfully. "I've been to New Orleans. It seemed it was fairly awash in spirits. Need they more?"

  "What you tasted was rum, Miss, or at best rye whiskey, not fine bourbon whiskey. They don't have the ingredients down there, nor do they know the secrets of the sour-mash process." He leans across the table and points the cigar at me. "Now, as we journey down the Ohio, you will presently find Virginia on our left, and then, after a time, you will find the state of Kentucky, and there, Miss, is where the very finest of whiskeys are made. And, where you can pick it up for a good price." Satisfied he has made a good case, he settles back in his chair and watches me for my reaction.

  "Well, as for tasting rum in New Orleans, that did not happen. I have taken a vow never to drink spirits, and I have not, except when certain men of low character have forced it between my lips..."

  "Even more depths...," observes Mr. Cantrell under his breath, and his eyes narrow and look very sly.

  "...but I will take your words under consideration," say I, again rising. "But now I must get back to work. Thank you for your company, Mr. Cantrell, and for your advice."

  That evening, at six o'clock, Mrs. Clementine Fletcher gathers up her belongings and goes off the Belle of the Golden West. She gives Jim a squeeze of the hand and a kiss on the cheek, which I think is proper under the circumstances, she being a married woman and all, in spite of her age. He looks very down in the mouth, but I figure he'll get over it, 'cause you generally do.

  She throws the strap of the rifle over her thin shoulders and picks up the bag she arrived with all those days ago, and starts off, not looking back.

  I stand with Jim and watch her go, her too-short yellow dress blowing abou
t her knees as she trudges off into the night.

  I put my hand on Jim's shoulder and give it a shake, but I don't know if it helps any.

  It starts to rain.

  Chapter 33

  The Convict J. Fletcher

  at Hard Labor

  in a foul American jail

  Jacky,

  We got off the road gang later than usual this night, the rotten jailers getting an extra hour of work out of us, the sods. With aching muscles I sit down on the floor of the jail, my back to the wall, eating the bowl of gruel dished out to me. I don't even want to think on what's in it.

  My boon companion, Mike Fink, slumps down at my side.

  "Ha, boy, only twelve more days! Hell, I could do twelve days standin' on my head with my thumb up my ass! Ha!"

  In former days, a statement like that could make me lose my appetite, but not now. I shovel in the landsmen's burgoo. Isn't the worst I've tasted, being Royal Navy and all. Or, rather, used to be Royal Navy, I think with some lingering regret. How proud I was to be ... never mind.

  "Now, you, boy, you got less'n a week or so to go," continues Fink. "Hell, that's so short a time that I don't think I can even start up a long conversation with you 'cause I wouldn't get to finish it. I mean, that's so short a time that—"

  "Jaimy."

  I freeze with the gruel still on my lips.

  "Jaimy. It's me. Clementine."

  I fling down the bowl, its contents spilling over the floor, and leap to the window.

  Looking out, I see her small and forlorn figure standing there in the rain in the dwindling twilight. She has nothing with her, just herself—wearing her yellow dress and white apron. The dress is becoming soaked in the rain and is clinging to her. She stands with her arms held straight down at her sides.

  "I'm here, Clementine," I say. "I was so worried about you. I—"

  "Shouldn't have worried about me, Jaimy. I found me some people what took care of me, so I was all right."

  I notice that her hair is fixed different, with ringlets on the side of her face, and a cold feeling comes over me.

  "You ... you didn't ... sell ... anything, did you?"

  She raises her blue eyes to me. "I don't know what that means, Jaimy. No, all I sold was the labor of my hands, as that's all I'm good at. That what you mean?"

  "Clementine, I—"

  "No, hush now, Jaimy, and let me talk. I'll be gone off soon."

  Chilled to my soul at that, I listen.

  "I seen her, Jaimy, I did. I had to see what she was like to make you want her so. And I found out. I crept up outside the place where she was singin' and dancin' and tellin' stories and all. I seen her all right, and I seen that she can do all those things I cain't do. Dress up and act like a fine lady like she was born to it ... sing, dance, play all them musical things. Ever'body in the town just loved her, I could see. Me, I cain't do nothin' 'cept wash dishes and clothes."

  She pauses here to take a breath. I can see her thin chest rise and fall. Myself, I can hardly breathe.

  "I'm cutting you free, Jaimy, 'cause I know it's her you want and not me. I ain't gonna make no sense now, 'cause I'm just gonna ramble on so maybe you'll know why I'm doin' this...

  "Now, don't say nuthin' and don't you worry about me, Jaimy. I've seen me some shows and some city lights, and I've learned to dance slow. I've met a sweet young boy. I've drunk me some drinks and et some things I never seen before, and I seen some sights. You was right, Jaimy, my life has got a lot better since I found you. God sent you to me and I still believe that, but now I'm thinkin' He sent you to show me that I could go off and have a better life even without you, on my own, like, and I thank Him for it, and I thank you, too, Jaimy, for taking me away.

  "I got me a good job, taking care of the kids in this family that's going upriver to a new homestead. They was nice to me and fixed up my hair like this, and, no, Jaimy, I ain't sold 'em nuthin' 'cept the labor of my hands."

  I know that it is not raindrops that are streaming down her face, but I say nothing. I only look into those sad blue eyes.

  "One night when she was playing in that tavern, I snuck aboard the boat she stole from Mike Fink, just to look around. You know she got a paintin' of you above her bed, dressed in your fine uniform? Yup. It looks just like you. Oh, Jaimy, it just about tore my heart out to see you there, looking like that—all fine, fine as she is and fine as I never can be. Oh, yes, you and her, you both talk funny, you do, so I guess you belong together."

  The rain pours down now and the ringlets are gone from her hair.

  "Clementine, you're going to catch your death—"

  "Don't you worry about that none, neither." She gulps, sobbing now. "But listen to this: I've left the rifle and pistol and the other stuff at the General Butler tavern. Ask for Molly. She's been real good to me, too. I left the money I earned with her, too. The rowboat's down at the pier."

  She stands there for a moment longer, then says, "I think that's all I got to say. Good-bye, Jaimy. I loved you so."

  She turns and walks away. Just before she gets out of sight, she stops for a moment, and when I don't call her back, she goes on and disappears into the night.

  I slump down, my back against the wall of the cell.

  There, my rational mind thinks, my problem is solved, just like that.

  So why do I feel so wretched and alone?

  And why do I feel so damned rotten?

  Chapter 34

  "Jake said he wanted to go north with some trappers. Tol' me I could go with him if'n I wanted to," said Clementine when she appeared back at the boat that night, standing soaking wet in the rain, with no rifle, no bag, no nothing ... nothing but her poor self, her arms wrapped around her shivering form.

  "Tol' him I didn't want to. Tol' him I didn't want to go off with a bunch of dirty trappers. No tellin' what they'd do with me if'n his back was turned," she said, not moving from the place where she first appeared. The expression of total resignation that was writ on her face also did not change. "If'n the work of Cook's Helper is still offered to me, I'll take it and be grateful for your kindness. If'n not, I'll be on my way."

  "Of course you can go with us, Clementine," I say, reaching my hand up to welcome her aboard, but my hand is beat to it by a joyous Jim Tanner, who bounds up to the dock.

  "My dear girl!" he exclaims as his hand takes hers.

  She looks up at him. "I warn't really married to him, not like in church and all. My real name is Clementine Amaryllis Jukes, named after my mother."

  "Well, consider yourself the newest employee of Faber Shipping, Worldwide, Clementine Amaryllis Jukes," I say, taking her by the arm. "And stand off, James Tanner, as we've got to get her below and get her dry."

  Strange, but I thought I felt her stiffen a bit when I called Jim "James."

  The morning dawned glorious, as it often does for me when I am off on a new venture. The sun shone, the sparkling wavelets were dancing merrily, and all was well in our watery world.

  There was the hustle and bustle of getting the passengers aboard with their luggage, the last-minute payments of dock fees and such, which gives me time to sit down at my topside table and write my first entry into the log:

  Belle of the Golden West log. Preparing to cast off from the port of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, on the Ohio River, bound south for New Orleans and all points between. Passenger manifest as follows:

  Mr. Yancy Beauregard Cantrell, with servant

  Mr. Manning and daughter Elaine

  Mr. and Mrs. Pankowski and family, homesteaders

  Mr. McDaniel, lumber merchant

  Mr. Brady

  Miss Umholtz, schoolmistress, Cincinnati Normal School

  Under way, 10 o'clock. Weather clear, all secure.

  "Cast off!" I cry, exulting in two of the sweetest words in the sailor's language. The lines are taken in and we shove off the dock and pull out into the stream, finally, on the Ohio River.

  "Man your sweeps!" I joyously sing out. Nat
haniel is on port forward oar, his brother Matt on the starboard forward one. Behind Matt stands Jim Tanner on aft starboard, Higgins on port aft oar, and between them, on the cabin top, stands me on the tiller. Katy's on bow lookout, watching for snags and debris and other shipping that might impede our progress, while Clementine is below helping Crow Jane get the noon meal together.

  When I see that all the oars are ready in the up position, I call out, "All ... pull!"

  The oars dip into the water, the stroke is pulled, and they return to the up position.

  "All ... pull!" and it is done again. And again.

  When we're well clear of the dock area I say, "Port, hold! Starboard, pull!" I throw my tiller over to the right and the Belle turns neatly to the left, pointed downriver and parallel to the shore.

  After several more pulls by all, I say, "Secure the after oars; forward oars pull together," and Higgins and Jim ship their oars and secure them. "Jim, take the tiller if you would. Keep her about fifty yards offshore and be alert if Katy spots a snag." We're going fast enough that we can get by with just the Hawkes boys on sweeps, and they know each other well enough that they don't need the strokes called out. We'll reserve that for tight situations, like coming in to dock and such.

  Jim takes the tiller and I go forward to mix with the passengers for a bit. As I go, I step over the blue line I had the sign painter draw on the deck. It runs from the port gunwale over the deck, up the side of the cabin, across the top and down the other side, over the starboard deck to the gunwale on that side. That line separates the quarterdeck from the rest of the ship, and all passengers have been told that, for safety's sake, no one is allowed abaft that line 'cept crew—can't have some little brat hangin' off the tiller bar, now, can we? The real reason is that I like the separation. I've got three young females back here and I don't need any nonsense in that regard. Plus, we must separate the officers from the crew, the crew right now being the Hawkes boys, but I suspect it might grow. I offered a bunk back aft for Crow Jane, but she let it be known that she'd rather sleep next to her stove. For one thing, I know she didn't take kindly to my rule of no smoking at any time in Officers' Country, as it has become known. For another, I think she just liked it better there, next to her stove, with the Hawkeses for company. They've known each other a long time and are comfortable with that, and I can certainly understand.

 
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