Mississippi jack, p.19
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       Mississippi Jack, p.19

           L. A. Meyer
 

  About midway through our stay in Pittsburgh, I had promoted Jim from coxswain to Third Mate, with great ceremony and cheers from all about. With the title, he gets a slight increase in pay, which doesn't really matter much, for I can't afford to pay him anything at all now, but I know he appreciated the recognition. More than once when in the taverns, I saw him put his thumb to his chest and announce to others gathered about him that he was "Third Mate on the Belle of the Golden West, the best damned keelboat on any river in America!" It seems to me that the bragging and boasting tradition of the river has taken hold of our Jim Tanner.

  All the passengers are out on deck, watching the riverbank slide by and remarking on the other shipping and the beauty of the river and of the day. I greet Mr. and Mrs. Pankowski and comment on the beauty of their children and am about to turn to engage others in small talk, when I look up and see a sight that sends me running back to the quarterdeck.

  There on the bank, downriver, is a gang of convicts in black and white striped shirts and pants, toiling away at building a seawall. I can hear the sound of their hammers smashing rocks, to be pounded into the space behind the big rock wall that has already been put up. And there, as we draw closer, I see that at the top of the pile of rocks stands none other than Mike Fink, King of the River.

  "Higgins!" I shriek. "Please, my fiddle!"

  ***

  J. Fletcher, Convict

  On the Rockpile on the bank of the Ohio

  Pennsylvania, USA

  To Jacky Faber or anyone else who might be the least bit interested in my wretched life:

  I was in an extremely surly mood this morning, and in no temper at all to listen to any more of Mike Fink's drivel, or anything else for that matter. The other convicts have learned to stay clear of me, as I have been in several fistfights with a few of the more unruly ones and they have come out the worse for it. Harrumph—to think they would try to best an officer of the Royal Navy with any kind of weapon, including fists. Think of it—I, who have sat at the same table with the great Lord Nelson, now bruise my knuckles on the unshaven chins of ignorant American rabble in a squalid jail in the trackless wilderness.

  Fink, of course, continues to think of me as his protégé in the life and the lore of the rivers, not getting it through his thick head that I could give less than a tinker's damn about all that.

  Yes, it is true: Clementine's departure last night has wounded me to my core.

  "Boy! Lookee there!" shouts Fink from the top of the pile. I am down at the bottom of the hole, tamping the broken bits of rock into the base of the seawall. I poke my head up over the top of the wall. "Out on the river! What's that say on the side of that boat?"

  "It says, you illiterate brigand, 'Belle of the Golden West.' What of it?" Uh-oh, I say to myself—I believe I've seen that craft before.

  "I'll be damned if that don't look like my boat, all gussied up like a fifty-cent whore!"

  I look with a good deal more interest now. I can see people, a lot of them, on the deck and in the stern, and then what appears to be a girl with a fiddle jumps up on the cabin top.

  Then, as the boat comes abreast of us, we can hear the strains of a fiddle and a voice raised in song.

  Dance the boatman's dance,

  Oh, dance the boatman's dance,

  Dance all night till the broad daylight,

  And go home with the girls in the morning!

  I ripped out the melody of the "Boatman's Dance" and then put up my bow to sing the chorus, 'cause I knew Mike would enjoy it so, then I play and sing the verse that most pertains to the poor convicts' situation.

  I went on board the other day,

  To see what the boat girl had to say,

  And there I let my passion loose,

  And they crammed me down in the calaboose!

  "Oh, look, Higgins, how he does rant and roar! Is this not just the finest thing!" I gloat.

  "Have you never heard of the ancient Greek concept of hubris, Miss? If not, there are definitely some gaps in your education, to say nothing of your philosophy," says Higgins, observing the scene with a lot less relish than do I.

  "Oh, bother all that," I say. "Here, I'll give him more of the tune and maybe a bit of a dance to cheer him and those poor convicts. How could that be bad of me?"

  I don't wait for an answer but instead put bow to the Lady Gay and tear out the song, both with fiddle and feet. I'd like to take off my dress so that my legs could more freely move, but I've got passengers aboard and I cannot. However, in my skipping and jumping, I make sure my dress comes up well over my knees, because I am not shy in that way and I mean to bring only joy to those who watch.

  J. Fletcher, astounded

  Behind a stinking seawall in stinking Pennsylvania

  Jacky,

  I will address you directly, Jacky, since it is you that I see dancing on the deck of that boat out in the river. Not much sur prises me in this life anymore. The only thing surprising is that you still have any of your clothes on. My ankle shackles hold me down in this pit, such that I can only get my eyes up over the edge of the wall to watch you. Mike, however, is in full appreciation of your performance.

  "Ah, is she shaking her tail for us poor convicts? To give us some cheer? Aw, that's right nice o' her, considerin she knows I intends to kill her when I catches her. I know it's a shame, it is, but it's gotta be done. Law o' the River, and all. But till then, hey, lookit her shake those tail feathers! She's a game little hen, she is."

  Ordinarily, I would rise in anger and demand satisfaction, but now, no. I merely watch and take joy in watching you cavort. What a thing you are, Jacky Faber.

  "Mike Fink, King of the River, in the calaboose, and me, Jacky Faber, loose on that same river! Ain't life grand sometimes, Higgins?" say I, handing him back the Lady Gay. We have gone around the bend, out of sight of the poor prisoners. I do hope I brought them some joy.

  "True, Miss, but sometimes it is not best to antagonize the natives in the land you travel through."

  "Oh, he can't hurt us now. I bet he's got a good twenty more days on his sentence and we'll be long gone by then."

  "Is this being said by the same Captain who maintained that nothing could ever catch the Emerald?" asks Higgins. He has put the Lady Gay back in her velvet-lined case.

  "That was an unlucky shot, Higgins, and you know it. If that ball had not caught our mainmast—"

  "If is the biggest little word in our language, Miss, but no matter. Will you dine with the passengers today?"

  "I believe so. What's for dinner?"

  "Crow Jane has made up a very acceptable boeuf ragout."

  "Ah. Beef stew. Sounds good. Crack out some burgundy to go with it, if you would."

  "Certainly, Miss."

  "Now, calm down, boy. Iffen you catch up with her 'fore I do, you'll marry her skinny tail and you'll have a mess of runny-nosed little brats, and she'll make yer life miserable, count on it. Plenty of time for stuff like that! Enjoy this!" says Fink.

  "Enjoy what? Being a convict in a barbaric land?"

  "Hey, this ain't so bad. Three hots and a cot, it could be worse. Say, jus' how close did you git to that little bundle, hmmm? Does she wiggle? Does she squeal and shout? Come on, warm a poor convict's heart, boy!"

  "A gentleman doesn't speak of such things. Fink, I swear you are the most uncouth man I have ever met."

  "Jest as I thought, boy. Oh, she prances, and she dances, and she says Oh, Mr. Man, you are just the very finest of men,' but when it comes down to tearin up the sheets together, she's gone all prissy church lady and won't deliver the goods. 'Why, Suh, I hardly know you...' I can hear it now. Yup, she's the teasin kind, I can tell."

  "You do not know her, Mike."

  "That's all right, boy. You think what you want. You go catch her and love her up good, till such time as I can get down river and kill her. And hell, boy, after we've done her good and proper, you stay out on the river with me. It's the only life for a man and you know it to be true."<
br />
  Dance on, Jacky, dance on—

  Jaimy

  PART IV

  Chapter 35

  And so we traveled down the Oh-Hi-Oh, singing and dancing as we went. It's been a good week since we left Pittsburgh behind us, and we have long since left the Pennsylvania shores to find the state of Virginia on our east, and Ohio on our west. Virginia is a slave state and that makes me somewhat nervous, what with Mr. Cantrell's girl being on board and all. But I've got to get used to that, 'cause soon we'll have slave states and slave territories on both sides of us.

  I lose some passengers as Mr. McDaniel gets off at the squalid little town of Wheeling, Virginia—no taverns to play in, pigs runnin' free in the streets, whole place stinkin' to high heaven—and Mr. Brady leaves at East Lick, but I pick up another one there, and at the very last minute, too. Just as we are about to pull out into the current again, I hear a cry of "Wait! Wait! Please wait!" and this man jumps out of the bushes and leaps onto the Belle. He is a tall man, thin, and dressed as a preacher, stiff collar and all, and what he has clasped in his hands seems to be a collection box. He looks over his shoulder as if he fears pursuit but calms down as soon as we get far enough midstream.

  "I am the Very Reverend Jeremiah Clawson," he says, smoothing down his coat and smiling the smile of the blessed and holy.

  "I am pleased to meet you, Reverend Clawson," I answer, dropping into a medium curtsy. "I am the Very Mercantile Jacky Faber and the fare is twelve cents a mile, prepaid, Reverend." He nods and harrumphs and roots about in the box to come up with the fare, an amount that'll get him at least as far as Cincinnati.

  He is not the only new addition to the Belle. After leaving East Lick, while we were swinging around a bend in the river and coming close to the shore, two buckskin-clad forms, each carrying a long rifle, dropped silently from an overhanging tree onto our deck. Katy sees them drop, rolls over from her place on the bow, nocks an arrow, and has that same arrow drawn and pointed at the chest of the taller of the two.

  "Katy, wait!" cries Crow Jane, who had just come on deck for a smoke. "It's Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat! They're all right! Don't shoot! Boss, come here!"

  I jump down to the main deck. There stand two men. One is an Indian with both sides of his head plucked bare and feathers stuck into the remaining crest. He's bare-chested and is wearing a breechcloth and fringed leather leggings, with beaded moccasins on his feet. In addition to his rifle, there is a knife and a tomahawk in his belt. Lord! My first real Indian! Except for Crow Jane, of course. True, I had seen some small encampments of what I had been told were Indians on the shores that we had passed, but here, standing before me, was a true Indian brave, skin bronze and gleaming, nose hooked, and eyes black as coal.

  "They'll pay their way when they're aboard, trust me on that," promises Crow Jane. "They'll hunt and get game. And when you get to Cave-in-Rock, you'll be glad to have 'em on your side!"

  The other man is a white man—or maybe once was a white man. His skin is just as dark and tanned, and he is dressed much as the other, but his eyes are green and they bore into the eyes of Katy Deere, whose arrow point has not wavered one inch from a point dead center on his chest. Unlike his friend's, this one's chest is covered with an overshirt of beaded, fringed buckskin. Not that it would in any way stop Katy's arrow on its way to his heart, should she choose to release it.

  "Katy," I say. "Stand down."

  She brings down the arrow, to point to the deck, but does not relax the bow.

  "Your name is Lightfoot?" I ask of this frontiersman.

  He nods but says nothing. He keeps his eyes on Katy and her still-nocked arrow.

  "Where are you bound?"

  There is a pause, then...

  "Goin' to the Arkansas," he replies, slowly bringing his eyes over to bear on me. "Who the hell are you, girl?"

  "Jacky Faber. Captain of this boat, that's who the hell I am. Why are you goin' to the Arkansas?"

  "Huh!" he says, considering my captainhood. Then, "Man there. Needs killin'."

  Hmmm...

  "Well, Crow Jane vouches for you and that's good enough for me. So welcome aboard. Just follow the rules and we'll get along."

  They don't say anything but instead seat themselves cross-legged on the foredeck, and there they sit in silence.

  Later, when we anchor for the night, Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat slip off onto the shore to sleep in the forest, and I find that will be their usual way throughout this trip, and, right now, that's all right with me.

  The second day they are with us, they come back aboard in the morning with a full-grown deer slung across Lightfoot's shoulder. When he steps aboard, he drops the carcass at my feet and turns away to resume his spot up near the bow, saying nothing.

  Seeing this, Crow Jane comes up and grabs the dead beast by its hind legs and drags it off to butcher it. Thankfully, she does it out of my sight, but I must say the dinner that night was excellent, and a welcome change from the fish.

  I expect my crew to do their jobs, but I ain't the type to just make work for people, so there's plenty of time for lounging about in the sun. I heard the Hawkes boys fooling around with a song and went forward to join them. They stand up as I approach. Good boys, you are learning.

  "What's that you're singin'?" I ask.

  "It's called 'Ground Hog,' Miss," says Matty. "We learned it as babies, didn't we, 'Thaniel?"

  "Yup. It's about a critter what lives aroun' here. Sometimes called a 'whistle pig' 'cause of the sound it makes when it's standin' next to his hole, 'bout to dive in. Learned to eat 'em and learned to sing their song, too."

  "So sing it, then," say I, crossing my arms across my chest.

  They ain't shy about doing it. They each have these little metal things they call jaw harps, and they whip them out of their pockets and stand up next to each other. Then they cup them in their left hands and press them against their teeth, and with their forefinger, they strike the twangy part of the mouth harp to make the sound. By working their jaws up and down, and I suspect some tongue action inside, they make something that sounds almost like a melody. It certainly seems to fit the tune they start to sing. After the boys hammer away at the tune to set the mood, Matty stops playing his and howls out:

  Grab yer gun and whistle up yer dawg,

  Grab yer gun and whistle up yer dawg,

  We're goin' to the wild woods to hunt ground hawg!

  Ooooooh, ground hawg!

  Matty slaps his jaw harp back up to his mouth and twangs away while 'Thaniel takes up the next two verses.

  I dug down but I didn't dig deep,

  I dug down but I didn't dig deep,

  Found a little whistle pig fast asleep!

  Oooooh, ground hawg!

  Here come Sally with a ten-foot pole,

  Here come Sally with a ten-foot pole,

  Twist that whistle pig outta his hole!

  Oooooh, ground hawg!

  My sympathies fast attaching to the unfortunate rodent, I listen as Matty now steps to the fore to bellow out the last two verses.

  Here come Susie with a snicker and a grin,

  Here come Susie with a snicker and a grin,

  Ground hawg gravy all over her chin.

  Oooooh, ground hawg.

  Little piece o' cornbread, sitting on a shelf,

  Little piece o' cornbread, sitting on a shelf,

  You want any more, you can sing it yourself.

  Oooooh, ground hawg!

  The Hawkes lads round off their number with both of them on jaw harp and their feet pounding the deck in a dance I take to be the "clog" that others have told me is common to this area.

  When the last foot has stomped down, I give them a delighted round of applause, which is echoed by the passengers who have gathered about, and the boys blush and say, "Pshaw! Warn't nuthin'; anyone kin do thet..."

  But I, for one, know that isn't true. I find out later that they also know how to call out the square dances, and I figure that could prove mighty
useful. I resolve to have them teach the skill to me. In return, I might include them in my act—I can see us in a line, with me and my fiddle and maybe Clementine, too, all of us twanging and singing and clogging away. Hmmm. We shall have to work on it. First I've got to make the Lady Gay sing that high, lonesome sound, and neither she nor I have got it yet.

  Jim Tanner, alas, has no music in him at all, and his voice is that of a tone-deaf frog. Oh, he likes the music, especially when Clementine is doing the singing—he just can't sing, is all.

  I have started Clementine on her ABCs and simple numbers, and have required Jim to become more proficient at both those studies, and since he gets to sit next to Clementine, he does not protest too much. Actually, he does know how to read, basically, so he takes over most of the education of Clementine Jukes. When they don't think I am looking, they hold hands under the table. Oh, Jim, I wonder just who's gonna be getting the education here? She and I work on duets and are coming along quite nicely. If only we had some audiences. Crow Jane says there ain't gonna be much in the way of that till the town of Maysville, on the Kentucky shore. I think on it and come up with a plan—sending Jim ahead to scare up a crowd. Tell 'em showboat's a-comin'. But how to get him there? Hmmmm.

 
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