Mississippi jack, p.20
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       Mississippi Jack, p.20

           L. A. Meyer
 

  During this leg of our journey, I find myself more and more frequently inviting Mr. Cantrell back to my table to dine with me. As we travel farther south, the sun grows steadily more fierce, so I had the Hawkes boys install a sort of canvas canopy over my quarterdeck table to shield me and whomever I might invite to join me.

  On this day, Yancy Cantrell fans a deck of cards out across the table. I look at them, and then up at him, with disdain.

  "I do not believe in gambling, Mr. Cantrell," I say, severely.

  He smiles and smooths back his mustache.

  "Neither, Miss Faber, do I."

  I consider this for a moment and then nod. He smiles and smoothly deals out the cards.

  ***

  And so begins my education as a card sharp. First I learn the rules of the various games of faro, three-card monte, baccarat, and poker. Then, I am taught the odds of drawing certain cards in each of the games, the better able to gauge my chances of winning. After that I practice the art of the bluff. This is how to win when you have nothing in your hand and have only the steady eye and confident demeanor that convinces your opponent that he is the loser, and not you. And then, I learn the dark arts: how to deal smoothly from the bottom of the deck, how to deal seconds, how to palm a card, and how to use marked and shaved cards. I, of course, would never use such cheating skills in an actual game. I study them only for amusement, much as a magician learns sleight of hand. It helps pass the time as we float down the river, that's all. And Mr. Cantrell is an amusing companion.

  We pass by Ohio on our starboard side and slide into Kentucky on our port side and glide into a place called Vanceburg, where we act upon Mr. Cantrell's advice and take on a cargo of Kentucky bourbon whiskey.

  "The purest whiskey you will ever find," promises the distiller with a great amount of pride, counting out the money we put into his hand. His pride notwithstanding, Higgins taps each twenty-gallon barrel we put below, to make sure we are not being had. Everything seems to be in order. Mr. Cantrell assures us, with a wink, that our cargo will come in very handy, in spite of the draining of our very meager resources.

  ***

  Until we can find a regular way to get Jim downstream to stir up a crowd for the showboat, I figure I'll send him ahead with Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat. I'm anxious to try a show out here on the frontier, and Crow Jane says that Maysville might have enough people around there to make up an audience. When I propose that they do this, Lightfoot looks at Chee-a-quat and says, "Wah?" and Chee-a-quat says in return, "Wah!" and Lightfoot and the Indian pick up their rifles and lope off into the woods at an easy gait, with Jim hurrying after them, plainly buoyed by the kiss that Clementine gave him as he set off on his mission.

  Chapter 36

  Jaimy Fletcher, ex-con

  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  USA

  Jacky,

  I was released several days ago, bidding farewell to the Pittsburgh jail and to Mike Fink, who graciously wished me luck in my search for you, saying, "Love her up good, boy, 'fore I come down and mess her up for good and ever. After she's down at the bottom of the river with an anchor chain wrapped 'round her neck, maybe you and me'll bring my boat back upriver. Haul some cargo, buy us a coupl'a fancy ladies, have us a time. Wha'd'ya say, boy?"

  After assuring Mike that I would take that under serious consideration and after enduring a manly hug from him that nearly broke several of my ribs, I walked out of the jail a free man and went directly to the General Butler tavern, hoping that Clementine might still be there. Alas, those hopes were dashed when I was informed by the landlady that she had indeed gone, and to where the landlady did not know. Or said she didn't. Molly Murphy handed over the items that Clementine had left for me—the pistol, rifle, bag of sundry items, and three dollars and seventy-five cents.

  From her look, I could see that this Molly Murphy had very little use for me. "She also paid for two days' lodging for you," she said, as she slapped down the coins on the counter.

  I looked down at the coins. That dear, sweet girl...

  "How old are you, Fletcher?" she asked, her arms crossed on her chest and her gaze stern and disapproving.

  The question took me aback. "Why, nineteen," I answered. "But why—"

  "You nineteen, a grown man with a beard, and that poor girl just fourteen? You ought to be ashamed. Your room's at the top of the stairs," said she, biting the words off short. "You've got today and tomorrow and then I want you out of my place."

  With that, she turned her back to me and stalked off.

  Her words hit me like a punch in the stomach. Fourteen! Oh, Lord, I now know that I am surely going to spend eternity in Hell.

  I did stay those two days at the General Butler in spite of the coldness against me, as I needed to rest and eat some decent food to get my strength up: Mr. Beatty will get out of jail in four days and I intend to be ready. I have kept my beard, for Beatty's partner, McCoy, has been hanging about town, waiting for his release, and I did not want to be recognized as their former prey. I followed him one day to another tavern and stood at the bar near him, having a drink on the generous Clementine, and listened to his conversation with another lowlife. I was gratified to hear that the two brigands still intend to go down to that place called Johnstown, and there's only one road there.

  I did make one other purchase with Clementine's money: I found a rusty cavalry saber with scabbard at a secondhand store. It will look ridiculous hanging at the side of a barefoot man wearing overalls, but I don't care. I reflect that there's a lot I don't care about anymore.

  I spend a good deal of time sanding the sword clean and sharpening it to a razor's edge. That, and plotting my revenge, for if I am going to be condemned to roast in Hell for my deeds, I intend to have company....

  Chapter 37

  As soon as we pull into the dock at Maysville, Jim is there to meet us, rocking on his legs, in a state of total exhaustion.

  "Missy! They ran all the way! My lungs are about blown out! I'm a sailor, not a damned greyhound! We gotta do this a different way next time. Please, Missy!"

  We bring him aboard, and soothing female hands are put to his fevered brow. It turns out that he and his fleet escort have been around to all the farms in the area and spread the word that there would be a show at Maysville landing tonight, one show only, starting at dusk. It also turns out that Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat are capable of running, flat out, for an entire day, and have, in fact, the ability to run down a deer if they have the running room. Poor Jim. We assure him that a different way will be found, and I leave him to the tender murmuring ministrations of Clementine Jukes and go out to supervise the preparations for the evening's show.

  Matty and 'Thaniel bring up the boards that attach us to the dock, and after the boards are put down and fastened, the brothers bring up the benches and put them in a rough semicircle, facing the stage area of the Belle of the Golden West. I go down to tune up the Lady Gay and to get into my finery and prepare for the performance.

  "I think the blue dress would be just the thing tonight, don't you, Higgins?"

  "Yes, Miss. But maybe with your black shawl around your shoulders, as we do not know the nature of the crowd."

  The people come trickling in well before the fall of night and sit down quietly, their children on the ground before them. The young people, those in their teens, stand behind their elders, and I notice that many pair off, shyly. All are as silent as the grave. The older people are dressed simply, the men in overalls and the women in shapeless linsey-woolsey dresses. The children wear garments that appear to be made of flour sacks. They make not a sound.

  This don't look good, I'm thinkin' as I get ready to go out. There are no signs of enthusiasm or excitement.

  Yancy Cantrell strides to center stage. The lanterns have been lit all about him. He throws back his head and shouts out, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Toast of Three Continents, Miss Jacky Faber, the Lily of the West!"

  With that, I jump o
ut onto center stage and rip out "Mrs. McCloud's Reel," the best I ever played it. From that I go to "Dicey Riley," and end that up with a couple of fancy dance steps. I hear some murmurs of appreciation from the passengers behind me, but from the audience in front of me...

  Nothing.

  I then pull out my concertina and do "Queer Bungo Rye," a merry little tune and story that never fails to bring the laughs.

  Nothing.

  I tell some jokes, then do some hornpipes with my pennywhistle, complete with dance steps. I do "The Galway Shawl" without accompaniment, and end that with an elegant curtsy.

  Nothing.

  Desperate, I try to appeal to the kids. I do "Froggy Went a-Courtin'" and "I'll Tell Me Ma," mugging all the way. The kids look at me wide-eyed, but...

  Nothing.

  Maybe poetry will help. I try "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck," the poem about a boy of thirteen on a warship at the Battle of the Nile, who remained at his post even though all others had fled.

  There came a burst of thunder sound—

  The boy, oh, where was he?

  Ask the winds that far around

  With fragments strewed the sea!

  With mast and helm and pennon fair

  That well had borne their part,

  But the noblest thing which perished there

  Was that young faithful heart.

  Now, I have brought pirates, murderers, corsairs, assassins, even, to their knees, blubbering in their beers in ports on three of the Seven Seas, with my rendition of that poem, but here...

  Nothing.

  I give up. I give the full performance, as I always do, but expect nothing more from it. I round up with "The Parting Glass," and then I dive below, mortified.

  I throw myself into a chair and sit there fuming over the worst performance of my life. "They hated it. They just hated it!"

  Clementine puts her hand on my arm. "You're wrong, Miss. They loved it. They just don't know how to show it."

  I am furious and beyond comforting. I take hold of her arm and snarl, "Don't you try to cozen me, girl! You weren't out there dyin'! You don't—"

  Clementine grabs my hand and throws it off her arm and says evenly, "You go to Hell, girl! You think I owe you somethin', but I don't owe you nothin'! I give you some-thin' you ain't never even gonna know about! You can sleep with your own self tonight, you mean thing, you!"

  She storms out of our cabin, and she does not come back in. Let her go, I say. I'm sick of this horseshit.

  There is silence for a bit, and then Katy says, "She's right, you know. Just wait a bit and you'll see."

  They are both right. A little later I am told by Crow Jane that people have been dropping by sacks of vegetables, corn, and other produce. She asks me to come up to see and I do. The townsfolk drop their offerings on the deck and I shamefacedly nod in thanks.

  There, in the bucket set out for tips, is a sack, a sack that squirms about. I reach in and pull it out and open the drawstring at its top.

  Out pokes a pink little face, the face of a perfect little piglet. It wiggles and squishes its nose against my hand. I am astounded.

  "Well, there's tomorrow's dinner, anyway," says Crow Jane.

  Chapter 38

  James Emerson Fletcher, Highwayman

  Pennsylvania, USA

  Jacky,

  "Stand!" I shouted as the two mounted men rounded the curve in the road. "Stand and deliver, you murdering swine!"

  I had left Pittsburgh two days ago and walked down the Frankstown Road till I came to a likely spot—thick woods on each side and a little hillock where I could sit and see the traffic coming either way, and there I did sit for a full day and a half till I finally saw two men on horseback, riding hard, their long riding coats flapping out behind them. It was them.

  I positioned myself in the middle of the road, pistol in my left hand and rifle in my right, both fully primed and cocked, so I was ready for them when they rounded the turn.

  "Stand be damned!" shouted the man on the left, who I saw was Beatty. They both pulled back hard on the reins, and the horses squealed in fright and reared up above me. I could see both men pulling out weapons from beneath their long coats, and I aimed and fired my pistol. The bullet caught Beatty high on the chest and he spilled backward from the saddle. I sprang back just as McCoy's pistol was fired and I felt the bullet buzz past my cheek like an angry hornet. I lifted my right hand and fired my rifle, but in my haste I missed him as clean as he missed me.

  His horse ran by me, but I reversed my rifle in my hand to swing the butt of it at his head with all the fury that was in me. I felt it connect and he tumbled out of the saddle, to thump heavily to the ground.

  I drew my sword and stood over him, but even as far as I have fallen from civilized ways, I could not kill him in cold blood.

  He rose slowly to his knees and then stood up, glaring at me balefully.

  "You the boy from the prison?" he asked, as he drew the sword from his own side. I recognize it as being my old sword, the one they had stolen from me when I was ambushed and left for dead. It will be good to get it back.

  "I am Lieutenant James Emerson Fletcher, late of His Majesty's Royal Navy," I said with a slight bow. "I am also the man you waylaid and left for dead up on the Allegheny. I have been schooled in swordmanship since I was fifteen. En garde." I went down into the ready position.

  I saw uncertainty in his face at that, but still he snarled, "You look like a goddamned hayseed t' me!" and he raised his sword to take a swing at my head. It was pathetic. I parried it easily and pinked him on his sword arm. When he went to put his hand over the wound, I lunged and put the point of my blade in his belly. When I felt it grate against his backbone, I pulled it back out. He looked shocked, dropped his sword, and then fell to his knees. He held that position for a moment, and then went over on his back.

  "Lord, you have killed me," he bleated, as he looked down at the blood spreading over his shirt and trousers.

  "It appears so," I said coldly.

  "I ask for mercy."

  "I will give to you the same mercy you gave me." I reached down inside of his coat to check for more weapons and I found another pistol. It was loaded. I noticed that it was of the new percussion-cap design and reflected that thieves like this would certainly have the latest of equipment as part of their evil trade.

  "If you could turn me to my side a bit to ease my pain, I would thank you for it," said McCoy, looking over my shoulder.

  It occurred to me that if McCoy had two pistols, then—

  I heard the cock of the hammer and hit the ground in the same instant. The not-quite-dead Mr. Beatty pulled the trigger, the gun fired, and the bullet sailed across my breast to bury itself in McCoy's leg. I turned over, cocked the pistol that I held in my hand, and fired at Beatty. The ball went in his right eye socket and took off the back of his head.

  I got to my knees and took a deep breath. I looked over and knew that we would hear no more from Mr. Beatty. I knew also that I had to clean up this mess, for if anyone came along, I could find myself with much explaining to do, and I had no wish to end my American adventure being hanged for murder.

  I ran up to my little hillock and looked about and saw that no one was coming either way, so it looked like I had some time, at least for a while. I went back and gathered up the horses and led them into a small meadow I had previously noticed, hobbled them, and set them to graze. The beasts seemed content. Then I hurried back to the road.

  Mr. McCoy was singing his death song.

  "Lord, I've been to the river and I've been baptized and I have heard the Word of the Lord. I know that today will be my dyin' day, Jesus, and I beg You to take this poor sinner in Your lovin' arms and carry me away."

  "Like He carried away the souls of all those poor travelers you murdered?"

  McCoy turned his head to look at me as I took the feet of his former partner under either arm and dragged him into the bush. I have scouted out a deep ravine up near the hi
llock to hide the bodies until such time as the wolves find them. I got Beatty's body there and rolled it in and then went back to McCoy.

  "I know I've been a sinner, but I know my sins will be washed away in the Blood o' the Lamb, yes, I know my redemption is at hand!"

  "You've got a damned strange concept of religion in this land," I said as I gathered the fallen weapons from the ground. I broke off a pine bough and swept the ground of any signs of the mortal struggle that took place there. Time then for Mr. McCoy.

  I put my hands under his armpits and dragged his groaning body through the woods to the edge of the ravine that was to be his grave.

  He started singing, or rasping, really.

  I am a pilgrim, and a stranger,

  Travelin through this wearisome land,

  I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord,

  And it's not—

  Someone's coming. I ran to the hillock to see a buckboard coming down the road from Johnstown. Man, wife, two children. Damn! They'll hear him rant!

  McCoy heard the rattle of the buckboard, too, and grinned up at me.

  "All I got to do is shout, boy, and they'll be up on you faster than hounds on a possum. And you'll be taken off and tried and hanged for the murderer you are. Ain't that some fine? I may not be here to watch it, but trust me, I'll know, wherever I might be."

  I watched the approach of the buckboard. The family in it was singing gaily, looking forward to a holiday in the big town. I had to agree with the wisdom of what he had said.

  I took my sword out of my scabbard.

  "You ain't got what it takes, boy," giggled McCoy. "You was just Fink's fancy boy back in the lockup. That's all you was. You ain't got the balls."

  It turned out I did. I glided the edge of my saber across his throat, pulling back hard. His eyes opened wide, but he never again said another word. Not in this world, anyway. I wiped my blade on his coat and pitched him over into the ravine and looked upon him no more.

 
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