Mississippi jack, p.21
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       Mississippi Jack, p.21

           L. A. Meyer
 

  The merry family passed by, completely unaware of what had just happened here.

  I continued on the road down to Johnstown, figuring that I'd better go in that direction rather than returning to Pittsburgh, because the people back there might remark on the once penniless, funny-talking, ex-convict hayseed, who suddenly came back to town with two saddled horses and money in his overalls.

  So I continued on down the road to Johnstown, to fit myself out for further travels.

  In going through the bandits' effects, I found myself richer by seventy-five dollars. Johnstown turned out to be another godforsaken frontier town completely lacking in any grace or style, and was actually little more than an over-large Indian village. I managed at least to sell the extra horse and saddle, no questions asked, as well as the old flintlock pistol and rifle that belonged to Clementine's father. I kept the four percussion-cap pistols that formerly belonged to Beatty and McCoy, and purchased what was represented to me as a "Kentucky squirrel gun, the most accurate rifle available today, yessir." It does have the new-fashioned grooved barrel that's supposed to spiral the bullets more accurately at the target, and I am anxious to try it out.

  I did not strip the bodies back at that ravine, for I have never had a desire to wear dead men's clothes. However, in Johnstown, I found that there was no place to buy civilized clothing of any kind, so I bought the buckskin breeches and fringed leather shirt of the frontiersman off an Indian woman who was selling them by the roadside. She tried to sell me a hat that had the head of some unfortunate animal on the front of it, but I demurred. I kept the shirt that Clementine made for me, but threw away the overalls, hoping never to see the like again.

  Apart from my sword, which hangs again at my side, there was one other object that McCoy had of mine in his saddlebag—it was the miniature portrait of you, Jacky, that you had painted with your own hand those years ago when you were at school, or when I thought you were at school. It fairly tore my heart out to see it, and it renewed in me the desire to track you down and bring you to bay, for that is the way I see it now.

  I stayed overnight in a meager inn, had something to eat, and set out the next morning overland to get back to the river.

  I won't be writing again for a while....

  Chapter 39

  "Mr. Cantrell," I say, putting on my stern Look. "It appears that your fare is only paid up to this point. You had said you would make good your fare as we went along. What do you mean to do?"

  I am half joking, of course. I am perfectly willing to wait for my money till he finds more fertile grounds on which to practice his profession.

  "Ah, yes, Miss." He sighs. He finishes his morning coffee and rises. "I had hoped that I might find some gentlemen of the sporting class on this cruise, but, alas, I found none. A more square-headed, Bible-toting bunch I have yet to see. But no matter." He looks off to the left. "I see that we are coming up on a small town on the Kentucky side ... Augusta, is it? Yes. A fancy name for a squalid little town, but it will do quite nicely. If you could pull in there, Miss Faber, I'll go ashore and get your money."

  Mystified, I give Jim, who's on the helm, the order to pull in to the rickety dock, and he throws over the steering oar and we drift in and tie up.

  As soon as we are secure, Yancy Cantrell puts on his black hat, smooths down his lapels, and steps onshore. He gives a quick whistle and his black girl jumps to her feet and follows him off.

  What is going on? I wonder.

  But I do not have the time to muse on this because I hear a strong ahem! from Jim and see Reverend Clawson off to starboard on the main deck, his hat in his hands.

  "Passenger Clawson," he says, a hopeful look on his face, "requests permission to cross the blue line, Miss. I would like to speak with you on matters that might be mutually beneficial."

  "Come ahead, Reverend Clawson, and seat yourself," I say, graciously waving him to the seat recently occupied by Yancy Cantrell. "Clementine. A cup of tea for the Reverend, if you would."

  Clementine appears shortly, bearing the cup, saucer, and spoon, and she pours from the teapot that already sits on my quarterdeck table. The girl has been coming along quite nicely. Later in the evening of what I thought was my disastrous performance back in Maysville, I sought the girl out and found her huddled up in one of the unused passenger bunks. I put my hand on her shoulder and said I was sorry for what I had said to her in anger and asked her to forgive me my rash words. She did, and all was well between us again. Later still, when we were in bed for the night, I asked her what she meant by having given me something that I never would know about, and she just said, "Don't mind me, Jacky, sometimes I just talk out of my head. It ain't nothin'." Still, this girl is a mystery.

  "It's this way, Miss," begins the Preacher, "I've been workin' this river ... er, preachin' the Word of the Lord, up and down here for a while and I learned some things, chief of which is this: You've got to know the kind of people you're gonna be comin' up on, you got to know what the crowd'll be like. I think you found that out back in Maysville. I coulda told you what was gonna happen there, but I thought it best you find out for yourself," he says. He puts four rounded teaspoons of sugar into his cup, stirs it, and pauses in his speech to give it a slurp. "You being a high-spirited girl and not liable to take any old advice."

  I nod at the wisdom of this.

  "So what do you propose?"

  He leans forward. "You sent young Tanner downriver before to scare up a crowd, and he did. What you should have done was to have him make two trips, the first being to have him case out the town, then report back to us on what sort of town it is. If it is a sanctified town, with hard-rock churchgoin' folks, then we'd put on a revival; if it is of a more open nature, you would put on your regular show; and if it is truly a wide-open town, then who knows what sort of show we could put on?" He winks broadly at me. "Do you get my drift?"

  I begin to realize that this Reverend Clawson is a man of many parts.

  "I do indeed, Reverend Clawson. And in the revivals, what part would I play?"

  "Oh, Miss, the spiritual music is not far off from what you already play. I know you could do it up proud," he replies, smiling. "Yep, I just know you could get 'em rockin' and a-rollin' in the aisles, comin' up to testify and a-praisin' the Lord to the very high heavens themselves! You've got the gift. I know you do."

  He chuckles and leans back to let me soak it all in, and I do.

  While I am taking in all of this, he continues. "And there's another kind of show you ain't considered, and it's perfect for podunk places like Maysville."

  Here he gets all conspiratorial and leans in close.

  "You've got a whole lot of good whiskey down below. We could pick up a bunch of empty medicine bottles in Cincinnati, pour in some colored water, maybe add a few herbs, cut it half and half with some of your good ninety proof, paste on some fancy labels, and put on a medicine show. Same sort of thing you did at Maysville, but a lot shorter. I make the speech, you play a few tunes in your skimpiest outfit, we give out a few tiny samples, and we rake in what they got, be it coin, paper money, or barter. Then we pull up the stage and are back in the stream inside of two hours. Believe me, we will get no complaints on the quality of the medicine, because we know it will make everyone feel much, much better."

  Now this is a man of the cloth I can relate to.

  "So," I say at last, "if we could pick up a small sailboat, one that could be handled with oars if the wind was contrary...," I say, musing.

  "I'm sure the proper boat could be found in Cincinnati. Y'see, I know the Ohio, down to Cincinnati, but I don't know the river the rest of the way, nor do I know the Mississippi." He looks off, all dreamy-eyed. "The Big River, the Father of Waters, oh, I'm so anxious to go, Miss. Can you imagine the multitude of souls who need saving all along the Big Muddy, all the way down to the evil dens of New Orleans?"

  I look over at Reverend Clawson and realize that he would not be found terribly out of place in those evil dens.
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  "This has been a most interesting conversation, Reverend Clawson," I purr, "and I believe you may be safe in now calling yourself part of the crew of the Belle of the Golden West."

  He gets up and bows. "And it is a singular honor to be named as such, Miss Faber. I look forward to a long and profitable relationship." Then he takes his leave of the quarterdeck.

  I sit back in my chair and look out over the broad Ohio River and I think on what he has said. After a while I get up and go down to my bunk to rummage through my seabag and get out my carving tool, it being a V-shaped sort of blade that I've used before in woodcuts and in scrimshaw. I go down into the lower hold and find a nice smooth piece of hardwood.

  Returning to my quarterdeck table, I set to work. Taking my pencil, I sketch out the words, backward of course, since this will be a print.

  Captain Jack's Elixir

  The finest of Tonics for the Cure of

  Catarrh, Ague, Liver Dyspepsia, Choleric

  Humor, Contrary Children, and Female

  Vap ors, Nerves, & Hysteria

  If I can find a printer in this upcoming Cincinnati, I will add more to the label. If not, this will have to do. I set to work on the wood square and let the chips fly.

  ***

  I am finishing up the third line when Yancy Cantrell comes back aboard.

  "Thank you for waiting, Miss Faber," he says, coming up to me and putting the fare money into my hand. I notice he has some more money, which he puts back into his pocket. "If you would shove off now, I think it would be good."

  "Jim. 'Thaniel. Matty," I call, getting up and dusting the chips from my lap. "Let's be on our way. Cast off."

  "Thank you, Mr. Cantrell," I say, bending back to my work, "but really, I would have trusted you for the money."

  "I knew that, Miss Faber, but I felt it best that we keep accounts square," says Mr. Cantrell. Then, unaccountably, he says, "If it is not too much trouble, if we could keep close to the left bank, I would appreciate it."

  This sounds a bit strange to me and I lift my head from my work. It is then that I notice that Cantrell's black girl is not with him. Grave suspicion grows in my mind.

  "Where is your girl?" I demand, rising from my table.

  "I sold her," says Yancy Cantrell, calmly, "for my fare, and for my stake in the next high-stakes card game. If you'll excuse me, Miss Faber, I believe I'll wash up for dinner."

  "Higgins!" I shout. "My pistols! Now!"

  Bearing the two firearms, Higgins bursts out of our quarters, a look of alarm on his usually placid face. I grab the pistols from him and train them both on Mr. Yancy Cantrell's forehead. He falls to his knees.

  "You low-down, no-good son of a bitch! You sold that girl into slavery! Get off this boat! Get in the water now, before I blow your brains out! Now get out! Over the side! Now, you slimy bastard!"

  Cantrell, seeing the fury in my eyes, puts his hands up in front of his face and pleads, "No, please, Miss. Don't shoot. Just wait a few minutes, please. You'll see. Just wait. Stay close to the shore. Please."

  The Belle of the Golden West slips by the southern bank, and as it does, I hear a splash, then the sound of someone swimming, and someone swimming quite well. I look over the port side and see Cantrell's girl stroking along, tawny arm over arm, and coming briskly alongside. Katy Deere reaches over the side and hauls her aboard.

  "Now, if you could get to the middle of the stream, that would be good," says Mr. Cantrell, still looking fearfully down the barrels of my cocked pistols.

  When I see the girl safely aboard, I put the pistols at half cock and lower them.

  "So what's the scam, then?" I demand, not in the least mollified.

  "We have done it many times before, Miss Faber," says Cantrell. "When we are in need of money, I take her inland, sell her, and return to the river. She makes her escape, and believe me she is expert in that, and she rejoins me downriver and we go on our merry way."

  I am incredulous. "What happens if they lock her up?"

  The girl looks at me with her dark eyes, water dripping from her hair. She pulls out a necklace, and from it dangles what I see is a set of lock picks. She shakes it and it tinkles like little bells.

  "She knows how to get out."

  "What if she can't?"

  "I return and buy her back. Say I've had a change of heart. It's only happened once or twice."

  I hand the guns back to Higgins. "All right, Mr. Cantrell. It is a good scam. But I will tell you this: I know I am barely sixteen years old, but this is my boat and I will say what scams get run from it, and you will never again do that particular one. If that ain't clear, you can get off now. What do you say to that?"

  Yancy Cantrell bows his head and says, "Agreed." He turns to the black girl and says, "All right, Chloe. Go down and get dressed."

  She gets up and says the first words I have yet heard her say.

  "Yes, Father."

  And she goes below.

  Chapter 40

  Mr. Cantrell is being chastised for running that risky scam, and while I know I will forgive him eventually, for now he is banned from my table. I do, however, ask that he invite his daughter for dinner with me that afternoon as we approach the town of Cincinnati.

  She emerges from the lower decks, the ribbons and braids gone from her hair, hair that now falls in glossy black ringlets to her shoulders. She wears a gray dress of a quite nice cut, with a white shawl about those same shoulders. White stockings and neat shoes on her small feet complete the outfit. All gaze upon her in astonishment.

  When she comes back on deck, she takes Cantrell's arm and he brings her up to me.

  "Miss Faber, may I introduce my daughter, Chloe Abyssinia Cantrell?" says Mr. Cantrell. The girl lowers her eyes and dips down into a very acceptable curtsy.

  I return the same.

  "Her mother, my late and very much missed wife, was a teacher of the Coloreds in New York City," said Cantrell, by way of explanation for the girl's appearance here on the Belle of the Golden West.

  "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Faber," murmurs this Chloe creature.

  "Mutual, I am sure," I say. "And now will you join me for dinner so that we might become better acquainted?"

  "I would be delighted, Miss Faber."

  Will wonders never cease?

  The dinner is laid out by Higgins, himself, this time. I think it's mainly because he wants to listen in to the conversation that will surely ensue, being as curious as to the nature of this girl as I am.

  We go to my table. The canopy is up, this time because it looks like it might rain. She sits, tucking the dress under her bottom as she settles in. Napkin in lap, face composed. Hmmmmm...

  "How came you to be here, Chloe, if I may call you that? Thank you, Higgins."

  Higgins pours the tea and steps back. He gestures and Clementine brings up the platter of meat and potatoes. Chloe picks up the tongs and expertly nails a piece of venison. The platter comes to me and I do the same. This girl knows her way around a table, that's for sure.

  "My mother was a teacher at the Abyssinian Academy in New York. She was educated by her parents, her father being a well-known Abolitionist preacher, who often addressed the students and teachers at King's College on the 'Peculiar Institution' of slavery. Her mother was a former slave, who had been indulged and set free by her owners. After I was born, Mother set herself to educating me to the highest level possible, believing that education was the way to advancement for any of the Colored race." She says this last with a wry smile.

  "You don't agree with that?" I ask.

  She cocks an eyebrow at me. "With my education, I could have become a tutor, maybe a governess."

  "And that was not enough?"

  "Enough for a black girl, you mean?"

  I catch the edge in that. "There were times in my life, Miss, that I would have rejoiced to be either one of those. I have a book for you to read sometime. It was written by a friend of mine. It concerns my early life as a begga
r on the streets of London."

  "I would be glad to read it," she says, attending to her dinner. "This is very good. Thank you for inviting me."

  "Yes, Janey's a very good cook," I say, applying myself to my own dinner. "I am sorry about your mother. Has she been gone long?"

  She nods and, I think, loses some of her icy composure. "It's been two years. The yellow fever. I was devastated. Father returned home several days before she died, and was with her at the end," she says, "as was I."

  "Mr. Cantrell was away at the onset of her illness?" I prompt, gently as I can.

  "Father was away much of the time, pursuing his many ... enterprises. We never knew what they were, but he generally returned with enough money to sustain us in the style to which we were accustomed," she says, a smile returning to her lips. "Grandfather Burgess never quite approved of Mother's choice of Father, but then one must follow one's heart, mustn't one?"

  I take another sip of the tea and ask the question I have been dying to ask. "Your father ... and mother ... from such different ... backgrounds, as it were. Was there not much talk?"

  "Him being white and she being black, you mean?"

  "Umm."

  "Well, they did not go out together in public much, not that Father gave a damn what anyone thought." Done with her dinner, she pats her lips with her napkin and places it on the table. "Besides, Mother was very beautiful, and Father was not untouched by the tar brush, as they say."

  "Which means?"

  "Father is from New Orleans. He is what is called an octoroon."

  "Which means?"

  "Which means a great-grandparent of his was a black man. Or woman, which is more likely the case."

  "And so...?"

  "In New York, people left us alone, and after Mother died, Father told me of his life and offered me the choice: Stay comfortable and bored in New York, or go off with him. I opted for the risky game."

 
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