Mississippi jack, p.22
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       Mississippi Jack, p.22

           L. A. Meyer
 

  I smile at that. "We are going to the South, you know, into the slave territories."

  "I can play the po' little ol' black girl, as you know."

  I think on that. "You know, you just might prove valuable on this journey, Miss Cantrell. Are you musical?"

  "I can play the harpsichord, Miss Faber."

  I have to laugh at that. "We are hardly likely to find such an instrument in Cincinnati, but who knows? As for now, let us talk of the 'risky game,' as you put it. Higgins, will you uncork us a bottle of the burgundy?"

  ***

  After that very pleasant meal is done and cleared away and I'm at work at my table, I hear the call from 'Thaniel Hawkes: "Captain! We're comin' up on Cincinnati!"

  I reach down to scratch the ears of my little pig, who lies asleep at my feet, and say, "Bring her in, Master Tanner, and let us see what this town has to offer the Belle of the Golden West and her weary travelers."

  Belle Log. Arrived Cincinnati, Ohio. Moored starboard side. Set out and secured performance boards. Disembarked passengers.

  What Cincinnati has to offer is about fifteen hundred human souls of many backgrounds, and about fifteen thousand souls of the swine variety, many running freely in the streets. We are told early on that this town is nicknamed "Porkopolis," and one's nose certainly verifies that it is indeed aptly named. No matter, we shall be quickly gone from here.

  Our passengers debark and all proclaim that they had a most enjoyable cruise and would recommend us highly to all their friends. We send out the Hawkes brothers to plaster the town with posters to gain us new passengers on our journey south, and Jim Tanner goes about announcing tonight's show.

  While Higgins and Crow Jane go off to buy more provisions, I take Clementine to see if we can find her a more presentable dress than the yellow rag she wears. I plan to use her in the performance tonight—we shall sing several duets of lonesome mountain songs to see how that goes over. Reverend Clawson will deliver a Dramatic Recitation as well, so the cast of the Great American River Musical Revue is growing. It will be good not to have to bear the whole burden myself.

  We find a general store and are able to buy some light blue material to make Clementine a nice little frock that will look good in performance. With Katy and Clementine both doing the cutting and sewing, it should be ready by nightfall. When Clementine finally does put it on, she fairly glows with the pleasure of wearing it. Jim Tanner is equally appreciative.

  Miracle of miracles, while Higgins and Crow Jane were out and about, they found a harpsichord in a secondhand store and somehow managed to drag it back to the Belle. Evidently some poor family thought they could bring it west with them, but, alas, it was too heavy for their small flatboat. Fortunately our Belle is much bigger, and now Chloe can add to our musical efforts.

  When we start to sign on passengers, we are perplexed by the number of people who want to go only to Shawneetown, a very small village on the Illinois side of the river. Upon some investigation, we find the reason. It is because of the fearsome outlaws who lurk at the place called Cave-in-Rock.

  "Y'see, Miss, what they do is this. They send someone aboard to guide you down through the Rapids, but if the guide sees that you've got a lot of good cargo, what he'll do is run you aground near the cave and the other bad men will swarm all over you. They kill the people and slit open their bodies. Afterwards they stuff them with rocks to sink them in the river, and then they steal their boats. No, it's true, Miss, ask anybody. But, if you make it to Elizabethtown, which is right downriver from that place, well, we'll sure ride with you all the way to Cairo, yes, Ma'am."

  Hmmmm. Fearsome, eh? Well, we'll show 'em fearsome...

  It is now evening and the Very Reverend Jeremiah Clawson spreads his arms wide as he addresses our pretty good-sized audience.

  "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our show, a night of music, song, and story, starring our very own Miss Jacky Faber, the Lily of the West!"

  Chapter 41

  It has been a good week since we left Cincinnati, the river town that proved to be such a handy place. There I found a glass factory and arranged for one hundred half-pint bottles to be blown and ready for us two days hence, complete with corks, all at a very reasonable cost. From a local apothecary I purchased some herbs and spices—cloves, mallow root, and the like—ingredients that I knew would not be harmful to my customers, even if they proved to be of no actual help, medically speaking. And glory of glories, I was able to buy two whole gallons of tincture of opium, and if a bit of that in our elixir doesn't help soothe the mind, relax the body, and regulate the bowels, I don't know what will. I was glad to find sassafras root, too, which I had first tasted back at Dovecote and which was sure to give my concoction a medicinal taste. I would add no sugar—best make it strong tasting so they are convinced of its curative power. A crude print shop was found to print up the labels and we spent some time gluing them to the bottles.

  After hearing of what could await us at Cave-in-Rock and the Rapids of the Ohio, Higgins and I purchased enough guns to fit out our regular crew of the Belle: a rifle and a pistol each for Crow Jane, the Hawkes brothers, Clementine, Katy, the Reverend Clawson, Chloe, and Yancy Cantrell. That supplemented the firearms Higgins and I, and some of the crew, already possessed. Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat were already as armed as they needed to be. Jim requested a tomahawk and was given one. Powder and ball for all was purchased, and the new armament was put under the care of our new Master-at-Arms, Mr. Higgins, who locked everything away in a sturdy cabinet. Can't be too careful, I figure. We had bought much more powder than we originally planned, because we had been practicing with the two cannons ever since we got them aboard—trying ever harder for greater accuracy and speed in reloading. I finally pronounced us as ready as we could be for any emergency.

  I also bought a ship's bell. No, it didn't come from any ship way out here, 'cause there ain't any, but it was a bell nonetheless—all bright and shiny brass—and I had it mounted by the helm. No, we shan't ring out the hours, 'cause we ain't got an accurate enough clock for that, but still, if we need to ring an alarm, we'll be ready.

  Oh, yes, and now we tow a jaunty little sailboat behind us that we picked up for a song. It's only about twelve feet long, gaff rigged, and equipped with oars to use when there is no wind or when the river gets too narrow. It's a sweet little sailer and big enough for the Reverend Clawson and Jim to sail down ahead of us, moor at a likely town, figure out what show would go best in that particular place, then spread the word to the populace in the village and to farms thereabouts.

  But before Jim is ready to take her on short jaunts downriver, he practices sailing her and delights no end in taking Clementine about and showing off his skill. I can hear her squeals of excitement as the boat heels over in a stiff breeze and rips along on a splendid beam reach.

  They both beg me to let Clementine accompany Jim on his excursions downriver, but I cannot allow it. For one thing, it's too dangerous. I worry enough about having Jim off alone on these short trips—even if Reverend Clawson, who knows nothing of sailing, is along. And two, how do I know that Clementine and Jim won't crawl off in the bushes somewhere for a bit of a romp? Besides, the small sailer is really too small to carry three people. I hate acting like Mistress Pimm back at the Lawson Peabody School, 'cause it's certainly not in my nature, but sometimes I have to.

  I do, however, let Jim have the honor of naming the little boat, but tell him he cannot name it after anyone aboard. After some serious consideration, he decides on the Evening Star, which I find rather poetic of my Jim Tanner.

  We cruise placidly down the river and very soon find the territory of Indiana on our starboard side. The days are pleasant, as is the weather, by and large, and we settle into a comfortable routine aboard the Belle. As for the education of my young crew, I now have Chloe Cantrell to help in the education of Clementine, Katy, and Jim, too, for he doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. As for my own further education, I find
that Crow Jane knows the sign language that the various tribes in this area use to communicate with each other and I demand that she teach me. Katy, too, seems anxious to learn. The signs are graceful, eloquent, and it is fun to learn them.

  It is also fun to play with my little piglet, whom I have named Pretty Saro after the song that tells of a poor immigrant who comes to this country and, I reckon, that speaks to my case.

  When first to this country a stranger I came,

  I placed my affections on a handsome young dame,

  She was lissome and lovely and light in her frame,

  And Saro, Pretty Saro, was her given name.

  I generally keep her tied to a leg of my table when she's not sitting in my lap revelling in having me scratch her ears. She does enjoy that and gives out little grunts of pleasure when it is done. She sleeps back by the tillerman, where her little messes are easily washed over the side with a bucket of water.

  Crow Jane repeatedly gazes upon her, running her knife over her whetstone, sharpening it to a razor's edge. I shiver and look away. I have said that we would not do that till Pretty Saro is older. Would it not be better to have a whole pig, rather than just a little piglet? Jane grunts and walks away, sheathing her knives, for the moment.

  Trouble is, Pretty Saro grows bigger every day.

  The territory called Indiana is well named. More and more do we see Indian camps along the shore. Naked children are laughing and splashing in the shallows. Laughing, that is, till they see us coming round the bend, then they scurry off and are silent. I envy them—I'd like a swim, too, and although my crew already knows me for one who sometimes flouts convention, what with the passengers aboard, I really can't do it. So for now I have to be content with baths in the washtub down in our quarters. I have noticed, however, that Chee-a-quat bathes often. I have many mornings seen him in the water next to the bank on which he and Lightfoot had camped the night before. By the movement of his arms and how he holds his face up to the sky, the bath seems to be not only for cleanliness but also a ritual.

  Chee-a-quat will not speak directly to me in English, although Lightfoot says that his friend does understand it—it's just that he refuses to speak it, calling it a "lying tongue." He will, however, answer in like manner if I sign to him ... after waiting a moment or two to remind me of my place. Like the time we went close to the bank several days into the journey from Cincinnati and came upon an encampment of Indians, mostly men, and, as far as I could tell, mostly drunk. There was much shouting and wailing and waving of weapons at us as soon as we were spotted. Chee-a-quat, who was standing near me on the quarterdeck, his arms crossed on his chest, barked out a string of what I suspected was insults and then spit in the direction of the shore group. There was one Indian over there who I suspected was the leader. He had his hair plucked out on either side of his head, leaving a scruffy crest on top, and half his face was painted red. He did not look friendly.

  I turned to Chee-a-quat and made the sign What? by holding my right hand open, palm toward him with fingers spread and then turning my hand at the wrist several times.

  He brought his dark eyes to bear upon me and lifted his clenched right hand to the left side of his bare chest, which he then lowered to his side, opening the fingers, one by one. Bad, it meant. Then he made the sign for shame.

  The figures on the shore increased their wild howling upon seeing Chee-a-quat, and they started toward the canoes pulled up on the riverbank. I was about to run over to ring the bell in alarm, but Chee-a-quat calmly lifted his rifle, aimed, and shot. There was a yelp from the shore and one of the Indians fell over into the mud.

  I was shocked by this casual murder, but Chee-a-quat seemed unconcerned. He lowered his rifle and pointed to the throng on the shore, which was now clawing their way back into the cover of the woods, and he made the sign for cowards.

  Crow Jane, hearing the shot, came up on deck and looked over the scene, as did Lightfoot.

  "Squee-eh-squash!" she said contemptuously, adding a stream of spit of her own to those ashore. To me she said, "Renegades. Outcasts. Murderers who kill their own people. Drunkards who sell their own women. Thieves who steal from anybody. They come from all of the Five Nations. You Whites have your bad ones. We have ours."

  I nodded and looked at Chee-a-quat and said, "Wah!"

  I swear he almost smiled as he turned and walked away.

  We practice with the weaponry, as well, on the way south, to the great amusement of the passengers, especially the children. When we fire the cannons, the kids cover their ears and fairly scream with delight.

  All the males in my crew are well enough versed in firearms, including the Preacher. Yancy Cantrell is expert. We drill Clementine and Chloe and Katy in how to load the rifles and pistols: First, the proper measure of powder is poured from the horn into the barrel and tamped down with the ramrod. Second, the bullet is dropped, and after that, the wad is pushed down, tamping the whole thing solid. Then the percussion cap is put on the nipple, the hammer cocked, the gun aimed, the trigger pulled, the gun fired, and the bullet goes on its murderous way.

  Katy finds the loading process too slow compared to how fast she could loose arrows from her bow, but she learns all the same.

  It's not all armament and murder. We put on shows at Louisville, Kentucky, a bustling little town, where our performance goes over very well, as it does farther downriver at Evansville, on the Indiana side. In between, though, we try a revival at the little town of Owensboro, Jim having gone down and found it a place more suitable for our sanctified show, and so he talked it up some. The word spreads and we draw a good crowd. The Reverend Clawson takes center stage with his Bible-thumpin', Hell-raisin', Judgement's-a-comin, brimstone-breathin', fire-eatin' sermon, while Clementine, 'Thaniel, Chloe, Matty, and me with my voice and fiddle do our best from the sidelines, belting out the holy songs and all of us together getting them rockin' and rollin' and writhin' in the aisles. The Preacher saves at least thirty souls that day, and lays hands on more than a few and cures 'em of what ails 'em. A couple of bottles of Captain Jack's Elixir passed around just before the service doesn't hurt none, neither. It gets 'em in the mood, like.

  At the end the Reverend calls upon the faithful to give what they can for our ministry. "Which is bringin' the word of God to the poor miserable heathen Red Savages what don't know no better 'cause they don't know the love of God yet, but would surely shine in the glory of the Lord and be no longer a pestilence to us white folk. Give! Give what you are able to give to this noble cause! The Lord Jesus will take you to His side for your kindness to these poor wretches! Ride on, King Jesus, ride on and conquer all evil, ride on!"

  The Preacher is really getting worked up at this point, but he pulls himself together enough to lay his hand upon his chest and intone, "And now, the angel Evangeline will take up your offerings. Bless you, oh, bless you...," and Jim kills the footlight lanterns and fires up the light behind me where I'm now standing on the cabin top. I'm wearing a long white gown, which Katy and I have sewn, that flows from my throat to my ankles, and we have made up a crown of gold leaf that now rests on my head, glinting in the light. It is not a halo, but it is close. There is a quiet gasp from the congregation as they behold me there. I hold the pose for a moment and then descend and go into the crowd, holding my basket before me. Bless you, oh, bless you. I hear the coins tinkle into the basket and smile my beatific smile. Oh, bless you and bless your children. And I mean it, too, as I weave through all these happy, smiling faces, knowing that we have put on the best show we could—and I do love putting on a good performance, whether sacred or profane.

  Log of the Belle of the Golden West. 14:30, arrive Shawneetown, Illinois. Debark passengers. Prepare for battle.

  The passengers get off in Shawneetown, Illinois, a small place that seems to make its living chiefly by providing for the needs of travelers who prefer to portage rather than face the dangers of Cave-in-Rock. It ain't big enough to be worth our show, so we push the Belle off
and head downstream and get ready for the fight.

  When we moor for the night, fifteen miles above Cave-in-Rock, I invite my entire crew in for a grand dinner on the passenger deck, and so we sit and eat and drink together, British and American, Indian, Negro, and somewhat White. For some of us, who knows, it might well be our last.

  Dear Jaimy,

  As I lie here in my bunk next to a girl named, of all things, Clementine Amaryllis Jukes (can you imagine such a name?), I think fondly of you back in Jolly Old England doing I don't know what. What I do hope is that you are safe and well and that maybe we might meet up again soon. It'll take me a while to get to New Orleans, and if I can take passage there for Britain, then that'll be another three weeks, at least.

  Ugh! Clementine has just turned over in her sleep and I have to push her back a bit or else I'll be pushed over the side. I know she is a bit nervous about what will happen tomorrow, but she is a tough, brave little thing and I know she'll be all right. What? Wait ... she is talking in her sleep, saying something like Ja-Ja-Jaimy? No, that can't be right. There she goes again ... J-J-Jim ... Ah, that's who she meant. While I can't blame her, I'll be keeping an eye on those two, that's for sure, otherwise there'll be a swellin of a certain belly soon, and I don't need that, and neither does she.

  I don't really want to be doing this thing that I will be doing tomorrow, Jaimy, for you know that I am really, at heart, a peaceable coward and would like nothing better than to lie back on my quarterdeck and soak up the sun as I float gently down to New Orleans, maybe bringing some people a bit of cheer as I go.

  Ah, but that is not to be. As so often happens in this world, there are evil people who stand in the way of such a peaceful idyll because they seize boats carrying goods of any value and commit rape and murder for personal lust, and so I must do what I must do. What else is there? Abandon my ship and creep around the bandits at Cave-in-Rock and take off again with nothing and nothing with which to pay off my loyal crew? Nay, we must push through, for the tales of the foul deeds that those fiends have committed sicken me even to think of them, and they must be stopped.

 

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