Mississippi jack, p.23
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       Mississippi Jack, p.23

           L. A. Meyer
 

  Pray for me, Jaimy, as I pray for you.

  Chapter 42

  We round a bend in the river, all of us at our usual stations: Katy at the bow on lookout, the Hawkes brothers on the forward sweeps, Jim on steering oar, and me at my quarterdeck table, with First Mate Higgins at my side. I have on my black cloak and am covered by it from neck to boot top. Clementine and Chloe sit on the cabin top, in plain sight of anyone with a long glass, sewing away at a quilt and chatting sociably. All others are below, the better to make us look like helpless and easy prey.

  "A fine morning, Miss," observes Higgins. He is wearing a long riding duster over his usual clothes, the better to conceal the two pistols he wears tucked in his vest.

  "Indeed it is, Mr. Higgins," I reply. I put down my teacup and look out over the river, which does seem to be working itself up into a faster flowing stream. On the shore, I see bigger and bigger boulders sticking out of the water. I suspect the Rapids of the Ohio are not far downstream. In front of me is a map, which shows what we know of Cave-in-Rock, which is not much. It is apparently a fifty-foot cliff on the Illinois side of the river giving anyone standing on top a clear view of the river traffic coming down. In the cliff itself there is a large cave twenty feet high and thirty feet across its mouth and a hundred and fifty feet deep, wherein the outlaws and their hangers-on live.

  "What do you think, Miss?" asks Higgins, refilling my cup from the pot that sits on the table.

  I consider this and say, "There are evil men there, Higgins, men who think they are powerful and cunning, and we shall be meeting them soon, I think, but I try to hold down my fear." I add, "For are we not, you and I, Royal Navy?"

  "Yes, Miss, we are."

  "Then, they don't stand a chance, do they?"

  "No, Miss, they do not."

  "I thought not, Higgins," I answer. "However, if they do manage to prevail against us, I want you to know that I consider you the best friend I have ever had in this world and I will die happy knowing that I had your friendship to the end."

  "The feeling is mutual, Miss, but you should not let—"

  "Man in boat to starboard!" shouts Katy. "Callin' out to us!" Higgins rises from the table and goes to the side.

  Ah, that would be our guide through the treacherous Rapids of the Ohio ... or to be delivered to what other treachery might lurk there.

  I look out and see a man standing in a rowboat, waving his hat to us.

  "Pull over by him," I say to Jim, and the Belle glides over to the small boat.

  "What do you want?" calls out Higgins to the man.

  "Sir," announces this person, "I am Mr. Fortescue, Frederick Fortescue, as it were, and I am a most experienced pilot. I would be glad to guide your boat through these wicked waters for a most modest sum. What do you say?"

  "Bring him aboard," calls out Higgins, who will be acting as Captain for a short time. The man scampers up our side, leaving his rowboat to fend for itself. He shakes Higgins's hand and strides back to the quarterdeck and stations himself in front of Jim at his steering oar.

  Hmmm. Not a good sign in a waterman, I'm thinkin', leavin' his boat adrift like that.

  "Off to the left there, boy. Now rudder amidships! Steady as she goes!"

  "You are experienced in these waters?" asks Higgins, affecting a pose of hopeful indecision.

  "None better!" crows this creature. "Why, I know ever' rock in this river better'n I know the hairs on the back of my hand!"

  Well, we shall see about that. I sense him for a fraud right off, but I have been told that there are honest guides on this river, as well as the rogues, so I hold my tongue, at least for the time being. We head down the river and the stream gets faster and faster and the rocks appear more and more frequently at our sides.

  While this man is guiding us along, I rise from my table and approach this Mr. Fortescue, with my eyes cast down, and ask in a tremulous voice, "Please, Sir, I beseech you for myself and on behalf of the other helpless females aboard this craft that you will do your best to see us through to safety."

  He looks at me, and then at Katy and Chloe and Clementine sitting up forward, and then smiles a smile that I recognize as being full of absolute joyful anticipation. Of course, I know he would not be high on the pecking order, but I also realize that he knows he'd have a run at us after the big tough men were done.

  "Don't you worry, Miss," says he. "This is all gonna work out jes fine. Jest you settle back, now."

  Finally, after the river rounds another bend, Cave-in-Rock comes into view. It is much as it had been described: a high cliff with a cave in its face. It has low-growing bushes about the mouth to the cave, and some more growing across the top. Bigger trees are at the bottom.

  Mr. Fortescue guides us toward the middle of the river ... Should he bring us in the slightest way to the right, then we will know for sure that he is a bad one, and we will go from there.

  "Steady as she goes, boy," he says to Jim, and Jim nods.

  The cliff is now about a half mile downriver. I can see figures moving at the top of the bluff, and I see a boat putting off from the shore that lies beneath the looming cliff.

  "Take her off to the right, boy," says Mr. Fortescue, sealing his fate.

  "Belay that, Master Tanner," I order, standing and flinging off my cloak, revealing that I am dressed in full military array—my beautiful blue lieutenant's jacket with all its gold trim, black boots, white britches, and leather straps across my chest holding my two fine pistols. I withdraw one of the pistols and point it at Mr. Fortescue's forehead and say, "On your knees, scum."

  He gapes and does not move.

  "On your knees, now!" I warn. "Or I'll scatter your brains all over the river." I click back the hammer. "Now!"

  He drops to his knees, too shocked to say anything.

  "Higgins! Pull him over to the other side of the cabin! Put him down and bind him!" Higgins grabs him by the scruff of his neck and drags him over to the side. Higgins had laid out two short lengths of rope for just this purpose, and now he uses them to truss up the hands and feet of the false pilot. Higgins uses his booted foot to force him face-down onto the deck, out of sight of anybody watching us with a long glass from the cliff.

  "Help me, boys! Help me!" bellows our prisoner.

  "Best gag him, Mr. Higgins, before he alerts his friends."

  Higgins takes a handkerchief from his pocket and crams it into the captive's mouth. Aside from muffled curses, we hear no more from him.

  The boat I had spotted before is now about a hundred yards ahead, and I can plainly see that it is full of men, probably a good ten or twenty of them, with no guns in sight.

  Good. That means they didn't leave many behind to guard their fortress.

  "Ready, everybody," I call, trying to keep my voice from trembling. Legs, stop shakin'! Katy and Chloe get up and go into the foreward hatch, while Clementine comes around the starboard side and goes down into the rear hatch. All in the crew had been given permission to get off with the passengers and meet us downstream, no hard feelings, but none took me up on it, not even the Preacher.

  The boat is now fifty yards directly ahead. The men in it wave and halloo and yell out things like "Come visit our tavern!" and "Good entertainment up at the Cave!"

  Twenty-five more yards and the charade is over. We see the men in the boat raise their rifles and point them at us, calling out, "Pull up, pull up there or forfeit your lives!"

  I hear a pop and see a puff of smoke rise from the boat. The bullet hits the top of the cabin down and to the right of me.

  Wait one more second, till they are in point-blank range ... Now!

  I throw over my table and whip the canvas cover off the swivel gun that lies beneath it, calling out, "Rudder hard right! Matty, pull! 'Thaniel, back!" and Jim throws the rudder over and the Belle swerves to the left, swinging her stern to face the oncoming boat.

  I throw the levers that allow the gun to swivel on its base and to be raised or lowered. Then I point the b
arrel down to aim it directly at the enemy boat, lock down the levers, yell fire! and pull the matchlock.

  There is a roar as five pounds of sharp nails spray our would-be murderers. Then there are screams as many claw at their bloody faces while others curse, but some don't say anything at all.

  "Reload! Jim, keep bringin' her around! Matty, pull! 'Thaniel, back! Bring her around!"

  At the sound of the blast, Clementine, stripped to undershirt and drawers for ease of movement, bursts out of the crew's quarters, carrying a charge of powder. Higgins is already swabbing the barrel. Clementine slides the bag down the barrel and steps out of the way as Higgins rams in a wad. She picks up another cloth bag, this one containing more nails, and puts that in. Another wad, another ram, and ready again.

  I swivel, aim, and fire!

  More screams, more shouts, but the boat with its cargo of killers is not yet done. There are several of the bandits who remain untouched and are shaking their fists and demanding revenge.

  At the sound of the first shot, as planned, Lightfoot, Chee-a-quat, Cantrell, and Katy hurry back up on deck, their rifles at the ready. Katy, like Clementine, has stripped down to her old fighting gear—drawers rolled to her knees, white band around her head. She also has her strung bow across her chest and a quiver full of arrows hanging down her back. The three of them take up positions on the cabin top and begin shooting with great effect into the other boat. Katy and Lightfoot say nothing as they set about their grim work, but Chee-a-quat stands straight and tall and sings what I suspect is a death song.

  The Belle has now swung completely around such that her bow again points directly at the brigands' boat. I bound across the cabin top and yank off the canvas from the forward fixed cannon. There is, I know, a four-inch round ball deep in the cannon's throat, resting on a full charge of powder.

  The Preacher has come up on deck with swab in hand, to help me with the gun. Feeling that it would not be right for a man of the cloth to be actively killing people, howsoever vile they might be, he has elected to be gun loader on the forward cannon. It is still a dangerous job, as bullets continue to buzz about us. One bullet takes off his hat and sends it skidding across the deck.

  I take the ratchet bar and crank down the barrel, then call out to the Hawkeses. "Matty, back! 'Thaniel, pull! Keep doing it till you hear this gun fire!"

  They do it and the barrel of the gun swings into range of the attacking boat. I have only to wait till it comes to bear. A little bit more, a little bit more... The gun points at the water, then the gun points at their hull ... now... Fire!

  The recoil from this much more powerful gun shoves the Belle ten feet back in the water and knocks both the Preacher and me from our feet. It may do some damage to us, but it is nothing compared to what it does to the other boat. The ball slams into their starboard side, opening a huge hole, and the boat goes straight down. Or down as far as it can, which is about two feet, before it hits bottom. Those in the boat who are still able climb out and head for the bank. Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat take down a few before they reach the safety of the shore. Several even try to climb aboard the Belle, but showing no mercy, we club them down with the butts of our rifles. They sink and try us no more.

  I keep telling myself, These are murderers, girl ... They have killed helpless men, women, and, yes, even children ... You should not care what you do to them ... I tell myself that ... but still...

  Cradling in her arms a bag of powder, Chloe, in the same state of undress as Katy and Clementine, emerges from the hold to reload the fore cannon.

  At the sight of her doing her job, I shake myself out of these bootless thoughts and look over the battlefield and, satisfied with what I see, call out, "Plan B!"

  At that, Katy returns to her lookout position and I go back on the quarterdeck. I remove my long glass from its rack to scan the cliff. Hmmm. No sign of much activity, yet. Then I lower the glass and scan the bank on the right.

  "Anything, Katy?" I ask.

  "Nothin' yet ... wait! Got bottom...'bout six feet down ... sandy ... some rocks ... now about four feet."

  I had spied before a large tree trunk that had fallen from the bank into the water, its roots still anchored to the shore.

  "Jim! Steer for that tree! 'Thaniel, pull! Matty, hold! Now pull together! Katy?"

  "'Bout the same ... no ... bottom comin' up. Two feet now, still sand and a few rocks, now..."

  There's a grating sound as the Belle's keel slips up on the shoal, but we are close enough such that her bow noses up to the fallen trunk.

  "All right! Go!"

  And Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat and Katy leap up on the trunk and disappear into the woods. Their mission: to keep the robbers from taking their booty out of the cave. I don't want Katy to go, but she insists, saying that she can cover them with her arrows whilst they reload their rifles, and so I let her go. She'd have gone, anyway; my authority only goes so far on this bark.

  "'Thaniel and Matty! Push us off, boys!"

  The Hawkes brothers take their sweeps from the oarlocks and stick them into the sandy bottom and push with all their might. It is not enough, though, so Higgins and Reverend Clawson come up to add their backs to the push. Reluctantly, the Belle slides back into the stream.

  "Get your oars reset and pull us out!" Out, so I can have some firing room. "Stroke! Stroke!"

  I look up at the cliff and as soon as I can see the cave opening, I say, "Drop the anchor, Jim!" and he does it. We can feel the hook take hold by the dragging of the deck below our feet, and I go to the forward cannon.

  I crank up the elevation as high as it will go. I will aim it side to side with the help of the Hawkeses.

  "'Thaniel, back. Matty, pull. Keep doing it till I say 'hold.'" They do it, and the barrel of the cannon slowly swings over toward the mouth of the cave.

  "Hold," I say. Then, as the momentum takes us a few more degrees to port, I say, "Fire!" and pull the lanyard of the matchlock.

  The cannon barks out its ball and we stand and wait for the results. It hits above and to the right of the cave mouth. I think I can hear cries of alarm from up there. It is good that the shot was high, for I can get no more elevation out of this gun. I take the ratchet bar and crank down two. The Preacher and Chloe have already reloaded, and I have only to yell fire! and pull the lanyard.

  This time the ball hits the right side of the cave wall and careens into the interior. There are more screams and people spill out. I note with dismay that some are women.

  But I harden my heart, and when the gun is reloaded, I fire it again. This time the ball goes straight into the mouth. I think I hear glass shattering.

  "Let's have a hot one this time," I say, as Chloe and the Preacher reload. "Jane! Bring up a hot ball!" and Crow Jane struggles out of the hold, grasping in big tongs a red-hot cannonball, which had nestled in the coals of the stove for many hours. She drops it in the barrel and I waste no time in firing it, for the heat of the ball could set off the gun all by itself.

  It, too, goes right into the cave mouth, followed by more shrieks and howls. Smoke begins to pour out of the opening. I lift my glass and watch. And then I hear the popping of rifle fire. That would be Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat firing at the retreating robbers. Their orders are to prevent the outlaws from hauling off any booty with them, but I fear they might be doing much more than that.

  "Hold fire," I order, as I notice a woman come out of the cave, holding a baby. A few minutes later I see a figure on top of the cliff waving a red piece of cloth. It is Katy, and it is the signal that the place is taken.

  "Secure the cannon. Lift anchor. Bring us back to the shore. Well done, all."

  The Belle swings back into the shore and again runs gently aground. I hop out into the shallows and call out for Higgins, the Hawkes boys, and Cantrell to come with me, leaving the ship in the capable care of Jim, Clementine, Chloe, and the Preacher. I lead my party into the woods.

  We find a well-worn trail that we know will lead up to Cave-in-Roc
k, and we work our way along it, pistols at the ready should we meet any disgruntled former inhabitants of the place. We meet none.

  Eventually we reach the top to find Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat leaning on their rifles. From Lightfoot's belt hangs a bloody swatch of what looks like human hair.

  "Where's Katy?" I ask, and he nods his head in the direction of the cave mouth. "And what's that—on your belt?"

  Lightfoot considers this, then says, "'Member when I said I was goin' downriver 'cause there was a man down there who needed killin'?"

  "Yes...?"

  "He don't need killin' no more."

  Ah.

  Higgins and I go off to find Katy, while the Hawkes brothers strip the bodies on the ground of any valuables they might have. I notice that two of the dead men have arrows sticking out of them. Another looks like he was done in with Chee-a-quat's tomahawk. I look away from that.

  I find her coming out of the mouth of the cave, dragging the smouldering bedding that had been set on fire by the hot cannonball. The cave entrance was clearing of smoke.

  "What have we got, Kate?"

  "Some food. Powder. Bullets. Guns. Piles of stuff. The place looks like pigs've been living in it," she says. "I think Lightfoot dropped the one that was trying to get away with the money box. But then again, I think the real prize is down there..." She points down toward the water, and there, nestled amongst the greenery of the shore, float two boats, one a flatboat, the other a keelboat like the Belle. It's plain that they are boats stolen from innocent, luckless, and now-dead travelers. There is a path that leads down to the boats.

  "I think you're right, Katy," I say, already making plans in my head.

  "There's a child in there, too," adds Katy, nodding toward the cave. "Boy child. Sick. Maybe dead."

 
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