Mississippi jack, p.24
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       Mississippi Jack, p.24

           L. A. Meyer

  I look at Higgins and we go into the cave. It's plain that there's another entrance to this place, for a breeze blows through and the smoke is all but gone. The place is indeed a sty, but what would you expect from an outlaw den?

  There is a natural stone aisle that leads right into the cave—it is almost as if stonemasons had carved it, it is so straight and regular. On either side of this passageway are relatively flat rock ledges, shoulder high, that extend to the cave edges and have plainly served as sleeping areas—some seem almost to look like family hearths, with bunks and beds laid in a circle. I decide not to think on that.

  Following the aisle to its end, we come to a large, domed room, which has a small hole at the top, through which sunlight twinkles. There are remains of a large fire in the center of this room, and a trickle of smoke trails up to the vent hole at the top. What a perfect fortress, says the pirate in me.

  There are piles of clothing and barrels of whiskey and tons of other booty the river pirates have taken and that now belong to us. Back along the right side of the cave is one of the living areas, and in one of the beds there, I see the recumbent form of a child, lying faceup.

  I go over, with Higgins beside me, and look down. "What do you think?"

  Higgins puts his hand on the boy's forehead. "He is about eight years old and still alive, at least, but very feverish." He opens the boy's shirt and looks at his chest. "No measles, no chicken pox, no smallpox ... I think it's influenza. He is barely conscious." The boy moans and twists in the bed. He is covered in sweat.

  "All right," I say. "If he's still alive when we're ready to quit this place, we shall take him with us. Now let's get loading."

  I leave Higgins to supervise the loading of the goods and go back out to the Hawkes brothers, who are now through with their grisly work.

  "Matty. 'Thaniel. I'm going back to move the Belle over next to those boats you see down there. We'll load whatever we can take from here into them."

  They both answer, "Yes, Skipper," as they get down to the business of stacking up the booty.

  "And, lads, you could not have been more brave today when those bullets were whizzing around and yet you stood at your posts, manning your sweeps. We could not have done this without you, and I want you to know that."

  "Ah, pshaw," the boys reply together, blushing, but I know that they are pleased.

  I make sure that Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat are continuing to guard against the return of the remnants of the outlaws, and then head back to the Belle at a dead run.

  "We're gonna move her about fifty yards downriver to load cargo. Everybody on the poles to pull her off!"

  The Belle comes off the shoal fairly easily and we slip back into the stream.

  "Mind the rocks now, Jim ... There! You see those two boats tied up there? Head in!"

  We slip in beside the other boats and tie up.

  "I'm going back up," I say, leaping onto the deck of the flatboat and then onto the other keelboat. "Clementine, you, too." With a delighted yelp, she follows me off.

  She falls a bit behind me 'cause it's always been my pride that no one beats Jacky Faber in climbing the rigging, and nobody beats her on a steep trail, either.

  There is a rustle in the bushes next to me, and startled, I turn to face a very large, extremely wet man with rivulets of blood coursing down his face. Apparently he is one of the men from the robbers' attack boat, obviously his rifle is wet and useful now only as club, and plainly he wishes to kill me. He swings the rifle butt at my head as I manage to raise my shoulder in time to deflect the blow, but still it knocks me facedown in the dirt, stunned.

  Looking up, I see with horror that there is a bayonet at the other end of the gun. He reverses the gun in his hand and lifts it over his head and prepares to use all his force to drive the point through my back and pin me to the ground.

  I can't reach my pistols, I can't ... Oh, God, I'm gonna...

  I hear two shots, one right after the other, and two blossoms of red appear on the man's chest. He drops the weapon and falls back, still as a stone.

  I roll over to see Clementine standing over me, her two smoking pistols held out at shoulder level.

  "Thank you, Sister," I say, my voice quavering as I get to my knees and then shakily stand. "He'd have skewered me for sure."

  She nods, looking dumbly at the smoking pistols in her hands. I know how that feels, Clementine, when you kill someone, no matter how vile they might be, but we'll deal with this later.

  "Reload, Clementine. There might be more." Given this simple task to do, she does it, and we continue on to the cave, with me being much more watchful this time. Stupid thing, you! Keep watch!

  We gain the cave mouth and the Hawkes boys begin taking the plunder down to the boats. I go around to the side, where Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat and Katy are standing guard against a possible return of the thieves, and I call Katy to me. As she comes toward me, I notice Lightfoot watching her as she goes. Hmmm.

  "Katy," I say. "Stand guard on Matty and 'Thaniel as they take the goods down. I was almost killed by one of the survivors of the bandits' boat on my way up here. If not for Clementine, I'd be dead right now."

  "Um," she says, nods, and lopes off after the boys.

  Clementine and I go into the cave to find Higgins separating what we can use or sell from that for which we'd have no possible use.

  "So, Mr. Higgins, just what do we have here?"

  "Well, Miss, we have this," he says, handing me a sort of flat wooden box. "A man attempted to escape with it, but he did not make it past your dragoons. Katy brought it down."

  I lift the lid. Inside is an assortment of watches, gold and silver coins, brass buttons, gold buttons, brooches, hairpins, necklaces, pearls ... How sad, I think to myself when I pick up an exquisite cameo to examine. This was probably some poor girl's most prized possession. It is all just so sad ... the evil that exists in men, I cannot understand it.

  "Good," I say out loud, snapping the lid closed and handing it back to Higgins. "There will be a payday in Cairo when we get there, and I'm sure, since no one has gotten any pay yet, all will welcome that. What else did you find here?"

  "Powder—whiskey, mostly. Several dozen chickens. Clothing we will be able to use or else sell. And one item in particular that might interest you, Miss," says Higgins. "But first I must show you this."

  With that he strides over to the pallet that holds the sick boy. The boy's eyes are still half shut and he is shivering. Higgins reaches down to lift the bottom edge of the blanket. Around the boy's thin, grimy ankle is a shackle to which is attached a short length of chain and attached to that is an iron ball of about twenty pounds.

  I draw in my breath. "A captive, then," I say. "And not one of the scum. We must take him with us."

  I turn to Clementine. "Run back down to the boat and get Chloe. Tell her to bring her lock-picking tools. Both pistols in your hands, now, and keep a sharp watch."

  She looks at me with those cornflower blue eyes and nods, a slight smile on her lips. She pulls the pistols from her belt and heads out and down.

  That look she gives me sometimes ... it's like an I-know-somethin'-you-don't-know look ... Nah, it's just my imagination.

  I turn back to Higgins. "When we get it all loaded, leave a big bag of powder in here. We'll run a line of gunpowder from it and out the front, and when we're done, we'll light it off to burn anything in here that the robbers might find useful should they return. I want to hear their rotten teeth gnash from wherever I am when they discover that they don't even have their foul beds to sleep on."

  "Aye, aye, Lieutenant," says Higgins, knowing how much I like the title. "And here is the item you might find interesting." He holds up a wooden thing that must be a musical instrument, for it has a hollow body, a fret board, and six strings.

  I take it in my hands and strum the strings. It gives off a deep, mellow discord. "What is it?" I ask.

  "I believe it is called a guitarra, Miss. It's a Spanish in
strument," answers Higgins.

  Yes, of course. I saw a woman in Kingston playing one the time I was there with the Dolphin. And, yes, of course, this is definitely mine.

  In time, Clementine and Chloe come panting into the cave. Shown the shackle lock, Chloe has it off in under a minute. I, myself, am going to have to take some instruction from this remarkable schoolmistress of ours.


  We finish loading up by early afternoon. The last load is carried down, and the charge set. Higgins has taken the child down to the Belle and put him in a clean bunk in the passenger area, where cool compresses are put to his fevered brow. We don't hold out much hope for the kid, but we'll do what we can for him.

  I call Lightfoot, Katy, and Chee-a-quat back down from the top of the cliff, and I apply my flint striker to the trail of gunpowder leading up to the bag deep in the cave. It catches and the flame sizzles its way up and into the mouth of Cavern-Rock. We wait and are soon rewarded with a whoosh! and a tongue of flame that roars out the cave's mouth. It looks like the mouth of Satan, himself, clearing his fiery throat.

  "Wah!" exclaims Lightfoot, in appreciation.

  "Wah!" echoes Chee-a-quat.

  And Katy, surprisingly, also says, but much more quietly, "Wah."


  "Well, that purifies the place, at least till the vermin come creepin' back," say I, satisfied with both the spectacle and the outcome of the day. "Let's get back down to the Belle."

  I realize that everyone is weary, I know I certainly am, but I feel we've got to push on. I don't want to stay moored here tonight when any survivors of our attack might have leisure to take potshots at us.

  I see that Jim has already put the towlines on the other two boats and we are ready to take off. I jump up on my quarterdeck.

  "Stations, everyone!" I call out, and the oarsmen leap to their sweeps.

  "Push us off!" and off we go into the stream to face the Rapids of the Ohio. A little white blur skitters around my feet—it is Pretty Saro squealing in delight at seeing me and at being back up on deck again, she having been sequestered below for the duration of the fight. I give her a quick scratch and say, "Later, baby. Work to do now," and I attend to business.

  "Bring him up here," I order, and Higgins pulls the miserable Mr. Fortescue to his feet. "Cut off his leg bindings." It is done. I withdraw one of my pistols and hold it to his head. "Stand here. Do you have a good view of the river, Mr. Fortescue?"

  "Y-Y-yes, I do, but..."

  "Good. Then you may prolong the length of your miserable, rotten life a bit longer. We are now going to go down through the Rapids of the Ohio and you will guide us. If we so much as touch bottom or hit one rock, I shall blow your head off. Do you understand that, Mr. Fortescue?"

  "Y-yes ... but what kind of fiend are you, that you would do this to me?"

  "Ah, Mr. Fortescue, I am not half the fiend that you or any of your former friends are. I am, however, in many parts of the world known as Jacky Faber, Pyrate, and even as La Belle Jeune Fille sans Merci, 'the beautiful young girl without mercy.' You may discount the 'beautiful,' but I advise you not to discount the 'without mercy.' It would be at your peril, Mr. Fortescue."

  I pause here and call forward, "Crow Jane."

  "What, Boss?" Her head pops up above the front hatchway. I suspect she has been slaughtering chickens for tonight's victory feast.

  "Bring up our worst tablecloth and spread it over here on Mr. Fortescue's left side. Should it happen that I must shoot him, I will do it from the right side, as I don't want to spill his brains all over my clean quarterdeck."

  "Yes, Boss," she says, as she goes below to get the cloth.

  I look over at our sorry river pilot and ask, "Any orders to the helm, Mr. Fortescue?"

  His face fades to an even whiter shade of gray and he says, "Right rudder. Get to the center. Might hit that rock on the right. Hard right, now..."

  Six wild hours later and we are through the Rapids without a scratch, on any of the three boats. We drift into the now quiet center of the river and heave great sighs of relief. Then we reflect on what to do with Mr. Fortescue. I have my table set up again and convene the trial. Good smells are drifting up from Crow Jane's kitchen. I rap my knuckles on the tabletop.

  "The good people of the Ohio River Valley versus the False Guide and Deceiver Mr. Frederick Fortescue. How do you plead, Sir?"

  "Not guilty," he answers. "I'm but an honest river pilot trying to ply my trade."

  "Right, Mr. Fortescue," say I. "Will anyone else speak in his defense?"

  Not a word is spoken. The defendant squirms in his bonds.

  "Is there anyone who wishes to speak against him?"

  "He did order us over to the right, in order to ground us and to put us at the mercy of the river pirates," testifies Jim Tanner.

  "I was there and heard that order myself," I concur. "I call for a verdict. So say you one, so say you all..."

  "Guilty!" comes the call from all those aboard. Mr. Fortescue looks noticeably uncomfortable.

  "Let us proceed now to the penalty phase. All in favor of hanging him, say aye."

  There is a goodly chorus of ayes.

  "Hmmm," I say. "Will anyone speak for the condemned?"

  "Your Honor, if I may," says Preacher Clawson, rising with hands outstretched. "Whatever his past crimes, I beseech you to extend mercy, for is he not still one of God's creatures, even though he has gone wrong?"

  "Hmmm. Very well, Reverend, we will take your recommendation under consideration."

  I sit back and pretend to deliberate. Then I say, "Mr. Tanner, prepare the gangplank."

  Mr. Fortescue looks aghast.

  "Yes, Mr. Fortescue, for your crimes against the good people of this country, you shall, indeed, walk the plank. You and your cohorts thought they were true pirates, but, Sir, you do not know real pirates." I clap my hands together. "Let's get this unpleasant work done. Strip him down to his underclothes and put him on the plank. Prepare some heavy chain to wrap around him so that his body does not float up."

  The Hawkes boys grab the quivering Mr. Fortescue and relieve him of his outer garments. Clanking chain is brought up and placed near him. His eyes begin to go out of focus. The brothers put him on the gangplank that extends over the port side of the Belle. I go up behind him, cocking my pistol. He stands, his hands bound behind him, his knees shaking.

  "Mr. Fortescue," I say, "you are, indeed, fortunate to have fallen into our hands, for unlike you and your sort, we are not murderers of the innocent, nor even of the guilty." With that, I take out my shiv to cut the bonds from his hands.

  "We have shown you mercy, Mr. Fortescue, kindness that you and your type have shown no others. It is to be hoped that you remember this, whether you sink now, or are able to swim to safety. I do not care which."

  I put my foot in the small of his back and push him over. There is a splash and I do not turn around to see whether or not his head bobs up.

  We have a great, triumphant feast that night, all three boats nested up and anchored in a quiet cove. Bottles of our best wine are opened and Crow Jane's fried chicken is received with great acclaim. Even Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat join us in this celebration. Tales of individual bravery are told and retold. Praise is heaped upon every brow. Songs are sung and more stories are told and eventually we go off to bed. It has been a very long day.

  Clementine and I tumble into our bunk and begin to settle ourselves for the night. When we are set and quiet, but before we blow out the candle, I say, "Thank you, Clementine. You saved my life today, you did, and don't deny it."

  She sniffs and maybe nods but says nothing else.

  "I mean it," I go on. "And if there's anything I can do for you, please tell me."

  At that, she gets up on one elbow and faces me. "All right. You see that?"

  She points to my miniature painting of Jaimy, which I keep above my bed.

  "Yes," I say. "That is a picture of my intended husband, Jaimy Fletcher, he's—

  "Uh-huh," she says. Then, "You done that picture?"

  "Yes, though he's much better looking than—"

  "Uh-huh," she says and settles back down into the pillow. "Then, if you'd make one of Jimmy, uh, Jim Tanner, for me, I'd be grateful ... and then ... we'll be even."

  "Of course, I will, Clementine. I'll start on it tomorrow," I answer, preparing myself for the sleep that may not come, not for either of us. For I know I will have a new nightmare, that of a man standing over me with a bayonet, ready to gut me like a pig, while she'll be dealing with the fact that she killed a man.

  Dona Nobis Pacem, Pacem, I sing over and over to myself as Clementine and I lie wrapped in each other's arms against the terrors of the night. Dona Nobis Pacem...

  Give us peace.

  Chapter 43

  Belle log, midsummer. 12:35. Arrive town of Cairo. Debark passengers. Look out over Mississippi River. Personal observation: I had thought that we had been on mighty rivers these past few weeks, but I have never seen anything like this. Good Lord.

  We had picked up our former passengers at Elizabeth town the day following the Battle of Cave-in-Rock. They expressed both delight and surprise that we were still alive, and climbed eagerly back aboard. All of them would get off at Cairo, most of them going upriver to St. Louis, which seems to be the only big town around here, and that mainly a trading post. Before leaving Elizabethtown, we informed the town fathers that we had cleaned out the nest of outlaws up at Cave-in-Rock and it would be well if they could send some good men up there, well armed, to keep the bandits from creeping back in and setting up their vile business again, which would surely help the future hopes of their little town. Whether or not they did so, I don't know. Prolly not.

  Higgins had taken to calling me Commodore Faber on the way down to Cairo, but alas, that title was not to stick. We had such a torturous time keeping the three boats in a line that we decided to sell the latter two at Cairo, it being the meeting place of the Ohio and the Mississippi, where boats like these would be in great demand. When I finally did get a good look at the mighty, turbulent flood that was the Big River, all doubts were dispelled: No way was I going to take three boats tied together on the crest of that. Hell, there were houses floating by, for God's sake, to say nothing of massive uprooted trees, and other nasty snags what could gut the Belle and put all of us under in a minute. One thing you never know about a river: On one day it can be calm, then within minutes all that can change into a roiling mess that doesn't begin to calm down for several days.

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