Mississippi jack, p.26
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       Mississippi Jack, p.26

           L. A. Meyer
 

  TIMOTHY: Surely, Sister—(cough! cough!)—surely there is another way!

  PRUDENCE: No, dear Brother, there is not. We must pay the help. We must have money for food.

  We must do it. (I wipe away tears.) I will send the foreman for Banker Morgan right now.

  CURTAIN

  The curtain closes as Chloe plays a very sad and mournful adagio and then Higgins again steps forward to gravely announce, "The very next day." Behind him, the curtain opens.

  TIMOTHY (cupping ear): Hark! I hear hoofbeats outside. It must be Banker Morgan! Oh, Sister, I hope you do not rue this day! I do not like Banker Morgan!

  PRUDENCE: Now, Timothy, we must have hope. There is still time to get in another crop before the fall. We must have faith and trust in God.

  (There is the sound of knocking.)

  PRUDENCE: Come in. (Yancy Cantrell enters wearing a black hat and cloak, looking evil, shifty-eyed, and sinister. Chloe does a two-handed, anxious-sounding tremolo.) Mr. Morgan, how good of you to come so quickly to our aid. Thank you so much.

  MORGAN: You are welcome, my dear. (He pulls a sheaf of papers from his cloak.) I have the papers right here. If you will just sign them, your troubles will be over. Heh, heh.

  I lean over the table we have set up, take up a pen, and sign the notes. Yancy, behind my back, runs his eyes up and down my form, leers whilst twirling his mustache, and winks broadly at the audience, which is beginning to work up a few hisses for the villain.

  PRUDENCE: There. It is done.

  MORGAN: Not quite, my dear. You must first give me the deed to your farm to hold until the note is paid in full.

  PRUDENCE (opening a drawer in the table and pulling out a paper): Here. (I hand the paper to Yancy, but instead of taking it, he grabs me by the wrist and pulls me to him, encircling my waist with his arm.)

  MORGAN: Come with me, my honey, my sweet, and you'll never worry about money again, I promise you. (He rains kisses on my face and neck.)

  PRUDENCE: Please, Sir! Let me go! (I struggle in his grasp.)

  MORGAN: Unhand her, you cad! (Daniel rushes at Yancy, his puny fists flailing at the man. Yancy kicks him away. The boy falls to the floor, coughing. The crowd's hissing redoubles.)

  MORGAN: Out of the way, brat! This is man's business!

  PRUDENCE: I shall never go with you and lead a shameful life! Let me go! (I struggle out of his grasp.) I am promised to Captain Noble Strongheart. Oh, would that he were here now, he would give you such a thrashing! Give me my money and leave my house, Sir! ( I point offstage, my face full of righteous indignation.)

  MORGAN: Very well, my reluctant beauty. (He scoops up the fallen deed and flings a bag of coins at my feet.) Just remember, my winsome lass, that the note is due on the first of October. The payment must be in full, or you shall be put out of this place! We shall see what happens then, and in what form payment will be made! (Banker Morgan pulls his cloak over his face so that only his evil eyes show. He exits to loud hisses and boos.)

  PRUDENCE: Oh, poor, poor brave Brother! (I kneel down next to the fallen Timothy and lift his head. The audience gasps to see a thin trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. I turn my tearful face to the audience.) Oh, was pure Virtue and Brotherly Valor ever, ever, more sorely tried!

  CURTAIN

  Higgins advances to center stage, his steps in time to the gloomy dirge Chloe is playing. "The first day of October," he intones, dolefully, shaking his head sadly as he walks off. The curtain opens, showing Prudence Goodlove seated at the table, crying. Her brother is lying in a bed, covered with a sheet, coughing.

  TIMOTHY: Sister, dear Sister, why do you weep so?

  PRUDENCE: Oh, Timothy, I am so sorry to have awakened you from slumber! It's just that the crop is not yet ripe and we cannot harvest and today is the day the mortgage is due! I fear that Banker Morgan, that detestable man, will come and demand his money, which I do not have! I fear—

  (There is a loud knocking heard.)

  PRUDENCE: My worst fears realized! Oh, Lord, save our humble home!

  (Enter Banker Morgan to loud boos. He casts a snarling look at the hissing audience and advances on Prudence. She falls back, swooning.)

  MORGAN: Miss Goodlove, I will have my money now, or I will have this farm!

  PRUDENCE: Please, Sir! Our crop is almost in! Please won't you grant us a few more weeks? Oh, please! Heaven will bless you for it!

  MORGAN (laughing evilly): Ha-ha! Never shall that happen! Pay up or I shall put you and your brother off this land right now.

  PRUDENCE: But he has the consumption, as you can plainly see! It would kill him to be cast out in the cruel elements! Oh, have you no mercy, Sir?

  MORGAN: Mercy? Ha! I have none, but you, my dear... (He crosses the stage and throws his arms about Prudence) ...you have a choice: Surrender up your virtue to me, consent to be my mistress, and I will tear up the mortgage. Refuse, and you will lose the farm and your brother will die!

  TIMOTHY: Do not do it, Sister, dear! Do not... (He passes out.)

  PRUDENCE: Woe is me! What am I to do? Keep my sacred honor and watch my brother die, or give in to the fiend's foul demands? Oh, what shall I do?

  MORGAN: You shall make up your mind, girl, as my patience grows short!

  With that, Yancy reaches up, grabs my dress at the neckline, and rips it down, the specially weakened side seams giving away, revealing me standing openmouthed in naught but my chemise and drawers. The gasps from the audiences on that little move can usually be heard three counties over. That, and the scream I deliver.

  PRUDENCE (arms crossed on chest): Oh, I am undone!

  MORGAN: Not yet you aren't, but you surely shall be soon! Come here, my lovely!

  (Loud hissing and shouts of shame! shame! as he chases me around the table two or three times.)

  PRUDENCE: Shall no one save me? Must I yield to dishonor?

  (Enter, offstage right, Captain Noble Strongheart—Jim Tanner, dressed in my midshipman's jacket, pistol by his side, with drawn-on charcoal mustache to give him some years.)

  STRONGHEART (offstage): Prudence, darling! I have returned from the war! How I have longed for this moment! (He strides into view and is visibly shocked by the scene before him.) But what madness is this? Prudence? Banker Morgan?

  PRUDENCE: Oh, dear Captain Strongheart, you have come to save the day! Oh, thank the merciful heavens! Banker Morgan has been pressing his unwanted attentions on me most vigorously.

  STRONGHEART: You, Sir, are a bounder and a cad. Stand away from her at once!

  (Strongheart takes Morgan by the shoulder and throws him down to the floor and goes to put his arm around Prudence. Morgan rises and pulls a small pistol from under his cloak and fires it at Strongheart.)

  MORGAN: Curses! Missed! But no matter, I have another! Die, Strongheart! You may have survived the war, but you will not survive this! (He pulls out another pistol.)

  STRONGHEART: It is you who will die, villain, for your dastardly assault upon the honor of this frail flower! (He fires before Morgan can get off his shot, and Morgan is struck in the chest.)

  MORGAN (staggering with his hand to his chest): You have killed me! I am done for! It's the fires of Hell for me! (Loud cheers from audience as he falls to floor and lies still.)

  PRUDENCE: My hero! (Embraces Strongheart.)

  (Enter Rev. Clawson as Col. Goodlove, stage left)

  COL. GOODLOVE: Daughter, Son, I have returned! (Surveys scene.) But what has happened here?

  PRUDENCE: Oh, Father, dear, you could not be more welcome. I had to mortgage the farm and the note was due today and Banker Morgan was forcing himself upon me, but brave Captain Strongheart came and saved me from a fate worse than death!

  COL. GOODLOVE: Worry yourself no more, my dearest daughter! I return with much money, money enough to pay the mortgage, money enough to get poor Timothy to a hospital back East where he shall surely be cured, money enough to give you a generous dowry so that you and this fine man might be married!


  PRUDENCE: Oh, happy day! Oh, happy, happy day!

  CURTAIN

  I said it was a play, I did not say it was a good play. Higgins is of the considered opinion that my talents, when it comes to the theater, might be best confined to acting out words written by others, but I will have none of it.

  "Give 'em a villain to hiss, a little action, a little leg, and they go away pleased with their theatrical experience is what I say, Higgins," says I, not in the least wounded by his wry review of my playwriting skill.

  The part with the dress we added after the first few performances—without it the play fell a bit flat. So now, when we stay over in a town for two nights and we perform it twice, we sell out on the second day, every time. The word gets around about my little playlet, and gets around fast. One time the audience got so worked up that we were afraid someone was going to take a shot at Yancy in his role as villain, so we had to stop the play for a bit to calm things down and to remind them it was, indeed, only a play.

  We end our days at these ports of call in our Golden West Tavern, in the belly of the Belle. We serve food and drinks and have entertainment just like any land-bound tavern, except that we float.

  I do my usual tavern show, helped by Chloe and Clementine. I have dropped some of the British and Irish ballads from the sets and adopted many of the high-country, lonesome hill songs that I have learned from Clementine. It's a good mix, and we are always warmly received.

  I was wrong in being suspicious about the Honeys—Honeysuckle Rose and Tupelo Honey have worked out very well. They are cheerful in their daily duties and truly shine at night. Honeysuckle tends the bar, and Tupelo serves the tables. They have that talent that all good barmaids have—the ability to be friendly to the customers without letting it get too far. Their husbands, the Hawkes boys, still bask in their new state of wedded bliss. At night Matthew is stationed at the hatchway to control the entrance and to screen the crowd for any troublemakers, and Nathaniel is posted inside. It is plain that each is well armed.

  Mr. Yancy Beauregard Cantrell sits at the gaming table should any of the local sports want to try their luck. He keeps his winnings modest, within reason. He makes sure that at least one of the men seated at his table leaves as a winner, so he gets the reputation of running an honest game. He always plays with his sleeves rolled up.

  When I am not singing, playing the fiddle, or dancing, I am the hostess. I welcome customers and direct them to tables or to the bar. I keep an eye on things. Once, when in a lumber-cutting town—Pikesville, I think it was named—there was a lad, probably not yet sixteen, who had a bit too much to drink at the bar, and when I noticed, I gave Honeysuckle the finger-across-the-throat sign that meant Cut that boy off, and she nodded, and in few minutes the boy got up and walked unsteadily over to the gaming table where sat Yancy, alone. The boy sat down, pulled out his money, probably all the money he had earned in three or four months of backbreaking work cutting timber. It was money which, when he was sober, I'm sure he fully intended to get back to his poor ol' mama back on that poor ol' homestead.

  I shook my head at Yancy and he nodded.

  Yancy took the deck that lay in front of him, shuffled it, then offered it to the boy to cut. He did. Yancy then dealt two hands of five cards each, face up, one to him and one to the boy. He dealt himself a royal flush—ace, king, queen, jack, ten, all in spades, the highest hand in straight poker—and to the lad, he dealt deuce, trey, four, five, seven, all in various suits, the lowest hand in straight poker. He scooped up the cards again, shuffled, had the boy cut again, and this time dealt himself a full house—three aces over two kings—and to the boy he dealt another full house, this one three queens and two kings, which though a powerful hand, would lose, and lose big to the former. The lad looked on in amazement.

  "Boy," said Cantrell, "if you've a thin dime, put it on the table now, next to mine." Yancy reaches into his vest pocket and pulls out a coin and snaps it down.

  The youth, dazed, fished in his own pocket and pulled out a ten-cent piece and put it on the table.

  Yancy shuffled the deck and put it on the table and said, "Cut for high card."

  The boy reached over and cut a three. Yancy cut and showed—a deuce.

  "Take them up, lad, and go, secure in the knowledge that you will be able to say to your friends as you go through this life, 'I sat down at a table to play at cards with Yancy Beauregard Cantrell and stood up a winner, as very few have ever done.'"

  The boy lurched to his feet, picked up the two dimes, and went out the hatchway.

  I beamed my best smile at Yancy Cantrell.

  Another time—in Gold Dust, I think it was—we had a much rougher customer.

  We had a good crowd, but I noticed him right off—he was probably half tanked before he even arrived, loud, obnoxious, and meaner than a snake. We were between sets when he came up to me, reeking of a liquor not as fine as the bourbon we sell. I saw that Nathaniel had noticed as well, and had loosened his pistol in his holster.

  "Hey. You the madam?"

  "No, Sir, I am the hostess. And the entertainment."

  "Well, entertain this, girly. That nigra gal up there playin' that fuss box? How much for a little time with her in one of these here cabins?" He pulled out a roll of bills.

  "I'm afraid none of the young ladies here present are for sale, Sir," I said, my voice low and even.

  "What about you, then, sweetie?" he asked, showing yellow teeth with more than a few gaps. "You talk funny, but you damned cute, too."

  "This is not a brothel. Now, if you want to enjoy the food, the drink, or the—"

  "Huh! I get it ... You girls must take care o' business amongst yerselfs, ain't-cha? Eh? I heard o' thet. Makes me sick, but I heard of it."

  He spit on the floor and turned from me. Nathaniel looked at me with eyebrows raised in question. Should I throw his ass out?

  I shook my head, for I saw the man heading for Yancy's table. He sat down and pulled out his money. There were several other players there, but upon seeing him join the table, they picked up their money and went back to the bar.

  Yancy looked up at me. I put two fingers to my right eyebrow, our signal for Take him for everything he's got!

  Yancy smiled and nodded, and I turned back to my hostess duties.

  It was not long before the whole company heard a row.

  "You cheated! You double-dealing bastard! You took all my money!"

  "Cheated?" said Yancy, calmly reshuffling the deck. "Please, don't think I didn't notice your clumsy attempt at second dealing on the last hand."

  There was an ashtray on a stand next to Yancy, in which burned the butt of a cigar. But it was not only an ashtray, oh, no, it was also the lever to release the trapdoor artfully concealed under a small rug upon which sat our loud customer.

  The man jumped to his feet, brushed back his coat, and grabbed the butt of a small, well-concealed pistol, but he never drew it, not on this deck level, anyway, for the floor fell away beneath him and he tumbled down, to hit hard on the bilge boards six feet below.

  "Please, everybody!" I sang out. "It is but a momentary disturbance caused by one intemperate in his habits. Just stand away from the hole and none shall be hurt!"

  I carefully went over to the edge of the trap. "Sir, if you will be so good as to throw up your weapon, we may resolve this matter."

  "You go straight to hell, bitch!" came the response from our unrepentant guest.

  "Ah, well," I said. "Katy? The snakes, please, if you will."

  "Snakes? What snakes?" came the cry from below.

  "Oh, just your common cottonmouth, rattler, and water moccasin, Sir."

  Katy Deere, in her food-foraging expeditions along the shore, had, on my request, captured a number of harmless though fierce-looking snakes, snakes that we keep in a burlap sack for just this purpose. She untied the bag and tipped the squirming, twisting contents into the hole.

  The gun came flying out of the hole. "Get me out of here!"

&
nbsp; "Take off your clothes, please," I said. "You may keep your drawers. Then we will lower the ladder and you may go away. And thank you ever so much for your patronage."

  And so we roll on down the Big River, under the sun that burns down upon us during the day, under the stars that wheel about us in their great soaring courses at night. We roll on and we sing, we dance, we play, we prosper.

  Chapter 45

  "You must hold still, Jim. I'm almost done."

  Jim Tanner, dressed in my midshipman's jacket with some foamy lace spilling out at the neck, sits rigidly in a chair set up across from me. His hair is neatly combed and tied back with a black ribbon. I am at my table, with my colors arrayed about, concentrating on the small ivory oval in front of me. I am painting him in profile.

  We have erected a canopy over the quarterdeck area to keep off the sun, which grows hotter by the day. We are all, with the exception of Jim, in our lighter clothes, and I, for one, look forward to a swim in a quiet cove when we anchor for the night. There will be no port visit today, as we are passing through some sparsely populated country, with Tennessee on our left and Arkansas now on our right.

  Clementine sits next to me, resewing the weak seams in my Prudence dress to get it ready for the next performance. Where each inch of a seam usually has about fifteen stitches in it, these seams have only two per inch, and Clementine sews with the weakest thread we have.

  I glance over at her hands as they sew, the fingernails bitten to the quick. Several days ago she was nearly out of her mind with worry when Jim failed to return from a scouting trip downriver. For two whole days we all waited anxiously, but none more anxiously than she. Each night, before going to bed, she knelt by the bunk in prayer for a long time, and in the daytime she seldom left the bow, her eyes constantly scanning the river south of us. It was her exclamation of joy that alerted the rest of us to the Evening Stars sail and Jim Tanner's safe return. It seems he ran into that pack of outlaw Indians, the ones we had fought off back up on the Ohio, and he had to flee south, for the wind was against him, and as it was, he just barely managed to outdistance the renegades as they pursued him in their swift canoes. He knew it was the same band of Indians, for their leader was the man with his face painted half red. Jim explained all this while standing on the deck of the Belle, with Clementine wrapped around him, her face pressed to his chest, sobbing with relief.

 
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