Mississippi jack, p.27
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       Mississippi Jack, p.27

           L. A. Meyer
 

  Daniel, back on the stern, scoops up buckets of water and pours them over Pretty Saro, who grunts contentedly and goes back to sleep. Nathaniel is on tiller. From up forward, the Honeys laugh and chatter as they hang laundry along the rail. Crow Jane is below, cooking up lunch, while at the long table, Higgins, Yancy, Chloe, and the Reverend Clawson play at whist. Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat sit crossed-legged on the deck, cleaning and oiling their rifles. Matthew Hawkes tends some fishing lines and Katy is on forward watch. Life on the Belle of the Golden West drifts contentedly along.

  Some more highlights in the hair ... There, yes ... and there and ... Done!

  "What do you think, Clementine?" I ask, holding up the miniature portrait for her opinion. "I know I didn't make him handsome enough."

  "Oh, yes, you did," she says, a smile lighting up her features as she looks upon the painting. "You did just fine."

  "Good," I say, basking as ever in any praise that might come my way. "Now let's start one of you, for darling Jim to clasp next to his heart. You can get up now, Jim."

  Jim Tanner gets up and stretches, grateful to be able to move again. He takes off the jacket, comes over and looks at the picture of him, blushes becomingly, and voices both his approval of it and his ardent desire for one of Clementine. I put the painting aside to dry—later it will be put under glass and framed—and choose another ivory oval as Clementine moves over to the now vacant chair. I think I will try her in three-quarter view rather than the profile and I—

  "Somethin' in the water up ahead," comes the call from Katy up on the bow.

  I rise and look forward, shading my eyes with my hand. "Is it a snag?"

  "Nope. Seems to be somethin' swimmin'."

  I pick up the long glass from its rack and go forward to stand next to Katy. She points off to starboard and I bring the telescope up to my eye, and I spot it.

  "It's a man," I say to the others who have gathered around. "He's swimming. But what in the world is he doing in the middle of the Mississippi River?"

  I lower the glass. "Jim, take over the helm from 'Thaniel. Matty, get on the sweeps with your brother and steer for that man. He must be in need of help." The crew hops to it and the Belle of the Golden West points her bow at the swimming man. "Daniel, put this back." He takes the long glass from my hand to return it to its rack. No need for it now, as the man is clearly in sight, and in a few minutes we are upon him.

  "It's a burrhead!" reports Matty on port sweep. He, being higher up, can see the man better.

  "What?" says I.

  "It's a nigra man," says Matty. "What do you wanna do, Skipper?"

  "Bring up alongside of him. We'll see what he's about."

  We get close and the man spots us and tries to frantically swim away, but it is plain that he is tiring.

  "Ahoy, there!" I call. "Slack off! We won't hurt you! We are not slavers! We are a showboat! From the North!"

  The man stops swimming to tread water and look at us. His eyes take in the Belle and her gaudy paint.

  "Here! Grab the sweep and rest!" I nod at Matty and he extends his oar toward the man. The man grabs on, panting hard. Matty pulls in the sweep and the man is brought to the side of the boat.

  "Who are you and what are you doing out here?"

  "My name is Solomon. I was runnin' away," he wheezes, "from Marse Wilcox. He's a bad man, him. Couldn't take no more, no."

  "I am sorry to tell you this, Mr. Solomon," says I, "but you are swimming from the slave territory of Arkansas to the slave state of Tennessee. What could you hope to gain?"

  "I didn't have no choice, Miss," says this Solomon. "Listen up careful and you'll hear."

  I lift my head and cock an ear. From the Arkansas shore I hear the not-so-far-away sounds of a pack of baying hounds. Ah.

  I think on this for a moment, and then I say, "You do have a choice now, Mr. Solomon. You can continue to swim across and gain the other shore, work your way north through Tennessee, through Kentucky, and so into Illinois, a trek of a mere two hundred or so miles of territory very unfriendly to free-roaming persons of your color..."

  The man leans his head against the oar.

  "...or, you can ride with us down to New Orleans, working with us on board to pay your way. When we get there, and you have worked hard, we will pay your passage on board a ship bound for a port where you can be free. What do you say?"

  "What if you take me there and then sell me?"

  "You shall have to trust me on that," I say. "Chloe, will you give me a testimonial?"

  Chloe Cantrell comes to the side and looks down at the man in the water, and he looks up at her. "You can trust her," she says simply and turns away.

  "All right. I will trust you. And I'll go with you."

  "Very well. There is a short ladder at the back of the boat. You may come aboard. Stay out of sight by the side of the cabin till we clear this area, in case someone is watching from the other shore. Welcome aboard, Mr. Solomon."

  And so we add yet another member to our motley crew of Brits, Americans, Africans, American Indians, plus one fine pig. For now, we are all getting along.

  Chapter 46

  Yesterday, when Solomon was brought aboard, we discovered that he was shirtless and wore only a ragged pair of pants that ended just below his knees. Well, we can't have any member of Faber Shipping, Worldwide looking like that, so I asked Higgins if he could round up something in the way of shirt and trousers, and he said he was sure he could find something presentable in the stash of clothing we had taken from the outlaws' cave and stored below.

  While Higgins was searching, I sent Daniel down for my medical kit, then said to Solomon, who was seated on the deck, his back to the cabin and out of sight of the Arkansas bank, "You can get up now, Mr. Solomon. Please sit in that chair. Straddle it, facing the back, if you would. Oh, thank you, Daniel, put it down there."

  Solomon sits down, his forearms on the back of the chair. His eyes are guarded, fearful, as if expecting a blow.

  I root about in my kit and pull out my can of healing salve, open it, and begin to apply it to his back, which I can plainly see has been recently whipped. He flinches when I touch him, and somehow I don't think it's from the pain. I think it's just from my touch.

  "Why did they whip you, Mr. Solomon?" Many of the crisscrossed welts have begun to heal, but not all.

  "Talkin' fresh. Talkin' back. Speakin' up when things ain't right. Sometimes I just cain't help myself."

  "Well, this will make it feel better. I know, 'cause once I had that done to me."

  He turns his head to look at me. "You, Miss, you were whipped?"

  "Aye. I was captive on a slave ship." I lift up the back hem of my shirt to show him my welt, my souvenir of Captain Blodgett's Bloodhound and his cat-o'-nine-tails.

  "What did you do?"

  "Same sort of thing you did, Mr. Solomon. Bein' a smart mouth, leadin' a riot."

  "Solomon ain't my last name, Miss. It's my only name. So you shouldn't be callin' me a mister. Git us both in trouble."

  "Very well, Solomon, I believe I'm done here, and I hope your back feels better. Ah, here's Mr. Higgins with some clothing for you. Go below and Crow Jane will direct you to an unused cabin. Go in, change into those clothes, and then look up Mr. Tanner. He'll put you to some useful work. Tell him I want you to learn the ropes around here, man the sweeps and all. Settle in, Solomon. You'll find there's plenty to do."

  "There's one thing I already know how to do," he says, taking the folded clothes from Higgins.

  "And what might that be, Solomon?"

  He points to my guitar, leaning against my table. I had been messing with it this morning, with very poor results, I must say, just before the painting session.

  "Teach you how to play that thing right, is what."

  Hmmm. He does have a smart mouth. How do you know how I play, Mr. Solomon?

  Higgins and I watch him walk forward.

  "He is a fine figure of a man, is he not, Higgins?" I say. Solomon
is about six feet tall, has wide shoulders and narrow hips. He is strong looking, but not overwhelmingly so. He has a fine head of closely curled hair, the good, strong features of a pure African, and skin the color of burnished ebony.

  "Oh, yes, Miss, he is most certainly that!" says Higgins with very obvious appreciation.

  And for that, Higgins gets my elbow in his side.

  Later that day, Lightfoot comes up to me on the quarterdeck and says, "Ain't no towns of any size for three, four days of travel, so you won't be doin' any shows or runnin' any tavern. Me and Chee-a-quat is gonna take off and go visit our people. There's a big camp nearby. Chee-a-quat's wife and kids are there. He wants to see 'em. Figure we can meet up with you three days downriver."

  "That's fine, Lightfoot, but I want to go with you."

  "How's that?"

  "When I was a child I wanted certain things. I wanted a Cathay Cat and a Bombay Rat and I wanted to see the Kangaroo. Seein' a real Indian village is part of that. I know you don't understand, but still, I want to go with you. To see."

  Chee-a-quat was standing nearby and Lightfoot looked at him and they said, "Wah?" with shrugged shoulders, which I believe translates to "Might as well humor the stupid girl," and I was in.

  ***

  "Tomorrow Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat are going to a big Indian village near here and I'm going with them. Isn't that grand?" I say to Crow Jane a little while later. "Could you pack us some provisions?"

  "Huh," says she. "Why they goin'?"

  "Chee-a-quat wants to see his squaw."

  Crow Jane straightens up and turns from her stove, bringing her black eyes to bear on me. "Don't use that word, Boss."

  "What word?" I ask, all innocent.

  "Squaw," she says, her voice harsh.

  "Why not?"

  "'Cause squaw means that part of you that you got between your legs, girl. How'd you like to be called by that, instead of by your name, huh?"

  I stand openmouthed. What? Of all things...

  "It's a northern Injun word. From back East. White men picked it up and spread it around. Injuns don't like it." She points her finger at my forehead. "The Shawnee word for woman is kweewa. Use that when you talk of someone's wife or daughter. And you listen to what them two got to say when you're back in Injun country. Injun girls don't act the way you do." She snorts and turns back to her stove. "Huh! Ain't no girls act like you do, far as I can see."

  "I know, Janey," says I, putting on my contrite look. "It's 'cause I wasn't raised up proper. But I will take your advice to heart. And I have been called by that name several times by angry men, but it was with the white man's word for it. And no, I didn't like it one bit."

  ***

  Tomorrow, Jaimy, I shall go to a real red-Indian village! Can you imagine? Oh, I know that you—sitting back there in London, probably at your club—would feel that it is a dangerous thing, but it is not, as I am to be a guest of Chee-a-quat and the mountain man Lightfoot, who is given great respect by the Indian tribes hereabouts. I hear rumors that the great chief Tecumseh might be in the neighborhood, seeking to forge an alliance twixt the Five Nations, which are the Choctaw, the Shawnee, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Cherokee. If he manages to do it, it will be a formidable force ... and on whose side will they be? On the side of the British, or on our side ... wait ... what am I saying here?

  Good night, Jaimy. I'll think more on this later.

  Be safe.

  Chapter 47

  Jaimy Fletcher, Frontiersman

  At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

  In the American Wilderness

  Miss Jacky Faber

  On the Mississippi River

  On board her ship, the Belle of the Golden West

  Dear Jacky,

  I have collected my thoughts, my raging temper, and myself, after the events of the past few weeks, enough to continue these letters to you, letters that I compose in my head, having no paper or pen with which to write them down.

  After my settling with those two bandits on the Frankstown road in Pennsylvania, I made my way to the Ohio River, and there I managed to purchase, with the money I emptied from the pockets of the recently deceased McCoy and Beatty, a canoe called a bull boat. It has a light wooden frame over which has been stretched a buffalo hide, taut as a drum. It is quite fast and very maneuverable and I like it quite a lot.

  I have become a very good marksman with my rifle, so I do not go hungry. I hunt, I fish, and I buy what flour and lard and such that I need from the small towns I pass. I camp on the shore and when the weather is wet, I sleep underneath my overturned canoe. What I catch or shoot I cook in the pots and pans that Clementine had left me, and I must confess I feel a pang of regret every time I use them, thinking of the sweet, simple girl who is forever lost in the northern forests of this wild land.

  Yes, I have heard many tales of you and your boat as you make your way down these rivers and I paddle my way down after you. I have heard of the shows you have performed and guessed at some of the deeds you have done—the blackened hole that was once the outlaw stronghold Cave-in-Rock has your mark upon it, for sure.

  I figure I am maybe a week behind you now, since your boat must be largely drifting on the current of the river, while I can paddle and gain a few knots per mile. While I have had to avoid several bands of hostiles—one in particular led by a rascal who paints his face half red—I feel that I am gaining on you.

  My hopes are of seeing you soon, Jacky, hopes that I know in the past have been cruelly dashed at the very moment of fulfillment, but still, still, I hope for the best....

  Chapter 48

  We have been going along this trail for several hours now, at a half-walk, half-lope pace. They are certainly not making any allowances for me, that's for sure. I've got on my serving-girl gear, the skirt knotted at the side for ease of movement, and I'm able to keep up, but just barely, so I'm both startled and grateful when an Indian warrior appears on the trail in front of us. It seems that he is a sentry, guarding this particular path into his village, and it also appears that Chee-a-quat and Lightfoot and he know one another very well, as there is much talk and laughter among the three of them.

  I hardly get a glance, let alone an introduction, but I do get to put down the sack of trade goods I've brought along and to catch my breath. Crow Jane had lent me an Indian shawl to put over my head so I wouldn't be quite so noticeable with my light hair when we got to the encampment, and I put it on now, as we are surely getting close.

  Presently we all four start up again, and within several hundred yards, we can see the village, or town really—there are about fifty tepees grouped together on the banks of a small river. There seems to be great excitement among the people of the town.

  "What's going on?" I ask quietly of Lightfoot, who has fallen back next to me as we enter the village.

  "Chiefs of the Five Nations gatherin' to talk. The Creek and Cherokee here now. The rest soon. Tecumseh comes tomorrow."

  Hmmm ... Big doings. Best keep alert. If these Indians do decide to get together and go on the warpath, it could bode ill for the Belle.

  "Me and Chee-a-quat gonna go see our father now. I'll put you with the girls. You behave now, y'hear?" he warns.

  I nod. Of course I'll behave myself. Don't I always?

  "Your father?" I ask, as we get deeper and deeper into the town. All along there are calls of welcome and greeting. Lots of folks think Indians are always solemn and reserved, but that's only when they're in the company of strangers. When they're with their own, they laugh and cavort as much as any people, which is what they're doing now. I am starting to draw some attention from the younger members of the tribe, I notice.

  "When I was a young'un, I ran away from home, and my father Tak-a-lay-to took me in and made me his son. Chee-a-quat is my brother. I am Shawnee," he says, with a good deal of pride.

  Ah. Well, that explains a lot, I'm thinking. We come up on a group of girls, mostly my age as far as I can tell.
They are dressed in very handsome buckskin shirts and skirts that come to their knees, and they are wearing moccasin leggings that come up to mid calf. Their clothes are decorated with much beading and quillwork and are very handsome—it must be their good clothes that they have on for the occasion of this grand powwow. Lightfoot speaks to them in Shawnee, and one of them, a girl only slightly taller than I and totally without expression, comes forward and takes my hand to lead me off, to what, I don't know. The other girls follow silently.

  I am led around the back of a group of tepees, down a path, and to a small meadow next to the river. They stand in a group apart and regard me, saying nothing.

  Well, we can't keep this up forever, can we? And I've found that nothing breaks the ice like a good tune, so I whip my pennywhistle from my sleeve to play "Poll Ha'penny," and accompany it with my dancing feet. As I do it, my shawl slips from my head, revealing my hair, which Higgins just this morning had put up in a French style with a blue ribbon holding it all together.

  Now, I ain't a true blond, not like Clarissa Howe, I'm more of a sandy-haired type, but compared to these girls with their raven locks, I am surely a jolie blonde, no doubt about it. They stand astounded at both my appearance and my music.

  I slip the whistle back up my sleeve and regard my audience. I put my tightly closed right fist in front of my face, my fingers toward me, my knuckles facing toward the girl who escorted me here. Then I point with my index finger to the girl, my hand moving away from my face as I do so. It is the sign for "What's your name?"

 
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