Mississippi jack, p.33
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       Mississippi Jack, p.33

           L. A. Meyer
 
There is a sudden crrrack! of cannon fire followed by shrieks of pain from the soldiers outside. I also hear a bloodcurdling Indian battle cry as well as a few yee-haw!s from, I suspect, the Hawkes boys.

  "Damn!" says Captain Allen, jumping to his feet and fumbling for his key.

  There is another crrrrack! and more agonized cries, and I hear Higgins call out, "Those guns were loaded with salt! Now we're reloading with grapeshot! Throw down your guns and surrender!"

  "I'll be damned if we will!" shouts Allen. He gets out the key, unlocks the door, yanks out his pistol, and runs up the stairs.... Then he walks slowly backward down the stairs, with Lightfoot's long black rifle barrel pointed, once again, between his eyes.

  "You been havin' fun with her, soldier boy?" I see Lightfoot's finger begin to tighten on the trigger. He comes fully into the cabin, with Katy Deere right behind him, an arrow nocked in her bow, her eyes searching the corners for any threat.

  "Lightfoot!" I shout. "Don't kill him! Please! He helped me, he did! As best he could!" I feel a bump, which I know must be the Belle being grappled alongside.

  "Then put the pistol down, boy, and stand back against that wall. Lift the gun and you're a dead man."

  Captain Allen puts his pistol on the table and steps back, furious. "Friends of yours, no doubt," he says to me.

  "The very best of friends, yes," I sob, overcome with relief.

  "We got 'em all rounded up, Mr. Higgins," I hear Matthew Hawkes say.

  "Good," replies Higgins. "Get their guns and take all their weaponry to the Belle. Be careful, Matthew. Remember, those men are trained soldiers."

  "They don't look much like that now, no sir! Look like a bunch of crybabies to me." I can hear the sounds of sobbing from outside. Salt under the skin does hurt.

  Higgins comes into the cabin, takes one look at me, and says, "Very becoming outfit, Miss. The Noble Savage, as it were. Quite handsome, and rather appropriate, too, considering your nature."

  "Spare me your wit just now, Higgins. If you could see fit to untie me, I would appreciate it."

  Higgins has me loose in a few moments. I stand, rub my wrists, and address Captain Richard Allen. "Captain Allen, do you surrender yourself and your men to me?"

  "To you?" He looks at me with very little love in his eyes. "Why to you?"

  "Because I am the Captain of the Belle of the Golden West, the ship alongside of us at the moment, which, I must point out, has just taken your ship, is why."

  "Dammit, no, I won't."

  "Then, the chair, Captain Allen. If you would be so good." I point to the chair in which I was so recently a helpless, hopeless prisoner.

  "Move it, soldier boy," says Lightfoot, gesturing with his rifle barrel.

  Allen goes to the chair, sits down, and stares straight ahead. He puts his hands behind him and I, taking the same pieces of rope that bound me, bind him. Securely, but not too tight. I am a sailor, after all, and an expert at knots. When I am done, I stand back, fists on hips, and regard him.

  "Poor Lord Richard. It has been a day of reversals, hasn't it? The world turned upside down, as it were." I ruffle his hair, run my finger along his cheek, and bend down to put a kiss on his brow. He does not look at me.

  "You are a pretty one, Captain Allen, but I shall not abuse a bound captive, as you, most nobly, did not abuse me."

  I turn to Higgins and say, my voice hard, "But as for Moseley and Flashby, for them I have other plans. Where are they?"

  "They are in the trap, Miss, protesting quite vociferously, as you may imagine," says Higgins. "The Misses Honeysuckle Rose and Tupelo Honey took them directly to their chairs resting on the trapdoor. It was a simple matter."

  "Good," I say. "Have they given up their weapons yet?"

  "No, they have not. The snakes, Miss?"

  "Not yet. I want to be there." I lift the hem of my skirt to show him the two angry burn marks on my left leg there.

  Higgins averts his eyes. "I am sorry for your pain, Miss. I cannot bear the thought of you being tortured. I wish we could have gotten here sooner."

  "You got here in very good time, Higgins, and I bless you for it. It would have been worse, Higgins, if Captain Allen here had not stopped them."

  Higgins looks at Allen and gives him a slight bow. Allen, still staring straight ahead, does not respond.

  Lightfoot, now that Allen is firmly secured, puts up his rifle and takes my shiv from his belt and tosses it to me. I catch it in midair and slip it back in my arm sheath. "Thanks, Lightfoot," I say. "I thought never to see it again."

  "Thank Tepeki," says Lightfoot, and I do, and then get back to business.

  "Higgins. That cabin there." I point to what I think is Moseley's room. "There's a money box in there, somewhere. It was money to be used to buy the scalps of settlers—men, women, and children. See if you can find it."

  "And these men are British agents? I cannot believe it," says Higgins, incredulous at the news.

  I notice Richard, also, stiffens at my revelation.

  "It's true, Richard. I heard them offer that to Chief Blue Hand, as I listened by the tent. I heard Moseley say later that the renegade Half Red Face had already signed on. Higgins, I can't believe it, either, but it's true. Now, see if you can find the blood money. We will make sure it goes to a much better use. Katy, search the rooms for any weapons. We'll be putting the soldiers down here as soon as we can, to hold them, and I don't want them to be able to lay their hands on any guns."

  Katy nods and goes about her job, as does Higgins.

  Very quickly Higgins emerges, carrying a brass-bound chest, and he puts it on the table.

  "Open it up," says the pirate Jacky Faber, "and let's see what we have." Higgins takes a knife from the sideboard next to the stove and does just that. He pries off the lid and there sits a gleaming pile of metal: silver dollars, ten-dollar gold pieces. No copper, no paper, just silver and gold.

  "Take it back and stash it. We'll count it later."

  Higgins hesitates. "However hateful, this is Crown money, Miss."

  "Well, considering the purpose for which it was to be used, I don't feel bad at all," I say. "Besides, they've already got a noose set aside for me, and I might as well be hanged for a wolf as for a sheep."

  Katy comes out of the last cabin, carrying an assortment of pistols and rifles. "That's it, Jacky. You can put them soldiers down here now."

  I look around and spot the key that Richard had flung aside in his haste to get out of the cabin, and I go out the hatchway and into the light. Oh, the sunlight never felt better on my face, and oh, the Belle of the Golden West on no occasion ever looked better.

  That's more than I can say about the miserable group of soldiers who are huddled aft, guarded by Matthew, Nathaniel, and Chee-a-quat. Some are moaning, some sit with faces in their hands. All are bloody, but thank God, none are dead. I only hope that none are blinded, as well.

  "All right, lads, let's get them below," I say, pointing to the hatchway.

  Prodded by the Hawkes boys' rifles, the soldiers make their way aft and down the hatchway as best they can, several having to be helped by their mates.

  "Sorry, lads," I say as they pass me. "The fortunes of war and all."

  When all are below, I go halfway down the ladder and announce, "We are going to lock you down in this cabin for the time being. There is plenty of food and drink to sustain you. Take wet cloths and apply them to your wounds, cleaning out the salt as best you can. I'll be back later with healing salve. You may untie your Captain after I lock the door. As soon as we have disposed of Moseley and Flashby, we'll see if we can make more comfortable arrangements for you. Don't worry, you're not going to be harmed further."

  "What are you going to do to them?" asks the still-bound Captain Allen, looking at me for the first time since his capture. His gaze is hot with humiliation and rage.

  "Have I not been branded a pirate, Richard? They are going to walk the plank, of course."

  With that, I leave the hatchway, lo
ck the door, and go over to the starboard side, where I leap aboard my beloved Belle.

  ***

  After embracing each of my crew in turn and giving them my heartfelt thanks for my deliverance, I turn to the problem of Moseley and Flashby. Down in the cabin, I cautiously approach the edge of the open trap. Curses and threats are heard from below.

  "Gentlemen. Your soldiers have been captured. Put your weapons on half cock and throw them out."

  "Like hell we will! You will hang for this!" bellows Moseley.

  "I may very well hang, Mr. Moseley, but it will not be for this," says I. "Crow Jane, the snakes, if you please. But be careful of that rattlesnake, he's mad as hell. Make sure he goes down into the trap and doesn't get loose up here."

  "Right, Boss," says Crow Jane. She fetches the canvas bag containing the reptiles.

  "One last chance, gents. Toss up the guns or shortly you will enjoy some very interesting company."

  "You're bluffing, girl," yells Moseley, somewhat doubtfully.

  "Am I?"

  I have added a refinement since we first used the trapdoor to rid us of troublesome customers: I have obtained a child's rattle, which I now give a vigorous shake and then say, "Dump 'em, Janey," and she does it.

  There is a satisfying shriek from Flashby. I think the tangle of snakes might have landed on his head. I nod to Nathaniel and Matthew, who upend the table over the hole, plunging those below into total darkness, and there is nothing like darkness to work on the nerves.

  There is the sound of one pistol shot, then another.

  "Goddammit, Flashby! Calm yourself, man, or you'll shoot me!"

  "Get us out of here! For the love of God, let us out! We'll do what you say!"

  I nod again at the Hawkes boys, and they set the table back up on its legs.

  Two spent pistols come flying out of the hole, followed by a third, unfired and at half cock.

  "Very good. Now take off all your clothing, ball it up in a bundle, and toss it out. You may keep your drawers, as there are ladies present and we don't wish to be disgusted."

  There is the sound of rapid undressing. I suspect the snakes have wisely retreated to a far corner, but they would still look menacing, curled up and hissing.

  Presently two bundles are thrown out, followed by two pairs of boots.

  "Very well, Mr. Moseley, you may come out first. You will note as you come up the ladder that there will be at least six rifles and several pistols pointed at you. Should you not be fully undressed and weaponless, I'm afraid the catfish will dine upon your carcass. Is that clear? Good. You may come up."

  He looks even more toadlike than usual, his big white belly flopping over the waist of his drawers, the rest of his skin looking gray and mottled and appearing never to have seen the light of the sun. He looks fearfully from one gun barrel to another, all of them pointed at his face. He clambers out of the hole.

  "What do you mean to do?" he asks. "You cannot mean to kill us."

  "I mean to have you tied to that chair. Sit down in it, please."

  He crosses the room and lowers himself stiffly. "Tie him to it, Mr. Tanner, if you would. Hands at the back of the chair." Moseley is soon expertly fastened.

  "Now, Lieutenant Flashby, you may come up. Slowly." Flashby's ashen face appears at the edge of the trap. His eyes take in the trussed-up Moseley. "Yes, brave Mr. Flashby, it is your turn. That chair there, please." He, too, looks at the guns pointed at him, then he sidles across to the chair and sits. He is quickly tied.

  "There," says I, brushing my hands together as if dusting them off after a dirty job well—but thankfully—done. "That's that. Janey, if I could have a cup of tea, I would be grateful. Mr. Tanner, as Sailing Master, will you take the tiller of the prison ship, with Matty and Solomon on sweeps, and assign the Belle to Nathaniel on tiller, and Reverend Clawson and Higgins on sweeps? Mr. Cantrell, you will assist me when the time comes for the interrogation of the prisoners." Here I slide a glance at a very worried-looking Flashby. "I would like to be a good distance downriver before... disposing of these two."

  "Aye, Captain," says Jim, playing this for all it is worth. "I'll see to it right away." He snaps off a salute.

  "But before the boats separate, I want to go over and tend to the wounded soldiers. It's not their fault they are in this pickle, and I hate to see them hurt. Clementine, will you get the medical kit and assist me over there? And Chloe, too, if you would." There is nothing like delicate female hands laying on healing medicines to soothe the tormented soul of a wounded man, be he soldier or sailor. "Higgins, if you would lay out my uniform, and Crow Jane, if you'd whip up some dinner..."

  Higgins nods, but Crow Jane says, "Yeah, Boss, I've got a real fine ham here..."

  My eyes widen and I get a chill up my spine. "Oh, Janey, you didn't!" I cry as I charge out the gangway and look anxiously aft.

  But no, Pretty Saro still regally reclines on her usual spot. She is genuinely glad to see me and gives me several delighted squeals and grunts as I come up to tickle her belly and to scratch her behind her ears. It's only been four days, but she seems much bigger than when last I enjoyed her company.

  "I wouldn't let anything happen to her, Missy," reassures Daniel Prescott, giving Pretty Saro a pat of his own. "But I'm powerful glad to see you back."

  "Me, too, Daniel, oh yes, me, too." I give Daniel another hug, lean down to plant a kiss on Saro's forehead, then head back to meet Clementine and Chloe, and together we cross over to the prison barge, to tend to my wounded countrymen.

  Chapter 54

  "Sergeant Bailey, you must swallow your stiff-necked Welsh pride and hold still! Right now I'm not your enemy, I am your nurse. Steady, now." For these men all hell had broken loose while they had been staring raptly at the girls strutting their stuff atop the Belle. Suddenly our cannons had fired upon them and a wall of stinging salt tore into them, painfully but superficially wounding all of them.

  Sergeant Bailey's already florid face had been newly adorned with little red dots. His neck, too, and his hands. I dip my cloth into the basin of water and dab at the angry red spots.

  "Just a poor little white girl captured by the redskins, they sez," grumbles the unfortunate sergeant. "Just a bit of a thing and so helpless, they sez. Worth a pile o' money, they sez. We'll just take 'er with us, they sez. Ha."

  "Don't take it so hard, Sergeant. After all, you and all of your men are still alive after a major engagement and are being attended by the very finest of ladies." Clementine is finishing up on Quimby, while Chloe is working on Seamus McMann. The others have already been seen to—Bailey, like a proper sergeant, had insisted that his men be looked after first. Poor Archy MacDuff suffered the most, having gotten some flecks of salt in his now very bloodshot eyes, and I worked on him first, before turning to the sergeant. I think Archy's eyes will be all right, and I know my hands and words soothed him. Poor laddie, ah, poor, poor laddie ... Here, let me see, Archy, let me get this cool cloth on your poor face. There, isn't that better, now...?

  We had come over earlier with our cloths and our medicines, and I rapped on the cabin top of the prison boat and called out, "Ahoy, there! We have come to tend to your wounds! Stand away from the door as I open it!"

  Jim and the Hawkes boys stood ready with cocked pistols to guard against a desperate escape attempt on the part of the soldiers, but none came. They are a dispirited bunch, having been sent on a mission which they found to be a foul one, and then being conquered by a mere girl and her motley crew.

  I opened the door and looked into the gloom. "Captain Allen," I said. "Will you give me your parole, on your word of honor as an officer and a gentleman, that you and your men will attempt nothing against us during the time it takes to see to your men?"

  There was a silence, then Richard Allen spoke. "Very well. But for that time only."

  At that we had gone down and got to work.

  "All right, Sergeant Bailey, we'll just dab on this healing ointment and soon you'll be your jo
lly, pink-cheeked self again ... There!"

  "Thankee, Miss," says the rough-and-tumble soldier. "We're obliged to ye."

  "No thanks necessary, Sergeant. We all will do our duty, will we not?"

  I stand and go over to confront Captain Allen, who has not uttered a single word the whole time. Smoking a cigar, he merely slouched in a chair, his booted legs crossed. Unsmiling, he watched me go about my business. "We are through here, Captain. I'll be back after we've disposed of Flashby and Moseley, and then maybe we'll talk about a more permanent parole for you and your men."

  "You haven't killed them yet?" he asks with raised eyebrows. "I heard shots."

  "That was the calm and steady Lieutenant Flashby, a credit to the Royal Navy, firing at shadows," I answer. "And no, I am not going to kill them—merely render them harmless. No matter what the world may say about me, I have never killed any man in cold blood, nor have I tortured anybody."

  "I'm sure Flashby will be glad to find that out." A slight smile crosses his features. I'm certain he was glad, in a way, to find that I was not a murderess, just as I was relieved when I found out that he did not know what evil business Moseley and Flashby were up to.

  "True, but he won't find it out for a while yet. A considerable while. Now, adieu, Captain Allen," I say as I pull out the chair from his crossed feet, which thump to the deck. "And next time, stand up when ladies enter a room. Come, girls, let us find less barbarous company."

  "Adieu, Jacky," says the rogue, rising to his feet and sending a puff of smoke in my direction. He bows deeply. "Till later, Captain Faber."

  ***

  Upon returning to my ship, I gave orders for both boats to weigh anchor and get under way. When we were well into the stream and moving smartly along, I went aft to my cabin, and, Oh, how good it looks. I thought I'd never see it again! Higgins helped me into my splendid Royal Navy lieutenant's gear—the blue jacket with gold lace running through the turned-out lapels, and the white lace at my throat, and the white britches tucked into my gleaming black riding boots. Pity I don't have my sword Persephone once more hanging by my side, she being at the bottom of the Atlantic, or, as I like to think, in her namesake's grasp, down there in Hades, but oh, well...

 
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