Mississippi jack, p.36
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       Mississippi Jack, p.36

           L. A. Meyer

  Captain Allen tosses his cheroot into the narrow gap of water that flows between us, fixes me with his gaze, and launches into his last verse.

  Come tripping down the stairs, pretty Jacky-o,

  Come tripping down the stairs, oh, my lovely-o,

  Come tripping down the stairs, combing back your yellow hair,

  You're the prettiest damn thing I ever seen ... Oh.

  Richard bows to me and acknowledges the cheers of his men, but I pipe up and say, "Surely you've forgotten the last verse, Sir? Perhaps I should sing it for you." And I do.

  Sweet Richard he is dead, we must mourn him-o,

  Sweet Richard he is dead, oh, my comrades-o,

  Sweet Richard he is dead and he died for a maid,

  The fairest of the maidens in Fenn-ar-i-o.

  Applause from my boat, but my partner in this duet is not yet done.

  If ever I return, pretty Jacky-o,

  If ever I return, oh, my lovely-o,

  If ever I return, all your cities I will burn,

  Destroying all the ladies in Fenn-ar-i-o.

  I give him a deep Lawson Peabody curtsy on that one, which must look a bit foolish, with me wearing my Indian buckskin rig, but so what. There are cheers from both boats.

  "Now, about that bit concerning you inviting me down into your chambers," says Captain Allen, "shall we discuss that?"

  "No, Captain Allen, we shall not. I have invited a much more cultured man than you, a common soldier, to grace my table today. Ah, here you are, Mr. Cantrell. Please have a seat. Our food and drink will be up directly. If you'll excuse us, Captain Allen?"

  Yancy and I sit down at my table. I sneak a glance sideways and find that Richard is again seated at his table, but his boat does not return to its position behind us. Well, so be it. It's not important. I turn to Yancy to make small talk and I find him much amused.

  "That was quite the performance, Miss. I enjoyed it thoroughly." He looks over at Captain Allen, who has lit yet another cigar and continues to gaze upon me. I pretend not to notice.

  "I'm glad you did, Yancy. Ah, here is our dinner. Thank you, Higgins. A glass of wine with you, Mr. Cantrell?" Higgins draws the cork, pours out two glasses, and then puts the cork back in the bottle.

  "Thank you, Mr. Higgins, but could you have my Chloe bring me up a glass of water? I fear my throat is dry and I don't want to waste this fine wine on mere thirst."

  Higgins nods and goes below, and presently Chloe appears with the glass of water. She places it on the table and Yancy takes a sip of it. "Thank you, Daughter."

  She murmurs, "You're welcome, Father," and steps off the cabin top.

  I take a mouthful of my wine, swallow, and look at my guest. "It must be hard on you, Yancy, not to have had a game of chance to play since Memphis. I do hope you haven't completely cleaned out the Reverend and the Hawkes boys?"

  He laughs. "No, we pass the time playing pinochle and whist for mere worthless chips. They are becoming quite expert." He looks at me in an appraising way. "We could, however, play a game of chance between ourselves, Miss. A harmless game that will cost you nothing."

  "And that game would be?"

  "I will bet you that I can make fifty dollars without moving from this spot."

  "Don't think, Yancy, that I would ever think to best you in a game of cards. I have gotten quite skilled, but I'm not stupid enough to take you on in that regard."

  "No, Miss, it will not be a card game, but it does involve a wager."

  "Go on," I say, all suspicious.

  "I bet you that I can take a drink out of that bottle right there, without taking out the cork."

  I look at the bottle. It is about half full. As I look at it, Yancy reaches over and with his thumb, pushes the cork down even further into the bottle's neck.

  "And what will be my part of the wager?"

  "A mere kiss, Miss Faber. On the lips, and shall we say of a thirty-second duration?"

  Hmmm... I didn't know that Yancy thought of me in that way—men, I swear! But what the hell, it's only a kiss, although Yancy is a somewhat older, handsome man.

  "Very well. I take the bet, provided your part of the wager is giving up those foul cigars for a full week, should you fail."


  "So let's see you try to do it."

  Yancy smiles at me with a look that says, "I have done this as part of your continuing education, Miss, and the title of today's lesson is: Never Bet on a Sure Thing. Or, at least what looks like a sure thing."

  "Regardez-vous, Mademoiselle," Yancy says.

  He takes the wine bottle and turns it over. Like all wine bottles, it has a depression in the bottom—something to do with how the glass is blown—a depression about an inch deep. Yancy takes his water glass and fills the concave depression with water. He lifts it to his lips and drinks.

  "Ah. That was most refreshing," he says, smiling like the cat who has just swallowed the bird, "and you see, I did take a drink out of that bottle without removing the cork. And, furthermore, I believe I have won the wager."

  "I believe you have, and I'm certain I have learned a great lesson here, but still, all you have won is a kiss, one that I will readily give you, but you have not won fifty dollars."

  "That is true, Miss, but the kiss is not for me. The wager was for a kiss, not necessarily a kiss for me. You must learn to read the fine print in a contract. That is your second lesson today."

  I feel a slow burn working up my neck and into my face. "So what will you do with this promise of a kiss?"

  "Why, auction it off, of course! To the highest bidder!"

  He stands and addresses all on both boats. "Gentlemen, listen to me! I am the bearer of a note promising one kiss, one most extraordinary kiss, one kiss on the lips of Miss Jacky Faber, the Lily of the West, the duration of said kiss being a slow count of thirty! What am I bid?"

  Every man, every boy, every girl on both these boats is standing and looking at me with great glee. I have been had, but good!

  On the Britannia, Archy MacDuff fishes in his pants pocket. "I got half a crown, and I bids it!"

  "We have a bid of half a crown. But please, gentlemen, this is the fair Jacky Faber we are talking about here, and we can do better than that, surely. The winner will be able to tell his grandchildren that he once placed his lips on those of the famous riverboat queen, and they will look on him with awe and admiration. Do I hear more?"

  "Two dollars," calls out a hugely grinning Jim Tanner, which gets him a glare and a poke in the ribs from Clementine.

  "I have two dollars! Who will say more?"

  "Two-fifty!" says Private William Quimby, followed quickly by "Three dollars!" from Seamus McMann.

  "Gentlemen, gentlemen," says my former friend Yancy Cantrell, shaking his head. "I'm afraid we're going to have to up the ante, or we'll be at this all day. No, I must say that the minimum bid will have to be fifty dollars. Do I hear fifty?"

  "Fifty dollars." All heads turn to look upon the bidder, who now stands at the edge of his cabin top, with his thumbs hooked into his belt, his cigar at a rakish tilt, and his eyes burning into mine.

  "I have fifty dollars! Do I hear sixty?" Yancy looks around, but finds no other bidders. "No? Then, going once, going twice—sold!—to the gallant and dashing Captain Richard Allen!" shouts the auctioneer. "Daniel, please hop across and collect the money from the victorious winner!"

  Daniel Prescott jumps up on the rail, and as Nathaniel, on tiller, brings the two boats together, he hops over. Allen turns and says something to Sergeant Bailey, who goes down into the Britannia's cabin, and then Allen returns his smug, arrogant gaze to me. The cheek of that man!

  I leap to my feet and go to the edge of my own cabin top and face him.

  "Is that a proper use of the King's money, Mr. Allen? I regret giving it back to you," I say with the best glower I can manage.

  "Of course it is. The expenditure will be put down as 'Morale-Building Entertainment.' It will certainly boost my mo
rale, Princess," says the cocky wretch. "And I'm sure King George would approve. So run that cunning little tongue over those lips to moisten them up and prepare to deliver!"

  Out of the corner of my eye, I see Daniel hop back aboard.

  "You have wasted your money, Captain," I say, tight-lipped and stern. "For by the terms of your parole, you are forbidden to set foot on this boat, and I am certainly not going to go over on that one!"

  With that, I stomp back to my table and sit down, preparing to treat Mr. Yancy Turncoat Cantrell to a very frosty meal.

  "That's all right, Jacky. I can wait," says the still-grinning rogue. "The anticipation will make the final calling of the note all the more sweet. But count on it, I will collect and you will deliver."

  I take my eyes off of him and lift my glass in a mock toast to Yancy Cantrell. "My congratulations, Sir, for—"

  I hear a pop and the glass shatters in my hand, shards and red wine flying over the tabletop. Shocked and dumbfounded, I look over at Captain Allen, who I am thinking to blame for this outrage, and I shriek, "Richard! Look out!" for behind him at the far rail of the Britannia has appeared a face, the hideously painted face of an Indian brave. More snarling faces appear, then shoulders, and then paint-streaked hands holding knives and tomahawks. There is a great howling of war cries.

  "To arms! To arms! We're under attack!" I scream. "Get the guns! Higgins, go below and get the troops' powder and balls and get it over to them! Daniel, tie the boats' rails together! Yancy, get the girls below!" Over on the other boat, the soldiers are desperately trying to fight off the boarders as best they can, using their unloaded rifles as clubs, while Richard slashes at the attackers with his saber, but it's not gonna serve, there's just too many of them. They're swarming all over us and it's all my fault! I wasn't prepared! I let things get slack! Stupid! Stupid!

  I vault down into my cabin, grab my pistols, dash back out, jump over the rail, and land on the deck of the Britannia at the side of Captain Allen. He curses mightily as he swings his bloody saber back and forth like a scythe, reaping great gouts of blood and wounded flesh. The Indian in front of him falls back into the water. Many of the savage howls are now cries of pain.

  "Richard! Higgins is bringin' over the powder and shot! Have your men get ready!"

  He looks down at me. "They should already have been prepared and you know it!" He still has his cigar clamped between his teeth.

  I know, I know, I'm sorry...

  An Indian has gotten over the bow and runs toward us screaming, his tomahawk raised. I lift my pistol and fire, hitting him squarely in the chest. He staggers and then falls face-first at my feet. I spin around, pick another target, and aim at him, too. At this close range, it is hard to miss, even though my hand shakes as I fire.

  I'm beginning to hear the rapid pop of musketry behind me, which means my own men are firing. Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat are never far from their weapons, and I know they are exacting a toll on the enemy. Another brute tries to hoist himself aboard near me and I pull out my shiv, but an arrow that I recognize as one of Katy's thuds into his chest, and he, too, falls back.

  There is a sound behind me and I whirl about, expecting an ax in my brain, but it is only Higgins, bearing powder and shot for the soldiers.

  "Richard! It's here!"

  "Get it up to Bailey!"

  I flip my pistols over to Clementine, who sits at Jim's feet, reloading each gun as he fires. "Reload those! They're faster!" She hears me over the din and runs down into the cabin to get my special percussion caps and balls. I see that the Honeys are reloading for their men, too.

  "Higgins! Give me those!" I grab the sacks of ammunition from him. "Go back and uncover the swivel gun!"

  I run up to Sergeant Bailey, who is aft on the Britannia. On his shoulder is a darker stain of red, around a tear in the fabric of his jacket. "Sergeant! Powder! Shot!"

  "'Bout time, girl," he growls. He sheathes his saber and begins stuffing the cylindrical paper-powder shells into the slots on his belt. "Quimby, Luce, Merrick, fall back and reload." He picks up his own rifle, to which a bayonet is now fixed, and proceeds to load. Before I can get back to the Belle, he has already fired it.

  I leap back over the joined rails of the two boats and then up onto the cabin top, where I find that Higgins has thrown over my table and pulled the cover off the gun. I get up behind it and survey the battlefield. If this is Half Red Face's bunch, he sure got a lot of new recruits since last we ran into him. In addition to the Indians who had attacked the Britannia from the shore, to which I had so foolishly allowed us to drift too close, there are a number of canoes full of warriors coming up from the south and a veritable flotilla of them coming from upriver. I train the gun on these and pull the lanyard. There is a sizzle, then a crack! as the gun fires. Several of the canoes are hit, and I can see the pattern of the grapeshot as it hits the water. Several of our would-be attackers pitch over the side, and one canoe is swamped.

  "Reload with cannonball this time, Higgins! I'm going forward to see about the other gun!" I run up to the bow, where Chee-a-quat, Lightfoot, and Katy are calmly dealing out death. I yank off the cover of the forward gun and sight along it, but no enemy is in range. Damn! Why didn't I get two swivel guns!

  I see Chloe lying next to the rail, reloading her father's small pistols, as he kneels beside her and peppers the screaming horde. "Chloe! If any of the enemy get in front of that barrel, tell everyone here on deck to step aside, then pull that lanyard!" She nods.

  I turn to go back to the swivel gun, but first I say, "Lightfoot, if you see one of 'em with his face painted half red, shoot him."

  He chuckles. "Oh, we seen him. He's lurkin' back in those bushes there, prolly thinkin' he's actin' like a general or somethin'. Huh!" Lightfoot rams a ball home, primes, aims, then dispatches yet another hostile.

  In a moment I'm back up behind the swivel gun. Higgins has reloaded, with the help of the Reverend, and he has set the matchlock. I grab it, aim the gun, dog it down, and fire. Crack! The cannonball hits the water about ten feet in front of the canoes, skips, and crashes through one and into another, sinking them both. That's two more, but it ain't enough, not yet, anyway.

  Little Daniel comes up on deck bearing another bag of powder and hands it to the Preacher. "Grape again, Higgins! They're all getting too close for ball!" I go forward again.

  The savage attack continues. Sergeant Bailey has gotten his men into a good disciplined rotation of standing, firing, crouching, reloading, and standing to fire again, such that there is a constant stream of fire at the enemy. Richard makes murderous work with his pistols, loading, firing, and reloading at great speed. I see that the forward gun still will not bear, and we are much too close to the bank and getting closer. I see Solomon down below, Crow Jane's woodchopping ax in his hand, standing by, ready to do damage to any who might manage to get on board.

  "Solly!" I cry. "Go over to the other boat and man the port forward sweep! Try to row away from the shore! Matthew! Get on the starboard forward sweep here! Jim, man the tiller! Steer away from the shore as soon as the sweepers give you steerageway! If we go into the bank we are lost!" Even as my mind rages in the heat of battle, I realize we have been very lucky. After the first weak volley of shots from the Indians, one bullet of which shattered the wineglass I held in my hand, there were no others. This means they are out of powder. Had it been otherwise, the decks of both the Belle and the Britannia would be strewn with the bodies of the dead and dying.

  They all leap to their stations. Solomon leaps over to the other boat and picks up the sweep, pausing only to sink his ax into the wood by his feet, close at hand should he need it. He pulls on the sweep, muscles straining with the mighty effort, while Matty backs with his oar. Jim grabs the tiller and throws it over to the left, while at his feet, Pretty Saro's squeals of terror add to the din of battle. A tomahawk sails through the air by Jim's ear and clatters harmlessly to the deck, but he sticks to the steering oar. Clementine keeps on loadin
g and firing on her own.

  Good girl!

  Slowly, slowly the heads of the two boats turn out to the center of the river.

  "Good boys!" I shout, as we gain even more fighting room.

  "Gun ready, Miss!" shouts Higgins, and I bound back over to it. I see that the boats upriver are hanging back a bit, perhaps cowed by the cannonball that ripped through two of their boats to such good effect. So I undog the swivel, swing it around, and point it forward over the bow of the Britannia.

  "Everybody down! I'm gonna fire. Solly, get down!" When everybody has hit the deck, I give one more squint over the barrel, dog it down, and pull the lanyard. Crack! and the hail of grapeshot tears into the enemy, and then, suddenly, as if that were the final straw, it is over. Half Red Face must have called off the attack. In a moment, not an Indian is to be seen. Not a live one, anyway, but there are plenty who float, facedown in the river, all about the Belle and the Britannia.

  I lean against the warm barrel of the swivel gun and let my breathing get back to normal. Then I stand and address all on both decks.

  "What is the damage?"

  Aside from Sergeant Bailey's cut shoulder, there is surprisingly little. Private Alfie Jackson caught a ball in his lower leg on the first Indian volley, but it went clear through his calf, so he should be all right if the infection doesn't set in. Thank God we don't have to dig out the bullet. Private Fred Luce got a slash on the back of his hand from a boarder's knife, as did Private MacDuff. The soldiers took the brunt of the punishment since they were the closest to the shore, but Matthew Hawkes took a nasty gash on the upper chest from a thrown tomahawk. He is being seen to by a very tearful and adoring Honeysuckle Rose.

  I nod and say, "Before we tend to our wounded, let me say that I am profoundly sorry for what happened this day. I was unprepared and I let you down. You have every reason to feel nothing but contempt for me, but if you continue to follow my lead, I promise you it will never happen again." There is silence all around. I know it is due to the aftermath of battle, when the blood sings in the veins long after the danger is past, and then, after it subsides, a great tiredness ensues. "Chloe, Clementine, will you get the needles, thread, and alcohol, as well as the tincture of opium? Thank you. Higgins, will you please reload this gun in case they are so bold as to come back at us?"

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