Mississippi jack, p.38
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       Mississippi Jack, p.38

           L. A. Meyer
 

  We can see the river widening up ahead so we know that the land to our left is indeed an island, a huge island that we have been passing for a couple of days now.

  "Private Merrick!" I sing out to the Britannia following in our wake. "Toss out the anchor! We're stopping here! I want to check around the bend before we go any farther!"

  "Thanks, Nathaniel," I say to my own tillerman, as he puts up his steering oar and tosses in the anchor.

  We have come to a stop about fifty yards from the end of the island and I want to make damned sure that there's nothing lurking on the other side. I have learned my lesson.

  "Jim, take the Star and have a peek around the corner. Make sure that pack of rascally Indians ain't fixin' to jump on us again. But be careful."

  "Yes, Missy," he says, and in a moment he is in the Evening Star, oars in the water, and off.

  He disappears from sight around the bend, and in a few minutes we are surprised to see him walk out of the bushes that line the bank on this side. He's not but twenty yards away.

  "All clear," he calls out. "Island's real narrow right here, as you can see. Nice little cove on the other side, with a sandy beach. Water's pretty clear, too. Well, I'm headin' back," and he ducks into the bushes.

  Nice sandy little beach, eh?

  It's been a while since I've had a swim, what with all these men being around and all. It's about four o'clock and this is as good a place as any to stop for the night. And the island end with its thick growth of bushes makes a good privacy screen. Why not?

  "Anyone care to join me in a dip? Katy? Chloe? No? Honeysuckle Rose? Tupelo? Clementine? 'Snakes'? What snakes? Ah, what a bunch of cowards you are. Fine, I'll go by myself. Higgins, a bit of soap if you would."

  There's a thump as the Evening Star comes back alongside.

  "Don't bother tying up, Jim, just jump aboard and let me get down in the Star." In a moment Jim is on deck and I am rowing for the end of the island, and when I am around the bend, I pull into the cove.

  Jim was right, it is a lovely spot. There is a gently sloping, almost golden sand beach, and the water runs clear next to the bank. Trees, thick with summer leaves, lean over and shade the pool. I hop out into the ankle-deep water, pull up the bow of the boat, and go along the soft sand to the nearest tree. I shed my shirt, skirt, and drawers, and hang them on a branch and then go back to wade into the water. I get maybe six yards from the shore when suddenly I'm completely underwater— the current must have carved out a deep trench during some mighty flood!

  I kick and come sputtering back to the surface—I certainly didn't expect that! I swim a little farther out and my feet hit sand again so I am able to stand, the water now waist-deep. It is wondrously cool and refreshing after the heat of the day and I splash about for a while, diving like a porpoise, floating on my back, then flopping over to look underwater, all the usual things I do when in the water.

  After a bit of this, I swim back across to get my bar of soap from the Evening Star, wash myself, and then begin lathering my hair. From across the narrow island, I hear Solomon strike a chord on the guitar, then he begins his three-finger rolls, this time heavy on the bass strings to give the sound a driving, throbbing, pulsing beat. He begins to sing.

  Black snake, black snake, lyin' in a persimmon tree,

  Yes, black snake, black snake, lyin' in that 'simmon tree.

  You mean old black snake,

  Don't you flop down on top of me!

  "Very funny, Solly!" I shout, and look more closely at the branches and vines that trail in the water. Could that be a ... no, of course, it is only a black stick. He sings on.

  Now Sister Cottonmouth, don't you come out to play, no,

  And Mr. Water Moccasin, you just slither on your way.

  And Brother Rattler, you just stay there sunnin on the clay,

  'Cause Miss Jacky's gone a-swimmin in your water today!

  "You stop that now, or I'll get you, Solly! I mean it!" I yell, scanning the bank on either side of me for reptiles that might be sneakin' up on a poor girl.

  Solomon laughs his deep, booming laugh and hits an ending chord. "Yes, Missy."

  I flip the piece of soap back into the Star, my hair now a mass of lather, and decide to put some distance between me and the shore. I dive down into the trench and run my fingers through my hair to rinse it. When I resurface and stand on the sandbar, facing the shore, my hair hangs in my eyes and as I pull it clear, I see that it is not a black snake that I must beware of, but a white one.

  "Richard!" I gasp, clasping my hands to my chest. Richard Allen stands on the bank, shirtless and barefoot, in his dripping wet drawers. It is plain that the scoundrel had slipped over the side of the Britannia on the Belle's blind side, and then had waded over to the shore, through the bushes, and here, to stand in front of me.

  "I believe you missed a spot, behind your left knee," says the grinning rogue. "Shall I come over and scrub your back?"

  "You are not allowed here, Mr. Allen!"

  "You may own the boats, Princess, but you do not own the river. I don't believe that was part of my parole."

  "If you touch me I'll scream for Lightfoot and he'll put a bullet in you!"

  "I'm not going to touch you, Jacky, unless you touch me first. How's that for a bargain? You couldn't be safer," he says, his hands going to the drawstring of his drawers. "But I do think this would be an excellent time to pay off on that kiss you owe me. On neutral territory, as it were."

  I whip around and face away, fuming, so as not to see whether he drops the drawers or not. The cheek of the rascal! I hear his feet splash as he enters the shallow water.

  "You know, Princess, one time when I was on tour in Italy, I saw this painting called The Birth of Venus, and seeing you just now reminded me so much of that picture. All we'd need to complete the tableau is a big seashell for you to step out of and ... urk!"

  There is a bigger splash as he steps off the ledge and into the trench.

  Ha! Take that, you dog!

  I turn around and crouch down so the covering water is up to my neck, not that it matters much now, considering the show I've already given him. I wait for him to come back up to scold him further.

  He doesn't come back up.

  Uh-oh ... another damned Englishman who can't swim?

  His face, terrified now, breaks the surface for a moment. "Help! Help me, I can't ... glub!" He goes down again, with only his hand above the water, then that, too, goes down.

  Damn!

  I spring out of my crouch and arch my body forward in a surface dive and look below. Sure enough, there he is down there, arms thrashing, his long hair floating about his fool head. I kick down and grab a handful of that hair and kick again to pull us to the surface.

  I needn't have bothered. His arm goes around my waist and his own two strong legs kick and bring us up to stand on the sandbar. He holds me tight to him.

  "You touched me first, Princess. The bargain is made," says he.

  "I thought you were drowning! That you couldn't swim!" says I, furious. Our chests are pressed tight together. I struggle, but I can't get out of his grip.

  "Can't swim? My dear little woodland elf, I am a British soldier, not a sailor. Of course I can swim, my saucy, frisky river nymph. I can't tell you how many rivers I have forded, swimming next to my noble steed."

  The ever so smart and clever Jacky Faber, scammed again!

  I calm myself down. "So you'd keep to the letter of your word, you rascal, I will give you that. But now you must let me go." I can tell that the randy hound did not leave his drawers on.

  "I have heard you say that Jacky Faber also keeps her word. That you honor your bargains. Could it be that you will not pay your bet, when it would be so easy to do it right now, just a slow count of thirty?"

  I think about this. I've got to do it sometime. Why not now? I could always yell for help and it would be here in an instant.

  "The kiss and nothing more?" I ask, doubtfully.

&n
bsp; "The kiss and nothing more, on my sacred honor," answers he, whose blue eyes are a scant three inches from my brown ones.

  My hands are free, so I reach up and take the strands of wet hair, hair very much the color of mine, that hang down in his eyes and I pull them to the side. I cant my head and say, "Very well, Captain Allen, you may commence the slow count."

  I keep my lips pursed tight, unyielding, and I intend to keep them that way for the duration of this thing, and he brings his mouth down on mine and tightens his grip about my waist. I keep my lips firm.

  Then he takes his free hand, the one not around my waist, and puts it to the back of my head and leaves it there, the better to hold my face to his. I let my lips relax a bit and then, Oh, Richard! I relax them even more, and then I let them open and—and then I pull back, starting to breathe hard, and look into his eyes, which are as feverish as mine, and he says, "That's only fifteen, Princess ... fifteen more, now," and then I clamp my open mouth back on his and run my hands up into his hair and moan and move myself against him and then...

  ...And then I hear what sounds like a paddle being run along the gunwale of a boat... What?...Who?... And I pull back from Captain Richard Allen to look up into the astonished eyes of none other than James Emerson Fletcher.

  Chapter 61

  I am not usually at a loss for words, but the sight of Jaimy Fletcher, dressed in fringed buckskin, sitting alone in a canoe in the middle of the American wilderness, with a look of total amazement on his face, robs me of all power of speech. My mouth hangs open in absolute, stunned shock, unable to utter a word as his canoe drifts by not six feet away.

  It's when the astonished look on his face changes to one of dejected disappointment that I remember that I'm standing stark naked in waist-deep water with my hands on the shoulders of a man I have just been kissing. Then the ability to speak returns to me.

  "J-J-Jaimy!" I wade toward him, my arms outstretched. "Oh, Jaimy! Oh, I'm so glad! I'm ... Jaimy, wait!"

  He dispiritedly shakes his head and directs his gaze downriver, his mouth set in a grim line, as he digs in his paddle and pulls away.

  "No, Jaimy, it's not what you think! I can explain!" Desperately, I try to swim after him, but it's no use—he pulls steadily away. I cross the trench to stand and slap the surface water in an agony of frustration and dismay. "Jaimy, you come back here right now!"

  He rounds a bend and I can't see him anymore, so I let out a long waaaaaaaa of despair. Jaimy, please come back!

  I lunge out of the water—maybe I can catch him in the Star!—and feel the wind. With a sob I realize it is blowing from the south, directly against me. The Star is useless, for as a rowboat she could never catch that canoe.

  Maybe Higgins can still see him from...

  I tear across the sandy beach and through the narrow strip of woods to stand behind the bushes on the other shore and shout to the Belle. "Higgins! That's Jaimy Fletcher up there in that canoe! Call him back! Oh, please, Higgins, get him to come back!" and I start bawlin' for real now.

  Through my tears I see Higgins jump up on the cabin top and peer forward. Then he cups his hands around his mouth and bellows, "Mr. Fletcher! Come back!"

  Higgins continues to look south, and then he shakes his head and turns to me. "It's no use, Miss. If that was indeed Mr. Fletcher, he is gone."

  Waaaaaaaaaaa...

  "Come back to the boats, Miss, and we'll discuss what can be done."

  I stumble back to the other side, wailing, my chest wracked with sobs. Through a fog of misery, I find my clothes and tearfully pull on my shirt.

  "I fear the rare mood of the day has vanished, along with that fellow there," remarks Captain Allen, who stands regarding me, his thumbs hooked in the waistband of the drawers he has put back on. "Eh, what?"

  "You sh-sh-shut up, you," I blubber. "This is all your fault."

  "Hmmm ... that would have been your ex-betrothed, then. Pity, that."

  I pull on my drawers, cinch up the waistband, and throw my balled-up skirt into the Star. "Find your own way back to the b-b-boat, you ... you brute!"

  "I am sorry, you know. I really don't like to see you cry."

  I shove off the boat, get in, and row back to the Belle, returning so much sadder than when I left.

  "Please, Miss! Please calm down!" begs Higgins, but I won't calm down, I won't. I won't.

  "You back there! MacDuff! Haul in your anchor and set some men on the sweeps! We're moving on!" I yell as soon as my foot is back on the Belle. "Jim! Up anchor! Hawkes on sweeps! Move it, dammit!"

  Nobody on these boats has seen me in full rage before, but they're sure seeing it now. I jump up on the cabin top and go forward and look intently downriver. Nothing.

  "Lightfoot, Chee-a-quat," I say to the two of them standing below me. "The next canoe we see, we buy it, and you go track him down and bring him back. Will you do it? Please."

  "We'll try, Wah-chinga," says Lightfoot, shaking his head doubtfully. "But this river's gonna divide and split again up ahead, and we'll just have to guess which way he might have gone. We could track him in the woods, but we can't on water. But we'll give it a try."

  I nod my thanks and go to my table and flop myself down in my chair, a quivering ball of misery. I steam and I glower, but I have managed to stop crying. We are moving again, so we'll at least get in a few more hours of travel before dark. Maybe we'll find a canoe, maybe...

  "Perhaps you are ready to talk now?" asks Higgins.

  Heavy sigh. "Yes, please sit down."

  Higgins pulls out a chair and seats himself. "Do you mind telling me what happened?"

  "I was paying off the bet to Captain Allen when Jaimy pulled up next to us in a canoe."

  "Um. I notice that the clothes you have on are dry. Can I assume that you were..."

  "Yes."

  "And Captain Allen?"

  "The same."

  "Ah. Did Mr. Fletcher say anything to you?"

  "No. He ... he just looked at me and shook his head and p-p-paddled off." The tears come again.

  "Here, Miss, take my handkerchief and blow your nose. That's better. Now, how was he dressed?"

  "Jaimy? In buckskins, of all things..."

  "Hmmm..." says Higgins, and then goes quiet, plainly mulling over all this.

  "Is there reason to hope?" I ask, ready to grasp at any straw.

  "I think there is, Miss," he says. "You know he can only go to New Orleans, don't you? You'll surely be able to catch up with him there and explain things. I'm sure Captain Allen will be happy to write out a statement detailing the extent of your relationship with him."

  "But what if he gets there and is able to book passage back to London, where he surely would be wantin' to go?"

  "You said he was dressed in buckskins, so I can only assume he met with unfortunate circumstances on his journey and had to work his way downriver as best he could. I don't believe he would have the money to book passage."

  I think on that for a moment, then say, "Thank you, Higgins, for trying to make me feel more hopeful, but that won't wash. Jaimy could ship out as a mate or, if he couldn't manage that, then as a common seaman. Anything to get as far away as possible from m-m-me."

  "Hmm. Well, maybe a ship won't be available. Maybe Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat will be able to find him. You must not give up hope, Miss."

  Another heavy sigh. "I know, Higgins, I know. Oh, why must I always mess up everything?"

  "Your impulsive nature is part of your character, part of what made you so charming to Mr. Fletcher in the past, and what, I am quite sure, will make you charming to him in the future as well."

  "I hope so, Higgins," I say, putting my hand on his. "You are so good to try to cheer me, but, oh, if you could just imagine my shock at seeing him, just coming out of the blue like that. I am shaken to my core and I still cannot fathom just how he got here."

  "Well, I'm guessing that Ezra Pickering figured a way for him to be freed from HMS Juno, or maybe it was a handsome bribe paid to C
aptain Rutherford—we do remember him as a greedy sort, don't we? And then Mr. Fletcher took off after you. You will recall that Mr. Pickering knew where you intended to go."

  "You're probably right. And if I hadn't decided on a swim, we'd be preparing for a wedding right now. We even have a preacher to say the words."

  "Yes," says Higgins, "I imagine he was right behind us the whole way and"—Higgins stops and I look over and notice his upper teeth bite his lower lip as if he had suddenly realized that he had just said something he regretted—"and could I get you a glass of wine, Miss, for your nerves? And perhaps you might think of putting your skirt back on?"

  I frown. What is he trying to gloss over? From the corner of my eye I see Clementine start to edge away. She must have been listening, she...

  Then it comes to me, as seconds ago it had come to Higgins, but it hits me a lot harder. That time, outside the jail in Pittsburgh ... Mike Fink taunting me: I know a secret thing ... and I ain't gonna tell you what it is... and then later ... Oh, my God...

  My name is Missus Clementine Fletcher!

  Slowly I rise from my chair and turn to face her. As soon as she sees the look on my face, she cuts and runs aft.

  "Why, you scheming little bitch!" I snarl and take after her, hands hooked into claws.

  "Miss, don't!" I hear Higgins shout behind me, but I will, oh, yes I will. You're gonna get it, you sneaking, two-faced—

  Clementine runs to the stern, turns, and sees me still comin'. Her eyes are wild, tears stream down her face. She hooks her leg over the rail and turns to Jim, standing open-mouthed at the tiller. "Good-bye, Jimmy! Always remember that I loved you more than anything else in the world!"

  And she launches herself off into the deep water on our starboard side.

  "You ain't gettin' off that easy, damn you!" I screech and dive in after her. No, you ain't!

  I resurface just as her head breaks water, and I am on her in an instant, putting my hands about her throat.

  "What a fool I was! I took you in, I cared for you, I loved you as a sister, and then I find I have clasped a snake to my bosom! I'm gonna kill you!"

 

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