Mississippi jack, p.39
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       Mississippi Jack, p.39

           L. A. Meyer

  But I ain't gonna do that at all, 'cause while I'm expectin' her to squall and thrash and fight back, she doesn't do that at all. All she does is hang there all limp in my grip, sobbing, her yellow hair plastered to her head, her face contorted, with tears pouring from her eyes.

  "Go ahead and kill me, I don't care! I don't! Jimmy ain't gonna want me no more and I'd rather be dead! Just let me go. I don't know how to swim, so you just let me go, if'n you want to kill me!" Her bawling redoubles, her mouth opens, and her lower lip goes back over her bottom teeth, her eyes still squeezed tight shut. "God, you give me Jaimy, then you give me Jimmy, then you take 'em both away! Oh, Lord, how could you do that to me?"

  I release my grip on her neck and put my arm around her waist, and my other arm under her legs, behind her knees and tread water, holding her there.

  "Nobody's gonna kill you, Clementine. Just hush, now, hush. Everything's gonna be all right, you'll see."

  What I see is a very concerned Jim Tanner rowing toward us in the Evening Star. In a moment he is alongside us and I hand him Clementine's trembling form.

  "Take her off for a spell, Jim. You'll need to talk. I can swim back to the Belle. And I'm sorry, Jim, for how I acted."

  He nods, but he ain't lookin' at me. I swim back to the boat and climb the ladder.

  Higgins insists that I change into decent clothing and I do it and go back to my table up top. Jim and the other boat had thrown out their anchors when Clementine and I hit the water. So be it, I think, let us stay here for the night. To hell with it. To hell with everything.

  Higgins brings me up food and drink, for I certainly don't feel like being sociable with my crew this evening. Captain Allen, I notice, has the good grace not to sit at his table and taunt me with his smirk, and I am glad of it.

  As I sit and force myself to eat, I steal glances over at Clementine and Jim, still sitting in the Evening Star. I can see her shoulders shake as she sits apart from him, telling her story. This goes on for a while, then I see him put his arm around her and he draws her to him, and she lays her head on his shoulder. They remain that way for a while and then Jim picks up the oars and rows back to the Belle.

  Higgins notices me still glowering as he sets down a glass of wine.

  "Do you know the meaning of the word hypocrisy, Miss?"

  "Of course I know what it means, Higgins, and I take your point. I have been a complete hypocrite, and I know it."

  I have smooched, sparked, and wriggled my way halfway around this world—Randall, Robin, Jared, Padraic, Arthur McBride, and finally Richard Allen, and I should expect Jaimy to be an angel? No, it's not fair.

  Jim hands Clementine up the ladder and Chloe takes her by the hand and leads her into our cabin, to get her dry and presentable. Jim comes up to me and looks me square in the eye, unsmiling. He says, "Clementine and me are going to get married. Today. I'm gonna go tell the Reverend now."

  He ain't askin' my permission, but I nod anyway.

  So we do have a wedding aboard the Belle of the Golden West on this day. It just so happens that it is not my wedding, which should have been the one so happily celebrated, had not cruel fate and my own headstrong stupidity intervened.

  "Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of Almighty God," intones the Very Reverend Jeremiah Clawson, "to join in Holy Matrimony Mr. James McNeil Tanner and Clementine Amaryllis Jukes..."

  We are assembled below, bathed in soft candlelight. Matthew Hawkes is Best Man, and Yancy Cantrell will give the bride away. Crow Jane is Matron of Honor, and the rest of us girls are bridesmaids. Jim is dressed in a clean white shirt with a bit of lace at the throat that I'd insisted he wear for this special occasion, while Clementine is decked out in a stitched-together white gown we hastily made from the play's tearaway dress, to which we'd added some flounces. While we were doing this, I sent Daniel over to pick some flowers I had spotted earlier on the bank, and with them I made a posy chain for her hair. When I placed the floral crown upon her head, I said, "May you have a happy life, Sister. Jim Tanner is one of the finest persons, man or boy, that I have ever met." She nodded and squeezed my hand.

  With that, I kissed her on the forehead, and we led her up to her wedding.

  "If there is any here among us who object to this marriage, let him speak up now, or forever hold his peace..."

  No one objects, and the thing is done.

  "Very well. Do you, James McNeil Tanner, take Clementine Amaryllis Jukes to be your lawful wedded wife..."

  We hold the party out on deck, under the moonlight, so as to give the newlyweds a place to flee to, a cabin of their own having been set up below. All are dressed in their finest. Toasts are drunk all around, coarse jests traded, and eventually the bridal couple goes below. A delighted Clementine tosses her flower crown before going down and a surprised Katy Deere catches it.

  The party continues above for an hour or so, to give them some private time below. I sit with Higgins, Yancy, and the Reverend at my table, while the Hawkes and the Honeys carouse down on the deck. After a bit, I call out to Richard Allen, "Get over here, you complete rascal, and have a glass of wine with us." And he bounds over.

  "Is it not a crazy world?" I say to the party at large.

  "Indeed it is, Princess," agrees Richard Allen.

  "And I hope you'll soon be able to pronounce it a wonderful world as well, Miss," says Higgins.

  "Oh, yes, Higgins, I do, after all is said and all is done." I lift my glass in the light of the full moon. "On to New Orleans."

  "Hear, hear," says my dear company.


  Chapter 62

  "'My Dear Mr. Fletcher: Your former fiancée, Miss Jacky Faber, has requested that I relate to you the particulars of our relationship. I am happy to do so'..."

  We are seated at my cabin-top table, and Captain Allen, dressed in full uniform down to the spurs on his boots, is reading from a letter that he holds in his hand. My small fleet has arrived in Baton Rouge, and he and his men are preparing to leave us for good. The Britannia has been sold and horses hired to take the soldiers directly down to the coast to where a cutter awaits to transport them back to their base in Jamaica. Richard was of the mind that with New Orleans having only recently become American, a boatload of fully armed British redcoats might not be received too kindly by the largely French populace, and so he made the decision to go overland from here and thus avoid that city.

  "... Ahem. I am happy to say I galloped your pretty little dollop of trollop from St. Louis down to Baton Rouge and she proved a most spirited mount, as we—"

  "Give me that, you!" I snatch the paper from his hand and read what he had actually written there.

  To Lieutenant James Fletcher,

  Greetings from a fellow officer and admirer of Miss Jacky Faber. Here is a brief history of my time in her company: She was captured by our party far upriver, she escaped, and she took us prisoner in return. I gave my parole and we traveled downriver together, my mission having been aborted by her actions. We bore each other no ill will and soon became friends.

  On the day you arrived on the scene, Miss Faber had decided to take a swim in a private, secluded area, and I, unbidden, decided to join her, and, surprising her there, demanded the settlement of a silly bet she had made and lost, the wager being for a kiss. A long kiss. She acquiesced, being a girl of her word, and I was collecting my winnings, as it were, when you showed up.

  I swear to you, Mr. Fletcher, that what you saw then was the entire extent of our intimacy. She has often spoken of you in the most glowing terms, declaring that she was promised in marriage to you only.

  I know what you must have surmised when you saw us together in that pool, and I regret that you beheld that, but I further regret that your suspicions were in fact not true, for I found her a most neat and beguiling piece of work and I would have been delighted to say that I enjoyed all of her charms. But I cannot in all honesty say that, for, alas, it would not be true. More's the pity.

  If you object to my saying these things, you may find me at my barracks in Kingston, Jamaica, and you may have satisfaction.

  I congratulate you on winning the favor of such a lovely and spirited young woman and I am,

  Your Humble and Most Obedient Servant,

  Captain Richard Lord Allen

  P.S. I offered to make her Lady Allen, but she demurred. Pity, that.

  I fold the letter and put it aside. "Thank you, Richard. That was kind of you. I don't, however, recall the great Lord Allen asking the very common commoner Jacky Faber to marry him."

  "Ah, I just threw that in for good measure."

  "So it's a lie then, my lord?"

  "All right, will you marry me and become Lady Allen?"

  I laugh. "I can't tell whether you're joking or not, you rascal. But the answer is 'no,' either way."

  "Pity, that," he says in mock seriousness. "Wouldn't that just put the Old Man's nose in a vise, though, my bringing home something like you as his daughter-in-law? 'Father, may I present my wife, the extraordinary showgirl and actress Miss Jacky Faber, the Toast of the Mississippi and the Lily of the West? Lift your dress to show Father your fine knees, dear, if you would.' The Old Prune would drop dead on the instant. Ha! It's damned tempting. Are you sure you won't reconsider?"

  "No." I laugh. "But I will thank you for your kind protection on our journey here."

  "My pleasure, Princess," he says, looking out on the preparations for his departure that are taking place on the dock. Sergeant Bailey is having a fine time ordering the privates about as packs are being loaded and horses are being bridled, saddled, and cinched up. It is plain that these cavalrymen will be glad to get back in the saddle again.

  "I think you should be all right, as regards safety, from here on down. The land is quite settled and there are no reports of hostile Indians about. And we haven't seen those slavers for a while."

  I nod and reflect that no, we have not. We spotted them a few times, lurking around the edges of our crowds, but they made no move against us. We had found out, by asking about, that they were the Beam family, Pap Beam and his five grown sons. They were supposed to have a farm of some sort on the river and from there ranged up and down in search of escaped slaves to sell back to their owners. The Beams were much feared in this region, by both blacks and whites, and all gave them a wide berth.

  "I'm sure we'll be all right, Richard. We're going to stay well out in the river, and that should be protection enough."

  "You'll not set up for a performance today?"

  "No, we'll get under way as soon as you take your leave. We're all anxious to get to New Orleans as soon as possible, me to see if I can find Mr. Fletcher, the others to enjoy the charms of a real city after this long journey." I shake my head. "No, I think the showboat Belle of the Golden West has had its final curtain call. Besides, how could poor Prudence Goodlove ever manage without her Captain Noble Strongheart?" I say, smiling and putting my hand on his.

  He laughs. "I did enjoy that bit of nonsense, though."

  "As did I, and I did enjoy your company, you arrant knave, even though you did mess things up." I see Sergeant Bailey come to the edge of the landing, leading a saddled horse. "I think the sergeant wants to speak to you."

  He turns to look.

  "All packed and ready, Sir," says Sergeant Bailey, saluting with his open hand held up to his hat, his shako, as they call it.

  "Very well, Sergeant," says Captain Allen, rising from his chair.

  I, too, rise and go over to the edge of the cabin top and look down at the men, each standing by a horse. "Good-bye, Sergeant Bailey, it was very good to know you. Good-bye, Willie, good-bye, Freddy, give my regards to Kingston. Good-bye, Seamus, I hope you see Ireland again soon, and may you, Archy, once again roam the heaths of Scotland. Alfie and Walter, good-bye and the best of luck. All of you give my regards to Mother England should you get back to the home ground—she may not love me, but I still do love her. Farewell all and Godspeed."

  Each of the men touched their hands to their shakos as I said their names. As with all the leave-takings and departures of my life, my eyes start to mist up.

  I turn to Captain Allen and extend my hand. "Good-bye, Richard. Fare thee well."

  He takes my hand and bows over it, and I dip down in a deep, formal curtsy. When I come back up, he says, "I once heard you use the saying 'Might as well be hanged for a wolf as for a sheep,' and I agree, Jacky, I might as well." And with that he puts his arm around me, bends me back, and puts a real kiss on my mouth.

  He releases me, and I say, "Good-bye, you rogue. Go now, your men are waiting." Go now, before I start really crying.

  He plants another kiss on the back of my hand, steps down to the lower deck, and then off the Belle of the Golden West, his saber hanging by his side, his spurs jangling. He goes to his mount, puts foot in stirrup, and swings up into the saddle, and all his men follow suit.

  Wheeling the horse about, he takes one last look back at me and calls out, "Good-bye, Princess, I will remember you, and you can count on that!"

  He puts the spurs to the horse's flanks and gallops off and away.

  I stand and wave till I can see him no more.

  And I will remember you, Lord Richard Allen, oh yes, I will, and you, too, can count on that.

  I shook all thoughts of dashing young captains of cavalry from my head and wasted no time in getting under way again.

  "Jim. Get us out farther into the stream. Matty, 'Thaniel, on the sweeps. There'll be time for rest in New Orleans, and it's only sixty or so miles away." They leap to it, as I'm sure Honeysuckle Rose and Tupelo Honey have told them many tales of the delights that wait for them in New Orleans.

  I scan the bank as we move along. The shores have changed a great deal as we have moved farther south into the delta of Louisiana. Before, the banks held trees that could easily have grown in England, or at least looked like they could have grown there. Now there are deep, dark shaded inlets where trees trail long beards of moss down into the black water, bayous they are called, and it don't look like England anymore, no, it don't...

  "Good God, what's that?" shouts Clementine Tanner, pointing with shaking finger at something on the bank. It looks like a huge black and bumpy log, about twelve feet long, but it is not that, oh no, for it has a tail and it swings it back and forth as it slips its bulk into the water.

  Crow Jane, alerted by Clementine's cry, comes up on deck, holding a ladle. She looks over at where the girl is pointing and squints. The beast lies in the water, just its two eyes showin'.

  "It's a 'gator," she says. "They eat up little girls like you. Everybody be careful 'bout fallin' overboard." She points the ladle at me. "And no more swimmin' for you!"

  I nod in agreement to that.

  I watch the bank slip by, looking for more alligators and finding them, and seeing snakes on branches, raccoons coming down onshore to catch crayfish, and big, squawking birds with flapping doomed fishes in their long beaks, with swarms of bugs flying about, and I wish myself back in merry old England, or at least in good old staid, starched-drawers Boston.

  I shake off these thoughts, too. Upriver we had found and bought a canoe, and Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat had gone off in it several times to see if they could run down Jaimy, but no luck—there were just too many tributaries in this fickle and maddening river.

  I decide on one more try. "Lightfoot. Will you and Chee-a-quat take the canoe and search again?"

  Lightfoot is sitting up with Katy, watching her fish. She has a stringer of fresh-caught fish trailing in the water beside her, species we have not seen before. He looks at Chee-a-quat, on the opposite side, they both say wah, then get up, take their rifles, and climb into the canoe.

  "We'll try this one last time, Wah-chinga, but you gotta know that soon this river widens out into a big, big old lake called Pont-char-train, and if'n he's on that, we ain't gonna find him, ever. We'll be back tomorrow, with him or without him." He nods at Katy and then
pushes off.

  I watch them go, wondering if it was wise to send them, we now having no protection, save the river and the few left aboard.

  No, no ... everything is all right. We'll get dinner and then anchor for the night. Everything is all right. We'll get some sleep...

  Jaimy, I know you hate me now, and think me false and deceiving and of very low character, but still I long to see you and I pray for your health and safety, I do. Amen.

  Chapter 63

  "Fire's out, Boss," Crow Jane is saying as I gaze southward looking for Lightfoot and Chee-a-quat to return. "That wood we bought up in Natchez must've been green. Damn crackers, you just can't trust 'em."

  "Can you start it up again?"

  "Sure, Boss, but I'm gonna need an armload o' kindling to get it going."

  "Hmm ...I would like the crew to have a hot breakfast and I could use a cup of tea, myself." I scan the near bank, which is heavily wooded and looks like a likely place to find some wood. It's pretty high land, not swampy like where the 'gators tend to hang out. We haven't seen anyone on the shore since we left Baton Rouge yesterday, so it should be safe enough.

  "All right, I'll hop over and gather some." After I decide this, I call back to Jim, "Pull her over next to that low bank there. I'm going ashore to get some firewood."

  As the Belle slips over to the shore, I go down into my cabin and take off my buckskin skirt and pull on my white duck trousers, 'cause I know the bugs'll be bad onshore.

  When I come back out, we are alongside. "Solly, come help me if you would." I hop over and he follows. I go off to the left, picking up sticks as I go while he forages straight ahead. Sticks are plentiful and dry, so this shouldn't take long, I'm thinking.


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