Mississippi jack, p.41
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       Mississippi Jack, p.41

           L. A. Meyer
 

  I hear the sound of Solomon wading in the water, and then I am lowered down into the river. Ahhhhhh... It slowly enters my mind that I am going to live, after all, and I begin to leave off on the crying. Thank you, God.

  I'm held there in the stream for a while, and then I hear Higgins say, "Bring her up, Solly," and I am taken up, then put down faceup on what I suspect is the big tavern table.

  "Let's get to work, girls," says Crow Jane. "Pick a spot and start scrapin' with them knives. Careful not to cut her, though. Gimme those shears."

  "Mr. Higgins," says Katy, "Lightfoot said we should get going, that he and the others'll meet us downriver a piece."

  "All right. Solomon, on tiller; Reverend, you and I on sweeps. Let's go." I hear them leave as I feel the edge of the shears slip over my belly to cut the drawstring of my tarred pants, which are then slid down off of me. My wet drawers are pulled off, too, and I am shamed to admit that it is not only the waters of the Mississippi that they are wet with. A towel is thrown over my midsection and upper thighs, the only parts of me that are still white. The knives begin their work.

  "Katy. When you left, was Jim all right?" asks Clementine to my right.

  "Yeah. None of ours got hurt," answers Katy on my left. "We caught 'em by surprise and left three of 'em lyin' dead in the dirt, 'fore the others could get in the house. They got 'em trapped in there. Only a matter of time till it's over."

  "Eyes're gonna be tricky. Can't just slosh turpentine there. Let's use spoons to scrape out what we can," says Crow Jane. "But first the hair."

  She works the shears in close to my scalp and begins to cut away the thick, clotted mass of ruined hair. She works from the front to the back and soon I am shorn.

  "You okay, Boss?"

  "Yes, Janey, and thanks. Thanks, all of you."

  They work on me all through the rest of that day—scraping away to get down to my skin, then wiping with a turpentine-soaked rag to get up the residue, then strong soap and hot water and bristly brush, and then more turpentine, and then back to more soap and water. After about an hour, Crow Jane manages to clear out my eyes and I am able to open them and look about. Several hours after that, my front being done, I am made to sit up so Katy and Clementine can work on my back, while a Honey works on each foot, and Crow Jane finishes up my face, neck, and head.

  Finally, it's done.

  "All right, into the tub with you," and I gratefully crawl in.

  Ahhhhhh...

  Later, when the water in the tub has cooled, I get out, dry off, and put on the white shirt, drawers, and skirt that Clementine has laid out for me, and I go up on deck. Higgins is on the starboard sweep.

  "Hello, Higgins."

  "Good day, Miss. I am very glad to see you. I must admit I feared the worst this time."

  "It was a close thing, Higgins. I have much new food for my nightmares. How's Yancy?"

  Higgins doesn't say anything for a moment and then shakes his head. "He is dying, Miss. The bullet took him in the abdomen, in the vicinity of his liver. The bullet is still in there and there is no way to get it out."

  Oh, no...

  I go down to his cabin, knock lightly, and am told to enter. I find him lying in bed, Chloe sitting in a chair beside him, holding his hand in one of hers, a handkerchief in the other. He is ashen but awake, and I go to his side.

  "I'm so sorry, Yancy," I say, the tears coming on. "It's all my fault. If I hadn't stopped for firewood, we—"

  "Now, Jacky, you couldn't know those varmints were lurking about, so don't go blaming yourself. We were all in this together, sharing the joys, sharing the risks. As you said yourself, it's the old pirate ethic, 'We stood on board as brothers,' and we did." A slight smile crosses his lips. "And I did enjoy this last trip down the river, perhaps the most of all that I have made."

  "Don't say 'last,' Father. You don't know."

  "No, dear, I'm afraid Yancy Cantrell has knocked down his last game, but he's not complaining. Maybe I didn't get the full three-score-and-ten years that the Bible promised a man, but I got most of it, and I had a good time of it, too."

  The slight smile turns to a grimace of pain. Chloe squeezes her father's hand and puts the handkerchief to her eyes.

  Yancy reaches over and takes my hand. "I will ask one thing of you, Jacky, and that is to do everything in your power to get my girl here back to her people in New York."

  "Of course, Yancy. Of course."

  He looks up at me and lets go of my hand. He reaches up and ruffles the stubble on my head and chuckles, "You look just like a dandelion, Jacky. A pretty, wild, little dandelion."

  I lean over and put a kiss on his forehead. "Good-bye, Yancy Cantrell," I manage to say without dropping too many tears on his face, and I leave father and daughter to have their last bit of time together.

  "There they are!" shouts Clementine from the bow. She points off to starboard and I see them, my recent saviors, standing together on a spit of land that juts out into the water. Behind them I make out the shapes of horses, six of them.

  "Steer for 'em, Solly."

  "Aye, aye, Skipper."

  ***

  We anchor there for the night. When Lightfoot comes aboard, he dangles a tangle of scalps—five of them dark and one gray. He hangs the grisly trophies over the rail and says, "We picked off two more of 'em when they stood up in the windows to fire at us, and then the old man came roarin' out, shoutin' somethin' about the Great God Jehovah, and each of us put a bullet in him and still he stood till Chee-a-quat parted his hair for him with his tomahawk. He didn't have nothin' to say after that."

  Clementine embraces a very subdued Jim Tanner, and the Hawkeses are welcomed back by their Honeys.

  "Will anyone be looking for us, you think?" I ask.

  "Naw, Wah-chinga, ain't gonna be no one comin' after us. Naw. We got 'em all. Warn't no wimmen nor kids there. We just put 'em all in their beds and lit the place on fire—ain't no one gonna be probin' their bodies for bullets and fer sure they ain't gonna know they was scalped. Ain't gonna be nuthin' but ashes. We set the livestock loose and brung along these six horses."

  "You're sure they were dead when you did that?" I ask.

  Lightfoot looks slyly at his Shawnee brother. "Wal, some of 'em said they weren't ... but you know how them Louisiana people lie."

  That gets a laugh out of the Hawkeses, and even a deep chuckle out of Chee-a-quat.

  Then Chloe comes quietly onto the deck. She folds her hands together and looks out over the water.

  "My father, Mr. Yancy Beauregard Cantrell, has passed on to his reward."

  Chapter 65

  Let six young showgirls follow my coffin,

  Let six young rounders carry my pall.

  Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,

  Roses, to muffle the clods as they fall.

  We have the funeral for Yancy Cantrell first thing in the morning. Nathaniel and Matty had spent some time last night and some more time this morning making his coffin out of wood taken from the performance boards for which we have no more use. The merry showboat is a thing of the past.

  Yancy is laid in the box with his hands crossed on his chest. With Chloe's permission I have placed his deck of cards in his pocket, all the cards except for five. In his hand I put a full house, aces over kings, so when he gets up there, they'll know he died standing pat. I put my hand on his hands, those hands that were so skillful and adroit and will now be forever still, and then I step back.

  Nathaniel picks up the coffin top and looks at Chloe. She says, "God be with you, Father. May you sit at His right hand."

  The lid is put on and nailed shut. Matthew has nailed six leather handles to the coffin, three on each side, and the pallbearers—Higgins, Jim, Matthew, Nathaniel, Solomon, and Lightfoot—pick up the coffin and carry it out of the hatchway and over the gangway to the shore. We all fall in behind: Chloe first, with one hand on the coffin and the other on my arm for support. Then Reverend Clawson, open Bible in hand, then Katy,
Clementine, Honeysuckle Rose, and Tupelo Honey. Crow Jane and Daniel stay back, guarding the Belle.

  While the Hawkeses were building the coffin, Solomon was digging the grave, up on a piece of high ground about fifty yards from the shore, and it is to that open grave we sadly tread.

  Reverend Clawson begins a hymn, one that we all know and so join in the singing of it.

  I'm just a poor, wayfaring stranger,

  Traveling through this wearisome land,

  And there's no sickness, no toil or danger,

  In that bright world to which I go.

  Chloe stumbles, but I catch her and the cortege toils on.

  I'm going there to see my father,

  I'm going there, no more to roam.

  I'm just a-going over Jordan,

  I'm just a-going over home.

  We arrive at the open grave, and as the pallbearers lower down the coffin, the Preacher gives us the last verse.

  I'm going there to meet my mother,

  She said she'd greet me when I come.

  I'm just a-going over Jordan,

  I'm just a-going over home.

  The song ends and Chloe reaches down and picks up a handful of dirt and tosses it down onto the coffin, and Preacher Clawson reads, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."

  When the words are said and done, I put my arm around Chloe's shoulders and together we walk away. The Hawkeses begin covering the grave. We don't have roses, so the clods ain't muffled as they fall, but make a sad, hollow, thudding sound.

  Chapter 66

  And later today I lose yet another member of my company.

  When I go to breakfast with the rest of my crew, I am greeted with the news that Chee-a-quat is leaving us.

  "Nee-ah-hanta is with child and her time is soon," explains Lightfoot. "And we're now headin' into territory where he might not be welcome. Chickasaw land, if you get my drift. He will take three of the horses, one for himself and two as presents for our father. It will bring him much honor."

  Nodding, I sigh, then say, "Well, that is as it should be. But we will miss his presence, if not his conversation. Jim, we'll not be weighing anchor just yet. Stand by." I go below to collect some things.

  Chee-a-quat prepares to leave with very little ceremony, just some manly grasping of upper arms and thumping of chests with his Shawnee brother, but I won't let it go at that.

  "Chee-a-quat, hold for a moment," I say, as he seems about to hook a leg over the rail and go. He pauses and looks at me. "For our brave and noble warrior Chee-a-quat, we give this pistol and money in return for his valiant service." I hand the pistol and a bag of coins to him and he takes them. "There is a necklace in there for Nee-ah-hanta, too. Please send my regards, for she was kind to a stranger when that stranger was in your town."

  I sign thank you and good-bye.

  And then, for the first time, Chee-a-quat speaks directly to me.

  "Wah-ho-tay, Wah-chinga-sote-caweena-que-tonk. May you find a brave man for your husband and bear him many strong children. Good-bye, Jah-kee."

  The mouth of She-Who-Dances-Like-Crazy-Rabbit drops open at the sound of English coming from the lips of the Shawnee warrior Chee-a-quat. He smiles, nods once more at Lightfoot, and then is over the side, across the sandbar, and into the woods and gone.

  Yes, this morning I lost two of my company, and sadly, I find that I will lose two more this afternoon.

  She appears on the quarterdeck, dressed for the first time in the buckskins that Lightfoot had gotten for her those weeks ago in the Shawnee village, and I know what that means.

  "I'm goin' off with Lightfoot," says Katy Deere. "I talked to the Preacher. He's gonna say the words. My mama was a church lady and she'd have liked to see it done proper with a preacher and all."

  I nod, having expected this. "Sit down, Katy, and tell me what you plan to do."

  She thinks for a while and then says, "Y'know, Jacky, I really liked bein' on this run down the river with you—seein' new things at every bend in the river, huntin', fishin', pokin' around in pools and streams, explorin', like ... But I know it's comin' to an end and you're gonna go off into those cities and towns and I just don't do good there. I tried it and it don't work."

  She pauses and takes a breath. I know this is one of the longest speeches Katy Deere will ever deliver.

  "You'll go back to Lightfoot's Shawnee village?"

  "No, we're gonna go out West, see what's there. Listenin' to that Injun girl that time, Crow Jane's niece, you remember, the one who'd been on that expedition, about all those things out there—spouts of hot water that shoot a hundred feet in the air, streams full o' fish, deer with horns that curl back over their heads, big, big mountains, herds of buffalo so vast y'can't see across 'em, and another ocean over at the other edge. Well, we want to see it. Me and him."

  Just a different version of me wanting to get the Bombay Rat, the Cathay Cat, and see the Kangaroo, but the same old thing...

  "And when you and me was on that Bloodhound? Right, it was awful, but ... up till then, I'd never felt so ... I don't know what..."

  I nod at the recollection of that time, when we were both sisters-in-arms against evil.

  "And come winter, well, we might go back to my farm and hole up there. He could hunt and trap, and in the spring we'd hire a man and get a crop in. Huh! Don't worry, I know that I'll never get that man Lightfoot to ever hold a hoe. And I know I'd never be able to hold him on the farm when the weather warms up, so I'd go with him again. Get someone else to tend the crop and bring it in."

  She looks out to the west, over the treetops, and fondly I look upon her face in profile, with its high cheekbones, strong nose, and thin lips, knowing I'll soon not be seeing it. "Or maybe we'll go down into Mexico to winter over. Hell, you've given us enough money to get by for a coupl'a winters."

  "Money you earned ten times over, Katy. How many times have you saved my life? Once, twice, at least three."

  "Lightfoot don't think you'll have any more trouble in gettin' to the city—the Beams is dead, the Indians is peaceable around here. So since we've got the ponies, we figured this was a good spot to go."

  She rises and so do I.

  "I'll miss you, Katy Deere."

  "Me, too, Jacky. Miss you."

  Katy's things are packed and thrown across the back of the packhorse and secured, along with some provisions we have raided from Crow Jane's stores. Her bow is slung from the pommel of the horse she will ride. I make up another posy crown and I reflect that the Reverend's been real busy lately.

  "Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of Almighty God to join in Holy Matrimony Katherine Deere and Lightfoot ... er, Lightfoot, do you have a last name?"

  "Back when I was a young'un, it was Bumpus."

  "Ah. Very well ... and Lightfoot Bumpus. If any here among you..."

  Crow Jane whips up a fine bridal luncheon and we toast the bride and groom, both of them in their buckskins, seated at the head of the long table. The only thing to show that a wedding has happened is the posy crown that I braided up for her. I am getting quite good at that.

  I give each of them a pistol, with powder and ball, and a bag of coins, which is their final share of the spoils of this journey. Of Lightfoot I ask, "Will she ride beside you or behind?"

  He thinks for a moment, and then says, "Beside Wah-chinga, just the way you'd want it."

  "I'm glad, Lightfoot. Thank you for everything you've done. Fare thee well."

  Katy goes down the gangplank and gets on her horse.

  "Wah-ho-tay, Wah-chinga. It was good knowin' you," says Lightfoot, and he, too, goes off the Belle and mounts up.

  "Wah-ho-tay Lightfoot."

  When I have said good-bye to dear friends in the past, they have usually been of the seagoing class, and as there are only so many ports of call in this world, there was always the chance that I would meet up with them again, sometime—and that possibility would dull the pain of parting. After all, didn't I see Davy Jones and Hugh the
Grand again? And sometimes Jaimy Fletcher?

  Yes, but when I think of the vastness of this American continent, with its forests and rivers and hills and mountains and prairies that roll on forever, I know that I will never see this girl again.

  "Fare thee well, Katy Deere."

  She nods and we lock eyes for a moment, and then she and Lightfoot turn their horses and are gone.

  The Belle of the Golden West gets under way once again, this time with a much diminished crew—we now have only myself, Higgins, Jim and Clementine, Reverend Clawson, the Hawkes boys and their wives Honeysuckle Rose and Tupelo Honey, Crow Jane, Solomon, young Daniel Prescott, and a very much saddened Chloe Abyssinia Cantrell.

  We are fairly close to New Orleans now, and we settle back into our usual routines to pass the time on the last part of our long journey. Jim takes the tiller, with Clementine beside him, and I perch on my chair at my table under the canopy.

  I notice that Solomon sits up forward on the cabin top, near, but not too near, to Chloe, who has forsaken our cabin to sit out in the air. Grief or not, it's just too damned hot down there. He has the guitar and plays some of the happy, spirited songs he knows, like "Hop High, Ladies," and "Sourwood Mountain," and "Sail Away, Ladies," and it seems to have a good effect on her spirits—I even saw her crack a wan smile, once.

  Later, I take a lesson on guitar from Solomon, and as we toil away over a difficult fingering, I ask him, "Solly, you told me once that you didn't have a last name. Is that true?"

 
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