Mississippi jack, p.42
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       Mississippi Jack, p.42

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "Yes ... uh ... Jacky, most slaves take their owner's last name ... or are forced to take 'em. I don't want to do that."

  I knew it took an effort to say my name without the "Miss," but he did it.

  "Hmmm. Well, you are a free man now, so you are equally free to choose a last name. Tell me, Solomon No-Name, what will you be known as from now on?"

  He puts up the guitar for a while and thinks. Then he says, "Since I am to be a free man, I will take the name Freeman." He pauses again, plainly mulling this over. "Yes, I like the sound of that. Solomon J. Freeman. And the J, Miss Faber, stands for Jack!"

  We go on with the lesson.

  Last night I was so exhausted by all the events in what was probably the most horrific day of my life that I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. But not tonight, oh no, not tonight, for tonight he comes, as I knew he would—old Pap Beam with a rope in his hand and a tomahawk in his head, grinning at me through the blood that runs down over his face and reachin' out for me...

  I wake up just when I'm into the babbling-pleas-for-mercy stage of the nightmare and not yet into full-scale howling, and I rise up on my elbow and collect my scattered wits. And then I hear Chloe weeping in her bunk across the room.

  "Come over here, Chloe," I softly say. "We could both do with a bit of comfort."

  And she does.

  Chapter 67

  We first noticed it as a worrisome bank of low black clouds lying off on the southern horizon, when we were about a day's travel outside of New Orleans. With increasing worry, we watched it grow higher and higher.

  "We'd best batten down for a blow, Jim. Get everything below that's likely to be carried away," I say. "It'd sure be nice if we'd find a nice quiet cove to anchor in."

  "Sure would, Missy," says Jim. "I ain't never seen clouds that dark before."

  But we found no such luck. The banks of the river remained straight and featureless, with nothing even suggesting shelter, and unlike Jim, I have seen clouds this black before—last summer in the Caribbean, on the Emerald. We were lucky; we managed to get her into safe harbor at St. Maarten before the storm was upon us. I hope we'll be lucky again, but I worry, for I well remember the fury of a hurricane.

  My table and canopy are taken down to be stowed below. Windows are closed and tightened down, and everything breakable is taken off shelves and secured. I have Crow Jane make up the big meal of the day at noon, for there probably won't be any cooking tonight. We all eat together at the big tavern table, mostly in silence.

  There is a strange, oppressive stillness in the air. It is dead calm, and seabirds, gulls and such, are overhead, flying inland.

  We have done all we can. Now we wait.

  In the early evening, the storm hits. It starts as a sudden strong breeze, and within minutes it is a howling gale. Minutes after that, a full-blown hurricane. Like a dog on a leash, the Belle thrashes about on its anchor line, and I am glad we secured the boat with backup lines tied to trees on the shore, should the anchor drag.

  We all sit at the tavern table throughout the long night and try to give one another cheer, as sleep would be impossible in this maelstrom. There is only the light of a single candle set in the middle of the table, for we don't want to take a chance with a lamp, which might overturn and spread fire in the hold.

  We try a few songs, hymns mostly, and Reverend Clawson offers up a prayer for our deliverance, to which we all add a fervent amen. We fall silent after an especially fierce squall that sets the Belle rocking in a very alarming way. Young Daniel sits by my side, and I can feel him shudder. I reach over and take his hand and hold it.

  "Tell me a story, Missy," he whispers. "Please."

  I have to smile, thinking of other stories I have told in other places in other times. "All right, Daniel," I say, and collect my thoughts. Then I begin.

  "Any old port in a storm. That's what I was thinking as I wove my little boat through the ships in the crowded harbor..."

  ***

  At about midnight, the wind suddenly lessened and then died out completely. Many heads, which had been resting on arms, popped up to listen.

  "Is it over?" wondered Honeysuckle Rose. "Lord, I hope so. This has been the worst night of my life."

  "Maybe not," I say. "I was in St. Maarten down in the Caribbean last year when a hurricane struck the island, and the wind died down all of a sudden just like this, so we went out and saw that the storm was swirling all around us. People told us it was the eye of the hurricane and we'd better get back inside or we'd be sorry. And they were right—the storm came back, fiercer than ever. But maybe..."

  And then again, maybe not. It starts as a low whistle, then a long whine, and then it slams into us again, twice as hard and from the exact opposite direction—where before the wind was trying to drive us into the bank, now it's trying to force us to the middle of the river.

  Sometimes I hate being right.

  Oh well, where was I? Oh, yes...

  "Take her up and tie her to the mast!' roared Captain Blodgett, and heavy hands are put on me..."

  In the morning, well before dawn, we are granted relief. The wind subsides to a mere gale and then tapers off to nothing more than a strong breeze. I conclude my tale and find that my telling of the exciting story has put young Daniel fast asleep. Ah, well, that is for the good. A young boy needs his sleep and I shan't take offense.

  I stand up to stretch and say, "I think we're through it, mates, and—"

  And I am knocked off my feet as there is a terrific shock and a great splintering, grinding noise aft and then along the Belle's port side.

  Damn! Something hit us hard!

  "Nathaniel! Open the hatch! We've got to see!"

  He unlocks the door and I rush past him and look aft.

  A house! A goddamn whole house has crashed into us, splintering the steering oar!

  The building, which must have been unwisely placed on a bank near the river and was washed away by the storm's floodwaters, slowly turns in the current, then grinds down the Belle's port side, and then floats off, rocking wildly in the madly roiling water.

  I run aft to look at the damage.

  "Jim! The tiller is gone! We'll have to rig another! And it looks like there's a crack in the hull, down by the waterline, see it? Get some girls on the pump below and report if we're taking on any water!"

  I look out over the river. There is all manner of flotsam, whole trees uprooted—there's a giant oak, its roots washed clean by the flood, turning over and over as it floats down the river.

  "We've got water down here, but I think we can stay ahead of it!" shouts Clementine from below.

  "'Thaniel! Matty! Get some boards and nails! We've got to—"

  "We've got to get below!" hollers Jim, pointing up to the sky. "Look! It's a tornado!"

  I look up and see the thing, its black funnel twisting out of the edge of the retreating storm, and scream, "Everybody back below! Move it!"

  The Hawkes boys pound across the deck and down the hatch, with Jim and me close behind.

  "Hurry, Jim!" I shout, pushing my hand on the small of his back, as we round the edge of the cabin top and head for the open hatch. He tumbles down in and I go to follow, but it is too late. The twister is upon us, howling out its natural fury.

  It lifts me up and I grab for the hatchway top and manage to catch it, but my fingers soon start to slip. Jim's hands grasp my wrists, but they, too, cannot hold on.

  "Close it up and dog it down!" I shout. This might be the last order I ever will issue on the Belle of the Golden West.

  Jim's hands slip and I am lifted into the air.

  I am aloft in the sky over Louisiana for what seems an impossibly long time, but is, in fact, probably only five seconds or so, and then I am dashed back into the waters of the Mississippi.

  I go way under and then kick myself back to the surface and look about—'least I ain't got no hair to get in my eyes—and see only darkness. But then out of it approaches this many-tentacled monster a
nd I scream in terror and flail about—only to see that it is merely the roots of that huge tree I had seen float by earlier. The tree seems to have steadied itself, so I swim out beyond the roots to the trunk and climb aboard.

  I see the first glimmers of dawn in the east, but still can see nothing of the Belle, or much of anything else, for that matter.

  Oh well, I say to myself as I wrap my legs around the trunk beneath me. Let's just see where this ship takes us, shall we?

  ***

  That ship, HMS Log, takes us to a sandbar on the western bank of the river and there runs aground, its sailing days forever over. It is full light and I look upriver to see plenty of other stuff floating by—sheds; fence poles; chicken coops with the hens still sitting, clucking on the roof; many more big trees; the carcass of a poor drowned cow; dogs and cats, and sometimes people sitting up on the rooftops of their washed-away homes, but I see nothing of the Belle of the Golden West, nor any of her gallant crew.

  I decide to follow the bar to the shore and then find a tree to climb, to see if that gives me a better vantage point.

  I unwrap my legs from the HMS Log and walk along the sandbar to the shore, and I pick out a good tall tree to climb. As I put my foot on a lower limb, I see a movement out of the corner of my eye. It is but a small alligator, no more than four feet long, but still it sends a shiver up my spine. I climb up and look about, but again I see nothing welcoming to my eye—still nothing upriver. Damn!

  I worry about my crew, of course, but not too much. I have the sense that the tornado only skirted us; otherwise, I would be quite dead and no more a bother to anyone.

  Should I try to go back upriver, overland? It would seem to be the thing to do, after all...

  No, that is not the thing to do at all, I think as I look below. My four-foot alligator has been joined by numerous relatives, many of whom exceed his length by ten feet or more. Some lie on the bank, some lie in the shallows just under the surface, with their two inquiring, very interested eyes poking through the top of the water.

  Damn!

  Looking out on the river, I see something new slipping by. It is a crude raft, maybe fourteen feet square, made up of logs bound together with rope, upon which sits a cabin of sorts, a rude hut, really. Perfect! If I can make it to that raft, I'll make it to New Orleans! I start my journey out on a long, overhanging limb. The eyes look up at me, one of my stranger, more hostile audiences, I reflect.

  I run to the end of the limb, to the place where the branch will no more support my weight, and I leap off.

  I hit the sandbar running, and I hear the monsters behind me bellowing and lunging out of the water and comin' after me, and Lord, help me!

  I get to the end of the sandbar and dive in, arms and legs churnin' for all I'm worth, and I pull for the raft, which is slippin' on down the river, and I hope nothin' comes up from the horrid depths below and grabs one o' me legs and drags me down. Oh please, please, God, don't let that happen. I'll be good from now on. I promise!

  Nothing grabs me and I am allowed to keep my feet, my legs, my life. Thank you, Lord, oh thank you! and I clamber aboard the raft.

  I take more than several deep breaths and then look around me. The cabin is such that it could barely keep off even a light rain, and it contains only a pile of rags for bedding, but it sure looks like home to me. There are long poles laid out on the deck and I take one up to keep us off the shore, and I realize that this is how it will be from now on....

  I will float and pole myself down to the city of New Orleans, and, if all goes well, as it very seldom does, I will be there tomorrow.

  Chapter 68

  I keep hoping that my friends on the Belle are all right after yesterday's blow. They must be safe, I pray, 'cause everyone but me got down below and the tornado only struck us a glancing blow, I'm sure, for if had it hit us full on, I'd be lyin dead somewhere far away.

  I keep telling myself that.

  Yesterday, after I had gotten on the raft, which I promptly named the Deliverance, I tried to think of a way to signal the others that I was all right and heading downriver for New Orleans. I knew that they would be delayed by making repairs, but as soon as they were able, they'd push on, and I didn't want them wasting any time looking for me. What to do? I'd only three things to my name: my shirt, my skirt, and my cutoff drawers. Ha! That's it, I thought, and poled my way over to the shore where I had spotted a likely looking overhanging tree. The sun was up over the horizon and it was now full day.

  I maneuvered under the branch, then reached up under my skirt and pulled off my drawers. Then I hung them by the drawstring so that they'd be spread out to flap in the breeze. Anyone on the Belle would certainly recognize the underpants as being mine, all being quite familiar with their shortened condition, as I had pranced about on board on many an occasion, wearing only them as my lower garment. I know, I know ... I wasn't raised up proper.

  There being a clear open bank of fairly hard sand next to the tree, I hopped over and, keeping a wary eye out for 'gators, scrounged up a long stick and two short ones and laid them on the sand in such a way as to form an arrow pointing downstream. Then I scatched a J in the sand and got back on Deliverance and poled as far out toward the middle as I could, and when the pole could no longer find bottom to push on, I let the current take me.

  There being no one in sight, I shed my shirt and skirt and hung them on the shack to dry. I sat down and leaned my back against the wall of the shady side of that cabin of sorts, and then as the day warmed up, I dozed off. I had, after all, been awake for over twenty-four hours.

  I awake with a start as the raft bumps against something.

  Oh, no! How long was I asleep? Damn! Just like Jacky Faber, Fine Lady, to arrive in New Orleans spread out on a raft, starkers!

  But I see it is only another floating trunk of a tree and there is still no one close around. There are, however, boats in the distance, and if anyone's got a long glass ... I jump up and throw on my now quite dry shirt and skirt. The skirt, being of leather, has shrunk up considerably and stretches tight across my tail and only goes down to mid thigh now. Lord, I must present a sight.

  I scan the horizon and realize it was lucky I awoke when I did, for there, to the southwest, rise the spires of the city of New Orleans.

  I find the bottom again when the raft floats near to the levee, and I pole over to an empty spot on the dock and tie up. It is, indeed, a bustling harbor—barges and flatboats clustered around, bales of cotton piled high on the docks, workmen all over the place, noise and confusion, and the masts of tall ships poking up into the sky.

  Ah, yes, my kind of place!

  I nip into the raft's shack and find the cleanest of the dirty rags and wrap it around my head as a shawl to hide my shorn hair and dart out into the town. I hurry, so that no one can come up and demand of me a dockage fee for my Deliverance.

  Oh, I could have a good time here, I'm thinkin', looking around at the profusion of taverns and bars. There is the smell of good food everywhere and my belly is growling, but I don't even have a pennywhistle to play upon to earn some coin with which to buy the food. Nobody's gonna put a penny in my cup if I just stand on a street corner and sing. I don't even have a cup. Shall I beg? The idea fills me with revulsion. No, never again will I beg. There is another way, and I start asking passersby for information.

  I try, but I don't get the answers I'm looking for. I think maybe I've been asking my questions of people who are a mite bit too respectable looking. Ah, here's two that look like they might be of the sportin' class.

  "Excuse me, Sirs, but might you know of a woman—"

  "Comment?" says one of the men, clearly taken aback by my appearance. Ah, he is French. Well, then...

  "Pardon, messieurs, mais...," and I ask the same question in French.

  They look at each other and smile what they think are secret smiles, but I know what they're smiling at, the dogs.

  "Oui," says the other man. "A la Maison de le Soleil Levant. La
rue Conti," and he points up a street leading into the town. "Là."

  I say, "Merci, Monsieur. Au revoir," then head up Conti Street, wrapping my shawl tighter about my head.

  The street is narrow, as all the streets here seem to be, and long balconies hang overhead, with people sitting on them and laughing and talking back and forth. There seems to be a good deal of gaiety in this town, and I like it.

  I pass Decatur Street, then Chartres, then Royal, and ... there it is, just as he said. There is a sign above the doorway, made of carved wood, showing a semicircle sitting on a horizon, with rays coming out of it, all painted in bright golds and oranges and red.

  It is the sign of the House of the Rising Sun.

  A man in livery stands at the entrance and greets men as they enter. I know that welcoming customers in is not his main duty, though, that being keeping scum like me out. So I lurk and await my chance.

  It comes when a carriage drawn by two fine horses pulls up in front and the doorman goes to it to help the occupants out. He goes down the six or so steps to the street, and I dash up them and through the door.

  It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. I make out a small trim woman standing before me.

  "Please leave," she says. "We don't take on Indian girls here."

  I'm astounded. "Missus Bodeen? How could—"

  "My name is Mrs. Babineau. Mrs. Bodeen is my sister. How do you know of her?"

  "Uh, she got me out of a scrape one time. In Boston." I let the rag slip back from my head, exposing my sandy blond stubble.

  "Hmmm. It is obvious that you are not an Indian, but just what do you want here, child? Employment?"

  "No, Ma'am, but I'm told a friend of mine lives here and I'd really like to see her. Her name's Mam'selle Claudelle de Bourbon, and—"

  "Precious! Dear, dear, Precious!" A burst of vivid yellow comes out of the next room, arms extended. "You've come to see your Mam'selle, just as I knew you someday would. Oh, come here, Precious, and give your auntie a big ol' hug!"

 
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