Mississippi jack, p.44
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       Mississippi Jack, p.44

           L. A. Meyer
 

  And yes, I found that all feuds and disagreements among men, gangs, families, or even pirate crews, Lafitte and his bunch included, are left at the door, else they would be denied admittance forevermore, and everyone, everyone, comes to the House of the Rising Sun.

  I discovered, too, that both men and women were welcome at the gaming tables, whether the game be faro, blackjack, dice, or poker, which sets New Orleans off from a lot of towns I know, Boston and London being two.

  And I learned that Mam'selle was as good as her word in regards to sleeping with me—aside from sleeping with her nose pressed up against the back of my neck with her arm thrown across me, she was good. Mostly.

  ***

  I step out of the House of the Rising Sun in late morning and stand blinking in the light of the actual sun, already well risen in the cloudless sky. Mam'selle has several ... uh ... appointments today, so I will strike out on my own.

  "Good morning, Herbert," I say while putting up my parasol.

  "Bonjour, Mademoiselle de Bourbon." He offers his arm and I lay my hand upon it and together we go down the steps, then I am off down Conti Street, intending to check out the docks again to see if the new day has brought me anything in the way of good news of my friends. My picture of Jaimy is rolled up in my hand, too, for I will not give up on that.

  As I walk away from the Rising Sun, I get several glares from ladies dressed more somberly than I, who had plainly seen me come out of the place. "The wages of sin are death, slut!" says one of them, unable to contain herself. I stick my nose higher in the air and walk on. I swear, there are biddies, always biddies, everywhere in this world, who are more concerned with the morals of others than they are with their own.

  A group of nuns approaches me, as I near Royal Street, to tell me they can help me get out of the Life if I would just come with them and let them take care of me, but I say, "Thank you, Sisters, but not just yet," and press on. At least they were nice about it.

  As I cross Royal and see Chartres Street up ahead, I become aware of three men walking behind me.

  Uh-oh ... Am I being followed?

  I speed up my pace, but they stay right behind me. We cross Decatur and then Peters Street and we're about to get out into the open area around the docks, and I'm about to break into a dead run, when, from the last alleyway to the left, step three more men. These men have swords, and they are drawn, and ... What?... and at the front of them is the man who last night tipped me with two coins, saying he wished they were diamonds. Diamonds! Of course, you idiot! It is the Marquis de Mont Blanc, the Frenchman you captured off the coast of France, the one who was fleeing the wrath of Napoléon and who had converted all of his family's wealth into diamonds! Damn! You charged him half his fortune to get him safely to England! Damn, damn, and double damn!

  "I am but a defenseless girl. Why are swords drawn against me?" I ask, the Lawson Peabody Look in place, determined to bluff it out, if I can. The end of this street widens out onto the levee, and I can see the river shining up ahead. If I can make it there, I might yet be safe.

  "You do not recognize me, my dear?" he asks, bowing low. "Why, I was the one who once taught you the song you sang last night, 'Plaisir d'amour,' when I was a guest upon your ship, L'Emeraude. Ah, I see that memory serves you well now. Will your memory also recall that you fleeced me of a fortune in diamonds, rubies, and emeralds?"

  "Ah, the Marquis de Mont Blanc, of course, I remember you, and most fondly, I might add. And I recall you saying, when you last dined with me, that you would make for New Orleans after we reunited you with your family, and here you are. Imagine that." Stupid, stupid, not to remember that, you!

  "It is true you brought me to the bosom of my family, but for that you charged me half the ancestral fortune of the family Mont Blanc. Would not even La Belle Jeune Fille sans Merci find that fee a trifle exorbitant?"

  "You might like to know, Monsieur, that your fine jewels went to build an even finer thing, an orphanage, the London Home for Little Wanderers, where many a woeful waif has found warmth and refuge and much kindness and love," I say, with a full curtsy. "There is even a bronze plaque in the dining room, telling of your generosity. Daily the children sing your praises."

  "You cannot know how that gladdens my heart, Miss Faber," replies the Marquis de Mont Blanc. "But for now, on to other matters. May I present, Mademoiselle, my cousins Jean and Pierre?"

  I gasp as a sword point is put to my throat. I look down the length of the blade and behold the smiling face of Jean Lafitte, who holds the hilt at the other end.

  "Bonjour, ma petite. I see that you have grown some since our last encounter and that is good. The exacting of my revenge is going to be very, very pleasant for me ... But as for you? Ah, well, we will see if you enjoy it as much as others have. You will place your person in that carriage there, yes, and—"

  "She isn't going anywhere, Froggy, 'cept into a ship bound for England and the gallows at Newgate! Now stand back!"

  All heads, including mine, jerk up to see in the alleyway to the right, a group of men holding guns, both rifles and pistols, all cocked and pointed at my captors. Lafitte's men, thinking only to capture a helpless female, did not carry any guns, and must therefore drop the points of their swords.

  "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" exclaims Jean Lafitte, enraged at the intrusion. "Who dares—"

  Flashby? How—

  "I dare, Frenchy," snarls Lieutenant Harry Flashby, his face covered with what must be a thousand insect bites. He is surrounded by a crew of grim-looking thugs. "I have here with me heavily armed agents of the British Embassy in this town, and if you do not wish an international incident, or to have a bullet put in your snail-eating guts, you will stand back and you will stand back now, Mon-soo-wer!"

  Jean Lafitte's sword point does not drop from my throat.

  "Stand back? Stand back?" he cries, ready to thrust the blade into my throat. "I will not stand back, dog of an Englishman! I laugh at your threats! I spit in—"

  "OOOOWEEEE! STAND BACK! STAND BACK! I'M A REAL STRAIGHT-OUT RING-TAILED ROARER AND I GOT'ER NOW, AND I GOT 'ER GOOD, BY GAWD, AND I'M A-GONNA KILL'ER. YESSIR, GONNA SNAP 'ER SKINNY LITTLE NECK, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW! YES, LORD, IT'S JUDGEMENT DAY! OOOOOWEEEEE!"

  All heads, both English and French now, turn to look at the shaggily bearded three-hundred-and-fifty-pound apparition pounding up the levee on tree-trunk-sized legs, hands outstretched and reaching for my neck.

  Good God, it's Fink!

  I look at my options—Lafitte, Flashby, and Fink—and decide on the lesser of three evils.

  I duck under Jean Lafitte's sword point and run to Mike Fink and throw myself upon him, my arms about his thick neck, my face buried in his bushy beard.

  "Oh, Mikey, save me! Those men, they wanna hurt me!"

  "Hurt you? Hell, I'm a-gonna kill you! Hurtin' ain't even in it!"

  "You can kill me later, Mikey, but right now you gotta stop those men, 'cause they wanna deny you the pleasure of killin' me!"

  "They do, do they? Wal, we'll see about that!"

  With me still clinging to his front, Mike Fink picks up a medium-sized anchor from inside a dory that's drawn up on the levee and commences to swing it on its rope, around and around, letting the line play out till the anchor describes a fifteen-foot arc in the air, whistling around and keepin' my would-be captors back and at bay, at least for the moment.

  But it ain't gonna serve! Soon they'll start pepperin Mike with their pistols and he'll go down, no matter what he says about his invincibility! What to do, what—?

  "Jacky! Get down! Now!"

  I pull my face from Mike's bristly beard and look over his shoulder and peer right down the five-inch barrel of the bow gun of the blessed Belle of the Golden West. Jim Tanner stands to the side of it, firing lanyard in hand.

  "Mike! Get down! They're gonna fire! Get down!"

  He jerks his head around and stares at the Belle drawn up to the levee bow first. He lets fly the anchor, which I see with some
satisfaction lands on the foot of Lieutenant Flashby, who grabs his wounded part and hops about, bellowing in pain, and then all three hundred and fifty pounds, more or less, of Mike Fink hits the deck—right on top of me.

  "Oooofff!" I gasp, unable to draw breath.

  Crrrrrack! barks out the bow gun.

  "Omigawd!" scream out the English, clawing at the red-hot chunks of rock salt imbedded in their faces and hands.

  "Mon Dieu! Diable!" echo their fellow victims, the French, similarly afflicted with the painful condition of salt under the skin.

  Mike starts to rise, but I reach up and grab his ears and pull his massive face to mine. "Not yet, Mike! They're gonna fire the other gun next, they'll—"

  Crrrrack! The swivel gun fires and I hear the salt whistling overhead on its way to sting the flesh of any who might have escaped the first blast. There are more screams and now there is the sound of running feet, feet running away.

  "Now, Mike! Now while they're reloading! Let's go, let's get in the boat!"

  Fink jumps to his feet, picks up my gasping self, and runs for the Belle. I peek back over his shoulder as I suck some breaths of air noisily back into my grateful lungs. Most of my would-be nabbers have fled, as well as any amazed bystanders, but I note with some satisfaction that Flashby is on his knees, his hands to his face. The dock area, just lately a hive of activity, is mainly deserted, only some very cautious eyes peeking up over cotton bales are to be seen.

  "OOOOOOWEEEEE! LOOK OUT BELOW! HERE COMES MIKE FINK, KING OF THE RIVER! STAND BACK OR BE SMASHED LIKE THE LITTLE PISSANTS YOU ARE! WOOOOOOEEEEE!"

  And with a leap, the King of the River's mighty boots hit the deck of the Belle of the Golden West.

  "Put me down, Mikey! You can deal with me later!"

  He does it, seeing that the Belle has pulled away from the dock, such that I cannot escape my impending execution by his hand, and I run to the swivel gun, which has been freshly reloaded by Matthew Hawkes.

  "Good to see you again, Skipper," says Matty, handing me the firing lanyard.

  "Oh, Jacky, we were so worried!" cries Clementine Tanner.

  "If I ever see you attired in such a way again," warns John Higgins, "I believe I shall have to terminate my employment."

  I sight across the barrel and what should I see but Lieutenant Flashby clambering to his feet, his hands still to his face, but yet another part of him presenting an excellent target.

  I aim, I dog down the gun, and pull the lanyard.

  Crrrracck!

  I am rewarded with the sight of Lieutenant Harry Flashby shooting straight up, grabbing his buttocks with both hands, and running back down Conti Street, howling.

  Burn me, will you?

  "Jim, take us off into the river! There ain't much law in this city, but what there is of it will want to know why the hell we're bombardin' their town!"

  Jim Tanner pulls on the tiller and we head out into the river, to safety.

  Safety, that is, of sorts. There is still another matter to deal with...

  "OOOOOOWWEEEEE! I THINK ITS RECKONIN' TIME NOW, GIRLY! TIME TO MEET YOUR MAKER! TIME FOR OL MIKE FINK TO SETTLE A SCORE! TIME TO WRING YOUR NECK FOR GOOD AND EVER! OOOOOOWWEEEEE!"

  I go back to the quarterdeck area where the shouting Fink—a colossus of muscle, bone, and hair—is standing. On the way, I shake my head and wink at Higgins, Jim, and the Hawkes boys, and then I kneel in front of Mike Fink.

  "All right, Mike, it's time to do me, but I hope you will be as gentle as you can, so I don't suffer too much. It would be easy for you, since I am but a frail thing and you are so very, very strong." I yank off the wig with its long tumbling ringlets and put on the Full Waif Look, all trembling with big teary eyes. "After all, I've been treated most cruelly on my journey to this place—I have been almost hanged and then tarred and feathered, and the most awful of all, I've lost the respect, admiration, and affection of my own true love."

  I pull the bodice of my red Rising Sun dress down over my shoulders, exposing my neck. I lift my chin and say, "Go ahead and do me, Mike. Wrap your hands about my poor throat and exact your revenge, but first ... first, please, my last prayer."

  He places his hands about my neck and I lift my own hands under his and put them together in an attitude of prayer, and I pray:

  "Lord, please take this poor girl to Your saintly bosom, this girl who really meant no harm to anybody but just tried to make her way in this world as best she could, and sometimes she done wrong, yes, but mostly she tried to do right, at least in the way she saw it. And please take care of my grandpapa and the poor little orphans at the Home for Little Wanderers and find them another benefactor, one who will be more constant than I have been. Amen." I pause here for some sobs and sniffles. "And Reverend ... Clementine ... could you please sing me on my heavenly way with a sacred hymn? It would be a balm to my troubled soul, it would, indeed."

  Reverend Clawson and Clementine Tanner look at each other and immediately raise their voices in song:

  Oh come, Angel Band,

  Come and around me stand,

  Bear me away on your snow-white wings,

  To my eternal ho-o-o-o-ome.

  Mike Fink places his two thumbs on the pit of my throat and grins. "Tarred and feathered, eh? Shore'd like to have been there to see that!" He tightens his grip. "All right, girly, you're goin' home to Jesus..."

  But I don't go there, not just yet. He lowers his head and drops his hands and wails, "I can't do it! I just can't do it! I've killed a thousand men, but I just can't do a cryin' little girl!"

  And I knew you couldn't do it, Mike!

  It is possible that he fell prey to my charms, but it is also possible he sensed the four cocked pistols that were pointed at the back of his head from behind, where he could not see them. I prefer to believe the former.

  I stand and lay my hand upon his shoulder. "I will give you your boat back, Mike. And look what we've done with it! Ain't you pleased?"

  His head looks about and says, "Yeah, sure. You've turned it inta somethin' I can't use. And hell, there's nothin' more useless than a flatboat or a keelboat down at this end of the river—have to hire a crew to git it back on up. Nope, t'ain't worth it."

  "Got whiskey, Mike," I says. "Two full kegs."

  Mike lifts his head and smiles. "Whiskey, hey..." He looks off up the river. "All right, Mike Fink thinks maybe you've suffered enough for your crimes agains' him, what with the tar and featherin' and all, so ... gimme two hundred dollars and that two kegs of whiskey and we'll call it even."

  Done and done!

  We nose the Belle into the bank and Nathaniel hops off to go back up to the levee to get my raft Deliverance, and he poles it down shortly thereafter and the two kegs of whiskey are put on it.

  Mike Fink puts the two hundred dollars into his vest and says, with a sly look on his face, "You think you're smart, girl, but I got two hundred dollars in my shirt and I didn't really own that boat."

  "I had a strong suspicion in my head that you did not, Mr. Fink," says I, "but does it really matter?"

  "No, it don't, girly," says Mike Fink, stepping onto the raft. "But I gotta tell you, I know somethin' you don't know." And an even slyer look comes over his broad face.

  "You're gonna tell me, Mike, that my friend Jaimy Fletcher was in the jail in Pittsburgh with you," I say, with a glance at Clementine. "But I already knew that."

  Mike Fink sticks his pole in the water and starts back upriver, and then he says, "But what you don't know, Miss Know-it-all, is that I saw yer pretty boy Jaimy not two days ago, down in Chalmette, intendin' to take passage for Jamaica. Now, how's that for somethin' you didn't know?"

  Mike Fink roars out, "WEEEEEOOOOOOP! I'M A RINGTAILED WALLOPER AND READY TO DO DAMAGE! LOOK OUT, I'M A-COMIN'! HOLD ME BACK! HOLD ME BACK!"

  And he disappears around a corner of the river and, I think, out of my life forever.

  I, on the other hand, roar out, "All hands to the sweeps! We gotta get down to Chalmette before he ge
ts away again!"

  Chapter 71

  Lt. James Emerson Fletcher

  Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish

  Louisiana Territory

  USA

  1806

  Mr. Ezra Pickering, Esquire

  Union Street

  Boston, Massachusetts

  USA

  My dear Ezra,

  It is my greatest hope that this letter finds you well. Please convey my felicitations to the many friends I made during my last visit to your fine city.

  I have had a long journey down through this country on the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, and though the travel was hard, I do not regret the trip, for I learned much about myself in the process. I do, however, regret to say that the much anticipated joyous reunion with Miss Faber did not take place as planned, for I found to my sorrow that I am no longer in her heart, as it is apparent that she has taken another in that regard. However, you and her other New England friends will be glad to know that when I last laid eyes on Miss Faber, she appeared to be in the pink of health and in extremely high spirits.

  As for my own fortunes, when I finally reached New Orleans, destitute and clad only in rough buckskins, I immediately took myself to the British Consul in that city and was treated most courteously. I told the story of my problem with Captain Rutherford of HMS Juno, and asked the question: Can an officer of the Royal Navy be pressed like a common seaman?

 
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