Mississippi jack, p.45
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       Mississippi Jack, p.45

           L. A. Meyer
 
On the consulate staff was a lawyer expert in military law and it was his opinion that such an impressment was highly improper and that I had nothing to worry about, which relieved me greatly—as did the news that Captain Rutherford had been cashiered from the service for letting Miss Faber escape from custody and was no longer in a position to do me harm. I could continue to pursue my naval career without concern.

  The Consulate graciously accepted my note on my family's bank in London and soon I was dressed again in a proper uniform.

  A ship is leaving for Jamaica in two days, so I shall go there, for English warships are sure to be there, it being a British holding, and I shall try to find a berth. I am anxious to do so as I intend to live a solitary life, taking the ocean as my only mistress. I do not seem to do well on land.

  Again, regards to all my friends and may you all prosper. I remain,

  Yr Humble and Obedient Servant,

  James Fletcher

  Chapter 72

  We get the Belle down to the docks in Chalmette in late afternoon and I leap off as soon as we touch the landing, to search for a shipping agent if such a one exists, and it turns out he does.

  "Yep, the Jefferson Hayes, left coupl'a hours ago, on the outgoin' tide, bound for Kingston. What? Who? Well, let me just check the passenger manifest ... Let's see ... Yep, right there, Lieutenant James Fletcher. He was on her, all right."

  Damn!

  "When's the next ship leave?"

  "For where?"

  "For Kingston, for Chris'sakes! Where the hell do you think I meant!"

  "Now, you mind your manners, little lady, or I'm closing this hatch and you'll be travelin' nowhere."

  The officious fool sits behind a barred window with a small counter in front of him. Grrrrr.

  "I am sorry, Sir. Yes, for Kingston."

  He scratches his head and looks off. "Well, the Jefferson Hayes generally gets back in a fortnight..."

  "Two weeks? Where're all these other ships goin'?" I wave my hand at the forest of masts clustered at the docks.

  "Other places, not to Jamaica."

  I stand there and fume. I can't wait two weeks! I've got to figure some other way, maybe we cou!d ... well, first things first...

  "Is there a ship for Boston?"

  "Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. The Hélène Marie. Leaves tomorrow mornin' ten o'clock."

  Well, that's a relief, anyway. I've been worried about Chloe and Solomon getting nabbed again, down here in the very heart of the slavery world.

  "Good. I'd like to book a party of four—one cabin for a man and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Tanner, and a cabin each for Miss Chloe Cantrell and Mr. Solomon Freeman, both of them persons of color."

  The ticket agent, who had been vigorously writing, puts down his pen.

  "No, girl, these ships don't haul no coal. Mr. Lafitte's orders—only way blacks travel is if they're chained up down in the bilges."

  I'm not believin this!

  I fume some more and then the agent gives a snide little laugh and says, "'Course you could buy a boat. Then you could haul your nigras around wherever you wanted to."

  "Well, what's for sale, then?"

  "Serious?"

  "Yes, of course, I am."

  "Well, wait a second, then."

  He closes the hatch and, in a moment, comes out a side door and commences pointing out boats. "That's the Hiram Johnson, two hundred feet, carries forty ton of cargo, and ... what's your price range, girl?"

  "Maybe a thousand."

  "Ha! You can forget about the Hiram Johnson, that's for sure. 'Bout the only thing we got that's even close to that price and could make an ocean voyage is that one over there, the Amelia Klump."

  He points to a two-masted schooner lying alongside the next wharf over.

  Ohhhhh ... she's pretty!

  "It's a schooner, come down from Boston..."

  I know what she is—she's a Gloucester Schooner! I'd seen others like her up in New England, boats famous for being able to sail with a very small crew. It's said that if you set the sails and tie down the wheel, you could go down to bed, secure in the knowledge that she'll sail all night long in a tight, two-mile circle. Just the thing!

  "...sixty-five feet long, twenty-five feet at the beam..."

  "How much?"

  "Two thousand, and no bickerin'. It's a good price considerin' she's got a full cargo of molasses in her hold, ready to sell to the rum distilleries up north."

  "Why is she for sale?"

  "Owner got drunk up in New Orleans and lost her at a gamblin' table. New owner don't know nothin' about ships and wants his money out fast."

  "How soon could the new owner get here to sign the papers, should I be able to get up the money?"

  "I could get him here in twenty minutes."

  "Good. Let's go aboard. I want to check her timbers."

  ***

  "She's sound, she's beautiful, and I want her. I want her so very, very much. Higgins, an account of our finances, if you would. How much has Faber Shipping, Worldwide got?"

  "Well, Miss," says Higgins, his fingers running over the bills and coin in our strongbox, "it appears that, after paying off your crew, we have about a thousand dollars, American."

  Damn!

  "A thousand short," I say, with a dispirited sigh.

  "It seems so, Miss," says Higgins, "but you are welcome to my share."

  My entire crew, or what is left of it, is gathered at the big table in the main cabin of the Belle. I have explained the situation with Chloe and Solomon and how the Amelia Klump would solve many of our problems, and all think hard on what to do.

  On the way down from New Orleans, Nathaniel Hawkes and his wife, Tupelo Honey, and Matthew and his wife, Honeysuckle Rose, had come up to me with a proposition: that they, in partnership with the Reverend Clawson, would take the Belle of the Golden West, herself, as the greater part of their share of the profits from the voyage, along with the rest of the whiskey and provisions on board. Crow Jane would be an equal partner and stay on as cook. It was their intention to continue to operate her as a tavern, on the New Orleans levee, with the Reverend as greeter and host, the Honeys as bartenders, barmaids, and local color, as it were. The Reverend had opined that there were surely many, many souls that needed saving in the city of New Orleans, and of that there can be no doubt. Plus, there were more bottles of Captain Jack's Elixir to sell. I liked the idea that my Belle would continue as a showboat, as I believe she was born to be, and since she would be of no further use to me and was of little real value down at this end of the river, I agreed.

  It was further agreed that Jim and Clementine would go on to Boston, and Jim would resume his duties at Faber Shipping, Worldwide, while a place for Clementine would surely be found. I had thought to myself that place would be a nice cozy set of rooms, for a baby is certain to be in the offing.

  Solomon and Chloe would also go to Boston.

  Chloe explained, "Were I to go back to New York, I would fall under the protection of my grandparents, and I am sure, though I know that they love me, I would find it unbearably suffocating. No, it's Boston for me, as I have played the risky game for far too long to fall back into propriety."

  I had assured her that, with her talents, we would certainly find her gainful employment, if not at the New England Abolitionist Society, then at least as a harpsichord instructor at the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls.

  Solomon, for his part, said, "I will go to Boston and I will enjoy being a free man for the first time in my life. I will hold my head high and I will sing and I will pull traps with Jim Tanner to earn my keep and I will take upon myself some wealth and some education, and when I have done all of those things, then we will see about Miss Chloe Abyssinia Cantrell. Ha!"

  I would write out a letter of introduction for him to Messrs. Fennel and Bean, as they would certainly find the talented Mr. Freeman quite useful in their productions.

  Daniel Prescott would go to Boston, as well. He would be ship's boy to
Jim Tanner, which I thought he would like.

  ***

  Nathaniel looks at Matthew, then they both look at their brides. All nod in silent agreement. "You can have the Belle back, Skipper. We don't mind, if'n it'll help out."

  "My share, too," says Reverend Clawson. "There's always another collection plate out there."

  "And mine, too," says Chloe, echoing Solomon's pledge a moment before. "As well as the money Father left me when he died."

  My eyes mist up as I hear these words from my loyal crew, but my cold mind does the arithmetic—it is still not nearly enough.

  "We could pull the little-slave-girl-who-knows-how-torun scam one more time," says Chloe, pulling out the ring of lock picks that she still wears tucked in her bosom.

  "No, no, not that, ever again, Chloe. That might work up in the woods, but not down here where they know how to chain up a person real tight," says I, rising and pulling my black-haired wig on again. "No, there is only one thing to do. Jim, will you get the Evening Star ready to carry me back up to New Orleans?"

  "What do you mean to do, Miss?" asks Higgins.

  "I'm going back to the House of the Rising Sun. I will get that money; I will have that boat."

  "Surely, you don't mean to..."

  I laugh. "Come on, Higgins, surely you couldn't think that? I mean, who's gonna pay a thousand dollars for one night with my scrawny self?"

  "Forgive me, Miss, but I have noticed in the past that there have been some who have expressed strong interest in that very commodity."

  "Well, that ain't it this time, Higgins." I rise from my chair. "Will you get my seabag, as I need some things from it? And Chloe, if I could borrow your lock picks, please?"

  Preparations are made and Jim and I are into the Star and off into the warm Louisiana night.

  "Mademoiselle de Bourbon," says Herbert, upon recognizing me running up the steps of the Rising Sun, "everyone was missing you and wondering..."

  "It's a long story, Herbert," I say, puffing from my dash up from the dock where Jim had left me off. "Just let me in, all right?"

  "Oui, mademoiselle. We are glad to see you back."

  I enter, catch a glare from Missus Babineau for my lateness, go to my spot, and pick up my guitar. Once again I launch into "Plaisir d'amour," and when I am finished, I get the nod from the madam, and I go into the gaming room and take my seat at the blackjack table, and again I pick up the deck.

  "Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs. Je m'appelle Mademoiselle Tondalayo de Bourbon. Place your bets, s'il vous plaît..."

  And I deal the whole night long, and while I am doing it, I never cease to watch the big table, where the serious gamblers play at poker, dealer's choice. I watch what they do, what they say, how much is bet, and what games are played.

  Oh, yes, I watch.

  "Precious, where you been?" asks an anxious Mam'selle Claudelle when I slip back into her room when the night is done. "I was so worried about you. Did you have somethin' to do with all that shootin' down at the docks today?"

  "Yes, Mam'selle, there was a bit of trouble..."

  "Well now, you just tell your dear sister Claudelle all about it as we prepare for bed."

  Later, long after Mam'selle has fallen asleep, I slide out of bed and put on a nightdress and slip out of the room, for I have some business to attend to in the now silent House of the Rising Sun. In the morning I shall sleep late and spend the day resting, as I'll need to be sharp tomorrow night, very sharp.

  Chapter 73

  Tonight I wear a different wig, a reddish-blond one, and I don my filmy veil. I do my musical set and when I get the nod, I go into the gaming room and take my place at the blackjack table and begin to deal.

  "Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen," I say. "My name is Mademoiselle Tondalayo de Bourbon and the game is blackjack. Your cards then ... There we are. A hit, Sir? A nine. Another? No? Then you, Mademoiselle..."

  It is around eleven o'clock when I see Jean and Pierre Lafitte enter and take chairs at the poker table. I notice that both men have little red speckles on their faces, and on the backs of their hands, too.

  Hmmmm. I hadn't counted on this ... but it shouldn't really matter.

  At midnight there are five men at the poker table, and at twelve thirty, two of them get up to leave and I know it is time to make my move.

  I signal a girl named Marie and she comes over to take my place at the blackjack table, as we had previously arranged. I walk over to the poker table and the three men glance up at me. The one man I do not know has gathered up the cards in order to shuffle them and deal out the next game. I put my hand in the purse that hangs by my side and pull out the entire assets of Faber Shipping, Worldwide and put it on the table.

  "May I join you, gentlemen?"

  "But, of course, Mademoiselle," says that man, rising to pull out my chair and trying not to look too greedily at my money. "Are you playing for yourself or for the house?"

  "For myself, Sir," I say, placing that self in the offered chair. I reach up and take off the veil.

  The Lafittes also begin to rise as a courtesy to a lady being seated, but Jean, upon seeing my uncovered face, abruptly sits back down.

  "So it's you again," he says, recovering from the shock of seeing me there and smiling. "Good."

  He leans back in his chair and whispers something to a man standing behind him, who nods and leaves the room—his bodyguard, no doubt, sent out to set up a watch on the front door, to nab me whenever I leave.

  The other gent passes me the deck of cards. "It is dealer's choice, Miss, and it's your deal."

  "Thank you, Sir," says I, taking the cards and giving them a purposely not-very-expert shuffle. "The game will be five-card draw, nothing wild, three-card limit on the draw. Shall we ante up, gentlemen?"

  It is now two in the morning and we are playing the last hand. The other gent has long since left, broke and unhappy, leaving only the Lafittes and me. The pot is huge, probably the biggest one of the night, and the game is fivecard stud, one card dealt down to each of us, and then in succession, four cards up, with betting after each round.

  I am the dealer and all the cards have been dealt. Jean Lafitte has a pair of kings, a ten, and a deuce showing. Pierre Lafitte folded in disgust after seeing the second king appear. I have a pair of fours, a jack, and an ace up.

  "One hundred dollars is the bet," says Jean Lafitte, looking me square in the eye and shoving in his money.

  "Very well, Monsieur, I will see you the hundred dollars and call."

  He turns over his hole card. It is a ten of diamonds. "Two pair, kings and tens," he says.

  I turn over my hole card. It is the ace of spades. "Two pair, aces over fours. I'm afraid I win, Sir...," I say and rake in the sweet pot. "And I'm afraid I must say good night. I must also say that it's been a most enjoyable evening." I stuff the money into my purse and rise.

  The two Lafittes do not give me the courtesy of getting up as I do.

  "Congratulations on your winnings," says Jean, "but I cannot see what possible good it will do you. You have surmised, of course, that I have armed men stationed at the door to take you when you leave?"

  "Do what you will, Jean Lafitte," I say coldly. "Others may think you a bold buccaneer, but I know you for nothing but a filthy slaver, and I wish only the worse for you."

  "We shall see who comes out the worse in this encounter, Jacky Faber," he says as he and his brother finally rise. "You see, we have the back door covered, as well..."

  I let my face fall a bit at this.

  "...and the alleyways all about. And, if you think to stay inside the Rising Sun indefinitely, then think again, you perfidious little bandit, for tomorrow morning I shall go see a magistrate who owes me a great many favors. He will issue a warrant for your arrest on a charge of slave-stealing, and the police will come in here to nab you and hand you over to me. Ah, I see by your face you do not like the sound of that."

  Smirking, he and Pierre take their hats from the rack, put t
hem on, and head for the door.

  "Au revoir, ma petite salope," Jean Lafitte says with a mock bow. "I go now to my bed, a bed you will shortly find very familiar, if not all that restful. I look forward to the occasion." And the Lafittes leave.

  It is closing time, so I help the others put away the gear in the gaming room and then go up to Mam'selle's room.

  "So did it work, Precious?" she asks upon seeing me.

  "Like a charm, Mam'selle. Unbutton me, if you would."

  I pull off the wig and toss it onto the bed, as I feel Mam'selle's fingers working the buttons on the back of my dress.

  "Oh, Precious, I'm gonna hate to see you go! You are always such fun to have around."

  The dress is unbuttoned and I slip out of it, making sure Chloe's ring of lock picks still hangs about my neck.

  "Oh, Lord, look at you standin' there like that! I'm really gonna miss you, child. You sure can put Mam'selle's heart all aflutter."

  "You've seen how I always seem to pop back up like that bad penny, Sister Claudelle. Maybe someday you'll do another Boston tour and we'll meet again. You know you'll always be in my heart and in my fondest thoughts."

  I take the money from the purse and pack it into my money belt, which I cinch tightly around my waist. Then I pull on my burglar's rig, which has been laid out across the bed—first the tight black trousers, then the black jersey, then the black skintight gloves.

  I go over to the open window, ready to go out.

  "Give us a last kiss, Precious, please."

  "Will you thank the rest of the girls for their help, and Missus Babineau, too?"

  "Yes, dear child, I will."

  "Good-bye, Mam'selle," I say, and plant a kiss on her forehead.

  "On the lips, Precious, for this is good-bye," she says, and I pucker up and do it. Then I pull on my black hood and climb up onto the windowsill and look out into the alleyway, two stories below. There is a man down there, but he is facing the other way. Time to go.

 

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