Mississippi jack, p.6
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       Mississippi Jack, p.6

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "He's pretty good," says Katy, plainly familiar with such revival meetings. "I ain't seen him before, but he's good. He's got 'em goin'."

  "Let's rest here," I say, dismounting by throwing my leg over the horse's neck, Katy being behind me. We all slide off and go to sit in the shade of a tree to watch.

  The preacher has slipped from his harangue into a hymn, and the crowd picks up on it with fervor.

  Oh come, Angel Band,

  Come and around me stand,

  Bear me away on your Silver Wings

  To my Eternal Home.

  I'm surprised to hear the normally quiet Katy humming along with the tune as it goes into the next verse.

  I'm going there to meet my mother,

  She'll meet me on the way,

  To take me up on Silver Wings,

  To my Eternal Home.

  They go back to the first verse and then do the second one, except they substitute "father" for "mother." And so on, through "brother" and "sister." I'm surprised that they don't go all the way through "friend," or "nephew" or "cousin" or even "mother-in-law," but they don't. They eventually bring it to a halt, and the preacher is right on top of them with more preachin,' and I see the collection plates goin' out. Aha!

  Every fiber of my being wants to be down there working that crowd with any of at least ten scams that I know, but instead I say, "Let's head off. Night's comin' on."

  We leave and press onward, but I am glad we stopped. I learned a lot from that man.

  Another mean tavern tonight, but we are grateful for what comfort it offers. Horses are put up, dinner is downed, and so to bed.

  Good night, Jaimy. I hope and pray that all is well with you.

  Chapter 8

  Good-bye forever, Jacky,

  No, I will not catch up with you on this day, nor the next, nor the one after. I will never catch up with you, because I am a fool. This will be my last spiritual message to you, as I will be dead very shortly.

  No, I am not writing this down on paper, as I have none. I have no paper and no hope. In fact, I have very little sense left to me. No, I am composing this in what is left of my mind, in order to preserve what scraps of consciousness and sanity I may have left in this world before I depart for another.

  I try to rise to my knees but am unable to do so, since one of them clubs me back down. I am dimly aware that my clothing is being stripped from me, but I cannot stop them. I swim in and out of consciousness, but in one moment of clarity I hear "Someone's coming. Finish him off."

  I sense one of them straddling me and I hear the cocking of a pistol's hammer.

  Good-bye, Jacky. You are the very best of girls and I wish you the best of lives, I'm sorry, I—

  I hear the explosion of the pistol and feel a deep burning in my head and then I know ... nothing.

  PART II

  Chapter 9

  And so we traveled across this American landscape—climbing up mountains and down into lush valleys, fording streams that we were told flowed into the Allegheny, fighting off the fearsome mosquitoes—on roads that grew ever narrower and rougher. The towns became villages, then hamlets, then clusters of forlorn buildings at crosses in the road. The inns petered out and lodgings became what we could find in the common dwellings of the people, those who would take us in and feed and shelter us in exchange for what we could give. We paid in kind, what money we could spare, but we were getting out to places where money was less common than barter, so I bartered some musical entertainment on my part, playing fiddle, pennywhistle, and concertina, with funny songs and storytelling for the kids. "Froggy Went a-Courtin'" was always a hit. There were many warm evenings spent around a family's table in a simple but friendly home.

  I also did miniature portrait paintings—stern chin-whiskered fathers, more gentle mothers, rambunctious kids, young lovers—I did them all, and all pronounced themselves satisfied with my skill. And yes, I did some mourning portraits, too, those of young children who had died and who were dressed up in their best clothes so that I could come with my paints and ivory disks to paint them, so that the grieving parents would have something to remember their beloved child by, after they put them in the ground. It seemed the children, so perfect and quiet, were merely sleeping, but I knew they were not. Most often it was the poor young mother who had to comfort me, rather than the other way around, so as to get me in shape to do the work. It was sad, but I always got it done. Once, we lost a day's travel when I was begged to visit a house in a small village, far up a side road, to paint the portrait of a bride who had died the night before her wedding. She was laid out in her bridal gown and turned slightly to the side in her coffin so as to look more natural for me to paint. I, of course, was shattered, but managed to paint the portrait for the sake of the bridegroom, who sat by her side the whole time I painted.

  So we paid our way west as best we could.

  The stores began to get farther and farther between as well, so we got what we could get when we could get it. We bought a tent and blankets. We loaded up on powder, balls, and caps. We bought a small-bore rifle, a German-made carbine, for Jim, of which he is most proud. He has practiced and become quite accurate with it. Katy was offered a similar one but declined, preferring her simple bow, which had proved so deadly on the Bloodhound. She, however, did accept a gift of a fine knife. Upon seeing me disrobe that first night, and spying my leather arm sheath that held my shiv under my sleeve, there for ready use, she opined that it was a fine thing, and so we also bought some leather and an awl and some waxed cord, and soon she had a rig similar to mine under her own sleeve. She has used the knife to begin fashioning more arrows for her newly made leather quiver.

  As we crossed into Pennsylvania, with night coming on, we pitched the tent and made camp. Higgins, bless him, has grown very proficient in setting up the damned thing, which fought us every step of the way when we first tried to set it up in a pouring rain.

  Jim's rifle brought us two brace of fat squirrels, and we skinned and roasted them over an open campfire. We ate them with some bread we had left over from our last stay at a farmhouse, and it was good. Could have done with a spot of wine, though. Now, girl, come on. You've gotten too soft with all that high living on the Bloodhound, it seems. Toughen up, now.

  Higgins has adapted to this rough life in fine form, managing to make a meal of roasted squirrel seem like something served in the finest houses.

  Tomorrow we will get to the vicinity of Katy's farm and we will have to see how things work out there. Killing her uncle and all. We'll see.

  When it came time for sleep, all of us crawled into the tent and got under the blankets. Higgins tried to keep order, but in the morning, Jim Tanner somehow ended up with his nose in my neck hair and his arm about my waist.

  I don't mind, though. I hate sleeping alone.

  Chapter 10

  James Fletcher, Idiot & Fool

  Naked & facedown in the dirt

  Somewhere in the American Wilderness

  My Dearest Jacky,

  It is well said that we sailors have no business on land, as we are easy prey to the designs of landsmen, curse them all to Hell, and I am afraid I proved myself easier prey than you—despite your diminutive size and gentle nature—ever did.

  I do not remember much about that day, but I do remember setting out—full of hope, in anticipation of our imminent reunion—with Mr. McCoy and Mr. Beatty, who represented themselves as honest merchants dealing in dry goods and notions, and who turned out to be dealing in something else entirely.

  As we rode along, I talked freely and ardently about you and your party up ahead, and they jollied me along, getting all the information they could out of me, assuring me that we should come upon you at any moment. After we traveled some miles through the forest, we stopped by a clear stream to water our horses and refresh ourselves. As I knelt by the stream to cup some water to drink, I felt a shadow fall upon me, and then that's all I clearly sensed for a long, long time. I know now that either McC
oy or Beatty had come up behind me and brought a bludgeon down on the back of my head.

  I fell face-first into the stream, instantly and totally senseless. I suspect that the shock of the cold water brought me partially back to my senses, for at least I could tell that my clothes were being stripped from me, although I could not prevent it. I tried to rise to my knees but was unable to do so, as one of them clubbed me back down.

  I was rolled over, I suppose to make it easier for them to remove my boots and trousers, then rolled facedown again such that my face was in the mud.

  It was not long after that I sensed they took alarm from a sound in the brush and quickly gathered the horses to make their escape. Then I heard those chilling words "Someone's coming. Finish him off" and the report of the pistol above my head. Then nothing but darkness.

  I came back into this world, with the taste of mud and leaves and dirt in my mouth and, strangely, the feel of a cool cloth pressed against my face. My eyes opened and tried to focus and... the pain, oh, the pain! My head felt as though it would explode. When the blows had been dealt, they felt nothing like this. Then it was more like pure shock rather than pure pain, but this, oh, God, the pain! I groaned and twisted with the throb in my head and I heard someone say, "Now, now, boy, lie back. Easy now. They're gone, don't worry. You'll be all right, you'll see. Easy, now. Roll over on your back. That's it."

  I managed to crack open an eyelid to peer at the one who knelt above me. "What ... who...?"

  The face of a girl swam into my vision. She had straight corn-colored hair and a very freckled face. The cool cloth that wiped the blood from my face turned out to be the wet hem of her simple shift, held in her right hand. Then there was quiet. She must have gone back to the stream to rinse the mess from her skirt, and then she came back and sat down next to me.

  She ran her fingers lightly over my bare chest and said, "My name is Clementine Jukes, and you are one very pretty boy."

  Chapter 11

  "We're in Armstrong County now," says Katy, sounding a little worried there behind me. "We're gettin' close to the river."

  "Don't worry, Katy," I say, patting her knee. "We'll take it slow."

  We have, in the past days, crossed some seriously high mountains, and while the views were breathtaking and the weather generally good, I am glad we are getting close to the water. We grow ever more weary of riding, of bedding down in strange houses or in the tent by the wayside, of trying to find grain for the horses, of this whole landlocked journey. Oh, how I yearn for some open water, some far vistas where not everything is trees, trees, and more trees. I am sick of green and yearn for blue. I want a proper bath. Note to self: Stop whining. Still, it's the truth.

  I'm beginning to wonder if this idea of mine was a good one—this country is just so damned huge.

  We are down from the last mountain and have come into a river valley. The forest finally begins to thin out and farmland reappears. I can sense the usually unshakable Katy growing more and more nervous. I guess she's wondering what she's gonna do when she gets to her old place. I think I know what she's thinking: Will he still be there? Will he try to come at me to dirty on me ag'in? Did he tell the folks hereabouts that I'd whacked him in the head with a shovel and then run away, leaving him out cold in the dirt?

  Katy has kept her bow strung this day, and the new leather quiver that hangs on her back contains an even dozen good, straight arrows. These arrows, unlike the ones she fashioned on the Bloodhound, have well-shaped flint arrowheads, the edges of which are sharp as razors. Not that the ones she had made on that vile slaver were not deadly, oh, no. They proved quite deadly, as many, many rats, including those human rats Bo'sun Chubbuck and First Mate Dunphy, found out to their infinite sorrow. No, it's just that on the ship, she had to make do with nails for arrowheads and split wooden battens for the shafts. And I don't think we could have done without her, no, I don't.

  The road takes a turn and I spy a girl coming across a field, leading a lowing cow. It looks like she means to lead it back to the barn, the top of which we can see over the next small hill. Katy spies the girl, too.

  "Hold up here," she says. We do and she calls out, "Gert! Gertrude Mueller!"

  The girl's head jerks around and she looks like she's about to fly away in fear.

  I feel Katy slip off the horse, behind me. She walks over to the edge of the field and stands there, straight. "Wait, Gertie. It's me, Katy Deere."

  The girl stops, then leads the cow over in our direction.

  "Katy Deere," says the girl, wide-eyed, when she is close enough. But not too close, I notice. There are the other three strangers on these horses, and I do not blame her for being careful.

  "Where you been, Katy?"

  "'Round the world and back again, I reckon," says Katy.

  "Huh!" says Gertie.

  "Our old place. Our farm. My uncle. He still there?"

  "Sorry, Katy, t' tell you, but he's dead and laid in the grave."

  "Huh! How'd he die?"

  "Took some infection from a cut on the back o' his head, near as folks could tell when they found him. He was lying there dead fer a good long spell."

  "How'd he git the cut on the back of his head?"

  "Dunno. He warn't around no more t' tell it."

  "Anybody there now?"

  "Don't think so."

  "What about me?"

  "Ever'one thought some Injuns come and took ya."

  "Huh!"

  "What you gonna do, Katy?"

  "Go on up t' our farm, I reckon. These here are my friends."

  Gertrude Mueller looks at us as if we were creatures from another world, us bristling with pistols and rifles and strange clothing and all.

  "Uh-huh," she says doubtfully.

  Katy comes back and swings up behind me again. "Good seein' you, Gertie. Give my respects t' yer ma and pa."

  "I will, Katy."

  And with that, we are off again at a slow walk.

  I sense a much more relaxed Katy Deere behind me now.

  "Looks like you already killed him," says I.

  "Uh-huh ... Glad of it, too," says Katy.

  "Where away, Katy?" I ask.

  "Up ahead, there'll be a fork to the right. Take it."

  And we do.

  We dismount and lead the horses through the last half mile to the place that was all the home that Katy Deere ever knew.

  We come at last to a crude gate and Katy goes up and throws back the bar and we go through into the farmyard.

  "Hard t' believe it's only been a year. Not even that," says Katy, all quiet, looking around at how overgrown with weeds the place has become. "Poor Mama, she was always so particular 'bout how her front yard looked. In case anyone should come visit and all." She leans down and picks up a small branch that had fallen from the tree that looms overhead, then she tosses it into the bushes. "Don't mean nuthin' now, that's fer sure."

  Higgins and Jim and I know to be real silent now as Katy walks across the yard. It's strange to see her dressed in the uniform of a Lawson Peabody serving girl out here on the frontier: white blouse and black vest and black skirt and stockings and all. Certainly ain't the way they dress around here. Around here, seems like most of the girls' clothes are made from feed sacks. But who am I, child of the London slum streets, to say nay to that?

  There's a house, sort of, made of rough planks that look like they've been split off of rough logs with wedge and ax, the bark still clinging to the edges. There is mud and clay crammed into the spaces between. There are two wooden steps up to a door. The roof is made of rough shakes, like shingles split off a short log.

  There's a barn, with a door barely hanging on its leather hinges, and Jim goes to take the horses there, as we know we will spend the night here, but Katy says, "Let 'em graze out here for a while, Jim, as they ain't gonna find no hay nor oats in there now, that's fer sure."

  Jim nods, then takes the packs and the saddles off the horses. He puts a rope hobble around each horse's front a
nkles so's they can't run off, but the horses don't seem to mind. No, they heave great horsey sighs of relief at having us off their poor backs and they settle into pulling at and chewing the abundant grasses.

  Katy doesn't go right into the house. No, instead she walks over to the side of the yard, her arms crossed on her chest. She stops and stares down and I walk over next to her. I see that she is gazing down at three graves. There's a wooden slab at the head of each, but there ain't no writing on them. I don't say anything.

  "That's Father over there, 'cause he went first. Then Mama. Then him." Saying that she kicks over her uncle's marker and sends it flying into the weeds. "I wisht I could dig him up and feed what's left of him to the pigs. But I guess there ain't no good in that."

  She turns and goes back toward the house. "Just don't like the idea of him layin' close to Mama and Father, is all." She goes up the few steps and pushes the door open all the way. She goes in and I follow. Jim starts to come with us, but I see Higgins's gentle restraint on his arm and he stops, and they both remain outside. Though Katy shows not the slightest bit of emotion, Higgins knows that this is hard on her.

  She walks through the front room, a simple room with a table and some chairs made from black birch saplings. It looks like small animals have been here—and maybe some large animals as well, because there seems to be nothing of value left in the place. There is a cloth strung across a doorway, and she pulls it to the side and looks in. I see that it is a small room with only enough space for a bed, a bed that still has its mattress.

  "I was born in that bed. My father died in that bed. My mama died in that bed..."

  "And you and I shall sleep in that same bed tonight, Katy Deere, and take comfort in each other's presence," says I, grabbing her by her shoulders and turning her around to face me. "What do you mean to do here, Katy?"

 
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