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By Andrew J. Fenady
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Andrew J. Fenady
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmerica's rivers carried lifeblood to the nation's heartland.
The great mass of earth between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was being conquered by pilgrims, pioneers, settlers and speculators, by way of water first and then by land.
Villages, towns and cities sprang up primarily along the navigable rivers, and later, the Erie Canal linked the eastern seaboard to the entire Midwest.
The nearby land was developed-homesteaded, farmed and formed into communities that stretched out toward America's Manifest Destiny from coast to coast.
That destiny followed and flowed along the course of the great rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela, the Shenandoah, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Red, the Columbia and finally the Colorado-the primary river of the American Southwest, draining somewhere in the neighborhood of 245,000 square miles of land from the states and territories of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California-with headwaters in Colorado at an altitude of over nine thousand feet-flowing southwest toward the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.
The Colorado was the bloodline to the civilized and savage Southwest. Since 1852 the main traffic alongthe Colorado consisted of steamboats, the first of which appeared in 1852 and scared the hell out of the Indians who thought they had been crafted by some belching white devil. They figured it was an omen of something worse to come-and from their perspective they weren't so very far from wrong. Soon white men and women and children closed in like coyotes over a kill.
The night of the attempted escape from the Arizona Territorial Prison was no different than any other night on the Colorado.
The river traffic moved north and south and across. Part of that traffic consisted of a paddle wheeler, the Colorado Queen, sparkling like a bejeweled tiara and leaving gurgling white foam in its wake.
Aptly named, she was the queen of the Colorado, carrying over sixty tons of goods and over fifty thousand pounds of passengers. Two of those passengers collectively weighed just over one hundred pounds and were leaning along the steamboat's rail-Jedediah, age twelve, and Obadiah, age nine.
Jed was fair-complexioned with corn silk hair parted precisely and combed neatly, blue eyes circled by steel-rimmed glasses. His suit seemed freshly pressed and without a speck of dust on it, his aspect serious.
Obie was darker but with a lighter mien, a mischievous laughing moonface framed by circlets of raven hair. His clothes were rumpled and the seam up his left elbow had come unstitched.
"Over there, Jed!" Obie pressed against the rail and pointed as far as he could stretch toward what he had seen, or thought he had seen. "It just bobbed up again! See it?"
"No, I don't."
Obie climbed onto a rung of the rail and jabbed his finger into the night.
"Out there! Maybe it's a man overboard."
"And maybe it's Moby Dick."
"Jed, I'm telling you-"
"Obadiah! Tell me." A smallish, swarthy man in his mid-forties approached. "But first get off from that railing!"
Jacob Silver stepped closer. He too was neatly attired and barbered, rope thin with a hawkish face adorned by a prominent beak, and he spoke with a slight iambic European rhythm.
"I said get off from that railing!"
Despite Jacob Silver's command, Obie leaned farther out for a better, confirming look.
Jacob grabbed him.
"I mean get off from this side."
Obie now stood with both feet on the deck, but still looked toward the river.
"Uncle Jake, I saw something out there."
"Sure, you see all sorts of things when it's time to go to bed."
"It's not time yet."
"I say it is."
"But, Uncle Jake-"
"No buts. I say it is, so it is. Boys grow sleeping. Don't you want to be big and strong like your Uncle Jake?"
"Uncle Jake, what's a moby dick?"
"What? Who told you such things?"
Obie pointed to Jed.
"Uncle Jake, he never read Melville."
"Neither have I.... Melville, shmelville, it's time to go to bed. Now go. Go!"
Both boys turned and departed amid murmured protests from Obie.
Jacob Silver looked after them and smiled, then started off, but paused for a moment. He glanced out across the river, saw nothing but the river, shrugged and continued.
After the fifth step he stopped, grabbed suddenly at his chest and ducked into a passageway.
As other passengers strolled by, Jacob Silver unbuttoned his jacket and unfastened a safety pin from his inside pocket. He removed a sheaf of bills bound by a rubber band, riffled the currency, put them back inside the pocket, smiled, fastened the safety pin where it had been, then proceeded, whistling and nodding pleasantly at fellow passengers as they walked along the deck of the Colorado Queen.
By far the largest and most ornate room of the Colorado Queen was the salon, which was lighted by several crystal chandeliers that illuminated more than a dozen tables with Douglas chairs, bordered by a long stool-less bar and peopled by contented passengers talking, laughing, drinking, smoking and playing cards. A distinguished gentleman sat at the bench of a baby grand Chickering piano and provided music to talk, laugh, drink, smoke, and play cards by.
Jacob Silver entered the salon, gently patted the slight bulge in the chest area of his jacket, looked around, then headed toward one of the tables where a poker game was in progress.
Of the original five poker players, three were still in the hand. One of those three, a squat, squirrel-faced man, studied the cards he held, took a puff off the stub of cigar stuck in the left side of his mouth and glanced at the pile of money in the center of the table.
"I'm suckin' eggs," he said, and dropped his cards facedown in front of him.
The dealer, a genial fellow with a smile slashed across his face, dressed completely in black except for a blazing white shirt adorned by a black string tie, nodded, smiled even wider and looked across at the remaining player who sat with his back to where Jake Silver now stood.
Jake looked down at the man with a broad back in a well-tailored gray suit topped by a crop of wavy blond hair, whose cards were in front of him facedown on the table.
"Well, mister,"-the genial dealer nodded again-"it all comes down to the three of us. Just you, me ... and the pot."
A spectator next to Jake whispered to the newcomer.
"Stranger, you missed some god almighty poker playin'."
"Is that so?" Jake whispered back.
"Both those boys been holdin' phee-nominal cards all night." He pointed to the dealer. "'Specially that Slade fella."
Slade looked at the cards in his right hand, then at his opponent.
"It'll cost you two hundred to stay."
His opponent said nothing.
"Want to take another look at your cards before you decide?"
The opponent took a heavy gold watch attached to a heavy gold chain from his vest pocket, clicked the lid open and pressed a lever.
Inside the lid was a wedding picture of a big, handsome, wavy-haired young man and a beautiful olive-eyed bride.
The watch played a tune.
The face of the opponent was the same as the bridegroom-older, but still with the same clear blue eyes and handsome features.
He glanced up at Jake, then turned back to the genial dealer.
"Mister Slade, I paid five hundred dollars for this watch in London."
"This ain't London," the genial dealer said, becoming slightly less genial, "and I ain't a pawn shop."
"Wait just a minute!" Jake interrupted. Jacob Silver went through the procedure of unfastening the safety pin, peeling off two hundred dollar bills and placing them in front of the player on the table.
"Here's the two hundred. I'll take that watch."
The player pushed the two hundred dollar bills toward the pot at the center of the table.
A blanket of silence fell across the salon.
The piano player stopped playing.
The people in the room stopped talking, laughing, drinking and even smoking.
"Well, big fella," the genial dealer said, breaking the silence and the suspense, "you just lost the pot and the watch."
He turned over his cards.
"I'm all blue."
Five spades. He started to reach for the money.
"Full up." The opponent turned up his cards.
Three kings, two aces.
The genial gambler was no longer at all genial.
He rose to leave, took a couple of steps, but stopped and grabbed hold of Jake. "Listen, you Jew money lender, why don't you keep your big nose out of other people's business?"
"That again," Jake said.
"Let him go," the winner spoke softly.
"This is between me and him," the loser said, not softly. "I know his kind."
In a swift motion the winner rose, gripped the loser, slammed him against a post and held him pinned there.
"So do I. His name's Jacob Silver. Mine's Isaac Silver. He's my brother."
"I said he's my brother. Now, what were you saying?"
"I ... I ... what I meant ... Well, you don't look-"
"I don't look what?"
"You don't look ... like his brother."
"Look closer. Now do you see the resemblance?"
"Yeah ... sure."
Isaac Silver let go of Slade, who departed straightaway with what was left of his dignity.
The piano player played and the passengers went back to talking, laughing, drinking, smoking and playing cards.
Isaac Silver walked back to the table, where Jake stood stacking money.
"Ike, why do you play cards with bad losers?"
"Beats playing with winners." Ike smiled. "Give me back my watch."
"How much did you win?" Jake also smiled.
"You know I never count while I'm playing."
"Well, we're through playing, so I'll count. Here's the watch. The boys are waiting for you."
Big Ike took the watch, clicked the lid open and pressed a lever.
He listened to the tune and remembered.
Excerpted from Big Ike by Andrew J. Fenady Copyright © 2007 by Andrew J. Fenady. Excerpted by permission.
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