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Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens
By Johnny D. Boggs
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAfter the hay bales had been covered with heavy tarpaulins and supper was served, activity on the deck died down, but all during the night crewmen constantly came for the firewood stacked underneath and beside the bow staircase. So Bobby Randow had moved his bedding - which consisted of his grip and hat - behind the port wheelhouse where the rhythmic splashing of the wheels lulled him to sleep.
He woke up at sunrise, tossed his coat aside and stretched before standing, but a pinching pain in his right calf sent him to the deck with a grimace. He cursed softly, noticing the bulge while remembering he had shoved the .44 revolver inside the boot top. A voice rolled through his memories: That's an old Dance you had, Bobby. Texas-made during the war, more likely to blow off your hand than kill a rat. Leave it. He couldn't remember who had said it, or why. Or why he still had the weapon, concealed. He pulled up his trousers leg, withdrew the revolver, and checked the copper percussion caps, placed on all six nipples.
"It's a wonder I haven't blowed off my foot," he said softly, and started to remove one of the caps, but stopped, leaving the gun fully loaded. He didn't return it to his boot, though, reasoning that walking with a two-and-a-half-pound chunk of case-hardened iron, brass and walnut jammed against his ankle and calf would leave him crippled. Instead, he opened his luggage, but decided against that as well.
Finally, Randow shoved the Dance in his back waistband and pulled on his frock coat he had removed during the night to use as a blanket. He brushed off his crumpled new hat, popped out the crown, and pulled it down low on his head. The stiff wind whipping off the dark river was cold this morning, carrying the aroma of coffee boiling from the ship's galley.
Yet he didn't feel hungry or thirsty, despite having skipped supper last night. He picked up his grip and walked to the bow, careful not to wake the still-sleeping passengers, and sat on the covered hay bales to watch the sun rise. A strange-looking steamboat churned its way toward the ... What was the name of this boat? Mittie Stephens, yes, that's it ... and Randow stared at it. One of those double-hulled snagboats, he determined, that the late Captain Henry Miller Shreve had designed to help clear the Great Raft on the Red River. What it was doing on the Mississippi, steaming south toward New Orleans, Randow couldn't figure out.
At least he knew it was a snagboat, even knew its inventor, and the name Shreve reminded Randow of his destination: Shreveport, to see his mother, to see if she knew anything that could help him understand his memory loss. He slid off the canvas-covered bale and onto the deck, resting his back against the hay, and fishing inside his grip for ... anything.
He pulled out a new deck of Lawrence and Cohen cards, a pair of one-cent proprietary tax stamps still on the unbroken cover, with a cancellation date of January 12, 1869. The date meant nothing to him, but the cards reminded him of how he relaxed. If this condition was brought on by distress, as he seemed to recall someone had told him, maybe if he relaxed it would go away, and he'd remember everything clearly. He opened the deck and began shuffling the stiff cards. Randow had never learned how to play solitaire - that had given the card-playing boys of the 9th Texas plenty of chances to abuse him during the war - so he dealt five-card stud to two imaginary players and himself.
King of diamonds up for the first player, six of diamonds for the second and eight of spades for Monsieur Randow. He checked his hole card, ace of clubs, and dealt again. Seven of hearts, ten of spades and, for himself, ace of spades.
My luck's still good.
Eight of clubs, five of diamonds, two of diamonds.
No help for anyone. Good chance I'll win this hand.
Ace of hearts, queen of hearts, three of spades. Ace-king would bet. Queen high would probably fold, and Randow, feeling confident the ace-king would not have that fourth ace would raise. Ace-king would call or fold.
Randow turned over the cards. Three of clubs for the ace-king, while the queen-high held the fourth ace. Randow gathered up the cards and reshuffled.
He could pass time like this, merely play poker by himself on the deck until the Mittie Stephens reached Shreveport. The snagboat passed, tooting its whistle, which the Mittie Stephens pilot returned in a friendly greeting. Well, not so friendly, for the noise awakened some steerage passengers.
Randow pursed his lips and pushed back his hat. Why play poker with himself? Why not see if this steamboat had a place for gambling? He'd never know if he could play cards for a living with his faulty memory unless he tried. Randow pulled out the roll of greenbacks from his coat pocket and counted his money. He had more than three hundred dollars - and that was after paying the whopping bill at the hotel - Hotel? What hotel? - and buying passage to Shreveport.
"The Saint Louis," he said aloud, remembering the hotel's name. Another image flashed through his mind, and he whispered the name: "Laura Kelley."
He dealt the cards again.
Five of spades, nine of diamonds, six of spades. Randow checked his hole card - two of clubs - and continued to deal. Two of spades, four of spades, four of clubs. Again: queen of spades, three of hearts, nine of spades.
"This stinks," he said, and dealt the final round. King of clubs, five of hearts, two of diamonds. A pair of deuces. He looked at the other hands: King-high's hole card was the four of hearts, while nine-high held the seven of spades. Randow had won again - with a lousy small pair. He chuckled to himself, then felt the men staring at him.
Gathering the cards, Randow looked up at five corncob-rough men. Four wore Confederate infantry trousers, and the fifth man, sporting a bushy black beard and cleaning his fingernails with a giant Arkansas toothpick, grunted something unintelligible.
"Do I know you?" Randow asked. He ground his teeth, hating the sound of that question again, despising the feeling of ignorance it brought on.
"Do you know me?" The man with the big knife laughed. The four others joined in.
"I'm Bobby Randow," he said, and wished he hadn't. He cursed his memory again.
"Uh-huh," one of the old Rebs said. None of them gave a name, and Randow didn't ask. You never asked a man his name. If he wanted to give you one, he would.
"This bucket's got a saloon," Arkansas Toothpick said. "Capt'n even allows a few honest games of chance, Bobby Randow. You believe in games of chance, don't ya?"
With a shrug, Randow opened his grip, gathered his cards and shoved them inside the wrapper. These men weren't interested in cards or gambling. They wanted to kill him, take his money. He'd put the cards in the grip and pull out the Dance.
"I'd be happy to accommodate you," Randow said, as his hand disappeared in his luggage. He felt around. His mouth turned dry. Where did I put that revolver?
He felt the gun pressing against the small of his back, and remembered, knowing it was too late. Simultaneously, the five men stepped toward him. The big one lowered the knife with a black-toothed grin.
Suddenly, all of them stopped and looked behind Randow.
"You boys head back to your sty and find a bottle of oh-be-joyful. And be joyful."
Cautiously, Randow chanced a glance behind him.
A tall man, pale eyes and black hair, pulled back the gray coat that matched his trousers to reveal a star pinned on the lapel of his black striped vest.
"This your affair, Yank?" the smallest of the Rebels asked.
"Indeed. This is Captain Bobby Randow, my friend. His memory is troubling him. Seems he can't recall what happened recently, and I've been asked to take care of him till he reaches Shreveport."
"His memory?" Arkansas Toothpick asked.
"Bobby," the man said, "I saw you playing poker from the cabin deck. What was your last hand?"
Randow focused on where he had dealt the cards. "I ..." He could answer anything. No one could have known what he had, especially someone looking down from the cabin deck, but he couldn't bluff them now, not after the long pause and dreadful look on his face.
"It's all right," the man said. "Now, do you boys want to go along peaceable?"
"Five against one," the Reb with the waxed brown mustache said.
They weren't counting Randow. He moved his right hand behind his coat.
"Yeah," said another. "I ain't met no Yank I couldn't whup to the nethermost."
The man with the badge and silk hat laughed. "Yank? Boys, I hail from Thoroughfare Gap, Virginia. Rode with Mosby during the war."
"You wear a Yankee badge," Waxed Mustache said with a sneer.
"Yes, and I work for the Yanks. Isn't that right, Sergeant?"
"That's right," said a new voice, and Randow forgot about his Dance and looked to his left, finding a strapping, white-bearded soldier holding a stout piece of firewood in his massive right hand.
"You can start the ball," the Virginian said easily, "or crawl back into your hole."
Arkansas Toothpick pivoted with a snort, and the four others followed him.
"Thank you, Sergeant Sloan," the Virginian said, and held out his hand toward Randow. He stared at it briefly, then understood, and let the man help him up.
"You're ...?" Randow began.
"Hugh Valdez, Bobby. This is Sergeant Nicholas Sloan. We're you're pals."
"I see." Bobby grabbed his grip and stepped around the hay bales.
"I thought you might enjoy some breakfast, Bobby, and I'm sure you won't mind the company of this lovely lass."
Valdez stepped aside and doffed his silk hat. Randow looked up the flight of stairs and quickly recalled his manners, removing the wide-brimmed hat he had bought the other day. The morning sun caught Laura Kelley's hair perfectly, and her face shone as she smiled.
"Miz Kelley," Randow said.
"It's Laura," came her reply.
"I remember," he said. He did, too. Not much else from the past few days could he recollect, but he knew her, and wasn't likely to forget her.
Excerpted from Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens by Johnny D. Boggs Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing . Excerpted by permission.
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