E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE DEVIL'S OWN
A Romance of the Black Hawk War
Author of "Contraband," "When Wilderness Was King," "Beyond The Frontier," Etc.
With Frontispiece by the Kinneys
[Frontispiece: "Tell me—please," she begged. "Is the man dead?"]
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ————— New York Published by arrangement with A. C. McClurg & Company Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1917 Published October, 1917 Copyrighted in Great Britain Printed in the United States
I At Old Fort Armstrong II On Furlough III History of the Beaucaires IV The End of the Game V Kirby Shows His Hand VI Into the Black Water VII Picking Up the Threads VIII I Decide My Duty IX The Home of Judge Beaucaire X A Girl at Bay XI To Save a "Nigger" XII We Capture a Keel-Boat XIII Seeking the Underground XIV The Dawn of Deeper Interest XV The Cabin of Amos Shrunk XVI The Trail of the Raiders XVII We Face Disaster XVIII The Loss of Rene XIX On Board the Adventurer XX The Story of Elsie dark XXI The Landing at Yellow Banks XXII My Friend, the Deputy Sheriff XXIII A New Job XXIV Kirby and I Meet XXV The Fugitives XXVI The Island in the Swamp XXVII We Choose Our Course XXVIII A Field of Massacre XXIX The Valley of the Bureau XXX We Accept a Refugee XXXI The Valley of the Shadow XXXII The Trail to Ottawa
The Devil's Own
AT OLD FORT ARMSTRONG
It was the early springtime, and my history tells me the year was 1832, although now that seems so far away I almost hesitate to write the date. It appears surprising that through the haze of all those intervening years—intensely active years with me—I should now be able to recall so clearly the scene of that far-off morning of my youth, and depict in memory each minor detail. Yet, as you read on, and realize yourself the stirring events resulting from that idle moment, you may be able to comprehend the deep impression left upon my mind, which no cycle of time could ever erase.
I was barely twenty then, a strong, almost headstrong boy, and the far wilderness was still very new to me, although for two years past I had held army commission and been assigned to duty in frontier forts. Yet never previously had I been stationed at quite so isolated an outpost of civilization as was this combination of rock and log defense erected at the southern extremity of Rock Island, fairly marooned amid the sweep of the great river, with Indian-haunted land stretching for leagues on every side. A mere handful of troops was quartered there, technically two companies of infantry, yet numbering barely enough for one; and this in spite of rumors daily drifting to us that the Sacs and Foxes, with their main village just below, were already becoming restless and warlike, inflamed by the slow approach of white settlers into the valley of the Rock. Indeed, so short was the garrison of officers, that the harassed commander had ventured to retain me for field service, in spite of the fact that I was detailed to staff duty, had borne dispatches up the Mississippi from General Gaines, and expected to return again by the first boat.
The morning was one of deep-blue sky and bright sunshine, the soft spring air vocal with the song of birds. As soon as early drill ended I had left the fort-enclosure, and sought a lonely perch on the great rock above the mouth of the cave. It was a spot I loved. Below, extended a magnificent vista of the river, fully a mile wide from shore to shore, spreading out in a sheet of glittering silver, unbroken in its vast sweep toward the sea except for a few small, willow-studded islands a mile or two away, with here and there the black dot of an Indian canoe gliding across the surface. I had been told of a fight amid those islands in 1814, a desperate savage battle off the mouth of the Rock, and the memory of this was in my mind as my eyes searched those distant shores, silent now in their drapery of fresh green foliage, yet appearing strangely desolate and forlorn, as they merged into the gray tint of distance. Well I realized that they only served to screen savage activity beyond, a covert amid which lurked danger and death; for over there, in the near shadow of the Rock Valley, was where Black Hawk, dissatisfied, revengeful, dwelt with his British band, gathering swiftly about him the younger, fighting warriors of every tribe his influence could reach. He had been at the fort but two days before, a tall, straight, taciturn Indian; no chief by birth, yet a born leader of men, defiant in speech, and insolent of demeanor in spite of the presence also at the council of his people's true representative, the silent, cautious Keokuk.
Even with my small knowledge of such things it was plain enough to be seen there existed deadly hatred between these two, and that Keokuk's desire for peace with the whites alone postponed an outbreak. I knew then but little of the cause. The Indian tongue was strange to me, and the interpreter failed to make clear the under-lying motive, yet I managed to gather that, in spite of treaty, Black Hawk refused to leave his oldtime hunting grounds to the east of the river, and openly threatened war. The commandant trusted Keokuk, with faith that his peaceful counsels would prevail; but when Black Hawk angrily left the chamber and my eyes followed him to his waiting canoe, my mind was convinced that this was not destined to be the end—that only force of arms would ever tame his savage spirit.
This all came back to me in memory as I sat there, searching out that distant shore line, and picturing in imagination the restless Indian camp concealed from view beyond those tree-crowned bluffs. Already tales reached us of encroaching settlers advancing along the valley, and of savage, retaliating raids which could only terminate in armed encounters. Already crops had been destroyed, and isolated cabins fired, the work as yet of prowling, irresponsible bands, yet always traced in their origin to Black Hawk's village. That Keokuk could continue to control his people no longer seemed probable to me, for the Hawk was evidently the stronger character of the two, possessed the larger following, and made no attempt to conceal the depth of his hatred for all things American.
Now to my view all appeared peaceful enough—the silent, deserted shores, the desolate sweep of the broad river, the green-crowned bluffs, the quiet log fort behind me, its stockaded gates wide open, with not even a sentry visible, a flag flapping idly at the summit of a high pole, and down below where I sat a little river steamboat tied to the wharf, a dingy stern-wheeler, with the word "Warrior" painted across the pilot house. My eyes and thoughts turned that way wonderingly. The boat had tied up the previous evening, having just descended from Prairie du Chien, and, it was rumored at that time, intended to depart down river for St. Louis at daybreak. Yet even now I could perceive no sign of departure. There was but the thinnest suggestion of smoke from the single stack, no loading, or unloading, and the few members of the crew visible were idling on the wharf, or grouped upon the forward deck, a nondescript bunch of river boatmen, with an occasional black face among them, their voices reaching me, every sentence punctuated by oaths. Above, either seated on deck stools, or moving restlessly about, peering over the low rail at the shore, were a few passengers, all men roughly dressed—miners from Fevre River likely, with here and there perchance an adventurer from farther above—impatient of delay. I was attracted to but two of any interest. These were standing alone together near the stern, a heavily-built man with white hair and beard, and a younger, rather slender fellow, with clipped, black moustache. Both were unusually well dressed, the latter exceedingly natty and fashionable in attire, rather overly so I thought, while the former wore a long coat, and high white stock. Involuntarily I had placed them in my mind as river gamblers, but was still observing their movements with some curiosity, when Captain Thockmorton crossed the gangplank and began ascending the steep bluff. The path to be followed led directly past where I was sitting, and, recognizing me, he stopped to exchange greetings.
"What! have you finished your day's work already, Lieutenant?" he exclaimed pleasantly. "Mine has only just begun."
"So I observe. It was garrison talk last night that the Warrior was to depart at daylight."
"That was the plan. However, the Wanderer went north during the night," he explained, "and brought mail from below, so we are being held for the return letters. I am going up to the office now."
My eyes returned to the scene below.
"You have some passengers aboard."
"A few; picked up several at the lead mines, besides those aboard from Prairie du Chien. No soldiers this trip, though. They haven't men enough at Fort Crawford to patrol the walls."
"So I'm told; and only the merest handful here. Frankly, Captain, I do not know what they can be thinking about down below, with this Indian uprising threatened. The situation is more serious than they imagine. In my judgment Black Hawk means to fight."
"I fully agree with you," he replied soberly. "But Governor Clark is the only one who senses the situation. However, I learned last night from the commander of the Wanderer that troops were being gathered at Jefferson Barracks. I'll probably get a load of them coming back. What is your regiment, Knox?"
"The Fifth Infantry."
"The Fifth! Then you do not belong here?"
"No; I came up with dispatches, but have not been permitted to return. What troops are at Jefferson—did you learn?"
"Mostly from the First, with two companies of the Sixth, Watson told me; only about four hundred altogether. How many warriors has Black Hawk?"
"No one knows. They say his emissaries are circulating among the Wyandottes and Potawatamies, and that he has received encouragement from the Prophet which makes him bold."
"The Prophet! Oh, you mean Wabokieshiek? I know that old devil, a Winnebago; and if Black Hawk is in his hands he will not listen very long even to White Beaver. General Atkinson passed through here lately; what does he think?"
I shook my head doubtfully.
"No one can tell, Captain; at least none of the officers here seem in his confidence. I have never met him, but I learn this: he trusts the promises of Keokuk, and continues to hold parley. Under his orders a council was held here three days since, which ended in a quarrel between the two chiefs. However, there is a rumor that dispatches have already been sent to Governors Clark and Reynolds suggesting a call for volunteers, yet I cannot vouch for the truth of the tale."
"White Beaver generally keeps his own counsel, yet he knows Indians, and might trust me with his decision, for we are old friends. If you can furnish me with a light, I'll start this pipe of mine going."
I watched the weather-beaten face of the old riverman, as he puffed away in evident satisfaction. I had chanced to meet him only twice before, yet he was a well-known character between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien; rough enough to be sure, from the very nature of his calling, but generous and straightforward.
"Evidently all of your passengers are not miners, Captain," I ventured, for want of something better to say. "Those two standing there at the stern, for instance."
He turned and looked, shading his eyes, the smoking pipe in one hand.
"No," he said, "that big man is Judge Beaucaire, from Missouri. He has a plantation just above St. Louis, an old French grant. He went up with me about a month ago—-my first trip this season—to look after some investment on the Fevre, which I judge hasn't turned out very well, and has been waiting to go back with me. Of course you know the younger one."
"Never saw him before."
"Then you have never traveled much on the lower river. That's Joe Kirby."
"Certainly; you must have heard of him. First time I ever knew of his drifting so far north, as there are not many pickings up here. Have rather suspected he might be laying for Beaucaire, but the two haven't touched a card coming down."
"He is a gambler, then?"
"A thoroughbred; works between St. Louis and New Orleans. I can't just figure out yet what he is doing up here. I asked him flat out, but he only laughed, and he isn't the sort of man you get very friendly with, some say he has Indian blood in him, so I dropped it. He and the Judge seem pretty thick, and they may be playing in their rooms."
"Have you ever told the planter who the other man is?"
"What, me, told him? Well, hardly; I've got troubles enough of my own. Beaucaire is of age, I reckon, and they tell me he is some poker player himself. The chances are he knows Kirby better than I do; besides I've run this river too long to interfere with my passengers. See you again before we leave; am going up now to have a talk with the Major."
My eyes followed as he disappeared within the open gates, a squatty, strongly-built figure, the blue smoke from his pipe circling in a cloud above his head. Then I turned idly to gaze once again down the river, and observe the groups loitering below. I felt but slight interest in the conversation just exchanged, nor did the memory of it abide for long in my mind. I had not been close enough to observe Beaucaire, or glimpse his character, while the presence of a gambler on the boat was no such novelty in those days as to chain my attention. Indeed, these individuals were everywhere, a recognized institution, and, as Thockmorton had intimated, the planter himself was fully conversant with the game, and quite able to protect himself. Assuredly it was none of my affair, and yet a certain curiosity caused me to observe the movements of the two so long as they remained on deck. However, it was but a short while before both retired to the cabin, and then my gaze returned once more to the sullen sweep of water, while my thoughts drifted far away.
A soldier was within a few feet of me, and had spoken, before I was even aware of his approach.
I looked about quickly, recognizing the major's orderly.
"Yes, Sanders, what is it?"
"Major Bliss requests, sir, that you report at his office at once."
"Very well. Is he with Captain Thockmorton?"
"Not at present, sir; the captain has gone to the post-sutler's."
Wondering what might be desired of me, yet with no conception of the reality, I followed after the orderly through the stockade gate, and across the small parade ground toward the more pretentious structure occupied by the officers of the garrison.
A number of soldiers off duty were loitering in front of the barracks, while a small group of officers occupied chairs on the log porch of their quarters, enjoying the warmth of the sun. I greeted these as I passed, conscious that their eyes followed me curiously as I approached the closed door of the commandant's office. The sentry without brought his rifle to a salute, but permitted my passage without challenge. A voice within answered my knock, and I entered, closing the door behind me. The room was familiar—plain, almost shabbily furnished, the walls decorated only by the skins of wild beasts, and holding merely a few rudely constructed chairs and a long pine table. Major Bliss glanced up at my entrance, with deep-set eyes hidden beneath bushy-gray eyebrows, his smooth-shaven face appearing almost youthful in contrast to a wealth of gray hair. A veteran of the old war, and a strict disciplinarian, inclined to be austere, his smile of welcome gave me instantly a distinct feeling of relief.
"How long have you been here at Armstrong, Lieutenant?" he questioned, toying with an official-looking paper in his hands.
"Only about three weeks, sir. I came north on the Enterprise, with dispatches from General Gaines."
"I remember; you belong to the Fifth, and, without orders, I promptly dragooned you into garrison service." His eyes laughed. "Only sorry I cannot hold you any longer."
"I do not understand, sir."
"Yet I presume you have learned that the Wanderer stopped here for an hour last night on its way north to Prairie du Chien?"
"Captain Thockmorton just informed me."
"But you received no mail?"
"No, sir; or, rather, I have not been at the office to inquire. Was there mail for me?"
"That I do not know; only I have received a communication relating to you. It seems you have an application pending for a furlough."
"It is my pleasure to inform you that it has been granted—sixty days, with permission to proceed east. There has been considerable delay evidently in locating you."
A sudden vision arose before me of my mother's face and of the old home among the hills as I took the paper from his extended hands and glanced at the printed and written lines.
"The date is a month ago."
"That need not trouble you, Knox. The furlough begins with this delivery. However, as I shall require your services as far as St. Louis, I shall date its acceptance from the time of your arrival there."
"Which is very kind, sir."
"Not at all. You have proven of considerable assistance here, and I shall part from you with regret. I have letters for Governor Clark of Missouri, and Governor Reynolds of Illinois; also one to General Atkinson at Jefferson Barracks, detailing my views on the present Indian situation. These are confidential, and I hesitate to entrust them to the regular mail service. I had intended sending them down river in charge of a non-commissioned officer, but shall now utilize your services instead—that is, if you are willing to assume their care?"
"Very gladly, of course."
"I thought as much. Each of these is to be delivered in person. Captain Thockmorton informs me that he will be prepared to depart within an hour. You can be ready in that time?"
"In much less. I have little with me but a field kit, sir. It will not require long to pack that."
"Then return here at the first whistle, and the letters will be ready for you. That will be all now."
I turned toward the door, but paused irresolutely. The major was already bent over his task, and writing rapidly.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but as I am still to remain on duty, I presume I must travel in uniform?"
He glanced up, his eyes quizzical, the pen still grasped in his fingers.
"I could never quite understand the eagerness of young officers to get into civilian clothing," he confessed reflectively. "Why, I haven't even had a suit for ten years. However, I can see no necessity for your proclaiming your identity on the trip down. Indeed, it may prove the safer course, and technically I presume you may be considered as on furlough. Travel as you please, Lieutenant, but I suggest it will be well to wear the uniform of your rank when you deliver the letters. Is that all?"
"I think of nothing more."
Fifteen minutes sufficed to gather together all my belongings, and change from blue into gray, and, as I emerged from quarters, the officers of the garrison flocked about me with words of congratulation and innumerable questions. Universal envy of my good fortune was evident, but this assumed no unpleasant form, although much was said to express their belief in my early return.
"Anyway, you are bound to wish you were back," exclaimed Hartley, the senior captain, earnestly. "For we are going to be in the thick of it here in less than a month, unless all signs fail. I was at that last council, and I tell you that Sac devil means to fight."
"You may be certain I shall be back if he does," I answered. "But the Major seems to believe that peace is still possible."
"No one really knows what he believes," insisted Hartley soberly. "Those letters you carry south may contain the truth, but if I was in command here we would never take the chances we do now. Look at those stockade gates standing wide open, and only one sentry posted. Ye gods! who would ever suppose we were just a handful of men in hostile Indian territory." His voice increased in earnestness, his eyes sweeping the group of faces. "I've been on this frontier for fourteen years, and visited in Black Hawk's camp a dozen times. He's a British Indian, and hates everything American. Ask Forsyth."
"The Indian agent?"
"Yes, he knows. He's already written Governor Reynolds, and I saw the letter. His word is that Keokuk is powerless to hold back an explosion; he and the Hawk are open enemies, and with the first advance of settlers along the Rock River Valley this whole border is going to be bathed in blood. And look what we've got to fight it with."
"Thockmorton told me," I explained, "that Atkinson is preparing to send in more troops; he expects to bring a load north with him on his next trip."
"Yes; they are concentrating there."
"How many regulars are there?"
"About four hundred from the First and Sixth regiments."
He laughed scornfully.
"I thought so. That means that Atkinson may send two or three hundred men, half of them recruits, to be scattered between Madison, Armstrong and Crawford. Say we are lucky enough to get a hundred or a hundred and fifty of them stationed here. Why, man, there are five hundred warriors in Black Hawk's camp at this minute, and that is only fifteen miles away. Within ten days he could rally to him Kickapoos, Potawatamies and Winnebagoes in sufficient force to crush us like an eggshell. Why, Gaines ought to be here himself, with a thousand regulars behind him."
"Surely we can defend Armstrong," broke in a confident voice. "The savages would have to attack in canoes."
Hartley turned, and confronted the speaker.
"In canoes!" he exclaimed. "Why, may I ask? With three hundred men here in garrison, how many could we spare to patrol the island? Not a corporal's guard, if we retained enough to prevent an open assault on the fort. On any dark night they could land every warrior unknown to us. The Hawk knows that."
His voice had scarcely ceased when the boat whistle sounded hoarse from the landing below. Grasping my kit I shook hands all around, and left them, hastening across the parade to the office. Ten minutes later I crossed the gangplank, and put foot for the first time on the deck of the Warrior. Evidently the crew had been awaiting my arrival to push off, for instantly the whistle shrieked again, and immediately after the boat began to churn its way out into the river current, with bow pointing down stream. Little groups of officers and enlisted men gathered high up on the rocky headland to watch us getting under way, and I lingered beside the rail, waving to them, as the struggling boat swept down, constantly increasing its speed. Even when the last of those black spots had vanished in the far distance, the flag on the high staff remained clearly outlined against the sky, a symbol of civilization in the midst of that vast savage wilderness. Thockmorton leaned out from the open window of the pilot house and hailed me.
"Put your dunnage in the third cabin, Knox—here, you, Sam, lay hold and help."
It was nothing to boast of, that third cabin, being a mere hole, measuring possibly about four feet by seven, but sufficient for sleeping quarters, and was reasonably clean. It failed, however, in attractiveness sufficient to keep me below, and as soon as I had deposited my bag and indulged in a somewhat captious scrutiny of the bedding, I very willingly returned to the outside and clambered up a steep ladder to the upper deck.
The view from this point was a most attractive one. The little steamer struggled forward through the swift, swirling water, keeping nearly in the center of the broad stream, the white spray flung high by her churning wheel and sparkling like diamonds in the sunshine. Lightly loaded, a mere chip on the mighty current, she seemed to fly like a bird, impelled not only by the force of her engines, but swept irresistibly on by the grasp of the waters. We were already skirting the willow-clad islands, green and dense with foliage to the river's edge; and beyond these could gain tantalizing glimpses of the mouth of the Rock, its waters gleaming like silver between grassy banks. The opposite shore appeared dark and gloomy in comparison, with great rock-crowned bluffs outlined against the sky, occasionally assuming grotesque forms, which the boatmen pointed out as familiar landmarks.
Once we narrowly escaped collision with a speeding Indian canoe, containing two frightened occupants, so intent upon saving themselves they never even glanced up until we had swept by. Thockmorton laughed heartily at their desperate struggle in the swell, and several of the crew ran to the stern to watch the little cockle-shell toss about in the waves. It was when I turned also, the better to assure myself of their safety, that I discovered Judge Beaucaire standing close beside me at the low rail. Our eyes met inquiringly, and he bowed with all the ceremony of the old school.
"A new passenger on board, I think, sir," and his deep, resonant voice left a pleasant impression. "You must have joined our company at Fort Armstrong?"
"Your supposition is correct," I answered, some peculiar constraint preventing me from referring to my military rank. "My name is Knox, and I have been about the island for a few weeks. I believe you are Judge Beaucaire of Missouri?"
He was a splendidly proportioned man, with deep chest, great breadth of shoulders, and strong individual face, yet bearing unmistakable signs of dissipation, together with numerous marks of both care and age.
"I feel the honor of your recognition, sir," he said with dignity. "Knox, I believe you said? Of the Knox family at Cape Girardeau, may I inquire?"
"No connection to my knowledge; my home was at Wheeling."
"Ah! I have never been so far east; indeed the extent of my travels along the beautiful Ohio has only been to the Falls. The Beaucaires were originally from Louisiana."
"You must have been among the earlier settlers of Missouri?"
"Before the Americans came, sir," proudly. "My grandfather arrived at Beaucaire Landing during the old French regime; but doubtless you know all this?"
"No, Judge," I answered, recognizing the egotism of the man, but believing frankness to be the best policy. "This happens to be my first trip on the upper river, and I merely chanced to know your name because you had been pointed out to me by Captain Thockmorton. I understood from him that you represented one of the oldest families in that section."
"There were but very few here before us," he answered, with undisguised pride. "Mostly wilderness outcasts, voyageurs, coureurs de bois; but my grandfather's grant of land was from the King. Alphonse de Beaucaire, sir, was the trusted lieutenant of D'Iberville—a soldier, and a gentleman."
I bowed in acknowledgment the family arrogance of the man interesting me deeply. So evident was this pride of ancestry that a sudden suspicion flared into my mind that this might be all the man had left—this memory of the past.
"The history of those early days is not altogether familiar to me," I admitted regretfully. "But surely D'Iberville must have ruled in Louisiana more than one hundred years ago?"
The Judge smiled.
"Quite true. This grant of ours was practically his last official act. Alphonse de Beaucaire took possession in 1712, one hundred and twenty years ago, sir. I was myself born at Beaucaire, sixty-eight years ago."
"I should have guessed you as ten years younger. And the estate still remains in its original grant?"
The smile of condescension deserted his eyes, and his thin lips pressed tightly together.
"I—I regret not; many of the later years have proven disastrous in the extreme," he admitted, hesitatingly. "You will pardon me, sir, if I decline to discuss misfortune. Ah, Monsieur Kirby! I have been awaiting you. Have you met with this young man who came aboard at Fort Armstrong? I—I am unable to recall the name."
I felt the firm, strong grip of the other's hand, and looked straight into his dark eyes. They were like a mask. While, indeed, they seemed to smile in friendly greeting, they yet remained expressionless, and I was glad when the gripping fingers released mine. The face into which I looked was long, firm-jawed, slightly swarthy, a tightly-clipped black moustache shadowing the upper lip. It was a reckless face, yet appeared carved from marble.
"Exceedingly pleased to meet you," he said carelessly. "Rather a dull lot on board—miners, and such cattle. Bound for St. Louis?"
"Shall see more of you then. Well, Judge, how do you feel? Carver and McAfee are waiting for us down below."
The two disappeared together down the ladder, and I was again left alone in my occupancy of the upper deck.
HISTORY OF THE BEAUCAIRES
The first two days and nights of the journey southward were devoid of any special interest or adventure. The lonely river, wrapped in the silence of the wilderness, brought to me many a picture of loveliness, yet finally the monotony of it all left the mind drowsy with repetition. Around each tree-crowned bend we swept, skirting shores so similar as to scarcely enable us to realize our progress. In spite of the fact that the staunch little Warrior was proceeding down stream, progress was slow because of the unmarked channel, and the ever-present danger of encountering snags. The intense darkness and fog of the first night compelled tying up for several hours. The banks were low, densely covered with shrubbery, and nothing broke the sameness of the river scene, except the occasional sight of an Indian canoe skimming across its surface. Towns there were none, and seldom even a sign of a settlement greeted the eye on either shore. The only landings were made at Yellow Banks, where there was a squalid group of log huts, and Fort Madison, where I spent a pleasant hour with the officers of the garrison. Occasionally the boat warped in against the bank to replenish its exhausted supply of wood, the crew attacking the surrounding trees with axes, while the wearied passengers exercised their cramped limbs ashore. Once, with some hours at our disposal, we organized a hunt, returning with a variety of wild game. But most of the time I idled the hours away alone.
No one aboard really attracted my companionship. The lead miners were a rough set, boasting and quarrelsome, spending the greater part of their time at the bar. They had several fights, in one of which a man was seriously stabbed, so that he had to be left in care of the post-surgeon at Madison. After the first day Kirby withdrew all attention from me, and ceased in his endeavor to cultivate my acquaintance, convinced of my disinclination to indulge in cards. This I did not regret, although Beaucaire rather interested me, but, as the gambler seldom permitted the Judge out of his sight, our intimacy grew very slowly. Thockmorton, being his own pilot, seldom left the wheelhouse, and consequently I passed many hours on the bench beside him, gazing out on the wide expanse of river, and listening to his reminiscences of early steam-boating days. He was an intelligent man, with a fund of anecdote, acquainted with every landmark, every whispered tale of the great stream from New Orleans to Prairie du Chien. At one time or another he had met the famous characters along the river banks, and through continual questioning I thus finally became possessed of the story of the house of Beaucaire.
In the main it contained no unusual features. Through the personal influence of D'Iberville at Louis' court, Alphonse de Beaucaire had originally received a royal grant of ten thousand acres of land bordering the west bank of the Mississippi a few miles above St. Louis. When his master returned to France leaving him unemployed, Beaucaire, possessing ample means of his own, had preferred to remain in America. In flatboats, propelled by voyageurs, and accompanied by a considerable retinue of slaves, he, with his family, had ascended the river, and finally settled on his princely estate. Here he erected what, for those early days, was a stately mansion, and devoted himself to cultivating the land. Twenty years later, when his death occurred, he possessed the finest property along the upper river, was shipping heavily to the New Orleans market, and was probably the most influential man in all that section. His home was considered a palace, always open to frontier hospitality, the number of his slaves had increased, a large proportion of his land was utilized, and his name was a familiar one the length of the river.
His only son, Felipe, succeeded him, but was not so successful in administration, seriously lacking in business judgment, and being decidedly indolent by nature. Felipe married into one of the oldest and most respectable families of St. Louis, and, as a result of that union, had one son, Lucius, who grew up reckless of restraint, and preferred to spend his time in New Orleans, rather than upon the plantation. Lucius was a young man of twenty-six, unsettled in habits when the father died, and, against his inclination, was compelled to return to Missouri and assume control of the property. He found matters in rather bad condition, and his was not at all the type of mind to remedy them. Much of the land had been already irretrievably lost through speculation, and, when his father's obligations had been met, and his own gambling debts paid, the estate, once so princely and magnificent, was reduced to barely five hundred acres, together with a comparatively small amount of cash. This condition sufficed to sober Lucius for a few years, and he married a Menard, of Cape Girardeau, of excellent family but not great wealth, and earnestly endeavored to rebuild his fortunes. Unfortunately his reform did not last. The evil influences of the past soon proved too strong for one of his temperament. A small town, redolent of all the vices of the river, grew up about the Landing, while friends of other days sought his hospitality. The plantation house became in time a rendezvous for all the wild spirits of that neighborhood, and stories of fierce drinking bouts and mad gambling were current in St. Louis.
Common as such tales as these were in those early days of the West, I still remained boy enough in heart to feel a fascination in Thockmorton's narrative. Besides, there was at the time so little else to occupy my mind that it inevitably drifted back to the same topic.
"Have you ever been at Beaucaire, Captain?" I asked, eager for more intimate details.
"We always stop at the Landing, but I have only once been up the bluff to where the house stands. It must have been a beautiful place in its day; it is imposing even now, but showing signs of neglect and abuse. The Judge was away from home—in St. Louis, I believe—the day of my visit. He had sold me some timber, and I went out with the family lawyer, a man named Haines living at the Landing, to look it over."
"The house was closed?"
"No; it is never closed. The housekeeper was there, and also the two daughters."
"Certainly; hadn't I told you about them? Both girls are accepted as his daughters; but, if all I have heard is true, one must be a granddaughter." He paused reminiscently, his eyes on the river. "To all appearances they are about of the same age, but differing rather widely in looks and character. Both are attractive girls I judge, although I only had a glimpse of them, and at the time knew nothing of the difference in relationship. I naturally supposed them to be sisters, until Haines and I got to talking about the matter on the way back. Pshaw, Knox, you've got me gossiping like an old woman."
I glanced aside at his face.
"This, then, is not common river talk? the truth is not generally known?"
"No; I have never heard it mentioned elsewhere, nor have I previously repeated the story. However, now that the suggestion has slipped out, perhaps I had better go ahead and explain." He puffed at his pipe, and I waited, seemingly intent on the scene without. The captain was a minute or two in deciding how far he would venture. "Haines told me a number of strange things about that family I had never heard before," he admitted at last. "You see he has known them for years, and attended to most of Beaucaire's legal business. I don't know why he chanced to take me into his confidence, only he had been drinking some, and, I reckon, was a bit lonely for companionship; then those two girls interested me, and I asked quite a few questions about them. At first Haines was close as a clam, but finally loosened up, and this is about how the story runs, as he told it. It wasn't generally known, but it seems that Lucius Beaucaire has been married twice—the first time to a Creole girl in New Orleans when he was scarcely more than a boy. Nobody now living probably knows what ever became of her, but likely she died early; anyway she never came north, or has since been heard from. The important part is that she gave birth to a son, who remained in New Orleans, probably in her care, until he was fourteen or fifteen years old. Then some occurrence, possibly his mother's death, caused the Judge to send for the lad, whose name was Adelbert, and had him brought to Missouri. All this happened before Haines settled at the Landing, and previous to Beaucaire's second marriage to Mademoiselle Menard. Bert, as the boy was called, grew up wild, and father and son quarreled so continuously that finally, and before he was twenty, the latter ran away, and has never been heard of since. All they ever learned was that he drifted down the river on a flatboat."
"And he never came back?"
"Not even a letter. He simply disappeared, and no one knows to this day whether he is alive or dead. At least if Judge Beaucaire ever received any word from him he never confessed as much to Haines. However, the boy left behind tangible evidence of his existence."
"In the form of a child, born to a quadroon slave girl named Delia. The mother, it seems, was able in some way to convince the Judge of the child's parentage. All this happened shortly before Beaucaire's second marriage, and previous to the time when Haines came to the Landing. Exactly what occurred is not clear, or what explanation was made to the bride. The affair must have cut Beaucaire's pride deeply, but he had to face the conditions. It ended in his making the girl Delia his housekeeper, while her child—the offspring of Adelbert Beaucaire—was brought up as a daughter. A year or so later, the second wife gave birth to a female child, and those two girls have grown up together exactly as though they were sisters. Haines insists that neither of them knows to this day otherwise."
"But that would be simply impossible," I insisted. "The mother would never permit."
"The mother! which mother? The slave mother could gain nothing by confession; and the Judge's wife died when her baby was less than two years old. Delia practically mothered the both of them, and is still in complete charge of the house."
"You met her?"
"She was pointed out to me—a gray-haired, dignified woman, so nearly white as scarcely to be suspected of negro blood."
"Yet still a slave?"
"I cannot answer that. Haines himself did not know. If manumission papers had ever been executed it was done early, before he took charge of Beaucaire's legal affairs. The matter never came to his attention."
"But surely he must at some time have discussed this with the Judge?"
"No; at least not directly. Beaucaire is not a man to approach easily. He is excessively proud, and possesses a fiery temper. Once, Haines told me, he ventured a hint, but was rebuffed so fiercely as never to make a second attempt. It was his opinion the Judge actually hated the sight of his son's child, and only harbored her in the house because he was compelled to do so. All Haines really knew about these conditions had been told him secretly by an old negro slave, probably the only one left on the estate knowing the facts."
"But, Captain," I exclaimed, "do you realize what this might mean? If Judge Beaucaire has not issued papers of freedom, this woman Delia is still a slave."
"And under the law her child was born into slavery?"
"No doubt of that."
"But the unspeakable horror of it—this young woman brought up as free, educated and refined, suddenly to discover herself to be a negro under the law, and a slave. Why, suppose Beaucaire should die, or lose his property suddenly, she could be sold to the cotton fields, into bondage to anyone who would pay the price for her."
Thockmorton knocked the ashes out of his pipe.
"Of course," he admitted slowly. "There is no question as to the law, but I have little doubt but what Beaucaire has attended to this matter long ago. If he dies, the papers will be found hidden away somewhere. It is beyond conception that he could ever leave the girl to such a fate."
I shook my head, obsessed with a shadow of doubt.
"A mistake men often make—the putting off to the last moment doing the disagreeable task. How many, expecting to live, delay the making of a will until too late. In this case I am unable to conceive why, if Beaucaire has ever signed papers of freedom, for these two, the fact remains unknown even to his lawyer. One fact is certain, nothing bearing upon the case has been recorded, or Haines would know of it."
"There is nothing on record, Haines assured himself as to that some years ago. The fact is, Knox, that while I hope this provision has been made, there remains a doubt in my mind. Beaucaire has traveled on my boat several times, but he's an unsociable fellow; I don't like him; he's not my kind. If he still harbors hatred toward that run-away son—and to my notion he is exactly that sort—he will never feel any too kindly toward Delia, or her child. If he has not freed them, that will be the reason—no neglect, but a contemptible revenue."
"What are the two girls named?"
"Rene, and Eloise."
"Which one is the daughter?"
"Really, Lieutenant, I do not know. You see I was never introduced, but merely gained a glimpse of them in the garden. I doubt if I would recognize the one from the other now. You see all this story was told me later."
I sat there a long while, after he had gone below, the taciturn mate at the wheel. The low, wooded shores swept past in changing panorama, yet I could not divorce my mind from this perplexing problem. Totally unknown to me as these two mysterious girls were, their strange story fascinated my imagination. What possible tragedy lay before them in the years? what horrible revelation to wrench them asunder? to change in a single instant the quiet current of their lives? About them, unseen as yet, lurked a grim specter, waiting only the opportunity to grip them both in the fingers of disgrace, and make instant mock of all their plans. In spite of every effort, every lurking hope, some way I could not rid myself of the thought that Beaucaire—either through sheer neglect, or some instinct of bitter hatred—had failed to meet the requirements of his duty. Even as I sat there, struggling vainly against this suspicion, the Judge himself came forth upon the lower deck, and began pacing back and forth restlessly beside the rail. It was a struggle for me not to join him; the impetuousity of youth urging me even to brave his anger in my eagerness to ascertain the whole truth. Yet I possessed sense enough, or discretion, to refrain, realizing dimly that, not even in the remotest degree, had I any excuse for such action. This was no affair of mine. Nor, indeed, would I have found much opportunity for private conversation, for, only a moment or two later, Kirby joined him, and the two remained together, talking earnestly, until the gong called us all to supper.
Across the long table, bare of cloth, the coarse food served in pewter dishes, I was struck by the drawn, ghastly look in Beaucaire's face. He had aged perceptibly in the last few hours, and during the meal scarcely exchanged a word with anyone, eating silently, his eyes downcast. Kirby, however, was the life of the company, and the miners roared at his humorous stories, and anecdotes of adventure—while outside it grew dark, and the little Warrior struggled cautiously through the waters, seeking the channel in the gloom.
THE END OF THE GAME
Unconscious that the stage had thus been set for a great life drama, a drama in which, through strange circumstances, I was destined to play my part, amid stirring scenes of Indian war, and in surroundings that would test my courage and manhood to the utter-most; yet, although I heard it not, the hour had already struck, and I stood on the brink of a tragedy beyond my power to avert.
I left the others still seated about the table, and returned alone to the outer deck. I had no plans for the evening, and retain now only slight recollection as to the happenings of the next few hours, which I passed quietly smoking in the darkened pilot house, conversing occasionally with Thockmorton, who clung to the wheel, carefully guiding his struggling boat through the night-draped waters. The skill with which he found passage through the enshrouding gloom, guided by signs invisible to my eyes, aided only by a fellow busily casting a lead line in the bows, and chanting the depth of water, was amazing. Seemingly every flitting shadow brought its message, every faint glimmer of starlight pointed the way to safety.
It must have been nearly midnight before I finally wearied of this, and decided to seek a few hours' rest below, descending the short ladder, and walking forward along the open deck for one last glance ahead. Some time the next day we were to be in St. Louis, and this expectation served to brighten my thoughts. It was a dark night, but with a clear sky, the myriad of stars overhead reflecting their lights along the river surface, and bringing into bold relief the dense shadows of the shores on either side. The boat, using barely enough power to afford steering way, swept majestically down stream, borne by the force of the current, which veered from bank to bank. We were moving scarcely swifter than from eight to ten miles an hour, and the monotonous voice of the man casting the lead line arose continuous through the brooding silence. The only other perceptible sounds were the exhaust of the steam pipes and the splash of running water. Thockmorton had told me we were already approaching the mouth of the Illinois, and I lingered against the rail, straining my eyes through the gloom hoping to gain a distant glimpse of that beautiful stream. We were skirting the eastern shore, the wooded bank rising almost as high as our smokestack, and completely shutting off all view of the horizon.
As I stood there, gripping the rail, half fearful lest we strike, the furnace doors below were suddenly flung open for a fresh feeding of the fire, and the red glare of the fire lit up the scene. Close in against the shore nestled a flatboat, evidently tied up for the night, and I had a swift glimpse as we shot by of a startled man waving his arms, and behind him a wildly barking dog. An instant more and the vision had vanished as quickly as it had appeared; even the dog's sharp bark dying away in the distance. The furnace doors banged shut, and all was again darkness and silence.
I turned back along the deserted deck, only pausing a moment to glance carelessly in through the front windows of the main cabin. The forward portion was wrapped in darkness, and unoccupied, but beyond, toward the rear of the long salon, a considerable group of men were gathered closely about a small table, above which a swinging lamp burned brightly, the rays of light illuminating the various faces. I recognized several, and they were apparently a deeply interested group, for, even at that distance, I could plainly note the excitement stamped upon their countenances, and the nervousness with which they moved about seeking clearer view. There were so many closely wedged together as to obstruct my vision of what was occurring, yet I felt no doubt but that they watched a game of cards; a desperate struggle of chance, involving no small sum to account for such intense feeling on the part of mere onlookers. Gambling was no novelty on the great river in those days, gambling for high stakes, and surely no ordinary game, involving a small sum, would ever arouse the depth of interest displayed by these men. Some instinct told me that the chief players would be Kirby and Beaucaire, and, with quickening pulse, I opened the cabin door and entered.
No one noted my approach, or so much as glanced up, the attention of the crowd riveted upon the players. There were four holding cards—the Judge, Kirby, Carver, and McAfee; but I judged at a glance that the latter two were merely in the game as a pretense, the betting having already gone far beyond the limit of their resources. Without a thought as to the cards they held, my eyes sought the faces of the two chief players, and then visioned the stakes displayed on the table before them. McAfee and Carter were clearly enough out of it, their cards still gripped in their fingers, as they leaned breathlessly forward to observe more closely the play. The Judge sat upright, his attitude strained, staring down at his hand, his face white, and eyes burning feverishly. That he had been drinking heavily was evident, but Kirby fronted him in apparent cold indifference, his feelings completely masked, with the cards he held bunched in his hands, and entirely concealed from view. No twitch of an eyelash, no quiver of a muscle revealed his knowledge; his expressionless face might have been carved out of stone. Between the two rested a stack of gold coin, a roll of crushed bills, and a legal paper of some kind, the exact nature of which I could not determine. I leaned forward, but could only perceive that it bore the official stamp of some recording office—a deed, perhaps, to some of the remaining acres of Beaucaire. It was evident that a fortune already rested on that table, awaiting the flip of a card. The silence, the breathless attention, convinced me that the crisis had been reached—it was the Judge's move; he must cover the last bet, or throw down his hand a loser.
Perspiration beaded his forehead, and he crunched the cards savagely in his hands. His glance swept past the crowd, as though he saw nothing of their faces.
"Another drink, Sam," he called, the voice trembling. He tossed down the glass of liquor as though it were so much water, but made no other effort to speak. You could hear the strained breathing of the men.
"Well," said Kirby sneeringly, his cold gaze surveying his motionless opponent. "You seem to be taking your time. Do you cover my bet?"
Someone laughed nervously, and a voice sang out over my shoulder, "You might as well go the whole hog, Judge. The niggers won't be no good without the land ter work 'em on. Fling 'em into the pot—-they're as good as money."
Beaucaire looked up, red-eyed, into the impassive countenance opposite. His lips twitched, yet managed to make words issue between them.
"How about that, Kirby?" he asked hoarsely. "Will you accept a bill of sale?"
Kirby grinned, shuffling his hand carelessly.
"Why not? 'twon't be the first time I've played for niggers. They are worth so much gold down the river. What have you got?"
"I can't tell that offhand," sullenly. "About twenty field hands."
"And house servants?"
"Three or four."
The gambler's lips set more tightly, a dull gleam creeping into his eyes.
"See here, Beaucaire," he hissed sharply. "This is my game and I play square and never squeal. I know about what you've got, for I've looked them over; thought we might get down to this sometime. I can make a pretty fair guess as to what your niggers are worth. That's why I just raised you ten thousand, and put up the money. Now, if you think this is a bluff, call me."
"What do you mean?"
"That I will accept your niggers as covering my bet."
"The field hands?"
Kirby smiled broadly.
"The whole bunch—field hands and house servants. Most of them are old; I doubt if all together they will bring that amount, but I'll take the risk. Throw in a blanket bill of sale, and we'll turn up our cards. If you won't do that, the pile is mine as it stands."
Beaucaire again wet his lips, staring at the uncovered cards in his hands. He could not lose; with what he held no combination was possible which could beat him. Yet, in spite of this knowledge, the cold, sneering confidence of Kirby, brought with it a strange fear. The man was a professional gambler. What gave him such recklessness? Why should he be so eager to risk such a sum on an inferior hand? McAfee, sitting next him, leaned over, managed to gain swift glimpse at what he held, and eagerly whispered to him a word of encouragement. The Judge straightened up in his chair, grasped a filled glass some one had placed at his elbow, and gulped down the contents. The whispered words, coupled with the fiery liquor, gave him fresh courage.
"By God, Kirby! I'll do it!" he blurted out. "You can't bluff me on the hand I've got. Give me a sheet of paper, somebody—yes, that will do."
He scrawled a half-dozen lines, fairly digging the pen into the sheet in his fierce eagerness, and then signed the document, flinging the paper across toward Kirby.
"There, you blood-sucker," he cried insolently. "Is that all right? Will that do?"
The imperturbable gambler read it over slowly, carefully deciphering each word, his thin lips tightly compressed.
"You might add the words, 'This includes every chattel slave legally belonging to me,'" he said grimly.
"That is practically what I did say."
"Then you can certainly have no objection to putting it in the exact words I choose," calmly. "I intend to have what is coming to me if I win, and I know the law."
Beaucaire angrily wrote in the required extra line.
"Now what?" he asked.
"Let McAfee there sign it as a witness, and then toss it over into the pile." He smiled, showing a line of white teeth beneath his moustache. "Nice little pot, gentlemen—the Judge must hold some cards to take a chance like that," the words uttered with a sneer. "Fours, at least, or maybe he has had the luck to pick a straight flush."
Beaucaire's face reddened, and his eyes grew hard.
"That's my business," he said tersely. "Sign it, McAfee, and I'll call this crowing cockerel. You young fool, I played poker before you were born. There now, Kirby, I've covered your bet."
"Perhaps you would prefer to raise it?"
"You hell-hound—no! That is my limit, and you know it. Don't crawl now, or do any more bluffing. Show your hand—I've called you."
Kirby sat absolutely motionless, his cards lying face down upon the table, the white fingers of one hand resting lightly upon them, the other arm concealed. He never once removed his gaze from Beaucaire's face, and his expression did not change, except for the almost insulting sneer on his lips. The silence was profound, the deeply interested men leaning forward, even holding their breath in intense eagerness. Each realized that a fortune lay on the table; knew that the old Judge had madly staked his all on the value of those five unseen cards gripped in his fingers. Again, as though to bolster up his shaken courage, he stared at the face of each, then lifted his blood-shot eyes to the impassive face opposite.
"Beaucaire drew two kayards," whispered an excited voice near me.
"Hell! so did Kirby." replied another. "They're both of 'em old hands."
The sharp exhaust of a distant steam pipe below punctuated the silence, and several glanced about apprehensively. As this noise ceased Beaucaire lost all control over his nerves.
"Come on, play your hand," he demanded, "or I'll throw my cards in your face."
The insinuating sneer on Kirby's lips changed into the semblance of a smile. Slowly, deliberately, never once glancing down at the face of his cards, he turned them up one by one with his white fingers, his challenging eyes on the Judge; but the others saw what was revealed—-a ten spot, a knave, a queen, a king, and an ace.
"Good God! a straight flush!" someone yelled excitedly. "Damned if I ever saw one before!"
For an instant Beaucaire never moved, never uttered a sound. He seemed to doubt the evidence of his own eyes, and to have lost the power of speech. Then from nerveless hands his own cards fell face downward, still unrevealed, upon the table. The next moment he was on his feet, the chair in which he had been seated flung crashing behind him on the deck.
"You thief!" he roared, "You dirty, low-down thief; I held four aces—where did you get the fifth one?"
Kirby did not so much as move, nor betray even by change of expression his sense of the situation. Perhaps he anticipated just such an explosion, and was fully prepared to meet it. One hand still rested easily on the table, the other remaining hidden.
"So you claim to have held four aces," he said coldly. "Where are they?"
McAfee swept the discarded hand face upward, and the crowd bending forward to look saw four aces, and a king.
"That was the Judge's hand," he declared soberly. "I saw it myself before he called you, and told him to stay."
Kirby laughed, an ugly laugh showing his white teeth.
"The hell, you did? Thought you knew a good poker hand, I reckon. Well, you see I knew a better one, and it strikes me I am the one to ask questions," he sneered. "Look here, you men; I held one ace from the shuffle. Now what I want to know is, where Beaucaire ever got his four? Pleasant little trick of you two—only this time it failed to work."
Beaucaire uttered one mad oath, and I endeavored to grasp him, but missed my clutch. The force of his lurching body as he sprang forward upturned the table, the stakes jingling to the deck, but Kirby reached his feet in time to avoid the shock. His hand which had been hidden shot out suddenly, the fingers grasping a revolver, but he did not fire. Before the Judge had gone half the distance, he stopped, reeled suddenly, clutching at his throat, and plunged sideways. His body struck the upturned table, and McAfee and I grasped him, lowering the stricken man gently to the floor.
KIRBY SHOWS HIS HAND
That scene, with all its surroundings, remains indelibly impressed upon my memory. It will never fade while I live. The long, narrow, dingy cabin of the little Warrior, its forward end unlighted and in shadow, the single swinging lamp, suspended to a blackened beam above where the table had stood, barely revealing through its smoky chimney the after portion showing a row of stateroom doors on either side, some standing ajar, and that crowd of excited men surging about the fallen body of Judge Beaucaire, unable as yet to fully realize the exact nature of what had occurred, but conscious of impending tragedy. The air was thick and stifling with tobacco smoke, redolent of the sickening fumes of alcohol, and noisy with questioning voices, while above every other sound might be distinguished the sharp pulsations of the laboring engine just beneath our feet, the deck planks trembling to the continuous throbbing. The overturned table and chairs, the motionless body of the fallen man, with Kirby standing erect just beyond, his face as clear-cut under the glare of light as a cameo, the revolver yet glistening in his extended hand, all composed a picture not easily forgotten.
Still, this impression was only that of a brief instant. With the next I was upon my knees, lifting the fallen head, and seeking eagerly to discern some lingering evidence of life in the inert, body. There was none, not so much as the faint flutter of a pulse, or suggestion of a heart throb. The man was already dead before he fell, dead before he struck the overturned table. Nothing any human effort might do would help him now. My eyes lifting from the white, ghastly face encountered those of McAfee, and, without the utterance of a word, I read the miner's verdict, and arose again to my feet.
"Judge Beaucaire is dead," I announced gravely. "Nothing more can be done for him now."
The pressing circle of men hemming us in fell back silently, reverently, the sound of their voices sinking into a subdued murmur. It had all occurred so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that even these witnesses could scarcely grasp the truth. They were dazed, leaderless, struggling to restrain themselves. As I stood there, almost unconscious of their presence, still staring down at that upturned face, now appearing manly and patrician in the strange dignity of its death mask, a mad burst of anger swept me, a fierce yearning for revenge—a feeling that this was no less a murder because Nature had struck the blow. With hot words of reproach upon my lips I gazed across toward where Kirby had been standing a moment before. The gambler was no longer there—his place was vacant.
"Where is Kirby?" I asked, incredulous of his sudden disappearance.
For a moment no one answered; then a voice in the crowd croaked hoarsely:
"He just slipped out through that after door to the deck—him and Bill Carver."
"And the stakes?"
Another answered in a thin, piping treble.
"I reckon them two cusses took along the most ov it. Enyhow 'tain't yere, 'cept maybe a few coins that rolled tinder the table. It wasn't Joe Kirby who picked up the swag, fer I was a watchin' him, an' he never onct let go ov his gun. Thet damn sneak Carver must a did it, an' then the two ov 'em just sorter nat'rally faded away through that door thar."
McAfee swore through his black beard, the full truth swiftly dawning upon him.
"Hell!" he exploded. "So that's the way of it. Then them two wus in cahoots frum the beginnin'. That's what I told the Jedge last night, but he said he didn't give a whoop; thet he knew more poker than both ov 'em put tergether. I tell yer them fellers stole that money, an' they killed Beaucaire—"
"Hold on a minute," I broke in, my mind cleared of its first passion, and realizing the necessity of control. "Let's keep cool, and go slow. While I believe McAfee is right, we are not going to bring the Judge back to life by turning into a mob. There is no proof of cheating, and Kirby has the law behind him. Let me talk to the captain about what had best be done."
"Yes; he'll know the better action for us to take. He's level-headed, and an old friend of Beaucaire's."
"I'm fer swingin' that damn gambler up, without askin' nobody," shouted a fellow fiercely. "He's bin raisin' hell frum one end o' this river ter the other fer ten years. A rope is whut he needs."
"What good would that do in this case?" I questioned before anyone else could chime in, "either to the dead man, or his family? That's what I am thinking about, men. Suppose you strung him up, that money, the plantation, and those slaves would still belong to him, or his heirs. I'm for getting all these back, if there is any way of accomplishing it. See here, men," I pleaded earnestly, "this affair doesn't necessarily end here on board the Warrior, and if you were to kill Kirby it wouldn't benefit matters any."
"It would get rid ov a skunk."
"Yes, but he is only one of a hundred between here and New Orleans. Look at the other side a minute. Beaucaire bet everything he possessed—everything, land, niggers, and money. Kirby sneered him on to it, and saw that he had the kind of a hand that would do the business right. When the Judge died he didn't own enough to pay his funeral expenses. Now see here; I happen to know that he left two young daughters. Just stop, and think of them. We saw this game played, and there isn't a man here who believes it was played on the square—that two such hands were ever dealt, or drawn, in poker. We can't prove that Kirby manipulated things to that end; not one of us saw how he worked the trick. There is no chance to get him that way. Then what is it we ought to do? Why I say, make the thief disgorge—and hanging won't do the business."
"Well then, what will?"
"I confess I do not yet know. I want to talk with Thockmorton first. He may know something."
There was a moment's silence, then a suspicious voice, "Who the hell are you? How do we know you ain't in on this yerself?"
"Listen, men," and I fronted them, looking straight into their eyes. "You have a right to ask that question, and I'll tell you who I am. I am not here in uniform, but I am an officer of the United States Army. Captain Thockmorton will vouch for that. I pledge you my word that this affair does not end here. I never met any of these men until I came on board the boat at Fort Armstrong, but I have letters with me for Governor Clark of Missouri, and Governor Reynolds of Illinois. Either man will accept my statement regarding this matter, and I promise you that either Kirby and Carver will return the papers and money before we reach St. Louis, or I'll swear out a warrant for their arrest. If you boys will stay with me we'll scare it out of them for the sake of those girls. What do you say?"
No one spoke immediately, although there was a muttering of voices, sounding antagonistic, and sprinkled with oaths. It was, indeed, a poor time and place in which to appeal to the law, nor were these men accustomed to the pleadings of mercy. I glanced across Beaucaire's extended body, and caught the eyes of McAfee. The man lifted his hand.
"The leftenant has got this thing sized up about proper," he said gruffly. "He's an army officer all right, fer I saw him back thar on the island, when we wus tied up at the dock. Now look yere, boys, I'm fer hangin' both ov them cusses just as much as eny ov the rest ov yer—a bit more, I reckon, fer they stripped me ov my pile; along with Beaucaire, only I was easier ter strip—but, as the leftenant says, that ain't the p'int now. What we want ter do is get back them bills o' sale, so them two young women won't be left with nuthin' ter live on. Let's make the fellers cough up furst, an' then, if we think best, we kin hang 'em afterwards. It's my vote we let the leftenant tackle the job—what do yer say?"
The rise and fall of voices, although punctuated by oaths, and indistinct in expression, seemed generally to signify assent. The faces of the men, as they pushed and crowded about us, remained angry and resentful. Clearly enough prompt action alone would carry the day.
"Very well then, boys," I broke in sharply. "You agree to leave this settlement with me. Then I'll go at it. Two or three of you pick up the body, and carry it to Beaucaire's stateroom—forward there. The rest of you better straighten up the cabin, while I go up and talk with Thockmorton a moment. After that I may want a few of you to go along when I hunt up Kirby. If he proves ugly we'll know how to handle him. McAfee!"
"I'm over here."
"I was just going to say that you better stay here, and keep the fellows all quiet in the cabin. We don't want our plan to leak out, and it will be best to let Kirby and Carver think that everything is all right; that nothing is going to be done."
I waited while several of them gently picked up the body, and bore it forward into the shadows. Others busied themselves in straightening the overturned furniture, and gathered into a small pile those few scattered coins which had fallen to the deck, and been overlooked by the two gamblers in their eagerness to escape. No one attempted to appropriate any of these. McAfee apparently knew most of the fellows intimately, calling them by name, and seemed to be recognized as a leader among them. This fact was encouraging, as to all appearance they were a rough set, unaccustomed to law of any kind, and to be controlled only by physical strength, and some one of their own sort. In spite of my position and rank, I was far too young in appearance to exercise much weight of authority over such border men, but fortunately I possessed sufficient good sense to rely now in this emergency upon the black-bearded McAfee, who served well. His voice, strongly resembling a foghorn, arose in threat and expostulation unceasingly, and the miners, who evidently knew him well, and perhaps had previously tested the weight of his fist, were lamb-like and obedient to his control.
"They'll be quiet enough fer a while, leftenant," he managed to whisper hoarsely to me. "But they is jest boys growed up, an' if eny one o' them should really take a notion ter raise hell, all the cussin' I might do wouldn't make no diffrance. Whatever yer aim at, better be done right off, while I kin sorter keep 'em busy down yere; onct they git loose on the deck the devil himself couldn't stop 'em frum startin' a row."
This advice was so good that I slipped instantly away, silently gained the door, and, unobserved, emerged on to the deserted deck without. The sudden change in environment sobered me, and caused me to pause and seriously consider the importance of my mission. Through the thin walls of the cabin the murmuring voices of those within became indistinct, except as an occasional loudly spoken oath, or call, might be distinguished. The struggling Warrior was close within the looming shadows of the western shore, and seemed to be moving downward more swiftly with the current, as though the controlling mind in the darkened wheelhouse felt confident of clear water ahead. The decks throbbed to the increased pulsation of the engine, and I could plainly hear the continuous splash of the great stern wheel as it flung spray high into the air.
I paused a moment, hand gripping the rail, and eyes seeking vainly to peer across the wide expanse of river, really fronting the situation for the first time, and endeavoring to think out calmly some definite course of action. Thus far, spurred only by necessity, and a sense of obligation, I had merely been blindly grasping at the first suggestion which had occurred to mind. The emergency had demanded action, rather than reflection. But now, on cooler consideration, and alone, the result I sought did not appear so apparent, nor so easily attained. Hitherto, in the midst of the excitement occasioned by Beaucaire's tragic death, my mind had grasped but one idea clearly—if I permitted Kirby to be mobbed and killed by those enraged men, his death would benefit no one; would remedy no wrong. That mad mob spirit must be fought down, conquered. Yet now, when I had actually accomplished this, what must be my next step? Nothing less potent than either fear, or force, would ever make Kirby disgorge. Quite evidently the gambler had deliberately set out to ruin the planter, to rob him of every dollar. Even at the last moment he had coldly insisted on receiving a bill of sale so worded as to leave no possible loophole. He demanded all. The death of the Judge, of course, had not been contemplated, but this in no way changed the result. That was an accident, yet, I imagined, might not be altogether unwelcome, and I could not rid my memory of that shining weapon in Kirby's hand, or the thought that he would have used it had the need arose. Would he not then fight just as fiercely to keep, as he had, to gain? Indeed, I had but one fact upon which I might hope to base action—every watcher believed those cards had been stacked, and that Beaucaire was robbed by means of a trick. Yet, could this be proven? Would any one of those men actually swear that he had seen a suspicious move? If not, then what was there left me except a mere bluff? Absolutely nothing.
Gambling was a recognized institution, with which even the law did not interfere. Of course there were statutes in both Missouri and Illinois, but no enforcement. Indeed the gambling fraternity was so firmly intrenched, through wealth and influence, that no steamer captain even, autocratic as he often was, would dare encroach on their prerogatives. Interested as Thockmorton would be in serving Beaucaire's dependents, and as much as he cordially disliked Kirby, all I could rely upon from him in this emergency would be a certain moral support, and possibly some valuable advice. He would never dare ally himself openly, for the cost of such action would be too high. On the other hand, from my knowledge of Kirby's desperate character, and previous exploits, I seriously doubted the efficacy of threatening him with lynch law. He would be far more liable to defy a mob than yield to its demands. Yet memory of those two helpless girls—more particularly that one over whose unconsciousness there hung the possibility of slavery—urged me strongly to attempt even the apparently impossible. I had it in my mind to fight the man personally if, in no other way, I could attain my end; at least I would face him with every power and authority I could bring to bear.
With no other object in mind, and unarmed, never once dreaming of attack, I advanced alone along the dark, narrow strip of deck, leading toward the ladder which mounted to the wheelhouse. There were no lights, and I was practically compelled to feel my way by keeping one hand upon the rail. The steamer was sweeping around a great bend, and a leadsman forward was calling the depth of water, his monotonous voice chanting out strange river terms of guidance. I had reached the foot of the ladder, my fingers blindly seeking the iron rungs in the gloom, when a figure, vague, indistinct, suddenly emerged from some denser shadow and confronted me. Indeed the earliest realization I had of any other presence was a sharp pressure against my breast, and a low voice breathing a menacing threat in my ear.
"I advise you not to move, you young fool. This is a cocked pistol tickling your ribs. Where were you going?"
The black night veiled his face, but language and voice, an spite of its low grumble, told me the speaker was Kirby. The very coldness of his tone served to send a chill through me.
"To have a word with Thockmorton," I answered, angered at my own fear, and rendered reckless by that burst of passion. "What do you mean by your threat? Haven't you robbed enough men already with cards without resorting to a gun?"
"This is no robbery," and I knew by the sharpness of his reply my words had stung, "and it might be well for you to keep a civil tongue in your head. I overheard what you said to those men in the cabin. So you are going to take care of me, are you?" There was a touch of steel in the low voice. "Now listen, you brainless meddler. Joe Kirby knows exactly what he is doing when he plays any game. I had nothing to do with Beaucaire's death, but those stakes are mine. I hold them, and I will kill any man who dares to interfere with me."
"You mean you refuse to return any of this property?"
"Every cent, every nigger, every acre—that's my business. Beaucaire was no child; he knew what he was betting, and he lost."
"But," I insisted almost hopelessly, "perhaps you do not wholly understand this matter—the entire situation. Judge Beaucaire risked every penny he possessed in the world."
"I suppose he did, but he expected to gain it all back again, with as much more of mine."
"That may be true, Kirby. I am not defending his action, but surely this is no reason, now that he is dead, why you should not show some degree of mercy to others totally innocent of any wrong. The man left two daughters, both young girls, who will now be homeless and penniless."
He laughed, and the sound of that laugh was more cruel than the accompanying words.
"Two daughters!" he sneered. "According to my information that strains the relationship a trifle, friend Knox—at least the late Judge never took the trouble to acknowledge the fact. Permit me to correct your statement. I happen to know more about Beaucaire's private affairs than you do. He leaves one daughter only. I have never met the young lady, but I understand from excellent authority that she possesses independent means through the death some years ago of her mother. I shall therefore not worry about her loss—and, indeed, she need meet with none, for if she only prove equal to all I have heard I may yet be induced to make her a proposition."
"To remain on the plantation as its mistress—plainly an offer of marriage, if you please. Not such a bad idea, is it?"
I stood speechless, held motionless only by the pressing muzzle of his pistol, the cold-blooded villainy of the man striking me dumb. This then had probably been his real purpose from the start. He had followed Beaucaire deliberately with this final end in view—of ruining him, and thus compelling the daughter to yield herself. He had egged the man on, playing on the weakness of his nature, baiting him to finally risk all on a game of chance, the real stake not the money on the table, but the future of this young girl.
"You—you have never seen her?"
"No, but I have met those who have. She is reported to be beautiful, and, better still, worth fifty thousand dollars."
"And you actually mean that you propose now to force Judge Beaucaire's daughter to marry you?"
"Well hardly that, although I shall use whatever means I possess. I intend to win her if I can, fair means, or foul."
I drew a deep breath, comprehending now the full iniquity of his plot, and bracing myself to fight it.
"And what about the other girl, Kirby? for there is another girl."
"Yes," rather indifferently, "there is another."
"Of course you know who she is?"
"Certainly—a nigger, a white nigger; the supposed illegitimate daughter of Adelbert Beaucaire, and a slave woman. There is no reason why I should fret about her, is there? She is my property already by law." He laughed again, the same ugly sneering laugh of triumph, "That was why I was so particular about the wording of that bill of sale—I would rather have her than the whole bunch of field hands."
"You believe then the girl has never been freed—either she, or her mother?"
"Believe? I know. I tell you I never play any game with my eyes shut."
"And you actually intend to—to hold her as a slave?"
"Well, I'll look her over first before I decide—she would be worth a pot full of money down the river."
INTO THE BLACK WATER
The contemptuous, utterly indifferent manner in which he voiced his villainous purpose, would have crazed any man. Perhaps he intended that it should, although it was my belief that he merely expressed himself naturally, and with no thought of consequences. The man was so steeped in crime as to be ignorant of all sense of honor, all conception of true manhood. But to me this utterance was the last straw, breaking down every restraint, and leaving me hot, and furious with anger. I forgot the muzzle of the pistol pressed against my side, and the menacing threat in Kirby's low voice. The face of the man was indistinct, a mere outline, but the swift impulse to strike at it was irresistible, and I let him have the blow—a straight-arm jab to the jaw. My clinched knuckles crunched against the flesh, and he reeled back, kept from falling only by the support of the deckhouse. There was no report of a weapon, no outcry, yet, before I could strike again, I was suddenly gripped from behind by a pair of arms, which closed about my throat like a vise, throttling me instantly into silent helplessness. I struggled madly to break free, straining with all the art of a wrestler, exerting every ounce of strength, but the grasp which held me was unyielding, robbing me of breath, and defeating every effort to call for help; Kirby, dazed yet by my sudden blow, and eager to take a hand in the affray, struck me a cowardly blow in the face, and swung his undischarged pistol to a level with my eyes.
"Damn you!" he ejaculated, and for the first time his voice really exhibited temper. "I'd kill you with this, but for the noise. No, by God! there is a safer way than that to settle with you. Have you got the skunk, Carver?"
"You can bet I have, Joe. I kin choke the life out o' him—shall I?"
"No; let up a bit—just enough so he can answer me first, I want to find out what all this means. Now look here, Knox, you're an army officer, are you?"
"Yes," I managed to gasp, sobbing in an effort to catch breath, as the iron fingers at my throat relaxed slightly.
"Well then, what is all this to you? Why are you butting in on my game? Was Beaucaire a friend of yours?"
"I can hardly claim that," I admitted. "We never met until I came aboard this steamer. All I am interested in is justice to others."
"To others? Oh, I suppose you mean those girls—you know them then?"
"I have never even seen them," I said, now speaking more easily. "Thockmorton chanced to tell me about them yesterday, and their condition appealed to me, just as it naturally would to any true man. I thought probably you did not understand the situation, and hoped that if I told you the truth you might respond."
"Oh, you did, did you? You must have figured me as being pretty soft. Well, what do you think now?"
His tone so completely ended my hope of compromise that I replied hotly, "That you are a dirty, piratical cur. I may have doubted your purpose at first, for I am not used to your kind, but this is so no longer. You deliberately ruined and robbed Beaucaire, in order to gain possession of these two girls. You have admitted as much."
He laughed, in no way angered by my plain speech; indeed it almost seemed as though he felt complimented.
"Hardly admit, my friend, for that is not my style. I let others do the guessing. What do you think of that, Carver? It seems we rank rather high in the estimation of the young man." His eyes again centered on me. "And you are really not acquainted with either of the ladies?"
"I see; a self-appointed squire of dames; actuated merely by a romantic desire to serve beauty in distress. Extremely interesting, my dear boy. But, see here, Knox," and his tone changed to seriousness. "Let the romance go, and talk sense a minute. You are not going to get very far fighting me alone. You haven't even got the law with you. Even if I cheated Beaucaire, which I do not for a moment admit, there is no proof. The money is mine, and so is the land, and the niggers. You can be ugly, of course, but you cannot overturn the facts. Now I don't care a whoop in hell for that bunch of miners back there in the cabin. If left alone they will forget all about this affair in an hour. It's nothing to them, and they are no angels if it was. But, in a way, it is different with you. I understand that, and also that you are in a position where you might make me some trouble. People would listen to what you had to say—and some of them might believe you. Now you acknowledge that what has occurred is personally nothing to you; Beaucaire was no special friend, and you don't even know the two girls—all right then, drop the whole matter. I hold no grudge on account of your striking me, and am even willing to share up with you to avoid trouble."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then, of course, we shall be compelled to shut your mouth for you. Self preservation is the first law."
"Which simply means that you intend to go on, and yield nothing?"
"That is about right. We'll hold tight to what we've got—hey, Carver?"
"That's allers bin my way o' doin' business," chimed in the other brutally. "An' we've sure got you, mister soldier man, where we kin handle yer, I reckon."
I looked about at them both, scarcely able to distinguish clearly even their outlines in the dense gloom. The seriousness of my situation, coupled with my helplessness, and inability to achieve the object proposed, was very evident. These men were reckless, and determined, unable to even grasp my point of view. It might, under these circumstances, have been the part of wisdom to me to have sought some means of compromise, but I was young and hot, fiery blood swept through my veins. The words of Kirby stung me with their breath of insult—his sneering, insolent offer to pay me to remain still.