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The Agnes B. ( extract from Eva Jelinek) by TJS


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When the war ended I left the Ozark farm pretty sad, wandered back to the Arkansas River and begged a ride on a flatboat down to the Mississippi River, wondering if I might take up my old life on the water. It wasn't easy to find a berth though, as the steamboat traffic had been much disrupted by the war, and all the talk then was of the new railroads taking the trade off the river. So it became pretty clear that there was no call for training up another cub pilot, even one with a brand new name that never had anything to do with the wreck of the Dardanelles. Even the regular pilots were fighting among themselves for the few berths that were to be had.

I idled about Vicksburg for a week or so and then managed to find a position as a deckhand on a sternwheeler running down to New Orleans with a cargo of wheat. The farm work had built me up, and I was familiar with the deck work so that first captain spoke well of me, and from then on mostly I never had more than an idle week before I found another berth. I often passed Hannibal where I'd had some good times as a boy, and some miserable times too, before Mr. C. put in a good word for me and I was taken on as cub pilot on the Arkansas River. ButI never did go ashore in Hannibal, for I had no mind to rake over old coals and blow on them to see if they lit up. Sometimes it's best to let bygones be bygones.

Anyway life rolled on like that pretty easy, cruising up and down the old river. The deckhand work was not too hard, except when we had to take on timber shorthanded from the riverbank, or to winch off a sandbank when a fool pilot tried his luck on shoal water.
Now the incident I'm going to tell you about happened on a run between Memphis and New Orleans. I was berthed as supernumerary on the sternwheeler ‘Miss Agnes B. Falkner’. The captain already had enough crew for the trip but the owners had telegraphed they had a place for me on the Emma Louisa Falkner due to sail north from Jackson at the end of the week, so I was to take a free passage south on the Miss Agnes to meet her.

The morning we run out the gangplank at Memphis I was already on board, leaning on the rail watching the few passengers gather on the quay. They were all male and seemed to be traveling on business, except for one gloomy preacher and his wife. Then at the last minute here comes a hotel porter rolling up with a hand barrow of bags, harried along by stout man in a gray derby and fancy colored waistcoat. On his arm he had a slim young woman I guessed to be his daughter, for even though she was veiled up and dressed awful sober, by her figure and easy movements, I wouldn't have put her much above twenty years old.

The porter set their baggage on the quay, pocketed his two bits, and lit out looking mighty relieved to have done with the business. Now the old dandy made such a fuss and flapdoodle about getting the bags fetched aboard, and since all the deckhands were engaged with loading livestock, I went ashore myself and shouldered one of the lady's carpetbags. Then I made to pick up a small brass bound leather bag with my free hand. "No, no, my good man," he called out. "I'll take the Gladstone." He shoved another heavy bag towards me with his foot. "You take those to my cabin, boy, and I'll give you a nickel for your pains." I hauled all the rest of his bags to the cabin deck, handed them over to the cabin steward and I didn't wait for his damned nickel. When I went topside again the old fellow had collared the captain who was trying to supervise the loading of an antsy stallion that was making it mighty clear that he did not care to walk aboard by the goods gangway.

"Captain, are you actually telling me this boat does not have a purser's safe for the storage of passengers' valuables?"

"Ain't even a purser on this boat, Mr. Sexton. You want a purser you'll need to take passage with Cap'n Leathers on the Natchez."

"So I am expected to carry this bag with me at all times on the voyage." He puffed out his chest and looked around at the other passengers making sure that they were impressed by the way he was dealing the situation. He held up the little leather bag. "My cabin door does not offer any proper security, for the lock is of the cheapest and simplest type. This bag holds a considerable amount of cash. I shall hold the owners of this ship responsible for any theft."

Captain Farrell shot a stream of tobacco juice over the side and, without taking his eyes off a deckhand who was trying to slip a blindfold on the nervous horse, said, "Tell you what, Mr. Sexton. You just let me get this critter slung aboard without dropping him in the river or breaking a leg, and when the Agnes B. is under weigh I'll lock it up in my own cabin safe with the manifest and ship's papers. Can't get more secure than than that. Take it or leave it, sir."

Sexton huffed and puffed a bit but allowed it was the only answer, and the crowd that was listening lost interest and went to the rail to watch our departure. Sexton's daughter, if that is what she was, had disappeared to her cabin and who could blame her when the old fellow was putting on such a show?

The voyage was a lazy time for me, sleeping late, idling away the days standing by the open wheelhouse door, watching the banks sliding by, listening to the ill-tempered pilot cuss his wretched cub, and smoking and yarning with the deckhands in the quiet times.
I'd made a good friend of the only saloon steward aboard who went by the name of Claudius. I felt sorry for him, and also for Barnabus, the cook, for they worked from seven o'clock breakfast until the last passengers decided to stumble down to their cabins at night. They had been given their freedom more than a year ago, but in truth I'd seen some slaves better treated before the war. Old Claudius always made sure to heap me a good full dinner plate in the crew's mess, and cook up a fine breakfast as late as I wanted. After he had done serving the passengers' supper I would go up to the main saloon and he'd give me his white jacket to put on so he could go into the galley to help Barnabus wash up the pots, and then he'd slip off to his bunk while I would tend the bar for him. The captain didn't raise no objections since I wasn't getting paid, and he knew Claudius and the cook were valuable hands who deserved better treatment from the owners. In fact, I was little bored as supernumerary and I also thought that Nat Hopper, cub pilot, deserter, farmer and deckhand, might as well take the chance to pick up another profession. So it was that I wiped glasses, poured shots of whiskey, made coffee and chocolate for the night owls, and then cleaned up the saloon when the last passengers staggered off to their staterooms, and I was happy enough to do it.

The saloon was empty for half an hour or so after supper on the second evening out, as the passengers were strolling on deck admiring the sun setting over a bank of dark clouds that promised heavy weather later. I had the windows open as I moved about clearing tables and sweeping the floor. The Agnes B. was starting a difficult crossing towards the east bank to pick up the deeper water. The leadsman was at the bow singing out the marks, his calls were repeated by the deckhand along the way to the pilot house. Now the bell rang and the Agnes B slowed. The pilot leaned out, “What have you?”

From the bow the cry, ”And a quarter two,”

”And a quarter two,” echoed the deckhand.

A minute later, “Deep six.”

And “Deep six,” relayed the deckhand.

The wheelhouse window banged shut, the bell rang and the great stern wheel beat the water a little faster and the Agnes B.surged forward.

A few of the idlers passed opinions on the ability of the pilot, and made knowledgeable remarks about the shoals we were dodging, probably all on the strength of having passed this way on just the one occasion before. The storm thunderheads were building to the west, and I reckoned the pilot was hoping to complete the crossing before the squalls cut the visibility.

By and by some passengers strolled back into the saloon. I had served some of them the evening before, and had listened to their talk as they acquainted themselves with each other. There was a Mr. Pickles, an English engineer working on the Louisiana Central Railroad, a stout middle aged man with the finest set of muttonchop whiskers you ever did see. Conversing with him was George Winters, the young son of a sawmill owner from Ohio who was being sent south to look at a tract of prime cypress timber that was being put up for sale by a family hit hard by Abolition. Mighty excited he seemed he was to be so far from home and off his father's leash for the first time. The third man had introduced himself as Lachaux the evening before but hadn't seen fit to reveal his business. On account of his sharp suit, indoor complexion, and the superior kind of saucy tales I had heard him recount in his New Orleans accent I had put him down for someone involved in the sporting hotel business in the Storyville quarter. Moneybag Sexton and the young woman had not appeared the previous evening. I had looked out for them hoping to catch a glimpse of his daughter without the veil, though I knew that it was pretty unlikely that a respectable young woman would venture back into the saloon after supper, on account of the drinking and salty talk that prevailed. Claudius told me he had carried their meals down to their cabins as they did not desire company on account of the recent demise of Mrs. Sexton.

I recalled the drinkers favorite tipples of the previous evening and I had the bottles and glasses on the counter before each party had ordered. As I poured out the shots Lachaux picked up a deck of cards that had been lying on the bar and did a fancy shuffle.
"What you say, boys, a friendly game?"

Pickles said, "Don't mind if I do. Sociable game, of course. Keep the stakes reasonable."

Lachaux had spread the pack on the bar counter and sorted it into suits. "There all there. What about it, young George? Draw poker, dime ante to begin with and then see how she goes?"

"Suits me. Pass the evening sociable."

They handed over some bills. I made silver change for them out of the drawer and they moved to a table and began to play. Soon the windows began to rattle as the first squall blew in, so I came round the bar, latched the them shut, and stood watching the sky darken as the Agnes B. fought the current and cross winds to hold a course avoiding the shoals to gain the safety of the eastern channel. I lit the oil lamps and served another round of drinks to the players. I have never taken much interest in cards, reckoning there's plenty more rewarding pastimes than watching your wages disappearing into the pockets of some rogue who happens to be a mite cleverer or less honest than yourself. But it can be mighty tedious propping up the inside of a counter in a quiet bar, so I watched them with half an eye and it did seem to me that honors were pretty even, with perhaps a slightly larger pot in front of Lachaux.
Then George Winters called Lachaux with four of a kind against a full house and swept up most of his coins, plus those of the Englishman who had folded in the second round.

I heard Claudius and Barnabus close up the galley and the rattle of the door to the deck as they left. Now I was on my own. I served up another round of drinks, and changed the spittoon by the card players. I noticed that the ante had been raised to fifty cents and several greenbacks had appeared in the pots. Now the players were hunkered down and concentrating mighty hard, though it was not clear now who was winning more than the others.

Then the saloon door banged open and Sexton came in. He bellied up to the counter and ordered brandy for himself and a shot of what ever the players were drinking to be sent over to the card table. They thanked him kindly and drank his health.
Lachaux put down his glass, "Care to take a hand, sir, draw poker, aces high. Nobody is gonna win or lose a fortune- just a friendly game with fellow travelers. Quit playing any time you wish."

"By God, sir, I'm tempted though I did swear on the grave of my dear wife that I was through with cards!"

"Dollar ante, pot limit stake. Course if you find that stretches your financial situation we'll understand your position."

"Not at all. I guess there'd be no harm in playing a couple of hands." He pulled up a chair and Lachaux dealt him in.
The door opened again and the cub came in with a request for a pot of coffee for the wheelhouse. I went to the galley and heated up the pot and sent him off with it. When I checked on the poker game Muttonchops was calling Sexton, the other two having folded. Sexton put down two pairs, fives and eights and swore lustily when the Englishman laid down three jacks. He mopped his brow and drew a flask from his inside pocket and took a mighty swig without offering it around.

I am not acquainted with the sensible way to play poker, if there is indeed a sensible way, but it did seem to me that Sexton was playing it wrong and not concentrating as well as he should. In between some foolish bets he did a lot of blowharding about the legacy his wife had left his daughter, and how he was escorting her to Baton Rouge to meet her fiancé's folk and arrange for the investment of her legacy. True he did win some big pots but suddenly in the next few hands he was down to his last few dollars. I noticed the other players catching each others' eye and hiding grins when his face became more flushed, and he fumbled his cards as the frequent pulls on his flask took its toll on his senses. At one point Lachaux suggested another raise in the ante and the foolish old fellow made no objection. Somehow or other he stumbled back from the brink of being cleaned right out and he had just swept in a decent pot, enough to keep him playing for another few hands, when the door to the deck opened and there stood his daughter, her hair unpinned and trying to hold a cloak tight shut over a loose gown which the wind whipped close around her body.

"Oh, father, you promised mother you would not gamble!" and then the tears came.

We had all looked up startled, the gamblers from their hands and me from the old newspaper I was pretending to read. I was not disappointed at my first real sight of her, for even with her face reddened up and the tears running on her cheeks, she looked uncommon pretty. You would have thought the sight of such distress would have softened the hearts of the other card players who were now surely considering her father as an easy prey to hunt down. To be sure Winters and Muttonchops did look kind of sheepish, and stared at their hands more than I guess was warranted, but Lachaux's dead mackerel eyes were studying on how the wind was pressing Miss Sexton's shift against her slim legs.

Sexton said, "Go back to bed, my dear. There is no harm in playing out a sociable game with these three gentlemen."

She sobbed a little more, and when he did not rise from the table, but hunched down and began his clumsy deal she turned and hurried out leaving the door ajar. I went to shut it and when I looked back at the table Sexton was tilting his flask again and I heard him say, "Women!" and the others guffawed a little and took up their game again.

Soon after that Sexton made a run of poor decisions and had to fold a hand as he could not match the raise called by Lachaux. He watched the pot which had become very large go to Lachaux who held a full house and cursed his luck, vowing he could have won it since he claimed he had been holding four nines.

"Bartender," he called, "Go directly to the captain and have him fetch me my Gladstone from the safe." He turned to his companions. "I beg you to wait five minutes until I replenish my funds. I’d be obliged if you would give me a sporting chance to win back a few dollars from you before we all retire for the night."

They shrugged and raised no objection to a five minute break. I said that I doubted the captain would be prepared to leave the pilot house for such an errand during a difficult crossing on such a dingy night. Sexton cussed me and told me to go directly and do his bidding. Lachaux, his mind on further profits at the expense of Sexton, spoke up very reasonable, "No harm in asking the captain, young man. Surely he has faith in his pilot to navigate us safely."

There was nothing for it but to do as he said, so I hurried along the texas deck, climbed up to the pilothouse and knocked at the door. The frightened cub opened it and waved me in. The pilot was peering into the murk trying to spot his marks. Nobody took any heed of me. Then the pilot reached out, tugged on the bell wire and shifted the telegraph lever. The great sternwheel took a firmer grip of the river and the pilot spun the wheel. I saw the shallow water of the shoal bank slide by on our starboard side. Then he spun the wheel to straighten her up and stared forward intent on searching for his next mark. The captain relaxed a little and noticed me for the first time.

"What the hell are you doin' here, Hopper?"

"Beggin' your pardon, Cap'n. Mr. Sexton wants you to fetch his bag out of the safe."

For a second he was without speech. Then he reddened and spluttered out, "Damn his eyes and yours too for your foolishness in bringing me such a damn stupid request. Does he think I'm going to leave the pilot house on a crossing like this? Tell him to go to hell and take his bag too."

"I'll tell him you are occupied with the navigation of the boat, sir."

He caught my arm. "Wait a minute, boy. What's he want with it at this time of night?"

"He playing cards with some other gentlemen, Cap'n and run out of funds."

"Cards, is it. Losing bad, is he?"

"Pretty bad, sir."

"Here," he fished a key out of his pocket and thrust it at me. "I won't deny the sonofabitch the chance to lose some more Yankee dollars. Ain't nothing in the safe but ship's papers and the bag. Hang the key on the nail by my bunk."

The captain's cabin was below the pilot house and in a minute I had the safe open and hurried back to the saloon with the heavy bag. The gamblers had taken it on themselves to refresh their glasses from the bar in my absence.

"This is a fine thing?" said Sexton, "Our captain entrusts a bartender to deliver a passenger's valuables. Could he not see fit to fetch the bag himself, hey? Didn't try to open it, did ye?"

"Cap'n is greatly occupied with a difficult point of navigation, sir. He regrets he cannot leave the pilot house at present."

Sexton set his brandy aside, made a great show of inspecting the brass fastening before he took a key from his watch chain and unlocked the bag. He half opened it under the table away from the view of the gamblers and pulled out a thick roll of greenbacks. If the other gamblers had been wolves you'd have seen them licking the drool off their lips and wagging their tails, but being just greedy humans they smiled and waited patiently for Sexton to deal for it was now his turn. He made an awkward shuffle and passed the deck to Lachaux who made the cut and placed it on the table in front of Sexton. Sexton blew on his fingers for luck and was about to pick them up and deal when just at that moment in flew Miss Sexton again, weeping mightily and calling out to me, "I saw you pass by with father's bag. How could you be so heartless as to pander to his weakness?" She turned to the gamblers. "I appeal to you gentlemen. Father is a compulsive gambler. His vice has ruined our lives. I beg you, rise from the table now. Keep what you have won from him, but for the love of God take no more."

She darted forward and laid her head on Sexton's knee. "Please, father. Enough has been lost already. Remember your promise to my dear mother as she lay on her deathbed." She sobbed and cried and carried on so that I felt my heart much affected. Muttonchop Pickles took out a large handkerchief and mopped his brow and there was a tear in his eye too.

"Maybe we should call a halt, Mr. Sexton. The evening is wearing on and we are all becoming tired."

"Not at all, Mr. Pickles, you will surely give me the opportunity to win back some of the money you have taken from me. As an English gentleman honor requires you do!"

Pickles shrugged and said, "Very well, if you insist I will play another hand."

Seeing the game was going to continue the poor girl laid her head on her father's shoulder and fairly soaked it with her tears. The old fool patted her, raised her up and led her to a banquette in the corner of the saloon. "One hand, my dear. These gentlemen have agreed to play another hand, or maybe two, and you shall see me recover my losses."

She sank down pale and faint on the banquette, her face buried in the velvet cushion and her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Sexton picked up the deck. “Now, gentlemen, I believe they were shuffled and cut before my dear daughter intervened. Let us place our antes.” Hearing these words the girl threw her father a look of utter despair, arose and hurried out of the salon.

The gamblers must have agreed to raise the ante to five dollars while I was fetching the bag for there were twenty dollar bills in the pot before the first card slid along the table. I glanced through the salon window and I could see in the faint glow of the pilothouse lamp that Miss Sexton was leaning over the ship's rail as if she had a mind to cast herself into the dark water sliding past.
The gamblers studied their cards for a few seconds, then Lachaux bet ten dollars. Winters and then Pickles called.

Sexton peeled two tens off his roll said, "I'm going to raise on this one, gentlemen," and added them to the pot. Now the pot held seventy dollars before the draw, a foolish thing that I had never seen before, and it did come to my mind that the three were perhaps acting in league with each other to fleece Sexton of his fortune.

Lachaux whistled through his teeth as if he was pondering a grave problem, discarded a card, and then drew one, but seemed neither pleased nor disappointed with the result. Winters drew two and Pickles one. Now it was up to Sexton to make a decision. He puffed, sighed, wriggled in his chair, stared at the other players as if it would help him read their minds. Finally he discarded one, drew another and sat back beaming happily.

Now it was Lachaux to bet again. "I think we agreed pot limit, gentlemen," he said with a smile. "Let's see. pot is seventy, to call at this point would be twenty therefore pot limit would be ninety." He took a pocket book out and added fifty greenbacks to the stash in front of him and then pushed ninety dollars into the centre of the table.

Winters took a deep breath and said, "Reckon I'll stay with you." He lifted his coat, took off a money belt and with trembling fingers drew out three double eagles, added thirty dollars from his winnings and pushed it all forward.

Pickles threw down his cards and said, "This ain't sociable any more. I'm out."

Lachaux and Winters studied Sexton.

Sexton blinked and said,"Remind me, gentlemen. To stay in the game what must I stake?"

"Rules say you have to match previous stake. Ninety dollars gonna bust you?" Lachaux grinned at Winters. "Looks like show down is between you and me, my friend."

"Wait, wait," Sexton was delving in his bag again. "Ninety dollars!" He peeled off nine tens and laid them in the pot.

Somehow it seemed that all the money that had been changing hands earlier had arrived in the middle of the table, together with many more dollars from the players' reserves. Pickles had drawn back his chair but watched agog to see how it would play out. Winters drummed his fingers on the table, Lachaux lit a small black cigar and pointed with it at Sexton's hand. "Last to bet shows first."

Sexton spread his hand on the table. Two queens and three tens. "Full house gentlemen."

Winters swore and turned over two aces and two jacks, got up from the table and threw himself down on the banquette.

Lachaux turned his cards over slowly. "Two kings and three eights. Reckon I've got it. Kings beats queens."

"Rules in my book say highest three cards in full house take it. Tens beat eights." Sexton moved to rake in the pot.

"Hell they do!" snarled Lachaux. "What say you Pickles?"

"He's correct," said Pickles, “and I expect you know that very well yourself, sir."

Winters was looking pretty blue but he spoke up clear enough. "That's the way we play it in the north. He's right."

"Goddam, Yankee cheat. You stacked that deck!" Lachaux stood up and his hand went into his coat pocket and reappeared pointing a revolver at Sexton who had an arm ready to scoop the pot into his bag. "Leave that cash on the table and step back."

I didn't understand what happened next right away but Pickles and I pieced together the events afterwards. This is what I think I saw and heard at the time.

There was a muffled shot immediately followed by another much louder report and a heavy slug tore a long splinter from the deck then smashed into some fancy panelling. Lachaux had staggered back against the bar holding his shoulder. He had managed to discharge his revolver after Sexton’s bullet had hit him, but now it hung at the end of his useless arm. Sexton drew a small double barreled pistol out of his smoking valise. Now he rotated the barrel, cocked it and aimed at Lachaux's chest. "There’s another .41 slug in this barrel. If you drop your pistol I’ll spare your life." Lachaux groaned horribly, and the pistol he held fell from his hand and clattered on to the deck. The violent action seemed to have sobered and calmed Sexton, and he was almost polite when he turned to me. "Mr. Bartender, kindly go and inform the captain that we have an injured man in the saloon, and there are several witnesses who saw him draw a gun on me before I was obliged to fire in self defense".

Winters and Pickles had laid Lachaux on the deck where he lay groaning as they tore off the tail of his fancy shirt, and pressed it on his torn shoulder where the slug was visible, embedded in the broken bone. I picked up his revolver, and for the second time that evening, steeled myself for another difficult visit to the pilot house. The Agnes B. was now running along pretty smooth about two hundred yards off the east bank and the immediate danger of grounding was over. When I was admitted to the pilothouse I could see the cub at the wheel, and the pilot and captain smoking and yarning pretty easy and relaxed. I gave the pistol to the captain and he heard my report out without blowing a boiler.

"No good ever came of cards," put in the pilot sourly and he aimed a cuff at the boy on the wheel, "You mark that well, Sid."

"Yes, sir. Never play cards, no good will come of it," Sidney recited staring straight ahead.

To cut a long story short the Captain roused out a deckhand who, having been a surgeon's assistant in the war, had surely seen worse wounds than Lachaux's. He made a fair job of stopping the bleeding but declined to haul out the slug since he lacked the correct instrument. Early next morning we put in at Vicksburg and set Lachaux down with his bags on the quay, now feverish and cussin' fit to shock the devil. Some loafers undertook to wheel him in a cart to the doctor's office so that he could get Sexton's derringer slug dug out and the bones set. By rights we should have found the Vicksburg sheriff and let him decide what should happen to Sexton, but the captain was in no mind to hang around wasting time so that some small town lawman could strut around taking statements from witnesses and generally, as he put it, ‘making a regular balleyhooey over one drunken fool taking a pop at another over a damned poker game.’

Winters never came back into the salon after that evening. I reckon he spent the rest of the voyage figuring out how to explain to his Pa that a good chunk of the money entrusted to him had disappeared. Pickles wandered in one evening when it was quiet and we chawed over what had happened. Pickles said Sexton had fired through the leather of his bag as soon as he saw the revolver, and that the shot that Lachaux got off was just the reaction to the derringer slug hitting his arm. In his view Sexton had never been as drunk as he appeared to be, but he could not see how he could have stacked the deck in such a way that he came out the winner. He laughed off the idea that he and Lachaux had been working together to fleece Sexton of his money.

"Not I, sir. Never saw the creature before he stepped on board at Memphis, and I certainly would not have sat down to cards with him if I'd known he was liable to produce a weapon. Nor Sexton either, for that matter. You Americans are too free with your revolving pistols, in my humble opinion."

What happened to Sexton and his lovely daughter I didn’t find out until some years later, for they lay pretty low in their cabins next day and I believe they skipped off quietly at Natchez when we were taking on wood.

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