The Guitar Man – Part 8: Mark Twain and Me
After his brilliant short series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment is available here.
Part 8: Mark Twain and Me
Mark Twain was much as I expected him to be in manner and, in appearance, exactly as the various likenesses and photographs I had seen in periodicals and newspapers. A rotund, stocky man in a crumpled white linen suit, about my height, weathered face, penetrating eyes and the one-time, long ago, tawny hair turned shaggy and white. A large drooping moustache wandered across his mouth almost obscuring he upper his lip. But it was the eyes, the accented voice and laughing charm that warmed me to him.
Dinner was over and we strolled out onto the balcony, in the courtyard below a small group of creoles were jamming quietly in one corner and in the open space dancers hugged each other as if the world were about to end. Then, later that evening we, the five of us, sat around the dining table listening as the soulful sound drifted in through the open double doorway. The subject was of music.
Mark Twain addressed me directly. ‘I particularly liked your version of John Henry, man against machine as it always is now and forever will be. The Pandora’s box has been opened, labouring men will have less and less of a say in what they do and the Lord knows that little enough is as it is. Hammer against a steam drill, I liked your growling spirited version, son, although the so-called blues may not be too popular in some quarters I would imagine.’
He smiled at me and raised his glass, I felt ten feet high and growing.
‘Mark, did I mention to you that Johnny is a writer?’ Jessie had to get it in and I suddenly felt embarrassed, it was an imposition and the fact that I had had a couple of fanciful stories published in a small magazine back east, hardly made me a writer.
He beamed fondly at her. ‘Several times, my dear Jessica, but I have known you too long to think that was the reason you asked me to dinner.’ He turned to me. ‘And I can tell by the look of dismay on your weathered face that you are a‘squirming with embarrassment. Please do not be. Jessica and I have known each other for many years, actually since I was a river pilot here on the Big River, I was a close friend of her husband until I saw him to be as large a scallywag as the rest of his fellow politicians. George and I quarrelled and I am afraid the lovely Jessica was my sacrifice on the altar of correctness.’
I offered a smile by way of understanding.
‘She has told me of some of your adventures and I would consider them to be folksy and true enough as to paint, in part at least, an insight as to what was and, in some quarters, still is considered to be, the wild west. Keep at it, I did and look where I am now,’ he paused. ‘At a fine table with good and admiring friends, enjoying a deep red wine, excellent food and the envy of many.’ He chuckled, ‘do you aspire for such things, Johnny Guitar?’
And there it was, the name I now seem to stuck with.
‘If a man starts something, he is more likely to finish it than a man who never starts anything… I may have to work on that one a little but I’m sure you get my drift.’ He turned his smiling attention to Jessie. And now, my dear, if you will summon your carriage I will return to my hotel, I have an early speaking engagement tomorrow.’ He took the watch from his vest pocket, studied it for a moment and added. ‘Today actually, as it is well past midnight.’
Jessie and I walked him the carriage stationed at the wrought iron gate while Georgianna and Harry Coen watched and waved from the balcony.
I shook the great man’s hand and he hugged Jessie. ‘Fine meal, Jessica my dear’ and I leave you with this thought, A free meal is the best kind of meal that money can’t buy…’
And then he was gone. I walked my lovely lady back to the dining room and we talked, the four of us, long into the night.
We travelled well that winter and early spring found us back on the Big River and signed up to the Mary Belle for the summer. I had lost a bit of weight, cut down on my smoking and was feeling on top form much to Jessica’s delight. We had other offers but we felt a certain loyalty toward Captain Hook and also the trust in that relationship between us was more important than an extra few hundred dollars for the season on a rival boat.
Billy Bones, the old pilot, said later, they must have been following us for some time like vultures, aware that in the calm of a moonless darkness with the river running low, the possibility of running into a sandbank was a fair likelihood for a night-time steamer on the Mississippi. The previous two days had been stormy, the river running high and the sandbanks freshly raised would prove to be a hazard until the pilots learned of their existence and marked them on the numerous and ever-changing charts.
We were heading back down to New Orleans. The Belle was less than half full as the season was about over. We had performed for the passengers, sung and played our way through the evening and into a late night. Unable to sleep and back into the smoking habit, I was in the wheelhouse with Billy Bones the pilot and a sleepy Captain Hook when we rolled onto the sandbank that lurked only a few inches beneath the dark surface and had not been there on our journey up river.
‘Damn it all to hell.’ Billy Bones cursed as he straightened up and called down for the engine to go astern. The Belle groaned but to no avail the old lady was stuck fast at least until the current changed or the morning tide lifted us clear. There were no reports from the crew of any damage to the bow or to the big stern wheel.
‘Going to be a long night.’ He turned to me. ‘We can split the watch three ways if you are up for joining us, maybe four if Harry isn’t too drunk by now.’
‘Too late on that one, Billy, he was asleep and out of it hours ago.’ I said.
‘Ok, you seem the liveliest you take the first two hours, then me and the pilot can have the last two which should see the water high enough for him to refloat us and get the hell out of here these can be dangerous waters and not just from ‘gators, snakes or shifting sands. If you are not carrying there are a couple of weapons in the chartroom drawer and a shotgun inside the compass binnacle, I keep it there because the compass is slightly off true and the gunmetal balances it nicely. I think they are all loaded.’
They said goodnight and Billy Bones handed me a silver whiskey flask. ‘For company, son.’
As it happened, I already had company but was not aware of it until the big man stepped into the wheelhouse and pointed a revolver at my belly and told me to keep my mouth shut or he would shut it for good. He was very big, unshaven and dirty. His tight ill-fitting shirt ragged and soiled, dirty whipcord pants torn to shreds around the ankles the bare flesh showing the scars and sores of recent leg irons. He poked me again with pistol, his voice was soft, the words without accent, a man from anywhere. ‘You seen enough, fancy man?’ I looked down at the floor and did not show any sign of hearing his question. He laughed and turned away.
He was joined shortly by a second unkempt man, small in stature, a dark-skinned Creole, white teeth and flashing eyes a pistol in his left hand. Both weapons were new and I suspected to be government issue probably the army or maybe the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was a thought. ‘Move it.’ The second man prodded me, moving me forward to the steps leading from the wheelhouse and down into the main saloon.
We were assembled in the large room and joined there by four other armed rag-tag individuals, thirty or so passengers including Jessica, Georgy, the pilot and Captain Hook. Two Creole crewmen joined us there but of Harry Coen there was not a sign. I caught Georgy’s eye but she just shrugged away my unasked question.
The big man climbed onto a table and waved his revolver over our heads. ‘This is how it goes down, folks, one of my men here will walk among you relieving you of any cash and jewellery, if you believe such items to be worth your life then so be it and we’ll take them from your body anyway. Up to you.’ He nodded to his acolytes. ‘Get it done. Anyone objects, kill them and dump them over the side. You,’ he nodded to the man who had joined him in the wheelhouse. ‘Jonah, bring me the captain here he will show you where the safe is at. That right, Cap?’
Hook shrugged, ‘Do I have a choice, you thieving river rat.’
It wasn’t a question but the big man answered him anyway. ‘Sure, you do, Cap, and for every minute of my time you waste, one of your passengers will be iced and dumped, so yes, you do have a choice, what’s it going to be?’
‘It’s in the wheelhouse, the binnacle. We don’t have a regular safe, too obvious should we ever run across scum like you.’
The man laughed. ‘Sticks and stones, Cap, been called worse than that by better men than you. What’s a binnacle?’
‘The compass housing.’
‘Get it done, Jonah, take him up, call me if you need me.’ He moved away, walking among the crowd still smiling, filling a gunny sack with loot. When he reached Jessica he stopped, reached out and touched her left breast and that was it for me. I kicked the man who had stayed at my side since we left the wheelhouse and grabbed his pistol, at about that same time there the unmistakeable roar of a shotgun in a confined space from the wheelhouse. The man I kicked was reaching for me and his cocked gun went off in my hand the round hitting him in the foot. At that moment Hook arrived at the top of the ladder with the 16-gauge shotgun in his hand one barrel smoking. The big man fired a wild round and Hook dodged back and out of sight.
It was utter confusion. The man on the floor was screaming in agony clutching his bloody boot and I had dropped the pistol when it had accidently discharged. The big man had dodged behind Jessica his arm tightly around her waist. His gun pointed at me.
‘I would not do that, friend, we hold that lady in very high esteem.’ Harry Coen, again appearing out of nowhere. He stood behind the man and jammed his silver Derringer into the big man’s ear. ‘Drop the gun or your ear is going to be ringing in Hell.’ The man pushed Jessica away and turned his gun pointing at Coen who swivelled around with him, capping a round from the small gun in one ear and out of the other breaking a small wall mirror somewhere behind the falling man’s head. And it was all over. The remaining escaped convicts, as indeed that is what they were, had busted out for a prison barge on its way to New Orleans and was aground somewhere ahead of the Belle. They surrendered to Hook and, the wide awake and armed Billy Bones without a fight.
‘What was it Mr Twain told you? Something like, write about what you see, what you do and what you feel. Tell it like it is, don’t make it up, relive it. It will sell back east. Trust me, son? Was it something like that, Johnny?’
I stared at her. The four of us were gathered in my room, I was trying to drink away my shaking hands, Harry was standing by the open door, smoking and quietly staring out over the moonlit river and into the frothy wake of the Belle and the women were talking and laughing like it was all theatre.
I wanted to tell them to go to hell, it was best forgotten but then again, maybe the grey-haired old rascal was right, not in a story though, but just maybe a song or a ballad. After all that’s what I do…