I had never seen Jack as troubled as she was when she left the Peg Leg House. It was clear from the man’s tone that Jason Horne—by now somewhere west of Syracuse—was already aware that his money was missing. The news had traveled up the canal all the way to Troy, and that had to be bad for us. Just how bad, I would not know until Jack returned. I could do nothing but sit in the tavern and fret over the possibility that Jack and Lukas Ramsey were outside locked in battle. And even if that were the case, what help would I be?
The din and confusion inside The Peg Leg made it difficult to keep my mind focused on the problem. One of the boys thought he recognized the tune being fiddled; he stood up and started singing in a voice as loud as it was dissonant, driving the dancers off the floor. Some of his friends joined in while others began booing and hooting for them to stop.
Another group of men had entered the tavern, each carrying a caged rooster, and began setting up a pit in the corner for the bantams to fight. The birds seemed ready, flapping and crowing as they angrily eyed each other.
The fiddler had found another tune, unfamiliar to the erstwhile singer, and the dancing resumed. A lady approached me then, and asked why I was not on the dance floor. I told her I did not know how to dance.
“Well, it’s not too late to learn.” She said and pulled me out of my seat. She tried to show me how to place my feet, lifting her skirts to show the movements of her own, but I ended up just haphazardly jumping as I watched her dance. It was a jig or a reel—something fast and bouncy—and, as the girl was wearing a blouse cut low enough to show the cleft of her breasts, my focus was drawn to her bosom more than her feet. When the fiddle played a slow song, she held me close and, once again, her astounding bosom was the center of my attention. After another fast tune and some more exuberant movement, we sat down, winded.
“That was a fine lesson,” I laughed, “how can I repay you?”
“How about a glass of ale?” she said, smiling back at me.
I purchased two pints of ale, and we spoke amiably as we drank them. Her name was Elsie, and even in the dim light, I could see that she was somewhat older than I, but very pretty, with fair skin and rosy cheeks, red lips and a head of wild black curls that fell to her shoulders. She asked what I did and I told her I was a trapper, who had just sold his winter catch.
“And did the furs bring you much?” she asked.
“A bounty.” I replied.
She seemed much interested now in making me aware of the gambling opportunities offered by the Peg Leg. There were men playing cards, with much intensity, at tables throughout the room. Of course, the cockfights would start soon, but those who could not wait were wagering on which of two cockroaches would be the first to walk outside a prescribed circle.
I told her I was not keen on gambling, but she persisted. Later that night there would be prizefights with the Bully of Rochester. Having recently defeated the Bully of Buffalo, he had declared himself invincible and would take on all comers. Some of the local boys thought the declaration premature and were prepared to challenge.
“Surely, you’ll wager on the fights.” She implored.
I was intrigued by the thought, but I knew nothing of fighting and had never before wagered on anything.
“Why don’t I just take you upstairs, then?” she said with a wink, “That’s something you can’t refuse.”
I wondered what was being played upstairs but before I could ask, the fiddler announced that the entertainment was about to commence. A lithe looking man stood next to him bouncing on his toes; the fiddler introduced him as Davey, and the crowd went wild.
“What is this?” I asked Elsie.
“He’s wonderful,” she said, “you’ll love the show.”
Behind the musicians was a staircase to the rooms on the second floor. Davey, in trousers and shirtsleeves, took his bows at the foot of the stairs, as the crowd cheered. With flair, he bolted up the staircase but, when he reached the landing, a man came from the shadows and dealt him, what to me appeared to be a sound blow to the head with a hammer. Davey came tumbling down the staircase, arse over teakettle, landing flat on the ground. I thought him unconscious if not outright dead. But Davey arose, took his bows and the patrons of the Peg Leg cheered loudly and threw coins onto the floor at his feet. He bowed again, and with all humility, picked the coins off the floor. Then he queued up to do it again; once more up the stairs, once more a blow from the hammer, and another wildly dangerous tumble down the stairs. He bowed to the accolades, scooped up the coins and prepared for another ascent.
Again and again he ascended the stairs, meeting the hammer each time and tumbling wildly back down. Each time bowing to the crowd and gathering up the tossed coins. After the fifth tumble, Davey picked up his hat and ran out the back door. The crowd went wild, cheering, stomping their feet, and throwing even more coins. But it looked like Davey was not coming back.
“He never does more than five.” Elsie told me, “He leaves the coins for the house.”
The shouting and stomping continued, the crowd wanted more from their star and would not abate until the fiddler raised his arms and shouted that Davey had left the building.
Elsie grabbed my arm, and instinctively I put mine around her waist. “Have you ever seen anything like Davey?” she asked.
The whole show had me laughing, and as I was about to tell Elsie what I thought of Davey, When I saw Jack, from the corner of my eye, storming back into the tavern.
“Pratt, you idjit, I’m not gone ten minutes, and you’re taking up with whores?” If there had been a fight, it appeared Jack fared well. I was, at least, glad of that.
“No Jack,” I said, “this is Elsie. She taught me some dance steps and told me about the Peg Leg. There’ll be prizefighting later.”
“Sorry, missy,” Jack said to Elsie, “but Mr. Pratt will not be available for prizefighting tonight.”
“No, Jack, it’s no trouble. Elsie and I were just dancing and talking.”
“Whataya say, Miss Elsie,” said Jack, with blood in her eyes, “can we let the boy down easy?”
Elsie, with a cold smile, stared at Jack for the longest time then said, “I’ll do you both for a cut price.”
“Not tonight, Missy we have ground to cover.”
And as Jack pulled me out of the Peg Leg I could hear Elsie call back, “That is a pity.”
Jack hurried me through the darkness, away from the Peg Leg.
“My God, Pratt, “ she said, “are you trying to tell me you didn’t know you were consorting with a painted whore?”
“I’m sorry Jack, I thought she was just being friendly.”
“I know you can’t help being stupid, Pratt, but this ain’t the kind of town where folks are friendly.”
Jack was walking so fast I nearly had to run to keep up. She slowed down a bit to explain where we were going, or rather what we were running from. She had seen some of Ramsey’s men at the Tub of Blood and heard them loudly discussing their plans to waylay a pair of canal thieves. Jason Horne had offered a reward for the return of his money, and the men were discussing whether to claim the reward or tell Jason to go to hell and keep the money.
“Fortunately for us,” Jack said, “Ramsey’s crew is just as stupid as you are. They’re planning to get drunk and visit some ladies before venturing out against us. If we head down this road a little further, then into the woods, we’ll be safe.”
But she had no sooner said this when we were grabbed from behind by two of Ramsey’s men, each as burly and strong as their captain. They held us fast while Ramsey came forward and met us head-on.
“Stupid, is it?” Ramsey spit, “Well who’s stupid now, Jack Horne?”
“I know you’re after Jason’s money, Ramsey, and it ain’t worth me getting kilt over,” Jack said. “Let me hand it over peaceful.”
Ramsey nodded to his man, and he let loose of Jack’s arm enough for her to reach into her coat for the pouch. She handed it to Ramsey, who hefted it and appeared satisfied with the weight.
“Now let us go.” Jack said.
“Not so fast, hoggee.” Ramsey said. “That ain’t the deal. Your brother wants the money and you too.”
“Well, let this feller go at least.” Jack nodded toward me. “He has nothing to do with this.”
“Jason said there was two a ya. “
“No, no, that other poor fool was just a passenger running away from his people. After we jumped, he went one way, I went t’other.”
“Who’s this then?”
“Just some fool from the Peg Leg come out to ask me about employment on the canal.”
“Why, this scarecrow wouldn’t last a day on the canal.”
“Exactly what I told him,” Jack said. “He’s got a whore waiting back inside the Peg Leg. He’ll want to get back to that.”
“Well if Jason Horne ain’t gonna pay for him, I ain’t gonna haul him. Let him go, Butch.”
My captor freed my arms. I solemnly tipped my hat to Captain Ramsey and hurried back to the Peg Leg.
“Now let’s find some suitable accommodations for Jack Horne on our return trip.” Said Ramsey as his men led Jack away.