"Well, Delia darlin', my luck was all bad, at least it was, until I persuaded you to join me," Beauregard Stanton, riverboat gambler and the black sheep of a prominent Charleston family, answered. "Until then, my cards were all bad. I hadn't won a pot."
He reached behind himself to wrap his hand around Cordelia's neck, and give her a long kiss. He loved running his fingers through her long, dark hair. The view down her royal blue, low cut blouse wasn't bad, either. In fact, it was almost enough to make a professional gambler like himself walk away from the table, even in the midst of a winning streak such as he was having, and partake of the delights her womanly body could offer, instead. But just almost. You didn't leave the table when the cards were so hot in your favor. The pleasures of the flesh could always wait until later.
"Beauregard, haven't you won enough for one night? Can't we do something else?" Cordelia pleaded. "I'm getting bored."
"I can't quit when I'm doin' this well, baby," Beauregard answered. He pulled a five hundred dollar bank note from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to her. "Will that keep you from being bored?"
"For a little while, I guess," Cordelia answered, as she slipped the bill into her substantial cleavage. She pursed her lips in a pout.
They were on the Vicksburg Princess, as the sidewheeler plied its way up the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to St. Louis. The riverboat's next stop would be at Natchez, Mississippi.
"Never seen the likes of it," George Murphy, a wealthy planter from Alabama, said. "Stanton, you'd better not quit until the rest of us have a chance to win some of our money back."
"I'll play until you gentlemen call it quits," Beauregard assured him. "It's your deal, Murphy. Start dealin' those cards."
Cordelia flounced away while the men turned back to their game. A few minutes later, she was in the boat's pilot house. Captain George Hollings was concentrating on steering the Princess against the high-running Mississippi's treacherous, swirling currents, hidden snags, and sandbars. Cordelia came up behind him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Good evenin', my Captain," she purred.
"Evenin', Delia. I'm sorry I can't stop right now and turn over the Princess to one of the pilots. This is a really treacherous stretch of water we're in through here. And with no moon, it's dark as pitch on this river."
"Does that mean I can't steer right now?" Cordelia said, a frown on her face.
"I'm afraid it does, darlin'," Hollings answered. "Do you have anythin' else to tell me?"
"I certainly do, my big, strong hunk of a riverman," Cordelia answered. "I've got us a real good pigeon. A wealthy gambler out of Charleston, name of Beauregard Stanton. He's winning real big. I figure if his lucky streak keeps going, we'll have us a whole pile of money by tomorrow mornin'."
"Then hadn't you get back down to the gambling parlor, to make certain of that?" Hollings asked.
"That's exactly what I intend to do," Cordelia assured him. "I just wanted to let you know what was happening, so you'll be ready when it's time to make our move."
"I always have been, haven't I?" Hollings answered. "Now, you'd better let me concentrate on this river, or instead of rich, we may all be at its bottom, buried in the mud."
"Of course, George."
Cordelia gave him another peck on the cheek, then headed back to the main deck to rejoin Beauregard Stanton.
It was shortly after four in the morning when Cordelia returned to the pilot house. While it was a bit unusual for the captain of a riverboat to pilot the craft overnight, oftentimes circumstances called for it. The dangerous stretch of the Mississippi the Vicksburg Princess was traversing as she fought her way upstream, caused the captain to take charge, rather than trust it to one of his mates. He let them handle the boat during the daylight. Cordelia slipped up behind him, wrapped her arms around his waist, and kissed him on the back of his neck.
"Not now, Delia, darlin',' he said. "In another half hour, we should be in smoother water. I'll have time for you then."
"Will I finally be able to take the wheel?" Cordelia wheedled.
"We'll see, but I think so," Hollings answered. In the meantime, why don't you find something to do?"
"That's exactly what I intend to do," Cordelia said, "but don't you want to hear about how my night went?"
"If you mean are we going to make a lot of money, I'm all ears," Hollings said.
The Princess gave a violent shudder, and listed slightly, before righting herself.
"You might be all ears, but you'd better keep your hands on the wheel," Cordelia said.
"I would, if you'd stop nibbling on my ear, and keep your hands out of my pants," Hollings retorted.
"Be that way," Cordelia snapped, forming her lips into a pout. "Anyway, yes, George, we're about to make quite a haul. Over ten thousand dollars, in fact."
"You're right, Delia. That is a goodly sum."
"And it will soon be all ours, George. Just yours and mine. But, as you said, right now, I have to find something to do. And that something is finishing the job I started. With any luck at all, the half hour you just mentioned will be exactly the amount of time I need to get it done. I'll be back as soon as it is."
She chewed on the base of Hollings' neck, and slid her hand inside his shirt to rub his belly.
"Don't you go anywhere, now," she warned.
"With you, and a fortune, waiting for me?" Hollings said. "Not a chance."
"Yes, Salde? What is it?"
"I have a note from a lady for you. Miss Devens, to be precise."
"Well then, hand it to me, and return to your lookout post. We can't chance hitting any snags or floating debris that might cripple or sink this boat," Hollings said.
"Yessir, Cap'n." Salde handed him the note.
"Thank you, Salde," Hollings said, then returned his attention to steering the Princess. He unfolded the note, and spread it on the wheel's hub.
"I'm sorry, George," he read. "My work is going to take somewhat more time than I'd thought. Once I've finished with it, I'll be going straight to my stateroom, and calling it a night. I'll see you tomorrow. Fondly, Delia."
"Humph," Hollings muttered. He crumpled the note, and left the pilot house for just a moment, to toss it into the roiling waters of the mighty Mississippi.
An hour later, the Vicksburg Princess started to vibrate badly, her entire hull shaking so violently it appeared the riverboat's hull would be shaken to pieces and torn asunder, sending her plunging to the bottom. At the same time, the boat's sidewheel became unbalanced, its paddles not smoothly churning the water, but instead striking it with a vicious thumping with each rotation.
"What the. . . ?" Hollings cursed. He hauled back on the controls, putting the boat into a shuddering, full stop.
"Drop anchor!' he shouted, adding a prayer under his breath that the anchor would hold against the mighty Mississippi's current. "And Salde, see what the devil is wrong with the paddlewheel. Let me know immediately.
"Yessir, Cap'n,' the second mate answered, then hurried off to do his captain's bidding.
Even over the thrumming of the idling engine, and the soft hissing of the water as it splashed around his boat, Hollings could hear yells of excitement, accompanied by shrieks of fear and shock, while he waited for Salde to return. It was a good ten minutes before the second mate got back to the pilot house. Salde was visibly shaken, his face pale, his entire body trembling uncontrollably.
"Well, what is it, Salde?" Hollings demanded. "What's got you so frightened? What the devil has happened? Spit it out, man."
"Yes. . . yessir, Cap'n," Salde stammered. "It's the gambler, Stanton. Somehow, he must have fallen over the side, and fell into the paddlewheel. He got lodged in it. Some of the men are pulling what's left of him out of it, right now. What do you want to do, Cap'n?"
"I don't know," Hollings said. "You say he fell overboard? Could he possibly have been shoved over the side?"
"I suppose so, Cap'n."
"We'll have to find out for certain. Salde, you take the wheel. There's a good sized cove about a mile upriver, on the Louisiana side. Do you know where I mean?"
"Good. We'll put up there until I can investigate what really happened to Beauregard Stanton. We'll be out of the main current there, so we won't have to worry about the anchor holding. Get her moving, Salde. You're in charge of the Princess until she's anchored."
Hollings turned the wheel over to his second mate, then, as Salde barked orders, hurried out of the pilot house, heading for the main deck. Somehow, Beauregard Stanton didn't strike him as the type of man who would just fall off a riverboat, even after a full night of drinking and gambling. No, some of the pieces of this puzzle didn't quite fit.
A few moments later, Hollings was on the main deck. The battered mortal remains of Beauregard Stanton were lying on the wet floorboards. Cordelia Devens was bent over the body, wailing hysterically in her grief.
Hollings called to one of the deckhands.
"Baxter, who found him?"
"I did, cap'n," Jacob Baxter admitted. I heard a thump, then the wheel started into shakin'. When I went to see what was wrong, I found. . . well, you can see what I found."
"Who was with him last?"
"I. . . I was," Cordelia said, sobbing. "He accompanied me to my stateroom after the card game broke up."
"Did he go into your room?"
"Of course not," Cordelia retorted, indignant now. "Beauregard, Mr. Stanton, is. . . I mean, was, a perfect gentleman. He would never take advantage of a lady. He escorted me to my stateroom merely to make certain I arrived there safely. We said good night, then shook hands. He took my hand and kissed it, like a true Southern aristocrat would. That was all. I retired to my room, until I was disturbed by all the shouting. To think it was Mr. Stanton who. . . who. . . ."
Cordelia pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, then fainted.
"Miss Devens!" Hollings exclaimed.
"I'll take care of her, Captain," Rufus Scott, the boat's doctor, said.
"Take her to my cabin, and place her on my bed," Hollings ordered. "Stay with her until I join you."
"What about Mr. Stanton?" Scott asked. "Shouldn't I examine the body, on the chance he was murdered?"
"I believe there's not enough left of him to figure that out," Hollings answered. "However, you are correct, of course. I'll only be a few moments, just questioning if anyone else might have seen or heard Stanton fall overboard. Once I'm done, I'll come straight to my cabin. Then you can examine the body, and report your findings to me."
"Of course, Captain."
Scott picked up Cordelia to carry her to Hollings' cabin. Hollings knelt alongside Stanton's body to examine it more closely.
Thirty minutes later, Hollings returned to his cabin. Cordelia was lying on his bed. Doctor Scott was just removing a cool, wet cloth from her forehead. She gave Hollings a slight smile when she saw him.
"Captain, I'm so sorry about all the fuss I've caused," she said.
"Don't trouble yourself about that," Hollings answered. "Seeing Mr. Stanton's body must have been quite a shock. How is she doing, Rufus?"
"She'll be just fine," Dr. Scott assured him. "In fact, she no longer needs my services, so I'd like to go examine the body. Did anyone see Stanton fall?"
"No. There appear to be no witnesses to what happened," Hollings answered. "I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me more, once your post mortem is completed."
"I'll return as soon as that's done." Scott left, closing the door behind him. Immediately, Cordelia sat up. She took Hollings' hand to pull him down alongside her.
"I thought you'd never get here, George," she said. "Did I put on a good enough show?"
"You mean. . . you knew what happened to Stanton?" Hollings said.
"Of course I did. After the card game was over, we went back to my cabin. I fixed him a special drink, one that made him kind of sick and woozy. When he complained of being dizzy, I suggested we go for a walk, that perhaps the air would clear his head. When we did, I gave him a shove over the side. I didn't really expect him to get stuck in the paddlewheel, though. I'd planned on him just disappearing into the river. But before we stepped onto the deck, I made certain to remove his billfold. Its contents are large enough to choke a horse. Once we reach Natchez, we can just disappear. We're rich beyond our wildest dreams, George, darling. Now, give me a kiss."
"I can't, not at the moment. I've ordered the Princess to put into a cove just upriver, until I've talked to everyone on the boat. It's just a formality, of course, since I now know what the ‘job' you had to complete was, but I do have to go through the motions. In fact, it would probably be best we don't seem too close. Once we're off the boat, then it won't matter. We'll have all the time in the world. Now, I'd better get back to the pilot house."
"Of course, George. I understand completely."
Hollings turned to leave. When he did, Cordelia pulled a long, thin-bladed knife from her garter, and plunged it into his back. Hollings pitched to his face, quivered, and lay still.
"You didn't realize it, George, but having this boat put up on the Louisiana side of the river played right into my hands. Now I don't have to find a way to get rid of you, and get out of Mississippi and into Louisiana. Merci, mon capitaine."
Cordelia changed into a simple blouse and skirt. She gathered up the few belongings she would need, making certain the money she'd stolen from Beauregard Stanton was wrapped in oilcloth, then placed in her beaded reticule. She looped the purse's string around her neck, then tucked it into her substantial cleavage. Leaving the stateroom, she hid herself in the shadow of a vent pipe on the main deck. When the Princess pulled into the cove and slowed completely to a stop, she dove into the river. A short swim later, and she was on Louisiana soil, fading into the tangled underbrush.
"Don't move, lady," a deep male voice ordered. "This is Sheriff Ned Odom. You're Cordelia Devens."
"That's right, Sheriff. But what do you want with me?" Cordelia asked.
"Don't play coy with me," Odom answered. "There's warrants out for you from Mississippi and Louisiana, for robbery and murder. I'm takin' you in. Turn around, real slow."
Cordelia turned to face her captor. She gave him a smile, the a pout.
"I didn't do any such thing, Sheriff. Take a good look at me. Do you really think sweet little ol' me could harm even a fly?"
"Frankly, yes," Odom said. "Now stand hitched while I search you, and tie you up."
Efficiently, Odom searched Cordelia, removing the knife from her garter, and a short-barreled pistol from her waistband. He found the stolen cash in her large purse.
"So, you wouldn't rob a man, eh? Now just stay quiet while I make certain you can't escape."
After tying her tightly hands behind her back, arms bound at her chest and waist, he ordered her onto a waiting horse, then mounted his own.
"Get movin', lady," he ordered.
Odom had no sooner uttered those words when a man stepped out of the brush, guns in both hands, blazing. Every bullet tore into the sheriff, knocking him out of his saddle.
"Brady!" Cordelia cried. "I was beginning to think I'd never see you again. Why weren't you waiting for me in Nacogdoches, like we planned? And thank goodness you weren't."
"Lemme just check this hombre first, and make certain he's done for," Brady Hicks answered. He used the toe of his boot to roll the bullet-riddled sheriff onto his back.
"Well?" Cordelia asked.
"He's done for, all right," Hicks answered. "Let me get you loose."
As he untied Cordelia, he explained, "There was a wanted poster hangin' in front of the marshal's office in town, with your name and description on it. Soon as I saw Odom head out of town, I knew he was on the trail after you. I followed him, but lost him for a little while. Luckily I picked up his tracks again before he got you into town. There's a horse and buggy waiting just behind those trees. I figure we'll head north, into Arkansas."
Cordelia slid from the horse and kissed Hicks full on the lips, hard. "Let's take the spare horses along, in case we need them. Besides, the money's now in the sheriff's saddlebags. If anyone should discover us, we can claim we found the dear lawman and the money, and were bringing them to town."
"That makes sense," Hicks agreed. "I'll tie Odom onto his horse, then bring both animals along and tie them behind the buggy. You wait for me."
"Of course, darling."
Cordelia waited behind the buggy's left front wheel, while Hicks tied the dead sheriff belly-down over his horse, then led both mounts to the buggy.
"Wait, before you tie them,' Cordelia said. "I thought I heard something in the brush over there."
"Where?" Hicks pulled out his gun, then got behind the wheel along with Cordelia.
"Right over there," Cordelia said, pointing toward a nearby bayou. While Hicks ran his gaze over the bushes, Cordelia slipped behind him, pulled the gun from his left hand holster, shoved it into his spine, and fired. Hicks dropped dead, without a sound.
"You men are all alike," Cordelia muttered. "You'll do anything for a pretty face and nice figure. Well, every last one of you played right into my hands. . . except the sheriff, and he's dead. You didn't think I'd share all this money, did you? I'm keeping it all for myself."
Cordelia got the money from the sheriff's saddlebags, stuffed it inside her blouse, then mounted the spare horse Odom had brought, and kicked it into a gallop. She'd cross the bayou, then head north, fast.
When the horse hit the edge of the murky water, it reared high, screaming in terror. Cordelia was thrown into the bayou. Instantly, a huge bull alligator grabbed her in its powerful jaws, dragging her under the surface. Cordelia's last move in this life was to pull the money from inside her blouse. A few bills floated to the surface, but most would end up in the alligator's belly, along with its victim.
The horses, one terrified by the 'gator, the others by the commotion, bolted for town. By the time anyone returned to the scene of Cordelia's demise, there would be no sign of the devious riverboat queen. Folks in Nacogdoches would forever believe Sheriff Ned Odom had been shot by Brady Hicks, but hadn't been completely dead when Hicks tied him to his horse, and managed to pull out a hideout gun and shoot his murderer. But a century and a half later, there are still tales of a ghostly female, who prowls the banks of the bayou, crying out for her lost fortune.