In the early days of St. Louis, before the roar of commerce or manufactures had drowned the free laugh and merry song of the jolly keel boatmen, those primitive navigators of the "Father of Waters" tied up their crafts beneath the bluff, which then, eighty feet in height, rose perpendicular from the water's edge in front of the city. On the top of the bluff then, as now, a number of doggeries held forth their temptations to the hardy navlgator, and they were often the scene of the wildest kind of revelry.
At that time Mike Fink, the chief among keel boatmen, was trading to St. Louis, and he frequently awoke the inhabitants by his wild freaks and dare-devil sprees. Mike was celebrated for the skill with which he used the rifle-then the constant companion of western men. It was his boast that he could "jest shoot whar he'd a mind to with his Betsy," as he familiarly termed his "shooting iron," and his companions, for the pleasure of noting his skill, or exhibiting it to some stranger, would often put him to the severest kind of tests.
One day, while lying upon the deck of his boat below the St. Louis bluff, with two or three companions, the conversation turned upon Mike's last shot; and one of the party ventured the opinion that his skill was departing. This aroused the boatmen into a controversy, and from their conversation might be learned the manner of the shot which was the subject of dispute. It was thus: One of the party, at a distance of one hundred yards, had placed a tin cup between his knees, and Mike had, at that distance, bored the centre of the cup.
"I'll swar I don't hold that cup agin for you, Mike," remarked the doubter, "for thur is the delicatest kind of a trimble comin' in your hand, and, some of these yur days, you'll miss the cup clar!'
"Miss thunder!" shouted Mike; "why, you consarned corndodger mill, it war you that had the trimbles, and when I gin old Bets the wakin' tetch, you squatted as ef her bark war agoin' to bite you!"
"Oh, well," was the reply, "thar's mor'n one way of gettin' out of a skunk hole, and ef you kin pass the trimbles off on me, why, you kin pass, that's all; but I aint goin' to trust you with a sight at my paddles agin at an hundred paces, that's sartin!'
"Why, you scary varmint," answers Mike, bouncing to his feet and reaching for "Betsy," which stood by the cabin door of the boat, "jest pint out a muskeeter at a hundred yards, and I'll nip off his right hinder eend claw at the second jint afore he kin hum, Oh, don't!"
"Hit a muskeeter, ha, hal" was the tantalizing response of the other; "why, you couldn't hit the hinder part of that nigger's heel up thar on the bluff, 'thout damagin' the bone, and that ain't no shot to crow about."
The negro referred to was seated at the very edge of the bluff, astride of a flour barrel, and one foot hung over the edge. The distance was over one hundred yards, but Mike instantly raised his rifle, with the remark: "I'll jest trim that feller's heel so he kin wear a decent boot!" and off went "Betsy."
The negro jumped from his scat, and uttered a yell of pain, as if, indeed, his whole heel had been trimmed off, and Mike stood a moment with his rifle, listening to the negro's voice, as if endeavoring to define from the sound whether he was really seriously hurt. At last the boatman who had been doubting Mike's present skill remarked:
"You kin leave, now, Mike, fur that darky's master will be arter you with a sharp stick"; and then he further added as a taunt-I knowed Betsy was feelin' for that nigger's bones jest by the way you held her!"
Mike now became a little wrathy, and appeared inclined to use his bones upon the tormentor, but some of the others advised him to hold on-that he would have a chance to exercise them upon the constable. In a short time an officer appeared with a warrant, but as soon as Mike looked at him he gave up the thought of either flight or resistance, and quietly remarked to his companions that the officer was a clever fellow, and "a small hoss in a fight!"
"The only way you kin work him is to fool him," says Mike, "and he's a weazel in that bisness hisself!"
The warrant was produced by the officer and read to the offender, who signified his assent to the demand for his body, and told the representative of the law to lead the way. He did so, and when about to step off the boat he cast his eye back, supposing that Mike was following him, yet a little suspicious. The movement was a prudent one, for he discovered the tail of Mike's hunting shirt at the very moment the owner was retreating into the small cabin at the rear of the boat, which was immediately locked on the inside! All the boatmen, as if by previous concert, began to leave their craft, each bearing away upon his shoulder any loose implement lying about, with which an entrance into the cabin could be forced. The officer paused a moment, and then went to the cabin door, which he commenced persuading the offender to open, and save him the trouble of forcing it. He received no answer, but heard a horrible rustling within. At length getting out of patience, he remarked aloud:
"Well, if you won't open the door I can bum you out!" and he commenced striking fire with a pocket tinder box. The door immediately flew open, and there stood a boatman in Mike's dress: but it wasn't Mike!
"You aint arter me, are you, hoss?" inquired the boatman.
The officer, without reply, stepped inside of the small cabin and looked around. Tlere appeared to be no place to hide a figure as large as Mike, and there was a fellow dressed just like him. The thought immediately came uppermost in the officer's mind that the offender had changed coats outside while his back was turned, to go off the boat, and one of the parties that had walked off was Mike in disguise! He was about to step out when a moccasin-covered heel, sticking out of a hole in a large mattress, attracted his attention, and when he touched it the heel vanished. He put his hand in to feel, and Mike burst out in a hoarse laughl
"Quit your ticklin'!" shouted he. "Consarn your cunnin' pictur', I'll gin in 'thout a struggle."
The other boatman now joined in the laugh, as he helped the officer to pull Mike out of his hiding place. He had changed his garments inside the cabin instead of outside. A crowd of the boatmen also gathered around, and they all adjourned to the bluff, where, after taking drinks, they started in a body for the magistrate's office, who, by the way, was one of the early French settlers.
"Ah, ha!" he exclaimed, as the party entered the door; "here is ze men of ze boat, raisin' ze diable once more time. I shall not know what to do wiz him, by gar. Vat is de mattair now?"
"Why, Squire," broke in Mike, "I've jest come up with the Colonel to collect a small bill offen you!"
"You shall collect ze bill from me?" inquired the justice. "What for you do the city good to de amount of von bill? Ah, ha! You kick up your heel and raise de batter and de salt of de whole town wiz your noise so much as we nevair get some sleep in de night!"
All eagerly gathered around to hear what Mike would reply, for his having a bill against the justice was news to the crowd.
"You jest hit the pint, Squire," said Mike, "when you said that thar word heel! I want you to pay me fur trimmin' the heel of one of your town niggers! I've jest altered his breed, and arter this his posterity kin warr the neatest kind of a boot!"
The boatmen burst into a yell of laughter, and the magistrate into a corresponding state of wrath. He sputtered French and English with such rapidity that it was impossible to understand either.
"Leave ze court, you raskells of ze boat!" shouted the Squire above the noise. "Allez vous-en, vous rogues, I shall nevair ave nosing to do wiz you. You ave treat ze court wiz grand contempt!"
The boatmen, all but Mike, had retired to the outside of the door, where they were still laughing, when Mike again, with a sober and solemn phiz, remarked to the Squire:
"Well, old dad, ef you allays raise h-ll in this ere way fur a little laffin' that's done in your court, I'll be cussed ef I gin you any more of my cases!"
Another roar from the boatmen hailed this remark.
"Constable, clear ze court in une instant, right avay! Les sacre diables of ze river, no know nosing about how to treat wiz de law. I shall ave nosing to do wiz de whole what you call pile of ze rogues!"
"I aint agoin' to stand any more sich law as this," remarked Mike. "Consarn my pictur' ef I don't leave the town!"
"Go to ze devil!" shouted the magistrate.
"I won't," says Mike; "mabbe he's anuther French jestis!"
Amid a torrent of words and laughter Mike retreated to his boat, where he paid the officer for his trouble, and sent a handful of silver to the darky to extract the pain from his shortened heel.