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Waking up the Wrong Passenger by Jonathan F. Kelley


In “comparing notes” with a travelled friend, I glean from his stock of information, gathered South-west, a few incidents in the life of a somewhat extensively famed Boston panoramic artist—one of which incidents, at least, is worth rehearsing. Some years ago, the South-west was beset by an organized coalition of desperadoes, whose daring outrages kept travellers and the dwellers in the Mississippi valley in continual fear and anxiety. “Running niggers” was one of the most popular and profitable branches of the business pursuits of these gentlemen freebooters, and, next to horse-stealing, was the most practised.

At length, the citizens “measured swords” with the freebooters, or land pirates, more properly; forming themselves into committees, the citizens opened Court and practised Judge Lynch's code upon a multitude of just occasions. At the time of which we write, Mill's Point, on the Mississippi, was no great shakes of a town, but a spot where a very considerable amount of whiskey was drank, and a corresponding quantity of crime and desperate doings were enacted; indeed, some of the worst scenes in Southern Kentucky's tragic dramas were performed there. It so fell out, that some of the land pirates had been actively engaged in levying upon the negroes and mules around Mill's Point, and the protective committee were on the alert to capture and administer the law upon these fellows. It was discovered, one evening, as the shades of a black and rather tempestuous night were closing upon the mighty “father of waters” and his ancient banks, that a mysterious voyageur, or sort of piratical vidette, was seen in his light canoe, hugging the shore, either for shelter or some insidious purpose.

The canoe and its navigator were diligently watched; but the coming storm and darkness soon closed observation, and the parties noticing the transaction hurried forward to the Point, and announced one or more of the land pirates in the neighborhood! Of course, the town—of some four houses, six “groceries,” a store and blacksmithery—was aroused, indignant! Impatient for a victim, the posse comitatus “fired up,” armed to the teeth with pistol, bludgeon, blunderbuss, gun, bowie-knife, and—whiskey, started up the river to reconnoitre and intercept the pirate and his crew.

Each nook and corner along shore, for some three miles, was carefully—as much so as the darkness would admit—scoured. The Storm-King rode by, the stars again twinkled in the azure-arched heavens, and soon, too, the bright silver moon beamed forth, and suddenly one of the vigilant committee espies the land-pirate and his canoe noiselessly floating down the rapid stream! No time was to be lost; the committee man, rather pleased with the fact of his being the first to make the discovery, apprised a comrade, and the two hurried back to the Point, to get a canoe and start out to capture the enemy. The canoe was obtained, three courageous men, armed to the teeth, as the saying goes, paddled off, and indeed they had not far to paddle, for right ahead they saw the mysterious canoe of the enemy! Where was the pirate? Asleep! Lying down in his frail vessel; either asleep, or “playing possum.” At all events, the Mills-Pointers gave the enemy but a brief period to sleep or act; for, dashing alongside, a brawny arm seized the victim in the strange canoe by the breast and throat, with such a rush and fierceness that both canoes were upon the apex of “swamping.”

“Don't move! Don't budge an inch, or you're a case for eels, you thief!”

“Make catfish bait of him at once!” yelled the second.

“Don't move,” cried the third, “don't move, you possum, or you're giblets, instanter!”

But these injunctions scarcely seemed necessary, for, even had the captive been so inclined, he neither possessed the power nor opportunity to move a limb.

“Haul him out,” cried one.

“Yes, lug him into our boat,” said another; “so now, you skunk, lay still; don't open your trap, or I'll brain you on sight!”

Having transferred the body of the captive from his “own canoe” to theirs, the Mills-Pointers made fast the stranger's dug-out, and then paddled for the landing. The pirate was duly hauled ashore, or on to the wharf-boat, and left under guard of one of the captors—a dreadful ugly-looking customer, a cross between a whiskey-cask, bowie-knife, and a Seminole Indian or bull-dog, and armed equal to an arsenal—while the other two went up to the nearest “grocery,” reported the capture, took a drink, and sent out word for Court to meet. The poor victim was deposited on his back across some barrels, with his hands tied behind him. Recovering his scattered senses, the pirate “waked up.”

“Look here, my virtuous friend,” said he to his body-guard, who sat on an opposite barrel, with a heavy pistol in his hand, “what's all this about?”

“Shet up!” responded the guard; “shet up your gourd. You'll know what's up, pooty soon, you ugly cuss, you!”

“Well, that's explicit, anyhow!” coolly continued the captive. “But all I want to know, is—am I to be robbed, killed off, or only initiated into the mysteries of your craft?”

“Shet up, you piratin' cuss, you; shet up, or I'll give you a settler!” was the reply.

[Illustration: “Shet up, you piratin' cuss you; shet up or I'll give you a settler!—Page 305.]

“Well, really, you are accommodating,” cavalierly replied the but little daunted captive. “One thing consoling I glean, my virtuous friend, from your scraps of information—you are not a pirate yourself, or in favor of that science! But I should like to know, old fellow, where I am, and what the deuce I'm here for.”

“Well, you'll soon diskiver the perticklers, for here comes the Court, and they'll have you dancin' on nothin' and kickin' at the wind, pooty soon; you kin stake your pile on that!”

And with this, a hum was heard, and soon a mob of a dozen well- stimulated citizens, and strangers about the Point, came rushing and yelling on to the wharf-boat and were quite as immediately gathered around the captive. The first impulse of the posse comitatus appeared to manifest itself in a desire to hang the victim—straight up! A second (how sober we know not) thought induced them to ask a question or two, and for this purpose the presiding judge drew up before the still prostrate captive, and said—

“Who are you? What have you got to say for yourself, anyhow?”

The sunburnt, ragged, and rather romantic-looking prisoner turned his face towards the judge, and replied—

“I have nothing of consequence to say, neighbor. I would like to know, however, what all this means!”

“Where's your crew, you villain?” said the judge.

“Crew? I have never found it necessary to have any, neighbor; navigation never engrossed a great deal of my attention, but I get along down here very well—without a crew!”

“You do?” responded the judge; “well, we're going to hang you up.”

“You are, eh?” was the cool reply; “well, I have always been opposed to capital punishment, neighbor, and I know it would be unpleasant to me now!”

The quiet manner of his reply rather won upon the Court, and says the judge

“Who are you, and where are you from?”

“My name is Banvard—John Banvard, from Boston!”

“It is, eh? What are you doing along here, alone in a canoe?”

Taking a panorama of the Mississippi, neighbor, that's all.

The Court adjourned sine die; the clever artist was untied, treated to the best the market afforded, that night; his canoe, rifle, &c., restored next day, and John went on his way rejoicing in his narrow escape—finished his sketches, and the first great panorama “got up” in our country, and which he took to Europe, after making a fortune by it in America.


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