The Great Spy System, or, Nick Carter's Promise to the President



"I really think it was just the neatest thing that I ever did in that line," said the grizzled old Captain Gapsill.

"To what do you allude?" I inquired, knowing that I was about to hear something interesting.

"That little affair I had with Black Ben."

"Black Ben? Who is he?"

"Hain't you ever heard tell of him?" demanded the captain in amazement; and then recollecting himself, be added: "I forgot; that was before your time-at least you must have been quite a younker then. Black Ben, next to Mike Fink, was one of the greatest pirates that ever infested the Mississippi."

"What became of him?"

"I was going to tell you. In the first place, you mustn't imagine he was a negro because be was called Black Ben. He had a skin as dark as a mulatto's, and a fearful lot of great, black, bushy hair, which stood up like bristles; and,as he always went without a hat, I can tell you he was just about the most villainous-looking creature you ever saw. Besides that, he had jet-black whiskers, short and sticking out like needles, and growing up almost, to his eyes; so when you looked at him you saw about a bushel of black, bristling hair, and in the midst his great eyes glowing like coals of fire. He wasn't more than five feet in height; he had short legs, very long arms, and immense muscular power. He generally went dressed as a back-woodsman, and had two comrades - ordinary-looking men, but as bloody and merciless cutthroats as he.

"Black Ben had been seen as far up as Cairo, and as low down as Natchez. He was such a queer-looking creature that it was impossible for him to disguise himself enough to go among the towns, or where he would have run any danger. His principal hunting-ground was from the mouth of the Arkansas north to the Tennessee line. Here he had all the opportunity he wished for biding himself, and I don't believe a party of red Indians ever could have hunted him to his hole. If he hadn't met his fate in the queer manner he did, he might have hunted there until he died of old age.

"In those days a great many flatboats used to pass down the Mississippi on their way to New Orleans, and these were the favorite prey of black Ben and his men. As the river navigation, with its snags and sawyers, is always so dangerous. these boats often lay to under the bank during the night, when the chances are ten to one that the sharp eyes of the pirates detected them, and, at the dead hour of midnight, they stole out as silently as shadows, crept over the boat, cut the throats of the insuspicious sleepers, gutted the craft, then scuttled it and set it afloat. Out in the deep water, it would sink. and that would be the last ever seen or heard of that flatboat

"Black Ben was a horrid dog, and it was no wonder that there was such terror of him all along the river. Captain Hallongton, an old friend of mine, had his boat served in this manner, but the night was so dark that he managed to swim off, although his three men were every one of them murdered. The captain had a hard story to tell, and he offered five hundred dollars to any one who would shoot this bloody cutthroat.

"I had been from Cincinnati down to New Orleans encountering this redoubtable Blue Beard. I had lain to at a place where, it was said, he world be sure to find us; but never once did we catch sight or sound of him, and I would have doubted his existence but for the testimony of Captain Hallongton and his friends, whom I could not refuse to believe.

"'It is strange that I never meet him,' I once said, when he and I were conversing together regarding this river outlaw. 'It must be that he is either afraid of me, or else has a feeling of friendship toward me.'

"'Don't congratulate yourself too soon,' replied my friend. 'Depend upon it, Black Ben will vet pay you a visit.'

"'I have heard so much of him, that I must say my curiosity is really greater than my terror.'"

"See here!" interrupted the captain, starting up in sudden excitement; "you're going to start down the river next week?"

"A week from to-morrow."

"Good! You take Dick and Tom, your usual help?"

"Of course."

"I ship with you as a common hand, just on purpose to help you to a sight of Black Ben. What do you say?"

"The proposition struck me very favorably, and I urged the captain to it. As he was ten times as rich as I was, I didn't exactly like the idea of his going as a common hand, although on my flatboat there was no other position for him. It was finally agreed that he should pass himself as one of my assistants; but as there was no need of his work, he was to do little more than dress himself as such, to deceive any one whom we might encounter while he might accommodate the labor to himself.

"We made all our arrangements as if certain of encountering this fellow. We went more fully armed than we ever did before, and it was agreed that when we reached that part of the river where we had reason to expect the appearance of Black Bell, or where there was the least likelihood of his seeing us, that nobody should show themselves above deck except Captain Hallongton and myself. This was for the purpose of making the pirate believe there were only two of its on board, and thus luring him on to what we hoped would be his destruction.

"Well, we swung loose from Cincinnati one fine morning, and in due time reached the Mississippi, and lay to at Memphis, Tennessee, one stormy night, where we fixed everything to our satisfaction. When we started next morning, Tom and Dick were sent down below in the cabin with the understanding that they were not to show themselves until they had permission to do so.

"It was late in the autumn of 1838, and I remember that the weather was quite chilly, so much so that both Hallongton and myself kept oil our overcoats all the time. We passed to and fro, plainly showing ourselves to any one who might be along the bank. Tom and Dick were allowed to come up only when the night was dark, and then they exchanged places with us so that under no circumstances were more than two, of us visible at the same time.

"Down below Helena on the Arkansas side, we had fixed as the place where we might reasonably look for the appearance. There was a long stretch of wood country, where the wretch's most inhuman deeds had been located.

"It was a cold, blustering night that we worked our boat tinder the wooded shore and made fast to the identical spot where my friend had had his memorable adventure with Black Ben. He recognized it by several landmarks, and assured me that we would hear from the gentleman before many hours had passed over our heads.

"For the last few miles, before tyin' up, we had kept up a sharp scrutiny of the shores in the hope of detecting some signs of the outlaws. I saw nothing; but Halongton was positive he caught several glimpses of a man flitting along the Arkansas bank, and maintaining, a sharp watch upon our movements.

"After we had securely tied up our boat, we went below, after our supper, and then made our final arrangements I should state here that my flatboat was one made after a fashion of my own. It was long and quite narrow, the cabin being, as usual, in the rear. This was made of double thick planking, immediately adjoining the cargo, which stretched away to the bow. A small orifice had been bored through this planking, so that one in the cabin could talk in a whisper to one who was in the main body of the boat among our cargo of pork. This was done at the suggestion of Captain Hallongton, in accordance with a plan which we had formed between us.

"When it was fully dark, Tom and Dick crept carefully over the cabin, in among the pork, and took their position near the hole which I have just mentioned. When we had chatted together awhile, Hallongton did the same, while I maintained my place near the cabin.

"We were so close under the bank that a long limb hung directly over the cabin.

"As it looked quite thick and strong, I grasped it with my hands, and swung myself upon it. The next moment I had climbed to the top of the tree and seated myself near the trunk astride of a large limb, where I patiently awaited whatever was to come.

"Our plans were fully agreed upon, and I knew that I might have sat there until morning without hearing a word from them, or detecting an impatient movement upon their part.

"The night for a time was pitchy dark, but the moon soon came up over the river, shedding a light which made the opposite shore visible, and gave me a little uneasiness as to whether I would not be detected from the ground below. However, as our line of action had been agreed upon, it was now too late for us to make any change in our part of the program.

"I was speculating on these matters, when a slight noise below attracted my attention, and looking down I could discern a dark body, moving cautiously toward the boat. In the shadow of the wood, the gloom was too great to make out its identity but, while I was looking, it leaped as lightly and dexterously as a monkey upon the gunwale, and the next minute I saw that Black Ben was on the flatboat.

"In the bright moon light, he was plainly visible, and answered perfectly the description which I have given. He circled around the boat with the silence of a phantom, and finally halted near the cabin and listened as if to hear the breathing of those within. Having finished his reconnaissance, he sprang lightly ashore and disappeared.

"I had seen no one but Black Ben, but a slight noise beard when he was on the boat, satisfied me that be had one companion at least with him, and I was sure that he would speedily return.

"I was now anxious to hear whether Captain Hallongton had seen the pirate, and whether he was 'posted.'

"To satisfy myself, I gave a low whistle. It was immediately replied to -a fact which convinced me that my friends were 'all right.'

"It was plain that Black Ben had no suspicion of the ,little plan which we had concocted for his benefit-, but whether that same little plan of ours would miscarry or not was another question, for we knew that the outlaw was a desperate character, who would play the mischief if he should ever get into close quarters.

"Now came a period of watching and waiting, continued so long that I had great fear that Black Ben had scented danger and concluded to give us a wide berth. Fully two hours passed away with me shivering and cramped in the tree; but I had resolved to stay there until morning if the outlaw did not make his appearance before that time.

"It could not have been far from midnight when I caught the rustling of bushes beneath me, and I felt sure that Black Ben was there; but, as I peered down, I was disappointed in discerning not a man, but a large black bear that was lumbering along the shore and awkwardly, approaching the flatboat. Reaching it, he waded into the water, snuffed around the boat, poked his nose against it, struck his paws against it, and made a racket which struck me as singular upon the part of a bear.

"'I would soon stop your sport,' I reflected, 'if I were not watching for bigger game.'

"I was watching the brute, when something in his manner of moving about attracted my suspicion, and I scanned him more narrowly that I had yet done. My heart gave a great leap as I penetrated the ruse, and discovered that instead of the object under me being a bear, it was only a man disguised as such. His object in making such a tumult around the boat was evidently to learn whether the men on board were asleep."


"Occasionally the creature paused and was perfectly still, as if listening; but nothing but the sullen surging of the muddy Mississippi, or the dipping of some overhanging branch was heard, and becoming satisfied that everything was in the shape desired, the bear withdrew from the water, and tumbled away into the wood, in a style which he hardly would have dared to use had he been aware that a pair of eyes were intently scrutinizing his every movement.

"A half-hour later, a form sprang from the dark line of wood which lined the shore, landing on the gunwale of the boat at a single bound. One glance was sufficient for me to see that Black Ben had boarded the General Jackson, and that the critical moment was at hand.

"The hideous looking creature glided as swiftly and silently as a shadow from one part of the boat to the other in order to assure himself that no one was watching in any of the out-of-the-way places. He then glided back to the cabin and made a single motion with his arm. The response was in the shape of another dark form, which leaped beside him with all the agility of a monkey.

"From where I sat I had both of these precious scamps in range, and I could have sent a bullet crashing through both of them; but, as that was not the plan agreed upon, I concluded to wait.

"As I had always understood that Black Ben was accompanied by two men, I looked for the appearance of his companion, but, as the bushy- headed chief turned his back upon the shore the instant he was joined by his friend, I supposed that he was absent, and would not appear in this matter, which pleased me greatly, as it could but make the matter all the more easy for us.

"The two villains put their heads together and seemed to converse awhile in the same manner that you frequently, see horses or cows do. Agreeing upon their course of action, Black Ben quietly drew back the slide which covered the door which communicated with the cabin. Flashing a sort of bull's-eye lantern down into the gloom, he leaned his head forward and scanned every part of the cabin.

"And I know what he saw. What were apparently two human forms wrapped up in their blankets and sound asleep. The next instant the sharp report of two pistols in immediate succession broke the stillness, and Black Ben and his comrade sprang down into the cabin.

"Just what we wanted. Hardly a second had elapsed when I was on deck, and had slid the door back to its place, at the same moment that Captain Hallongton and Tom and Dick hurriedly clambered up beside me.

"'We've got 'em!' exclaimed the captain delightedly. 'Be quick and fasten that down.'

"Everything had been prepared for such a denoument as this, and not ten seconds passed ere we had Black Ben and his friend firmly imprisoned.

"The next proceeding of Captain Hallongton was to dance a double shuffle upon the deck and exclaim, "We've got him! We've got him!"

"Keep still," I said; "you act like a crazy man."

"Do you know there is a thousand dollars offered for his head in New Orleans?" said he.

"I didn't know that, and I felt somewhat like making as big a fool of myself over it, but I did not."

"The next thing we heard was a terrible rumpus below-swearing and yelling enough to raise the hair on your head. But what cared we? We had the mighty river pirate, Black Ben, and one of his comrades in our power.

"Not knowing but what some of his friends might be in the neighborhood, we untied the fastenings of the boat and swung out into the stream. We ran considerable risk in so doing, as this was a dangerous part of the river, but Captain Hallongton understood the current better than I did, and we decided that this was the safest and best thing that we could do under the circumstances.

"The tempest and tumult continued below until we were in the middle of the Mississippi and gliding rapidly down the stream. Then a silence came, and Black Ben called up to us and asked us what this all meant. We told him that we had caught him trespassing on our boatand intended to take him down to New Orleans and sell him. The answer to this was a couple of pistol shots fired at the spot where he supposed I was standing. It struck beneath my feet, and no doubt be imagined it would pass through the planking and kill me; but it was bullet-proof, and there was no danger. Finding he could do no harm, he took a different course of action. He tried to bribe us to let him go, and made us repeated offers until he reached a figure as high as ten thousand dollars.We told him we would take time to think about it, but we were not quite fools enough to accept any offer which he could make. We knew that all he wanted was to get out on deck, and then there would be the tallest kind of a rumpus. Our only safety was in keeping him just where he was and not give him the slightest advantage.

"Finding his efforts in this direction useless, he fell upon his first plan, of swearing. I have heard some terrible profanity in my time, but I don't think I ever heard anything to equal that of Black Ben. He kept it up until morning, and then all was still again.

"I suppose you understand the way in which we trapped our bird? Captain Hallongton had taken the trouble of finding out Black Ben's manner of doing business and had laid his plans accordingly. It was his custom to wait until the crew of the boats he intended to rob went asleep, and he then stole aboard and quietly dispatched them either with the knife or pistol. Knowing this, we had arranged a couple of dummies, which, as we intended, were mistaken by the river pirate for the entire crew of the General Jackson. The small orifice which I first spoke of as connecting the cabin with the main body of the boat, had been made by, Captain Hallongton, so that in case there was parley between him and Black Ben before surrendering the boat, the latter personage could thus be made to believe that it came from one of the forms inside; but his coarse of action rendered this precaution unnecessary.

"We ran a great deal more danger in capturing this renowned outlaw than any of us imagined. We had carefully removed everything in the shape of a knife or hatchet, or any kind of weapon from the cabin, and yet we had every reason to believe that both of these dogs would have their knives with them; but by a purely providential circumstance, neither of them carried anything with them except their pistols. How it came about, I cannot say, for it certainly was odd. Had either of them their knives, it would have taken them but a few hours to cut their way through the planking, thick as it was, and we would have been compelled to shoot them to save ourselves from being shot.

"If they had become satisfied that there was no hope for them, the next thing in order would have been the bottom of the boat. They would have made a leak which would have carried themselves and the flatboat to, the bottom, and likely enough ourselves, too, for you must know it is no easy matter to make your way through the Mississippi at high water.

"We did not feel easy when we heard them thumping and rubbing the side of the boat, for we were well aware what wonderful things these desperate characters do when they find themselves in such desperate straits.

"Captain Hallongton stood with his loaded rifle, expecting almost every moment to see Black Ben burst out to view like a raging fury. By placing our ears against the cabin we could hear a peculiar, grinding noise, which told us that the gentlemen in there doing something, although what it was we could only guess. Wecould hear them muttering and talking to each other, but I could not catch any of the words uttered.

"Toward the close of the second day, just as we came within sight of the Crescent City, two pistol shots broke the stillness. We could only conjecture what it meant. My supposition was that they had shot themselves, but Captain Hallongton suspected it was only a stratagem to get us to open the cabin door to give them a final chance of escape, or an opportunity to put a bullet through some of us who might look down. So we paid no heed, but kept on floating down the river.

"When we had tied up at the wharf, we brought a number of police officers, acquainted them with our prize, surrounded the boat, and then removed the door of the cabin. We waited a long time, but no one came forth, nor did any sound betray the presence of the men within. At last, one of the officers, more venturesome than the rest, ventured to steal up to the cabin and look down. The next instant he uttered a shout and sprang down, while we rushed toward the cabin.

"One glance showed all. Black Ben and his comrade had both shot themselves, and were stone dead. They had no knives, as I said, but with their simple pistol barrels they had almost cut their way through the planking. I do believe that if New Orleans had been a hundred miles further off, these two precious scamps would have got out of the cabin and, perhaps, effected their escape.

"However, we had the satisfaction of receiving one thousand dollars reward, and of knowing that we had cleared the Mississippi of one of the most desperate outlaws that ever infested its banks."

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