It is nighttime and a storm lashes the river and its banks with wind, water and lightning. The riverboat Delta Belle
moves slowly upriver through the weather. A passenger confronts the captain; she is unsure the boat will make a safe landfall. The captain reassures her and then enters the pilot house.
Not far away a man watches the river through his one good eye. When the Delta Belle
appears he waves a lantern back and forth. On a nearby crest of land another man sees this and waves his own lantern. Below the outcropping several men pull up in a cart and climb the hill. Atop in, they erect a façade steeple facing the river.
In the pilot house the Captain shares his own misgivings about the weather with the pilot. Were it not for a large promised bonus, he would never have left New Orleans. Then the pilot reports good news: he has spied a nearby steeple and now knows how to steer the boat for a safe landing. He adjusts the wheel and the captain breathes a sigh of relief. But moments later the Captain realizes the boat is headed directly for some shoals! Before he can steer away, the ship grates to a wrenching stop near the bank.
On the hill, the men holding it steady drop the steeple and jump to the wagon. It pulls away as other men set up a Gatling gun. As stunned passengers and crew emerge onto the riverboat’s deck the cutthroats ruthlessly shoot and kill them.
Somewhat later, the private train of Jim West and Artemus Gordon pulls onto a siding near the river. The two agents were assigned to the case following the discovery of a body in the river. The body was that of Agent Hackett, the fourth man to attempt this mystery and the fourth fatal failure. Hackett joined Moore, Fisher and O’Neill. Now Jim and Artie have drawn the assignment. Artie comments that too many agents have been fished from the river for it to be coincidence; Jim adds that Hackett was a good swimmer unlikely to drown unless he had help. No evidence of the missing boats has yet appeared; Jim’s only lead is a roulette chip from a casino named the Pot o’ Gold found on Hackett’s body. Artie comments about that bit of poor luck: Hackett cashed out before he could cash in. Jim leaves to try his own luck and Artie tosses him the chip, asking him to put it on number thirteen in Hackett’s memory.
Jim enters the Pot o’ Gold and the proprietor welcomes him, suggesting he amuse himself with any number of games. Jim suggests he must do a good business, and he says that used to be true but the riverboat disappearances have scared away the tourists. Then Jim produces the chip found in Hackett’s body and asks the proprietor if he remembers it. After a few seconds the Proprietor remembers Hackett as a very unlucky fellow.
A girl in a tight satin outfit suggests that “black could be your friend’s color,” attracting Jim’s attention (in several ways). She is Crystal, and she leads Jim to a nearby roulette wheel where he places a bet on black. Jim asks if his friend ever played there but Crystal evades him, answering that many men play there. Jim wins his bet and lets it ride. Crystal spins again and beneath the table, moves a lever. Jim wins again. He asks her when she gets off work and she tells him 3:00; he offers her dinner – or at that hour, breakfast – but she tells him no. Another spin hits again and Crystal tells Jim he’s very lucky. He comes around the table to her side, clearly aware she’s fiddling the outcome, and asks if she’ll change her mind but she won’t.
Suddenly a glass breaks on the floor and West looks around to realize he’s surrounded by cutthroats, who waste no time attacking! Jim fights off a man with a knife; another knocks him back over a craps table. As he recovers from that another man tries to slash him with the hook that replaced his missing hand. Jim continues to fight, knocking out three or four men and shooting one with the gun built into his walking stick. The remaining men race off and Jim rockets out the door to room seven, there to confront Crystal, whom he discovers hurriedly packing.
Jim questions Crystal roughly, asking why she set him up and for whom. Why cheat and why now must she run? Jim believes he was intended to appear, pockets turned out, the apparent victim of a robbery. Crystal denies this as she has denied everything else and Jim, angry, demands some “yes” answers. He wants to know what she knows about who pulls her strings and what she knows about Hackett. She tells him again that he’s got her all wrong. Jim has reached his boiling point. Seizing Crystal roughly, he pushes her against the wall and lays it out: Hackett and three others worked for the government. All of them died. He explains that men tried to kill him and that she might be next, painting an unpleasant picture of her possible demise. Finally she admits she was told to let Jim win and paid for doing so, but denies knowing who gave the orders or paid for them. Then a shot rings out and Crystal slumps forward into Jim’s arms! Her dying words are “cof... coffin.” The painting behind her now has a hole from the gunshot that killed her, made through the wall. West races out of room seven, pulling the door shut behind him.
Elsewhere, a man walks slowly down a line of other men. He is tall, with grey hair and muttonchops and wears a captain’s cap and clothing. He tells the men he can forgive mistakes, misjudgments, underestimation, and even failure. But what he cannot abide is cowardice. Reaching the end of the line he addresses the man there, Poavey, of exactly that, saying he can see right into Poavey’s black soul. Others gather behind Poavey, who denies cowardice and even denies that the captain can see anything. Poavey lunges for the captain but the other man seize him, and the captain strangles him quickly, then orders the rest of the men to get rid of the body.
After the men file out the captain seems to ponder a large map board that displays a model of the river and the positions of several craft on it. Then he seizes a sword from a container and thrusts it into the air. Using a wire strung across the room to guide the blade, he paces quickly to a cabinet, telling a woman named Oriana that he has devoted some thought to Mr. West, whose skill and resourcefulness call for an operative of comparable talent. The captain decides that Jennifer Wingate should handle James West. The captain shows Oriana his file (written in Braille) on Miss Wingate and asks whether she is beautiful enough to interest Mr. West. Examining the attached photograph of a young and lovely blonde, Oriana says she is. Then the captain tells Oriana no woman is a beautiful as she, and calls her his “golden one.” Then he instructs her to contact Jennifer Wingate, a woman who has never failed... to kill.
At their hotel Jim and Artie descend the stairs as Artie comments that the crew responsible for the boat disappearances would put Captain Kidd to shame. Only one small piece of the Dixie Belle
has appeared, and that a hundred miles downstream. Artie wants to know how the pirates manage that, and both men want to know who “coffin” is. Suddenly a woman yells from inside the Men’s Bath! Jim and Artie investigate and discover a woman there bathing who asks them to pass her the soap. Jim mentions that she’s on the wrong side and she tells him she knows, but that the ladies side is occupied. Artemus quickly becomes enchanted with the young blonde; Jim sends him away to do more digging and takes over the conversation. The lady tells him that if he was a gentlemen he would leave with his friend. She suggests that perhaps she should call the manager. Jim is more than willing; after all – she’s in the wrong room. Finally she asks for a towel. As Jim hands her the towel he remarks that bathing gives him an appetite and the woman tells him it has the same effect on her. Soon enough he has wrangled himself a dinner invitation and learned the name of the charming bather: Jennifer Wingate. After Jim exits the room Jennifer smiles a self-satisfied smile.
That night Artemus walks a dark and foggy stream; he wears a cloak and top hat. A dog howls somewhere and a woman approaches Artie. She tells him she heard he was looking for someone, and he admiringly tells her he could stop right there. She asks what he had in mind and he replies that he wanted a conversation. Eventually Artie learns that her name is Glory Poavey and that her father murdered and she wants revenge. She tells Artie that “coffin” is Captain Ansel Coffin and that her father worked for Coffin but would never tell her where. She doesn’t excuse her father’s misdeeds but doesn’t believe any man should be strangled like a rat. Artie tells her the information isn’t particularly helpful and she offers another piece: his friend Jim needs help. Ansel Coffin hired a woman named Jennifer Wingate to murder him! Artie says they’ll talk again sometime, and Glory tells him when they do, she wants to hear about Ansel Coffin’s funeral. Artie tells her that will be a pleasure.
Another storm serves as the background for Jim’s supper with Jennifer Wingate. Her manservant Arnold serves them an old family recipe. She and Jim fence verbally a bit about old world and new world cooking, Jim suggesting that an old world recipe steeping the tradition of vendetta might include poison in the recipe. Jennifer tells him they’re not related so he has no cause to worry about vendetta. They continue to flirt for a time before Jennifer finally kisses Jim – and shoots him with a little derringer! The shot has no effect and Jennifer realizes immediately that she has been undone by a clever bulletproof garment. She makes one more half-hearted attempt at seduction but Jim won’t be deterred. He wants to know who Coffin is and Jennifer admits she was hired to kill Jim and tells him he’d be flattered at her payment for the deed. She tells him it wasn’t personal and he seems to accept that.
Finally she reveals that she passes on information to Coffin about riverine traffic – names of ships, destinations, cargoes, and similar facts. She tells Jim the boats are wrecked and broken down, the cargoes looted and the passengers killed. Jim tells her she’s a naughty girl and demands she take him to Coffin. She tells him that the sound of the gunshot was a signal to the manservant Arnold, who released a pigeon that flew to Coffin with news of Jim’s murder. She tells Jim that if she does take him to Coffin, he will certain see to it that Jim dies. They return to the meal.
Later, Jennifer takes Jim to a graveyard. When they enter a formation of rocks, cutthroats appear all around them! Captain Ansel Coffin appears then. Angry that Jennifer brought someone uninvited to his sanctum he orders the woman taken away and ominously tells her he’ll decide her fate later. He introduces Jim to his men, scum and cutthroats from every coast, wreckers all. One pulls a knife but the blind mastermind tells him he has something else in mind for Jim.
Sometime later Jim’s bulletproof vest and weapons are arrayed on a table. The agent himself, stripped to the waist, has been tied to the ladder Coffin uses to reach the upper parts of his river map. Coffin tells Jim that he has drawn his fangs and removes his blindfold so that Jim can see his home. Jim opines that it seems more like a warehouse and Coffin tells him that eleven years ago he might have said the same thing – before and explosion took away his sight and his livelihood as the finest pilot on the Mississippi.
Coffin’s home is stocked with items to please his remaining senses: things to smell, to touch, to hear. Blindness has sharpened his remaining senses. But the finest treasure in the room is Oriana, Coffin’s wife. Coffin tells Jim that Oriana had a premonition about him, but that he would shortly offer her proof that Jim could no longer harm him. Jim tells Coffin that Oriana is exquisite, which Coffin accepts as praise from a connoisseur. He orders Oriana to thank Jim for the praise and, reluctantly, she does. Her voice does not match her beauty; Coffin compares it to the flaw deliberately introduced into pottery by Chinese potters who wished to avoid perfection.
A telegraph chatters and Coffin, listening, says that a flatboat has left Natchez. Jim asks how Coffin knows this and the captain replies that one of his eyes has seen it, and that he has a thousand eyes up and down the river: agents who report to him everything that happens on the waterway. Nothing moves along the river without Coffin learning of it. Jim asks the man how he destroys the boats and Coffin tells him. There are critical points along the river where the pilot must lay his course by carefully studying landmarks. Coffin’s cutthroats provide false landmarks that guide pilots onto shoals; the men then murder the crew and passengers, break the ships and sell their cargoes. The ships vanish; Coffin’s activities have brought commerce along the Mississippi to a virtual halt. Tomorrow the madman intends to contact the President to demand a tribute of one cent for every pound of cargo he allows the move along the river. Jim tells him his scheme is impossible but Coffin’s acute hearing tells him Jim isn’t at all sure the scheme is impossible. Coffin expects to become the richest man in history.
Coffin summons Dooley and other men who untie Jim and lead him into the caves. After the men depart Oriana winds the music boxes. Coffin returns to the outer cave where his men force Jim into a cage. From a back of levers, Coffin operates a winch that lifts the cage ten feet or more into the air. Then he explains the trap: the cage is connected to a lighting rod. The ground is charged with electrical fluid and the air tingles with it. The storm will soon produce a lighting stroke that will electrocute the agent!
Meanwhile, Artie arrives and Jennifer Wingate’s home and confronts Arnold, who claims Wingate left to visit a sick uncle and further claims no knowledge of Coffin (except as a box to bury the dead). He admits the pair had dinner but claims that Jim went on his way when Jennifer left.
Artie returns to the hotel room but Jim is not there. When he emerges a man confronts him. Another man, clearly partner to the first, waits at the other end of the hall. Artie asks to visit the bath. The men clearly believe they’re in control and allow it. One mutters to the other that drowning is much cleaner. They follow Artie in as he draws water and begins to sprinkle in soap powder. Then Artie retrieves spherical soap cakes from the side table and begins to add them, asking one of the men if he’s heard of bathing! The man says bathing rusts the bones, and suddenly Artie slams the empty soapbox into his stomach. Doubled over, the man is off-balance and Artie easily pitches him headfirst into the tub. The second man lunges but Artie pitches the soap cakes at his feet; he slips on the hazardous orbs and lands flat on his back. Artie retrieves his hat from the side table, and as the second cutthroat begins to rise, Artie vaults the railing and ducks out the door, pausing only long enough to pull the heavy coat rack onto the thug, pitching him back into unconsciousness.
Moments later Artie returns with a hundred dollars and offers it to the first man in exchange for Jim’s whereabouts. The man tells Artie that Jim is likely dead by this point and snatches away the bills.
The storm continues and Jim dangles in the cage. Back in the living area Oriana asks Ansel Coffin to release Jim and to leave her and go with her somewhere where they can live in peace. She doesn’t want the river to be Coffin’s grave. Coffin replies that he’s on the verge of controlling the entire river; far from being a grave, the river will be his throne! Oriana is not mollified; her only desire is for Ansel, alive. She’s afraid that if Coffin kills Jim West he will kill them too. Coffin tells her that eleven years ago when she rescued him from the blazing riverboat where he lost his sight, she became his eyes and his life, and that nothing will ever part them. She remains afraid and Coffin tells her not to be afraid of a dead man. Then he returns to the map and begins placing ship models.
In the outer caver West works his hands over his feet and unties the ropes. Then he fishes a thin wire from the leg of his trousers and begins to pick the lock with it. Frustrated, he bends it around the electrical lead and tries sawing through that without success. Finally he returns to the lock and manages to open it. He races back towards the living cave and fails to notice a trip wire; the powder explosion blinds him!
Jim nevertheless barges in on Ansel Coffin, who immediately realizes that his opponent is blinded. But Coffin has the advantage of eleven years of learning how to cope. He tells Oriana to remain quiet at all costs. He dodges Jim’s clumsy attack and tells the agent that all around him are weapons. Jim and Coffin both find swords and fence ineptly, then Coffin removes a wicked looking hooked knife. He sweeps viciously with the blade but fails to connect; Jim backs into the ladder and climbs it. The telegraph clatters and Coffin destroys it with a sword blow. Jim has climbed above Coffin and when Oriana realizes Coffin cannot find the agent, she calls out to her husband. Disaster!! Coffin spins and hurls his sword before realizing who spoke. The weapon buries itself in Oriana. Jim lunges from the ladder and bounces from the couch to the floor. Staggering past him Coffin trips; he has found Jim but now cares only to reach his wife. West claws a derringer from the table as Coffin cradles his dying wife. When she breathes her last Coffin lurches up a small flight of stairs to a cabinet and retrieves a gun from a drawer. He and Jim fire blindly and miss. Jim tries to get the other derringer but makes too much noise and Coffin fires again, barely missing. Jim crawls away from the table towards the entrance. When he jostles the table on which the music boxes rest and jars one to life Coffin destroys it. Coffin is zeroing in but Jim’s vision blurrily returns. He races into the caves and Coffin picks his way downstairs. When he kicks a sword he stoops to collect it and pursues Jim into the caves.
In the outer cave Coffin swings wildly and tangles himself briefly in the electrical wire connected to the cage that once held Jim. He frees himself but Jim pulls the winch lever and drops the cage on Coffin just as the lighting strikes. Coffin does not rise.
Somewhat later, aboard the train, Jim tells Jennifer Wingate that life imprisonment is likely. She claims to repent her ways but Artie isn’t convinced: he went up and down the river, expected at every turn to find Jim’s drowned body. But Jim is apparently in a forgiving mood, for Jennifer kisses him down from life to ten years... to five years... perhaps even time off for good behavior. Outraged, Artie asks his partner how he can even consider leniency – until Jennifer spares Artie a kiss, and he quickly recants, allowing that there’s no need to be vindictive. The whistle blows and the train departs... Share this article with your friends