Bret is riding to St. Louis when he hears a man call for help. The gambler investigates and finds the man strung upside down by his heels. Cutting him free, Bret checks on the man, who introduces himself as Gillespie McKenzie. Gillespie explains that three highwaymen saw his wallet back in the city and ambushed him. In gratitude for Bret’s rescue, Gillespie offers the gambler a deed for a great white paddle-wheeler, the [I]Cynthia B. When Bret says he can’t accept it for free, Gillespie asks for a token payment of $1,000, claiming that it’s worth 40 times that. As Bret prepares to ride off, Gillespie says that he’s well-off but needs $1,000 for traveling expenses since he’s been robbed. Bret still isn’t interested until Gillespie tells him that it’s a gambling palace.
A thousand dollars poorer, Bret arrives in St. Louis and goes to the pier to collect his boat. However, he discovers that the Cynthia B.
is a wreck. Bret goes to see the dock owner, Meacham, who says that Bret isn’t the only one. He escorts him into the next room where four men and a woman have gathered. One of the men, Quincy T. Smith, greets Bret and explains that Gillespie took him for $2,000. The other victims are Mrs. Ambrosia Tutwiler, Rutherford Carr, Montgomery Teague, and Jefferson Cantrell. Gillespie owned the ship and got the original papers, and then forged them.
Quincy offers everyone $300 each for their share and the others are willing. Bret refuses, saying his offer doesn’t make sense, and Meacham says that he read the Memphis Journal
and knows what Quincy does. Quincy admits that a shipping magnate, Abner Morton of Memphis, is ending his search for an old Mississippi stern-wheeler, the Orleans Princess
. After the next Thursday, he will no longer pay $20,000 for its recovery. Quincy and Meacham confirm that the Cynthia B.
actually is the Orleans Princess
. Jefferson has a license and offers to pilot it if they can find two stokers. Mrs. Tutwiler wonders why Morton wants to pay $20,000, and the article explains that he plans to rebuild the ship for riverboat racing. Bret checks the article and points out that the Orleans Princess
is reputed to be cursed, and the other six owners all died under mysterious circumstances.
As the party heads for the ship, con woman Modesty Blaine hails Bret. She offers to set him up as a gambler aboard her new riverboat, and Bret realizes that Gillespie sold her the Cynthia B.
as well. He takes great pleasure in showing her the wreck of a ship. As they talk, someone rolls a barrel down a nearby ladder and Bret barely gets out of the way in time. Montgomery comes down the ladder a few seconds later, and Bret doubts that it was an accident. Bret explains why Modesty is there and Carr complains, noting that women are bad luck on a cruise. Quincy reports that they have enough steam to take off, and Jefferson goes to the wheelhouse and takes the ship out onto the Mississippi.
As the others watch the river go by, Montgomery comes out and mutters about the “death ship.” Mrs. Tutwiler takes Modesty to the galley to help with the cooking. Quincy comes up from the boiler room with the two stokers, Jim and Gus. The two stokers glower menacingly at Montgomery and Carr, who quickly scurry away. Quincy then tells Bret that he found a safety valve tied down, but in such a way that someone would find it and get scared off. He warns that he’s not sure if the boiler will hold together, making Bert very nervous.
The steamboat continues to Memphis and the group gathers for a meal. Bret compliments Mrs. Tutwiler on the food and then asks Jefferson who’s piloting the boat. Jefferson tells him that Carr is, and wonders if Bret is trying to take charge. Bret insists that he isn’t and then makes a less than flattering remark about Modesty’s cooking. She runs out to the deck, crying, and Bret goes after her. He admits he doesn’t know why she’s crying and Modesty says that she’s a woman. Bret tells her that she’s beautiful and she first slaps him for insulting his cooking, and then kisses him for his compliment. Mrs. Tutwiler passes them on her evening stroll, and then Modesty suggests to Bret that they’d have a bigger share if the others just happened to lose their ownership papers. Bret refuses but Modesty says that she knows where they all keep their papers. She tells Bret that she keeps hers tucked in her garter.
Mrs. Tutwiler comes out onto the deck and a man approaches her and tries to take her ownership papers from her handbag. There’s a struggle and the woman plunges into the river. Bret hears her screams and runs to investigate, and tells Carr to stop the ship. The gambler dives into the water to find Mrs. Tutwiler while the others gather. Bret finally climbs out on the lower deck, holding Mrs. Tutwiler’s hat, and admits that he couldn’t find a trace of her. Montgomery mutters about the death ship curse, while Carr is happy to hear that they have one less person to split the $20,000. Bret take offense and slaps Carr when he suggests that Bret might have shoved her overboard. Carr warns Bret that Mrs. Tutwiler may not be the last to go and stalks off, and Quincy orders Cantrell to start the ship up.
For the next two days, nothing happens. The next night, Bret wakes up to discover Modesty going through his cabin. She claims she was scared but Bret doesn’t believe it and sends her on the way, promising to search her first if anyone reports anything missing. Later, another man sneaks in. Bret assumes that it’s Modesty but the fully-clothed newcomer draws a knife. After a brief fight, the man escapes into the hallway. Bret wakes up Modesty and tells her what happened. Quincy and Montgomery hear the noise and come out to investigate. Montgomery is in a nightshirt but Quincy is fully-dressed. He explains that he just came from the engine room and that the stokers can vouch for him. Bret figures that the intruder planned to destroy his papers, leaving him with no proof of ownership.
Montgomery suggests that Carr might be the intruder and they go to his cabin. There’s no answer when they knock, and when they go inside they find Carr on the floor, dead from a knife wound. Montgomery faints and Modesty tends to him, while Bret tells Quincy that he plans to avoid being killed. He suggests that they keep Cantrell in the dark until they talk it out among themselves, and orders everyone to go to the dining salon. Montgomery asks Quincy to accompany him, but then goes on his own when Bret asks if he’s sure Quincy isn’t the killer. Quincy objects and warns that Bret isn’t in the clear.
A few minutes later, Montgomery arrives at the dining salon, fully dressed. Bret realizes that he must have had his nightshirt on over his clothes. Quincy comes in and suggests that Bret faked the attack. As Modesty arrives, Bret suggests that they assume they’re all innocent and proceed from there. Quincy assures the others that the two stokers were with him when Carr was killed. That leaves Cantrell, and Bret points out that he could have lashed the wheel and left for ten minutes to kill Carr. They have no proof, however, and Bret suggests that they simply wait it out until they arrive in Memphis that morning. Bret is due at the wheelhouse to relieve Cantrell but he decides to stay put.
The ship suddenly shakes as it hits the riverbank. The group runs to the wheelhouse and Bret steers the ship away from shore before it can run aground. There’s no sign of Cantrell and they figure that he realized they were onto him and went into hiding. Quincy suggests that they wait and let Cantrell come to them, and asks Bret for their only gun. Bret tosses it to him but misses and it falls into the river. Montgomery hides in a supply closet, only to find Cantrell's corpse inside. He’s been stabbed, the same as Carr.
Bret points out that the way the current is running, Cantrell couldn’t have been away from the wheel more than 20 minutes, and they’ve been together for at least 30 minutes. Quincy and Montgomery figure that it’s one of the stokers, and Bret tells everyone to stay in the wheelhouse until they get to Memphis and then let the authorities take over. However, Gillespie comes in with a gun and orders all of them to put their hands up. He explains that he’s been hiding in the aft storage locker, tried to scare Bret and Modesty off with the barrel, and warn off Quincy by tying down the safety valve. Gillespie explains that he read about Norton’s offer after he sold the deeds, and then hid aboard to get them back. Mrs. Tutwiler’s death was accidental when she fell over during the struggle. Gillespie demands that they all handle over their title papers.
Montgomery hands his over first and then Bret. Quincy gives his next, and finally Modesty removes hers from her garter and gives it to Gillespie. Gillespie tosses them all overboard and explains that he has the original in his pocket. Bret asks how he plans to negotiate with Norton and hold them prisoner, and Gillespie explains that he doesn’t. Before he can explain, Bret calls to one of the stokers, pretending the man is behind Gillespie. Gillespie just laughs, saying that he already forced them overboard three miles back. He tells the others that they’re to jump overboard next. When Montgomery protests that he can’t swim, Gillespie says that he can sympathize because he can’t either, but figures that it’ll come back to Montgomery. Montgomery starts to go over, and Quincy jumps Gillespie. There’s a struggle, and Gillespie falls into the river and drowns, unable to swim.
The Cynthia B.
arrives in Memphis the next day and Bret and Modesty visits Morton. The magnate refuses to hand over the $20,000 without the title papers, and says that they can’t offer proof within the next 15 minutes. However, Bart comes in and presents the title papers for the ship. Bret and Modesty watch as Morton pays the $20,000 and Bart spins a story of winning the ship in a poker game. He gives his name and leaves, as Norton realizes that he’s related to Bret. Bret and Modesty intercept Bart outside and tell him that they’ll be splitting the money five ways with Montgomery and Quincy.
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