“Lafe,” Jackson called, trotting after his friend.
Lengthening his stride, Lafayette shot back a ‘go screw yourself’ look.
“Come on Lafe, pull up.” Jackson said, latching hold of his arm, “My apologies for sticking you out on the spider.”
Snorting, Lafayette twisted from his grip and kept walking.
“Hey, I just needed you to see war is closer than you think.” Jackson said, walking backwards, staring at the jabbering, cheering men before following Lafayette. “Did you notice how little it takes to stir them up?”
Skidding to a stop, Lafayette spun on him, “You have made your damn point. Drop it! Jo’s on a rampage up there. Taddy is still weaker than a forgotten kitten, by the way, merci beaucoup for askin’. Also, I ain’t got the slightest godforsaken idea where Gabe is. Then again, my instincts say I do not want to know either. And, I just finished marking off ten different pals, I am uncertain I can any longer trust. This day ain’t goin’ too grand for me. So, why do you not back the hell down, before I say something I will regret,” Lafayette declared. Laying a hand on each of Jackson’s shoulders, he leaned in closer. “Honestly Jackson, I do not think I have it in me to stand against all of ’em again. So, une faveur ami, why do you not break off setting the stage for ’em,” he said, releasing a bone weary sigh.
Exhaling again, Lafayette licked his lips, his face remaining as expressionless as a man a week dead. He asked, “I suppose, I should ask whether you are figurin’ on being the first in line to take a swing at me?”
“Lafe, how can you think that? I will always be by your side, never otherwise.” Jackson stated smiling so large his eyes squinted up nearly disappearing. “I swear Bub; I will not broach the subject again.”
Looking beyond them, over Lafayette’s shoulder, Jackson saw that Coleman Younger and Frank Manning were heading their way. “Chin up... we seem to be drawing them like ants to honey. Any notion why?”
Lafayette chuckled, “I suppose, because, we ain’t like ’em and they can smell it.”
“Naw, it stands to reason,” Jackson whispered, as Coleman and Frank drew nearer with the herd snaking after them. “This would have turned a touch more physical if they knew our true thoughts.”
Colman good-naturedly, asked “What are y’all plotting?”
“To go boar huntin’,” Lafayette answered hastily with forced cheerfulness. “I almost have Jackson convinced to tag along. Besides, I have a hankering to try out my new Colt.”
“Hell Lafayette that thing arrived in the post over two weeks ago and you ain’t taken it out yet,” Cole stated, shaking his head.
“Like I said, I have been damn busy around Sienna, so anyone else feels like goin’?”
The group’s attention split at once; a boar hunt sounded far more likely than joining up with a guard unit or scouring into Kansas. For despite their talk of war, hunting was a subject they all had experience in and understood.
“Damnation Lafayette, I deem it would be poor judgment.” Orville’s brash words rang out above the other voices.
“And why would that be?” Lafayette asked, through a flat, tight smile.
“If you have your mind set, so be it. But you best ride loose as some people might consider you a spy or worse,” answered Orville.
“Spy?!” Above the heads of the other men, standing between them, Lafayette’s black eyes locked onto Orville’s squinty, grays. “By whom? Everyone in Cass, hell most of the neighboring counties, recognizes me on sight or at least by name. You tell me who this side of Lucifer’s barbed tail is goin’ to think me a spy?”
“I am not talkin’ about the people we all associate with thinkin’ poorly of you.” Orville for once mumbled.
‘Then whom exactly is he insinuating,’ Lafayette thought, surveying his neighbors, many of them refusing to meet his look. ’Tarnation, it is a wonder I am not as paranoid as the rest of ‘em. Suppose keeping to Sienna has made me out-of-touch like Jackson says. However, it has been the only way I have been able to avoid being pressed into any retribution gang.’ Staring at all of them, it came to him, how much he wanted to savor his last bit of time before leaving for Kentucky.
Right there and then, he decided to walk away from the war talk. “Tell you what monsieurs; let’s plain change the subject. Do not all of you, judge it as too fine of a day to be gettin’ so heated under the collar? In addition, we all came here to celebrate Mademoiselle Elizabeth’s birthday. Now what kind of monsieurs are we if’n we stand out here faultfinding the world when there are filles nearby, expectin’ our attentions?” Lafayette asked, chirking at them through his well-known dimpled smile.
Many of the men appeared ill at ease at the thought of upsetting the fairer sex, yet there were still enough who looked as if they wished to continue stoking the coals.
Lafayette opted for the easiest escape by simply exiting the conversation all together. “On second thought, y’all stay here. Go right on, get yourselves good, and fired up. Me, I only got a few socials left before I head off to Kentucky for school and I ain’t goin’ to waste ‘em. I am goin’ to dance with those belle Missouri petites. And, while I am at it, I plan on enjoyin’ what I am sure is mighty fine barbeque.” Flashing a wide laughing smile, he bowed deeply, and then walked off with Jackson at his side.
“Oh no, you do not.” Albert Minters cried, rushing up and throwing an arm about Lafayette’s shoulders. “We let you reach them ladies first with your pitiful tale of leavin’ for school. And by Jiminy, the rest of us are without a single Sallie to cozy up to ’till your backside is on a train headed East.”
The other men exchanged looks and as one rushed to follow; realizing Albert was stating chapters and verses of truth.
William Masters bumped into Lafayette, asking, “How much longer is Tad figuring to calf around Sienna?”
“I tell you Bill, he ain’t loafing; that damn agues been tearing ’em to pieces.”
“Yeah, and I know where he got it,” laughed Bill.
Lafayette snorted, “Hell, it ain’t a secret he was at the MacIntosh riverboat, gamblin’ and drinkin’. I kind of reckon, I still owe his pal, Fox for draggin ’em up there.”
“You reckon he left it at just gamblin’ and drinkin’?” Bill questioned, laughing harder.
Lafayette matched his laugh, his eyes taking on a mischievous glint. “Not if what Fox has been spreadin’ is true.”
“What did your father say?” Nathaniel Davis asked, sucking in his lower lip; for he knew how his father, a Baptist preacher would react to him visiting such a depraved place.
“I suppose it is a family secret, you could say,” Lafayette flashed his toothiest smile. ”Mon father does not have the slightest clue, where Taddy caught ague.”
At this, they all laughed heartily, the tension caused by war talk floating away on the warm, noon wind as the entire lot of them aimed toward the white gazebo, where they figured to find Miss Elizabeth. For since, the picnic was in her honor it seemed proper they all greet her first.
Elizabeth Barnett sat prim and erect on the arbor swing, in the cool shade of the gazebo having just finished welcoming her newest group of guests. A smile played across her lips as she thought. ‘Today is my day. From the sprays of imported yellow roses to every guest in this, here garden. All of it is because I said so. Papa has been just the sweetest. He has not told me “no” once and he has gone to great lengths, making sure everything I wanted was perfect. Even the weather is perfect. Why, it is not too hot and the breezes are just right. Maybe he paid for that too.’ She giggled at this thought. ‘I just know the whole regions’ gonna be gushing on about my birthday for years to come.’
Standing, Elizabeth adjusted each detail of her tailored gown. ‘Also, I have noticed there is not a lady here wearing a dress as fashionable as mine. Of course, no one else’s dress has been made from fabric delivered all the way from London, either.’ Patting the robin’s egg blue silk, and looking up, her eyes opened wide at the sight of Lafayette Crowe leading a group of men her way. On seeing him, her pulse quickened, ‘Oh my, he truly is as handsome as the day is long. If I could get him to kiss me, he would have to become my beau. Ooh, but having him as mine would make the other girls pea-green with envy.’
Before they got too close, she chewed on her lips to brighten their color. ’Today is the day I will catch him. I will and I will make him mine. He will dance with me, eat barbeque with me, and only look at me,” she smiled brightly. ‘Papa says I may now have suitors. So, Lafayette cannot be treatin’ me as a petite fleurs, as he always insists on calling me. I am on equal standing, for today, I am no longer a child.’ Loftily raising her chin, she sashayed down the steps onto the green grass, relishing her position as hostess, she called out. “Why Albert, Bill, Orville, Jackson, Frank, Reed, Cole… oh, so many of you, y’all are just dears takin’ time to come to my little ol’ party. Just sweet, sweet dears, and, look at y’all, ain’t y’all just splendid to behold. I am simply overjoyed. I do hope to dance with all of y’all.” Elizabeth said, batting her eyes coquettishly. “Particularly you, Lafayette. Why it has been a passel of moons since I saw you last.”
Before he could conjure a reply that would make him sound magnanimous and yet, prevent him from spending the entire day with her, Orville rushed in, unwittingly rescuing him.
“Here now, Miss Elizabeth, I had every intention of askin’ for a card full of dances. You simply cannot single out Lafayette here for such an exquisite pleasure over the rest of us.” Orville gushed, taking her hand and brushing his lips across it, his gray eyes beseeching her. “I do swear, Miss Elizabeth. I cannot recall, ever seeing a lady as delightful as you. Why it is just cruel the way you take this poor country boy’s breath away.”
Elizabeth quivered at his words. Taking a quick appraisal of him, she thought, ‘can it be that I have not given Orville Riggs a close enough look? He is charming, not too harsh on the eyes, and much more gracious than Lafayette has ever treated me.’
Having captured his prize, Orville wrapped Elizabeth’s hand about his arm, escorting her away before she could change her mind, leaving the others to trail after them joking and chatting.
‘Hmm, perhaps I have been wrong thinkin’ today might be a cloak of misfortune for me. Thus far, I have escaped Mams wrath, Cain’s attempts to kill me, and when my rage reared its ugly head at Jo, I even manage to shove it right back into hiding, where it belongs. Then, by the grace de Dieu, I veered clear of branding myself and thusly, m’ famille insurgents.’ Pulling a wine glass from a passing tray, he took a long drink, ‘hot damn, I am even free of Elizabeth Barnett clutches, humph, today is turning out quite Jim Dandy.’
Ambling along, half-heartedly searching for his sister, he paused pausing here and there for polite conversation. Until at last, the dark hue of Josephine’s dress caught his eye, as it stood in stark contrast to the blossom-colored day dresses of the other ladies.
Strolling nearer, he found his sister to be the wheel hub of a circle of men; including Dick Younger, who was standing dotingly at her elbow. Lafayette’s brow furrowed, as it came to him exactly how many were bunched up about her. Unsure what would cause such a gathering, he stood out of sight line, eavesdropping. ‘Oh, she is talkin’ horse racing. Non wonder, only fille here with a decent topic of conversation.′ He thought and finishing his wine, he stood listening. ’Yet, even though, there ain’t much better talk than horses... I still do not see how she has got so many of ‘em in on the discourse?’
Sliding his eyes to each face, he noted they were all watching her raptly. His curiosity swelling, he shifted his position to see her better, when all at once, he saw her as every man present did. The clean, tailored lines of her riding habit accented the firm muscles gliding beneath, displaying in every way, what a voluptuous splendor she was. Inhaling hard, he sucked in his cheeks, his eyes narrowing. ′Par Dieu! How did I not perceive this at home? Jo is a veritable Peitho come to our world. And I, like a fool, allowed her to attend dressed in this fashion.’ His eyes shot from face-to-face, this time aware of the lurid imaginings lingering behind the earnest expressions.
The knowledge infuriated him.
A violent desire to protect her boiled up. As it did, he snapped the fluted stem clean off his wine glass, the broken shards falling unnoticed to the ground.