“What is going on?”
With a yelp, Josephine whirled, slopping what was to be her drink, all over herself and the front of Lt. Sean O’Rourke’s blue uniform.
“Oh, Josie, I do apologize. I did not intend to frighten you,” O’Rourke said, his focus remaining on Lafayette. “Here, take these,” he pushed, the champagne flutes into her shaking hands. “Sir, I do not believe we have met?”
Lafayette gave his sister a vanquished look, then targeted on the man addressing him. “I am Lafayette Crowe, Mademoiselle Josephine’s elder brother. Mes excuses we were just departing for home.” With a nod, Lafayette offered his arm to Josephine.
She swallowed hard, her teeth grinding at her lower lip as she considered the two angry men then after shifting the glasses to one hand, she chose her brother.
Catching hold of her hand before it reached Lafayette’s arm, O’Rourke said, “we have not finished our introductions, Sir, I am Lt. Sean O’Rourke.” He eyed Josephine’s pale, strained face. “I do not trust Josie truly wishes to leave with you.”
Lafayette replied in a tone dripping with acid politeness. “My utmost excuses, however, we all are a bit more conventional around here. It is not her choice to make. And yet, I do thank you for your concern.”
“Did I not hear Josie proclaim you are a border ruffian? I could see under such circumstances, how her being with me might rub you wrong. Before you choose to depart, I would be interested in speaking with you further concerning the justice patrols you have ridden on.”
Despite O’Rourke’s deceptively calm tone, Lafayette understood his implied meaning. “Lieutenant, I am obliged to confess when m’ sœur’s temper loosens her tongue it often causes her to choose words she does not truly mean. As a monsieur, you have my word,” a layer of sweat tingled along Lafayette’s back. “I have at non time been on a patrol nor have I by any means, committed the activities you are suggestin’.”
“Right grand then, Mr. Crowe,” O’Rourke, grinned at Josephine. “If you are the loyal Union man you claim and not a treasonous outlaw, I do not see how you could possibly mind me spending the afternoon with your lovely sister.”
Lafayette’s mouth twitched, thinking once more, ’Non, this really is not goin’ to end nicely.’
Seeing his hesitation, O’Rourke leaned closer, “That is, of course, unless she is speaking the truth.” Unveiling a leering grin, he went on, “wherein you are border trash. Then in such case, I could see how uncomfortable, you would be to have her fraternizing with the likes of me.”
Josephine’s blood pounded beneath her skin like a raging thunderstorm, ‘Damnation O’Rourke just ambushed’em. If’n Lafe concedes he will be branded a coward who is in allegiance to the North.’ Her eyes darted to her brother, ‘No.. no... no.’ her mind raced, ’and if’n he does not give in, he will proclaim himself to be a bushwhacker.” Her eyes flicked back to O’Rourke, ’he could present a military John Doe warrant for m′ frère.′
Moving to catch her brother’s eye, Josephine shook her head, silently pleading with him. However, by his expression, she knew he was preparing to throw aside both his ethics and carefully guarded neutrality. ‘Damnation, why can he not swallow his pride this once. I have to stop this.’ Tugging at O’Rourke’s sleeve, she said, “Sean, I have had a wonderful time, yet I do believe---”
“Quiet now,” he stated, patting her hand like a child, “men are talking.”
Lafayette held out his hand, “Josephine Michelle, it is high time for us to depart.”
O’Rourke released his hold on Josephine, his chiseled face twisting, “then you are exactly, as I supposed.”
Latching hold of his sister, Lafayette swung her toward Jackson. “You know nothing of me, and I of you, let’s leave it that way.”
“Oh ho, I know you. You ride the bloody trail.” O’Rourke stated clearly, his words carrying beautifully across the lawn since there was not another sound to be heard. The soldiers shifted to attention, as did every other man in attendance.
“Tell me Ruffian, have you chosen who you and yours plan to ravage next?”
Lafayette’s left dimple pulsated in time with his clenching fists, as he imposed an iron will on his slipping sensibilities. “Monsieur, I strongly suggest you let this matter drop. There is non truth to what you propose!”
“Considering on it… from the moment I saw you riding roughshod over Josie... “Lt. O’Rourke said, stroking his auburn van dyke beard,“... I knew you were bushwhacking scum. What does surprise me is how you are too much of a maggot crawling coward to even own up to your deeds. Frankly, Sir, I am astonished you have backbone enough to walk upright.”
Lafayette’s right fist struck O’Rourke’s jaw with such force, the Lieutenant flipped off his feet, landing with a thud.
O’Rourke leapt up and Lafayette stepped in slamming his fist into the Lieutenant’s unprotected face, smashing his nose; blood splattering the man’s uniform.
Twisting to the side, O’Rourke nailed Lafayette with a corkscrew punch, sending him staggering, following it up with a quick, hard left.
Blood sprayed from Lafayette’s mouth as he spun about, and before hitting the dirt, he planted a hand pushing himself back up. From the slant of his eye, Lafayette saw an uppercut aimed his way. Dodging, he jutted out a leg kicking the Lieutenant.
As O’Rourke fell, he latched hold of Lafayette’s leg, flipping him to the ground where they grappled across the grass exchanging rabbit punches.
Achieving the upper hand, Lafayette rammed his forearm against O’Rourke’s throat and bore down.
Gurgling for air, the Lieutenant clawed at the arm pinning him.
Seeing his panic, Lafayette flicked his head to the side throwing his dark bangs from his face and with a clenched smile pressed harder.
When the eerie familiar click of cocking pistols floated over the sound of the two men fighting, Josephine screamed as did several other ladies and the boom of a shotgun silenced them all.
“That is sufficient!” Colonel Barnett bellowed. “Lafayette! Let ’em go, Son!” The dignified old man stood tall, straight, almost, regal with a smoking shotgun held casually across his arm. “All y’all holster your weapons. I will not have blood spilt. Look about you.”
Southern men and soldiers alike turned their eyes to the ladies and children who had not hidden indoors as of yet, and ashamedly they slipped their firearms back into holsters.
“Lafe, Bub, let him go before you kill him.” Jackson said, pulling at his best friend. “He is not worth the grief.”
Lafayette shook his head, spraying droplets of blood.
“Come on, Bub.” Jackson appealed, prying at Lafayette hoping to break his hold before he crushed the officer’s windpipe. Giving up, Jackson reared back, plowing into Lafayette, and shoving him off O’Rourke.
Springing from a roll, Lafayette charged toward the Northern officer, but Jackson was just as fast and moved to block him. With a growl, he shoved Lafayette toward the stables. Once he had him moving, Jackson grabbed Josephine, pulling her after him the fluted glasses falling from her hand.
Staggering to his feet, Lt. O’Rourke yelled, “Crowe, you damn coward. I will speak with you another day!”
Lafayette shouted, ”Je m’en fou! Let’s finish this!” Barreling around Jackson toward O’Rourke.
Stepping in, Coleman Younger wrapped his large arms about Lafayette, effectively pinning his hands behind his back, saying. “Not now, Crowe, not now, you are too incensed and he is too little of a man to throw it all away over.”
Lafayette howled, lunging to break free, screeching for blood.
“Sam Hill, I tell you twistin’ his head off will not do you nor your family a lick of good.” Orville shouted, grabbing hold of the arm Lafayette had managed to wrangle free.
Ahead of them, Josephine stumbled along behind Jackson, as he hollered. “Benjamin! Benjamin, bring the horses!”
Looking back through a blur of tears, she watched their friends drag her brother, bucking and cursing to the stable yard, ‘He is out of his mind. I ain’t never seen him like this. Sure, Lafe’s got a temper, but it flares bright and is gone just as fast as a fuse burns.’ She shivered, his rage frightening her. Then she recalled something he had once told her, ’I cannot let my temper run free as you and Taddy do. I have to keep it under tight rein. It is like a red demon clawing and clawing at me to be free. Except, each time I let it out, I am afraid it will steal my soul and I will never become me again.′ Seeing how difficult it was for the pair of large men to restrain her slim brother, she thought, ‘and to think, I told’em, he sounded foolish.’ She shook her head, ‘No, if this is the demon he was speakin’ of, then he is correct, he must keep it locked away... for everyone’s sake.’
At the corral, Coleman shoved Lafayette up against the fence, “Stay there!”
Laying his arms across the top rail, Lafayette’s mercurial black eyes locked on the ground in front of him.
’Where is my confident frère that everyone knows by his laughin’ smile?’ Josephine thought, pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, she reached to stem the stream of blood running freely from his mouth.
Lafayette ripped the cloth from her hand, growling, “Do not lay one goddamn finger on me.”
“Lafe chéri, it is me.”
“Oui and I want you to keep the hell away from me, Josephine Michelle.”
Feeling chilled despite the August sun, she backed away, the damage she had wrought beginning to sink in.