“Whoa, Coffee,” Lafayette said, stopping his horse near the ridge’s edge. Below pale fingers of early morning light were stretching across the valley and from where he sat; he wanted to memorize it all. He began with the massive wood and stone barn towering over the paddocks, silos, slave cottages, and spreading, rolling fields. The same fields, he had run across as a child and more than anything, he wanted to be in them now. Breathing deep, he thought he could smell the sharp, sweet tang of their grass. Seeing their herd meandering across a field, he smiled, admiring the lean, long-legged horses of every color lining up along the creek.
Beyond the fields, the grove of cottonwoods standing sentry about his home drew his eye and his smile disappeared. “I am goin’ to miss those trees. Their shade, whispering music, and the way the settin’ sun alters their sharp, green leaves to flickering pieces of gold.”
At his voice, his horse bobbed his head and he patted the gelding’s neck turning his gaze to the house. Sitting there, he tried to see it as a stranger might, but could not. He knew the three-story, white-limestone, square villa to well. While he watched the sun caught the grand house and the iron and stone verandas wrapping gracefully about it, sparkled with dew in the morning light. Knowing he would miss spending time with his family on the comfortable furniture scattered along the verandas, he sighed.
Coffee shifted, pawing the ground, sending skittering rocks over the edge.
“Easy boy, stop that.” He told the horse and continued speaking to the animal, “I cannot see the front door, but I do not need to. I know where it is by the white steps spilling onto the drive. Funny, but the red front door has always been une of m’ favorite features, I like how it looks when you ride up.”
Saying this, he swallowed hard, recalling the tale of how his Mère had insisted it be painted red before she would move in. She had been rather superstitious, a peculiarity she had handed down to her children in varying doses. In this case, she believed only good things happened behind red doors. Knowing Sienna’s history as he did, Lafayette tended to ignore this specific belief. Yet, his own opinions had not stopped him from adding another coat of red last fall.
Becoming more anxious, Coffee side stepped, switching his tail. Shifting in his saddle, Lafayette turned the horse, settling him. ’I ought to ride down there and inform Father this is m’ home and he cannot send me away. I belong here. Sienna is as much a part of me as m’ name.’ Nodding he picked up his reins, preparing to do just that and turning, he was surprised to lock eyes with Peter.
The old trainer shook his head, motioning Lafayette to come on.
Worrying at the scab on his lower lip, Lafayette’s eyes dropped to the reins woven between his fingers.
“Son, the time has passed.”
Lafayette, looked to the valley again, ’Peter’s right... it is too late. I cannot return. I behaved like an unthinking child and this is m’ consequence. There ain’t any words, I can say which will expunge m’ actions. Mams always said m’ temper would bring me sorrow.’ Adjusting his hat, so it covered his glistening eyes, he pointed his horse toward Peter. “Sure wish this was one time, Mams, could have been wrong.”
Confident Lafayette would follow, Peter climbed into the driver’s seat of the three-bench buggy. He understood Lafayette’s suffering and shaking his head, Peter settled into the padded seat, thinking, ’It ain’t right. Being gone will change, Lafe and he will grow to detest Mister for sending ‘em away.’ Taking up the leads, Peter hipped the matched pair of mahogany bays. They leapt forward, their merrily, jingling harnesses out of harmony with the somber mood of their driver.
Behind Peter, Webster whistled sharp and high, setting the freight team into motion. The big-boned, workhorses plodded along in the drifting dust stirred up by the fast stepping pacers. Speaking to the team, Webster encouraged them until they were moving in a smooth, flowing walk.
Webster was every inch as large as the team he drove and twice as gentle. Coming up alongside, Lafayette kept his distance, ensuring Webster could not lure him into conversation, as he did not wish to lash the man with his sullen mood. More than an hour passed and throughout, Lafayette felt Webster’s light-gray eyes on him repeatedly. Once their eyes locked, and for a few clip-clopping seconds, they shared an understanding, then parted to ride on in their separate thoughts.
‘Once we board a steamship, both Peter and Web will return to Sienna.’ Lafayette thought, skewing his eyes to the large Negro he had known all his life. ’I will not have Web to yank me out of trouble, as he has done more times than I could even begin to recall. It will be only me to watch over m’ sœurs, Mikey, our luggage, and Katharine’s maid, Margie. For the life of me, I cannot fathom, why Father would not allow Web to tag along. He sent Margie, for the filles.” He sighed, and gently rubbed at his swollen eye, wishing it would open more. ‘Kind of thought, I was goin’ earn another shiner the way Father reacted, when I pushed to bring Webster along. And, not for the reason Jo stated.” He looked toward the carriage, where his sister’s rode, feeling the desire to rail at her for even suggesting he had wanted a body servant. ’I wanted Web along for as ami from home. I have never had a body servant, why the fuck would I want one now? Jo knows I have always done my fair share of labor. Hellfire, I have worked side-by-side with the slaves of Sienna.
Ain’t nothing special to brag over either, as it is common ’round Missouri. Southern at heart we might be, but we sure as hell are not a part of the cotton empire. Sure, this rocky land is rich and fertile, that is, the parts that ain’t reaching for the heavens. Most everyone I know, grows crops enough to support their famille. Except, people like the Barnetts, Adlers, and others along the river bottoms; those places, they have stables of slaves to bring in their crops. But, not my home, Sienna has fewer and fewer slaves each year.′
Turning his right palm up, he saw layers of calluses ‘Yup, ain’t smooth and pretty like one of them Aristocrat Planter’s son who ain’t required to break a sweat.’ He nodded, ’Makes me twice as glad to be a Missourian. I like that m’ frères and I understand the virtue of labor. Still, I ain’t ever had anyone dependent on me from top to bottom before. How the hell, am I to be the sole protector on this trip, when Father has made it abundantly clear I am incapable of handling myself right here in Cass?’
Contemplating what was required, on and off the boats, Lafayette sucked at his front teeth making them whistle, ’Jésus pleura, how much unrest is Jo goin’ to pile on me. Katharine will pull her own; even do her best to make it easier. Jo, she is another matter.’ Lifting his gaze to the freight wagon, he inventoried the trunks, memorizing the details of each one. It had taken all of yesterday to pack them. ‘Thirteen,’ he thought, ’How in Lucifer’s tail did we wind up with thirteen trunks? And, it is up to me, to ensure not one of ‘em is mislaid while keepin’ track of everything else.’
Lafayette’s mouth felt dusty as an old piece of leather. Whoaing Coffee, he took a long drink from his canteen and then removed a dark, thin cheroot from its silver case. With the blowing wind, it took him more than a minute to light it, so once he did, he sat back enjoying the smoke. ’Let’s hang back, garçon. I would prefer our last ride to not include eating dirt the whole way.’
Standing in his stirrups, he scratched the big bay between its ears. Out of their entire stable, Coffee was his favorite. The gelding was eager to please, sure-footed, fast, and intelligent. As a stallion, he had been damn ornery to fight, but castration had honed Coffee into the most reliable horse on their property, leastways in Lafayette’s opinion. “I am not even being permitted the time required, to arrange for you to accompany me.”
Snorting, he urged Coffee into an easy, slow trot, ’I reckon I was around ten last times I visited Grand-mère. Under any other proviso, I would be damn elated to be headin’ for the Veux Carré. I ain’t never forgotten how life there is both exhilarating and lethargic at the same time.’ A glint came to his eye, ’Since m’ last visit, the Carré has filled m’ imagination and many of m’ dreams. Taddy, au contraire was not the least bit charmed by it. He complained about the heat being wet, the air tasting foul, and the town being downright filthy. Oh, and I must not forget, he informed Mams, she should stop railing on’em about how civilized the Carré was, because everyone there smelled as if they were past due a bath.’ Lafayette chuckled, recalling how bent out of shape Mams had been with Thaddeus for the rest of the day.
When a corner of his mind said, ’I bet it does not take Jo long to fall in love with the Carré,’ his smile immediately became a frown. ’Damn her! She has made what should be an adventure into a penance. Bet she still ain’t grasped how she ruined me and notre famille along with her réputation. Taddy should be here not her.’ And, thinking this, all the morning’s pre-dawn activities came back to him as clear as a reflection in a mirror.