Thursday, January 12, 1860
As the tall door shut out the sunlight, the bouquet of smoke, liquor, and sweat encircled Lafayette inviting him into the semi-dark room. Ordering a cold beer, he turned hitching his elbows on the bar scanning the room, ‘Perfect, ain’t anyone here I know.’
“That will be fifteen.”
Digging the coins from his vest pocket, Lafayette laid them on the shining bar surface.
“It will pick up ’round here in a couple hours if you are looking for amis or a game,” the bartender stated warmly.
“Neither merci,” Lafayette replied, making a beeline for a vacant table and sinking into one of the roughly used chairs. Throwing his black hat on the well-worn tabletop, he took a slow draw of the beer.
Setting the mostly empty mug down, he pulled out his Father’s letter, rereading it. ‘Appears I am needed and yet he commands me to remain here.’ Snorting, he shoved the letter back in his pocket.
’Damnation, it all makes non damn sense.’ Sighing, he ran a hand through his long, black hair, ‘And I should have skipped Tulane today. I cannot recall much of what the professors went over.’ He turned the mug one turn after another, ’Hell, my mind was so deep in Missouri, I could not even surface enough to join the debate on John Brown vs. the State of Virginia and if’n anyone had some worthwhile points to make there, I did with mon personal experience.’
Picking up the mug, he took a small drink and returned to turning it in circles on the tabletop. ’Would have liked to have gotten in on the legal ramifications and how the trial itself was like dynamite to our crumbling political system. And yet, every remark made me think of Sienna and m’ frères who are all far too close to the fanatical Brown martyr’s cause eruptin’.’
Taking up the beer, he finished it and leaning back in his chair, he stared at the sunlight on the saloon’s painted windows. ‘Despite enjoyin’ m’ life here, it only takes one letter to strangle m’ heart until it wants to return to Cass County more than it wants to continue beating. Hellfire, there has to be something, I can put together which will convince Father to allow me to come home.’
Entering the Saloon from the side office, Jonathon Burgess recognized Lafayette as the man he had been hoping to be introduced to. He had even watched the dark-haired man playing poker at the Red Crescent Saloon last Saturday night. If a seat had opened, Jonathon had planned to join the game, thus garnering himself an introduction. However, after waiting two hours, he moved on to an octoroon ball.
Still, Jonathon had discovered the man’s name was Lafayette, he was sociable, an excellent player; and even though he spoke the broken-gibberish of the Creoles; his words were clipped compared to the surrounding men; leading Jonathon to believe Lafayette was not from Louisiana at all. Watching him, Jonathon became more curious, trying to figure if he might be a new resident of the rapidly growing American District, as it seemed to draw all sorts.
Jonathon Burgess himself was well known as his father, George owned a dozen saloons, a shipping fleet, and several mercantiles. Most recently, George Burgess had purchased a number of tenement buildings and a stretch of land along the river. Yet, despite his family’s immense and growing wealth, the old Creole guard who ran the town would still not receive any of the Burgesses; a point that bothered his family very little and was a consistent rock in Jonathon’s craw.
Unlike his siblings, Jonathon had been born in New Orleans and saw himself as a New Orleanian, not so for the Creoles. They refused to let him ever forget his family had migrated South and thus so had he.
Stepping behind the bar, Jonathon drew himself a beer, mumbling, ‘I do wonder who the hell he is?’
“What was that Monsieur Burgess?” The bartender asked.
“Nothing,” Jonathon shook his head, downing the beer, and decided it was high time to meet this stranger; proper introduction be damned. Strolling to the table, he stood over Lafayette extending his hand, “Names Jonathon Burgess. I own the place.” Although saying he was the owner was not necessarily true. His father owned the saloon, but that was a small detail.
From the slant of his eye, Lafayette took in un-calloused hands, expensive clothing, barbered blonde hair, and square, friendly face sporting intelligent blue eyes. Standing, he took the offered hand in a firm grip, stating, “Lafayette Crowe.” As he released his hold, Jonathon sunk uninvited into the opposite chair and the corner of Lafayette’s mouth turned down.
Snapping his fingers, Jonathon called out, “Marcus fetch my bottle and two glasses.” Reading a hardness settling into Lafayette’s angular face, Jonathon produced a merry grin, asking, “You planning to bolt out the gate or sit back down?”
The back of Lafayette’s neck and ears colored. He did not much care for having his indecisiveness pointed out. Putting on his poker face, he retook his seat, if for no other reason, then to see why this Jonathon Burgess felt the need to force his acquaintance on him.
Despite Lafayette’s stiffness, the affable spark in Jonathon’s eyes never faltered, “I have been seeing you here-and-there since my return from Europe; however we have not been afforded the opportunity of an introduction.”
The bartender’s arrival saved Lafayette from the need to respond.
Setting down the pair of glasses, the portly man filled each halfway with Heron’s Whiskey, placing the bottle by Jonathon. He then gave his boss’ son a protective look, but before departing, he gave Lafayette a meaningful glare.
“Thank you.” Jonathon told the man, taking out a cigar, trimming the tip, and selecting a match from a gold case. He flicked it to life on his thumbnail. Leaning into the flame, his eyes studied Lafayette. As the smoke drifted up between them, Jonathon mumbled, “Lafayette Crowe?” before offhandedly shaking the flame out, and tossing the blackened match in the ashtray. “You good sir, have an unusual name…cannot say I know it.” Jonathon stated, running his mental list of Louisiana’s elite; a list his Father had trained into him, as a person never knew when an opportunity to make money might arise. “I conjecture you are not from around here.”
Lafayette’s mouth twitched. To cover his irritation, he picked up the glass of Heron’s, inhaling the sweet mash, and thinking. ’I will give this Monsieur Burgess the time it takes for me to finish mon drink, before excusing myself.′
Without warning, Jonathon sat bolt upright, “Crowe!” Jerking the cigar from his mouth, he gasped, “As in Crowe race horses! Tarnel, I should have recognized the name the moment you said it. Suppose I was too focused on your first name.”
Lafayette took a drink, one eyebrow dropping low, ‘I do not care for his smug, prying manner.’ And, cold as a winter gale, he asked, “What is it you want, Monsieur?”
“Want? Why nothing,” Jonathon smiled largely. “I just wished to make your acquaintance as I have been seeing you about town. Of course… if you are from the Crowe Stables then I cannot believe my fortune. Your Missouri stable is simply legendary. Hell, my Family owns two of your horses and I would greatly enjoy obtaining more, if possible. Truthfully, I have always fancied one of your pacers. Tarnel, I had no idea there were Crowe horses in the area.” Jonathon expounded and, realizing he was running on like a child with a crush, displayed a sheepish grin.
All the while, Lafayette had been shifting his glass so the diamond cuts caught the meager light, and when given the chance to speak, he replied, ”Oui, I hail from Missouri. I do regret to inform you, I have non chevals on hand.” Tipping his glass toward Jonathon in a toast, Lafayette grinned out of the side of his mouth, “Quelle honte, as it appears, I could make a tidy profit.”
“So, I am right. You are a Crowe.” Jonathon leaned in, jubilant as a boy with a shiny new coin. “Are you here purchasing new blood?” he asked, already considering anyone who might have worthwhile animals to sell, as he wanted to be of assistance; thus giving him time to become friends with such a notable personage.
“Non, I am not here acquirin’.” Lafayette replied, tossing back the last of his whiskey. Its warmth soothed some of the strain Father’s letter had created in him. “We primarily procure overseas and most certainly in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as top racers come from old lines.”
“Old? Why none of them is older than New Orleans, you must consider our horses. I deem you will be impressed if you do,” Jonathon boasted, pouring Lafayette’s glass nearly full. “My family has a fine stable, although none of our beauties are for sale. However, I am your man if you wish to be introduced around.”
Lafayette grinned at Jonathan’s naiveté, ’Although, I sure would like to see who his family owns. Maybe even attend some races with ‘em, since, Jonathon is vested in the sport, it would make it a sight more enjoyable than just walkin’ the damn track grounds as a visiteur.’ Mulling this over, memories of their herd filled his mind as did a painful ached of homesickness and he downed the sizeable glass of whiskey in its entirety before asking, “Do you have a grand stable?”
“Not too large, however, I would say we have purchased the best horses in Louisiana.”
“Really?” Lafayette replied, “I generally find the finest are not for sale, so, excusez-moi, if a doubt your claim.”
“Then allow me to prove it.” Jonathon exclaimed, leaping to his feet, and gesturing toward the door.
Restraining a triumphant smile, Lafayette said, “Sounds fine. Lead the way.”
Once out in the afternoon sun, Jonathon slid to a halt. “We will require mounts to reach, Metairie. I have mine at the Silver Spur around the corner. You?”
“The same,” Lafayette replied, grinning hugely, the locked restraints on his mind clicking open from having drunk so much whiskey a touch too fast.
The Silver Spur was small, yet they kept a guard at the gate keeping riff-raff out and though old, the place was clean.
Jonathon turned to Lafayette, “Please excuse me, Mister Crowe, as I must saddle King myself. He is rough on strangers.”
However, before walking off, Jonathon asked, a bit too eagerly, “Which stall holds yours?”
“Depends which ones are for rent.” Lafayette replied, opening the door to the office to speak with the stable manager.
Glancing back, Lafayette laughed, “As I said, I ain’t got any chevals here with me.”
Jonathon’s face scrunched at the closed office door and walking into King’s stall, he absently scratched the star on the big bay’s forehead. ‘Every gentleman I know has a personal mount and being who he is... how could he not?’ A tingling alarm crawled down his spine as he saddled his horse.
Leading the stallion out, Jonathon halted to observe Lafayette circling a long-legged mare. He sits the animal like he was born to it. ’Good horseman maybe. Still, it bothers me that a man who claims to be from a horse breeder family is renting a horse; makes me doubt who he is. Maybe he is not who he says he is at all.′
Once in the saddle, Jonathon rubbed a hand down his face. ‘What a fool I am! How many times has Father warned me about putting the ball before the powder? This stranger may be nothing more than a flim-flamer and...’ Jonathon’s blue eyes shifted to Lafayette, ‘I filled in his whole back story.’
By the time Lafayette reined in beside him, Jonathon was scowling and clearing his throat, he stated, “Sir, I have reconsidered, and my apologies. For I feel today is not the most ideal for riding out to Metairie.”
Lafayette arched an eyebrow, “Why is that?” Tilting his head, he studied Jonathon. “Oh ho, could it be you are unsure I am who you labeled me to be.”
Jonathon’s eyes widened, blinking rapidly trying to think of a response.
Lafayette set to laughing, “Yup, I take it you are feelin’ like quite the dumb ox for not allowin’ me to flush out m’ own history.” His laugh grew more brazen, “feelin’ the fool, burns a might, does it not?”
Jonathon’s shoulders jerked as Lafayette’s jabs struck home.
‘Why am I lashin’ him?’ Lafayette thought, ‘I do want to see his stock. Hellfire, I am damn curious which of our horses might be here. Besides, Jonathon has been right down sociable.’ Lafayette held up his hand. ”Sil vous plaît, Monsieur Burgess... Jonathon, mes excuses. News I received from m’ famille in Missouri has fouled m’ manners and filled m’ mouth with barbs.”
Flicking his eyes to the rather prominent vein throbbing in Jonathon’s forehead, Lafayette swallowed. “I was offensive, mes excuses and it was uncalled for, sometimes my interior monologue escapes, when I wish it would not.” Shrugging his shoulders, he flashed his dimpled smile, “Hey now, I did get your misgivings right out into the sunlight, did I not? I find straight talk better than hem-hawing any day of the week. So, come on Jonathon, unruffle your feathers...” Leaning forward Lafayette winked, “... say what you wish.”
Jonathon sidestepped his horse a few steps away. “How am I to ever know you are not a bloody thieving fleecer who has laid his mark on me?”
“How about we ride on with the intent of visiter your herd, if’n along the way I cannot put you at ease, then once we are out of the city proper we can have us a bonne old fashioned Louisiane duel.”
Jonathon’s mouth twisted to the side.
“You will forever wonder if ’n you do not.”
“Fine,” Jonathon gestured to the gate with a smile that held none of his earlier friendliness.
As they rode, Lafayette answered each curt question Jonathon came up with and he could feel the inevitability of duel still hanging on the horizon of his near future. Peeking at the man, he thought, ‘I do not wish to shoot’em. I also damn well do not feel care for the notion of being shot.’ With this he whoa ’d the mare, “Jonathon, I reckon I was a bit tactless...”
“A bit,” Jonathon snorted. “You laughed in my face while calling me not only a dumb ox, but also a fool.”
Lafayette’s eyes lit with merriment, “All right, a lot tactless.” Moving the mare closer, Lafayette looked up the street, “May we make une stop around the corner,” he tipped his head toward the street sign they were approaching, “and I feel optimistic I can put you at ease.”
Rubbing the side of his nose, Jonathon read the rue de Royal on the sign, flicking his eyes over to Lafayette.
“Give me a chance. I honestly do not feel like havin’ a duel.” Lafayette said, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his saddle’s shoulders and fumbled as the saddle he sat in was not his own. But, a tiny English affair that was not much more than a seat. Perceiving his mistake, he set to outright laughing. “Jonathon, I like you, I do. I have a notion we could be great ami. This is exactly why m’ famille often reminds me if’n I would heed what I damn well say, than I would not be so grand at apologizin’. And, I have apologized, have I not?” Lafayette asked, shrugging his shoulders, “However, it appears you have your heart set on a duel. Well, I am proud to oblige, I would rather get back in stride with you.”
“I have no qualms over stopping markedly; I would really loathe having to kill you as I find myself liking you too.”
“Why I too would hate for you to kill me… course it may well be me burying you,” Lafayette replied with a wink, turning his horse down Royal Street. “’Cause, do not be forgettin’ I am a Westerner and we all grow up with a firearm in our hand.” Saying this, his smile grew so large Jonathon could not help but smile back.