Corded muscles rippled beneath Peter’s coal-black skin as he saddled the tall, dapple gray. His movements were fussy, each piece of tack being buckled just so, for he wished Nelly to look flawless when she arrived at the Barnett’s. “Come on angel,” he cooed, slipping the bridle over her head. His gnarled fingers smoothed out her long white forelock. “That be a good girl. Good girl.”
Hearing footsteps on the path curving away from Sienna’s rear brick patio, Peter glanced that way. “Morning Lafe,” the old trainer’s, thick, Kentucky accent cutting through the balmy, summer air.
“Mornin’,” Lafayette answered, speeding up and cutting across the yard, keeping one eye on the house, feeling sure Mams was searching for him. Hopping off the half wall that separated the yard from the gravel drive, he angled toward the enormous cottonwood tree towering over the center of Sienna’s drive. Under it, Peter, with a pair of stable slaves, was preparing three horses for him and Jo’s departure. In truth, Lafayette was grateful for Josephine’s stubborn resolve. He preferred riding to driving a carriage. Snorting, he rolled his eyes, ‘Scratch that ain’t any damn way I would have been given an opportunity to drive. Hell, she would have persisted on driving and being an express one at that.’
The white drive rock crunched beneath his boots as he walked toward the cottonwood. Nelly’s gleaming, silver coat stood out beautifully and it appeared the second horse was Copper Belle. Yet, he still did not recognize the last one. Stepping under the shade of the tree, he felt its coolness wash away his last meager shreds of good humor and his gut twisted like a bag full of snakes. For there stood the three-year-old stallion, Appalachian Blue, a horse everyone on the place called Cain; a stable name he had rightfully earned. “Peter?” Lafayette groaned, raising his open palms toward what he considered the worst horse in their sizeable stable.
A rich, robust laugh rolled from Peter, filling the air between them, even as he pushed the reins into Lafayette’s hand. “Mister said if you went anywheres, you was to take Cain.”
“Quelle?” Lafayette asked, eyeing the animal. “All creation Peter, you must have misunderstood ’em. He cannot possibly want me to take this bunk-o-beast to a picnic. Hellfire, he is worthless as a saddle with a broken tree.” He stated, his gaze shifting to the barn, contemplating any number of mounts he would prefer to ride. “Hellfire... Chiant!”
“Do not be cursin’ your displeasure at me.” Peter told him, saying, “this big boy done trampled two slaves, and when I tell Mister, he said keep ’em fools away from ’em. And then, he said you and Taddy should ride the rough off ’em.” Peter winked. “Mister he said, you two be the beatingest horsemen in the county and you be good for the job.”
A surprised smile spread across Lafayette’s face, growing so large crinkles appeared at the corner of his eyes. It was rare he heard, even second hand, praise from his father. Despite how good it felt, he still did not wish to ride Cain to a social.
“You fancy knowin’ what else I told ’em?” Peter asked, sliding his thick body sideways, avoiding the stallion’s pawing, front leg.
“Not really, yet likely as not, you are goin’ to tell me anyways.”
“Ain’t you feelin’ churlish today?” Peter tsk’d him, shaking his head before leaning close, “Well, I tolds Mister, he was mistaken.”
Lafayette shot Peter a look like he had stabbed him.
Just like Simone, there was not a day when Peter had not been a part of Lafayette’s life. Peter placed him on his first horse. Also, Peter oversaw his training in horses just as he did for all the Crowe children. And, not only because of the Peter’s own exceptional skill with horses, but also because he was the only one trusted to look after their safety.
Antonio Crowe openly declared there was no other man, he trusted as much as Peter. The hard road Antonio and Peter had traveled creating the Crowe Stables, and Sienna, had bound them together forever. Along the way, Antonio had also come to an understanding that he owed much of his good fortune to a man; his own Father had gifted him as a going away present, the day he had left home to brand his mark on the world.
It had been Peter’s devotion, even friendship, which allowed Antonio to achieve his ambitions. So, before he brought his new bride home to Missouri, Antonio made the hardest decision of his life. He told Peter to choose any six horses from the stable line, and had handed him a wallet full of money along with his freedom papers. Upon his return to Sienna, Antonio found Peter had not deserted him. On the spot, he had made him Sienna’s Overseer.
Years later, when Antonio’s wife died it was his trust in Peter that allowed him to wallow in self-pity for far too long. As Overseer, Peter had done more than expected. He had not only seen to the great house, stables, and fields, but also all who called Sienna home. This included Antonio’s children and through the years, Peter had spent more time with the children than Antonio ever thought too.
For months on end, Antonio would be absent and when difficulties arose that young boys require their Father, Lafayette and Thaddeus had without a second thought, run to Peter. The two youngest Crowe boys wormed their way so deep into the old trainer’s heart; he often forgot they were not truly his sons.
Seeing the hurt disbelief in Lafayette’s eyes, Peter smiled, whistling low through his missing eyetooth. “Yup, I up and told Mister, he be wrong. I told ’em, all you Crowe boys be the bestest riders in the whole state, maybe even the whole South.”
Lafayette’s smile returned, “Blazes Peter! Break off polishing me,” he said, moving out of reach of Cain’s teeth. “You just do not want to train this fiend yourself,” and he skittered to the side, avoiding a flying hoof. “You cannot hoodwink me none.”
“If ’n you want to judge me so Lafe, you just be that way.” Peter said, still chuckling as he took Josephine’s mare from the slave holding her. “Lafe Son, what you think of this here filly? I deem her to be one first-rate horse, a fine example of our line.”
Lafayette mumbled an agreement, focusing on Cain. The stallion had a habit of chewing on a person and seeing as he was overly dressed, he was trying to remain out of reach of the stallion’s foamy, wet lips.
“You mind me, Cain there, he also be first-rate.”
Lafayette did hear this and snorted loudly.
“He is, even if you not see it. Yes siree, I would even say he is a lot like you,” Peter said, turning Nelly toward the house where Josephine was impatiently pacing. Although, before taking too many steps, he paused, and looked back. “One day, Lafe Son, given rein and firm hand, Cain there will throw top-notch foals, improving this place... just the same as you will.”
Lafayette’s mouth fell open.
Although Peter only saw the blue-gray colt spin him away in another circle. Laughing, Peter walked on, not realizing how his words had set Lafayette’s mind to spinning.
’What the hell? If he ain’t the third person today to hit me with marriage and bébés, who would think turning eighteen, would turn everyone against a person so? Unless???’ Scowling, he jerked the colt to a standstill. ‘Is it possible? Have arrangements been made, I ain’t aware of?’ His scowl deepened. ’Damn well better not be. Par Dieu, I ain’t got any intention of losing my liberté. If’n anyone has plotted else wise, they got another think comin’. My life belongs to me and I will do what I like with it.’ Glaring up at the big house, he spat on the ground. ’I ain’t a part of Sienna’s stable to be negotiated off for breeding, non matter what Father decrees!’
Having allowed his attention drift, Cain took the opportunity to head butt Lafayette, sending him lurching forward to crash on his knee. Jumping up, he spun on the animal, bellowing, “Chiant! Get off me and fuckin’ behave!” Popping the reins up and down, he backed the animal in a circle, working it and as he did, he spotted a negro boy watching with Copper Belle’s reins dangling from his hand. Spinning to face the slave, Lafayette barked, “Benjamin! Are you plannin’ on facilitating me with this cheval or not?”
Benjamin licked his lips, “No, Sir.”
Unaccustomed to being told ‘no’, Lafayette froze, his head tilting to the side. “Are you up and tellin’ moi non?”
Benjamin’s eyes widened. Swallowing, he opened his mouth to speak. The words would not come, and his mouth just hung open, displaying the large gap between his front teeth; the same gap, which caused his words to end in little hisses whenever he became nervous.
“Uhms, Mister Peter, he done tolds me Master Crowe says, I ain’t to lay one finger on Cain.”
The horse seemingly, needing to prove a point at that exact moment, jumped sideways, slamming into Lafayette. “Damn it!” He growled and weary of being abused, he threw the reins over Cain’s head and slipped a toe into the stirrup. The second his weight lifted from the ground, the stallion leapt, spun, and mule-kicked. Gripping the horse’s mane and his saddle tight as a leech, Lafayette clambered aboard, yanking Cain up short. “Stand still, damn you! Well, Ben, it looks as if you are to accompany us, and since you do not plan on being any assistance, why is Peter botherin’ to send you?”
“Master Crowe felts it twouldn’t be rights for Cain to injure any of Colonel Barnett’s property. So, I is to take hold of ’ems once we all reaches the picnic.”
“Sounds like Father,” Lafayette stated, jerking the horse up again and edging closer. “I suppose what he is thinkin’ is all fine and all, but will you up and grant me a boon?”
“How’s that?” Benjamin said, relaxing a bit.
“Hang Peter and my Father, would you hold this beast as I get off and on? I sure would like to keep my dignity intact and Cain will undoubtedly make a spectacle of me, given the least bit of a chance.”
“I can do that for you, Mister Lafe.”
“Merci.” Lafayette said, turning the stallion in small circles, he at last got him walking peacefully, and saw misfortune heading his way in the form of Josephine.
“You plannin’ on arriving at the Barnett’s before the picnics over?” She hollered gaily as Nelly sailed by, throwing a cloud of dust and rocks into the air.
Rearing, Cain bolted after the mare, and, instinctively, Lafayette reeled him in, forcing the stallion to a jarring, twitching walk until they were on the road. However, he knew; if he wished to overtake Josephine, he would need to let the gray stretch his legs.