Tuesday, July 18, 1860
Leaning against Cain, eyeing the frothy, swirling waters of the Mississippi River, Thaddeus scratched the horse’s rump line, “Hey, Garçon, how you doin?”
The moving water had so spooked the gray so that all of his deviltry had slipped away, the stallion handing its faith and trust over to Thaddeus.
Resting his chin on the horse’s back, Thaddeus leaned heavier against him, his eyes trailing from his keelboat and over to the second one. He had been on the boats for so long that the shuffling, snorting sounds of the horses mingled with the constant lapping of the water had begun to sound natural. Removing a burnt matchstick from his hatband, he set it between his teeth. ‘I am still not sure how I ended up here. Gabe vowed he was making this trip, and yet here I am.’
Seeming to sense Thaddeus’ sullen mood, Cain nibbled at his clothing. “I know you are fuckin’ bored. So am I, Garçon.” Thaddeus thumped his hand along Cain’s ribs, “been told we should be back on solid ground today.” He rubbed the animal once more before wandering off to the stern of the keelboat. Chewing on the matchstick, he kept watch for Fox Northrup on the second boat. At last, his pal stepped into view, and cupping his hands about his mouth, Thaddeus hollered, “FOX!”
The redhead stepped up to the railing, waving across the stretch of water.
Thaddeus bellowed, “Capt’ says we are almost to LaPlace.”
“Thank the Lord. I am ready to be on land,” Fox yelled back.
“See you soon and drinks are on me.”
“Hope ya pockets are full, because I am damn thirsty.”
Thaddeus waved again and strolled around the boat, talking to his horses.
A boatman by the name of Will Dubbs, who had taken Thaddeus under his wing, came to walk with him. “Be keeping ya eyes peeled, ’cause LaPlace will show herself soon. It is too sad ya ain’t going all the way to New Orleans; it being the biggest port in the Americas. It sure be a sight to see.”
“Will, I am fine not seein’ it.” Thaddeus beamed over at the heavily bearded man. “I am more ready than you will ever know to have dirt under m’ damn feet.” Inhaling, Thaddeus could almost taste the saltiness in the air, he had not noticed this earlier, and somehow it excited him even more.
The horses nearest him, stomped their feet, shuffling against one another.
Aware they were latching on to his eagerness, he moved to the bow to enjoy the wind blowing in his face. The boatman was correct, in short order, LaPlace came into view. It was a riotous jumble of buildings spreading away from the Mississippi like a lady’s hand fan.
As the town drew nearer, steaming tugboats raced toward them; their task being to push the much larger keelboats to shore, north of the town where the stockyards lay. The boats belched clouds of steam as they harnessed onto the keels, the downstream flowing water bucked and churned about the boats but they had the keels edging toward shore. A large smile took over Thaddeus’ face as the blurred green ribbon that had run parallel to them for far too long in his estimation; slowed shifting into solid shapes. Leaning against the bow railing, he studied the details of the approaching landscape.
“It is all in the hands of tug boats,” Captain Kinney said, coming to stand by Thaddeus. “The trip went smooth as China silk. I am looking forward to iced ale and shellfish. How about you, Mister Crowe?” he asked, his eyes crinkling heavily at the corners as he puffed on his pipe.
“I am looking forward to walkin’ on land and seein’ m’ famille.”
The Captain laughed heartily. “It has been a pleasure working for your family.”
“Likewise, Captain Kinney, likewise you run a good operation.”
Captain Kinney nodded, “Speak with you again once we have unloaded, Mister Crowe.”
Thaddeus watched the man walk away before returning to tracking the shoreline. Spitting the matchstick out, the current snagged the tiny piece of wood sucking it under, watching it go, Thaddeus thought; ’First, secure the horses at LaPlace then we will ride out and inform Lafe we have arrived. Next, we ride in and take the herd to L’Eau Sucree . Damn it to hell, the is still a lot of fuckin’ work to do before I can head home.′ Huffing out a sigh, he continued studying the shoreline and spotting a group of men near the stockyards, he nodded, ‘hope they aim to assist Fox and me.’
Hearing Cain squeal, Thaddeus spun to see the stallion’s head was up, his nostrils flaring, and ears pricked toward shore. “I feel the same way,” he muttered, a giant smile covering his face. “Gettin’ off this fuckin’ water and being rid of the stench of fish and mud cannot happen soon enough.”
Up and down the barge, horses swung, turning their noses toward land. Those who could not, pawed brutally at the deck.
Scanning their glossy backs, Thaddeus understood their impatience, and unable to stand still any longer, he set to pacing the barge.
Will once more fell into step with him, “ya shall be on shore in no time,” the older man said with a grin that exhibited his few remaining stained teeth. “Positive, ya do not want to travel up the river with us? Might ’en give me a chance to win a handful of my coins back.”
Thaddeus smiled, but as he opened his mouth to reply, a loud, angry squeal stole his attention. His eyes flew to Cain and down his herd, ‘I do not see any of these kickin’ up such a fuss.′ Leaping onto a crate, he surveyed the second barge and groaned, “Damn it to hell!”
Boreas Red, their champion was charging forward and back, tearing his herd mate’s tether lines free.
“FOX!” Thaddeus bellowed, unable to see his friend amongst the chaos of shouting men and dashing horses.
After a tense minute, Fox’s voice floated across the water like part of a bad dream, “Tad, I am losin’ this battle.”
Swallowing hard, Thaddeus eyed the rushing water trying to judge the distance to land. ’They hit the bank and they will be half way to Baton Rouge before we catch ‘em.’ Thinking this, he threw a desperate look to the men way up by the stockyard and then back to the second barge.
Most of the herd was free and swerving wildly from the men trying to capture them; ramming into each other and bouncing of the railings. ‘Them rails ain’t goin’ to put up with much more of that merde.’ Thaddeus thought, his eyes darting again to the shore and then to Cain. “Fuck!”
Hopping to the deck, jerking off his boots, socks, and holster he darted for Cain. In one swift motion, he tore the tie strap loose and leapt on the stallion’s bareback, shouting. “Open the front gate and clear the fuckin’ hell out of the way.”
Trotting Cain to the stern, the big gray’s hoof beats sounded hushed compared to the rasping cracks of the splintering wood on the second keelboat. Sucking hard on his lower lip, Thaddeus threw a glance toward the keel in time to see half the Crowe racing line spill into the river. “Ah fuck,” he moaned his stomach knotting like he had drunk bad milk. Gripping Cain tight, he said, “time to prove yourself.” Not sure if he was speaking to his horse or himself as he slammed his bare heels down.
The staccato crack of Cain’s hooves pounding the deck warned men to leap clear. As the water loomed before them, the stallion tensed; his black tipped ears flicking in all directions.
Weaving his hand into the horse’s mane and gripping tight with his thighs, Thaddeus released a war whoop, and the pair of them sailed out, plunging into the brown water.
The big horse floundered, whickering like a young colt as the strong current stripped Thaddeus from his back. Grasping tight to Cain’s mane and neck, Thaddeus hollered, “I am with you, garçon! It is all right, Cain….just swim!”
Struggling against the tugging water, Thaddeus clambered aboard the dapple gray. “Come on Cain, you can do it. Swim, garçon, swim,” he urged over and over, until he felt the animal’s long legs strike ground. Then they were exploding onto land, torrents of muddy water streaming from them.
Boreas, however, had reached land ahead of them. When he saw a group of men hurrying towards him, the red stallion tossed his head with snort, making a swift left turn.
“Fuck!” Thaddeus cursed, turning his horse after him, “get ’em, Cain.”
Stretching his head out, Cain raced after Sienna’s head stallion, who was pulling away with his hooves throwing hunks of mud like shrapnel.
“Come on fuckin’ RUN!” Thaddeus screamed laying the lead line back and forth across Cain’s rump. Having never felt that before the stallion shot forward so forcibly, Thaddeus about flew off his back. But then stride-by-stride, he began closing the distance.
“I know you can do it, come on, garçon.” Thaddeus implored. His world narrowed down to Cain straining beneath him, the sound of the competing stallion’s huffing breaths, and the steady pounding of their hooves.
Then Cain did it.
He pulled past Boreas.
Saying a quick prayer, Thaddeus leaned out snatching hold of the flying lead line. Gripping it tight, he signaled his horse to turn and for once, the young stallion obeyed him without hesitation. Swinging around in a tight circle, Cain drug Boreas with him, until the pair slowed to a standstill. A caterwauling cheer erupted from Thaddeus, until he saw the rest of the herd scattering five ways to hell and his joy floated away.
Reeling Boreas in close, he steered Cain toward a collection of older mares, “we got more to do, garçon,” he said, herding the mares to the waiting stockyard employees. While there, he handed off Boreas and spun to find more of their scattered herd. As he did so, he spotted a rider on their gelding, Jefferson. The instant he saw the man, he noted not only was he a stranger, but also not a horseman by any stretch of the definition.
Fox was on Ebby and directing the tenderfoot to five drifting horses. For a moment, Thaddeus held his position, watching the stiff, bouncing man move to assist, ‘I do not know who the fuck he thinks he is, climbin’ aboard one of our chevals, but I am amazed he has not fallen the fuck off.’ Taking a breath, he reined in his temper, reminding himself the stranger was trying to be helpful and hollered to Fox, “Let’s use those five to sweep up the others.”
After their initial dash for freedom, most of the animals had dropped to roll in the moist sand, and shaking themselves had begun ambling along grazing. So, when their herd mates strolled by, they placidly followed. In this way, Thaddeus, Fox, and Jefferson’s rider were steadily collecting the escapees, when abruptly every head flew up with a snort.
Alongside the rolling Mississippi, at least two dozen horses raced up the shoreline. But not by choice, they were being herded by a lean, fancily clothed man riding a blue dapple mare named Ophelia.
Keeping one eye on the man, Thaddeus thought, ‘Impressive, he is using the river like a fence line.’ However, the loud chorus of resentful whinnies coming from the racers worried Thaddeus and he yelled, “We need to push ours up to the trees before they spook.”
As the ribbon of horses streamed into the corrals, a young sorrel reared, shying away. However, quicker than a lariat throw, the stranger on Ophelia had the sorrel turned and inside the enclosure.
“Hell of a rider, that one,” Thaddeus mumbled, glancing over with a frown at the scarecrow riding Jefferson. “Fox, y’all go ahead and take these in and do a head count. I am goin’ do another sweep.”
Along the tree line, Thaddeus found three yearlings. Taking them to the corrals, he pushed them through the gate. Turning away, he saw Jefferson’s rider slip off and hand the lead to another stockman.
Nodding to the small man, who appeared somewhat shaken by the ride, Thaddeus aimed Cain toward Ophelia; who was still carrying her rider. Drawing near, Thaddeus hollered, “Monsieur?”
The rider spun the blue mare and Thaddeus gasped, “Par Dieu!”