A man could get lost.
Wyatt woke up in a strange room. It was clean and brightly lit, with the sun streaming in past light curtain material, which ballooned in, and blew about in a strongish breeze.
Despite that, it was overpoweringly warm as it always seemed to be, and the smell of spicy cooking and perhaps of incense, also filled the room as well as the faintly pleasant smell of a cheroot.
There were sounds of laughter deeper in the house, as dishes were being washed, overlain by other kitchen noises and the hauntingly pleasurable patois of the area, a mixture of a dialect of a kind of French, never spoken in France, and of a strange English that no one familiar with English might ever have recognized; but this was New Orleans. It was a rich and expressive language that he knew and loved. It was friendly.
The decoration and the pictures on the wall, as well as clothing hanging across a corner of the room, told him that this was a woman’s room and that he was probably in her bed too. There were various small decorations looped over each of the four corner posts of the bed. He could see the two of them at the foot of it but knew that others like them were up by his head too and that one of them would be a rosary in the midst of voodoo charms.
In that same room there would also be a small wooden or metal box sitting on a Bible and containing a fragment of the true cross. If all such fragments were brought together from throughout the world into one place, there would be enough wood of various kinds to have made a thousand such crosses. There was an industry based upon it. They liked to cover their bets. They paid service to different religions, several gods, and various spirits. It harmed no one and might save them.
The legs of the bed would also be sitting in tall metal or glass cups, perhaps with creosote in them, to stop insects, spiders, or even scorpions, if there were any here, from climbing up into the bed with its occupant.
There was a moderately large cross, hanging on the wall opposite the foot of the bed, and the almost obligatory picture of the Madonna and child that went with it. He also saw his own razor lying there too. Jennings had been to see him. From the absence of any rasping sound as he moved his head on the pillow, he realized that someone had recently shaved him.
He may have been there longer than he might think. Despite the other smells, there was also a smell of cleanliness and the perfumed scent of a woman that would cling to everything she cared for, and touched. He was immersed in it. It comforted him. It also told him that he was safe and that he was still alive.
It was strangely comforting; the sounds and smell of a home, where love ruled, albeit a strange home and not his own; but then he had no home of that kind, at least not close by. There was a brightly colored bird watching him from the windowsill of the open window, letting a cooling breeze of air in.
A slight movement beside him caught his attention, and he tried to turn his head but couldn’t; his neck was stiff. Then he remembered being struck there the previous night. He felt a delicate touch of a woman’s hand on his brow and heard the swish of a skirt.
An angel moved into his limited range of vision to look kindly down upon him as she first put her cheroot aside and then brought a damp cloth to his brow. He almost laughed at the strange incongruity of it all—one of the most strikingly beautiful women he had ever seen, with such an unladylike habit—but such things were common here. His pillow was damp beneath him as though she had done that many times to try to ease his discomfort.
Smoking a cheroot or a cigar was a strange habit for a beautiful young woman to have, and she was very young. Moreover, she was very beautiful, with white teeth—obviously looked after, despite that other strange habit—as she smiled at him.
She was one of those he remembered from the levee the previous night or earlier as he had intervened on their behalf and had struck that man, Henstridge, and had knocked him to the ground.
She spoke in that strange but beautiful language again, a nondescript mixture of many tongues, just as the people were a mix of many bloodlines and, often, the better for it, feeling kinship with so many. However, it was a wary kind of kinship. Your worst enemies were among those closest to you.
“Lay still, monsieur Wyatt.” How did she know his name? Jennings, of course.
“You will soon be on your feet again. Mr. Jennings was here and brought some of your things. He will come again later.” He digested that. He had been here longer than he had thought. She did not tell him that Jennings had wanted to know what had happened, and that he had learned about Mr. Henstridge and his sudden horror at seeing this “ghost” from his past. That name, Henstridge, had meaning for him, and he understood much more than he might say to anyone.
Jennings was well-enough known to them that they were able to tell him all that they had done in disposing of that body without fear of him telling anyone else. After all, he was a member, in a way, of their community, having married not one but two sisters, as a means of rescuing them from what might have faced them with no males left alive after that war, to protect them. It had been marriage according to natural custom and not that of the church but just as binding to honorable folk.
“He, that man Henstridge—Colonel Henstridge—he called himself, but he was never in the army, shot you after you attacked ’im and took his stick away but not soon enough.”
She pronounced the him and the his, as though there were two ee’s in the middle of them and also had difficulty pronouncing the h (except for those first ones and a few others, which she had concentrated upon before she said them) as with anyone whose first language might be French, though not this kind of French. It was hauntingly pleasant to listen to but quite different from the Southern accent he was most used to hearing, and her voice flowed like honey.
“If you ’ad not soon taken away ’is sword and shot ’im yourself and run ’im through, ’e would have finished you off with that second pistole. You ’ave been ’ere for almost deux—two—days.” He was surprised to hear that. “You took ’im by surprise and scared the ’ell out of ’im, or ’e may ’ave taken more care over ’is first shot or even ’is second and killed you. He was destined for death that night, anyway. “The devil ’as ’im now in that other place and is playing ’is tender little games with ’im.’”
She spat out of the window and made the sign of the cross to protect herself from having said that word, devil, just as she would say bless you (though likely the Creole equivalent) following a sneeze to keep the expelled demon moving.
“’E is dead and long gone down the river and good riddance, with no one the wiser, while you, live, so you need not worry ’bout dat. E’ll not be found now.” She seemed sure of that. “The gators wouldn’t leave much.” She chuckled at that. “They eats us, yes, if we gets careless going after them. But mostly, we eats them.”
She was wonderful! Wyatt had never come across such a woman before, and he was captivated.
She turned away and spoke to someone else in the other room, telling them in a gentle voice and in a way that he barely understood for a few moments that he was awake now and needed some soup. Yes, he was hungry, and it smelled good.
He was mesmerized by the way she spoke and watched the movement of her lips as though to help him understand her better. It quickly came back to him.
“Jennings . . .” He tried to ask a question, but she interrupted him to save him the effort.
“He’ll be back soon.” She continued to bathe his head as he visibly relaxed upon hearing that.
Another young woman, who had to be the sister of the first, with their characteristic and similar features—black hair and deeply suntanned skin, or their natural complexion, and whom he also recognized from the earlier confrontation—brought some soup in, and began to feed him once she had stuffed some cushions down behind him. She spoke much better properEnglish than her sister. There could be no mistaking that they were sisters, however, despite their differences.