res in two languages. Sour Billy was a dark, cadaverous man, his long horseface scarred by the pox he’d had as a boy, his hair thin and brown and flaky. He seldom smiled, and he had frightening ice-colored eyes.
Joshua York sipped at his wine, and smiled. “I did not have the Eli Reynolds in mind, Captain Marsh.”
“She’s the only boat I got.”
York set down his wine. “Come,” he said, “let us settle up here. We can proceed up to my room, and discuss matters further.”
Marsh made a weak protest—the Planters’ House offered an excellent dessert menu, and he hated to pass it up. York insisted, however.
York’s room was a large, well-appointed suite, the best the hotel had to offer, and usually reserved for rich planters up from New Orleans. “Sit,” York said commandingly, gesturing Marsh to a large, comfortable chair in the sitting room. Marsh sat, while his host went into an inner chamber and returned a moment later, bearing a small iron-bound chest. He set it on a table and began to work the lock. “Come here,” he said, but Marsh had already risen to stand behind him. York threw back the lid.
“Gold,” Marsh said softly. He reached out and touched the coins, running them through his fingers, savoring the feel of the soft yellow metal, the gleam and the clatter of it. One coin he brought to his mouth and tasted. “Real enough,” he said, spitting. He chunked the coin back in the chest.
“Ten thousand dollars in twenty-dollar gold coins,” York said. “I have two other chests just like it, and letters of credit from banks in London, Philadelphia, and Rome for sums considerably larger. Accept my offer, Captain Marsh, and you shall have a second boat, one far grander than your Eli Reynolds. Or perhaps I should say that we shall have a second boat.” He smiled.
Abner Marsh had meant to turn down York’s offer. He needed the money bad enough, but he was a suspicious man with no use for mysteries, and York asked him to take too much on faith. The offer had sounded too good; Marsh was certain that danger lay hidden somewhere, and he would be the worse for it if he accepted. But now, staring at the color of York’s wealth, he felt his resolve weakening. “A new boat, you say?” he said weakly.
“Yes,” York replied, “and that is over and above the price I would pay you for a half-interest in your packet line.”
“How much . . .” Marsh began. His lips were dry. He licked them nervously. “How much are you willin’ to spend to build this new boat, Mister York?”
“How much is required?” York asked quietly.
Marsh took up a handful of gold coins, then let them rattle through his fingers back into the chest. The gleam of them, he thought, but all he said was, “You oughtn’t carry this much about with you, York. There’s scoundrels would kill you for one of them coins.”
“I can protect myself, Captain,” York said. Marsh saw the look in his eyes and felt cold. He pitied the robber who tried to take Joshua York’s gold.
“Will you take a walk with me? On the levee?”
“You haven’t given me my answer, Captain.”
“You’ll get your answer. Come first. Got something I want you to see.”
“Very well,” York said. He closed the lid of the chest, and the soft yellow gleam faded from the room, which suddenly seemed close and dim.
The night air was cool and moist. Their boots sent up echoes as they walked the dark, deserted streets, York with a limber grace and Marsh with heavy authority. York wore a loose pilot’s coat cut like a cape, and a tall old beaver hat that cast long shadows in the light of the half-moon. Marsh glared at the dark alleys between the bleak brick warehouses, and tried to present an aspect of solid, scowling strength sufficient to scare off ruffians.
The levee was crowded with steamboats, at least forty of them tied up to landing posts and wharfboats. Even at this hour all was not quiet. Huge stacks of freight threw black shadows in the moonlight, and they passed roustabouts lounging against crates and bales of hay, passing a bottle from hand to hand or smoking their cob pipes. Lights still burned in the cabin windows of a dozen or more boats. The Missouri packet Wyandotte was lit and building steam. They spied a man standing high up on the texas deck of one big side-wheel packet, looking down at them curiously. Abner Marsh led York past him, past the procession of darkened, silent steamers, their tall chimneys etched against the stars like a row of blackened trees with strange flowers on their tops.
Finally he stopped before a great ornate side-wheeler, freight piled high on her main deck, her stage raised against unwanted intruders as she nuzzled against her weathered old wharfboat. Even in the dimness of the half-moon the splendor of her was clear. No steamer on the levee was quite so big and proud.
“Yes?” Joshua York said quietly, respectfully. That might have decided it right there, Marsh thought later—the respect in his voice.
“That’s the Eclipse,”Marsh said. “See, her name is on the wheelhouse, there.” He jabbed with his stick. “Can you read it?”
“Quite well. I have excellent night vision. This is a special boat, then?”
“Hell yes, she’s special. She’s the Eclipse. Every goddamned man and boy on this river knows her. Old now—she was built back in ’52, five years ago. But she’s still grand. Cost $375,000, so they say, and worth all of it. There ain’t never been a bigger, fancier, more formid-a-bul boat than this one right here. I’ve studied her, taken passage on her. I know.” Marsh pointed. “She measures 365 feet by 40, and her grand saloon is 330 feet long, and you never seen nothin’ like it. Got a gold statue of Henry Clay at one end, and Andy Jackson at the other, the two of ’em glaring at each other the whole damn way. More crystal and silver and colored glass than the Planters’ House ever dreamed of, oil paintings, food like you ain’t never tasted, and mirrors—such mirrors. And all that’s nothin’ to her speed.
“Down below on the main deck she carries 15 boilers. Got an 11-foot stroke, I tell you, and there ain’t a boat on any river can run with her when Cap’n Sturgeon gets up her steam. She’s done eighteen miles an hour upstream, easy. Back in ’53, she set the record from New Orleans to Louisville. I know her time by heart. Four days, nine hours, thirty minutes, and she beat the goddamned A. L. Shotwell by fifty minutes, fast as the Shotwell is.” Marsh rounded to face York. “I hoped my Lady Liz would take the Eclipse some day, beat her time or race her head to head, but she never could of done it, I know that now. I was just foolin’ myself. I didn’t have the money it takes to build a boat that can take the Eclipse.
“You give me that money, Mister York, and you’ve got yourself a partner. There’s your answer, sir. You want half of Fevre River Packets, and a partner who runs things quiet and don’t ask you no questions ’bout your business? Fine. Then you give me the money to build a steamboat like that.”
Joshua York stared at the big side-wheeler, serene and silent in the darkness, floating easily on the water, ready for all challengers. He turned to Abner Marsh with a smile on his lips and a dim flame in his dark eyes. “Done,” was all he said. And he extended his hand.
Marsh broke into a crooked, snaggle-toothed grin, wrapped York’s slim white hand within his own meaty paw, and squeezed. “Done, then,” he said loudly, and he brought all his massive strength to bear, squeezing and crushing, as he always did in business, to test the will and the courage of the men he dealt with. He squeezed until he saw the pain in their eyes.
But York’s eyes stayed clear, and his own hand clenched hard around Marsh’s with a strength that was surprising. Tighter and tighter it squeezed, and the muscles beneath that pale flesh coiled and corded like springs of iron, and Marsh swallowed hard and tried not to cry out.
York released his hand. “Come,” he said, clapping Marsh solidly across the shoulders and staggering him a bit. “We have plans to make.”
Sour Billy Tipton arrived at the French Exchange just after ten, and watched them auction four casks of wine, seven crates of dry goods, and a shipment of furniture before they brought in the slaves. He stood silently, elbows up against the long marble bar that extended halfway around the rotunda, sipping an absinthe while he observed the encanteurs hawk their wa
Those eyes, those cold and dangerous eyes, were Sour Billy’s protection. The French Exchange was a grand place, altogether too grand for his tastes, and for a fact he did not like to come there. It was in the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel, beneath a towering dome from which daylight cascaded down onto auction block and bidders. The dome was eighty feet across, easily. Tall pillars circled the room, galleries ran round the inside of the dome, the ceiling was elaborate and ornamental, the walls were covered with odd paintings, the bar was solid marble, the floor was marble, the desks of the encanteurs were marble. The patrons were as fine as the decor; rich planters from upriver, and young Creole dandies from the old city. Sour Billy loathed the Creoles, them with their rich clothes and haughty ways and dark, contemptuous eyes. He did not like to go among them. They were hot-blooded and quarrelsome, much given to dueling, and sometimes one of the young ones would take offense at Sour Billy, at the way he mangled their language and looked at their women, at the disreputable, scruffy, presumptuous Americanness of him. But then they would catch sight of his eyes, pale and staring and edged with malice—and, often as not, they would turn away.
Still, left to his own devices, he’d do his nigger-buying over at the American Exchange in the St. Charles, where manners were less refined, English was spoken in place of French, and he felt less out of place. The grandeur of the rotunda in the St. Louis did not impress him, except for the quality of the drinks they served.
He came there once a month, nonetheless, and had no choice about it. The American Exchange was a good place to buy a field hand or a cook, dark-skinned as you please, but for a fancy girl, one of the young dusky octaroon beauties that Julian preferred, you had to come to the French Exchange. Julian wanted beauty, insisted on beauty.
Sour Billy did as Damon Julian told him.
It was about eleven when the last of the wine was cleared away, and the traders began to bring in their merchandise from the slave pens on Moreau and Esplanade and Common Streets; men and women, old and young, and children too, a disproportionate number of them light of skin and fair of face. Intelligent as well, Sour Billy knew, probably French-speaking. They were lined up along one side of the room for inspection, and several of the young Creole men walked along the row jauntily, making light comments to one another and viewing today’s stock at close hand. Sour Billy stayed by the bar and ordered another absinthe. He had visited most of the yards yesterday, looked over what there was to offer. He knew what he wanted.
One of the auctioneers brought down a mallet on his marble desk, and at once the patrons ceased their conversation and turned to give him their attention. He gestured, and a young woman of about twenty climbed unsteadily to the top of a nearby crate. She was a slight quadroon with wide eyes, pretty in her way. She wore a calico dress and had green ribbons in her hair, and the auctioneer began singing her praises effusively. Sour Billy watched with disinterest while two young Creoles bid her up. She was finally sold for some $1400.
Next an older woman, said to be a fine cook, was auctioned off, and then a young mother with two children, all sold together. Sour Billy waited through several other sales. It was a quarter past noon and the French Exchange was jammed with bidders and spectators when the item he had chosen came up.
Her name was Emily, the encanteur told them. “Look at her, sirs,” he babbled in French, “just look at her. Such perfection! It has been years since such a lot has been sold here, years, and it will be years before we see another like her.” Sour Billy was inclined to agree. Emily was sixteen or seventeen, he judged, but already very much a woman. She looked a little frightened up on the auction block, but the dark simplicity of her dress set off her figure to good advantage, and she had a beautiful face—big soft eyes and fine café-au-lait skin. Julian will like this one.
The bidding was spirited. The planters had no use for such a fancy girl, but six or seven of the Creoles were hot after her. No doubt the other slaves had given Emily some idea what might be in store for her. She was pretty enough to get her freedom, in time, and to be kept by one of those fine Creole dandies in a little house on Ramparts Street, at least until he married. She’d go to the Quadroon Balls in the Orleans Ballroom, wear silk gowns and ribbons, be the cause of more than one duel. Her daughters would have skin even lighter, and grow into the same fine life. Maybe when she got old she’d learn to dress hair or run a boarding house. Sour Billy sipped at his drink, cold-faced.
The bids rose. By $2,000 all but three of the bidders had fallen out. At that point one of them, a swarthy bald-headed man, demanded that she be stripped. The encanteur snapped a curt command, and Emily gingerly undid her dress and stepped out of it. Someone shouted up a lewd compliment that drew a round of laughter from the audience. The girl smiled weakly while the auctioneer grinned and added a comment of his own. Then the bidding resumed.
At $2,500 the bald-headed man dropped out, having gotten his look. That left two bidders, both Creoles. They topped one another three times in succession, forcing the price up to $3,200. Then came the hesitation. The auctioneer coaxed a final bid from the younger of the two men: $3,300.
“Thirty-four hundred,” his opponent said quietly. Sour Billy recognized him. He was a lean young Creole named Montreuil, a notorious gambler and duelist.
The other man shook his head; the auction was over. Montreuil was smirking at Emily with anticipation. Sour Billy waited three heartbeats, until the mallet was about to fall. Then he set aside his absinthe glass and said, “Thirty-seven hundred,” in a loud clear voice.
Encanteur and girl both looked up in surprise. Montreuil and several of his friends gave Billy dark, threatening looks. “Thirty-eight hundred,” Montreuil said.
“Four thousand,” said Sour Billy.
It was a high price, even for such a beauty. Montreuil said something to two men standing near him, and the three of them suddenly spun on their heels and strode from the rotunda without another word, their footsteps ringing angrily on the marble.
“It seems like I won the auction,” Sour Billy said. “Get her dressed and ready to go.” The others were all staring at him.
“But of course!” the encanteur said. Another auctioneer rose at his desk, and with his mallet summoned yet another fancy girl to the attention of the crowd, and the French Exchange began to buzz again.
Sour Billy Tipton led Emily down the long arcade from the rotunda to St. Louis Street, past all the fashionable shops where idlers and wealthy travelers gave them curious looks. As he stepped out into daylight, blinking at the glare, Montreuil came up beside him. “Monsieur,” he began.
“Talk English if you want to talk to me,” Sour Billy said sharply. “It’s Mister Tipton out here, Montreuil.” His long fingers twitched, and he fixed the other with his cold ice eyes.
“Mister Tipton,” Montreuil said in a flat, unaccented English. His face was vaguely flushed. Behind him, his two companions stood stiffly. “I have lost girls before,” the Creole said. “She is striking, but it is nothing, losing her. But I take offense at the way you bid, Mister Tipton. You made a mockery of me in there, taunting me with victory and playing me for a fool.”
“Well, well,” Sour Billy said. “Well, well.”
“You play a dangerous game,” Montreuil warned. “Do you know who I am? If you were a gentleman, I would call you out, sir.”
“Dueling’s illegal, Montreuil,” Sour Billy said. “Hadn’t you heard? And I’m no gentleman.” He turned back to the quadroon girl, who was standing up near the wall of the hotel, watching them. “Come,” he said. He walked off down the sidewalk, and she followed.
“You shall be paid in kind for this, monsieur,”Montreuil called after him.
Sour Billy paid him no mind and turned a corner. He walked briskly, a swagger in his step that had been absen
t inside the French Exchange. The streets were where Sour Billy felt at home; there he had grown up, there he had learned to survive. The slave girl Emily scurried after him as best she could, her bare feet pounding on the brick sidewalks. The streets of the Vieux Carré were lined with brick and plaster houses, each with its graceful wrought-iron balcony overhanging the narrow walk, fancy as you please. But the roads themselves were unpaved, and the recent rains had turned them into a sea of mud. Along the walks were open gutters, deep ditches of cypress full of standing water, fragrant with filth and raw sewage.
They passed neat little shops and slave pens with heavily barred windows, passed elegant hotels and smoky grog shops full of surly free niggers, passed close, humid alleys and airy courtyards each with its well or fountain, passed haughty Creole ladies with their escorts and chaperones and a gang of runaway slaves in iron collars and chains cleaning the gutters under the careful watch of a hard-eyed white man with a whip. Shortly they passed out of the French Quarter entirely, into the rawer, newer American section of New Orleans. Sour Billy had left his horse tied up outside a grog shop. He mounted it, and told the girl to walk along beside him. They struck out south from the city, and soon left the main roads, stopping only once, briefly, so Sour Billy could rest his horse and eat some of the dry, hard bread and cheese in his saddlebag. He let Emily suck up some water from a stream.
“Are you my new massa, sir?” she asked him then, in remarkably good English.
“Overseer,” said Sour Billy. “You’ll meet Julian tonight, girl. After dark.” He smiled. “He’ll like you.” Then he told her to shut up.
Since the girl was afoot their pace was laggardly, and it was near dusk when they reached the Julian plantation. The road ran along the bayou and wound through a thick stand of trees, limbs heavy with Spanish moss. They rounded a large, barren oak and came out into the fields, red-tinged in the somber light of the setting sun. They lay fallow and overgrown from the water’s edge to the house. There was an old, rotting wharf and a woodyard along the bayou for passing steamers, and behind the great house a row of slave shanties. But there were no slaves, and the fields had not been worked in some years. The house was not large as plantation houses go, nor particularly grand; it was a stolid, square structure of graying wood, paint flaking from its sides, its only striking aspect a high tower with a widow’s walk around it.