Years ago, in an America that never was, the United States government introduced herds of hippos to the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This plan failed to take into account some key facts about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
By the 1890s, the vast bayou that was once America's greatest waterway belongs to feral hippos, and Winslow Houndstooth has been contracted to take it back. To do so, he will gather a crew of the damnedest cons, outlaws, and assassins to ever ride a hippo. American Hippo is the story of their fortunes, their failures, and his revenge.
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Winslow Remington Houndstooth was not a hero.
There was nothing within him that cried out for justice or fame. He did not wear a white hat — he preferred his grey one, which didn't show the bloodstains. He could have been a hero, had he been properly motivated, but there were more pressing matters at hand. There were fortunes to be snatched from the hands of fate. There were hors d'oeuvres like the fine-boned young man in front of him, ripe for the plucking. There was swift vengeance to be inflicted on those who would interfere with his ambitions. There was Ruby.
Winslow Houndstooth didn't take the job to be a hero.
He took it for the money, and he took it for revenge.
The scarred wooden table in front of him was covered in the accoutrements of The Deal. The two-page contract, signed and initialed in his cramped handwriting. The receipt for disbursement of funds. A set of five photographs that had been culled from several dozen files: his team, selected after hours of arduous negotiation. There was a round-faced woman, her hair set in a crown of braids; an ink-dark, fine-boned rogue; a hatchet-nosed man with a fussy moustache; and a stone-faced woman with a tattoo coiling up her neck. The latter two were concessions he was already braced to regret. And finally — never last, only ever finally — there was Houndstooth himself. The photo didn't do him justice — he noted that the part in his hair was off-center by at least two centimeters — but he was wearing his finest cravat in the picture, so he'd call it a wash.
And then of course, there was the fat sack of money.
He counted out the thick gold coins, his eyes flicking to the photo of the hatchet-nosed man once every few seconds, and he waited. Now that the negotiations were over — now that his rate and his team had been established, and the money had changed hands — the small talk would begin. It was always the same with these government types. They were deeply confused by the juxtaposition of his vague accent and his eyes. His country's accent. His parents' eyes.
"So, where are you from?"
Ah, yes. There it was. They could begin the requisite dialogue about where he was from and where he was from. Houndstooth didn't look up from the coins.
"Blackpool." He could have made his tone frostier, but being in the presence of such a lovely stack of hard money warmed him like a milky cup of Earl Grey.
When the agent didn't immediately respond, Houndstooth paused in his counting, placing a mental finger next to the number "four thousand."
The agent was staring at him with such blue eyes. Such attentive eyes. "You don't sound British," the agent said quietly. Houndstooth found himself intrigued by the catch in the young man's voice.
"Yes, well," Winslow Houndstooth replied with a crocodile grin. "I suppose my accent's almost gone by now. I've been in Georgia for some time. I came to the States to be a hopper, and once I tasted my first Georgia peach" — he reached across the table to touch the agent's arm, scattering the photos — "it was just too sweet for me to leave."
The federal agent's cheeks reddened, and Houndstooth's smile grew. He didn't move his hand.
"I do so love the peaches down here."
* * *
Winslow Houndstooth left the federal agent's office an hour and forty-seven minutes later, smoothing his hair with an elaborately carved comb. He eased the door shut behind him with a small smile.
That young man would need to take a nap for the rest of the afternoon.
The sack of gold coins was heavy, and he divided it evenly into each of Ruby's saddlebags. She could have carried the weight on one side easily — eight thousand dollars in U.S. government gold would hardly wind her — but it pleased him to know that he was flanked by four thousand dollars on each side.
He swung himself into the kneeling saddle on Ruby's back. She grunted at him.
Ruby had settled her bulk deep into the water-filled trench next to the hitching post. She wasn't made for long periods standing on land, although her breed could do it for longer than most. The Cambridge Black hippopotamus was the finest breed in the United States: sleeker, faster, and deadlier than any other hippo on the water. Ruby wasn't bred for meat; she was a hopper's hippo, meant for herding her slower, grazing cousins.
Ruby was onyx-black and lustrous; she looked like a shadowy, lithe version of a standard hippo. She stood five feet tall at the shoulder, about the height of a standard Carolina Marsh Tacky — although horses, Tackies included, were rare ever since the Marsh Expansion Project had rendered their thin legs a liability on the muddy, pocked roads. Her barrel chest swung low to the ground over short legs, perfect for propelling her through marshy waters when her rider needed to round up wayward hippos on the ranch. She grumbled on land, but could carry Houndstooth up to ten miles overland between dips in the water — another marker of her superior breeding (her cousins could only do six miles, and that only under duress). Fortunately, she was rarely out of the water that long.
"I know, girlie. I shouldn't have left you out here by yourself for so long. But you know I just can't resist blue-eyed boys." Houndstooth patted Ruby's flank and she let out a little rumble, standing under him and dripping freely for a few moments. She lifted her broad, flat nose briefly and yawned wide. Her jaw swung open by nearly 180 degrees, revealing her wickedly sharp, gold-plated tusks. They gleamed in the late-afternoon sun. She snapped her mouth shut and lowered her head until her nose nearly brushed the ground as she prepared to head home.
"Yes, alright, I know. Let's go home, Rubes, and you can keep your judgments to yourself. We need to pack up."
Houndstooth swayed with her rolling gait as she began to trot. He rubbed a loving hand over her leathery, hairless, blue-black flank, feeling the muscles shifting under the skin. Ruby was sleeker than most hippos, but not by much. Though her livestock cousins had been bred for marbling, her sub-Saharan ancestors carried little excess fat. Their rotund shape belied merciless speed and agility, and Ruby was the apex of those ancient ideals: bred for maneuverability, fearlessness, and above all, stealth. She was dangerous in the water: no gulls dared to plague the marshes she wallowed in, and if one was so foolish as to try to rest on her back, it would quickly be reduced to a cautionary tale for other gulls to tell their children.
"Eight thousand dollars, Ruby. We'll be able to buy our own little patch of marshland, maybe get you a bull." Ruby huffed, her nostrils — set squarely on top of her nearly rectangular snout — flaring with impatience. Her round ears didn't turn toward the sound of his voice, but they flapped irritably. Houndstooth chuckled. "Of course I'm joking. You're past breeding age anyway, Ruby-roo."
It was another thirty minutes to the marshside tavern where Houndstooth had a room. It would have been forty by horseback, but Ruby's trot was quicker than a horse's, even with her frequent detours to dip back into the river. Houndstooth knew when he'd picked her out that she'd grow up to be more temperamental than a slower hop would have been, but her agility had made her spirited temperament worthwhile.
She'd saved his life enough times that he figured she'd earned the right to her opinions.
When they got back to the tavern, Houndstooth unlatched the kneeling saddle and the saddlebags from Ruby's harness and set her loose in the marsh. "I'll see you in the morning, Ruby. We'll head out around dawn, alright?" She waited, already half-submerged in the water, for him to rub her snout. Her ears twitched back and forth, impatient, and she blew a bubble at him. He laughed, earning a long, slow blink of her slanting, hooded eyes. "Okay, alright, I know. You've got places to be, grass to eat." Houndstooth crouched and put a hand on either side of her broad snout.
"You're my girl, Ruby-roo," he cooed, rubbing her whiskers. "And you're the best gull-damned hippo there is."
With that, Ruby sank into the water and was gone.
* * *
Houndstooth propped his feet on a chair as he watched Nadine work the room. She was in her element: sliding full mugs of beer down the gleaming bar, promising to arm wrestle drunk patrons, letting customers buy her shots of whiskey to share with them (she always poured herself iced tea and pocketed the cash). He loved to see her efficiency. He'd told her many times that she would make an excellent hopper, but she always said she preferred to herd malodorous beasts that paid in cash.
She dropped off a steaming mug of Earl Grey — brewed from his own personal supply — and straightened his hat. "Where've you been, Winslow? Out with some new girl?"
He winked at her, and she tapped the brim of his hat to set it back askance.
"Ah, some new boy. Green eyes or brown on this one?"
"Blue," he said, toasting her. "Blue as the Gulf, and twice as hot."
He pulled out a silk handkerchief and bent to polish a scuff on his left boot. His timing was fortuitous. As he bent down, the door to the tavern burst inward and a man nearly the size of Ruby barrelled inside.
"What jack-livered apple-bearded son of a horse's ass," the man bellowed, "let a fucking hippo loose in a private marsh?"
Houndstooth did not remove his boots from the chair as he waved his silk handkerchief over his head. "Yoo-hoo," he said in a high falsetto, before dropping his voice down to its usual baritone. "I believe I'm the jack- livered apple-bearded son of a horse's ass you're looking for." With the hand not holding the square of paisley silk, he unbuttoned his pin-striped jacket. "What would you like to say to me about my Ruby?"
"That's your hippo?" the man said, crossing the now-silent room in a few sweeping strides. As he came closer, Houndstooth did a quick calculation. He added the bristling beard to the muscles straining at a flannel shirt and the shedding flakes of marsh grass, and he came to the obvious conclusion: marshjack. The man, it was safe to assume, spent his days scything marsh grasses to send to inland ranches. His accent was unplaceable, a combination of tight-jawed California vowels and loose Southern consonants. Houndstooth decided that he must have come South during the boom and taken up marshjacking after the bust. "That tar- skinned brass-toothed dog-eating monster out there is yours?" The man looked down at Houndstooth, who was still in his chair. "Who the hell let you on a hopper ranch, anyway? I'd like to have a word with the damn fool what thought to let you —"
"Dog-eating, did you say?"
"That's right, you yellow-bellied bastard," the man growled. "That monster of yours done et my Petunia."
"And what," Houndstooth inquired, easing his feet off their perch, "was your Petunia doing in that private marsh? Certainly not helping you hunt ducks on private property, I would hope?"
Everyone in the bar was watching them, speechless. Nadine leaned forward over the bar — the private marsh in question was her property, and so were the ducks that swam in it. The ducks she raised from eggs and sold at the market in order to pay the taxes on her bar.
"That ain't none of your business, you slick fuck," the marshjack spat. "What's your business is that my Petunia's dead because of your painted- up hippo bitch."
He swung his arm. Houndstooth registered the glint of metal.
What happened next happened very quickly indeed.
Houndstooth dropped forward out of his chair and into a crouch, and the knife sailed over his head.
The marshjack's momentum carried him forward and he stumbled, his leg brushing Houndstooth's shoulder as he put out a hand to catch himself before he could hit the ground.
Houndstooth straightened, fitted his right fist neatly into his left hand, and used his full weight to drop the point of his elbow onto the back of the marshjack's skull.
There was a crack like a branch snapping. The assembled crowd in the tavern made a collective "ooh," and the marshjack fell onto his face. By the time he managed to roll over onto his back, Houndstooth was standing over him. He twirled the marshjack's long, ivory-handled knife in his hand as the marshjack's eyes eased open.
"Well, old chap," Houndstooth said in a carrying voice. "Seems you tripped and dropped your knife." He flipped the knife in the air and caught it without taking his eyes off the marshjack. "Not to worry, I've caught it for you." He tossed it again; caught it again. The marshjack's eyes followed the spinning blade.
Houndstooth crouched over him. "Now, here are some things you ought to know. One: Ruby is not painted. She's a Cambridge Black hippo, and I'd guess that's why she was able to sneak up on your dear departed Petunia. Bred for stealth, you see, but she can be territorial. I'm not surprised that she 'et' Petunia, if the dog was in her waters." He tossed the knife from hand to hand as he spoke, almost lazily. "Two: Her tusks are plated in gold, not brass. It's my gold. I took it, chum, from the type of men who like to steal ducks. So you see, it is my business why you were in that marsh, because my Ruby-roo can always use more accessories." The marshjack tried to track the knife, but one of his pupils was dilating and he seemed to be struggling to follow the movement.
"And number three, my dear man." Houndstooth reached down and gripped the bridge of the marshjack's nose between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The marshjack's eyes stayed on the knife, which was now twirling baton-like between the fingers of Houndstooth's right hand. "I thought you'd want to know that they don't let me on hopper ranches. Not anymore." His voice dropped to an intimate murmur as the knife flashed in his hand. "But I'll be happy to address your concerns myself."
In one fluid motion, Houndstooth inserted the knife into the marshjack's left nostril and slit it open. Before the marshjack could so much as choke on his own blood, his right nostril had been similarly vented.
Winslow Houndstooth straightened and wiped the blade of the knife clean on his handkerchief. He dropped the square of ruined silk onto the marshjack's face just as the man raised his hands to clutch at his filleted nose.
"I'll help you clean up the sawdust tonight, Nadine. Sorry about the mess." Houndstooth stepped over the marshjack and shot his cuffs, raising his voice over the marshjack's moans. "Oh, and I'll be paying out my room this evening. I've got a business trip to go on and I think I'll be a while."
Nadine set two glasses on the bar and poured a measure of whiskey into each as the bar patrons slowly began to converse again.
"Where ya headed, Winslow?"
He took a photo out of his breast pocket. The hatchet-nosed man glared up from it, his wispy moustache abristle. "The Mississippi River, sweet Nadine." He tossed the marshjack's fine ivory-handled knife in the air; it flipped end-over-end five and a half times before dropping, point down, through the hatchet-nosed man's left eye. Houndstooth clinked his glass against Nadine's. They each downed their whiskey, and Houndstooth gave Nadine a wink and a grin to go with the burn in both their throats. "And what a fine river it is."CHAPTER 2
Nobody ever suspects the fat lady.
Regina Archambault walked through the market with her parasol over her shoulder, plucking ripe coin purses from pockets like fragrant plums from the orchard. Her hat was canted at a saucy angle over her crown of braids. Many of her marks recognized her, the visitor they'd sat next to at church or at a fete. They greeted her by name — and then their gazes slid off her like condensation down the side of a glass.
And she helped herself to whatever she deemed that they didn't have a use for. Rings, watches, wallets, purses — the peacock feather from the back of a particularly lovely bonnet. They never seemed to suspect that a woman whose dresses were custom-made to fit over her broad body would have nimble fingers. That she would be able to slip past them without drawing attention.
"Archie! Oh, Archie, you dropped your handkerchief!" A young gentleman in a beautifully felted bowler hat ran after her with a flutter of pink clutched in his outstretched hand.
"Now, Aaron," she said, archly but in low enough tones that they would not be overheard. "You know full well that is not my 'andkerchief. I did see one just like it for sale in the general store, though." Aaron flushed, and he smoothed his downy moustache with a nervous forefinger. Archie stepped with him into the entrance of an alleyway, where they could be away from prying eyes.
Excerpted from "American Hippo"
Copyright © 2018 Sarah Gailey.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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