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BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA
Boris Wilcox, glaring through the strands of his limp snow-white hair, teeth bared and blood streaming from his broken nose, slammed his fist against Chantz's jaw a third time. His frustration mounted as the gathered crowd, bathed in beer and sweat and obviously in Chantz's corner, whooped like maddened savages and roared their encouragement. They punched the air with their fists, slapped their hats against their thighs. The ear-splitting racket caused the horses in the livery stalls to spook and roll their eyes.
Chantz stood his ground, legs braced apart, boots planted in the livery sawdust as he flashed Boris a smile that was as intimidating as it was arrogant.
Boris swept the back of his hand over his mouth, smearing blood and drool across his chin that was already swollen and purple as a new turnip. "Boudreaux, I'll knock yer teeth through the back of yer head before I'm done. See if I don't."
"So you say, Wilcox." Chantz laughed and blinked sweat from his eyes as Boris stumbled over his own feet and staggered as he attempted to straighten. "I'm just amazed you've managed to win as many fights as you have, considering you punch like a girl."
The crowd hooted again, scaring a three-legged tabby from under a moldering pile of damp hay.
"My money's on Chantz," someone shouted, followed by a scurry of men placing their final bets on the outcome of the match.
His heavy brows drawing together, Boris raised his fists. His six-foot-two-inch body shook to his muddy boots. Chantz knew well enough that Wilcox had a lot riding on the fight -- he'd wagered a good portion of his employer's supply money on his winning -- normally not a bad risk. However, Chantz suspected that Boris was going to have some explaining to do when he returned to his employer with nothing to show for his money but a busted nose and a few missing teeth.
"Big talk, Boudreaux. Especially from one stupid enough to think Fred Buley is gonna approve of his daughter bein' courted by a fatherless white-trash boy who ain't got a pot to piss in."
The jeers and hoots dwindled. The men surrounding Chantz and his opponent pressed close, eyes fixed on Chantz's face that began to heat. Suddenly the swirling cloud of sawdust closed off his throat and burned his eyes. He felt the others' gazes fixed on his face, their anticipation crackling like air before a lightning strike.
Boris grunted a laugh and spat blood on the ground. "Looks like I hit a nerve." He wagged his busted fists at Chantz. "What's wrong, Boudreaux? Surely you don't believe you really stood a chance with Phyllis Buley."
He threw back his head and brayed with laughter, then focused his small round eyes again on Chantz. "We all seen how you mooned about like a blue-tick hound ever'time you seen her ride by in her daddy's carriage. You didn't really think she was serious when she batted those long lashes at you, did you? Why, she's just toyin' with you, boy -- havin' fun. Heard this mornin' Horace Carrington declared himself. They's gonna be married come September."
Hooking his fists up toward his chin, Boris grinned. "Face it, Chantz. You just ain't got a lot to offer. That prize cock between yer legs might be good enough for mud daubers like your mama, but it ain't ever gonna buy you a smidgen of class."
Boris lunged and swung.
Chantz stepped aside, drove his fist into Boris's ribs, lifting the reigning boxing champ off his feet and sending him stumbling through the cautiously silent spectators who parted like the Red Sea out of his way. Chantz hit him again, felt the man's ribs snap like old pinewood -- again -- driving his knuckles into the soft underside of Boris's jaw -- again -- drilling the man's shattered nose like a battering ram.
Boris hit the ground with a groan, his head resting in a pile of fresh horse manure that steamed around his ears.
Anger a red haze, Chantz went for him again only to be suddenly hauled back on his heels, hands clutching his arms and braced against his shirtless, sweating chest as several men dropped to their knees and slapped Boris's smashed face in an attempt to revive him.
"Is he dead?" a voice, high pitched with excitement, shouted.
"If he ain't, he aught t'be," came the solemn response.
Someone flung water from a tin pail over Boris's face. He sputtered, thrashed like a man drowning before gagging and gasping and clutching at his nose with a howl of pain. He blinked glassy, swollen eyes at Chantz as he struggled to sit up.
Chantz pointed one finger at him and said through his teeth, "You ever call my mama a mud dauber again, Wilcox, and I'll kill you. That's a promise."
Bud Bovier, owner of the Bovier Livery and promoter of the weekly boxing matches, slapped a wad of money into Chantz's hand and shoved him toward the door. "You best git while the gittin's good, Chantz. I ain't havin' nobody killed in my livery, no sir."
Grabbing Chantz's shirt from the ground, Bud tossed it at him. "Go take out your anger someplace else. Buy you a bottle of whiskey and one of Meesha's girls."
Lowering his voice, his heavy brow furrowing with concern, Bud added with a touch of sympathy, "Take no mind to him, buck. Half the time Boris ain't got the good sense God gave a mud bug." He forced a smile. "Get on now. Ain't none of us here care to see you hang over a bastard like Boris. He ain't worth the horse dung in his ears right now."
Outside the livery, his jaw suddenly throbbing like hell and the coppery taste of blood in his mouth turning his stomach, Chantz plunged his head and shoulders into a trough, hoping the cool water would assuage his fury before he kicked in the livery door and tore into Boris again with something more life threatening than his fists.
He wasn't certain what made him madder. Boris's insult to Chantz's mother and his heritage, or the news that Phyllis Buley -- the woman whose legs he'd crawled between the previous night and every time she came scratching at his door -- the woman who vowed she adored him and couldn't live without him, was about to marry someone else. Not simply someone else. Son of a bitch Horace Carrington.
He kicked the trough, then the hitching post, causing a sorrel mule to turn its long sad face toward him and flick its ears.
Son of a bitch Horace Carrington.
Speak of the devil...
Lights from La Madeleine spilled out the double glass doors and the broad window, illuminating the highly polished brass fittings on Carrington's rig whereon Nathan, a Negro driver in red livery, sat, cap pulled low over his eyes as he napped in the heat.
La Madeleine supplied the only upscale eating establishment in town -- the finest food outside of New Orleans. Or so Chantz had heard. Not that he would know personally. Even if he had the money to waste on French cuisine served on bone-china plates, the proprietor, Nelson Barlow, required his customers to "dress accordingly" inside his establishment -- and Chantz didn't own a suit. Hell, he was doing good to manage a decent pair of boots every few years. In fact, he suspected that folks paid more for a room for one night at Barlow's La Madeleine than Chantz did for a month's worth of sorry beans and the weevil-infested cornmeal Charlie Johnson of Johnson's Mercantile sold to his less esteemed customers.
His hand crushing the prize money in his pocket, Chantz considered waving it under Johnson's nose and demanding clean cornmeal for a change.
To hell with it. Money was just too damn precious, and besides, he didn't mind a few weevils in his corn pone. As his mother always said, "We need all the meat we can get. Besides, the damn bugs add a bit a flavor to the bread."
He put on his shirt, blotted sweat and water from his face with his shirtsleeve, ran his fingers through his hair in an attempt to tame it back from his eyes -- not that it would do a damn bit of good. The heavy dark mass had a life of its own. It spilled in a wave over his brow and loose curls over his collar. Most men slicked their hair back with Macassar oil, but Chantz would have none of that. God forbid that he bow to decorum...fatherless bastard that he was.
The threat of more rain rumbled overhead like a portent of Chantz's intent as he moved toward the hotel, mud sucking at his boots and the afternoon humidity thick as cane syrup in his nostrils. More than a few heads turned to watch him pass -- most knowing that when Chantz got that look in his eye, trouble would soon erupt. Just last month the sheriff had hauled him into jail because he'd punched Silas Stuckshead hard enough to send him flying through the dry-goods window. Certainly it was a sorry state of affairs when a man could publicly thrash a Negro child yet Chantz was the one dragged to jail for stopping the brutality.
Women up and down the wooden walks, attired in their town dresses of silks and taffetas belled over hoop frames, tittered to one another behind their ornate fans and batted their lashes at Chantz as he slogged ankle deep in the mud toward La Madeleine. While most of the time he found amusement in their flirtations, today they only incensed him further. Because, just like Phyllis Buley, not a one of them would publicly acknowledge that they would be more than happy to let him slide between their sheets at night.
The hotel lobby -- lush with carved paneled walls where hung massive paintings depicting French hunting scenes, tapestries, and portraits of royalty -- smelled of stale cigar smoke and floral perfume. There was burgundy velvet upholstered furniture piled with rug-covered pillows, and massive frilly-leafed ferns in wicker stands cluttering every corner. Crystal chandeliers imported from Versailles hung from the ceilings. The highly polished wood floors reflected the sparkling prisms like mirrors.
The scattering of hotel guests all turned to watch Chantz, hair dripping sweat and trough water, boots tracking on the floor, cross the lobby toward the salon de cuisine. As he paused at the sheer-draped open French doors and swept his gaze over the patrons sitting at white linen-covered tables with candles and glittering crystal and silver, the murmuring of quiet conversation faded to a heavy silence. Anticipation hovered in the air as thick as the mud on the soles of Chantz's boots.
The maître d', with a horrified expression, stepped in front of Chantz, blocking his entry. "Monsieur," he purred with a thin smile, "I'm afraid there's been some mistake? You're looking for the saloon, oui?"
"No," he snapped, shoving the man aside. "I'm looking for Phyllis Buley."
He found her then, sitting stiff as a rake handle across from her fiancé, her lovely face beet red and her brown eyes glazed with horror. She would not, of course, meet his eyes. To do so would be a form of acknowledgment, and he highly suspected at that moment that the last thing she wanted to acknowledge was that Chantz Boudreaux had ever been born.
His lips curling, Chantz moved toward her.
Horace Carrington slowly stood, spilling his napkin to the floor. His normally pale complexion bleached whiter -- his lips as blue as if he'd been submersed in ice water. As his high brow shimmered with sweat, his pale blue eyes narrowed with threat. Chantz and Horace had stood toe-to-toe enough times that Chantz knew that if pressed hard enough Horace's temper would snap like dry tinder.
A hand slammed onto Chantz's shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. Fred Buley, Phyllis's father, smiled up into Chantz's eyes. Except there was no friendliness to the thin curl of Fred's mouth. And the grip on Chantz's shoulder burned into the muscle like a dagger blade.
"I wouldn't, Chantz," Fred said softly, still smiling, his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows drawing together.
To the spellbound spectators it must have seemed like two old friends were passing pleasantries. But Chantz recognized there was no pleasantness whatsoever in Buley's narrowed eyes. His breath smelled of the expensive bourbon he'd been drinking with his meal -- a great deal of bourbon, judging by the way he slurred his words. The blue-steel color of his slicked back hair added to the effect of his gray eyes that were speaking volumes, as was the flush of anger on his jowls.
"You may be a touch on the wild side, friend, but you're not stupid. I like you, Chantz. And I know that you and my boy Andrew are quite friendly. But that won't stop me from cutting your throat if I thought you had more to say to my little girl than congratulations on her betrothal to Mr. Carrington."
Fred smoothed the front of Chantz's wrinkled shirt, then reached into his coat and withdrew a pair of Cuban cigars, tucked them into Chantz's hand. "You run on now. Folks here spent a great deal of money to enjoy their food. We wouldn't want to spoil it for them, would we? Would we, Chantz?" The smile again. "Good fellow. Good-bye, Mr. Boudreaux."
Chantz cut his eyes to Phyllis again, prim in a pink silk gown with a high collar of fine lace snug around her throat, her brown hair partially swept up with ringlets and pink ribbons spilling down her back. She looked demure and fresh as a peach blossom. Hardly the same vixen who had, the previous night, made love to him with an expertise that would shame most of Meesha's girls.
Then he looked to Carrington, still standing, fists clenched as inconspicuously as possible at his sides, jaws knotted like cypress knees. As a boy, only son of one of the wealthiest planters in the area, Horace had been a prissy little snot who got his jollies from verbal and physical cruelty to man and animal alike. As an adult, he was worse. Cruelty had become ambition to Horace...not to mention recreational. Chantz wondered what Fred Buley would think if he witnessed his future son-in-law hanging from wrist irons in Meesha's Pleasure Palace while naked women beat his privates with willow whips.
Hell, the two of them deserved each other.
As Chantz turned on his heels and left the salon, an explosion of excited conversation erupted behind him. Bud Bovier was right, he thought. He needed several stiff bourbons and Meesha's raunchiest whore.
The Pleasure Palace, a three-story clapboard structure painted purple with lemon-yellow shutters, was located on a bluff overlooking the river, far enough from town so when business heated to the boiling point the township wouldn't be offended. River traffic was good. Boats could dock right at Meesha's doors and clients could slip in and out of the establishment without showing their faces.
There were no boats today, however. Thanks to continued rains the river was up and fast and growing more dangerous by the hour. Chantz suspected that another couple of days of such torrents and his employer would be faced with another crop disaster. Life at Holly Plantation would, once again, become intolerable. He was damn glad Max Hollinsworth hadn't yet returned from France to see his farm sink like a leaky ship for the second time in four years. Of course, there was His Royal Pain in the Ass Tylor Hollinsworth to deal with. But Tylor was too damn stupid and lazy to care one way or another about his father's farm.
Meesha's raunchiest whore was a six-foot-tall quadroon beauty, Virginia, but the way she drawled it made her sound real nasty -- especially after Chantz had imbibed half a bottle of the house's finest Irish whiskey purchased with the money he'd won by pounding Boris Wilcox to a pulp.
With his fingers twisted in Virginia's hair, his eyes closed and his teeth clenched and his body sweating, Chantz worked his hips hard against Virginia, who sprawled face-down across the plush bed.
Looking over her shoulder, her dark-as-night eyes admiring him as her full lips pouted, Virginia said, "You is a sweet, sweet person, Chantz, but you gots a fire in you tonight. Tylor Hollinsworth been diggin' at you agin, honey man?"
He shook his head and as Virginia rolled to her back, he sank down on her, slid his body back into hers, more gently this time. She sighed in pleasure. Her legs curled around his back as he rocked her, easy at first, then faster, until their skin shone with sweat and the smell of the act scented the air like a rich aphrodisiac. She ground her pelvis up and hard against him, swirled her tongue inside his mouth, clenched his buttocks in her long fingers until control shattered. The bed battered the wall, the sheets tore from the mattress. Her head falling back and her mouth open, Virginia clawed at his back as a cry rushed up her throat.
With a last deep thrust, Chantz spilled himself; each throb inside her was a sublime finale of the tension that had built in him throughout the day. He collapsed on her, his face buried in the crook of her neck that smelled like magnolia blossoms -- sweet floral heat that made him think of sultry summer mornings...and something else...
Someone beat on the wall, and a woman's voice called, "Chantz Boudreaux, you in there?"
" 'Course that's Chantz!" another shouted. "Who else in this town bangs the damn plaster off the walls!"
Virginia's arms slid around him as she chuckled. "You is in fine form tonight, honey man. You is the only one who do that for me. I thank you for that."
"Phyllis Buley is getting married," he said against her throat.
"I heard. Horace Carrington. Meesha says she's gonna wrap up a pair of wrist irons and a blindfold and give it to Miss Phyllis for a weddin' present." She turned Chantz's face toward hers, and smiled into his eyes. "She done broke your heart, Chantz?"
He rolled to his back and stared at the ceiling and tried to reason exactly what he was feeling. Mad, mostly. He was good enough to scratch Phyllis's itch when she got one, but not good enough to spare even a glance at in public. Thinking of the money in his pants, he imagined buying himself a suit, wondered if Phyllis would be so quick to turn up her nose at him then, then he realized it would take more than a suit to impress a woman like Phyllis Buley, soon to be Carrington.
Fine. One of these days he would have enough money saved to buy his own piece of land -- the money he'd won today would help. There wasn't another overseer in the state as good as he at raising up tall, sweet cane; even if he had to plant and harvest by himself, he'd turn that goddamn sugarcane into a gold mine. One of these years, the Buleys and Carringtons and all the others who looked down their pompous noses at him would be doffing their hats and moving off the sidewalk out of respect as he passed.
Virginia left the bed and walked to a basin. She bathed then moved the basin to the bed and began to gently clean Chantz with a silk cloth and warm water. Her gaze moved lovingly over his body.
"You been fightin' at Bovier's agin, ain't you? Dem is some mean bruises. You gonna hurt tomorrow. Who you done beat up now?"
Her eyebrows shot up and she tutted. "He a mean man, Chantz. Don't be foolin' with him."
"He called my mother a mud dauber."
"They is worse than bein' called a mud dauber."
"No there isn't." He left the bed, walked naked to the window that looked out over the moving brown water of the Mississippi.
Lights glowed from the tarpaper shanties perched on the bluffs and banks of the river. The people who built their houses with tarpaper and mud were shiftless, filthy, lice-infested individuals who survived by thievery and a fair amount of throat cutting. They robbed the planters blind of crops and stock and were known to spread disease, including yellow fever.
No, there was nothing worse than mud daubers...except the yellow plague itself.
Virginia moved up behind him. Her hands slid over his back, traced the ridges of his muscles, eased down to lightly brush his buttocks. "One of these days, Chantz, you gonna get what is comin' to you. Be patient. Man as honest and hardworkin' as you will be rewarded."
"I'm not getting any younger, Virginia."
"What are you, thirty? Honey man, you just movin' into your prime. Some day soon you gonna find yourself a fine young woman and settle down -- beget you some young'uns -- "
"No." He shook his head. His chest suddenly felt tight and the familiar hot anger coiled in his belly. "No way in hell would I bring a child into my world. I won't have him looked down on because he lives out back of the big house instead of in it. I won't have my son ridiculed by the likes of Horace Carrington. And I sure as hell won't have him eating bad cornmeal and wearing other folks' hand-me-downs because his father was born under the bed instead of in it."
"You just too damn proud for your own good, Chantz. Not to mention angry. You got too much fire burnin' in you -- "
"You saying I don't have a right to be angry?" He looked around at her. His jaw worked.
Her dark eyes searched his. "Ain't a man or woman with any conscience in this town who don't recognize your right to be angry and respect you for the honorable way you've handled yourself. You've grown to be the best damn overseer in Louisiana. You take good care of your mama. And you're a good friend to the other planters. I hear 'em talk, Chantz. Most of 'em regard you highly. Very highly."
He grinned. "Obviously not so highly as to let me court their daughters."
"Phyllis Buley ain't worth you. She might be prettier than most, but she got the heart of a rattlesnake. You want that kind of woman raisin' your babies?"
Sliding her long arms around his waist, she breathed into his ear and said in a low and husky voice tinged with a touch of sadness, "I dread the day you find the right woman, Chantz. 'Cause if you love as intensely as you crave respect and success, I won't ever get to hold you in my arms again. Honey man, that is gonna be the saddest day of my life."
Chantz smoked one of Fred Buley's cigars as he headed back to Bovier's Livery to collect his horse and supplies. The night was made blacker by the clouds lying low and threatening more rain. The streets were empty, the businesses dark, but for the hotel where Chantz paused to look through the high, wide windows into the salon de cuisine, at the diners dressed in their finery and enjoying food that looked more like works of art than something to load in their stomachs. The smell of baking bread drifted out to remind him that he hadn't eaten since breakfast.
His body was starting to suffer from the pounding he'd taken that afternoon from Boris Wilcox, who was no doubt hurting a hell of a lot worse than Chantz. Son of a bitch deserved it, for more reasons than his calling Chantz's mother a mud dauber.
Recent rumors had been circulating that Wilcox had become involved with the paddy rollers, a group of cutthroat poor white men who helped subsidize their sorry lives by coercing slaves into pilfering pigs, calves, sheep, wheat, and corn -- anything they could get their hands on, including household items, believing that in turn the rollers would help them buy their way out of bondage -- or escape to the North. The paddy rollers sold the stolen goods at the market for a tidy profit. Those same rollers then took sadistic delight in chasing down the runaways they were supposedly helping with blood-hungry dogs in order to collect the rewards.
If Wilcox ever messed with Holly workers, the beating Chantz had given him earlier would pale in comparison.
The men moved out of the alley darkness so fast Chantz barely had time to look around before he was grabbed by the hair and shirt collar and slammed against the Mercantile brick wall. The night exploded in white light and pain that ripped through his head like a lightning strike. Fists drove into his back and ribs, kicking the air out of his lungs. Then he was spun around -- knuckles cracked across his cheek, sending him careening backward over several empty hogsheads where he landed facedown in the mud.
He struggled to lift his head, to think -- too damn much pain, he couldn't breathe --
A booted foot crashed into his side with enough impact to lift him off the ground and fling him onto his back. Again, harder, so he writhed and twisted in an attempt to escape the pain and the kick he knew was coming. Rolling onto his belly, he tried to rock onto his knees.
"That's it," a voice laughed. "Crawl, Boudreaux. That's where scum like you belong. In the dirt on his belly."
Then someone grabbed a fistful of his hair, yanked back his head, and hauled him to his knees.
He heard himself groan as the impact on his face snapped his head back. His body floated backward, hit the ground like dead weight, arms useless as unconsciousness crawled through his brain, and pain like sharp teeth tore through his head. He tried to fight it -- attempted to open his eyes that were blinded by mud and blood.
Hands clutched at his clothes, dug into his pockets.
"What the devil is going on back there?" someone shouted from the street.
"Get the hell out of here," a voice near him urged...
He floated on pain.
"Chantz? Good God, what have they done to you? Chantz? Can you hear me?"
He struggled to open his eyes, glimpsed Andrew Buley's hazy, shocked features hovering over him. Twisting his muddy fist into Drew's shirt, he managed through his bleeding teeth, "Son of a bitch stole my money."
Copyright © 2001 by Katherine Sutcliffe