~ Chapter 56 ~
Rojah dispatched the post he had received from the Zephyr to his father. He scribbled a hasty note and slipped the hired messenger an extra coin to ensure delivery to Lilienfields; from Lilienfields, his father would see that Belladonna’s packet of letters was sent on to Chaeran at Bethhaven, as well as Worthington’s letters to Jonquil. Rojah grinned at the thought of his cousin reading Belladonna’s letters ― if Chaeran could stand breathing the heady perfume that doused the expensive pastel paper. Not even a three-month sea voyage of salt and brine had managed to subdue the potent fragrance of the San Bargellian perfume Belladonna had discovered and adopted for her personal use.
Rojah paid Gray Sirine’s stable care for one more day, as well as another night’s lodging for his room at the Tidewater Inn. After his curious, midnight prowl in Noah Winterringer’s warehouse, Rojah had decided to spend an extra day in Tideover Bay. As long as Noah remained in the village, keeping an eye on the man was worth the extra time spent, and whatever he learned certainly worth the effort.
The discovery he had made the night before of the Cloisters’ wine labels, along with the unlabeled bottles of wine, and the packets of white powder, weighed on his mind. What is Noah scheming now? he wondered. He worried what those plans would mean to Jonquil. After all, she was the key to the Cloisters ― the only key and reason to worry as far as he was concerned, which added to his determination.
Setting a snare for Noah Winterringer was all but impossible. How did a younger man, possessing limited experience, challenge a man who wore the advantage of a well honed, shrewd cunning? Rojah did not intend to provide Noah any amusement that was certain to come at his own expense. Nor did he intend to confront Noah on the public streets of Tideover Bay. He hoped to avoid Noah, if such an encounter was possible in a village as small as Tideover where every stranger’s presence became known within the hour. Doubtless, Noah Winterringer had already learned about his arrival.
The village streets, deserted at any other time during a normal day when the local fishing vessels put out to sea, were crowded with the typical assortment of market day folks. Many came to barter and trade; others came to see the San Bargellian merchant ship the Zephyr and marvel at the unusual wares being unloaded, tagged and tallied, loaded into wagons, and sent inland to the various other markets in White Horse and Fayerton. A portion of the Southern cargo would end up being sold, bartered or traded to traveling merchants whose routes carried the merchandise further inland to the remoter villages, and on rare occasion as far as the northern holdouts of the Mikuyi. Rojah knew his Uncle Kieron had been working to bring trade to Wolfdale, and there were other men eager to open the trade routes, his father and Worthington included. Upon Worthington’s return, Rojah hoped to be among those who brought the world to the remoter outskirts of El Nath.
Rojah had his reasons for hanging around the Zephyr and watching the unloading of the cargo. He mingled with the crowd of men, women, and children who also watched and marveled at the huge wood and rope cranes and hoists that unloaded enormous bales and wooden crates of goods from San Bargel. He mentally noted the different wagons from Fayerton and White Horse and what the merchants bought, sold, traded, and shipped out in their cargoes to the Southern markets. He walked past stacks of crates that bore familiar labels from Wellborn’s textile houses and mills, Stark’s glass and ironworks, along with various other local products from Fayerton’s merchants and craft guilds.
Wealth beyond a single man’s imagining stood on the docks of Tideover Bay waiting to be transported a world away ― a world few in El Nath could imagine, having never seen a tropical sunset, or the brown skinned San Bargellians and their wonderful, dazzling white city that defied description. How could they when the only thing most folk had ever known was the soil of El Nath?
Rojah strolled among the small, enclosed pens and wood slatted crates of domestic animals also being readied for transport. He counted the numbers and kinds ― chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, a few specialty bred cattle, as well as horses. He was not surprised to find Duncan of White Horse’s brand on many of the horses, or Duncan himself standing in the midst of a corral fenced paddock.
Rojah stepped up on a lower fence rung for a clear view of the proceedings. He watched the horse handlers and the sweat-lathered Duncan work the nervous herd of about a dozen, unbranded horses. The horse handlers had managed to cut out one particular roan stallion from the band that wheeled around the circumference of the paddock and sought escape from their confinement. When the charging band of snorting, bucking horses streamed through the only available opening in the fence, several of the men swung the gate closed behind the escaping horses. The roan stallion reared before the closed gate, cut off from the rest of the stampeding herd. At Duncan’s shout, coiled lengths of rope flew from the surrounding handlers and snared the infuriated stallion as the beast wheeled away.
Roped, but not subdued, the high-strung roan eluded the braver handlers who tried to approach with saddle and halter. Now that Duncan had caught the surly beast, the stallion made its anger and displeasure known, kicking, snorting, biting, lashing out with both front and back hooves at anyone unfortunate enough, or stupid enough, to think they could control the beast and bring him to harness.
Rojah looked away from the dust-swirling activity within the paddock and searched for Thora among the nearby crowd of onlookers. He did not spot her, or her delightful daughter, enjoying the amusing scene of a horse displaying more wits than the men possessed who attempted to break its wild streak. He knew Duncan had never bred such a creature but had captured the stallion and the other horses from one of the many wild herds that roamed El Nath’s downlands. Duncan had stolen the majority of his breeding stock from the wild herds.
In the space of time that Rojah had looked away from the activity in the paddock, one of the inept handlers had managed to have his foot and leg trampled by the stallion. As Duncan shouted and raved, half a dozen men jumped over the fence and dragged the screaming, cursing man from beneath the beast’s hooves before the stallion trampled the unfortunate man to death. Two other handlers jumped to secure the downed man’s place on the loose rope that whipped through the dust.
“Ye’d be better off puttin’ the beast down, Duncan!” someone shouted from among the spectators lined up along the paddock fence.
“Ya aimin’ to ride the crazy beast, Duncan!” another hooted.
Duncan brandished the coiled loop of his whip. The meaty bulge of his sweaty arms gleamed in the sunlight. “I’ll ride the damn beast or die tryin’!” he shouted back, black eyes scouring the onlookers.
“Why not put the stallion to stud and breed him to your mares, Duncan? You will never break him, man,” Rojah called adding his voice to the chortles.
The sweep of Duncan’s black eyes found Rojah in the crowd.
“Is that what ye’d do, Fayerfield?” Duncan retorted and struck the coil of his whip against his leather clad thigh. “Ye should know about breedin’ mares ― a fine stud like yerself, man!”
That brought a chorus of oafish laughter from along the fence.
“You managed to catch a fine horse, Duncan. What purpose would it serve breaking the stallion and killing a dozen good men in the effort?” Rojah ignored the whispers in the crowd behind him and focused his attention upon Duncan.
“It’d serve my pride, Fayerfield, to tame this beast to my will. I’ll wager ye, man, if I cannot keep this bit of horse flesh between my legs, ye could do no better.”
Rojah grinned, shook his head. “I am not a fool, Duncan. I do not believe I want to have my neck broken today or any other day for that matter.”
“What’s wrong, Fayerfield? Too worried my horse here will unseat ye? Mess up yer pretty face? Come on, man, where’s your sense of sport?” Duncan jeered, brows raised, challenging.
Rojah glanced at the onlookers up and down the fence on either side of him. They had sided with Duncan and several were pooling their hard earned coins into a battered, brown felt hat that one scraggly bearded fellow passed around.
A group of fashionably dressed sightseers, who joined the crowd to see what the commotion was about, had drawn an equal amount of curious stares with their San Bargellian finery and urbane manners. The group of San Bargellians, lately arrived aboard the Zephyr, murmured to their companions, shook their heads, and looked appalled at the rough sport of men and beasts. One of the newcomers, clearly fascinated by the local spectacle, pulled out a thick wad of San Bargellian currency.
“I will stake the fellow with the yellow hair,” the San Bargellian called. He dropped his money into the sweat stained hat.
“Ye’ll be losin’ a bundle, sir.” The old man collecting the wagers revealed a toothless grin and cackled. “But then maybe not. Young Fayerfield’s capable enough but he lacks Duncan’s brawn.”
Hanging onto the upper rail of the wooden fence as he exchanged barbs with Duncan, Rojah caught the flash of the San Bargellian’s discrete glance aimed in his direction.
“Fayerfield, did you say?” the San Bargellian inquired, lifting his voice above the swelling cacophony of the surrounding crowd that parted in a curious murmur to let the group of San Bargellians closer to the fence where Rojah stood on one of the wooden rungs.
“The old man’s right, Reece, the young fool will break his neck,” commented another elegant peacock, garbed in a sapphire silk jacket, snug-fitting yellow brocade trousers, white silk stockings, and embroidered, pointy-toed slippers. The group of San Bargellians all wore tall, wide brimmed hats plumed with jaunty feathers dyed to match their colorful clothing.
The taller, elegant San Bargellian laughed, and with a manicured hand, waved aside his companion’s worry. “It is only money and I mean to enjoy my visit to this backwater country since Edrick hardly gave us any other choice. Besides, I find the young man rather amusing. He is certainly attractive, do you agree, Armon?”
The one named Armon sniffed and lifted a lace trimmed handkerchief to his offended nose. “Whatever you say, Reece, but I wonder ― this animal stench will surely kill me if all this dirt and filth does not.”
“What do ye say, Fayerfield! Care to show one and all what yer made of, man?” Strolling around the paddock, Duncan grinned. He flexed his arm and chest muscles in a show of strength and encouraged the men along the fence who shouted, waved, and slapped Rojah on the back.
“Come on, Fayerfield!”
“Take Duncan’s money!”
Glancing around at the crowd the commotion had attracted, and avoiding the curious stares from the San Bargellians, especially the tall one who leaned on the fence next to him, Rojah considered the wager. What choice did he have, other than keeping his mouth shut and minding his own business? Other than jumping over the fence, riding the stallion, and getting his damn neck broken? Other than walking away and being branded a coward by louts like Duncan of White Horse?
“Come on, Fayerfield!” Duncan laughed. “Show us the stuff yer made of, man! There’s not a day, ye can’t beat Duncan of White Horse, and if by chance ye do, then I’ll give ye the damn beast and ye can put him to stud for yerself ― breed him to all the mares the beast can mount.”
Rojah tightened his jaw. So much for keeping a low profile on the streets of Tideover Bay. Shoving aside his misgivings, he climbed the fence and swung his leg over the top rung. A chorus of boisterous cheers rang out; the stallion snickered, pranced and snorted; men sweated but none appeared to sweat as much as Duncan of White Horse. Sweat dripped off the man’s face.
“All right, man. I accept. I hope we both do not live to regret this crazy wager,” Rojah said. His gaze flickered over the crowd that hung onto the fence and perched upon the top rail, cheering and waving along with old Hersh and his battered hat stuffed with coins and bills. The overdressed, out of place Southern foreigners, their handkerchiefs fluttering to keep away the flies, looked on with dread and fascination, if not boredom.
Duncan nodded, tossed his coiled whip to one of his handlers, and flexed his arm. “Hersh! Toss a coin and see who rides first. Heads, I go ― tails ye go first, Fayerfield.”
The San Bargellian gold coin Hersh fished out of his hat and tossed into the air, flashed in the sun, then tumbled and spun earthward to land in the dust.
Hersh grinned. His head snapped up. “Heads! Yer first, Duncan.”
“Damned Fayerfield luck!” Duncan muttered, swearing oaths as ripe as the clods of horse dung that littered the ground.
Rojah laughed. “Care to reconsider the matter, Duncan?”
Duncan scowled. He turned and shouted at his handlers. “Get that damn beast in the loading chute. We will see who stays mounted and who goes flying over the fence!”
That man was not Duncan of White Horse. Although he did give a good show of bravado before he hit the dust and waved off the handlers who rushed to pick him up and dust him off. He winced and, rolling a thick shoulder, grinned at the cheering crowd, his teeth flashing white in his dirty, sweat streaked face.
“Yer turn, Fayerfield. I got the beast warmed up for ye!” Duncan hooted.
Rojah scowled as a swarm of handlers hastily maneuvered the snorting, bucking stallion into the narrow confines of the makeshift loading chute. Offering a silent prayer to the Great Ones in this foolhardiest of moments, Rojah walked across the paddock and climbed the chute fence. He stared down as the protesting stallion kicked, bucked, reared, and gnashed teeth at both wooden fence and human flesh.
“Ready, Fayerfield?” one of the handlers shouted above the commotion of the enraged stallion. Wood splintered and cracked.
Rojah swallowed. This is madness, he thought, deafened by the cheers and shouts of the onlookers, the curses of the swearing handlers, and the horse below snorting and screaming in protest.
Easing down into the chute, Rojah mounted. The horse crashed into the narrow fence that confined him. Rojah grabbed the rope halter and secured his grip. He clamped his thighs and knees tight against the stallion’s heaving sides. He nodded at the handler. The gate swung open.
The rearing stallion blew out of the chute.
Every bone in Rojah’s body jarred loose each time the stallion bucked and reared and came down hard. He rocked, swung; he clung to the horse for what seemed like an eternity. The next thing Rojah knew, he lay flat on his back, pressed against the ground, his lungs sucking in air. Black spots danced before his eyes.
Duncan of White Horse peered down at him. “Ye still alive, Fayerfield?”
The crowd along the fence had gone silent except for the handlers, swearing and cursing, and one ragged, snorting stallion standing on the far side of the paddock, head hanging and sides heaving for air.
“Ye rode the wind out of the damn beast, man!” Duncan laughed and extended a broad, callused hand. “But ’tis hard to say who stayed mounted the longest. Old Hersh ain’t such a good counter, especially when he gets excited.”
Rojah managed to peel himself from the ground and sat up, but not without a grimace and feeling a few aches and bruises that had not existed before he had climbed onto the stallion’s back. Tasting blood, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Eh, looks like ye got yerself a busted lip, man, and a few bruises but nothin’ damaged that pretty face of yers. More’s the pity, man. Can ye stand?”
Taking Duncan’s offered hand, Rojah staggered to his feet. The paddock spun around him but he managed to keep his balance.
The crowd of onlookers roared their approval and immediately demanded to know who had won the wager. Some shouted Duncan of White Horse; others swore Rojah Fayerfield. Punches flew, fists bruised and bloodied faces in the brief scuffle that followed.
“Hey, look there!” Hersh cackled. “That San Bargellian fellow’s fainted dead away. Couldn’t take the sight of seein’ yer blood, Fayerfield.”
Rojah grinned and gingerly touched his split lip. “At least my neck is not broken.”
Duncan laughed. “Ye’ll probably wish it had been when yer daddy hears how ye’ve been conductin’ yerself.”
Rojah grimaced, grinning hurt too much. “I do not even want to think about my father right now. What do you say, Hersh? Who stay mounted the longest?”
Old Hersh eyed his hat full of money and, squinting up his leathery face, he scratched his dirt-caked neck. “Well now, I cannot say exactly who stayed on longest. Seems like the count was about even, so I’d say it was a draw.”
“What about our money!” someone shouted. Several others, nursing bloodied noses and swollen fingers joined the demand.
Duncan raised his muscular arm and turned to the crowd. “Since it seems the only loser here is that damn beast, I say let’s all go over to the Bouncing Woman. Drinks for everyone! What do ye say, Fayerfield?”
“I say―” Rojah hesitated. He glanced at the prostrate San Bargellian sprawled in the dust a few feet away.
“Yeah, man?” Duncan peered at Rojah.
“I say rouse the San Bargellian who fainted dead away on my account and welcome the Southern foreigners with hearty El Nath ale!” Rojah laughed. A stout blow of Duncan’s broad hand against his back almost sent Rojah reeling face down into the dust with the unconscious San Bargellian.
“Yer a good sport, Fayerfield. As much as I hate ye ― because of Thora and the girl and all ― I gotta like ye, especially if ye can drink as well as ye can ride a wild bronc. What do ye say? Care to wager who can consume the greater quantity of ale, man?”
A dipper of cold water splashed in his face, and the San Bargellian lying prostrate on the ground, his feather plumed hat crumpled beneath him, woke sputtering, and gazing up, squinted his gold-lashed eyes against the dazzling sunlight.
“Flaric? Flaric ― is that you?” The whispered named escaped the San Bargellian’s lips in a murmur of awe.
Rojah stepped back. “Afraid you made a mistake, mister.”
“Come on, Fayerfield. The San Bargellian’s alive. They can join us over at the tavern if they ain’t too grand for El Nath ale!” Duncan clapped his arm around Rojah’s shoulders and pulled him away from the dazed San Bargellian.
Scowling, Rojah glanced back over his shoulder at the San Bargellian. Several of his companions helped him stagger to his feet and were trying to dust him off with their crumpled handkerchiefs. That was not the first time someone had called him by a dead man’s name, and the chilling sensation that crawled up Rojah’s spine felt as unnerving as the words he heard the man utter to his companions.
“Did you see him, Armon? He’s beautiful ― almost as beautiful as―” The stunned San Bargellian caught himself and blinked, as if trying to focus his eyes.
“Careful, Reece―” The one named Armon shook his head over his friend’s disheveled state of dress and mind.
“These El Nath fellows are a curious lot. Suddenly, I find myself incredibly thirsty and lightheaded. Do you think El Nath ale is as potent as San Bargellian wine?”
“Shall we find out?”
A moment later, Rojah lost sight of the group of San Bargellians and, laughing, he forced the disturbing feeling out of his mind and followed Duncan, Hersh, and a crowd of thirsty men into the cool dimness of the Bouncing Woman, where round after round of cold ale waited.
This was one of my favorite chapters to write. I once worked designing and laying out a magazine called “ProWorld Rodeo,” and I guess after working too long on one issue, with an editorial titled, “Blowin’ out the Chute,” this scene came out of me. 🙂
Note: This is not a Western story.