Eric Flint: 1824: The Arkansas War

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Eric Flint 1824: The Arkansas War
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    1824: The Arkansas War
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He turned back to Baxter. "I've got quite the knife, too. Here, let me show you."

From somewhere under the blanket, Houston drew out a knife that looked more like a short sword than what any reasonable man-certainly any reasonable innkeeper-would have called a knife. It was all Akins could do not to hiss.

Two of the customers in the room did hiss.

"Had it made for me in Arkansas," Houston continued, his tone as cheerful as ever. "At the knife shop James Black set up in Fort of 98. I think Rezin Bowie designed it, though. He or his brother Jim, anyway. Can't say either one is exactly a friend of mine, so I'm not sure."

All the while he'd been prattling gaily, Houston held up the knife and twisted it back and forth, letting Baxter-every man in the room, for that matter-get a good view of it. The thing looked as lethal as a rattlesnake.

"You know Jim Bowie?" Houston asked Baxter, not looking at him.

He didn't wait for an answer, which he wouldn't have gotten anyway because by now Baxter's glare was enough to melt brimstone.

"Hot-tempered man." Houston shook his head, still looking at the knife. " 'Course, I admit, sometimes a man's got to have a temper."

Finally, he lowered the knife and looked across the table at Baxter. Still, for all the world, seeming to be completely oblivious to Baxter's fury.

"I should've asked your pardon for just sitting here. But I'm afraid I've got no choice. Nowadays-sad to say, but there it is-I pretty much have to take a corner table anywhere I go. It seems I've got enemies. Got to watch my back."

In point of fact, it was Baxter's seat that gave a view of the entire room. Houston's back was turned to everybody except Baxter.

Houston shook his head again. "Hard to believe, isn't it? Why, there's people say I caused the trouble with all the runaway slaves, even though-to any fair and judicious man-it's obvious as the nose in front of his face that the trouble was caused by that blasted Calhoun and his exclusion business."

He raised the knife a couple of inches above the table and brought the heavy pommel down. Hard.

"No, sir!" he bellowed. Baxter must have jumped the same two inches above his chair-and the glare suddenly vanished. Perhaps he'd finally remembered that that same voice had once bellowed orders across a battlefield, where British regulars had been beaten.

"No, sir," Houston repeated, forcibly if not as loudly. "Calhoun's to blame-him and every one of those Barbary killers of his. Going around the way they have, murdering black folk for no reason."

Houston looked very, very big now, hunched like a buffalo at the table. That huge knife was held in a hand of a size to match. His left hand was clenched into a fist that looked pretty much like a small ham.

Suddenly, the buffalo vanished, replaced by Houston's earlier cheerful smile.

"But, now-why am I carrying on like this? I'm sure a reasonable-looking man like yourself has no quarrel with me."

The steak had arrived. Akins's wife shoved the plate into Ned's hands. "Get it over there quick," she hissed. "Maybe we can still get out of this without the place being torn down."

The innkeeper hurried over to the table. By now, he wasn't actually worried about the tavern itself being wrecked. Meanest man in northern Kentucky or not, it was plain as day that Jack Baxter was thoroughly cowed. That still left the problem of cleaning the floor.

Akins was proud of that floor, tarnation. Real wood. And he didn't want to think about the howls his wife would put up, having to scour blood from it. Several quarts of blood, from the looks of that knife. Not to mention maybe eight feet of intestine.

He planted the plate in front of Houston. "I'll get you a fork."

"Don't bother," Houston growled. "Can't stand forks. Never use 'em except at my wife's table. Well, and my father-in-law's, of course."

There was that, too. The buffalo who'd broken British regulars in front of the Capitol, and then again at New Orleans, also happened to be married to the president's daughter.

Jack Baxter was just about as dumb as he was mean. But it seemed his intelligence was rising in proportion to the way he was slumping in his chair.

Houston seized the whole steak with his left hand, shoved it into his mouth, and began sawing off a chunk with the knife.

"Goo teak" he mumbled. After chewing more or less the way a lion chews-twice; swallow-he lowered the meat slightly and said: "My compliments to the good wife, Mr. Akins. Why, this steak is cooked proper, for a change!"

Akins looked at it. He'd wondered how Houston had managed to hold it bare-handed without burning himself. Now that the lion-bite had exposed the inside of the steak, the answer was obvious. His wife had been in such a hurry she'd barely cooked it at all. The meat was practically raw, once you got past the outside char.

Houston shoved it into his mouth, and sawed off another chunk. "Some whiskey, if you would," he said, after he swallowed. Again, after chewing it twice.

Akins didn't argue the matter. There was no way to stop Houston anyway-and, at least judging from his reputation and what the innkeeper had seen the night before, whiskey made him good-humored.

The innkeeper blessed good humor four times, on his way to the whiskey cabinet and back, tossing in a short prayer for good measure.

He didn't bother offering the use of a tumbler. As soon as the whiskey bottle was on the table-by then, half the steak had vanished, and what was left was back on the plate-Houston grabbed it by the neck and took a hefty slug.

He brought the bottle down with a thump. "Love whiskey with a rare steak. 'Course"-one more time, he bestowed that cheery grin on Baxter-"I dare not take more than the one good swallow, of a morning. Maybe two. As many enemies as I have."

Akins almost burst into laughter, then. He was standing by a table where a lion was beaming down on a rat. A cornered rat, at that, since there was no way for Baxter to get away from Houston, sitting where he was.

"No, sir, " Houston stated, stabbing the steak again and bringing it back up. He reached halfway across the table and waved the piece of meat under Baxter's nose. "I got to be careful. Even though I can drink half a bottle and still shoot straight or cut slicker'n you'd believe a man could do plain sober."

The steak went back into his mouth, and the knife sawed off another chunk. By now, at least, Houston was chewing four or five times before he swallowed.

Akins heard a noise behind him. Turning, he saw that Houston's slave had come into the room. He was holding a satchel in his left hand.

"We're ready to go whenever you've a mind, Mr. Sam," he announced. "The horses are saddled, everything's packed, and-"

The same two men hissed as the slave brought a pistol out of the satchel.

"-I got your pistol here, if you've a mind for that, too."

Houston swallowed, turned his head, and frowned. "Now why in the world would I need a pistol, Chester?" He held up the steak-what little was left of it-skewered on the knife. "Cow's already dead."

The slave didn't seem in the least abashed by the apparent rebuke. Nor did anyone in the room miss the fact that he wasn't holding the pistol by the barrel, the way a man normally does when he's readying to pass it over to another. Instead, he had the handle cupped neatly in his palm. And if his forefinger wasn't precisely on the trigger, and his thumb wasn't precisely on the hammer, neither digit was more than half an inch away from turning the gun into a deadly thing.

He was holding the weapon as if he knew exactly how to use it, too. Most slaves didn't.

"You got enemies, Mr. Sam. Remember? Turrible enemies, people say."

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