Book excerpt

Rhett Butler's People

Donald McCaig

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Affairs of Honor

One hour before sunrise, twelve years before the war, a closed carriage hurried through the Carolina Low Country. The Ashley River road was pitch-black except for the coach’s sidelights, and fog swirled through the open windows, moistening the passengers’ cheeks and the backs of their hands.

"Rhett Butler, damn your cross-grained soul." John Haynes sagged in his seat.

"As you like, John." Butler popped the overhead hatch to ask, "Are we near? I wouldn’t wish to keep the gentlemen waiting."

"We comin’ down the main trunk now, Master Rhett." Although Hercules was Rhett’s father’s racehorse trainer and Broughton’s highest-ranking servant, he’d insisted on driving the young men.

Rhett had warned, "When he learns you’ve helped, Langston will be angry."

Hercules had stiffened. "Master Rhett, I knowed you when you was just a child. Was me, Hercules, put you up on your first horse. You and Mr. Haynes tie your horses behind. I’ll be drivin’ the rig tonight."

John Haynes’s plump cheeks belied his uncommonly determined chin. His mouth was set in an unhappy line.

Rhett said, "I love these marshes. Hell, I never wanted to be a rice planter. Langston would go on about rice varieties or negro management and I’d not hear a word for dreaming about the river." Eyes sparkling, he leaned toward his friend, "I’d drift through the fog, steering with an oar. One morning, I surprised a loggerhead sliding down an otter slide—sliding for the pure joy of it. John, have you ever seen a loggerhead turtle smile?

"I don’t know how many times I tried to slip past a sleeping anhinga without waking her. But that snaky head would pop from beneath her wing, sharp-eyed, not groggy in the least, and quick as that"—Rhett snapped his fingers—"she’d dive. Marsh hens weren’t near as wary. Many’s a time I’d drift ’round a bend and hundreds of ’em would explode into flight. Can you imagine flying through fog like this?"

"You have too much imagination," Rhett’s friend said.

"And I’ve often wondered, John, why you are so cautious. For what great purpose are you reserving yourself?"

When John Haynes rubbed his spectacles with a damp handkerchief, he smeared them. "On some other day, I’d be flattered by your concern."

"Oh hell, John, I’m sorry. Fast nerves. Is our powder dry?"

Haynes touched the glossy mahogany box cradled in his lap. "I stoppered it myself."

"Hear the whippoorwill?"

The rapid pounding of the horses’ hooves, the squeak of harness leather, Hercules crying, "Pick ’em up, you rascals, pick ’em up," the three-note song of the whip-poorwill. Whippoorwill—hadn’t John heard something about Shad Watling and a whippoorwill?

"I’ve had a good life," Rhett Butler said.

Since John Haynes believed his friend’s life had been a desperate shambles, he bit his tongue.

"Some good times, some good friends, my beloved little sister, Rosemary…"

"What of Rosemary, Rhett? Without you, what will become of her?"

"You must not ask me that!" Rhett turned to the blank black window. "For God’s sake. If you were in my place, what would you do?"

The words in sturdy John Haynes’s mind were, I would not be in your place, but he couldn’t utter them, although they were as true as words have ever been.

Rhett’s thick black hair was swept back off his forehead; his frock coat was lined with red silk jacquard, and the hat on the seat beside him was beaver fur. John’s friend was as vital as any man John had ever known, as alive as wild creatures can be. Shot dead, Rhett Butler would be as emptied out as a swamp-lion pelt hung up on the fence of the Charleston market.

Rhett said, "I am disgraced already. Whatever happens, I can’t be worse disgraced." His sudden grin flashed. "Won’t this give the biddies something to gossip about?"

"You’ve managed that a time or two."

"I have. By God, I’ve given respectable folk a satisfying tut-tut. Who has served Charleston’s finger pointers better than I? Why, John, I have become the Bogeyman." He intoned solemnly, " ‘Child, if you persist in your wicked ways, you’ll end up just like Rhett Butler!’ "

"I wish you’d stop joking," John said quietly.

"John, John, John…"

"May I speak candidly?"

Rhett raised a dark eyebrow. "I can’t prevent you."

"You needn’t go through with this. Have Hercules turn ’round—we’ll enjoy a morning ride into town and a good breakfast. Shad Watling is no gentleman and you needn’t fight him. Watling couldn’t find one Charleston gentleman to second him. He pressed some hapless Yankee tourist into service."

"Belle Watling’s brother has a right to satisfaction."

"Rhett, for God’s sake, Shad’s your father’s over-seer’s son. His employee!" John Haynes waved dismissively. "Offer some monetary compensation…." He paused, dismayed. "Surely you’re not doing this… this thing … for the girl?"

"Belle Watling is a better woman than many who condemn her. Forgive me, John, but you mustn’t impugn my motives. Honor must be satisfied: Shad Watling told lies about me and I have called him out."

John had so much to say, he could hardly talk. "Rhett, if it hadn’t been for West Point…"

"My expulsion, you mean? That’s merely my latest, most flamboyant disgrace." Rhett clamped his friend’s arm. "Must I enumerate my disgraces? More disgraces and failures than…" He shook his head wearily. "I am sick of disgraces. John, should I have asked another to second me?"

"Damn it!" John Haynes cried. "Damn it to hell!"

John Haynes and Rhett Butler had become acquainted at Cathecarte Puryear’s Charleston school. By the time Rhett left for West Point, John Haynes was established in his father’s shipping business. After Rhett’s expulsion and return, Haynes saw his old friend occasionally on the streets of town. Sometimes Rhett was sober, more often not. It troubled John to see a man with Rhett’s natural grace reeking and slovenly.

John Haynes was one of those young Southerners from good families who take up the traces of civic virtue as if born to them. John was a St. Michaels vestryman and the St. Cecilia Society’s youngest ball manager. Though John envied Rhett’s spirit, he never accompanied Rhett and his friends—"Colonel Ravanel’s Sports"—on their nightly routs through Charleston’s brothels, gambling hells, and saloons.

Consequently, John had been astonished when Butler came to the wharfside offices of Haynes & Son seeking John’s assistance in an affair of honor.

"But Rhett, your friends? Andrew Ravanel? Henry Kershaw? Edgar Puryear?"

"Ah, but John, you’ll be sober."

Few men or women could resist Rhett Butler’s what-the-hell grin, and John Haynes didn’t.

Perhaps John was dull. He never heard about amusing scandals until Charleston society was tiring of them. When John repeated a clever man’s witticism, he invariably misspoke. If Charleston’s mothers thought John Haynes a "good catch," maidens giggled about him behind their fans. But John Haynes had twice seconded affairs of honor. When duty came knocking, it found John Haynes at home.

Broughton Plantation’s main trunk was a broad earthen dike separating its rice fields from the Ashley River. The carriage lurched when it quit the trunk to turn inland.

John Haynes had never felt so helpless. This thing— this ugly, deadly thing—would go forward whatever he might do. Honor must be satisfied. It wasn’t Hercules driving the team; it was Honor’s bony hands on the lines. It wasn’t .40-caliber Happoldt pistols in the mahogany box; it was Honor—ready to spit reproaches. A tune sang in John’s head: "I could not love thee Cecilia, loved I not honor more"—what a stupid, stupid song! Shad Watling was the best shot in the Low Country.

They turned into a brushy lane so infrequently traveled that Spanish moss whisked the carriage roof. Sometimes, Hercules lifted low-hanging branches so the rig could pass beneath.

With a start, John Haynes recalled the story of Shad Watling and a whippoorwill.

"Ah," Rhett mused. "Can you smell it? Marsh perfume: cattails, myrtle, sea aster, marsh gas, mud. When I was a boy, I’d get in my skiff and disappear for days, living like a red indian." Rhett’s smile faded with his reverie. "Let me beg one last favor. You know Tunis Bonneau?"

"The free colored seaman?"

"If you see him, ask him if he remembers the day we sailed to Beaufort. Ask him to pray for my soul."

"A free colored?"

"We were boys on the river together."

Indeterminate gray light was filtering into the carriage. Rhett looked out. "Ah, we have arrived."

John consulted his pocket hunter. "Sunrise in twenty minutes."

The field of honor was a three-acre pasture edged with gloomy cypresses and moss-bedecked live oaks. The pasture vanished in the fog, inside which a voice was crying hoarsely, "Sooey! Soo cow! Soo cow!"

Rhett stepped down from the carriage, chafing his hands. "So. This is my destination. When I was a boy dreaming of glories awaiting me, I never dreamed of this."

Cattle bawled inside the fog. "We wouldn’t want to shoot a cow." Rhett stretched. "My father would be furious if we shot one of his cows."

"Rhett…"

Rhett Butler laid a hand on John Haynes’s shoulder. "I need you this morning, John, and I trust you to arrange matters properly. Please spare me your sound, kindly meant advice."

John swallowed his advice, wishing he hadn’t remembered about Shad Watling and the whippoorwill: After Langston Butler built Broughton’s grand manor house, his overseer, Isaiah Watling, moved his family into the original Butler home, which was convenient to the rice fields and negro quarters. Huge live oaks, which had been saplings when the Butlers first arrived in the Low Country, shaded the small, plain farmhouse.

Nesting in a live oak, that whippoorwill welcomed them from twilight until dawn.

Apparently, Belle, the Watling girl, thought the bird was seeking a mate. Her mother, Sarah, said the bird was grieving.

The question of whether the bird was flirting or weeping was mooted at daybreak, not long after they moved in, when a shot blasted through the house. When his mother rushed into his bedroom, Shad Watling’s smoking pistol lay on the windowsill. "Fool bird won’t rise me up no more," Shad Watling grunted.

In poor light at sixty paces, Shad Watling had shot the tiny whippoorwill’s head off its body.

John Haynes asked Rhett, "You’ve heard about that whippoorwill?"

"Just a yarn, John." Rhett scratched a match on his boot sole.

"Shad Watling has killed before, Rhett."

The match sputtered and flared as Rhett lit his cigar. "But only negroes and men of his class."

"Do you believe your gentle birth will turn a bullet?"

"Why, yes," Rhett said solemnly. "Hell yes! Gentle birth’s got to be good for something!"

"Comes somebody," Hercules spoke from his elevated seat.

Breathing hard, a young man emerged from the fog. His frock coat was folded over his arm and his trouser knees were wet where he’d stumbled. "Darn cows," he confided. He shifted his jacket and offered his hand to John Haynes, then thought better of it and made an awkward bow instead. "Tom Jaffery. Amity, Massachusetts. At your service, gentlemen."

"Well, Tom." Rhett smiled. "It seems your Charleston visit will be a memorable one."

Jaffery was two or three years younger than Rhett and John. "They’ll never believe this in Amity."

"Lurid tales, Tom. Lurid tales are the South’s principal export. When you describe us to your friends, remark the devilishly handsome, gallant Rhett Butler." Rhett’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. "If I were telling the tale, I wouldn’t mention the cows."

"Has your principal arrived?" John asked the young Yankee.

Tom Jaffery gestured at the fog bank. "Watling and that Dr. Ward, too. They don’t care for each other."

John Haynes took the younger man’s arm, walking him out of Rhett’s earshot. "Mr. Jaffery, have you seconded these affairs before?"

"No, sir. We don’t hardly do this kind of thing in Amity. I mean, my grandfather might have done it, but nowadays we don’t. I’m a novice, so to speak. My aunt Patience passed to her Heavenly Reward and she bequeathed me a sum, so I set out to see the country. Tom, I says to myself, if not now, for goodness’ sake, when? So there I was, admiring your Charleston harbor, which is, if I might say so, every bit the equal of our famous Boston harbor. Anyway, there I was when Mr. Watling approached me and asked was I a gentleman, and I said I certainly hoped so. When Mr. Watling asked if I would second him, I thought, Tom, you’ve come to see the country, and see the country you shall. I’ll never get a chance like this in Amity."

John Haynes didn’t tell the younger man that Shad Watling’s choosing a Yankee stranger to second him was a calculated insult.

"Are you familiar with your duties?" "

We seconds make sure everything happens regular."

John Haynes eyed the young Yankee thoughtfully. "Seeking reconciliation between the principals is our primary duty," he said with the regret of the man who has failed that duty.

"Oh, my principal isn’t contemplatin’ reconciliation. My principal says he anticipates shootin’ Mr. Butler in the heart. He and Mr. Butler are old acquaintances."

"It will be light soon. We generally let sunrise be our signal."

"Sunrise suits you, suits us."

"When the sun comes over the horizon, the gentlemen choose their pistols. As the challenged party, your man chooses first. Shall we load now?"

John Haynes braced the mahogany box on the carriage fender, unlatched it, and removed a pistol. The sleek knurled butt felt alive in his hand, as if he’d clutched a water moccasin. "As you see, the pistols are identical. While you observe, I’ll charge one pistol. You will charge the second."

John poured powder, set a round lead ball into an oiled cloth patch, and rammed it home. He placed a cap under the hammer and eased the hammer to half cock.

Excerpted from Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig

Copyright © 2007 by Stephens Mitchell Trusts.

Published in 2007 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher. Donald McCaig is the award-winning author of Jacob’s Ladder designated “the best civil war novel ever written” by The Virginia Quarterly. People magazine raved “Think Gone With the Wind, think Cold Mountain.” It won the Michael Sharra Award for Civil War Fiction and the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction.