Down around the bends and turns, past the moss-draped cypress trees, and through the cloudy black water of Bayou Dimanche, the small watercraft cut their way to a small bluff. Atop that bluff stood a structure of wood and tabby. Rumored to have been used by the Lafitte Brothers in their days of smuggling goods and slaves into New Orleans, Thibodaux's private retreat served as a remote outpost when he needed to discuss matters away from prying eyes and ears. The retreat was only staffed by his most trusted menservants. Neither a lady nor any maids had darkened the door in the time Thibodaux had owned the place.
The menservants carried in crates. There was food, drink, even ice for the evening's meeting. Member's of Thibodaux's militia stood guard, rifles at the ready, in the event that unwelcome guests found their way to the retreat. It was unlikely, but but it was not worth the risk. Most importantly, men stood around fires, preparing the meal to be served shortly.
Inside the structure stood a bar, a pool table, plenty of tables and chairs. The fireplace showed the soot and char of use but remained dormant in the late summer heat. Introductions were made. Drinks were poured. Cigars were lit. The billiard balls were racked, then broken.
This was the advantage that Uriah had sought. Thibodaux was reluctant to invite Blanchard to his retreat but Uriah had insisted. The relaxed, yet secure atmosphere would ease tensions, drop walls and make for friendlier negotiations. That, and perhaps a little dirty Southern politics, was the best hope of sinking this deal and stopping Fitzgerald's plot.
There was a lot of mingling. It was a powerful group. The biggest rollers on both sides of the mill deal were here. Even the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi were present. And Uriah was working the room, shaking hands, laughing, and dropping names with a shameless and haughty air.
The food came, plenteous and glorious. Thibodaux's men prepared delicious seafood and and presented it for the guests. As the food, the drinks and the games progressed, the men sed their coats, rolled up their shirt sleeves. Thibadoux was bothered somewhat by the increasingly casual nature of the "negotiations" but Uriah had given assurances of this tactic and was making every effort to trust his friend.
That was when Uriah made his move. Gathering everyone's attention, He began with a toast. To their host, Col. Thibodaux, his hospitality, his wonderful retreat, and the opportunity to come together and discuss business in such a warm and welcoming environment. The colonel was flattered.
Everyone took a drink and then, just before anyone could return to the festivities, Uriah continued. He spoke eloquently of a threat to this way of life. He discussed the influx of foreign industry and industrialists. He spoke of a culture of urban commerce that threatened to sink the glorious hospitality of the South beneath a pile of anonymous cityscape. He spoke of the various philosophies and ideologies that their forefathers has seceded from and that those very ideas were now knocking on their doors. He spoke of robber barons, with their uncouth and presumptuous maneuvers trying to take by hook and crook what the battlefield had denied them. He rambled on, spinning a detailed and complicated web of insults and Yankee-centric xenophobia that rivaled any from The Revolution. At the end of his diatribe, he mustered what his grandfather, in an attempt to shed his possible responsibility for Uriah's temper, called his "Colquitt Choleric", slapped his hand on the table and colorfully quoted Robert Toombs, "Defend yourselves! The enemy is at your door!" he then careened on adding that their selfish grasp to the increasingly outdated use of slave labor would be the downfall of peace and independence. He noted that it would cost them trade ties in Europe and even the newly allowed trade of cotton with the old Union. It would force the South to accept the presence of factories and banks run by the Yankees "on this very soil". He cried for mechanization and the use of co-op systems that would allow former slaves to own their own small farms and produce cotton that could be traded globally. He bemoaned that any refusal to accept these reforms would result in the South being overrun by the "inferior culture from the northern city cesspools". He was shocked by his own theatrics and pleased with the facial reactions he was getting from his audience. So he made one final push again and sprinkled his closing thought with one more paraphrase from Toombs, "I have made this very plan work in Inaha. I have implemented it overseas. It works. Say what you will about my business decisions, make my name infamous, if you must, but save Georgia, save Alabama, Save Mississippi, save Louisiana. Don't turn them over to the very folks that our forefathers freed us from!"
And with that, Uriah raised his glass, took a drink and then began to mingle with the crowd again. His team spread out and began to lobby the members of the mill faction. They were prepared for the worst, ready to give answers to difficult questions and try to persuade the men to oppose the mill but it was not needed. Uriah had sold them the need to resist an invader. The men were more than happy to discuss export arrangements with Banning, Lasch, and Athern.
Fitzgerald's plan was dead.
The next evening, while sitting on Thibodaux's porch, Uriah received a memo from a man who had paddled a small vessel up to the landing. The memo was a request to accompany the man to a location that was not immediately designated. Uriah retrieved his pistol, as did Banning, Lasch, and Athern. The four men loaded the small craft and were transported to the location.
Upon arrival, a small campfire was burning. As they approached, Fitzgerald was standing behind the fire. In the circle clearing his bodyguards stood along the shadows. He nodded to them and they stepped back out of the clearing. Uriah reassured his companions and they stepped back as well.
"It seems that you have bested me in Louisiana." Fitzgerald was not smiling.
Uriah tipped back the brim on his panama hat and shoved his hands in his pockets. "It looks that way."
"And to think I stooped to offer you a generous share." Fitgerald pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from a case in his pocket. He offered Uriah one, which was graciously accepted. Then Fitzgerald lit both of them. "It probably didn't help my cause in Louisiana that the governor caught his granddaughter leaving my hotel yesterday morning", he continued as smoke blew from his mouth.
"It probably didn't help your cause."
"I don't understand what has happened. You and I were not adversaries in college."
Uriah smirked. "We weren't exactly friends either."
"That's a good point." Fitzgerald nodded and took another drag from the cigarette. "You were a hard boy to get to know. You were always too friendly with the help. You rarely came to town and when you did, it was only to catch the train to Macon or Savannah."
"Towns are overrated, Ben. You know that."
"Uriah, the day is coming, even in the Confederacy, when cities and towns will wield all the power. You've stopped this one plant, and only then because one of your little political buddies was going to benefit from it not coming. But you can't keep this up forever. you don't have a buddy in every town. Times are changing. You've won the battle but I'm going to win the war."
The conversation wound around the topic for a few minutes with Fitzgerald touting the superiority of the industrial economic model while Uriah maintained that factories only existed to make agriculture profitable, industry was the servant, not the master. "Which one can survive without the other?" being his main point.
"I didn't call you here for a debate. I called you here for a warning."
"A warning or a threat?"
"A warning. If you get between me and progress again, you're going down. And if your little Brits, your Yankee friend, or every kinky headed savage on your plantation in Georgia have to go down too, you will go down. And once you are gone, I'm going to push that house of yours over and I'm going to plant you in the root cellar and then build a smokestack over your insignificant grave."
"We've both got pistols now. Why wait?"
Fitzgerald smiled and took one last drag off his cigarette. "You'd like to duel, wouldn't you? I'm looking for a more fair fight. Much more fair. Maybe we'll meet in Inaha, maybe in London, maybe on The Alabama Princess somewhere along the Tennessee River, maybe even in a backwards village in Africa while you're visiting your little friend, Aminifu. It would be a shame for any of those good people to get entangled in our little feud, wouldn't it? " He threw the cigarette to the ground and snuffed it out with the heel of his Italian leather shoe. "Wherever you go, anywhere on this Earth, always be sure to look over your shoulder."
And then Fitzgerald smiled and disappeared into the darkness of the swamp trail. Uriah threw his cigarette in the fire and went to meet his friends.
The thought that Fitzgerald would harm any of his friends bothered Uriah that night. Stephen and Daniel were more than able to take care of themselves. But the people in Inaha, and even more so the people in Aminifu's village, had no reason to suspect trouble. There was no doubt in Uriah's mind that Fitzgerald was capable of killing all those people and never missing a night's sleep. But he didn't think preemptively killing Fitzgerald to be a good fix either. He would think on this matter.
The next afternoon he found himself in the train depot in New Orleans. He had left the colonel with gratitude for much hospitality and an open mind at the retreat. He had said goodbye to Athern at the riverboat port as he was taking the boat as far as Cairo before catching his train on to Massachusetts. Banning and Lasch took a boat the other way. They were heading back to England to finalize their end of this new deal. Uriah planned to meet up with them in Africa after the cotton harvest.
He'd seen Melanie from a distance as she was boarding the same boat as Athern. She and LeRoy were headed back up the river to Greenville. He wasn't sure that he'd ever see her again. But he hoped that somehow he would.
Uriah's train would carry him to Atlanta before he'd swap for one headed to south to Macon and eventually Inaha. He kicked back in his seat and pulled a cigar from his coat pocket. He'd stashed a handful there from the large box Thibodaux had given him as a thank you for saving the day. These were exquisite. He'd had them shipped to New Orleans from the Port of Havana just for this occasion. He knew Uriah would have a plan. Uriah lit the cigar and smiled. The waiter brought him his glass of bourbon and he took a sip.
He couldn't wait to see Georgia. It had been over a year since he'd set foot in his own house. Any of his houses for that matter. He closed his eyes and thought of home, which was, and always would be, Inaha. The cicadas would be singing in the evenings. The cotton would be tall and lush. The bolls would be getting ready but not fluffy and white yet, but soon. There would be music on his porch in the evenings. He and the other men would gather and tell stories, the youngsters would play in the yard, and the ladies would sip tea in the parlor. Everyone would want to know about Africa. He wouldn't mention Fitzgerald. No one wanted to hear about him. He'd have some of his Aunt Martha's fried pies and he'd fish in the river with Duke. He looked forward to that most of all.
He couldn't wait to see Georgia.
But that is another story....
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire