THE COOMBS, NEAR FIELD HANDS' QUARTERS, AS DINNER GUESTS ARRIVE
"Can't quite get him in mah sights by hisself," said the man who had used binoculars to identify Colonel Lennox on Bald Mountain."
"No matter," said the other man. "We got all night. You get the right shot, take it. Don't get one, don't bother."
"You sure come prepared good."
"No way to know how long it's gonna take," said the other, and delved into his field pack, retrieving bottled refreshment. Some of it was water, and the bottle he opened first may have started its life as such, but along the way grain had been distilled in it.
He drank, wiped the mouth of the bottle, passed it to his companion.
Who said, "Ain't gonna affect yer aim, now, is it?"
The shooter only snorted for answer.
The Coombs' field hands did not overhear this exchange, or else they would have reported it. In a small glade about fifty yards away, they were out of sight of the lighted windows of the house, but within earshot of the music, having a dance of their own, if secondhand, as it were. A harmonica player provided lilting blues alone now, and would counterpoint to the white folks' music in the Big House later. Even in 1859, it didn't mean a thing if it didn't have that swing.
Between themselves and the big house, the wellhead for the servants' quarters blocked direct observation of the sniper and his henchman.
The two snipers were thus, ah, well-hidden, and only about fifty feet from the good cover in which their horses were tied. They expected to remove one of Lexington's most prominent abolitionists from the picture without trouble, certainly without being suspected or apprehended, thus snapping the conduit to freedom he kept open through his lands.
One stop on the Underground Railway, closed forever with the ending of a life: a small price to pay, in an anti-abolitionist's view.
THE COOMBS, BEFORE CLEARING THE LAST COURSE OF THE FORMAL DINNER
Susannah Lennox surveyed her first formal table and thought that it had all gone fairly well. She drew the first deep breath she had taken all day.
Mr. Hyde, whom she had met before and knew to be perfectly charming, would arrive in time for the ball, but could not be here for the dinner. Of the strangers to Susannah, Miss Stella Bellows and her cousin Miss Jessie Burr Trawn (what very odd names those two had), friends of a dear friend in Virginia, had proven in the first case to be annoying, and in the second quite amusing. Mr. Hyde's nephew, Mr. Owler, seemed to be taken with Miss Trawn.
She caught her husband's eye, and he nodded to her. Susannah swept the table with her own glance, rose, and said (feeling rather like a small girl playing that she was the Queen), "Ladies, shall we give the gentlemen a few moments with their brandy?"
She waited until all of them were standing (predictably, that Bellows wench was last), and led the way into the parlor.
Will watched her leave, and then turned to the man to his left, saying, "Beg your pardon, Colonel?"
"Shame about Peterson losin' his bloodstock like that, ain't it?"
"I've heard nothin' about it," Will replied. "What happened?"
The other colonel looked disturbed. "Someone set a fire in his stable. Didn't burn it down, didn't actually do much damage, but the stableboys and all his stabled horses died, apparently from inhalin' somethin' burnin' petroleum gives off."
"Not the distilled tar? That burns pretty nice, without much smell."
"No, the part of the distillate that's usually discarded. Mixed it with the beddin' sawdust, and lit 'er up."
Young Mr. Hyde, a snifter of brandy cradled in one hand, said, "Is heating the only use that's been found for tar, sir? They were beginning to experiment with it in Europe, before I left there."
"It's a fine way to waterproof a basket, or a small boat." The speaker paused to light a cigar.
One of the other men added, "Some around here distill it, and use the distillation for medicine. Kills fleas, treats skin conditions." He paused. "O' course, if you have occasion to tar and feather a fella, you don't use that."
"Oh? Why not?"
Dr. Harper, one of Lexington's foremost physicians, snorted. "Tarrin' and featherin' is meant to warn a fella. You use pine tar for it, 'cause it'll stick without bein' heated. If you used the bitumen, it'd burn a man's skin plumb off him. He'd die in agony three days later."
"Shame about Peterson's horses, though," said another man. "I was gonna buy a yearlin' off him."
"I'd get over there if I were you," Dr. Harper said, and extinguished his cigar. "He was sayin' he lost the breedin' stock, didn't say much about his yearlin's, so he might coulda kept them out to pasture."
There came discordant noises of musicians tuning up, and this truncated the talk of horses, carried out in much the same way modern men talk of cars.
Will stood. "Gentlemen, I think it's gettin' on time to join the ladies."
THE COOMBS' BALLROOM: ON WITH THE MOTLEY
The musicians consisted of guitar, cornet, and fiddle. A bit rustic, to be sure, but Susannah hadn't wanted to give space to a larger orchestra, and a trio was sufficient to propel the dancers around the room.
She and Will lead the first set, a country dance. Men and women stood in long lines facing one another, meeting together or sequentially in the middle to lock elbows and twirl, or circle one another back-to-back in a dosie-do (the French for "back to back" is dos á dos, pronounced "dose-ah-do,"), and then separating to return to their lines.
Susannah, as de facto chaperone for all the single women present, kept an eye on the younger ladies. The two Virginians sat out the first dances, pleading fatigue, but Susannah found to her relief that the Bellows woman could in fact dance a quadrille, while Miss Trawn took young Mr. Hyde as her partner. He too had not danced the first quadrille; Susannah would have been astounded both by the feat and by the need for it had she known that all three chose not to dance in order to watch others do so, and thereby learn the steps.
Mr. Owler delighted Susannah Lennox by approaching her to enquire if he might ask Miss Trawn for the waltz about to strike up, but her permission given, his uncle arrived at that moment.
Susannah was amused by her guest's predicament. "I shall give you permission to dance the next waltz with Miss Trawn, if you will, Mr. Owler," she said with a smile. To her shock, he picked up her hand and kissed it, then went to his uncle.
Will drifted to her side. "Have I a rival, my dear?"
"No," Susannah said to her handsome husband, her dimples appearing. "You kiss my hand better than Mr. Owler does."
Whatever the news that the elder Mr. Hyde brought, the newlyweds saw him shake his head in delivering it, although it seemed to make no difference to his nephew's composure. He read the proffered note, folded it into quarters, placing the paper in his waistcoat pocket as he said something of which they heard only "requires several extra distillations to adequately fractionate." Then he made his way back to Miss Trawn.
Will made his leisurely way to the side of Mr. Aaron Hyde, who appeared to be exchanging glares with Miss Bellows that might have set an unwary passer-by afire. "Ah, Mr. Hyde. Will you come and have a glass of brandy with me, sir? I am sure you could easily deal with some refreshment, having just arrived."
Mr. Hyde broke his glance, and the wallpaper behind Miss Bellows stopped smoldering. "Colonel, Ah would entirely appreciate it," said Hyde, and followed him to his study.
Will poured them both a brandy in silence, and remarked to himself that Mr. Hyde seemed much more forceful this night than he had at any meeting beforehand. In his experience, that meant that Will would most likely be disappointed in his desire to be rid of eighty-seven acres of mountain.
Mr. Hyde, being unaware of this speculation on his part, did not inform him that such forcefulness was a result of his holoform generator and thus also his root-mode self being nearby.
"Are you acquainted with Miss Stella Bellows, Mr. Hyde?"
Hyde considered his response, had some more brandy, and settled for saying, "Our families have a long-standing enmity with one another, Colonel."
"I do apologize, sir," said Will, refilling Hyde's snifter. "Miss Bellows is a friend of a friend of my wife's. I assure you, had I known ..."
Hyde shrugged. "It would have surprised me immeasurably if you had known, Colonel. Please, accept mah apologies for bringin' my feud to your party. Ah'll do my best to avoid the wench."
Will was not the only one who noticed the forcefulness of proximity, however. Jessie tapped Mr. Owler's arm with her fan, and said, "Mr. Owler, you seem to have come into your own this evenin'."
Miss Bellows snorted (inelegant in such a well-turned out lady) and turned her head away.
Mr. Owler's attention was caught by the small ring Jessie wore, which had remained unremarkable while she fanned herself. Now, though, the angle of the light was right, and the hand still, long enough for identification. "Your ring, Miss Trawn, may I see it?" he said.
She hesitated, and then laid her hand in his. The ring was what he thought it was, a cameo made in the Decepticon icon.
His own waistcoat, mostly hidden by his jacket, was printed in Autobot sigils.
The two stared at each other.
If Prowl was the first to recover himself, it was Jazz who said, "Perhaps we could have a walk in the garden, sir?" and flirted her fan at him, in a gesture unmistakable to every other woman in the room (except perhaps Stella Bellows, who was again busy glaring at Aaron Hyde. The wallpaper behind her was not faring at all well).
"Perhaps we should," Prowl said, and politely offered his arm.
They went out of the light and into the walks and lanes in the garden around the house, finally stopping just next to the two snipers.
"Your interest here is?" Prowl said.
"Same's yours, prob'ly. Seein' if the black stuff comes outta th' ground might be a source of energon." The saboteur hesitated. "Look. That ain't really my main concern at th' moment. You and I been gettin' along like a house afire since the moment we met. What're we gonna do about that?"
Prowl wrinkled his faceplates, and the holoform's corresponding brow crinkled too. "What does a burning residence have to do with it?"
"It's a local expression. It just means we get along together pretty good."
The snipers' horses began to whinny and stamp, and so did the occupants of The Coombs' barn: Will's and Susannah's personal mounts, their carriage team, the two stallions, and all of the guests' mounts and carriage teams. Horses were unacquainted with, and therefore frightened by, beings powered by internal-combustion engines.
"We're on the opposite sides in a war. We can't do anything about it that isn't treasonous," said one of the reasons for the animals' alarm. "Your designation's Jazz?"
"Yeah. You're Prowl?"
"Yes. We're enemy soldiers, Jazz. We can't do anything about it."
"You could get the fuck outta my range," the sniper whispered.
Both holoforms turned to stare into the bushes, and the sniper, who had emptied the bottle of Mr. Jameson's Royal Scotch Whisky and begun on the first of two bottles of Mr. Jackson's Not-Even-Illegitimately-Royal Bourbon, stood up and said, "You two get on back to th' house now. You keep your mouths shut 'bout seein' us, else what befell ol' Peterson, in town? It'll happen to y'all."
"Is that so," Prowl said, and commed Hyde.
"Yes, sir, it purely is."
In the house, Aaron Hyde, sent for two shotguns because of the horses' noise, sought a dark corner, so that he could flicker unobserved, and in root mode stood up, perhaps twenty-five feet from the men's sniping stand. Their horses went crazy, and The Coombs barn erupted into the equine equivalent of rumor, gossip, panic, and several of the less reputable CNN commentators.
Ironhide bent down from his twenty-six foot height and snatched up the sniper, who immediately had a childish accident. The giant being, however, did not let this interrupt his plans.
"Get out," Ironhide said, his voice calm and level. "Pack up yer stuff, and go. Don't come back. Colonel Lennox's got powerful friends, you hear? You tell whoever sent you he's off limits. Don't forget it." He set the man back down. "'N by the way, you stink."
There was a scurry in the brush, a thunder of hoofbeats, and a diminishing odor of privy. Ironhide sat back down; his holoform steadied, leaped down the staircase, and reached the Colonel just as he opened the door. Will Lennox said, "Mr. Owler? Miss Trawn? Are you all right?"
"We're fine, Colonel," Mr. Owler said. "Do you have lynx in this area, or perhaps cougar? We saw nothing, but we heard the horses."
"We're too far south for lynx, but we do have the occasional cougar," Will said, coming down the steps. "Mr. Owler, will you escort Miss Trawn back to the house? Your uncle and I will look into the barn, just to check things out." Behind him, bearing two shotguns, Hyde nodded, and commed Prowl, ::Back in a bit. Gotta wash my servos after pickin' up that fella. Organics're disgustin' creatures. You bringin' that one with us, or not?::
Prowl offered Jazz his arm as the other two moved off. "Miss Trawn," he said, as they walked back into The Coombs, "would you consider accompanying me when the party ends tonight?"
"I'll haveta somehow figger out how ta ditch my cousin," the belle replied.
Owler pulled out the map his "uncle" had given him. "I have a plan," he said, and had he been human, would have been dazzled by the smile Miss Trawn turned on him. He was anyway, for other reasons.
LEXINGTON, 1 AM, A SMALL DIRTY INN ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN
The sniper planned ahead, and planned for disaster. That's why the sniper's bag had included a change of clothing. If you are pursued and captured, and you are wearing the garb witnesses describe, you have an almost insurmountable lot of explaining to do.
He was a hardy soul, and the trial of bathing in a stream in the middle of the night had entirely failed to intimidate him.
His boots were wet, soaked through with water in the effort to remove the residue of a previous soaking. His saddle seat was wet. Even his horse had needed a bath.
Given all that, his companion thought, he was remarkably composed. He had rubbed his horse down before stabling it, then come here, downed about half of his first beer, and eaten a sausage, some bread, and a pickle. Now he lit his pipe.
"What are we gonna tell our employers?" said the henchman. He pushed his beer away. He was a rather limited fellow, and seeing that - thing - had not broadened his scope.
"What that thing told us. You did see it too, did you not?"
The henchman shuddered. "Ah purely did."
"It said," the sniper mused, "that Colonel Lennox had protection, and that he was not to be harmed. I think that's information that our employers need. Don't you?"
They needed it, but did not want it: and to prevent its spread, they attempted to have the sniper and the henchman killed. The henchman had not sufficient wit to prevent this, but he corroborated the sniper's story to more than a few people before his wit failed him.
The sniper did have the wit to be the shooter instead of the shootee, and told his story to quite a few of his cronies. His former employers were subsequently unable to interest anyone in taking the contract they put on Colonel Lennox.
THE COOMBS, LAST MUSICIANS' BREAK, 1:30 AM
Miss Jessie Burr Trawn followed her cousin Miss Stella Bellows to the ladies' retiring room, and there they saw to each others' hair and skirts until they were alone. Then Jessie fished a folded paper out of her sleeve, just as Stella said, "That Ironhide! What's he doing here?"
"This's the research him and t'other one have been doin' on findin' energon in this area," Jessie said, handing it to her cousin.
Stella unfolded it, scanned the information, refolded it, and put it into her reticule. "Why did he give you this?"
"He didn't," Jessie said, and flirted her fan. Which was perfectly true; Mr. Owler had made some changes in a copy, and left that particular piece of paper on a table next to Jessie' chair.
Hadn't actually given it to Jessie. Jessie purely liked the smart ones ...
Stella gave her a Look, and said, inspecting the data, "Megatron's going to want this as soon as we can get it to him."
"Gimme ten minutes," Jessie said. "I'll disappear, and you can get so upset that nothin' will do but that you get back to th' hotel. Leave from there."
Stella snorted. "It wouldn't make any difference if we burned this place to the ground on the way out. They've got no weapons that can stand against us."
"Our orders're to stay undercover. You're gonna do as you're told, since I'm th' senior operative here."
The door closed behind Jessie as the musicians struck up for the last time. Stella Bellows took the paper out of her reticule, unfolded it, read it closely once more, and replaced it before following her cousin out into the ballroom.
THE COOMBS, LAST WALTZ, A FEW MINUTES LATER
"Miss Trawn?" said Aaron Hyde, appearing at Jessie' side a few moments later. "I cannot dance, but would you give me the honor of a walk in the gardens?"
"With pleasure, Mr. Hyde," said Jessie, laying her fingers on his arm, and they went out into the warm, sweet-smelling night together.
Once out of sight of anyone looking out the windows, both vanished; two Cybertronians sat down in the deep woods almost halfway up Bald Mountain and eyed each other thoughtfully.
It was Ironhide who broke the silence first. "Guess I owe ya thanks for plantin' that faked-up information where it will do the most good."
Jazz shrugged. "Gets the Screamer back to the Nemesis. When's Prowl gonna join us?"
"A few more minutes. He said it would be 'in character' if he joined in the hunt for Miss Trawn." The taller, older Autobot looked down at the smaller Decepticon, and snorted, "'Jessie Burr Trawn.' 'Jazz Cybertron'? Oughta be ashamed o' yourself." His grin belied this.
"'S no worse'n 'Aaron Hyde.' Or, fer that matter, 'Stella Bellows."
Ironhide considered. "I don't think there's anythin' quite as bad as 'P.R. Owler.'"
Jazz snickered. "No, that one takes a lotta beatin'."
At The Coombs, that very same P. R. Owler stepped outside the house, and called, "Miss Trawn? Uncle?" Getting no reply, he began to search the area.
Ironhide grinned at "Jessie." "So it does," he said, and unsubspaced two cubes of energon. "Here's to th' beginnin' of what might be a beautiful partnership. So why're you joinin' us, anyway? 'S not just fer love, izzit?"
Colonel Lennox joined the search, along with several other men. Stella Bellows stood on the porch, wringing her hands and expostulating.
Jazz touched the cube to Ironhide's, and sipped. "Nah. Things ain't been right in th' ranks fer a long time. Megatron ain't got an army, he's got hisself, and a buncha people he's got terrified into obeyin' him. Even Screamer - Screamer'll tell you he and his trine joined up when th' Decepticons were the only force keepin' th' Senate in check. But th' Prime stood up to 'em eventually, a long time back. I considered leavin' then, but it wouldna been easy on Cybertron. I'd'a been a target once I left, an' useless ta your side because of it. And what can a saboteur do, if he ain't on one side or t'other?"
"Good point," Hyde grunted.
Jazz continued, "Now, on this planet, there's no reason ta stay with th' red-eyes." He smiled as "P. R. Owler" ran out of the house with a lantern, and went into the barn, emerging some minutes later in a small thing that looked like a two-wheeled carriage pulled at a fast gait that might have passed for the trot of a single thing that looked like a horse. Somewhat. The number and sequence of legs were never entirely clear; and Prowl hadn't remembered to make the carriage wheels turn. (It was his first try at an organic alt-mode. Fortunately, the milieu in which he attempted it was not conducive to optimal visual clarity for humans: it was dark out.)
Jazz continued, "No reason anymore ta stay, an' a lotta reasons to leave. Not only is Megatron a disaster as a leader, I never felt about anybody th' way I feel about Prowl." He grinned at Ironhide. "So it ain't just fer love, no. But that's a big part of it."
Ironhide, much more romantic than anyone but Chromia would have given him credit for, nodded.
Colonel Lennox' footman, going into the barn, roused the hired driver and footman, and they got Miss Bellows' carriage ready. The Colonel handed her up into it.
Will and Susannah, forgiving people, thought nothing of Miss Stella Bellows' rudeness: she did not thank them for her invitation, or say it had been a nice ball, but then, she had other things on her mind.
They might have been amazed to know exactly what things.
When it stopped at her hotel in Lexington, the footman opened the door of the carriage to assist her down. He was astonished to find the carriage entirely empty. (Screamer was not good at taking orders, and could see no real reason to delay leaving.)
The sheriff, summoned from his bed, yawned widely, and said he would investigate it in th' mornin'. He took the addresses of the footman and driver, said he was returnin' to his bed, an' in th' meantime, th' driver an' th' footman weren't goin' nowhere, you hear? An' if they did, they'd tell the sher'ff about it first.
In the woods near The Coombs, while all this human activity went on, there was a long silence that neither of the Cybertronians felt impelled to break.
P. R. Owler shouted "Miss Trawn!" at odd intervals from various places. (The organic alt-mode was a pain, and there was no one nearby to see, anyway.) When the lantern gutted out, he returned to The Coombs.
"Mr. Owler?" said Colonel Lennox, coming out to greet him. "Is Miss Trawn safe?"
"I regret to say," Mr. Owler replied, "that she has disappeared entirely. I can only assume that my uncle has abducted her. My deepest apologies, Colonel. I had no idea he was that kind of man." He had struck the Colonel as a pale young man when they first met, but now he was absolutely white.
"Please," Susannah said, coming to stand beside her husband, "come into the house and take some refreshment before you set off for your hotel, Mr. Owler. This is very bad, it's true, but it cannot be helped by making yourself ill."
"I thank you, Mrs. Lennox, but I feel I should await my uncle there. Naturally I wish to speak to him at the very first opportunity. He has a great deal of explaining to do, and I may find myself obligated to call him out." Mr. Owler bowed over her hand, and shook the Colonel's. "Thank you for inviting me," he said, and added truthfully, "It was a very interesting party, and I am much gratified to have come."
Mr. Owler did not get to the rendevous point in root mode quite in time to hear Ironhide say, "What'll ya do if it don't work out between ya?"
Nor was he there in time to hear Jazz reply, "Same thing I was doin' before. I can't support Megatron anymore, an' if we find that me and Prowl don't suit each other, I'll be happy ta work with th' Prime's forces. Like I said, I ain't defectin' only fer love, if that's what you're askin'."
No, Prowl missed that. But he was a practical sort who would not have been dismayed by it.
The Lennoxes never did hear what became of Miss Bellows after she went missing. Nor did they hear of the eventual fate, worse than death or otherwise, of Miss Trawn; they also never heard whether Mr. P. R. Owler found his uncle, and what eventuated thereafter if he did. Just as well, perhaps.
The Colonel never forgot that first ball, as Susannah's composure throughout helped him to rise in the ranks of Lexington society. He re-enlisted in the Union Army with the outbreak of war, and was a Major General by its end.
Susannah, mother eventually of all six of Will's children, did not sail the matrimonial seas again after he preceded her in death. She had several offers, remarkable for a woman in her sixties, but remarked to a friend that her experience with Will had been so sublime she had no confidence it could be improved upon, or even repeated.
Ironhide never did get a chance to fire a shotgun-load's worth of pellets into Starscream's intakes; he brought the subject up to Wheeljack, but the unrifled-barrel weapon wasn't sufficiently technological to pique Jack's interest. Even the kind of nagging only Ironhide could do (which involved putting one servo on the wall by the inventor's head, learning close, charging his shoulder cannon, and asking anxiously how it was goin' with that pellet-discharge weapon, Jack?) failed to provide the inventor with any motivation, and eventually Ironhide himself lost interest.
Jazz never did have to figure out what he would do if his love affair with P. R. Owler didn't work out, because it did: and rather spectacularly well, at that.