Serpent Daughter – Snippet 16


Charlie Donelsen spat tobacco juice through one of the many gaps in his teeth. His aim was true and his shot was long, as they sang of the Lion of Missouri, and he launched the brown gob across the wooden trestle table and hit the roots of an azalea bush in violet bloom.

“I heard tell as Gaspard le Moyne has jest up sticks and left.” The Donelsen Elector’s voice was so high-pitched, he probably had to drop it an octave if he wanted to sing.

A band, with hurdy-gurdy, banjo, and snare drum, rollicked through a long foot-tapper while the preacher, a long-haired young man with a sweaty face who stared at the ceiling of the tent every time he opened his mouth, sang the lead. Cal clapped along with the music, politely, but not too loud.

He and Donelsen stood in a Sunday tent meeting, near the back of the hot part of the crowd, the part that danced and sang and felt the spirit, and therefore made a lot of noise. The cooler New Light enthusiasts clustered around the punch and cookies tables at the back of the large tent. They met here because the noise would cover their conversation, and because it ought to make any spies the emperor sent after them stand out like bulls in a herd of sheep.

Olanthes Kuta stood by the tent entrance, holding a glass of punch but not drinking from it. He looked every bit the Ohioan foreigner in his long tunic, leggings, and high boots, to say nothing of his pale complexion and the straight sword hanging at his belt. On the other side of the tent door stood one of Charlie Donelsen’s boys, a young man named John, who had a long knife in each boot and two pistols at his waist.

You’ll need a lawyer at the judgment, hallelujah

You’ll need a lawyer at the judgment, hallelujah

Don’t matter who you are, you’ll need Jesus at the bar

You’ll need a lawyer at the judgment, hallelujah

A woman in gingham, with a chin that poked out past the tip of her nose, cried “Jesus, represent me!” and swooned into the arms of her neighbors. Barton Stone followers made up part of this New Light crowd, and they expected this sort of thing.

“I been in that palace,” Cal said. “That’s a lot of sticks to move.”

“I expect he left the palace behind,” Donelsen reckoned. “New Orleans had become an inhospitable locale for him.”

Cal had heard of Le Moyne’s departure — the Philadelphia news-papers had been full of it. “Treason, I guess. Impeaching him ought to be a cakewalk.”

“Problem is they’s too many places to send my boys to.” Donelsen spat again. “Got some of ’em watchin’ out for me here, some of ’em watchin’ the family, but where else do I send ’em?”

“Sarah Calhoun’s still fightin’ the beastkind on the west bank of the Mississippi,” Cal said. “Not to mention the emperor’s armies massin’ in the Ohio. Lord hates a man as won’t help his kin afore he goes a-helpin’ strangers.”

Logan Rupp joined them, mouth full of cookies and a glass of punch in each hand. He beamed. His blocky physique and the powdered sugar in his abundant jaw whiskers made him look like Father Christmas.

Donelsen nodded enthusiastically. “That’s a true sayin’, and Sarah’s closer kin to me’n Tommy Penn, that’s for sure. She’s closer kin to me’n the Memphites, or Kimoni Machogu, or either of them fellers as is runnin’ the show down in New Orleans. But sometimes, you got to deploy your forces in a manner that ain’t obvious. Indirect force. Where do I send my boys so as to do the most good for Sarah, not to mention the Donelsen family, and the empire in general?”

“I met that feller in New Orleans,” Cal said.


“The other one. The bishop. Only he wasn’t bishop then, he was a gangster.”

Donelsen laughed. “I expect he still is. Hell, if they wasn’t always a fine line between a bishop and a gangster, they wouldn’t be no New Light.”

Logan Rupp swallowed his mouthful of cookie. “Ah, it makes me feel right at home, hearing the word feller.”

Charlie Donelsen’s eyes flashed irritation. “I thought you’s a Philadelphia lawyer as got lost and accidentally wound up among the honest folk of Nashville.”

Cal chuckled. “No, Charlie, he’s tellin’ us he’s a Jew.”

You’ll need a friend in Jesus, hallelujah

You’ll need a friend in Jesus, hallelujah

Come the day you die, you’ll meet Jesus in the sky

You’ll need a friend in Jesus, hallelujah

Rupp frowned and took a deep drink of punch. “I have nothing against any honest member of the Israelite nation, as I have nothing against any honest member of any other kindred. But I have no notion of how you can have arrived at such an erroneous conclusion, or, if I may be permitted to employ a common colloquialism of my adopted hometown, Nashville: How do you reckon that, Cal?”

Cal shrugged. “Simple. “The word feller makes you feel at home. Feller is a biblical word. Who wrote the bible, Logan? Mebbe it ain’t written in your law books this way, but in Sunday School they taught me as it was the Jews.”

Logan Rupp snorted. “Feller is not a biblical word.”

“Bet you ten shillin’s it is.”

“Just because you heard one of your Kissing Campbells talk about what a feller ought to do to gain the Kingdom of Heaven from the preaching stump does not mean that the word feller is in the bible.”

“I ain’t much of a reader,” Cal admitted. “Ain’t really read but the one book. Still, I remember it pretty well. I bet you twenty shillin’s the word feller is in the bible.”

Rupp glowered.

“What you got to lose?” Charlie Donelsen barked. “You got your room and board with Cal, don’t you? You’re gittin’ paid, ain’t you? Hell, you might win twenty shillin’s. Iffen you’re worried Cal ain’t good for it, I’ll stand guarantor.”

“The word feller is not in the bible.” Rupp spoke deliberately, carefully enunciating each word. “I’ll take your bet.”

Cal spit into his palm. Reluctantly, Rupp did the same, and they shook hands.

“Well?” Rupp asked.

“Isaiah fourteen,” Cal said. “Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us.”

Logan Rupp’s eyes bulged out and he slowly turned purple.

“Easy there, Rupp,” Donelsen said. “You’re a young man yet to die of a burst blood vessel.”

You’ll need someone to back you, hallelujah

You’ll need someone to back you, hallelujah

Your soul is deep in pawn, you’ll need him to go your bond

You’ll need someone to back you, hallelujah

“I didn’t mean that kind of feller,” Rupp rumbled.

Cal shrugged. “Jerusalem, then you should a said so. You ain’t got to pay me now, Rupp, tomorrow’ll do. Iffen you’re feelin’ tight for cash, I’ll jest take it off your bill.”

Logan Rupp ground his teeth. “I feel . . . pleased to have such a cunning client.”

“I ain’t your client,” Cal said, “Iron Andy is. And I wouldn’t call him clever so much as terrifyin’. But what’re you doin’ here, Rupp? I didn’t figure you for a churchgoer.”

“Speaking of Andrew Calhoun . . .” Rupp reached inside his jacket and produced a folded sheet of paper. It was battered and yellow, and some of the ink on it had bled, as if the paper had been exposed to rain. “We’ve received a message from him.”

“What, by post?” Cal frowned. “That seems odd.”

“It was some Calhoun I don’t know.” Rupp shook his head. “He left the letter for you, but he wouldn’t stay. He said he had to get back urgently to Calhoun Mountain. I gather big things are happening, so I came right here with the letter.”

“You ain’t read it, then?”

Logan shook his head.

Cal took the letter and turned about slowly, looking for unfamiliar eyes on him. He saw more swooners, and dancers, and the sweaty young preacher rattling through another verse. He unfolded the letter and read it.

Calvin Calhoun

I have information to communicate to you about your aunt, which may also affect your bill of particulars in the Assembly. Meet me on the Feast of the Ascension in Youngstown, at a tavern called the Blue Goose.

Andrew Calhoun, Elector

He’d never received a letter from his grandpa before, but Lord hates a man as can’t adapt to the times. Being New Light, Cal didn’t always have the strongest grip on saints’ days and feast days, and he didn’t rightly remember when the Feast of the Ascension was.

“Charlie,” he said. “Remember me a bit of calendar. Feast of the Ascension, that’s what, forty days after Easter?”

Charlie Donelsen nodded. “May twenty-fourth this year.”

“A good omen.” Rupp nodded. “Ascent into heaven after the forty-day ministry.”

“Good to know you ain’t totally godless, Rupp.” Cal grinned, but he was distracted.

“What happens on the Feast of the Ascension?” Rupp asked.

“You and I got a meetin’,” Cal said. “You and I and Olanthes Kuta.” He beckoned to the Firstborn warrior, who discreetly checked the tent door and then walked his direction.

“The Elector’s coming to Philadelphia?” Rupp frowned. “But I thought the whole point of his proxy was that you would do the work here.”

“We’ll meet him in Youngstown,” Cal said. “Which don’t leave us much time. Better git packed.”