The Oak Plantation, May 1861
Dark still blanketed the South Carolina coastland on the morning that Trenton Tessier decided he had no choice but to take his revenge against the man who had stolen the woman he loved. His face soured by hours of drinking and a night without sleep, Trenton now slouched in a black leather chair by the stone fireplace in his second-floor bedroom.
“Josh Cain,” he muttered, his tongue thick with the whiskey. “He took Camellia from me. I gave her a proposal of marriage, but she refused. It’s Cain’s fault. I will have my vengeance.”
Trenton’s brother, Calvin, younger by five years, sat in a matching chair across from him. “You’re in no shape to avenge anything,” said Calvin, gesturing toward the wooden peg that started at Trenton’s right knee and ran to the floor. “You’re barely a month past the day you lost . . . since you were shot.”
Trenton took a sip from the silver flask he held and raised up slightly. A man of thin shoulders and short-cropped brown hair, he wore pleated, tan riding pants and a white shirt with a ruffle at the neck. He lifted one of the crutches that lay in his lap and aimed it at a roll-top desk across the room. “Hand me my pistols,” he ordered. “Josh Cain stole what belongs to me. My honor is at stake.”
“Your honor almost got you killed,” Calvin replied.
“Better death than this!” Trenton pointed to his stump. “I’m a laughingstock! The fine Master Trenton Tessier, educated in the best schools the South can offer; heir to The Oak, finest plantation in the lowlands; a man of the highest social station—none of it matters now! Get me the pistols or get out!”
“You’re drunk and crazy from not sleeping,” argued the freckled Calvin, obviously trying to calm his brother’s rage. “Cain is unconscious . . . in no shape to face you.”
“I’m not worried about Cain’s condition.”
“You’d murder him?”
Trenton dropped his eyes, and his head cleared some. Could he go through with this? Had he sunk so low as to harm a man who couldn’t defend himself? Part of him knew this was wrong; maybe he should let it pass.
Trenton took another sip of the whiskey and glanced down at his peg leg again. His eyes blazed as his resolve returned. “Cain deserves it, for what he did to me.”
Calvin stood, moved over, and put a hand on Trenton’s shoulder. “If you want to shoot somebody, it ought to be Hampton York,” Calvin claimed. “He’s the one who shot you in the leg.”
Trenton glared at Calvin, who was the spitting image of their dead father. With his blocky legs and chest, wide hands and feet, thick jowls and thin hair, Calvin wasn’t especially handsome. But he was powerful. If it came to a physical battle right now, Calvin could probably best him—a fact Trenton disliked immensely.
Striking like a mad snake, Trenton jerked Calvin’s hand from his shoulder and bent his fingers backward. “You plan on challenging me on this?” Trenton growled.
Calvin’s mouth twitched in pain. He eyed Trenton as if he wanted to kill him.
Trenton held his brother’s fingers for another minute, then let them go. “Just get me the pistols,” he said again.
Calvin stretched his fingers as Trenton took another drink from the flask. He wondered how much longer he could keep Calvin under his control. Every younger brother eventually tested the elder. Was this the time for him and Calvin?
Although his eyes stayed angry, Calvin finally eased across to the desk and pulled the pistols from the top drawer. Grunting with effort, Trenton stood, tucked the flask in his coat, arranged the crutches under his arms, and took the pistols. “Now, hand me my coat,” he instructed, arranging the pistols in his waistband.
Calvin stepped to a closet, removed a thigh-length black coat, and handed it to Trenton.
Now fully dressed, Trenton stood before the full-length mirror by his bed and stared at his stump. A set of pins held his pants leg in place in a neat fold just above the wooden peg. Underneath the pants the wound oozed a light but steady flow of foul discharge that required constant cleaning. Trenton ground his teeth against the weakness his leg caused him. He was a cripple!
Every night since the duel, he’d prayed, as best as he knew how, that when he woke in the morning, he’d find losing his leg all a terrible nightmare of pain and humiliation, unlike anything a man of his station ought to have to bear. But every morning when he opened his eyes and reached down, he found nothing but air where bone, blood, and skin should have been.
“How do you plan to get to Mr. Cain’s house?” asked Calvin. “It’s half a mile from the manse.”
“I’ll walk,” said Trenton.
“Josh Cain took Camellia from me. How far I have to walk to kill him is of little consequence,” Trenton fired back.
When Calvin wiped his palms on his pants, Trenton stared closely at his brother. He saw fear in Calvin’s eyes. “You have no part in this, so don’t let it rest on your conscience.”
“It’s not my conscience I fear for . . . it’s you.”
Trenton patted Calvin’s back. “Your concern touches me.”
“Captain York will come after you when Cain is dead,” Calvin said.
“I expect so.”
“You want him to come, don’t you?”
“Yes. He, too, owes me a debt that only his death will pay.”
“Your duel with York followed the code. You took your shot but missed. Maybe you should accept that and leave things alone.”
“York knew I had never dueled,” Trenton claimed. “He took advantage of my inexperience.”
“He let you have the first shot,” argued Calvin.
“OK!” snapped Trenton. “I missed! And I have cursed myself a thousand times for it. Then York shot me in the knee.”
“Then you shot Josh Cain,” said Calvin, his voice low and quiet, a hint of accusation in it.
“That was an accident, and you know it! You gave me your pistol; I shot at York but hit Cain.”
Trenton grabbed his flask and swilled down a full swallow, hoping the liquor would jolt him into action. No matter how much he hated Josh Cain, Trenton Tessier had never killed a man, so it would take some doing to follow through.
He glanced hurriedly around the room. His portrait, painted by one of the finest artists in Charleston, hung over his bed. A hand-woven, multicolored Oriental rug lay at the bed’s foot. A basin and pitcher of water sat on a nightstand by the bed. From the ceiling hung a chandelier, its sparkling glass shining from the light of many candles. Would all of this look different when he returned from killing Cain? So what if it did? None of it meant anything anymore. Without Camellia, without his leg, without his honor, who cared what he possessed?
“Mother will not approve of this,” said Calvin, interrupting Trenton’s thoughts.
Trenton snickered at his brother’s efforts to dissuade him. “The great Katherine Tessier!” He chuckled. “For years she paid little attention to me. Left my raising to a darky mammy while she spent her time in Charleston. Mother cared for nothing but her parties, her laudanum, her fine clothes, and fancy furnishings.”
His voice dropped, and a hint of sadness edged in. “Only after Father’s death, only after I became the heir of The Oak did she bother to get involved in my life. I care nothing about her approval.”
“She loves you, Trenton.”
Trenton laughed, but it held no joy. “If she loved me, she would never have accepted Hampton York’s marriage proposal—forcing me to challenge him to a duel for his insult.”
“She had no choice,” said Calvin. “He has money she needs to keep The Oak from the hands of the bankers.”
“York is the overseer here! She might as well mate with a darky.”
“Do you think killing Cain will end plans for the wedding? Is that what’s pushing you?”
“It would be a bonus, yes. York stole his money from us.”
“He says not.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What will happen to The Oak if Mother doesn’t marry York?”
“We’re going to war, so who knows? Either way I don’t need York to save The Oak. If Cain’s death causes him to withdraw his proposal, then I’ll have killed two birds with one stone.” Trenton smiled at the notion and took a drink to celebrate it.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked Calvin, his voice halting.
Trenton lifted a crutch, pushed it hard against his brother’s chest, and backed him up against the wall. Trenton’s eyes narrowed, and a dark stare came into them—cold and unfeeling. “I know what you’re doing,” he hissed. “All these questions—slowing me down, hoping I’ll change my mind. But I am the eldest son, cripple or not. I decide my destiny. Not you, not Mother. And you best not forget that.”
Calvin’s eyes met Trenton’s for a few seconds, then broke away. “Forgive me,” Calvin whispered, his eyes suddenly filled with tears. “But Cain is a helpless man. I see no honor in harming him.”
Trenton eased the crutch to Calvin’s chin and tipped it up so he could see into his brother’s eyes. “I want you to understand,” Trenton soothed. “I love Camellia, and I want her as my wife. But she says she loves Josh Cain. Of course she doesn’t. How could she? But as long as he’s alive, she won’t come to me.”
“I still think it’s wrong.”
Trenton lowered his crutch to the floor. “Who’s to say what is wrong . . . and what is right? Cain will probably die anyway from the bullet I already put in him. I’m simply speeding up his passage.”
Calvin wiped his eyes.
“I’ll return soon,” said Trenton.
“I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
Ignoring his brother, Trenton headed to the door. “I should return within the hour. Then it will be over.”
“I expect it’s just beginning,” whispered Calvin.
Trenton took another drink and hobbled out, his chin set. In his heart, though, he figured Calvin had it right: what he did next would determine his fate—and that of everyone around him—for years to come.