“We agree for once,” Skull said. “What we need—“ she paused as three men approached. One was a big man, two inches over six feet, with broad shoulders. He had a dark beard and, in the dim lights from the boat, his black eyes glittered with intelligence and danger. He had a curved cavalry saber dangling from his waist, an incongruous image on the riverboat. The second man was not quite as tall but also big, in the way of one who enjoyed his food, his belly bulging, his face swollen from drink. The man between them was much smaller and looked like a river rat cornered and trapped.
“You must be Skull,” the tall man said, sticking out a powerful hand.
Skull took the handshake, feeling the squeeze and returning it as hard as she could with her callused hand. “Forrest.” She recognized the fat man. “Father Declan. It’s been a while.”
“Ah, now lass, I’m no longer with the church,” Declan said. “I found my faith lagging and thought it best to move on with me life. Whatever happened to the pretty young thing that was with you in Banquete?”
“Why you asking?”
“Ah, she was quite the blossoming flower—“ Declan began but Forrest waved a hand, cutting him off as he turned to the man between them. He gripped the back of the man’s neck. The man gasped as Forrest lifted him to his toes.
“Found out this piece of horseshit has been stealing from me,” Forrest said. “Running a loose table in the gambling parlor and skimming the take.”
The man started to protest but Forrest silenced him by smacking him in the face with his other hand, drawing blood from a split lip.
“I’m a fair man,” Forrest said, his focus on St. George and Skull. “But I’m not a man to be crossed.” He tossed the thief to the deck. “Fair means you get a chance to fight. That’s the law of the river.” He gestured at Declan. “Give him your knife.”
Declan pulled a foot long knife from his belt and tossed it to the man. Forrest reached to his own waist and drew the heavy cavalry saber. It was unusual, sharpened on both sides, so he could slash in either direction with equal effect.
“That aint fair!” the man protested.
“It’s as fair as a thief gets,” Forrest said. He raised the saber and the man scrambled to his feet, the knife held with trembling hand.
“Please, Mister Forrest, I swear on my mother I aint ever again going to—“ he didn’t get a chance to finish as Forrest swung the heavy saber. The razor sharp edge caught the man in the neck and passed through skin, muscle and bone easily, separating head from body.
The momentum of the strike threw the head out into the darkness, to splash into the dark waters of the Mississippi. The body fell to its knees, blood spurting from a still beating heart, then crumpled onto the deck.
“You think maybe his eyes still seeing?” Forrest mused as he wiped the saber off on the man’s coat. “Maybe his head’s drowning while his body’s still bleeding?” He stepped over the body and grabbed a crate. He slid the saber back in its scabbard and took a seat. Declan joined them.
“Mister Forrest, this here St. George Dyer,” Skull said.
Forrest shook St. George’s hand. “Y’all know what the fools in charge got planned for the cotton?”
“Do now,” St. George replied.
Forrest grabbed the bottle without asking. “So what do you have planned?” he asked Skull.
“New Orleans will soon be out,” Skull said. “So we run cotton north and south overland through Mexico.”
Forrest seemed bemused. “North? To the Yankees? We’re at war.”
Skull shrugged. “There’s plenty who don’t care about the war except how they can make some money.”
“Like you,” Forrest said.
“Like me,” Skull agreed.
“You don’t support the cause?” Forrest asked, arcing one thick eyebrow in query.
“The cause will need money,” Skull said.
“True,” Forrest said. “And guns and medicine and a lot of other gear those smart boys in the capitol haven’t thought about yet while they’re busy waving the flag and pounding each other on the back about how honorable they be.”