A TIME TOO LATE–CHAPTER ONE

Pueblo, Colorado Territory–1875 Colonel Andrew Corley, late of the Confederate army, professed himself to be a happy man. He had a ready suppy of Cuba’s finest cigars in his humidor, a number of bottles of Kentucky’s best bourbon stored in his cellar, the biggest house in Pueblo, Colorado Territory, and a circle of friends who were reasonable honest and, more important, accepted the Colonel at his own face value. If any considered how an officer of a defeated army, a man disenfranchised by the war, his plantation home burned, his slaves freed, his land endangered by the tax collector, all of which the Colonel did not hesitate to describe in fierce and bitter detail, managed to amass a fortune on a raw frontier ten years and more than a thousand miles from his birthright, their curiosity remained unsatisfied. For all his garrulous nature, the Colonel was not a forthright man. “Jubilee,” he said, his mouth twisting so that the black body servant might trim the silky white mustache that he wore paired with a short beard in imitation of Robert E. Lee.  If his resemblance to that honorable gentleman was less striking than he wished, and if it often failed to influence his character, he allowed neither fact to distress him unduly.  A hero, after all, had to live up to standards from the average man might upon occasion claim exemption.  Not that the Colonel considered himself to be either dishonest or dishonorable, but he had learned that both honesty and honor were subject to interpretation.  Within limits, of course, and most of his limits were as rigid as his spine. Other shifted more rapidly than a surveyor could mark them. “Jubilee,” he continued. “A man has corners in his life where no one has a right to poke, especially some of these damn Yankees calling themselves eastern industrialists.  I met one today at the bank, a disgusting example of the lower orders in spite of his fine clothes.  He didn’t know who his family was any further back than his grandmother on his father’s side, but he had the gall to sit in my office and ask me the source of my financial contentment.  As if my capital is tainted!  As if my bank is a financial brothel!  Such behavior shows a lack of breeding.  If I weren’t a gentleman, I would have called him out.” The Colonel slapped his chair for emphasis. Jubilee poured the pan of shaving water into the chamber pot.  “I suspects being a gentleman didn’t have nothing to do with it. You can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, and I suspects that’s what made up your mind. You the worst shot of any white gentleman I ever sen.  I allus figured that any Yankees you shot was ’cause they walked into your bullet.” The Colonel wiped his face and smoothed his mustache.  “You are uppity, Jubilee. Emancipation has eroded your respect for your betters.  I’ll have you know that I enjoyed the admiration of my men during the war.” “I ‘spect you did.  Weren’t no better man with a saber than you.  I remembers one Christmas you was home, musta been Sixty-two ’cause Miss Mattie was barely talking, and the field hands hadn’t up and run off yet, and you was riding old gray gelding down the fence rows and whacking dummies off the posts.  It was a sight, Colonel, your saber flashing in the sun and the pickannies chasing after you.” The Colonel closed his eyes as he remembered.  It had been a glorious Christmas for dreaming.  A time before the defeat he’d anticipated, a time when, to an adoring wife and tiny daughter, to the hundreds and thousands of wives and daughters who had never dragged a gut-shot boy off a battlefield and watched him die, who’d never seen blood from a thousand dead puddle on the ground like rainwater, a man with a saber and honor might yet win the day. He smiled bitterly and opened his eyes to meet those of Jubilee.  “Now, if the Yankees had just been gentlemen and fought with sabers, Jubilee, you’d still be a slave, and I’d own some Yankee’s dirty factory, and then where would we both be?” Jubilee held up a clean linen shirt with heavily starched collar and cuffs.  “I ‘spect I’d still be uppity, and you’d still be a bad shot.” The Colonel leaned his head back and laughed.  “I suspect you’d be right, Jubilee.  Pour us a glass of that fine bourbon, and we’ll drink to change and to that highway robbery you commit every month when you draw your salary.” The black man carefully hung the shirt over the back of a chair and poured a generous measure of  liquor into two glasses and set the decanter back on the bureau.  “It ain’t highway robbery.  I is free.” The Colonel took his glass and studied the other man, noticing the gray that twisted through the black hair, the lines that crinkled around his eyes, and felt his own approaching age reflected in Jubilee’s face.  “None of us are free.  Some men just design their own cages while others must take what is given them.  I’ve known very few who escape.  I, for example, am a southern gentleman, a man of family and breeding and honor.  I have antecedents, and a sense of  what is fitting.” “Then how come you drinking with me?  That ain’t fitting where we come from.” “You have an annoying habit of interrupting my philosophical discourses, Jubilee.  I was about to say that you are an ex-slave, and we are both locked into our separate identities tighter than a hog in a pen.  The world we grew up in is gone, yet we cling to what we remember, act out our roles as if the play had not been canceled.  Why do you suppose we do that?” asked the Colonel, sipping his bourbon. “We likes to fool people, Colonel,” answered Jubilee, draining his glass.  “You rode off to war in that gray uniform, looking real jaunty with your saber and a feather in your hat, but you never turned over all your money like the rest of the white gentlemen did.  Shipped your cotton to England in sixty, sixty-one, and sixty-two.  Never said a word to nobody about what you was doing, just held that cotton in them English warehouses until after Marse Lee surrendered.  Some folks might say you cheated the Confederacy.” The Colonel felt a quiver of shame.  But only a quiver, and that only in the deepest part of his soul, where a man keeps his love of lost causes.  “And what do you say, Jubilee?” The ex-slave set his glass down and picked up the starched white shirt again.  “I says you was smarter than the rest of the gentlemen.  We never went hungry after the war like most folks did.” “I always hedge my bets, Jubilee.  My heart was in the war, but my cotton wasn’t.”  He took a last sip of bourbon, set his glass down, and stood up to be helped into his shirt.  “But I’m still a southerner.  I just don’t happen to be a bankrupt southerner.” Jubilee handed him a black, broadcloth waistcoat, ignoring his grimace of distaste.  The Colonel still disliked the new style of matching waistcoat with frock coat, often saying such unrelieved black reminded  him of undertakers.  “And I’s still your body servant.  I just don’t happen to be a slave no more.  But we pretends like nothing changed ’cause there ain’t no place in this world where we can be what we is.” The Colonel buttoned his waistcoat without moving his eyes away from the other man.  “And who might we be?” “If you was black, or I was white, we’d be friends, Colonel,” answered Jubilee. The Colonel turned the idea over in his mind.  Since the war he’d often felt closer to Jubilee than to any white man, but if their former relationship no longer existed, some vestige of who he was–who they both had been–still remained.  He glanced around the room at the flocked wallpaper, the four-poster bed, the mahogany bureau and matching highboy, the windows hung with velvet drapes over lace, the chairs, but only recognized the scarred campaign chest he’d carried with him during the war.  All else seemed unfamiliar, too raw, too new, in spite of being several years old.  Suddenly he longed for his gracious plantation home with its walls and furnishings mellowed by generations, and ached with a sense of tradition lost, burned to ashes and scattered by the wind. Slowly he turned to Jubilee.  “But I’m not one, and you’re not the other.” “That’s a fact, Colonel.” The Colonel tucked his watch into his waistcoat pocket and hesitated, then clasped the other man’s shoulder.  “Jubilee, I wish. . .” “If wishes was horses, then beggars would ride.  That’s what Missus Amanda was allus saying.” The Colonel gritted his teeth against another wave of aching loss at the mention of his wife.  Dead of pneumonia their first winter in Pueblo, Amanda Stryker Corley had been the last and most beautiful of his traditions lost.  Barely fifteen to his thirty-five when they married, she had been more child than woman, and he’d bedded her infrequently, pumping out his lust as quickly as possible, afraid he would hurt her delicate body.  He often wondered if he had hurt her in spite of his care, but never asked.  It was not a fitting subject to discuss with a wife.  She was modest, soft-spoken, a gracious hostess who welcomed his friends with a maturity beyond her years, and if he’d often sat at the opposite end of the dining table, watching her bnare shoulders glow in the candlelight and fantasizing about touching her naked breasts, it was his unworthy urge, and not anything she’d done to tempt him. When Mattie was born in the early spring of 1860, he’d given Amanda a necklace of matchred pearls and spared her his attentions until one night he’d caught her looking at him out of those enormous golden eyes with an expression that in any other woman might be called wanting.  Sweating and nervous as a lad with his first woman, he’d entered her room and her bed to find a shy but eager lover. They had never talked about their mutual pleasure either. “Colonel, is you all right?’ Jubilee’s voice pulled him away from the void that even yet left him feeding on his bitterness.  He released the blavck man’s shoulder and staggered to the bureau to pour more bourbon with a shaking hand.  He drank the liquor in a few swallows and pointed his finger at his ex-slave.  “I gave you my family name when the war was over because every free man needs to names, didn’t I”  Tried to leave you behind with your own people when I came west, and didn’t you refuse to stay?  I ruined a good suit of clothes diving into the Missouri to pull you out when you fell off the wagon while we were crossing the river, didn’t I?  I dug an Indian arrow out of your shoulder, bound you up like you were a white man, didn’t I?  Put you in my own wagon with my own wife to nurse you when the infection set in?  And didn’t you carry me out of the mountains on your back when I broke my leg prospecting?” He poked Jubilee’s chest with his finer.  “My father gave you to me when we were five years old.  Fifty years we’ve been together.  There will be no more talk of if I was another color, or you were.”  His voice lowered.  “There will be no more talk of friends.  We’re a tradition, Jubilee, the only goddamn one the Yankees and death didn’t take away from me.” Jubilee picked up the Colonel’s frock coat and helped him into it.  “They didn’t take away your cotton neither.” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder at the black man.  “Are you being uppity again?” Jubilee tugged at the Colonel’s coat until the shoulder seams lay straight.  “Cotton a tradition, too.” The Colonel glanced through his bedroom window at the bleak mountains looming a scant distance to the west, their jagged peaks not softened by the snow that covered them.  But then Colorado was not a soft land.  “Cotton doesn’t grow in this country, Jubilee.” “Maybe tradition don’t grow too good here neither,” said the black man, picking up the Colonel’s soiled linen and hanging up his discarded trousers to be brushed and pressed for another day.  He nodded toward the window.  “Mr. Hunter’s come for supper again.” The Colonel walked to the window and twitched aside the lace curtain to look down at Samuel Hunter.  He ruthlessly tempered his distaste for the younger man’s foppish appearance in his yellowish-brown nankeen trousers, gold-and-green waistcoat over a ruffled shirt, and a brown frock coat with velvet lapels.  That Hunter’s cravat was loosely tied in a bow after the style preferred by George Armstrong Custer only added to the Colonel’s dislike for the young man.  No respectable southerner would copy the apparel of a Yankee, particularly one whose reputation exceeded his abilities. The Colonel considered the possibility, faint though it was, that his own sartorial standards had been compromised by his exposure to such frontier apparel as fringed buckskins, rough wool or corduroy pants, remains of cavalry uniforms, and those copper-riveted, denim trousers called Levi’s worn by hard-rock miners and other rough sorts. After the stench of his own sweat and Jubilee’s those years he’d spent rushing from strike to strike in these Colorado mountains, from one rough, filthy mining town to another, tunneling underground like a mole, developing a claim, then selling it before the ore played out, until he decided banking was a more fit way for a fastidious gentleman to make a living.  There as a slight chance he was overly sensitive to the scent of a man’s hair pomade. On the other hand, he doubted that either his fellow citizens’ rough clothing or their irregular bathing habits had seriously affected his judgment.  He sighed and clapped his ex-slave on the shoulder.  “The fact is, Jubilee, that Samuel Hunter looks too pretty to piss.  But I would not misjudge him on that account.  He has found favor in my daughter’s eyes, and for that reason alone we must welcome him.  At least, until her vision clears.” “I wouldn’t put no money on that, Colonel.  Miss Mattie ‘pears to be plumb happy being blind,” said Jubilee. “Nonsense.  Mattie is a child, and a very dutiful child.  She’ll be guided by my firm hand and wiser head.  We’ll soon see the back of Mr. Samuel Hunter.” “I gots a month’s wages coming this Saturday night, Colonel.  I wants to bet it all on Miss Mattie.” The Colonel frowned.  “I don’t encourage gambling by servants, Jubilee.  It is the first step toward more serious crime, such as laziness.  However, in the interest of teaching you a much-needed lesson in respect for the judgment of your betters, I shall accept your wager.  Just don’t take on when you lose.”  He gave his waistcoat a final tug and walked to the door, glancing back impatiently at his body servant.  “Stop dallying and open the door, Jubilee.  I don’t wish my daughter to spend time alone with that young nitwit.” Jubilee shuffled forward at a snail’s pace.  “You broke your arm, Colonel, that this poor oldf nigger gots to open the door for you?” The Colonel arched his bushy white eyebrows.  “One of your less endearing traits, Jubilee, is your habit of acting like a put-upon servant whenever you disagree with me.  Get along with you and offer Mr. Hunter a drink.” “What’s you gonna be doing whiles I’s in the parlor watching to see that the snake don’t get in your hen-house?” asked Jubilee, holding open the door for the Colonel. The Colonel sauntered through and waited for the  black man to follow him.  “I’ll be waiting in my  office for my own guests to arrive.  I’ve invited Charlie Goodnight and his charming wife to supper.” “How come you ain’t waiting in the parlor?” “With Mr. Hunter?” asked the Colonel, plucking a cigar from his waistcoat pocket and inhaling its rich aroma before lighting it.  “I’ve suffered that young man’s presence in my parlor and at my table every night and twice on Sunday for a week.  I need a respite.  I will await reinforcements in the person of Charlie Goodnight.  Even a young pup like Samuel Hunter will cease his yapping in Goodnight’s presence.” He puffed a moment on his cigar, pleased with his strategy.  In spite of being a Texan, Goodnight was an honest and forthright man.  He could trust the cattleman to give Hunter his comeuppance, if need be, and he could enjoy his baked ham and pecan pie without having to bite his tongue a dozen times during the meal. He squeezed Jubilee’s shoulder.  “Go see to  our guest’s needs.  I’ll not abuse my tradition of southern hospitality bny neglecting to quench a man’s thirst.” “That Mr. Hunter, he look right through me likes I wasn’t there.  I ends up by asking Miss Mattie what he wants, and then he tells her, and she tells me.” The Colonel felt a flash of impatience mixed with guilt.  “If you dislike Mr. Hunter so much, why did you make that ridiculous wager?” Grasping the banister and creeping down the stairs a step at a time, Jubilee continued to scowl.  “Most of my life I worked for nothing, so when I sees a chance to make me some money, I takes it.  But that don’t mean I wants to win.  It just means I ain’t gonna lose, ’cause you a hard man ‘cept for Miss Mattie.  Yes, suh, I gonna win, but I don’t likes it, just like I don’t like that Mr. Hunter.  Butter won’t melt in that man’s mouth.” “Your comments about  my guest aren’t fitting, Jubilee,” said the Colonel, feeling his temper slip another notch.  “You are forgetting your place.” “Yes, suh,” replied Jubilee, halting at the bottom of the stairs.  “Something musta got in me.  I reckons I’d go take my place pourin’ your fine bourbon down your guest’s gullet.” The black man walked across the polished wooden floor of the entrance hall toward the parlor, his shoulders not quite so straight and his head slumped forward, and the Colonel felt a queer jolt inside his chest.  He stopped on the bottom step of the staircase. “Jubilee!” The black man turned around, his head tilted slightly back to look up at the Colonel, his eyes guarded by ancients wrongs. “Yes, suh, Colonel?” “Jubilee, I—” He snapped his lips closed.  He didn’t like Samuel Hunter any more than Jubilee did, but damn it all, he couldn’t allow his ex-slave to criticize a white man.  Nor apologize for taking him to task about it either.  He shook his head. “Nothing.” Jubilee turned away, but not before the Colonel saw something flare up in his black eyes, then fade away like hope extinguished.  “Then I best be seeing to Mr. Hunter’s thirst if you don’t  want nothing.” The Colonel waved him away.  Damn Jubilee anyway.  Stir a man up with talk about what ought to be when he needs to be thinking about what is.  “I’ll be4 along directly, Jubilee, as soon as the Goodnights arrive.” “You’d best chew some mint before they gets here.  Colonel Goodnight ain’t much of a drinking man atall, and you smells like a pig that’s been swilling at a trough of corn squeezing.” The Colonel glared at the back of Jubilee’s head, then walked down the broad hall toward the back of the house.  Maybe the cook had some dried mint.

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