Faye Longchamp was surprised at herself. She was working on a dream project, excavating a plantation site to find the subtle traces left by its slaves as they lived their lives. Perhaps today she would find a worn tool, mended many times, or a handmade toy or a chipped bowl. Those things spoke to her of life and the passage of time, and they appealed to the romantic soul that she pretended she didn’t have.
So why couldn’t she stop thinking about the battlefield behind her? Faye hated battlefields.
As a rule, Faye’s worklife revolved around the day-to-day routine of ordinary human beings. She wanted to know how people lived in the past. She wasn’t much interested in the details of how they killed each other. History teachers who forced students to memorize the dates of every last battle in every single war made Faye nuts. Not to mention the fact that she fell into the political camp that considered war to be a waste of perfectly serviceable human beings.
She understood that wars could be fought with noble motivations. For example, she agreed with most of the world that Hitler and slavery had both been blights upon humanity. But that didn’t mean she wanted to spend her career digging up cannonballs that had killed a few teenaged soldiers before crashing to the ground. “Faye.” The sound of her name brought Faye back from the long-ago battle. When Nina spoke, Faye listened, because Nina only talked when she had something to say.
Nina Thibodeaux, her assistant for this job, was capable of working as single-mindedly and silently as Faye did. And that was saying something.
When there weren’t any tourists around, chatting with each other and gabbing on cell phones and wandering too close to the tape cordoning off Faye’s excavation, it was quiet here at this grassy park where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. In fact, it was strikingly quiet, considering its location between a busy highway and a river thick with cargo ships. On the rare occasion that either woman spoke, the sound was as out-of-place as a marching band in a graveyard…and since the battlefield grounds butted up to a military cemetery, that image wasn’t far off the mark.
Nina stood up and brushed her dirty hands on her jeans. “I’m going to take a break.”
Faye was almost as startled as she would have been if Nina had sauntered away, snarling, “I’m cutting out for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll be back tomorrow. Dock my salary. See if I care.”
Nina never ever took a break that Faye didn’t suggest. Once, Faye had been so engrossed in her work that she’d forgotten about lunch until nearly two. Nina had never said a word.
Faye met few people whose work ethic matched hers. Most people thought her laser-like focus was strange. Maybe even a little scary. Nina could match Faye, minute by minute, in her single-minded scrutiny of every grain of sand and every dried-up twig that her odd blunt-nosed trowel brought out of the unit she was excavating.
Faye, like most archaeologists, liked a sharp point on her trowel for detail work and a razor-sharp edge for maintaining clean vertical walls. Nina, who was not one to follow the crowd, used an oversized margin trowel without a point. It looked something like a steel spatula with a cushy red handle. This meant that her co-workers started ragging her about how stupid it looked whenever boredom threatened to set in. This happened every day, along about ten-thirty.
The jokes weren’t all that creative, and they always came from the same source, Faye’s field tech Dauphine. Most days she warmed up with the same tired line. “Gonna flip some scrambled eggs with that thing?”
This line wasn’t just tired; it was a bit geeky. “Scrambled eggs” was slang for the garbled soils in an excavation where the sides have caved in. It was well-nigh impossible to interpret soils that had been reduced to “scrambled eggs,” and it was well-nigh impossible for Nina and her spatula-like tool to avoid hearing that question every damn day.
Nina didn’t mind. She seemed to enjoy the camaraderie implicit in being the butt of insider jokes, so Faye figured she wasn’t derelict in her supervisor’s duties when she let the laughter happen.
Heck. Blunt-nosed trowels weren’t even all that bizarre—Faye had a good handful of friends who used them at least some of the time—so the teasing was fairly pointless. It just gave Faye’s tiny three-person team a reason to laugh together, and she couldn’t see anything wrong with that.
It was obvious that Nina didn’t have the slightest interest in being cool, since she somehow managed to find clothes that were even less flattering than Faye’s army surplus finery. Nina was the last person Faye would expect to follow the crowd, yet the crowd seemed to like her anyway.
Faye didn’t care one whit that Nina didn’t have much to say, and that neither her clothes nor her trowel looked the least bit hip. She understood the woman. And she liked her, too.
Nina’s quick glance over one shoulder gave Faye an inkling of why her assistant had suddenly needed to recharge her batteries. A 1960s-era American car, probably some variety of Ford, was parked by the visitor’s center. Its chromium yellow paint job shone mirror-bright. It had the muscled look of a car that was supported by a ton of steel and powered by a gasoline-sucking engine with more cylinders than it strictly needed.
A man stood beside the car. Wind blew across the open battlefield through dark blond hair that was just long enough to move in the breeze. He wasn’t tall and, though he wasn’t ugly, he wasn’t particularly handsome. Still, he had a wide grin visible from twenty paces, and he leaned against his car’s solid fender with a relaxed insouciance. New Orleans was overrun with men like him—men whose appeal to women rested solely on charm and swagger and manners so courtly as to be anachronistic.
He waved to Nina, and she went pink with pleasure. Faye was tickled to see it. Even she wasn’t as relentlessly serious as Nina. “Go! And leave your stupid-looking trowel here.” Faye flapped her hands as if to push Nina away from her work. “Take your time. Take a long lunch, if you want to. Who is he?” “Charles? Oh, I dated him a while ago. I have no idea why he’s back, but…well, I don’t much care.”
Nina fluffed her shoulder-length hair, then she walked toward Charles a little too quickly for a woman hoping to look nonchalant. Faye had never thought of Nina as the hair-fluffing type. Nina was the kind of person who would rank third in her class, but never first. Nothing about her called attention to itself—not her mid-brown hair, nor her freckled skin, nor her small hazel eyes squinting behind her rimless glasses. When she graduated, top employers would probably pass her over in favor of blunt-spoken students with lower grades but better self-promotion skills, and it would never even occur to Nina to ask why. Maybe a glowing letter of recommendation from Faye would make a difference when the time came. The glow that
Charles brought to Nina’s face might make a difference, too.
Charles greeted her by putting a hand on her waist. Then he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. Faye was too far away to really see the woman’s skin tone, but body language told her that Nina went even pinker with Charles’ touch.
The hand stayed right where it was until Charles had finished steering Nina toward the Ford’s passenger door and opening it for her. Faye’s fiancé, Joe Wolf Mantooth, had a country boy’s old-fashioned manners, but this guy was smooth. Maybe a little scary-smooth, but that was Nina’s business.
Dauphine, a field tech whose skills made Faye’s life a world easier, pretended she hadn’t noticed her seasoned colleague suddenly revert to being a girl. Faye listened to the subtle roar of the aging car’s well-maintained engine as Charles steered it around the loop road and out of the park.
“Well, Dauphine,” Faye said, picking up her own trowel with its properly pointed tip. “Something tells me that we’re on our own for a while.”
# # #
Chalmette, the site of Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory, wasn’t like other battlefields. At least, Faye didn’t think so. She avoided battlefield parks when at all possible, but she’d suffered through classes under history professors who took their students to every battleground within reach. The more ardent among them spent class time showing videos of their vacations to faraway scenes of war. Faye didn’t have much patience for touring an open expanse that looked more or less like a pasture, just because some shooting happened there once.
Chalmette was different because she could see why it was more important than your average cow pasture. She could stand on the earthen wall that the Park Service had constructed to show tourists what a “rampart” looked like and look downriver at the wide plain where the British had massed themselves, waiting to strike. To her right flowed the unruly Mississippi, barely contained by its levee. Upriver stood the modern city of New Orleans, where it had guarded the Mississippi and its wealth for nearly three hundred years. And to her left, commercial development along St. Bernard Highway brought the 21st century right to the 19th-century battlefield’s back door.
But behind her…behind her was the ground where the outnumbered Americans stood against an invasion that could have killed their fledgling country—and that long-ago army had been sadly short on trained soldiers.
Northern volunteers had floated downriver for this fight. Storied “Kaintuck” marksmen and Choctaws had gathered here, too. Slaves had fought beside their masters. And the pirates…
Faye smiled to think how Jean Lafitte’s notorious privateers had proven themselves as artillerymen and patriotic Americans, when they might have sold Jackson’s army to its enemies. They’d certainly had the opportunity when the British army offered Lafitte the Pirate a fortune to turn traitor.
Instead, he’d provided the Americans with gunpowder by the shipload, as well as the all-important flints. Flintlock rifles could hardly be expected to fire without them.
This was fascinating stuff, but the battlefield hadn’t brought her here, and it was the park employees’ business to explain its significance to the tourists traipsing through. The antebellum plantation sites just behind the American line had been the lure.
Faye knew her professional attention span could be short, because she was interested in pretty much everything. If she kept frittering away her energy on romantic musings about long-ago wars, she’d never finish this job, she’d never pick a dissertation topic, and she’d never get out of school.
Still, the sense of history that pervaded this place stirred her. She’d never worked at a site where history-book-level events took place. It was hard to wrap her brain around the notion that the larger-than-life personalities of Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte had walked this very ground, but she was having a lot of fun trying.
Joe was going to love it here.
She hadn’t seen her fiancé in a month, and it felt like a whole lot longer, but he was on his way. He’d arrive by sundown, six or seven hours, tops. It wasn’t such a long time, really, but it was.
She turned as the young park ranger, Matt Guidry, approached. “It’s just Faye. I’m still a year or two away from that Ph.D.” And insisting that everyone call her “Doctor” when she did finally graduate would feel unbelievably stuffy. “I’m sorry, Matt. I interrupted you. Did you need me?”
His wide gray-blue eyes made her want to reach out and mother him. “Did you still want to go with me during your lunch break? To look at my neighborhood?”
She’d been so distracted by a long-ago war that she’d forgot- ten something she was actually looking forward to doing. Well, “looking forward” wasn’t the right way to describe a visit to the scene of such destruction. But she did want to do this.
Matt’s mostly Cajun family came from a storytelling culture. This gave an unmistakable flair to his stories, like the one about the wind-torn night when his parents were plucked off a suburban rooftop that barely poked through Katrina’s floodwaters. Matt had described his ruined neighborhood—and the people trying to rebuild it—so vividly that Faye had wanted to see it all for herself.
“Yes, Matt. I do want to go with you. Very much.”