Imagine an American frontier infested with feral hippos. Sound outlandish? It’s not: the U.S. government once considered hippos for meat production. Only Sarah Gailey could bring this alternate history of America to life with such humor, depth, and vibrant detail in River of Teeth, her fantastic fiction debut about the hard-living, knife-wielding mercenary cowboys tasked with taking back the Mississippi from the bloodthirsty ferals who have claimed it.
This is the fun, fast-paced alternate vision of America you never knew you needed, packed with a diverse cast, romance, betrayal, and of course, man-eating hippo mayhem. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge. Available now, River of Teeth is the first in a duology from Tor.com publishing—its sequel, Taste of Marrow, publishes September 12th.
Winslow Remington Houndstooth was not a hero.
There was nothing within him that cried out for justice or fame. He did not wear a white hat—he preferred his grey one, which didn’t show the bloodstains. He could have been a hero, had he been properly motivated, but there were more pressing matters at hand. There were fortunes to be snatched from the hands of fate. There were hors d’oeuvres like the fine-boned young man in front of him, ripe for the plucking. There was swift vengeance to be inflicted on those who would interfere with his ambitions. There was Ruby.
Winslow Houndstooth didn’t take the job to be a hero.
He took it for the money, and he took it for revenge.
The scarred wooden table in front of him was covered in the accouterments of The Deal. The two-page contract, signed and initialed in his cramped handwriting. The receipt for disbursement of funds. A set of five photographs that had been culled from several dozen files: his team, selected after hours of arduous negotiation. There was a round-faced woman, her hair set in a crown of braids; an ink-dark, fine-boned rogue; a hatchet-nosed man with a fussy moustache; and a stone-faced woman with a tattoo coiling up her neck. The latter two were concessions he was already braced to regret. And finally—never last, only ever finally—there was Hounds-tooth himself. The photo didn’t do him justice—he noted that the part in his hair was off-center by at least two centimeters—but he was wearing his finest cravat in the picture, so he’d call it a wash.
And then of course, there was the fat sack of money.
He counted out the thick gold coins, his eyes flicking to the photo of the hatchet-nosed man once every few seconds, and he waited. Now that the negotiations were over—now that his rate and his team had been established, and the money had changed hands—the small talk would begin. It was always the same with these government types. They were deeply confused by the juxtaposition of his vague accent and his eyes. His country’s accent. His parent’s eyes.
“So, where are you from?”
Ah, yes. There it was. They could begin the requisite dialogue about where he was from and where he was from. Houndstooth didn’t look up from the coins.
“Blackpool.” He could have made his tone frostier, but being in the presence of such a lovely stack of hard money warmed him like a milky cup of Earl Grey.
When the agent didn’t immediately respond, Hounds-tooth paused in his counting, placing a mental finger next to the number “four thousand.”
The agent was staring at him with such blue eyes. Such attentive eyes. “You don’t sound British,” the agent said quietly. Houndstooth found himself intrigued by the catch in the young man’s voice.
“Yes, well,” Winslow Houndstooth replied with a crocodile grin. “I suppose my accent’s almost gone by now. I’ve been in Georgia for some time. I came to the States to be a hopper, and once I tasted my first Georgia peach”—he reached across the table to touch the agent’s arm, scattering the photos—“it was just too sweet for me to leave.”
The federal agent’s cheeks reddened, and Hounds-tooth’s smile grew. He didn’t move his hand.
“I do so love the peaches down here.”
Winslow Houndstooth left the federal agent’s office an hour and forty-seven minutes later, smoothing his hair with an elaborately carved comb. He eased the door shut behind him with a small smile.
That young man would need to take a nap for the rest of the afternoon.
The sack of gold coins was heavy, and he divided it evenly into each of Ruby’s saddlebags. She could have carried the weight on one side easily—eight thousand dollars in U.S. government gold would hardly wind her—but it pleased him to know that he was flanked by four thousand dollars on each side.
He swung himself into the kneeling saddle on Ruby’s back. She grunted at him.
Ruby had settled her bulk deep into the water-filled trench next to the hitching post. She wasn’t made for long periods standing on land, although her breed could do it for longer than most. The Cambridge Black hippopotamus was the finest breed in the United States: sleeker, faster, and deadlier than any other hippo on the water. Ruby wasn’t bred for meat; she was a hopper’s hippo, meant for herding her slower, grazing cousins.
Ruby was onyx-black and lustrous; she looked like a shadowy, lithe version of a standard hippo. She stood five feet tall at the shoulder, about the height of a standard Carolina Marsh Tacky—although horses, Tackies included, were rare ever since the Marsh Expansion Project had rendered their thin legs a liability on the muddy, pocked roads. Her barrel chest swung low to the ground over short legs, perfect for propelling her through marshy waters when her rider needed to round up wayward hippos on the ranch. She grumbled on land, but could carry Houndstooth up to ten miles overland between dips in the water—another marker of her superior breeding (her cousins could only do six miles, and that only under duress). Fortunately, she was rarely out of the water that long.
“I know, girlie. I shouldn’t have left you out here by yourself for so long. But you know I just can’t resist blue-eyed boys.” Houndstooth patted Ruby’s flank and she let out a little rumble, standing under him and dripping freely for a few moments. She lifted her broad, flat nose briefly and yawned wide. Her jaw swung open by nearly 180 degrees, revealing her wickedly sharp, gold-plated tusks. They gleamed in the late-afternoon sun. She snapped her mouth shut and lowered her head until her nose nearly brushed the ground as she prepared to head home.
“Yes, alright, I know. Let’s go home, Rubes, and you can keep your judgments to yourself. We need to pack up.”
Houndstooth swayed with her rolling gait as she began to trot. He rubbed a loving hand over her leathery, hairless, blue-black flank, feeling the muscles shifting under the skin. Ruby was sleeker than most hippos, but not by much. Though her livestock cousins had been bred for marbling, her sub-Saharan ancestors carried little excess fat. Their rotund shape belied merciless speed and agility, and Ruby was the apex of those ancient ideals: bred for maneuverability, fearlessness, and above all, stealth. She was dangerous in the water: no gulls dared to plague the marshes she wallowed in, and if one was so foolish as to try to rest on her back, it would quickly be reduced to a cautionary tale for other gulls to tell their children.
“Eight thousand dollars, Ruby. We’ll be able to buy our own little patch of marshland, maybe get you a bull.” Ruby huffed, her nostrils—set squarely on top of her nearly rectangular snout—flaring with impatience. Her round ears didn’t turn toward the sound of his voice, but they flapped irritably. Houndstooth chuckled. “Of course I’m joking. You’re past breeding age anyway, Ruby-roo.”
It was another thirty minutes to the marshside tavern where Houndstooth had a room. It would have been forty by horseback, but Ruby’s trot was quicker than a horse’s, even with her frequent detours to dip back into the river.
Houndstooth knew when he’d picked her out that she’d grow up to be more temperamental than a slower hop would have been, but her agility had made her spirited temperament worthwhile.
She’d saved his life enough times that he figured she’d earned the right to her opinions.
When they got back to the tavern, Houndstooth unlatched the kneeling saddle and the saddlebags from Ruby’s harness and set her loose in the marsh. “I’ll see you in the morning, Ruby. We’ll head out around dawn, alright?” She waited, already half-submerged in the water, for him to rub her snout. Her ears twitched back and forth, impatient, and she blew a bubble at him. He laughed, earning a long, slow blink of her slanting, hooded eyes. “Okay, alright, I know. You’ve got places to be, grass to eat.” Houndstooth crouched and put a hand on either side of her broad snout.
“You’re my girl, Ruby-roo,” he cooed, rubbing her whiskers. “And you’re the best gull-damned hippo there is.”
With that, Ruby sank into the water and was gone.
Houndstooth propped his feet on a chair as he watched Nadine work the room. She was in her element: sliding full mugs of beer down the gleaming bar, promising to arm wrestle drunk patrons, letting customers buy her shots of whiskey to share with them (she always poured herself iced tea and pocketed the cash). He loved to see her efficiency. He’d told her many times that she would make an excellent hopper, but she always said she preferred to herd malodorous beasts that paid in cash.
She dropped off a steaming mug of Earl Grey—brewed from his own personal supply—and straightened his hat. “Where’ve you been, Winslow? Out with some new girl?”
He winked at her, and she tapped the brim of his hat to set it back askance.
“Ah, some new boy. Green eyes or brown on this one?”
“Blue,” he said, toasting her. “Blue as the Gulf, and twice as hot.”
He pulled out a silk handkerchief and bent to polish a scuff on his left boot. His timing was fortuitous. As he bent down, the door to the tavern burst inward and a man nearly the size of Ruby barreled inside.
“What jack-livered apple-bearded son of a horse’s ass,” the man bellowed, “let a fucking hippo loose in a private marsh?”
Houndstooth did not remove his boots from the chair as he waved his silk handkerchief over his head. “Yoo-hoo,” he said in a high falsetto, before dropping his voice down to its usual baritone. “I believe I’m the jack-livered apple-bearded son of a horse’s ass you’re looking for.” With the hand not holding the square of paisley silk, he unbuttoned his pin-striped jacket. “What would you like to say to me about my Ruby?”
“That’s your hippo?” the man said, crossing the now-silent room in a few sweeping strides. As he came closer, Houndstooth did a quick calculation. He added the bristling beard to the muscles straining at a flannel shirt and the shedding flakes of marsh grass, and he came to the obvious conclusion: marshjack. The man, it was safe to assume, spent his days scything marsh grasses to send to inland ranches. His accent was unplaceable, a combination of tight-jawed California vowels and loose Southern consonants. Houndstooth decided that he must have come South during the boom and taken up marshjacking after the bust. “That tar-skinned brass-toothed dog-eating monster out there is yours?” The man looked down at Houndstooth, who was still in his chair. “Who the hell let you on a hopper ranch, anyway? I’d like to have a word with the damn fool what thought to let you—”
“Dog-eating, did you say?”
“That’s right, you yellow-bellied bastard,” the man growled. “That monster of yours done et my Petunia.”
“And what,” Houndstooth inquired, easing his feet off their perch, “was your Petunia doing in that private marsh? Certainly not helping you hunt ducks on private property, I would hope?”
Everyone in the bar was watching them, speechless. Nadine leaned forward over the bar—the private marsh in question was her property, and so were the ducks that swam in it. The ducks she raised from eggs and sold at the market in order to pay the taxes on her bar.
“That ain’t none of your business, you slick fuck,” the marshjack spat. “What’s your business is that my Petunia’s dead because of your painted-up hippo bitch.”
He swung his arm. Houndstooth registered the glint of metal.
What happened next happened very quickly indeed.
Houndstooth dropped forward out of his chair and into a crouch, and the knife sailed over his head.
The marshjack’s momentum carried him forward and he stumbled, his leg brushing Houndstooth’s shoulder as he put out a hand to catch himself before he could hit the ground.
Houndstooth straightened, fitted his right fist neatly into his left hand, and used his full weight to drop the point of his elbow onto the back of the marshjack’s skull.
There was a crack like a branch snapping. The assembled crowd in the tavern made a collective “ooh,” and the marshjack fell onto his face. By the time he managed to roll over onto his back, Houndstooth was standing over him. He twirled the marshjack’s long, ivory-handled knife in his hand as the marshjack’s eyes eased open.
“Well, old chap,” Houndstooth said in a carrying voice. “Seems you tripped and dropped your knife.” He flipped the knife in the air and caught it without taking his eyes off the marshjack. “Not to worry, I’ve caught it for you.” He tossed it again; caught it again. The marshjack’s eyes followed the spinning blade.
Houndstooth crouched over him. “Now, here are some things you ought to know. One: Ruby is not painted. She’s a Cambridge Black hippo, and I’d guess that’s why she was able to sneak up on your dear departed Petunia. Bred for stealth, you see, but she can be territorial. I’m not surprised that she ‘et’ Petunia, if the dog was in her waters.” He tossed the knife from hand to hand as he spoke, almost lazily. “Two: Her tusks are plated in gold, not brass. It’s my gold. I took it, chum, from the type of men who like to steal ducks. So you see, it is my business why you were in that marsh, because my Ruby-roo can always use more accessories.” The marshjack tried to track the knife, but one of his pupils was dilating and he seemed to be struggling to follow the movement.
“And number three, my dear man.” Houndstooth reached down and gripped the bridge of the marshjack’s nose between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The marshjack’s eyes stayed on the knife, which was now twirling baton-like between the fingers of Houndstooth’s right hand. “I thought you’d want to know that they don’t let me on hopper ranches. Not anymore.” His voice dropped to an intimate murmur as the knife flashed in his hand. “But I’ll be happy to address your concerns myself.”
In one fluid motion, Houndstooth inserted the knife into the marshjack’s left nostril and slit it open. Before the marshjack could so much as choke on his own blood, his right nostril had been similarly vented.
Winslow Houndstooth straightened and wiped the blade of the knife clean on his handkerchief. He dropped the square of ruined silk onto the marshjack’s face just as the man raised his hands to clutch at his filleted nose.
“I’ll help you clean up the sawdust tonight, Nadine. Sorry about the mess.” Houndstooth stepped over the marshjack and shot his cuffs, raising his voice over the marshjack’s moans. “Oh, and I’ll be paying out my room this evening. I’ve got a business trip to go on and I think I’ll be a while.”
Nadine set two glasses on the bar and poured a measure of whiskey into each as the bar patrons slowly began to converse again.
“Where ya headed, Winslow?”
He took a photo out of his breast pocket. The hatchet-nosed man glared up from it, his wispy moustache abristle. “The Mississippi River, sweet Nadine.” He tossed the marshjack’s fine ivory-handled knife in the air; it flipped end-over-end five and a half times before dropping, point-down, through the hatchet-nosed man’s left eye. Houndstooth clinked his glass against Nadines. They each downed their whiskey, and Houndstooth gave Nadine a wink and a grin to go with the burn in both their throats. “And what a fine river it is.”
Nobody ever suspects the fat lady.
Regina Archambault walked through the market with her parasol over her shoulder, plucking ripe coinpurses from pockets like fragrant plums from the orchard. Her hat was canted at a saucy angle over her crown of braids. Many of her marks recognized her, the visitor they’d sat next to at church or at a fete. They greeted her by name—and then their gazes slid off her like condensation down the side of a glass.
And she helped herself to whatever she deemed that they didn’t have a use for. Rings, watches, wallets, purses—the peacock feather from the back of a particularly lovely bonnet. They never seemed to suspect that a woman whose dresses were custom-made to fit over her broad body would have nimble fingers. That she would be able to slip past them without drawing attention.
“Archie! Oh, Archie, you dropped your handkerchief!” A young gentleman in a beautifully felted bowler hat ran after her with a flutter of pink clutched in his outstretched hand.
“Now, Aaron,” she said, archly but in low enough tones that they would not be overheard. “You know full well that is not my ‘andkerchief. I did see one just like it for sale in the general store, though.” Aaron flushed, and he smoothed his downy moustache with a nervous forefinger. Archie stepped with him into the entrance of an alleyway, where they could be away from prying eyes.
“Well, Archie—that is, Miss Archambault—that is—I just supposed that I might –”
Archie reached out her hand and took the handkerchief. “Aaron, mon amour—you know we must’n’t let anyone see us together like this. Why, think how they’d talk.” Her fingers rested on his for a moment as she took the little scrap of pink from him.
He leaned toward her. “Archie, I have to talk to you about our plan, I think my parents suspect something, and I won’t be able to get away tonight after all.”
His father, the stern patriarch of the wealthiest family in New Orleans, certainly did suspect something—he suspected quite a bit, if he’d read the anonymous letter Archie had sent him. She pressed the pink handkerchief to her lips and summoned tears to her eyes—just enough to brim prettily. “Oh, mon ciel étoilé, but I must go first thing tomorrow! And you must come with me, and we must buy the tickets this evening! I suppose—you’ll just have to give the money for the train tickets to me, and I’ll buy them, and I’ll—I’ll ‘ide one in the knot in our tree, for you to collect when you can join me. You will join me, won’t you, mon amour? You… you remember the tree I’m talking about?” She dabbed delicately at her eyes with the handkerchief and fluttered her lashes at him.
“Oh, yes, Archie, I—I remember. How could I forget where we–” If he was any pinker he’d be a petunia. He pulled an envelope from his vest pocket and pressed it into her hands, looking over both of his shoulders as he did so. “Here’s the money for the train, and… I’ll see you at the station, then?”
Archie pressed the handkerchief to her eyes again, so he wouldn’t see her roll them at his hamfisted attempt at stealth. “A kiss, Aaron. For luck.” She kissed him hard—a better kiss than the boy would likely ever get again in his life. She kissed him thoroughly enough that he wouldn’t notice her fingers dancing through his pockets.
“I’ll see you at the train station in two days, my love.”
She waved her handkerchief at him as he crept out of the alley, and she tucked the fat envelope of cash into her reticule. The poor little overripe peach of a boy—she marvelled at the way he walked, with the confidence of someone who’s never been hungry or cold or heartbroken before in his life. When he was out of sight, she examined his pocketwatch. A fine piece—it would fetch a fine price. Just fine.
She straightened her wide-brimmed straw hat and left the alley, gathering her skirts around her. She turned down a side street, away from the crowd, and walked to a broad old dirt road. A dog ran between two of the pecan trees ahead of her. Other than him, she was alone, and she walked down the middle of the road, parasol dangling from her wrist, holding her skirts up with one fist and her hat down with the other.
As she walked through the pecan trees to the marsh dock, the hidden pockets in her overskirt thumped against her leg.
As she scanned the water for Rosa’s white ears, Archie whistled—a tune she’d heard from a busker in the marketplace. She couldn’t remember the words—something about a hopper and a debutante—but the melody was catchy.
A stream of bubbles moved across the surface of the water. Aha.
“Rooo-saaa,” Archie sang in her lilting alto. “I seeee youuu!”
A white blur erupted halfway out of the water and rushed the dock. Archie swept her hat off, spread her arms and set her legs in a wide stance as the three-thousand-pound albino hippo splashed toward her at full speed.
“Bonjour, ma belle fille!” Archie cried. “Mon petit oeuf douce, ’ave you been having fun while maman was at the market?”
Rosa skidded to a stop a few inches in front of the dock. Archie tapped a long finger against the hippo’s broad white nose.
“You, ma cherie, need to get sneakier. You’re too easy to spot!”
Rosa shoved her snout against Archie’s drooping skirts. “Yes, fine, ’ere—” Archie unclasped her skirts and pulled them off, revealing close-fitting red pinstriped riding breeches underneath. “—I got you a pastry, cherie. I know that cruel veterinarian says you shouldn’t, but we don’t ’ave to tell ’im about this, do we?”
Archie pulled a slightly squashed turnover from the pocket of her skirt and held it out to Rosa’s nose. The hippo’s pink eyes remained unfocused, but she turned unhesitatingly toward the smell of the tart. Her mouth swung open, and Archie dropped the turnover onto her tongue.
“Aren’t you scared she’ll bite you?”
Archie whipped around, startling the sallow, bone-thin boy behind her so much he nearly fell off the dock. She grabbed his arm and hauled him away from the edge of the planks.
“Of course I’m not scared,” she said, still gripping the boy’s arm. “I’ve ’ad Rosa since she was just a petit ’op. She would no sooner bite me than she would join the Paris Opera. Sneaky little urchins who follow me, on the other ’and—” She smiled and brought her face close to the boy’s face, close enough that she could have bitten the brim of his cap. “She eats them up without a thought.”
The boy swallowed hard but was not foolish enough to wriggle out of her grip. “Please, ma’am, you are Miss Regina Archambault, aren’t you? They told me to look for the, uh, the—”
“The fat Frenchwoman with the albino ’ippopotamus?” Archie deadpanned.
“Uh, yes, miss. I—I have a letter for you. Please don’t feed me to your hippo, ma’am, I didn’t mean to sneak—”
He raised a trembling hand with an envelope in it. Her name was written on the outside in familiar, spiky lettering. Archie released his arm.
“Well, then, that is something else altogether.” She grabbed the letter. “Would you like to pet a ’ippo, boy?” He looked nervously at Rosa’s tusks. “She will not eat you. Not unless I tell’er to. Just make a lot of noise as you walk up, so you don’t startle’er—’er eyes, they are not so good.”
The boy glanced between Archie and the pink-eyed hippo. “I’ve never heard of a blind white hippo before.”
“Well,” Archie said, “the ’opper that bred ’er was going to kill ’er when ’e saw. ‘What use is a blind ’ippo?’ ’e
said. But I knew better—she is the finest ’ippo in all the world.”
The boy stared at Rosa, awe plain on his face. “Her name’s Rosa?”
Archie ran her thumb under the seal on the envelope. “Oui. Let ’er smell your ’and, then you can scratch behind ’er ears.”
As the boy approached the beast, tentatively placing a small hand against her snout, Archie read through the letter.
“Well, well,” she whispered to herself. “Winslow, you old connard,” she said, not looking up from the letter. She murmured to herself as she read it through again. “Ferals… eight thousand… a full year? Non, that can’t be—oh, oui, I see now…” She turned to the boy, who was staring at Rosa’s tusks with rapt fascination as he rubbed her nose. She looked him over, taking in his dull, patchy hair and his anemic complexion. She wondered if he slept in the streets, or if he hadn’t escaped the orphanage yet.
“Call me Archie.”
“Miss Archie? You said you had her since she was just a hop, right?”
“Oui,” Archie replied. The boy was looking up at her with shining eyes, one hand resting on Rosa’s nose.
Archie lowered her voice conspiratorially, just to watch his face light up. “Hoppers, you see, we apprentice for years—then we choose a hop, when the time comes. We sleep beside them, we feed them, we sing to them. We’re with them every moment of their lives, from the time the cord is cut to the moment they’re fitted with a harness.”
The boy’s eyes were wide. “So that’s why you’re not scared of her?”
Archie laughed so heartily that the boy began to look sheepish. “I’m sorry, boy, it’s just—I couldn’t imagine being less frightened of sweet Rosa.” Rosa, hearing her name, yawned wide, showing off her teeth. The boy stared into Rosa’s massive mouth, his face aglow with awe.
“How do you get her teeth so white?”
Archie smiled. “I brush them. Would you like to see?”
The boy nodded, reaching out a now-fearless finger to touch one of Rosa’s gleaming tusks.
“I’ll show you, if you run a little errand for me. I need a telegram sent to a Mr. Winslow Houndstooth. Can you remember that?” She told him the message she wanted sent to Houndstooth, and she gave him a coin to get her a map of the Mississippi River.
“Be back here in two hours, and I will show you ’ow I brush her teeth. Hell, I’ll even let you ’elp me pack up ’er saddlebags.”
The boy put a hand on top of his cap, as though afraid it would fly off in the wake of his excitement. “Oh, boy, Miss Archie, I’ll be back faster’n you can spit!”
He ran down the dock, his feet flying up behind him. Archie smiled, and turned back to Rosa, who was waiting patiently to see if another turnover would be forthcoming.
“Well, cherie,” Archie said, folding her laden skirts over her arm. “It would appear that Winslow is calling in our old debt. I suppose I could argue that I owe ’im nothing after what ’appened in Atlanta—but what’s a favor between friends, oui? ’E’s got a job for us, my Rosa. How would you like to be a rich ’ippo?”
Rosa grunted, lowering herself further into the marsh. Archie pushed her skirts into a half-full saddlebag, then slipped off her shoes and sat on the dock, dangling her feet in the water. She rubbed a wet foot over Rosa’s half-submerged nose. “Eight thousand dollars. Just think, Rosa. Think of the pastries I’ll buy for you.”
Hero Shackleby did not read the letter when it arrived.
They didn’t read the second letter either.
They read the third, but only because it was hand-delivered.
Hero sat in their rocking chair, watching the tar-black hippo with the gold-plated tusks amble up the road. It would stop in front of their house, to be sure. Hero didn’t look up from the sweet tea they were stirring as the hippo came to a stop at the bottom of the front steps.
“You can pop her in the pond with Abigail. Gate’s around the side there.”
The man on top of the hippo didn’t respond, but dismmounted and walked around the side of the house. Hero listened as Abigail greeted her new pondmate, as the man in the peacock-blue cravat cooed to—ah, yes. “Ruby,” he called her. Abigail was a Standard Grey—not too far off from a meat hippo, but considerably smarter. She would be friendly to Ruby. She was friendly to everyone. Hospitable, Hero thought.
Hero stirred the iced tea, tasted it. Not quite there yet.
Ruby’s rider came back around to the bottom of the front steps. He put his boot on the first step, then stopped, his chin tilted toward Hero’s face. “Might I join you?”
“S’why I’ve got a second rocking chair,” Hero said, assessing the man out of the corner of their eye. He was tall, immaculately dressed. He had cheekbones that sliced right through the thick, golden afternoon sunlight. He walked up the steps deliberately, watching Hero. Watching Hero’s pistols.
“Don’t worry,” Hero said. “I won’t shoot you. Sweet tea?”
“You haven’t been reading my letters,” the man said.
“You’re English. Lancaster?”
“Blackpool. You haven’t been reading my letters.”
“And you haven’t accepted my hospitality,” Hero said, gesturing to the unoccupied rocking chair and the sweet tea sweating on the porch rail in front of it. “Please, won’t you sit?”
The man sat. He looked like he wanted to sit on the edge of the rocking chair, but it was canted so that he had to sit all the way back. He held his hat in his hands. “My name is Winslow Houndstooth. I got your name from the federal agent who gave me this.” He dug into his pocket and held out a thick gold coin with an eagle on it. “He said you’d want this job.”
Hero sipped at their sweet tea, ignoring the proffered coin. “Hot this summer. They said it would be cooler, but I’d say it’s a sight hotter than it was this time last year.”
Houndstooth tapped the coin against the arm of his rocking chair. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to this part of Louisiana before. Rode here all the way from New Orleans. And that after the steamship ride along the Gulf.”
“Your Ruby must be tired as a hog after a boil.”
“She seemed happy to get into the water. Your Abigail looked damn bored in that pond, though. I bet she’d like the work.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to Hero.
“I’m retired.” They considered Houndstooth over the rim of their glass. “But I’m glad you came to tell me about this ‘job’ in person. Like a gentleman.”
Houndstooth’s eyes found Hero’s. “Shackleby. That’s an honest name. Are you an honest person?”
Hero smiled, close-lipped. “I’m not a liar. Ask me anything and I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Is that sweet tea poisoned?”
Hero’s smile broke into a broad grin. “I thought you’d never ask.” They picked up the second glass of sweet tea from the porch rail, took a sip, and set it back down. “See? I’m just fine.”
Houndstooth didn’t touch the glass.
“Abigail is bored,” Hero said after a moment. “She’s not used to living in one place, to having her own pond all to herself. She loves it. Has her own little dentist-bird.” Hero leaned their head back against the rocking chair and fanned themself with the letter. “But she’s bored. I haven’t saddled her up in months. It’s just been the two of us, all alone, plus the milkman once a week. And I don’t even drink milk.”
“Hero.” He seemed to be rolling their name across his tongue. Hero caught themself staring and looked away. “Hero, I’m supposed to get you to accept this job. I accepted this job with the understanding that I would have a demolitions expert on board.”
Hero sipped their sweet tea and watched Hounds-tooth fiddle with his hat. “I’ll need some convincing. So. Convince me.” They tried not to blink while they said it, knowing that it sounded for all the world like a line. Houndstooth’s eyes snapped up, and he swallowed hard. Hero rubbed a tapered forefinger through the condensation on the outside of the pitcher of sweet tea.
“Well,” Houndstooth said in a low voice. “There’s the money. Eight thousand dollars. Gold, not bonds.”
“Hmm.” Hero ran their finger down the side of their throat, letting the cool water cut through the heat of the afternoon.
“Then there’s the job itself,” Houndstooth said. “Clearing the feral hippos out of the Mississippi. You’d live up to your name, if we managed it. We’d be heroes, Hero.”
“Mmmhm.” Hero leaned back in the rocking chair and crossed their legs, right over left. It would be something, tobe a hero. A decent way to end a career that had gone on too long. Better than simply fading off the scene, like they’d planned. They tapped their nails on the arm of the rocking chair, one-two-three-four.
“And then, of course, there’s the team. It would be you and me—” He paused for a moment. “—Archie the Con, Cal Hotchkiss, and Adelia Reyes.”
Hero sat forward at this last name. “Adelia Reyes? I thought I heard she was—”
“Yes,” Houndstooth interrupted. “But she’ll still do the job. She never turns down a job.”
“Well.” Hero sat back, folding their hands in their lap. “It sounds like you’ve got quite a team already. Without me. So why would you need me, Winslow Houndstooth? Why do you want to pull me out of the retirement I’ve been so thoroughly enjoying?”
Houndstooth stood and turned on his heel, leaning his back against the porch rail. His hand rested next to the untouched sweet tea, which had begun foaming softly. He looked down at Hero, his gaze unwavering.
“Because,” he murmured. “I think you want it.”
Hero was thankful that their skin was dark enough to conceal the hot flush that was climbing their neck.
“I think you’ve only been retired for a year, and already, you’d poison a stranger just to break up the monotony.” Houndstooth knocked the sweet tea off the porch rail. It hissed as it ate through a rosebush. He leaned for.ward, still holding the porch rail. “I think you’d enjoy working this job a lot more thoroughly than you’ve enjoyed sitting in that rocking chair.”
Hero looked at Houndstooth’s burning eyes. “Is that what you think?” they asked, and sipped their sweet tea to relieve their suddenly dry mouth.
“Yes. That’s what I think. That,” he said, tilting his head to one side, “and I’ve got some things I need blown up. From what I hear, you’re the one to do it.”
Hero set their glass down and stood, clapping their hands decisively. “Well, then.” They walked inside, and emerged a few moments later wearing a battered leather Stetson and clutching a large, bulging duffel.
Houndstooth laughed. “I thought it would take more convincing than that!”
Hero walked toward Houndstooth until their boots touched. The laughter on Houndstooth’s lips died. They were nearly the same height, and their noses were less than an inch apart. Hero could smell the sweet iced tea on their own breath.
“Ask. I know you’re wondering. If we’re going to work together, you may as well ask.”
Houndstooth swallowed. “I…” He paused, looking down at Hero’s mouth, then looked back at their eyes. “How did you drink the poison? Without it killing you.”
Hero blinked. That wasn’t the question they had anticipated. “I’m immune. Small doses. Every day.”
Houndstooth smiled. “Well. That’s the only question I need the answer to.” He sat back down and unfurled a map of the Harriet on the table between them. “Shall we plan a route? I think we should be able to get into the marshes by midmorning, and then we can collect Cal before meeting up with the rest of the crew. . . .”
Hero let themself smile as they sat across from Houndstooth and began studying the map. This would be more fun than retirement.
Excerpted from River of Teeth © 2017 by Sarah Gailey