The Shirt On His Back - By Barbara Hambly

PROLOGUE March, 1837

The third time that day that Benjamin January walked over to the Bank of Louisiana and found its doors locked, he had to admit the truth.

It wasn't going to reopen.

The money was gone.

Admittedly, there hadn't been much money in the account. Early the previous summer he'd taken most of it and paid off everything he and Rose still owed on the big ramshackle old house on Rue Esplanade, and thank God, he thought, I had the wits to do that . . .

Even then, there'd been rumors that the smaller banks, the wildcat banks, the private banks all over the twenty-six states were closing. Months before the election last Fall the President's refusal to re-charter the Bank of the United States had begun to pull down businesses along with the banks, and at meetings of the Faubourg Treme Free Colored Militia and Burial Society

or less formal get-togethers with his friends after playing all night for the white folks at some Mardi Gras ball - January had frequently asked: what the hell did the Democrats think was going to happen, when they knocked the foundations out from under the only source of stable credit in the country?

Not that it was any of January's business, or that of his friends either. As descendants of Africans, at one remove or another - though January's mother loftily avoided the subject not one of them could vote. And in New Orleans, by virtue of its position as Queen of the Mississippi Valley trade, the illusion of prosperity had hung on longer than elsewhere.

Still, standing in the sharp spring sunlight of Rue Royale before the shut doors of that gray granite building, January felt the waves of rage pass over him like the wind-driven crescents of rain on the green face of a bayou in hurricane season.

Rage at the outgoing President - a fine warrior when the country had needed a warrior and a hopelessly bigoted old blockhead with a planter's contempt for such things as banks.

Rage at the whites who saw only the war hero and not the consequences of letting land-grabbers and shoestring speculators run the country for their own profit.

Rage at the laws of the land, that wouldn't let him - or anyone whose father or grandparents or great-grandparents back to Adam had hailed from Africa - have the slightest voice in the government of the country in which they'd been born, regardless of the fact that he, Benjamin January, was a free man and a property owner . . . Artisans like his brother-in-law Paul Corbier, merchants like Fortune Gerard who sat on community boards, his fellow musicians and the surgeon who'd taught him his trade of medicine, and all those others who made up his life, were free men too, had been born free men and had fought a British invading force in order to stay that way . . .

And rage at himself - the deepest anger of all as he turned his steps back along Rue Royale toward home. For not taking every silver dime out of the bank and putting it . . .


Ay, there's the rub, reflected January grimly. There were thieves aplenty in New Orleans, and if you were keeping more than a few dollars cached in your attic rafters, or under the floorboards of your bedroom, word of it soon got out. And if you didn't happen to be rich enough that there were servants around your house at all times, that money was eventually going to turn up gone.

He wasn't the only man standing in Rue Royale looking at the closed-up doors of the Bank of Louisiana that spring afternoon. As he turned away, Crowdie Passebon caught his eye - the well-respected perfumer and the center of the libre community in the old French Town. Like most of January's friends and neighbors, Passebon was the descendant of those French and Spanish whites who'd had the decency to free the children their slave women had borne them. January knew Crowdie had a great deal more money than he did in the Bank, but nevertheless the perfumer crossed to him and asked, Are you all right, Ben?'

'I'll be all right.' Many people January knew - including most of his fellow musicians - didn't even have the slim resources of a house.

Petronius Braeden - a German dentist with offices on Rue St Louis - was haranguing a knot of other white men outside the bank doors, cursing the new President: hell, the man has only been