Nudging the door open with his toe, Thaddeus found luck was on his side, for the latch had not caught when Lafayette swung it shut earlier. Holding his breath, he crept in on bare feet. The play of shadow and light moving across the room confused him; the bulky furniture appeared to be moving. ‘Or, maybe it is all in my damn head.’ He thought, black spots once more rising before his eyes.
Gratefully, he slid into one of the cowhide chairs flanking the door. Leaning his sweat slick body into the cool leather, he rubbed at his crucifix. ’S’il vous plaît, do not let me black out. I need to hear Lafe’s fuckin’ side. Not that I got any qualms over buckin’ that damn Yankee out, if it will keep m’ frère from harm. But before I can, I need to learn more.’
Feeling the light-headedness withdrawing, Thaddeus opened his eyes. The only light in the study was streaming in from the yard through the French doors on the far side of the room. In front of these same doors stood their Father with his arm draped about Lafayette.
Leaning forward, Thaddeus wondered, ‘Are they speakin’ too low for me to hear?’ He wanted to inch closer, however, he knew he would be discovered and sent from the room. So, with a twist of his mouth, he reined in the urge to move.
As he waited, Lafayette stepped out from under their Father’s arm, turning to face him. Silhouetted as they were by the evening light, Thaddeus thought, ‘I ain’t ever noticed, how much Lafe is cut like Father.’ Rubbing his eyes did not help, for he could see how the brother he adored, in the coming years would become a near copy of the man he distrusted. His fevered mind wandered, considering this revelation when it came to him Father was speaking.
“Have you patched up matters with Josie?”
“I have not and par Dieu, I have non intentions too.”
Stroking his long, salt and pepper mustache, Antonio said, “I recognize females can be arduous. On no account did our maker create a harder animal to understand. The secret I have learned is; ladies possess their own set of laws and even as a man bends to adhere to them, they will change them, once more leaving him to appear as a fool.” Antonio snapped his fingers, bringing his hand to rest on his heart, “Yet, my Son, once you accept this secret as true and stow it away. Then no matter what a lady does, you will be able to simply let it roll off of you.”
“Father,” Lafe raised his hands, waving them imploringly, “Jo is---”
Cutting him off, Antonio said, “She is precisely what y’all equipped her to be?” Lafayette bowed his head.
Seeing him do this, Thaddeus knew from experience their Father was wearing the look that made your blood take on gooseflesh. Yet, Lafayette was not cowed. He was merely thinking, for though his head was bowed, he stood tall and erect.
“Of course, at this point I should confess...” Antonio went on, “our Josie is the most clever, all-wrath stubborn lady in the County, maybe the State.” Stepping closer, he placed a firm hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yet, since you assisted in her trainin’, you above all ought not let her get under your skin.” His voice dropped and with a quick jerk he off-balanced his son, forcing him to take a step closer, allowing him to snag hold of Lafayette’s chin. “She is your blood. Do you hear me?” He pinched deeply, shaking Lafayette’s face. “Your blood! A connection, a bond stronger than all others and forever you will be honor-bound to her. Whatever she does, whatever happens to her; it will fall on the heads of you boys. You will never again quarrel with her or any lady for that matter. It is despicable, uncouth, and shows low-breeding. By God, Lafayette Henri Begnoir, you are no longer a child. It is high time for you to live up to your name and the role which life demands of you!”
Shifting his eyes from his Father’s challenging stare, Lafayette swallowed. ’Perhaps I should pretend humility to hasten this lecture along. Non! I do not want to. She was in the wrong, not me.′ Then with a hard suck at his front teeth, he pulled away, removing his bruised face from his Father’s painful grip. He could feel his red demon scratching to be let out, its vibrant roaring tearing at his willpower. Taking two steps backwards, he told himself, ’Do not challenge’em. He will strike you and par Dieu, you will return in kind.’ Closing his eyes, Lafayette struggled for control. Hearing his Father move closer, his eyes popped open with every muscle in his body prepared to retaliate against the blow he felt was coming.
Instead, his Father paced on by, hollering, “Damnation, but you were blessed with more intelligence than the rest. I would say this was a prime time for you to have used it. Do you not understand, as a man, it is your God given obligation to safeguard not only the ladies in your life, but also the people under you? Nothing they may do or say shall sway you from this task. My God, Lafayette, it is your duty. There is no greater honor ever, than to protect and be there for those who look to you.”
The bitter edge in his son’s voice pulled Antonio up.
“You see yourself, fit to lecture me on being there for those who look to you?!”
From across the room, Thaddeus thought, ’Well said m’ frère.’
Antonio stiffened as if a knife had been rammed into his spine and spinning, he rushed Lafayette, intending to knock him down a peg or two. However, his anger withered before the balled-up fury radiating from his son. They stood on the edge of the knife, staring at each other, the room holding its breath, then Antonio sighed, ‘I concede your point. You are correct. I have failed in fulfillin’ my own obligations. I have come to understand, I was wrong to leave y’all in the care of Peter and Simone.”
Lafayette crossed his arms, his face cold and hard.
Antonio coughed, his voice sounding husky, “What can I say? I regret the choices I made.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “I suppose, it is anger at myself, which has me ranting at you. You see, my own Father told me... it is blood, family, truth, and honor that make a man great. He was correct. For I have learned it is these four points that allow a person to sleep well at night. When you disregard them for your own selfish sentiments, as I did, then you discard the best part of yourself.”
Standing before his middle-son, Antonio thought, ‘if only I could roll back time.’ Sighing heavily, he said, “I apologize for not being the man you wished me to be, or the Father you needed. I am simply pleadin’ for you to overcome my shortcomings, as you continue becoming the man that I wish you to be.”
’I have always strived to be the bien fils. Did all Father asks of me. Yet, somehow I would rather be free of answerability the way Gabe is and reckless like Taddy. I am weary of doing as told. Still, the points of which he has spoken…do make sense.′ Lafayette thought, watching his Father walk back to his desk.
Removing a pair of cigars from the cedar, metal lined box sitting there, Antonio looked up with a smile so large, his thick mustache bunched up against his cheeks, “Despite havin’ made a few mighty poor choices today, when it got down to piss and grit, you defended your honor along with your families’. Makes me swollen up with pride over how you handled yourself against a man of such low character.” Continuing to smile, he offered a cigar to Lafayette.
"Non, merci." Lafayette answered, turning to gaze out the French doors, ‘If’n he is so proud of me, then why, has he informed me I am to go South?’ Shooting a look over his shoulder at his Father, Lafayette thought, ‘I suppose, I should not feel so upset. Not like I ain’t been plannin’ to leave Sienna in the winter.’ His mouth pursed tight, ′Chiant, still being ordered to leave sure rots my gut.’ Leaning into the glass, he laid his throbbing face along its cool surface, ‘I comprehend he wants to protect me. And yet, I cannot get past the feelin’ I am being sent on the coward’s path.’ Staring at his reflection in the glass, he mumbled, “I do not want to run from my difficulties as he has. Truthfully, he should have non say, as I am my own responsibility.”
Hearing more the movement of air rather than the actual words, Antonio asked, “What was that?”
Placing his back to the double-glass doors, Lafayette cleared his throat, “I said, I am mon own responsabilité and thusly, I am not inclined to leave Sienna.”
Lafayette’s biting tone disturbed Antonio. Creeping under his skin, the same way danger crept into a room. Dropping the unlit cigars into the box, he returned to pacing before his intricately carved cherry wood desk, ‘every fiber in me says this lieutenant will be after him. How can I protect him if he will not let me?’ Rounding in his pacing, he glanced at Lafayette, ’I trusted a holiday with his Grandmother would be the ideal solution. I know of no other place he treasures as well as the Vieux Carré.” Halting, Antonio stared at his son where he stood outlined by the late golden evening light and asked, “Is it that you feel, I do not want you here, Lafe?”
Silence filled the space between them.
Taking a breath, Antonio said, “It is essential you understand I want you here. This is your home. More than anything, I want you here. You must not think I am ashamed of you or that I deem you unable to defend yourself.”
“Then, why have you chosen to send me away?”
Hearing this, Thaddeus slammed bolt upright.
“I am not sendin’ you away; I am assigning you the commission of escorting your siblings, as they must have a trustworthy chaperone on such an excursion.”
Lafayette rolled his neck, the bones popping audibly and when he spoke, he sounded smooth as silk and bitter as an early persimmon. “I fully grasp all you are sayin’ and even what you are not sayin’. Nonetheless, I am havin’ a hard time swallowing your loosely veiled command for me to take a weakling shirker’s way out.”
Staring at him, Antonio thought, ‘When did he grow up?’ His eyes shifted to a sun-faded area of the rug. He could almost see the small, dark-haired boy sprawling like a cat in a warm sunbeam, reading to his heart’s delight. His eyes drifted along the irregularities in the wall of books, ’I expect he has read all of ‘em.’ At length, he looked back to his son, seeing him as he was now made Antonio feel old and drawn as thin as the long shadows inching across the room. He saw his time to nurture Lafayette was gone, as all traces of the boy had been replaced by a tall, powerful man. ’Why did I stay away so much? I was an imbecile to have let the time I had with’em… with each of ‘em slip away.’
His memories of Lafayette raced forward to last winter when his son had declared he wanted to study law Back East. The announcement had not surprised him, for the boy he knew had always wanted fact and truth. Coming back to the present, Antonio thought ‘So, why should the man be any different?’ Smiling ruefully, he understood Lafayette’s thinking. ‘He wants to hear aloud the hard, cold truth. Which is, if he stays, the likelihood is he will be arrested, perhaps murdered. Thus givin’ him the entrance, he is waiting for to dispute this further. Well, I will not be drawn into one of his long-winded debates. This time, this last time, what I say goes.’
Having made his decision, he walked to Lafayette, “You will not be seen as a coward. You will be seen upholding a commitment to your family. No one who matters will think less of you for it.”
“Oh, you are accurate there.” Lafayette stated, stepping from the doors, he became further backlit by the setting sun, making it impossible to see his expression. “It is even reasonable to say people will verbalize how sharp you were to compel me to leave.”
As he approached, Antonio looked away, not wishing to see the rebuke he knew to be in his son’s eyes.
“I can rightly appreciate the necessity of an escort on such a damn, long journey.” Lafayette snarled, his voice rising. “As can everyone else, and what I suspect our neighbors will murmur is, ‘Why not the eldest son?’ But, then they will shake their heads, saying, ‘Oh yes, it is because Antonio had to ensure Lafayette’s safety. Sure, is too bad the way Lafayette’s incapable of protectin’ his self.’ Damnation, I will not have people talk of me in such a way! Just fuckin’ send Gabe and leave me damn-well be.”
The softness Antonio had been feeling hardened to anger and he roared, “Enough! You dare bark directives at me. To curse me?! I do not tolerate such insolence from any person, and being my son makes you no different. Gabe has no part in this quotient. This is between you and me. Within two days, you will guide your siblings to the Vieux Carré. Do I make myself damn well clear?”
“No?” Thaddeus hollered, his voice cracking like a musket blast into the room.
Both Lafayette and Antonio spun, a similar frown imprinting their faces.
“Lafe, light a lamp!” Antonio ordered, striding across the room. “What the hell are you doing in here?”
Lafayette felt raw over his brother’s eavesdropping. ‘How much did he hear?’
“Tad, how dare you skulk in here? I do not recollect invitin’ you. I do believe though I shall send Lafe out and we two can persevere with our own damn conversation. How does that suit you?”
When Lafayette walked up, the circle of lamplight engulfed Thaddeus, and Antonio moved backwards so rapidly, Lafayette had to sidestep to keep from being trampled. But at the same time, he saw what had spooked their Father. His brother was much paler than he had been this morning, his eyes unfocused, and he could barely hold his head up.
In his haste to reach him, Lafayette set the lamp down on the side table so hard the globe rattled alarmingly. Dropping by Thaddeus, he took up his hand. “You look like hell,” laying a wrist to Thaddeus’ face, he cringed, “Jésus pleura, Frère, you are on fire.”
Around his swollen tongue, Thaddeus muttered, “I am all right.”
Exasperation tinged Lafayette’s words, “All right? Damnation, I have seen dead rosier than you. Hellfire, Taddy, you tryin’ to put yourself in the bone orchard?”
Thaddeus focused on his brother, trying to figure out why he was so blurry and licking his lips, forced out, “Who all is being sent to Orleans?”
Antonio’s mouth tightened. His anger and frustration giving way to fear, “I intended, all but Gabe.”
Shifting forward in the chair, Thaddeus moved to rise, his head felt like it would explode and deciding he had already moved, more than enough, he slurred, “Father, I do not fuckin’ fancy to go.”
Kneeling beside him, Antonio thought, ‘Oh, how I wish, I could take you in my arms. But, it is too great of a liberty to ask after how I have ignored you. Lafe is correct; I have no right to lecture anyone on honoring their obligations.’ In his mind, every image Antonio had of Thaddeus, the boy was strong and robust, almost a young Hercules, to wild and heroic for his own good. These flashing memories made it all the harder to believe the pale rag-a-bones before him was the same child. Most assuredly, death had been creeping around Thaddeus for too long, its skeletal fingers stealing the boy they all knew away.
It came to Antonio how desperately, he did not want Thaddeus to go anywhere, least of all with the specter lurking over his shoulder. Taking his youngest son’s hand from Lafayette, he held it. “How about you just remain here at Sienna?” Even as he said this, his mind morbidly conjured an image of Thaddeus being buried alongside his mother and the five tiny babes in the family plot.
Thaddeus swallowed, trying to focus on his Father, “Lafe stay, too.”
“He will still be adjourning.”
Bowing his head, Thaddeus ran over what Josephine had said about the Yankee, and some of what he had heard in this room. As he did so, his hot-temper shot through him, strengthening him, and using his father’s shoulder, he pushed himself to his feet bellowing, “Fuck that! I will shoot that damn bastard. Shoot ’em like the vermin he is. And, when I do, all difficulties will vanish. Then there will be no damn reason for Lafe to leave.”
“Thaddeus Robert Crowe!” Antonio squawked, his eyebrows shooting up. Although, anything he planned to say crashed around him just as his son crashed to the floor.
Rolling him over, Lafayette, placed an ear near his mouth, ′s’il vous plaît, Sainte Mère. Do not let such a proclamation be his last words.’ Feeling a flutter of air against his cheek, Lafayette crossed himself, “merci beucoup, Sainte Mère.”
Staring open mouthed, Antonio shook himself, announcing, “He requires Doctor Mathews.”
Hefting his still form into his arms, Lafayette grunted, exhaling as his brother’s hot body settled against him, “I will carry’em up to his room.”
“Have you got’em?” Antonio asked, wanting to help.
“I have… ride for the Doctor.”
“I will set a new record in reachin’ Harrisonville.” Antonio said, exiting from the room. But out in the hall, he turned just as Lafayette emerged from the study. He saw not young men, but his boys, his sons, and he rushed back kissing Thaddeus’ forehead. There was a moments hesitation and he did the same to Lafayette, before running from the house hollering for Boreas to be saddled.
Lafayette blinked at his Father’s out of character act, then began the steady climb up the central stairs. Feeling a tear slip from his chin, he looked down to see it lying on his brother’s gray-green face. “You are not allowed to die, Taddy. I damn-well mean it! You cannot die and fuckin’ leaves me! Do you hear me, Thaddeus? Do you?”