Not only had they risen well before the roosters, but Thaddeus joined them for breakfast. He had come down stairs shaved and fully dressed. For the first time in too long, he truly resembled himself.
Antonio beamed at his youngest son, “Why Tad, you look fine as cream gravy.”
“I would say I have out stubborned that dirty, backstabbing ague.” Thaddeus replied, slipping into his customary seat at the dining room table.
Walking by, Simone felt of his neck and face, “He ain’t fibbing Mister, there be non heat to ’em.”
Squealing a loud yahoo, Josephine snatched her little brother’s hand when he reached for a platter of food, “Ah, Taddy, how glorious!”
“Merci,” he replied, breaking free and piling his plate with griddle cakes, bacon, fried potatoes, and eggs; all of which he drowned in sorghum syrup. Without giving the others another thought, he dug in, washing large mouthfuls down with gulps of hot coffee. Becoming aware of his twin staring at him, he winked at her saying, “Mornin’ Sis,” in between bites.
“Taddy, this mean you are goin’ with me?”
All sound ceased, every eye veering to father.
Ignoring them, Antonia finished his coffee, and setting the cup down, he turned it until the painted designs lined up just so. He next methodically wiped his long mustache before saying, “Right fine proposal, Dora, I too reason your twin is sufficiently healthy to join you.”
Lafayette’s huge, dimpled smile erupted. Yet, before he could share his joy. Simone declared, “non, he ain’t.”
The siblings swiveled their heads to the opposite end of the table, where Simone sat cutting a griddlecake to tiny pieces for Michaël.
They were not shocked to see her sitting there. Father had declared long ago, she was to eat her meals at the same table with them. He had framed his words in statements about her being a free female of color, and damn anyone who did not see her as fit to eat with his children. In truth, it had been quite the long-winded tirade about not caring what others thought. However the hollow truth was someone needed to sit with the children; train them in manners, as he was seldom present to do so himself. She had sat there for so long, that even if Antonio was present, she took her customary seat. Unless there was company. Even if the company was Jackson, who had shared so many of their meals, he was nearly considered family. Still, no matter what any of them said when he was invited to a meal, she would shake her head, stating, ‘It ain’t fitting.’ And, that would be the end of the discussion.
Raising his eyes to the far end of the table, Antonio asked, “Simone, did you say something?”
“I said, non he ain’t.”
The siblings shot looks from Simone’s smooth expression to their Father’s contorting face and then to each other
“Being his Father, I conclude the environment down South will be far healthier for him.”
“I know what you be considering, Mister. It do not matter none, ‘cause he ain’t steppin’ foot off Sienna.” She said, sliding the pancake to Michaël.
“If you deem yourself privy to my thoughts, why would you presume to speak against me?”
“Cause him...” she waved her fork at Thaddeus, “... ain’t near as hale and hearty as him is puttin’ on.”
Interested in what his brother thought of the verbal duel over him, Lafayette turned to Thaddeus to find him steadily eating, his green eyes fixed on his plate. Save there was something about the way he was deliberately shoveling the food. Leaning in across the table, Lafayette studied him closer and it came to him in a rush, a corner of his mouth quirking up with the knowledge. ‘If’n he breaks off eatin’ for even a second, he knows his tongue will betray him.’ Lafayette’s smile grew in size, ’I would bet, Taddy wants to proclaim he ain’t ill any longer. But doing so would be him saying, ‘Hell yeah, I want to go to Louisiana,’ which is as far from the truth as declaring it will snow in July.′ Wanting to look his brother in the eye, to better confirm his theory, Lafayette tapped table before Thaddeus’ plate.
When Antonio saw him do this, he slammed a hand down, hollering “Boys!” so suddenly, Lafayette about fell off his chair.
Simultaneously, they turned to face him with empty expressions.
Studying them, Antonio felt positive they were sharing a joke. Trying to fathom what it was, he switched his stare to the prankster of the family.
Thaddeus stared back, his face emotionless as he popped smaller and smaller pieces of biscuit into his mouth.
Deciding the boy was defying him, Antonio jabbed a finger at his youngest. “You are going!”
“I said, he ain’t.”
With a coldness fitting the depths of winter, Antonio asked, “You dare overrule me?”
“I am regretful you feel I am, Mister. Buts, I stand by what I said. He is not steppin’ one foot off of this here place.”
Antonio leapt to his feet, his chair flipping like a tumbleweed to crash into the wall, “You forget your damn place. I am the Master of this house and everyone in it. I will not have a nigress dictate how I shall run my home. And furthermore...” His words faded, his dark eyes sliding from face-to-face seeing his outburst had captured all of them, except Thaddeus, who was avidly staring at the painting of the Muses hanging above the side buffet.
Although, Antonio could also see his son was gritting his teeth, ’So, I do have his attention after all. And, he is working up his gumption to defend Simone. Hell, it does not surprise me none. That boy is forever on the opposite side of the fence from me.′ Thinking this, Antonio’s blood pumped faster. “Great God, this conversation is done. I will have the final say in my home and I say he is going South.” Kicking the leg of the nearest chair, he roared, “You hear me Thaddeus Robert?”
Other than a slight wrinkle in the bridge of his nose, Thaddeus held onto his impassive, silent expression.
Scrutinizing them all once more, Antonio strode from the room, hollering, “I know you hear me boy. Have your damn traps packed before the hours’ through.”
Then Simone interrupted his grand exit by jumping to her feet and sending her fork clattering down the table. “Oui, Mister, you is the Master. Ain’t non argument about that, Monsieur Crowe. And, oui, Mister, I might be forgettin’ my place. Exceptin’, I know these bébés; know’em better than you do. Was it not me, who sat up all hours working milk into the twins when there be non nursemaid? It was also me who has tended every wound, fever, and sniffle. And, who even now they come to when they need amour because you ain’t one to give it to ’em.”
When she stopped speaking, the silence in the dining room was so fragile that the faint creaks of the floorboards as she moved to Thaddeus sounded loud as crashing glass. “And it was also me who brought life back into this garçon a night ago.”
“I tell you, Monsieur Crowe, I do not care whats you do to me. I ain’t allowin’ m’ garçon to leave. I understand ’em like you never will. He ain’t as strong as he is putting on and I ain’t about to let you murder m’ bébé.” She finished, placing her hands protectively on Thaddeus’ shoulders.
Antonio’s mustache quivered, his eyes shifting from his children back to Simone. In this moment, when he looked his weakest, Eudora moved to stand beside Simone, “I ain’t goin’ to leave without Taddy.”
Seeing Lafayette’s mouth opening, Antonio shouted, “No! Lafe, Josie, you made your choice at the picnic. Katharine, I do apologize, but the rest of you are leavin’. I will deal with the twins later.” And, with this he stomped from the house.
Lafayette arched an eyebrow at Thaddeus; however, his brother paid him no mind. Standing, Lafayette coughed, “Think I will head to the barn.”
Katharine wiped at Michaël’s tears.
Josephine pushed her food about her plate.
Simone briefly met his eyes.
Eudora inspected details on her dress.
And, Thaddeus remained studying the painting.
Lafayette swallowed the last of his coffee. Placing the empty cup by his plate, he pursed his lips, thinking, ’it ain’t m’ damn fault we have to leave.’
Out on the porch, Lafayette popped a cheroot in his mouth. Patting his pockets, he grumbled, ”Chiant, left m’ matches upstairs.” Sucking on his teeth, he eyed the door, ’Ain’t non way I am goin’ back in there with’em all staring at me like a nest of vipers. I can get a light at the barn.′
Instead, with a sigh, he dropped down on the carriage stone. ‘First time I have ever seen Father backtrack. Course, I ain’t ever seen Mams like that either. Maybe Father did not cave so much as give in, because it would be horrible if Mams declaration came true, and, it ain’t often she is wrong.’ Lafayette thought, chewing at the cheroot, the mere idea of Thaddeus dying raising the hair on his arms.
Climbing to his feet, he set to pacing, ‘Where the hell is Gabe? And, yesterday, when I told Father and Peter they should hang off fretting over‘em. ‘Cause who in their right mind was goin’ to mess with Gabe anyhow? Damnation but if both of ’em did not turn some hellish unfriendly glares m’ way. Do not know why it pissed ‘em off so. I was only tryin’ to make ‘em feel better.’ Stopping his pacing, Lafayette studied the traces of light on the eastern horizon, ‘Hellfire, Gabe’s probably lazing about in establishments best not mentioned in polite company.’
Weaving along through the line of cottonwoods and red rose bushes, he rolled the cheroot, chewing on its end. ‘Still, I was serious when I said, who would mess with Gabe? Hellfire, that the two of us are related, consistently astonishes me.’ Lafayette thought, plucking a cicada shell from the tree. Holding it up, he studied the golden outer skeleton and then placed it atop a brilliant red rose.
’Besides, how many times have Tad and I had to listen to Father’s mantra about Gabe, ’My eldest son is straight from my own family’s ancient Gaelic blood. Yes, sir, he is one brute of a man. I would wager there is not a man who could touch my Gabriel. He is prime not like my two younger ones. I consider it a shame how they were dosed with a so much of their Mother’s blue-blood. Neither of ‘em will ever fill the shadow their brother throws.’ Even recalling Father’s prideful boasting made Lafayette’s stomach pinch. It galled him the way Father would expound on the three of them as if they were so much breed stock.
Once, after having listened to him most of an afternoon, Tad and he had come home hating the world and ready to fight anything that moved. It had taken a bit, but when Mams got them to divulge why they were upset, she had hugged them close, saying, ‘You two ain’t ever goin’ to fill Gabe’s shadow, that be true. Yet, y’all do not lets it worry you nones. ‘Cause a day will arrive when y’all will be so handsome, non shadow will dare fall on you.’
Lafayette smiled, at the memory of her words, ’We were just garçons when she told us that. It did not go far in makin’ us feel better. We both came to realize what she meant. Oui, Gabe is big. Mighty big, and people tend to also walk right by him to greet Taddy or me. It is a sad truth ‘cause Gabe has a good heart, except he also has the appearance of a man to avoid. His jaw is so large, it looks to be shaped from a chunk of stovepipe wood and his twice-broke, crooked nose does not assist him any. To make matters worse, he also inherited thick-lidded drooping eyes, giving him a sluggish, slow-witted appearance.’ Lafayette spit into the grass. ‘Course, I have seen him use people’s perceptions of him to his benefit many a time. Gabe is damn quick on the turn. I have learned a good-deal on how to out-think, out-barter, and generally outwit people from Gabe.’
Taking a seat with his back to a cottonwood, he closed his eyes, inhaling of the garden and listening to the birds stirring. ‘Hellfire, I bet he is sleepin’ off a drinking jag. Leastways, he will not have to face Katharine when he comes home. He told me last time she had railed after him crying and carrying on so badly, he felt like a speck of dust on a donkey’s ass. Still, I wish he were here. I would like to see mon gran frère before I am sent away. Hell, maybe he might even be able to sway Father’s judgment.’
Hearing rocks crunching, Lafayette climbed to his feet knowing Peter and Webster were bringing the teams up. Better make one more sweep of m; room; grab m’ wallet, matches, and whatever else catches my eye.”
Halfway back down the curving stairs, Lafayette heard, “Holds up.” Turning, he saw the twins standing against the second-floor railing.
Racing up the wide stairs, he took Eudora into a tight embrace, “I will miss you,” he choked around the lump forming in his throat.
Kissing his face, she asked, “You will come back soon?”
“I will try fille, I will try.” He kissed her again, hugging her to him. “Je t’aime.”
Releasing her, he turned to Thaddeus, who was chewing on his lower lip, his lashes glistening.
With a sniff, Thaddeus extended his hand, “I ain’t much at farewells. We ain’t ever had need of ’em.”
Grabbing his hand, Lafayette pulled his brother into a hug, “I know and I will miss you the most. Watch over Sienna and s’il vous plait, take care of yourself.”
“You, too.” Thaddeus said, leaning back to look his brother in the eyes. “I mean it. Damnation Lafe, look at the trouble you got into without me watchin’ your back for just une day.”
Lafayette smiled weakly and, pressing his forehead to Thaddeus’, he whispered, “Je t’aime, m’ frère.”
Patting him on the back of the neck, Thaddeus answered, “Je t’aime,” and with a throaty growl, he pushed away. “Get! Before you have me weepin’ like some fuckin’ fille.”
Nodding, Lafayette kissed Eudora once more and bounded down the stairs. From the dining room, he raised his hand with a final faltering smile that scarcely raised his dimples. This time before leaving the house, he made sure to stroke the bronze statue of Boreas Red. Then he was out the door and mounted on Coffee.
Seeing him, Mams ran from the carriage, where she had been telling the girls goodbye. “Mon fils,” she cried, reaching for him.
Leaping from the saddle, he took her in his arms.
“You behave yourself, m’ fils. It breaks my heart to see you go, but you will do well in the Veux Carré. I have faith you will. It is in your blood. You will do well there.” Hugging him close, she said, “I hope to again see you, Je t’aime.”
“I ain’t leavin’ forever. I will be back,” he answered, gazing down into her gold eyes. “Mams, I need you to know something before I leave.”
With a hard swallow, he said, “You are m’ Mère and I will miss you terribly.”
“Oh, m’ garçon, Je t’aime, but I am not your Mère, and you should not say such things. Your Mère was a grand Madame. She would be--”
He stopped her words by placing a finger before her mouth, “For me, it does not matter what she would think. I have non connection with her. You, Mams are m’ Mère. You always have been and always will be. Je t’aime.” Kissing her cheeks, he leapt aboard Coffee, spinning him away from the house before anyone else could see the tears coursing down his cheeks.
He had almost escaped when his Father called, “Lafe.”
Pulling the gelding to a halt, he brushed at the tears, making Antonio walk to him.
Placing a hand on his son’s knee, Antonio said. “You, guard over ’em.” He pointed to the carriage. “All of ’em. Guard ’em day and night. I am placing my trust in you. Remember family, blood, truth, and honor.” Giving the knee a squeeze, his voice tight, he whispered, “make me proud, Lafayette Henri.”
“I will do precisely as you say.”
“Good, good.” Antonio looked up into his son’s tight face, noting the wetness. “It will not be as bad as you deem.” And, patting Lafayette’s leg, he walked away.
When the freight wagon disappeared over a rise, Lafayette pulled himself from his thoughts, urging Coffee into a fast trot. In short order, he caught and passed Webster. Trotting by the carriage next, he tipped his hat to Katharine and blew a kiss to Michaël; all the while, averting his eyes from Josephine. ’She has rearranged m’ life and I loathe her for it. Yet, I will uphold my promise. I will guard her unto my death. Ad hoc, I am not required to be an ounce more than cordial.’ Glancing back, he knew one day, he would have to forgive her, but with a snort he grumbled, “It sure as hell, ain’t goin’ to be anytime soon.”