Leaping to her feet, Eudora raced through her pile of sumac branches a flurry of red leaves flying into the air.
The leaves spun to the ground like droplets of blood and he could hear Mams clear as a bell saying, ‘people is being made dead when they wander off.’ Breathing fast, he remained low to the ground, feeling the weight of his extended Remington in his hand. His eyes flicked to the hammer already cocked. ‘I do not recall even pulling it,’ he thought swallowing hard. Hearing his rapid pulse in his ears, he slowed his breathing, calming his self as he waited for whatever it was to jump from the woods.
At the edge of the pin oaks Eudora realized, her brother was not with her and she stopped outside their dark shadows, “Taddy?”
The breaking brush and huffing snorts told him it would be a horse soon emerging.
“Damn it fille, do what I said,” he hissed, risking a glance to see if she were minding and as he did a large, muscled, black horse burst from the trees.
“Taddy!” The rider hollered, yanking his wide brimmed hat from his head as his horse threw clods of dirt around Thaddeus.
Even as the long sandy colored bangs fell obscuring the rider’s face, Thaddeus lowered the pistol having already recognized the horse. Bursting from his crouched position, he shouted, “Jackson, I damn near blew your fuckin’ head off!”
“I heard gunfire and feared the worst.” Jackson said, replacing his hat and scanning the open meadow, “You alone?”
“Alone?” Thaddeus echoed, trying to figure out what was wrong.
Sliding from his saddle, Jackson loosened the girth, his smoky blue eyes still scanning the area for trouble. “I heard gunfire.”
“I was target shootin’,” over his shoulder, he called, “it is just Jackson. Come on out. I was curious if’n I had lost my edge after being laid up so damn long.”
Seeing Eudora’s pale face emerging from behind a tree, Jackson’s mouth fell open. Closing it, he opened it twice more before he could find his voice, “Dora’s here?”
Thaddeus grunted, “Uh huh,” tilting his head to the side.
“You should not be straying so far from the house.” Jackson scolded, jabbing a finger toward Eudora, “above all, not with her at your side.”
One of Thaddeus black brows dipped low, his lip rising in a snarl.
Shaking his head, a bemused smile came to Jackson’s face, “I see your temper did not abandon you while you were ill. Taddy, if I had been someone else; say someone unsociable. Well, events might have gotten touchy, right quick.” His blue eyes shifted to Eudora as she drew near “… and then what?”
Thaddeus angled his eyes toward her too. “Has it really gotten so bad?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Most men, I have spoken with find it is better to ride on the side of caution. I urge you in the future to doing your practicing up near the house,” Jackson replied, walking his horse to cool it down. “As I said,” his eyes shifted once more to Eudora, “I feared ill when I heard gunfire and pushed the hell out of Nero to get here.”
Thaddeus let his fingers wrap around the butt of the Remington, ‘Is he expectin’ me to believe, it is too damn risky for a man to do what the hell he has a mind to on his own property? Cass cannot have changed so much while Mams kept me inside. Surly, decent folk are not fuckin’ behavin’ as Jackson is hinting.’ Thinking this, he spit on the ground and in a tone bordering on sarcasm, he said. “Fine, I will keep your damn advice in mind.”
Stepping up on Thaddeus, Jackson barked, “You best keep it in the front of your mind!”
The scowl returned and this time Thaddeus’ shoulders squared up; however he held back from taking a swing as he had not forgotten the wallop Jackson’s left hook packed.
“You best cling tight to that fear you felt when you had no idea who was coming out of the trees.” Jackson hissed and exhaling, he backed off, scratching at his golden, close-cropped beard adding, “Taddy, I am not seeking to boss you. It is just... well, suppose I had been someone else entirely.”
Nodding Thaddeus knelt next to his revolver case, packing it. “Tell you what Jackson I will take you at your word.”
Returning to walking Nero, who had been a sixteenth birthday present from the Crowes, Jackson ambled along making small talk with Eudora. Except the entire time he spoke with her, he was fretting over what might have happened to the twins. Until at last he stopped and tightened his saddle cinch, “I ain’t seen Lafe since the Barnett’s. You figure he is at the house or the stables?”
“Father sent him away.” Eudora answered.
“What?” Jackson blurted, letting his stirrup fall back in place. He looked from one twin to the other, “Taddy... when?”
Eudora saw Thaddeus was not going to answer so she said. “He sent ’em rights after the picnic, sent ’em, Jo, Katharine, and Mikey to visit Gran-mère in Louisiana. And, Jackson, you should have seen how all-fired mad Lafe was. But, Father still made ‘em go. He kept on sayin’ it would be safer for ’em. He said me and Taddy had to go, but Mams she said we did not. She said Taddy could not because he would die on the trip. My, but Father was angry and later he said, Lafe was bad to fight so that was why he had to go.”
Jackson mumbled, “Is that so?”
“Yeah! It is fuckin’ so,” Thaddeus snapped, his fists clenching tight.
Jackson looked at his boots and seeing they were covered in dust, set to rubbing each toe on the back of his pant leg, thinking, ‘it was their Father’s right, to make Lafe clear out. It was also a sensible move and I hope others see it the same.’
Thaddeus blurted, “It ain’t fair how Father decided Lafe’s future.” He could feel his temper simmering into a right good fighting mood. “He would not listen to’em, just made’em leave. What fuckin’ right did he have? Know what Jackson, the hell with ’em and you too! ‘Cause I expect you are standin’ there thinkin’ Lafe has thrown a skirt over his head and ran away. Well, fuck you!”
“Thaddeus Robert!?” Eudora hollered. “You apologize.”
“Not to me.”
Thaddeus looked to Jackson, his lip curling into a tight snarl.
“Taddy, hey...” Jackson held up his hands. “I am not here to fight. I am on Lafe’s side and I agree with you.” Smiling half-heartedly, he gingerly took hold of Thaddeus’ shoulder, gripping it. “I deeply regret I was away at Medical Classes in St. Joe. I would have liked to have seen him before he left.” Jackson sighed, “Anyway, y’all remember we Ericksen’s are just beyond the fence line, if you need us.”
The corner of Thaddeus’ mouth twitched and the snarl fell away, ashamed he lowered his eyes. ’Damnation, Jackson is Lafe’s closest ami. Ain’t no way Jackson would ever speak poorly of’em. But I am sure to get an earful when m’ frère hears how I spoke to his ami." Looking up, he stepped forward, laying a hand on Nero’s shoulder, stopping Jackson from mounting, ”Mes excuses you rightly know my temper and mouth get ahead of me. Come on up for a cool drink or a stiff one, whichever you prefer.”
“Thank you Taddy, another time. I was on my way home when you changed my course.”
Eudora’s green eyes had been flicking between the two of them and abruptly she asked, “Jackson is you really and truly mad at Taddy?”
Her nose wrinkled and leaning closer, she asked, “Then is you scared?”
Blue and green eyes both turned on her.
“Why, Eudora dear, you simply are not reading me correctly. I am merely tired it has been a long ride from St. Joe,” Jackson replied. Tipping his hat to her and looking to Thaddeus, he motioned with his eyes for him to send her away.
“Chérie would you go gather up them sumac branches? I reckon, they might soften Mams roar just a touch.”
“All righty,” she chirped, and with a skip and a hop she danced off across the tall grass like a butterfly.
Once she was well out of earshot, Jackson grabbed the back of Thaddeus’ neck, reeling him in close. “Lafe being gone changes everything! I cannot stay silent.”
Thaddeus immediately set about twisting free.
Jackson snapped, “Hold still, damn YOU!”
At his tone, Thaddeus ceased fighting to stare into Jackson’s face.
Jackson looked deep into Thaddeus’ dilated eyes, feeling his snorting breaths, on his own face, “have I your full attention?”
Thaddeus’ nodded sharply.
“Good.” Jackson grunted. “I see the man in you ready to emerge. Lafe and I have joshed, most of the year, over how you have been playing at the part. Well, Taddy, playtime is over.”
Thaddeus’ brow crinkled, his eyes softening as he gave into his confusion.
“Listen up, I am no longer politely advising but ordering you... do not stray off by yourself! For the Lord’s sake, leave Eudora at the house. Keep that Remington loaded and on your person. Word is Gabe is leading a partisan unit. If that is true, he has left you as Sienna’s lone sentry, without giving you a damn word to the wise.” Jackson briefly closed his eyes. “Damnation! I wish Lafe were here for you. Since he is not, I am informing you, Thaddeus Robert, you best keep scared day and night. For if Gabe irritates the wrong people, your world may be set on fire and I am not speaking metaphorically either.”
Thaddeus took a step back from the vehemence rolling from Jackson. However, he did not make it far as Jackson had not loosened his grip any.
“You may feel my friendship is solely with Lafe, but that is not so. Hell, I see you like the little brother I never had. I love all y’all Crowes over here like kin. So since Lafe ain’t here, I am speaking to you same as he would... watch yourself! Times are changing, changing fast.” Slipping his hand to the side of Thaddeus’ face, Jackson looked deep into his eyes. “I wish you the best, Taddy and if I did not have my own family to see too, I would stay on here with you.” Jackson patted the side of Thaddeus’ face and releasing him, he leapt into his saddle. “Heed me and take care. Give my regards to your family,” and with a nod, he waved, calling, “bye Dora.” When he looked down, he saw Thaddeus had not moved an inch, their eyes locked, “Are we good?”
Swallowing down the rock that had taken up residence in his throat, Thaddeus nodded, mumbling, “Yeah, yeah we are.”
With an answering nod, Jackson spurred his horse into the trees.
A cool wind eddied about Thaddeus and he felt the hair along his neck rise up. “Hey Dora, let’s head home.” Moving into the gloaming darkness under the pin oaks, he shot a look behind them. His eyes were open now and he knew he would never feel safe out in the open again.