The design of the second floor of the Crowe’s home, Sienna, was much like a Veux Carré courtyard. All the rooms hugged the outer walls, leaving the center open; save for its great curving staircase. A thick set of black-walnut sliding doors separated each room from its neighbor, day-to-day; these doors remained closed, creating private rooms. Only when the heat of summer set the house afire were all the doors and windows thrown open allowing cool winds to swirl throughout.
Lafayette hoped that when he opened the sliding doors he would not wake Thaddeus. The more rest his younger brother got, the better his chances of whipping the ague. At least, this was the generalized term; Doctor Mathews had applied to his brother’s lingering illness. Although, Lafayette agreed with Mams that the Doctor seemed to have not one harebrained notion of what was ailing Thaddeus. The one point anyone knew for sure, was he kept relapsing; he would become feverish, peculiarly weak, and breathing became almost impossible.
“Hellfire Lafe, you can hang off sneakin’ in like a haunt. You have made enough fuckin’ noise I have been up for hours.” Thaddeus growled.
Lafayette literally bit his lower lip to keep his reply to himself. For he knew he was not the cause of his brother being awake. Nevertheless, he also knew when bored. Thaddeus seemed to find perverse joy in kicking up a row with anyone who would fight back. And, regrettably, being confined had given him a chance to hone his skills. Not wishing to quarrel, Lafayette took a deep breath, telling himself, ‘do not rise to any bait he throws at you.’
Stepping in, he was assaulted by the competing stench of stale cigar smoke and the sour bitterness of illness. All about him, he saw signs of Thaddeus having stalked about the room and in his apathy, his brother had lazily discarded items as soon as he touched them. Approaching the large four-poster bed, Lafayette scowled at the empty bed with its blankets lying in a disheveled mess on the floor.
“Over here.” Thaddeus called, from where he was standing between the long curtains of the French doors leading to the veranda. The morning light haloed his thin body, clad only in a pair of rumpled pants with his bare back glistening under a layer of sweat.
“Come on, Taddy, you are supposed to be in bed.”
“What the hell for?” Thaddeus replied hobbling around like an old timer on an icy day and taking a seat on the cane bottom chair, he must have brought in from the veranda. “It damn well ain’t been helpin’ me thus far,” he said, chewing on a cigar, releasing sluggish puffs into the already stuffy room.
Moving closer, Lafayette saw another round of fever had reduced his brother’s bronze skin to an ashen gray with his thick, black brows and the stubble peppering his sunken cheeks standing out in starker contrast than usual.
Pulling the cigar from his mouth with a shaky hand, Thaddeus let it dangle from his fingers. “Well, ain’t Mams got you baited out as a fuckin’ marriageable prospect.”
Slipping a finger under the thick, double wrapping about his neck, Lafayette felt certain it was gradually strangling the life out of him, and reminded his self, ‘Do not take the bait, he wants to rile you into a hollering match.’
Taking another drag on the cigar, Thaddeus’ vivid, green eyes slid up-and-down his brother, “If ‘n I recollect the most obtainable girl at the party will be Miss Elizabeth.” Carrying intimate knowledge of his brother’s true thoughts on the girl, Thaddeus broke into a toothy smile. “You goin’ to be courting her for nuptials?”
“Chiant! I cannot believe you would verbalize such a horrid idea.” Lafayette cried out emphasizing his words by shoving his hands away from him. “Damnation, Taddy, you rightly know, I would not have her for all the gold in California.”
Having found a chink in his brother’s facade, Thaddeus set to laughing until a hollow, wet, cough took hold of him. The cough tortured him. It continued on and on, until at last with a mighty gag, he was able to regain control. With his breathing sounding like wind whistling through dry grass, he looked into his brother’s face. They were inches from each other for Lafayette had rushed to Thaddeus’ side, prepared to do whatever his brother bade of him. Taking a shallow breath, Thaddeus hissed, “Ain’t I just recuperatin’ fuckin’ fine?”
His bitter words did nothing to make either of them feel better, and staring into each other’s eyes, a drawn out silent conversation passed between them. In the end Lafayette stood, searching for anything to say to erase the dark thoughts they had shared. And when his eyes returned to his brother, he was knocking another chunk of cigar ash onto the wool rug. “It comes to reason Father’s goin’ to knock you sideways when he sees this room.”
“Bullocks! I can outright say I would welcome it.” Thaddeus wheezed, jutting his chin, squaring up for battle. “I am so fuckin’ fed up. You might as well shoot me to end my damn sufferin’. All the fuss being made over me is rubbin’ me plain raw.” His brows knitted even tighter together. “And, here you is headin’ out to one of the last damn picnics of the year, and me... me... I am quarantined like I am a bona-fide pox carrier.”
Lafayette returned to his brother’s side. “Do not be preposterous,” and dropping an arm about his shoulders, he flinched, because Thaddeus was hotter than the winning horse off a mile-long track. “I ain’t goin’ to have a lick of damn enjoyment without you.” With a heave, he assisted Thaddeus to his feet. The two of them weaving across the room like drunken pals, and all the while, Lafayette trying to ignore how the slow steps were costing his brother.
At the bed Thaddeus turned, sitting with a magnificent plop. He sat inhaling short, shallow breaths through his nose, the muscles in his jaw popping all the louder as he chewed on the cigar, “Aw, fuckin’ air up to it Lafe, you are only goin’ on so, to make me feel better.”
Before Lafayette found an answer, Thaddeus released a bone weary groan and began struggling to right himself into the bed.
Wanting to assist, Lafayette stayed where he was. Knowing if he helped, it would touch a match to Thaddeus’ temper. Had his brother not, just minutes ago, said how tired he was of being fussed over? So instead, he began gathering the blankets and speaking loud enough to cover Thaddeus’ strained grunts. “You are incorrect in your assumption. My druthers would be to have you by mon side. It does not feel natural ridin’ off the damn place without you.”
This was an absolute truth. Lafayette had been shy of two-years-old when Thaddeus was born. By the time Thaddeus was two, he had created a routine of sticking closer to his elder brother than his own shadow ever could; he made them inseparable. Thinking of this and how intertwined their lives were, Lafayette said aloud, what he ordinarily kept inside. “Hellfire Taddy, you realize, I feel damn lost without you.”
“Ah, you do not mean that.”
Taking a seat on the edge of the bed, Lafayette really looked at his brother.
Thaddeus Robert had always been a robust example of good health. But before him, all he saw was a weak, corpse-pale, young man who even had to work to keep a cigar clenched between his teeth. “Non, Taddy, I mean it.” Lafayette replied, plucking the cigar from his brother’s mouth and tossing it in the nearest half-empty water glass.
“Damn it, Lafe! That was a Louisiana Maduro. And, to top the barrel, I ain’t got non more fuckin’ smokes.”
“I can see why.” Lafayette replied, waving his hand at the rug covered with innumerable piles of ash. “Sides, I am of the impression smokin’, ain’t entirely what you need to be doing, right about damn now.”
“Oh, I see. You are right on board with the rest of ‘em. Boss me around... figure what the hell is best for me. It does not surprise me none, since you are fuckin’ skunkin’ off and abandoning me for Mams to harass all damn day long. I tell you, if the ague ain’t the death of me, it will be all her mollycoddling.”
A hearty laugh burst from Lafayette, for in truth, he would not want to be in Thaddeus’ position. Moreover, it was not because of the ague. It was the vision of Mams invading his privacy, stripping him of any authority and freedom at her slightest whim.
“Cuss you to hell.” Thaddeus snarled, his nose wrinkling. Once more, proving any manners, beseeched, or beaten into him, he was willing to throw away at the slightest frustration. “You come in here shining all over me about leaving and knowin’ I ain’t been out of this fuckin’ room in a month of Sundays.”
“Taddy,” Lafayette tilted his head, bestowing on him a smile that could best be described as a twisted smirk. “We both know you are scrimping the truth. ’Cause, I know as well as you. You stole that Maduro from Father’s study.” Patting his brother’s leg, same as he would to calm a dog, he went on, “and, to be honest, I do not comprehend how you managed to sneak down there. Besides, I did not come in here to fuckin’ shine all over you. I merely came in here to check on you.” The moment the words ‘check on you’ crossed his lips, Lafayette knew he had made a grievous error.
“Screw and fuckin’ cuss you!” Thaddeus hollered, sitting bolt upright, his eyes taking on a wicked glint. “You ain’t required to check on me like some fuckin’ bébé. Get the fuck out of my room! And, you can be assured; I ain’t requirin’ your charity neither. So, do not bother draggin’ your sorry ass back in here. You can just piss off!”
Not wanting to rile him further and possibly raise his fever more, Lafayette restrained from replying. When from the corner of his eye, he saw a punch coming at him. Quicker than a stallion’s bite, he snatched the fist out of the air, his own eyes shifting to flints of obsidian. “You can cease dog eyeing me this moment, garçon.” Tapping his brother’s chest with a rigid forefinger, he growled, “you ain’t got the right to strike me... and you fuckin’ know it! I will be damned if’n I can fathom what goes through your mind. I am the best ami, you have in this world, and I will not allow you to treat me thus. It ain’t my fault you garnered this blamed maladie, rubbing elbows, and who knows what else, with that fuckin’, filthy McIntosh clan. So, do not think for one second, I am goin’ to allow you to take your frustrations out on me.”
The McIntosh clan lived off the Missouri river and survived on anything they could steal from it or the people who traveled on it. Their home was a run a ground riverboat and like a pack of rats, each successive generation had enlarged the structure to fit their needs. Its haphazard frame contained the den of the vilest sins occurring non-stop around the clock. Hence, most of the populace avoided them, unless they wanted to gamble, imbibe cheap hooch, or ball up with cheaper women. For these were the virtues of the place and they called to young men like a siren’s song. All three of the Crowe brothers, and nearly all of their companions, had visited the den from time to time and never did they mention it openly, especially not around decent folks.
At any rate, when Thaddeus and his best pal, Fox Northrup had last given in to the song, Thaddeus had not escaped with just his morals stained. No, he brought a fever illness with him. Mams said it was because he had been lying with the dirt of the earth and the bonne Dieu had stricken ’em with maladie to punish ’em. Doctor Mathews was not as prone to dramatics and had dryly told Thaddeus, he had the ague, and that with rest and strong doses of quinine, it would run its course to the end. What end, the Doctor had never elaborated.
Abruptly, Thaddeus’ chest began to buck accompanied by panicked, hissing intakes. The ague was robbing him of his ability to breathe and grabbing him under his arms, Lafayette jerked him upright, shoving a pile of pillows behind him.
The instant Thaddeus began to recover; he opened his mouth, prepared to light back into Lafayette.
“Ferme ta gueule! You have my blood good and heated.” Lafayette roared, ripping off his frock coat and tossing it across the end of the bed. ”Je m’en fou! I am through with this foolishness and I am advisin’ you to not hedge your damn bets.
Going to the sideboard, he poured tepid water in a basin and returned taking a seat alongside his brother. He noted doing so was like cozying up to banked hot coals. Wiping Thaddeus with the water, he said, “Damnation Taddy! You will cease smokin’ until your lungs stop rattling. And, I mean what I say, even if I gotta tie you to this fuckin’ bed.”
“Lafe---.” Thaddeus began, but clamped his mouth shut at his brother’s arched eyebrow.
“You will also break-off dosing the family with your bad manners. Do you honestly believe we are not weary of your invalid state? Do you truly presume we relish seein’ you this way?”
Thaddeus ducked his face behind his raised hand.
“You may be m’ frère, yet there are days par Dieu, I want to knock your fool head in. Why do you not put more effort into following directives and less into stirrin’ up hell?” Dragging the cloth behind Thaddeus’ head rivulets of water streamed down his bare chest. “Damn it, look at me.”
Thaddeus dropped his hand; his dark lashes still covering his eyes as he stared off the side of the bed.
Aggravated, Lafayette grabbed his face, forcing him around. His breathing had returned to normal, a bit of color was pinking his cheeks, and his eyes were clearer. Releasing him with a shove, Lafayette returned to the sideboard and poured a fresh glass of water. While there, he inhaled deeply, straining to tamp his anger away. “Taddy… it is just as well you ain’t goin’ with me today.”
Sounding petulant, Thaddeus asked, “Why?”
“If you went to the picnic, in the humor you are presently in, we would be forced to spend the day guardin’ each other’s backsides. Because, I am damn positive, you would incite a right good brawl with each nincompoop you came in contact with.”
Thaddeus wrinkled his nose. He knew Lafayette was right, which made it all the more insufferable, for Lafayette was always right.
Reading him, Lafayette could see he had resigned to losing this battle and leaning in, he assisted Thaddeus in drinking water. Placing the glass on the side table, he stared hard at his little brother. Suddenly, he reached out brushing Thaddeus’ long, ebony bangs from his eyes, thinking. ‘I empathetically wish you were joinin’ me, if for non other reason than I would not be alone and I could even foist Elizabeth off on you.’
One point about Thaddeus, he loved the gals. All the gals, though he never took any of them seriously. In addition, the gals loved him, waltzing around him like dragonflies along a river.
Standing once more, Lafayette flashed his dimples, “You do appreciate a large percentage of the monsieurs will be right cheerful when they realize you ain’t present.”
“Why? I get along with all of ’em… even the ones I done exchanged blows with.”
“The way I figure it, with you not being there, it leaves just little old moi.” Lafayette’s grin expanded until his nose wrinkled, “See, for some time, I have had a notion when we deux attend a shindig... well, we seem to have a bit of an unfair advantage over the rest of ’em poor bastards.”
Thaddeus’ mouth dropped open, the storm clouds clearing from his eyes, and then his single dimple was dancing in his left cheek. “You swollen-headed coot! Get the hell out of here, before I decide to go and fuckin’ show you who the gals truly esteem.”
Theatrically snapping off a salute, Lafayette snatched up his jacket, and marched from the room. Just when Thaddeus thought he was alone, his brother peeked back around the door; “Hey Tad... une faveur.”
“Hold your temper in check and work on recouping. Je t’aime." Saying this, he quickly shut the door before his brother could reply with false bravado. Though they loved each other deeply, it was rare for them to say it. Still, he wanted Thaddeus to hear it, particularly after their disagreement.