Staring at the shifting, snapping coals of the fire, Antonio refilled his glass of bourbon. Taking a large swallow, he felt its warmth ebbing through him. Drinking all of it, he refilled the glass, taking another gulp before setting it down. And, yet still, his hand shook so badly that when he took up his writing quill, he spattered ink drops across the paper.
November 12, 1859
Sienna, Harrisonville, Cass County, Missouri
Thank you for the letters and telegraphs you have sent. I found it amusing to read of your adventures traveling South. However, I am still perplexed as to why the last telegraph I received arrived from Katharine. Such an errand is inappropriate for a lady. How are we to protect her virtuous nature when you send her among unsavory elements to perform a masculine errand? I would not believe it should be required for me to emphasize as male chaperone, a portion of your task is to protect a lady’s piety at all times? I impress on you to recall your responsibilities to your sisters’ welfare, and further wish to remind you how your choices will reflect directly upon our family name.
By this date, I am optimistic you all are securely ensconced in Lorraine’s home. Since you have not made me cognizant of your status, I must remain optimistic all is well.
I wish for you to know we are all doing well here. Peter is of the opinion, come spring we will have a decent crop of horses to sell. Having gone through the herd, I am inclined to agree. You should know your absence has been greatly felt. I am confident others here would say the same. Being short-handed has been rather taxing. It has educated me to how valuable it is to have a full crew on hand. I mention this because while Peter and Web were escorting you to Rupe’s Landing, we had six more slaves run off. I did not bother placing bulletins, or searching for them. Their absconding has encouraged me to render a decision, that both you and Tad have hounded me on for some time, although I do not deem it prudent for you to advertise what I am writing to you here.
As of the first of this month, I freed our remaining slaves. Moreover, I gifted each of them a sum of money on the condition they would move away from Sienna. I chose this course of action, as I have come to consider being a slave owner in a State as divided as ours may lead to tragic consequences.
Due to my decision, only Simone, Peter, Web, George, and Marie remain as paid servants leaving myself and your brothers to keenly feel your absence. Thusly, I have made plans for hiring on hands during spring planting. I feel certain after a year or two, we each will become authorities at managing Sienna under these new boundaries.
The weather has been unseasonably warm this fall. A true Indian summer, like the one we had the year Boreas raced at every track from Albany to Atlanta. Due to the warmth, we have somehow managed to put off hog butchering well past its usual date. Although I am sure this is partly due to becoming accustomed to not having slaves. Simone, though, has informed me it must be done. I spoke of simply purchasing meat in Harrisonville. It was then she educated me that there is much more attained from hog butchering then merely meat. With this in mind, I am certain we will be scheduling the event shortly.
I suppose, I should have begun this letter by relating Tad’s recovery. He has thankfully regained his full health and has been extremely useful; so be at ease regarding your younger brother.
I also require you to comprehend, even though I lament the loss of your assistance and of your company. I do not regret my choice of sending you South. The more I contemplate your entanglement with the Federal officer; the more firmly I feel regarding my decision. I have also come to appreciate, at your grandmother’s age, having family nearby is an enormous solace to her. I counsel you to adhere to all of her requests as I have a clear-cut conviction, once she is better acquainted with your disposition, she will place you in charge of her affairs. When her brother passed, near a year ago, she consigned the management of Begnoir-Bueford industry into the hands of her attorneys. Despite having written how she trusts them implicitly, I have a firm belief she would feel far more at ease to have matters controlled by a male of her family line.
When I consider how alone she has been this past year, I cannot help feeling embarrassed for not offering you to her before now. I am humiliated it took your unfortunate mishap to remind me of my obligations. Seems my pride over having three sons causes my mind to lapse regarding others. I ought to have been more generous to Lorraine prior to this. It was egocentric of me to not share the strength and companionship of her male descendants with her. Lafayette, I hold a secure belief you will flourish in Louisiana, for reasons I do not wish to go into at this time, one could even say you are destined to flourish there. Please, let go your stubbornness and consign yourself to your fate. I command you to cease conspiring schemes aimed at restoring you to Sienna. You are to remain with Lorraine until a point in time arrives when you are requested home.
Furthermore, you must by no means forget, the safety of your sisters is wholly your obligation. Should they suffer, no plea you could muster would be adequate. In accordance, I remind you to sentry over them even better than you would your own self.
With love, your Father, Antonio Crowe
Dropping the quill, Antonio reached for a drink and found his glass empty. Pushing himself unsteadily to his feet, the steady thrum of self-loathing pounded like war drums through his body. Stumbling to the mahogany sideboard, he thought, ‘Perhaps a touch more will make me numb.’
Knocking the glass cork from the crystal decanter, he drank from the neck, swallowing rush after rush of the amber liquid. Closing his eyes, he felt drunkenness overtaking him and setting the bottle down, staggered to the French doors. Before him moonlight bathed the yard, a milky white, yet, all he could see was his eldest son.
Antonio found he was incapable of stopping his mind as it once more replayed the fight he and Gabriel had participated in hours before. It was like he was stuck on an unending track retracing the same stretch of ground.
Earlier the same day…
Standing in the front hall, Antonio hollered, “I am saddling up to ride fence lines
before the herd is turned out.” Receiving no answer for the third time, he thought, ’Damn that boy, I can hear ‘em. Why must he forever be pushing me.’ Rolling his jaw, he roared, Tad, answer me!”
An annoyed sounding reply drifted down from the second floor. “I will join you after I finish fillin’ these damn wood bins.”
“Very well, I am starting on the north line.” Antonio replied, grabbing his hat, ’Damnation, if that boy is not a continual thorn in my side. Still out of all of ’em, he is...” His thoughts of Thaddeus fell away as he stepped onto the front porch, at last laying eyes on his eldest. Seeing him, Antonio mumbled, ‘Thank you, Lord, for guarding him.’ For weeks, each night he laid down, his mind would fashion new and more gruesome imaginations for Gabriel’s absence. After his initial relief, Antonio’s anger welled to the surface, “Where the hell have you been!?”
Stumbling over his words, Gabriel replied, “Well, Howdy to you, too.”
“Are you intoxicated?”
A sneering jack-o-lantern smile spread across Gabriel’s face, “Considerably.”
The drunkenness angered Antonio, “I demand you explain your whereabouts!”
The only indication Gabriel heard him, was as he brushed past him, he ceased laughing.
Following on his heels, Antonio snagged hold of Gabriel’s broad, rounded shoulder. “Answer me when I address you, boy. I want to know where you have been.”
Shrugging his hand off, as if it was no more than an errant leaf, Gabriel lumbered on toward the central staircase and after a hearty belch, gulped out, “Oh, here-and-there.”
“Not a sufficient answer.” Antonio snapped, moving to block Gabriel’s progress. “Where the hell have you been for so long?”
“Why the fuck should I tell you?”
For a drawn out breath, they eyed each other.
When with a snarl Antonio shoved Gabriel, sending him wind-milling backwards. “Why!? For the reason, I am your Father. Damnation Gabe, you have become a filthy, work-shy, irresponsible drunk. You are an embarrassing, deadweight to this family.” Having chased after his son as he ranted, Antonio finished his declaration with a backhand blow, so strong it caused Gabriel’s head to bounce off the wall.
Licking the trace of blood from his lower lip, Gabriel growled. “You cannot fathom how dearly, right now, I wish to tear you limb from limb.” Shoving himself off the wall, he took a step toward Antonio. ”But I am tellin’ myself… it would be wrong.” Yet, despite his words, Gabriel’s fists were rolled into granite stones. “Still, if’n I tally right, I would estimate, I am of an age to manage my own life and without your fuckin’ say so. So from now on, I will continue doin’ what the fuck I want, when I fuckin’ want, without your fuckin’ permission, Father.”
Antonio’s nose wrinkled and before either of them saw it happening, he punched Gabriel sending him staggering, “Gabriel Matthew, you best adjust your mind-set, recall where you are and whom you are addressing.”
“Trust me…” Gabriel said, swiping at the blood streaming from his nose, “I am tryin’ damn hard, right about now, to do just that.” And, veering around his Father, he stomped toward the staircase.
‘I do not know this person.’ Antonio thought, regarding his son before saying, “What has become of you?”
Hearing him, Gabriel clung to the newel post, laying his head on his arms, “I am fed up.” He answered, sounding exhausted. “Fed up with...” he waved a hand around him, “but about now more than anything else I want sleep.”
What he said was puzzling to Antonio for he could find no framework to attach it too. Watching the effort it was taking his son to drag himself up each step; a singular and rather new, insight came to him. ‘Gabriel needs me.’ For the first time, Antonio could recall, he saw something more important than being the top stallion.
Moving to Gabriel’s side, he slid an arm about his waist, “I should not have struck you. You are drunk and do not know what you are saying. Let me assist you to your room before you fall. When you are sober, we can talk and figure out what is causing you to destroy yourself. Perhaps I might be able to --” He stopped speaking when he saw Gabriel staring at him as if spiders were crawling out of his ears.
Licking his lips, Antonio thought, ‘his eyes have the look of a wild-thing caught in a trap.’ Swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth, Antonio moved in closer to his son, “It is all right... you can lean on me and tell me what is wrong after you have slept and I will fix whatever is ailing you.”
No sooner had these words left his mouth than Gabriel scrambled haphazardly away, tripping and launching himself from the staircase. As he fell backwards, his eyes shot wide, a garbled cry jolting from him as he hit the floor. Despite the jarring landing, he crab-crawled further from his father, shrieking, “You stay the hell away from me!”
Edging toward his son, Antonio thought, ‘He must have gotten hold of bad rotgut and it has poisoned him.’ Holding out a hand, he cooed, “Gabe...” using the same voice, he had for years on spooked, snorting yearlings. “Gabriel, it is all right.”
“No. No! NO!” Gabriel shrieked, his eyes showing more white than brown. Clambering to his feet, he screamed even louder. “You do not get to put on airs like you care for me!”
Glancing about, Antonio did not see a soul to assist him as he edged down the runner toward Gabriel. Rolling out a smile, he soothed, “Shhh, easy, you got hold of some whiskey that is poisoning you. Shhh, let me assist.”
Shaking his head anda retreating Gabriel slammed into the far wall with drunken tears raining from his face, garbling out, “Get back... stay back!”
Inching closer, Antonio maintained his soft voice, “Hush now... You are my son... I have always cared for you. Gabriel, let me care for you now.”
Gabriel turned his head sideways pushing himself against the wall.
“Come on... Gabe, I love you... Let me help you.”
“I said, stay the hell back! You are the one who left me when I needed you.” Then, with a roar he leapt up, howling, “Fuck You!” For a moment, Gabriel stood wavering on his feet and getting his balance, he smiled. “For fifteen years you have been like a King of Persia, returning from your adventures with presents and stories of the world you lived in. You chose to discard us for your adventures. You abandoned us; left us behind to be raised by negros. Now, after all this time you want to be part of our lives.” Gabriel raised his fist, saluting Antonio with his middle finger, “Well, screw you old man! How dare you claim to love me? My Father, the man I loved is as dead as m’Mère. You are nothing, except the man who enjoys layin’ claim on me, who comes around doling out so-called words of wisdom, and more often than not, a beating’ before
he hits the road again.” With a heave, Gabriel took a step. “I do not need your aid nor do I want it. Not now, not ever.”
The raw truth of his son’s words seared through Antonio, even as he clung to his belief, saying, “This ain’t you. Bad whiskey has fuddled your mind. You do not mean what you are saying.”
“Oh, but the joy is, I do. . . Every word.”
“Once the drink has worn off, we will speak more on this. I do not wish for you to say anything you will lament.”
“How in Lucifer’s bright red horns, am I going to regret sayin’ what I have been thinkin’ for years?”
“I will not listen to a word more until you are clear-headed.” Antonio stated, walking away.
“You think, I am not clear-headed?!” Gabriel shouted.
Hearing him moving, Antonio glanced back to see Gabriel walking after him.
“I am clearer than I have ever been. You just do not want to hear it.”
Taking a deep breath, Antonio continued on toward his study.
“How fuckin’ typical!” Gabriel shouted. “Doin’ what you do best, ain’t ya Father?”
Coming to a halt, Antonio started to turn but instead continued on his way.
“Wait! Thought you wanted to know my goings and comings?” Gabriel’s taunting words filled Sienna. “I have been from Clay to Vernon County and back again. Now, more importantly, would you like to know what I heard all along the damn way? Why it has been the same thing…I have heard ‘till my gut is sick and my knuckles swollen from fuckin’ fightin’.”
Antonio turned, arching one eyebrow at Gabriel.
“Ah... you wish to listen now, huh?” The tip of Gabriel’s tongue flicked along his top teeth, giving him the look of a beast preparing to attack, “the talk of the counties is of m’ petit frère. No, wait.” Gabriel held up a hand, grinning and shaking his head. “Let me rephrase that. The talk of the counties is of how lily-livered and spineless m’ petit frère is.”
Antonio turned, his brows shooting up as fast as his mouth dropped open.
“See your scheme of sendin ’em away has ruined ’em. Between you and me… we both know you are the damn coward, not Lafe.”
Feeling the bones creaking within his balled up fists, Antonio reminded himself, ‘He is poison drunk.’
Stamping a boot on the floor, Gabriel growled, “How dare you impose your fuckin’ cowardice on Lafe? How dare you make ‘em seem like he picked a fight he could not finish and has run away with his tail between his damn legs! All I can say is, you will never do the same to me AND I am damn grateful, I did not inherit your fuckin’ yellow-streak.”
Antonio charged; his left fist connecting with Gabriel’s square jaw audibly snapping his head back and without letting up, he beat his son to his knees. Oddly, it Gabriel’s laughter that broke through Antonio’s rage and stumbling back, he stared in horror at his son’s bleeding, battered face.
Gabriel’s laughter rose, circling the hall, filling all of Sienna even more than his loud words. Baring his bloodied teeth like a wolf, he rolled into a squat, ruby drops splashing the front of his shirt.
Wide-eyed and breathless, Antonio stared at him.
The laughter abruptly collapsed around them as Gabriel spit a mouthful of blood onto the tapestry rug.
“Shut the hell up.” Gabriel stated, springing to his feet. “You talk of love. Ha! Well, this is not the first time I have felt your lovin’ caresses. Hellfire, this is kind fo like that day you gave Taddy all them lovin’ embraces. You recall that? How you fuckin’ beat m’ petit frère to the ground, and was kickin’ him like a worthless cur. If’n Web and I had not rode up and pulled you off, your love probably would have fuckin’ killed ’em. No, this ain’t no different. ‘Sides, I have said about all I wish to you, except for this one last bit. A day will dawn when Taddy… possibly Lafe too, will nut up and tell you what they really think. But today, today is my day. Course, I am positive Taddy is nearby listenin’, so maybe he will gain some strength from my words. I am also fuckin’ positive the only reason Lafe did as you ordered, is because of the manner you rule over us. That and he is too young to know any better. Truth being we ain’t much more than damn stallions wearin’ your fuckin’ brand. Well, this here is one stallion ready to become his own Goddamn man.” Wiping a shirtsleeve across his face, Gabriel walked calmly to Antonio, “Know this, you ever strike me, hell for that matter, you ever strike one of m’ frères again.” He leaned in closer, to whisper, “I will kill you.”
______________________________ # _______________________________
“What could I do but retreat from Gabe?” Antonio muttered to the bleary eyed reflection of himself in the glass of the French doors. His shoulders drooped. He felt tired, more tired than he ever recalled feeling. ‘Perhaps I should have thrown him from the house. By letting him stay, I have given Gabriel the upper hand. Except, how does one go about disowning a child for being painfully truthful?’
‘Worst of all, Gabe had been right about Tad. The boy had been listening... listening through all of it. How will I ever purge the sound of Gabriel’s horrid laughter or Thaddeus’ boot heels echoing away when he bolted from me like a dog that has been kicked too often.′ Crumpling to the floor, Antonio dropped his head to his bent knees.