“Peter, look at my boys.” Antonio said, pleasure making his words sound larger than they were. “The pair of ’em has sure made short work of the butchering.”
“They have that, Mister.”
Leaning back, Antonio blew on his fresh cup of coffee, watching his sons as they packed salt barrels with slabs of pork.
Peter too, was watching; watching warily and with a cough, he mumbled, “They is pretty fierce.”
“That they are.” Antonio said, slapping a hand boastfully on Peter’s back, “I had no concept they were so steadfast. Makes a man, damn proud, it does.”
Peter scratched at the side of his neck, his old, yellow-stained eyes flicking from Gabriel to Thaddeus and back again and grunted, “yup.”
Antonio sipped at his coffee, holding his cup before his mouth. “At length he asked, “Why is it I am getting a distinct feeling you do not approve?”
Peter bowed his head, staring into his coffee.
Finishing his coffee, Antonio threw out the grounds, “Speak your mind.”
Taking a long drink, Peter surfaced, asking, “You want the straight of it?”
“Have I not always told you to speak true?”
“Yes, Mister,” Peter answered. “This time we is speaking of your sons not horses, crops, or slaves.”
“I realize that and I wish you would break off pussyfooting around.”
“Mister, I ain’t ever seen none like ’em.” Peter turned making eye contact with Antonio. “Once anyone of ’em lays their hands to a task, they will keep at it. Keep at it, ’till they have mastered it even if it about kills ‘em. There ain’t a brand of labor, on this place, they ain’t done.” He pointed at the brothers, “they have spent years laborin’ and laborin’ hard tryin’ to earn your notice. They do it, ’cause they heard all your stories of what it took to make Sienna flush.”
Antonio’s brows lowered. Before he could work out an answer, Thaddeus flabbergasted him by stripping off his shirt and throwing it aside like a backwoods hayseed. Rising to chastise him, for his lack of decency, Antonio froze. For maybe the first time, he was really seeing his son and it shocked him how thick his muscles were.
“Peter, I always understood my boys worked. Made me proud, knowing they were not moneyed, soft-handed prissies and that they were learning how to govern this place. But, why in the hell is he fleshed out tighter than a five-hundred-dollar buck?” He asked, jabbing a finger at his youngest. “Are they all like that? And if so, why did you not put a halt to them toiling like common slaves?!”
“Lands sakes Mister, you think I ain’t tried to get ’em to understand they is young masters here not the vassals.” Peter growled, throwing out his unfinished coffee, “Like I said, they wanted your attention. To get it, they worked harder than any buck you ever bought.” Peter fidgeted with his hands, “And you never noticed. Not once!”
Antonio sank back into his chair.
“Simone and me, we do not let’em wager ‘cause somethin’ swells up inside of’em making them aggressive.” He kept staring at the brothers, “no makin’ them bloodthirsty relentless.”
“All right, now you have lost me.”
“They start out jestin’ then get to strivin’ to win. Strivin’ so hard they lose what common sense the Good Lord gave’em. Then they keep at it pushin’ themselves ’til they be nearly dead. Or...” Peter looked at Antonio, with eyes as cold as midnight in December.
Antonio swallowed, not sure, he wanted to hear more.
“Old friend, I needs you to understand somethin’.” Peter scrubbed at his wrinkled face. “I love these children of yours. I surely do. Never had none of my own and these children have been the joy of my life. It pains me to speak ill of ’em. But, them boys got them a savage, mean streak,” and saying this, the old trainer released a tired sigh that sounded like leaves rustling on a cold day.
Antonio looked to Gabriel, thinking of their fight in the front hall.
“If they is pushed, they rear back and bite. I suppose that sounds right fine and honorable. That be, ‘cause you ain’t understandin’.” Peter shifted in his seat and then dropped forward leaning on his knees. “You wanted the straight of it…so, I is goin’ to say my full piece and pray you understand. Once them boys start to fightin’. They do not stop ’till they have chewed up and spit out whatever set ‘em off. Why take Lafe, tryin’ to crush the life out of that Yankee boy right there in front of God and everyone. You told me how you thought it was odd behavior for ‘em. Well Mams and I sure did not. I cannot count the times; we all have pulled them boys out of brawls. Best I have achieved is training them to keep it reined in. But, that meant also keepin’ them out of wagers.” Peter looked pointedly at Gabriel and then Thaddeus, “... out there, whats been goin’ on, that be the worst combo, I could hope for. When Gabe lets go, he do not care who he hurts and Taddy... well you ain’t never seen rage, ’till you see Taddy let loose. Damnation, that boy he be a sight to make Satan proud.”
Going back through his memories of when he was home, Antonio could see his boys vying for attention. He had thought it was because they were so happy to see him. Now it came to him how sad it all was. Feeling another wall of his pride crumble, he swallowed hard, “Peter, you have the experience, tell me, how do you deem this will go?”
Peter released a stingy, callous laugh, “They is fixin’ to come to blows. Taddy over there, he ain’t broke loose in a few months... this will prove to be one hellish battle.” He canted an eye to Antonio, “if’n you do not put a halt to it.”
“How am I to do that?”
“Not sure... like I said, I am good at puttin’ on the brakes before they get started.” He shook his head, “sure, would like to know how I missed this one. So, if’n you do not know of a way, then you might start doin’ what I have for most of the mornin’.”
“What is that?”
“Prayin’,” Peter stood. “‘Cause once they start, do not be thinkin’ they will recollect they is brothers.” Then with a shake of his head, he walked off.
Antonio turned to study the far ridgeline, ‘If what Peter says is true, and why would it not be? Then what can I do?’
Hearing Simone’s voice nearby, Antonio went to where she sat, on a short stool, tending the lard kettle.
“Dora, be a bonne fille and take a bait of cool water down to the garçons?”
Once the girl was gone, Simone said, “you’ve urged ‘em on today. Ain’t faultin’ you, Mister, you did not know any better. But, they is expectin’ you to proclaim the winner.”
He squatted, “Well, Simone, I ain’t too sure they want my judgment. ’Specially since Gabe and I are not... necessarily sociable at the present.”
“Sociable? Is that what you be callin’ it?” She shook her head, stirring the lard, “Ain’t a soul alive who knows them like I do and they want to hear who you think did better.”
“How do I choose?”
“Oh, they been keepin’ score.” She glared across the fire at Antonio. “That is with your help, they been keepin’ score.”
Antonio frowned, his eyes puckering with confusion.
“You done told Taddy, you was amazed by how fast he worked and that Gabe needed to catch up if’n he wanted to win. Yup, by those big headed-grins mon Taddy keeps throwin’ Gabe’s way, I would say he has all ready figured where he is spending his winnings.”
“Fine, then I will proclaim Tad the winner.”
“You sure? ’Cause Gabe will hold to all he screamed at you a few weeks back and by the virtue of all that is holy, he will never let it go. Might as well, go on and wash your hands of him.”
Antonio pulled at his lower lip, watching the venomous looks his sons passed each other as they kept working, he could see they were worn tired but determined not to let the other one get a step ahead.
“You also complimented Gabe, when he was chopping meat from the hangin’ carcass and…” she canted an eye at Antonio shaking her head. “….got in on the teasin’ of Taddy for not helpin’ out there.”
“Your are correct, that is hard work that wears a man down. Tad should have assisted there, if he wanted to win.”
“Did you not see how high those hogs were tied off?” she asked, looking wide-eyed at him, “they be too high for Taddy to reach.”
“Tad assisted in tying ’em, I saw him do so.” Antonio shrugged. “He should have set the height better.”
“Mister,” Simone paused, pouring cold water into the lard kettle and stirring it, ”m’ Taddy is ribbed each day he breathes for how short he is. Why you think Gabe calls ’em Squirt? It ain’t truly a pet name, it has only become one ’cause Gabe’s called Taddy by it for so very long.”
“Hmm?” Antonio stroked his mustache, “Tad fell to pride. He was more worried about being deviled than being part of the actual butchering. If that is the case, I can only see Gabriel as the winner.” Antonio nodded, standing. “The boy needs to learn there are times to swallow your pride to get a job done. This will be an excellent lesson for Thaddeus.”
Mams shook her head. “You go right on and point out that Taddy should have swallowed his pride. Garçon already believes he cannot do a single-thing right in your eyes.” She stood, waving a hand toward the men. “I know good and well Taddy’s humor is wearin’ mighty thin.”
“Good God almighty then what am I to do?”
Squatting, Mams stirred the kettle, “You probably ain’t noticed but Taddy ain’t taken a break even to drink, so when them barrels is packed, you send him to the well to clean all the knives, kettles and such.” She cast a glance at the brothers. “I cannot fathom how m’ Taddy lets others get so deep under his skin. And Gabe, he is down-right devilish. What I would not give to know the tricks he uses, to get his petit frères to push themselves beyond their limits.” She poured more water in the lard rendering, “have Gabe and m’ Web hauls the barrels into the cold cellar. Taddy will most likely set up a fuss, fretting Gabe will be doing more, you insist on’em goin’ to the well, and hopes he listens.”
“All right,” Antonio sunk his hands into his pockets.
Mams stood revealing a small, evil smile, “Then you award each of’em twenty dollars. Tell ’em whatever you like; go on about how proud you are and all. Just make certain they both know they each won… and that you are proud of both of ’em.”
“That means I lose forty dollars in a wager they started.” Antonio stated, the words out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“You want to earn your boys respect or hang on to your or?” Mams asked, her nostrils flaring. “I tell you this, you keep them fightin’ for your attention and they is liable to blow apart like a riverboat boiler. And, before this here year is up, I will not be the least bit surprised if one or both of ’em do not run off. Because you sending Lafe away has upset the balance around here... far more than you will ever fathom. Why do you think I was so dead set against ‘em goin’ to Kentucky in the first place?”
Antonio retreated from her wrath, almost stumbling over Eudora standing nearby scratching Patches floppy ears. He smiled at her wondering how much she had understood.
That was when, she said sharp, and clear, “Lafe enjoyed winnin’ wagers, too, ’cept he kept m’ frères from whippin’ up on one another, ‘cause he knows how to get them laughin’. That is something about Lafe you do not know. Taddy ain’t the joker, it is Lafe.” She looked down into Patches adoring eyes.
Antonio stared at his daughter, she appeared different, he had never heard her speak like this, and when she looked up, despite her green eyes it was like seeing Gena Lorraine when her fires were stoked.
“You made Lafe go away. You better fix this or you will be failing ’em again.”
Exhaling, he nodded and headed into the house.