’Got to give the old man credit,” Gabriel thought, lying down on the smooth cedar bench. ‘Having this steam house built after his overseas trip was one of his grander ideas.’ Cupping his hands behind his head, he released a long sigh.
Across the room, he could hear his little brother’s deep, steady breaths ’Jésus pleura, when did Squirt become so all-fired tough? He might be a damn sight smaller, but he sure as hell showed me how he can haul a man’s load. Came damn close to workin’ me under the table.’ Gabriel looked to Thaddeus, whose shoulders hung loose with his head lolled against the wall. Seeing him thus, a smug grin tugged at Gabriel’s face. ‘Gratifying to see he is at least exhausted.’
After laying there for a good while, Gabriel sat up adding more water to the steam pit and pulled a bottle of whiskey from his saddlebags. Taking a long drink, he looked at the bottle before saying, “Here Squirt.”
“Merci.” Thaddeus answered, capturing the bottle. Tilting it back, he let long rushes of the rye mash flow down his throat, until at last, he drug a bare forearm across his mouth. Squinting over at Gabriel, Thaddeus tried to judge his mood. Unable to tell, a part of his mind said, ‘best to stay quiet.’ Even as he heard himself, saying, “Father sure has been actin’ damn strange ever since you laid out the truth for ’em.”
Deep wrinkles appeared at the corners of Gabriel’s eyes and he motioned for his bottle back. “How so?”
“You mean you ain’t been noticing?”
“Maybe,” Gabriel replied, swirling the whiskey; frowning at how little was left before taking a drink. “But you brought it up, so I want to hear what you got to say.”
Thaddeus’ dark brows tangled into knot, “Before I spill, I will need another damn drink.”
“Do not feel you got enough, the first time?”
“Nope,” Thaddeus held his hand out, and with a snort, Gabriel placed the bottle in his palm. Throwing his head back, Thaddeus drank it dry. “Hell, all gone.”
“Dandy, I brought more, ain’t it?” Gabriel replied, rubbing at his chin. “When did you convert to such a hell-fired drinker?”
“They say it is an acquired taste. Let’s say, I acquired it rapidly.” Thaddeus answered, turning the empty bottle to watch the flickering firelight through the glass. “I like the way it makes my days easier to stomach and nights more restful.”
Gabriel studied him for a time before asking, “Try though I might, Squirt, I cannot fathom what is so damn problematical about your existence.” As Gabriel spoke he waved his hands about the steamy room, both brothers knowing he was truly gesturing beyond the rock walls to the wealth of Sienna surrounding them.
“Then I will fuckin’ tell you,” a hard bitterness inside of Thaddeus breaking loose. “It is my Father, or I suppose the proper damn term would be our Father.” When Gabriel leaned forward to interrupt, Thaddeus pointed the bottle at him, barking, “ I am fixin’ to spill my guts. Ain’t that what you fuckin’ want?” His sparking green eyes fell to the empty bottle, “for I do, relinquish the other damn bottle.”
Gabriel’s face scrunched, his nose wrinkling. Still, he opened his saddlebags. Nestled in the pocket were two more flat, square bottles. Selecting one, he pulled the cork, taking a long draw before passing it across the fire.
Snagging it, Thaddeus took a quick drink, “You see it is our benevolent, loving Father who makes my fuckin’ existence so problematical. ’Cause that man loathes me to the core,” Thaddeus said, taking a drink followed directly by an another.
“How in the hell did you come up with such a twisted notion?”
“Why that is fuckin’ easy. By the way he fuckin’ looks at me.” Thaddeus said, taking a swig. “By the way he fuckin’ speaks to me.” Thaddeus snarled, a bit louder, taking another drink; a palpable tension burning from him. “Fuck, I figure he prefers it were me lying in the bone yard.”
A silence grew between the brothers and about when Gabriel thought, his young brother had passed out; an agonized sob cracked through the lull like a dynamite blast. ‘Ah hell, I did not figure him for a weepy drunk. What do I do now?’
“Like the rest of ‘em all, you can think what you want, Gabe. But, I am fuckin’ serious. Father cannot stand the damn sight of me.” Thaddeus garbled through another sob. “I killed her. . . me. I killed the fille he loved. And Dora… well, she had to be cut from her dead body.” Saying this, Thaddeus’ face crumpled making him look like a child.
“Come on, Squirt. You do not know that for sure.”
“Shows what you fuckin’ know.” Thaddeus stood, spitting into the coals, “I heard it straight from his lips.”
“It were years ago, we were coming home from some damn get-together. All y’all were asleep and Father was drinking from his flask, fuckin’ talking to himself. But I t’weren’t asleep and I heard every fuckin’ word.”
Licking his lips, Gabriel thought, ‘I should stop him.’ Instead, he stood and snatched the bottle, knowing he needed to be far drunker for the wound Thaddeus was determined to pick open.
“I took her away from ‘em.” Thaddeus hollered, swaying drunkenly, “Fuck from all y’all. Hellfire, it is because of me Dora is broken. From my first fuckin’ breath I have been unwanted, and that damn old man ain’t ever let me fuckin’ forget it. He never gives me a break... not goddamn ever. If ‘n he ain’t knockin’ me around then he is passin’ fuckin’ judgment. Ain’t nothing, I despise more than his damn fuckin’ sermons.” With a snort, he sat, well fell, back to his seat on the opposing bench.
A log exploded, becoming a dozen red-hot coals, each hissing and living a life apart from the rest. Gabriel watched the embers snuff out one by one, thinking over what his brother had said. As he did, he became lost in his own painful memories. In time, it came to him Thaddeus had fallen silent and raising his eyes, Gabriel said, “I ain’t ever given your position much thought. Hearin’ your side, I ain’t about to say you are wrong. It ain’t my damn place. Regardless, Squir-- Taddy, you should know, I ain’t ever blamed you. Hellfire, I have always blamed him and I suppose Dieu.”
Gabriel frowned and finished off the bottle, setting it by his bare feet. “Father pays me non heed, almost like I ceased to exist. Sounds right damn lame compared to what you just aired. Still, trust me petite frère being ignored sure-fire tears you apart.” Gabriel exhaled forcefully. “Fuck but I loathe sayin’ this, knowing how you feel. Only it is the damn truth. Ever since Mère passed on, the man claimin’ to be our Father, well, he ain’t the man I knew. He does not even measure up.” Saying this, Gabriel cracked his knuckles, the sound half-heartedly echoing about the rock house. “Who else you know been raised by Negros? Not once has he apologized for leavin’ us. Hell, he could at least apologize to Katharine and me; as we know the difference between havin’ parents and caretakers.” With a shake of his head, Gabriel looked at the floor, clamping his mouth shut, having said more than he meant to.
“Well, fuck it all.” Thaddeus stated, clearly. “You got your side. I got mine. And ain’t we more fuckin’ alike, than we thought?”
Feeling a connection that had not been there before, Gabriel shook his head, chortling, “Suppose we are. I suppose we are, Taddy.” He smiled and scratched at the back of his head, “You want to go on and enlighten me how you deem he has been behaving differently?”
“Well, to begin with,” Thaddeus held up his left index finger. “He ain’t popped me upside the head since before I brought the ague home. I started thinkin’ hot damn, I am finally fuckin’ measuring up. You know, mindin’ my fuckin’ manners, behaving as he fuckin’ judges and all. Then I got to thinkin’. I ain’t changed that damn much. Hell, most days, I pick up more bad manners than I fuckin’ put down.” Thaddeus flashed his crooked grin. “So then, I thought maybe, just maybe, he has decided knockin’ me about, well, maybe it ain’t doing much to improve me neither.”
“Mmm hmm, that might be a change on your behalf.” Gabriel said, removing the last bottle from his saddlebags. “If’n you recall, he laid me out right recently.”
“Yeah, but you kind of fuckin’ had that comin’.”
Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
“Aw, come on. You were pushin ’em and you damn-well know it.”
“All right.” Gabriel relinquished, taking a long, long drink to swallow away some of the bitter memory.
“Anyways, what has me vexed is the way he keeps fuckin’ dancin’ around us,” Thaddeus said, dropping his elbows onto his knees to lean forward. “Feels like the tables have turned, I do not know... it is like he... he... wants us to fuckin’ notice ’em.”
Gabriel froze, tilted his head, and then grinned, “You are right on the barrel there. He has been goin’ on of late ’bout how much he cares for us; how proud he is, and all sorts of other bullshit along those lines.”
“Right! Like tossing ‘round fuckin’ atta boys and tryin’ to fuckin’ chew the fat with us or fuck askin’ our opinions. It is goddamn peculiar, that is what it is,” Thaddeus said, digging through his discarded clothes, removing his pair of gold double-eagles. “You reckon that is why he deemed we both up and won the fuckin’ bet?”
“Truthfully, I ain’t been able to put my finger on that one.”
“I thought it felt...” Thaddeus walked one coin up through his fingers. “.... tremendous.”
“Gabe, I mean it. I felt fuckin’ top-notch. For once, he did not lecture me how I could have done better. He actually fuckin’ said I did a good job. Hell, a great job.” Thaddeus motioned for the bottle. Grinning, he took a huge drink and lowering it; felt his head spin. “Damnation, Gabe, for the first fuckin’ time I felt like he might have liked me... maybe a little bit.”
Gabriel nodded. “It did feel good.”
Thaddeus peered hard at his brother before drunkenly whispering, “Can you keep a damn secret?”
“Who the hell, you expect me to run off and tell?”
“Right. Still, it is a fuckin’ secret.” Thaddeus whispered, taking a sip and rolling the warm rich taste around in his mouth. “Even with his compliments and how they felt good and all, I been fretting... well... how I might be lettin ‘em fuckin’ buy me again. Like I did, when I kept the damn Remington,” he walked the coin through his fingers again, “considering leavin’ these on his desk.”
His words pulled Gabriel up because they were the same thoughts, he had been mulling over.
“By your look, I take it I am fuckin’ crazy. Gold is fuckin’ gold, right? However, it falls into my damn hands I should be fuckin’ hangin’ to it.”
“Not what I was thinkin’, honestly, was... We are more alike than we thought.” And again Gabriel chortled, “Well, that and you cuss even more when you are drunk. Who would have thought that possible?”
Thaddeus’ only reply was his crooked grin.
Gabriel shook his head, “Tad, you mind if I ask you something?”
“Go ahead. I am too drunk and too tired to get riled up ’bout anything.”
“You think Father likes Lafe best?”
“You have damn-well got to be fuckin’ joshin’?”
Gabriel’s face twisted, becoming ugly.
“Ah, simmer the fuck down. I ain’t mocking you. Come on Gabe, everyone knows Lafe is his damn personal pet.”
“Why?” Gabriel snarled, thumping his chest, “I am his first born. I always did everything he told me.”
“How the hell would I know?” Thaddeus rolled his shoulders, flashing his crooked grin, “You were his first, Lafe is his darlin’, and I do not count for merde. ´Sides, I bet he does not throw Lafe in your face every fuckin’ opportunity that arises. All I ever hear is how great Lafe is. How Lafe excels. How Lafe follows the rules. How Lafe uses his head and do not fuckin’ forget, why ain’t I more like Lafe. Used to burn me up so bad I could literally feel my insides turn. There was even a spell I tried, I mean I really fuckin’ tried to be more like Lafe. Simply put, it ain’t fuckin’ possible. He is the only one cut like that.”
“Then you dislike ’em?”
“Who? Father, thought we already discussed that.”
“Hell non!” Thaddeus snapped, and finding he was not too tired to care, he bolted to his feet. “Lafe is my ami and I feel fuckin’ lost without ’em.” The room tilted sideways. Thaddeus swayed with it and took two stumbling steps, crashing alongside Gabriel, “Hellfire. Chiant! Why the fuck you want to lay the blame on Lafe?”
Gabriel shrugged, “Maybe because I am jealous of ‘em,” he said, pulling the bottle from Thaddeus’ hand and finishing it off. Then with a low growl he threw it across the room where it exploded against the wall.
Watching the pieces sparkled in the low light, Thaddeus mumbled, “Hmm, guess we ought not to walk over there.” Finding himself amusing, he giggled.
Gabriel stared open-mouthed at him, and then wrapping an arm about him, joined in on the laughter.
“Gabe, do not be hatin’ Lafe. It was Father who fuckin’ set us all against one another not Lafe.”
“I do not hate Lafe. Jealous of ’em, oui, but I have never disliked ’em.” Gabriel nodded, “hellfire, between his smiles and dry humor, ain’t nobody could dislike ’em. But... a part of me hates Father.” Pulling back, Gabriel scrubbed at his forehead. “I recollect when he was good. Really good. I knew ’em when he--”
“He was there for you.” Thaddeus said, finishing his words.
“Like he was today?”
“Yeah, like today.”
“See, I told you he has been actin’ fuckin’ odd.” Thaddeus said, rolling his forehead back-and-forth against Gabriel’s shoulder. “Who knows, maybe the old man is mellowing with age. Maybe Dora is right. Maybe he does fuckin’ amour us.”
“Damnation, Tad you are sweatin’ all over me.” Gabriel grumbled, bouncing the shoulder Thaddeus was lying on, up and down, “get the hell off!”
Jerking upright, Thaddeus swallowed hard, his face going pale.
Gabriel eyed him, wondering if he had drunk too much. But, when Thaddeus swallowed and leaned back, Gabriel nodded and relaxed, saying, “Perhaps you are correct. What the hell, I believe I shall give the old man a second chance. Let ’em prove if’n he amours me if’n that is what he is tryin’ to do.” Saying this Gabriel felt a quiet tranquility descend on him, he had not felt in years. Just as he was relishing in this new feeling, Thaddeus set to coughing.
Sliding his eyes over, Gabriel saw not only was his little brother’s whole body convulsing with each cough, he was gagging too.
“Merde!” Gabriel shouted scooping Thaddeus up, launching the both of them through the steam house door into the winter night air just as all the whiskey Thaddeus had guzzled spewed out. “Yup, we are done drinking, time to get some food and chicory in you.”
Thaddeus moaned, “I do not want non fuckin’ food.”
“Does not matter, I am shovin’ some down you anyways,” Gabriel replied, going back to retrieve their clothes.
He was mostly dressed when he emerged to find Thaddeus squatting, vomiting, and whining, “I wanna to go to bed.”
“Sure you do.” Gabriel said, getting his brother to his feet and shoving him into his clothes. With a push, he aimed Thaddeus toward the house, but within a few steps, he slid on the hoarfrost covered ground. Before he could hit the dirt, Gabriel caught him. “I got you, Taddy.” Gabriel stated, a huge smile covering his face, for he could see with Lafayette gone, he was finally the brother to be leaned on. At long, long last, it was him.
Knowing this, he wrapped Thaddeus in closer, saying, “I will not let you fall Taddy, no, not ever, Tad.”