Hours of bushwhacking through low, hanging limbs brought the brothers to a rutted wagon road. “Big Creek ain’t too far from here. We can follow it most of the way home. Lord a mighty, it feels good to be free of those trees,” Gabriel said, standing in his stirrups and stretching. “Hey, what you reckon Marie has on the stove to eat?” Not hearing a sound from his brother, he looked back to find him hunkered deep inside his duster. Cutting a length of tobacco, Gabriel popped it in his mouth, and circling Artorius; he pulled in alongside, studying Thaddeus’ sullen face. After working the chaw into a manageable wad, Gabriel asked, “how is your head?”
“And your neck?”
“And your nose?”
Gabriel nodded, spit, and rode for a bit before saying, “Listen up, Tad. I need you to understand. I was not necessarily lootin’ the dead. You see, we all do it.”
Thaddeus snorted and then moaned
Gabriel arched a brow, spit again, “I ain’t saying that makes it right. Jésus pleura, Tad, gives me a chance.”
Plucking a green leaf from Cain’s headstall, Thaddeus twirled it, twice, before throwing it away and tugging his hat down further. ‘How can I judge Gabe? I was the goddamn fool who thought ridin’ patrol would be a fuckin’ adventure.’
“The way of it is; why the hell should we allow one article them yellow-belly bastards can use against us to return across the border?”
Thaddeus mumbled, “I figured all that out all ready.”
Shaking himself like a wet dog, Gabriel snarled, “So, why is we havin’ a problem?”
“We are not.”
“Bonne!” Gabriel nodded, spitting. “We need them damn supplies to keep up the fight.”
“I know,” Thaddeus stated sulkily, sinking lower into his duster.
Poking him in the shoulder, Gabriel asked, “So, smart-ass, since you have it all figured... I am curious. Did you also come to the conclusion we ain’t doing this for amusement?”
Thaddeus made no reply.
“Then tell me, m’ frère; how many did you wind up killin’ just for a distraction?”
Jerking bolt upright, Thaddeus threw him a threatening glare.
Gabriel smiled, “Go on and get angry. Leastwise, I know you are damn well serious. This ain’t some enjoyable, heroic jaunt. It is war. War means blood and death. So, you gonna fuckin’ answer me?”
Thaddeus shifted, looking away.
Shifting again, Thaddeus’ wet saddle squeaked beneath him.
“Quatre? Damn it! Talk to me, Squirt.”
Thaddeus shook his head, sending water spraying, ‘What does he want me to say? Rance was right. The burn in my gut changed me. It changed me into a man-killer.’ Reaching into his shirt, he took hold of the silver crucifix.
Gabriel bit at the inside of his lip stifling a grin. ’The garçon skips prayers, cusses to beat the devil, and drinks whiskey like water. Yet, he gets upset and the first thing he reaches for is that cross.’ Bumping Artorius into Cain, Gabriel reached over clamping his hand about his brother’s, “It is all right. I do not need to know and neither does anyone else,” Gabriel stated. Looking to the heavens, he said, “that is between you and Him. But, I need for you to comprehend out there on that battlefield... you did what needed to be done.” He squeezed Thaddeus’ hand that clutched the crucifix hard enough to make his brother flinch. “Do you hear me? It was what had to be done! If’n you had done one damn thing differently, then you and the men ridin’ by your side would be the ones rotting in that fuckin’ field. You are alive. That means everything you did was correct.” Releasing him, Gabriel chucked him under the chin. “Let it go!”
Thaddeus looked over, his green eyes large as half dollars.
“You understand me?”
Thaddeus nodded, water pouring once more from his hat.
“Good. Then let’s pick up the pace and see if we can out distance this damn rain.”
More than an hour later, they were still riding in such a steady downpour that Thaddeus was shivering all the way to his boots, ‘Fuck, I feel like a solid chunk of ice and every damn time Gabe spits, my craving for a smoke about crawls out and chokes me.’ Spying Mill Creek Bridge on the horizon, his spirits rose. “Hey Gabe, can we take a breather under the bridge.”
Spinning Artorius, Gabriel was fully prepared to rip his brother in two for hollering, and God unwilling, alerting others to their position, when it came to him they were not on the border, but a few miles from home. Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath. ‘More time I spend out there,’ he thought, looking back the way they had come; ‘the harder it gets to leave it behind.’
Reining in beside Gabriel, Thaddeus sounded on the verge of pleading, “Come on, Gabe, can we?”
“Hell, why not? I would not mind steppin’ down. ’Sides, we need to look each other over as Father’s told me it is unacceptable to return home tattooed in blood.”
At the mention of their Father, Thaddeus paled.
“Why, he does not fuckin’ know where you are.” Gabriel laughed, knocking Thaddeus across the back.
“Ow! Fuck Gabe!” Thaddeus yelped.
Hearing the pain etched in his voice just made Gabriel laugh all the harder, “Land’s Sake, Garçon do you ever think before leapin’?” Spurring his horse, Gabriel chortled, “Whooooeee Squirt… you sure make life damn interesting. I will say that for you.”
At the bridge, Thaddeus slid his aching body from the saddle, leading his tired horse into the damp dryness under the roadway. With a gusty sigh, Cain shook himself so hard; he set his tack to flopping and jangling. “Will not be much longer and we will be home.” Thaddeus said, scratching the stallion under the girth strap he had just loosened. “Nice warm stall, some sweet mash, and you will feel like your hell-raising self again.” Leaning in close, he peered at the bullet crease on Cain’s chest, “Looks like we both picked up a scar, Garçon."
Having scouted the area, Gabriel led Artorius beneath the bridge, and seeing Thaddeus’ stirrup thrown up over the saddle, he said, “Future reference Tad… do not be loosenin’ your saddle anymore.”
Thaddeus looked to his brother, then to Cain and back again. “Why?”
“You never know when you might require a speedy exit; a loose girth could mean your death.” Gabriel said, pulling the strap tight and tying its tail off. “You got me?”
Thaddeus mumbled, “Yeah.” Digging for his fixings and rolling himself a quirley, he placed the cigarette between his lips, only to have a flame flare up golden before his face. Nodding to his brother, he leaned in; sucking until the paper crackled, rippling red. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he sighed.
“Maybe you should consider takin’ up chaw.”
“I do not like chaw, it is a fuckin’ nasty habit.”
With a grunt, Gabriel shoved him, sending him stumbling into Cain.
The stallion shifted, snorting at both of them.
Shrugging, Thaddeus rolled the quirley to the corner of his mouth, hung his hat on his saddle horn, and set to scrubbing his deep black hair until it stood at wild angles. Then he cautiously felt of the lump at the back of his skull, his eyes squinching tight as he probed it. With his smoke nearly gone, he rolled a second; and swapping them out, and heaved a sigh, flopping down next to Gabriel. Yawning, he tucked an arm behind his head, crossing a foot over his bent knee. Noticing his brother was staring at him, he yelped, “What now?”
“Damnation, you look like you are relaxing under the cottonwoods, not sheltering under a bridge after the day of hell we have been through.” Pulling his hat over his face, Gabriel said, “I pray, m’ frère, you stay just as you are now, forever.”
Sitting up, Thaddeus stared at his brother; and taking a final puff from the used up quirley, he tossed it toward the river, settling back into the musty earth.
Enjoying the silence, Gabriel thought, ‘It feels like years since I last felt at ease. I believe I will stay home for a bit after the next meeting.’ Then a question came to him, “Tad?”
“Hmm,” His brother muttered, half-asleep.
‘That plain ain’t fair,’ Gabriel thought, sitting up. ‘Ain’t no one should be able to fall asleep so quick.’ Thumping his little brother in the chest, he said, “Since Father does not know where you are… did you run off from Sienna or someplace else?”
Thaddeus’ mouth twisted.
“Harrisonville.” he answered, feeling the cut on his neck. “I met up with Rance and them at the Lil’ Dipper.”
“Damn, that McGreen.” Gabriel grumbled, rolling to his feet, and walking to the water line. He scrutinized the foam swirling by on the coffee-colored water rushing by. After a time, he said, “Part of me speculated you had been listenin’ to Father and me, hell to Lafe at least, and you would stay home.” Turning, he looked into Thaddeus’ green eyes that were watching him, “Tell me, what made you disregard all of us? Them garçons fuckin’ prod your pride?”
Anger tinged with shame shot through Thaddeus and, leaping to his feet, he barked, “Who the hell are you to talk of fuckin’ stayin’ home? You ain’t fuckin’ ever there yourself, Gabriel Crowe.”
Gabriel’s right hand rolled into a fist, his nostrils flaring. He took a step forward; then with a snort, he looked away uncurling his fingers, “Damn it Squirt, why you always got to be pushin’ me?” he growled, stomping to the far side of the bridge. “The bottom line is, I leave because I know you are capable of defendin’ our home if’n the need should arise. Can you not fuckin’ get that through your thick-head?” He stared at the sky. “Hellfire, only way, I can focus on leadin’ the Cavaliers is knowin’ you are at Sienna.”
Rolling his head on his thick neck, Gabriel filled the air with snaps and cracks, before moving toward Thaddeus, “In the future, will you, s’il vous plaît, stay away from patrols?”
“What is that?”
Thaddeus looked down, ”Oui, I will stay home.”
“Good, then let’s ride on. The rain looks to be liftin’ and I want a cup of hot coffee something terrible.”
Out on the road, the sun was peeking through the low hanging clouds, causing the world to sparkle. Gabriel cleared his throat, “Uhm Tad, when we get back, you realize Father is gonna wail into you. You need to keep in mind that you brought it on yourself this time. Trust me, though, he will not lay a hand on you. Still, I am positive he is goin’ to sermonize you to death.”
The smile disappeared, “suppose you are right.”
“Damn tootin’ I am. Father may not see you as a man yet, but par Dieu, he is placin’ a wagonload of hope in you. So, when your temper wants to break free, you strangle yourself on it if’n you need to, ’cause you brought it all on yourself.”
Walking under the arched iron gate of Sienna’s front drive, Thaddeus looked back thinking, “did not think I would ever see home again.
As the brother trotted down Sienna’s long, white chat drive, the sun at last came out. Its late evening light, creating slanting sunbeams like ladders to heaven and coming around the last curve, Gabriel said, “Will you look at that?”
Behind the big house, arched a double rainbow and Patches was racing toward them barking and howling with happiness.
The brothers traded a smile.
Slipping from their saddles, Thaddeus said, “Gabe, I am of a mind, I do not care if I ever, fuckin’ leave Sienna again.”
“I think that is a good way to be petit frère.”
“Mon garçons,” Mams called, running down the front steps, pulling them into her arms. “We have been beside ourselves with worry,” she said, in between kissing each of them, as Patches jumped about their legs licking their hands.
On the front porch, Antonio nodded, rolling his cigar to the side to say, “Good to have you back.”
There was a warmth in his tone, which startled Thaddeus, and looking to his Father, he thought, “Par Dieu, he looks ten, fifteen years older.’ Before he could consider further on this, Patches’ yodeling barks distracted him. Kneeling, he roughed up the dog until it rolled over showing its belly, quivering all over.
“Leave that chien be and come inside,” Simone said, pulling at the brothers. “I will get hot baths and food prepared for you in non time at all.”
“We will.” Gabriel answered, tilting his head to the horses, “Law of the stable: horses before men.” He said, a smile covering his face as he heard Thaddeus saying it along with him in perfect harmony.
“They are correct, Simone. Hustle the others around and they will be in when they finish.” Antonio said, taking the steps one a time, his eyes never leaving his sons. Switching his solemn gaze to Thaddeus, his dark eyes narrowed at the slice along his neck, his swollen nose, and black eyes. ‘Oh my young boy, what have you done and seen.’ Then it struck him. The green eyes looking back were not those of a boy, but of a man. Antonio chewed on his cigar, ‘Appears he finished maturing while gone.’ Pulling the cigar from his mouth, he threw it to the gravel drive. Hesitating, he breathed out and grabbed them both about the necks, pulling them to him. “I am pleased to have you home. You had me troubled something fierce.”
Once he released them, they both shifted, scuffing rocks beneath their boots, even after Gabriel said, “Merci, Father, it is grand to be here.”
“I had lost hope of ever seeing either of you again.” Antonio stated, smiling and hugging them again, a laugh of relief rolling from him this time. “Word around the County is a group of Missouri boys got themselves killed over in Vernon. All of us old men have been praying it was not our own sons and here are mine, right before me,” he said, stroking the side of Thaddeus’ face, his eyes trailing again to the jagged cut on his throat. He swallowed hard, “I do not know how you managed it, but Gabe, I thank you for bringing your little brother home.”
“Hell Father, he found me. Be grateful to him for bringin’ me home. I know Tad sure does not look like it, at the moment...” Gabriel grinned at his brother, “... but he is most likely the reason I am still breathing.”
Antonio’s eyes tracked once more between his sons and he broke into a rich, hearty laugh, “My God, it is good to see the pair of you.”