Grinning from ear to ear, Lafayette pulled off a short crowned top hat, sweeping long hair from his face. His dark eyes scrutinized the line of horses being lead in from the first barge and determining all was well and in hand, he tapped the squarish black hat back on his head at a devil-may-care angle and hopped off Ophelia, shouting, “Christ almighty, frère climb on down here and let me see you.”
Thaddeus’ bare feet hardly touched the muddy sand before Lafayette had hold of him, lifting him off the ground in a huge hug.
“Hellfire, look at you, Taddy.” Lafayette roared, setting his little brother down and holding him out at arm’s length. “Father wrote that I would not recognize you, but I figured he was damn well exaggerating.”
Thaddeus ducked his head, the corner of his mouth quirking up.
Lafayette’s loud, rich laughter filled the air and he pulled Thaddeus into another hug. “Par Dieu, you have doubled in size.”
Stepping back, Thaddeus said, “Well, you have changed too.” He waved a hand at the hair hanging beyond his brother’s shoulders and his tighter, thinner build. “First thing Mams will say is you are in dire need of a haircut and that she needs to fatten you up.” Pointing randomly at Lafayette’s attire, he asked, “why the hell you all trussed up like you been to a wedding?”
“It is the latest style from Paris.”
Thaddeus raised an eyebrow, “From Paris? Hmm, is that fuckin’ so?” He snorted. “Paris?”
Lafayette turned crimson, the red on his cheeks flaming up into his ears as he bowed his head, and cleared his throat.
“Well, I hellfire, I can see how I am not goin’ to fit in down here. ‘ Cause, I sure as fuck am not gettin’ all dandied up. Like...” Thaddeus waved again at his brother’s attire laughing throatily.
“Would not expect you to,” Lafayette replied, his eyes scanning over his comfortably dressed brother and all he could think was, ′Par Dieu, I have missed you.′ When, from outside their conversation, he overheard Fox and Connor becoming acquainted. Striding over, he drawled, “Damnation, Northrup, it is good to see you, excusez-moi manners... ” He waved toward Connor, “... for not introducing you and all.”
“Not to worry.” Fox said, casting his brown eyes down and away, he mumbled, “ya have been missed at home, Lafayette, the fellas all asked me to tell ya so.”
“Nice of you to say so,” Lafayette acknowledged, his smile becoming a thin painful line. But looking to Connor, it became large and carefree again. Grabbing Connor about the shoulders, he said, “Hey Bub, you have already met Fox here, but this...” He held a hand toward Thaddeus like a man showing off a blue ribbon winner, “This is m’ petit frère, Thaddeus Robert.”
“Welcome, Laddy. The way ye siblings go on about ye, I got to say I been right eager to meet ye,” Connor said, throwing out his hand.
Taking it, Thaddeus nodded, thinking, ‘this is the man who was doin’ such a damn poor job ridin’ Jefferson.’ Canting his eyes toward his brother, he wondered, ‘What the hell have they been sayin’ about me?’
Connor laughed, passing Thaddeus a wink, “Ah, break off bein’ peevish, Boyo. I be prepared to take ye as ye are, not as they have built ye up to be.”
“Grâce à Dieu, ’cause, I ain’t non kind of fuckin’ saint.”
Connor chortled warmly, “well, that be right grand. ’Cause they surly ain’t painted ye to be one neither.”
Thaddeus’ face fell and then he started laughing, as did the others.
“Hello all.” Captain Kinney called, walking up carrying Thaddeus’ boots in his left hand and his holster draped over his shoulder, “thought you might like these.”
“Merci, Captain,” Thaddeus said, buckling on the Remington and dropping to the sand, he pulled on his well broken in mule-ear boots. “I will come aboard shortly, Captain, to retrieve my saddle and gear. It has been a damn pleasure travelin’ with you and I do apologize for our fuckin’ disorganized unloading.”
“It was entertaining.” Captain Kinney replied, smiling back at the big river. “Ol’ Miss, she can be a mean mistress. I am pleased you and all your horses made it to shore. I tell you, that was one devil of a stunt you pulled, leaping off my boat.” He shook his head. “Boys will spread tales of it from here to Minnesota before you know you will be a legend.”
Thaddeus grinned crookedly, climbing to his feet. “Well, hell, that sure was not the plan.”
“Colory and courage bring about the best tales. Either way, I would like to be the first to shake your hand,” Kinney said, taking Thaddeus’ hand in a firm grip. “Well, look here, Will and Otto appears to be saving you both from having to go back aboard.”
“Cannot say it makes me, sorry none.” Thaddeus replied offhandedly, and realizing what he said, grinned at Captain Kinney. “It ain’t that I did not enjoy my time on your boat; just ain’t made out to be a boatman.” He glanced at the river, “I could never become accustomed to havin’ so much damn water around me.”
Captain Kinney nodded.
“I do not know, Tad at first, I kind of liked it.” Fox said. “It was soothin’ and no one was shootin’ and ya did not have to fret over who might come out of the trees.”
Thaddeus shook his head, “You realize if’n you would lay off goin’ on so many patrols, you would cease being so fuckin’ jumpy.”
Lafayette and Connor exchanged a look of confusion that deepened when Fox’s shoulders curled up around him like a cloak.
“I ain’t tryin’ to twist on you.” Thaddeus said, clapping his friend on the back. “Just statin’ the damn truth is all.”
Reading trouble brewing between the two, Lafayette spoke up, “While these animals are still tired, I deem we should push ’em on to L’Eau Sucree .”
“I am hungry, Lafe.”
“When ain’t you?” Lafayette replied. “I planned on feedin’ y’all first.” He looked at the pair of Texas saddles the boatmen laid side-by-side in the sand and sucked on his front teeth, “I suppose that is Fox’s saddle?”
“Uh hum.” Thaddeus grunted. Kneeling, he set to cutting the rawhide straps, which held his saddle into a compact bundle.
Squatting down by the other, Fox began doing the same.
Lafayette looked to the barges, “You did not bring mine?”
“Never thought to,” Thaddeus replied, not looking up.
“Hey, Tad, ya mind if’n I cull Ebby out to ride?” Fox asked, standing with his bridle in his hand.
“You ride who you want, Fox,” Thaddeus said, shaking the straps on his saddle out and catching his brother staring at him, said, “I am not givin’ you m’ saddle, Lafe. Go rent one or buy one or whatever suits your fancy, but break off watchin’ me like a damn back porch hound.”
Lafayette’s brown eyes turned grim.
“Shake out my blanket and put it on Cain.”
Lafayette did as told.
And, hefting his saddle, Thaddeus carried it over and tossed it on Cain’s back. “I did not think to fuckin’ grab yours, all right, excusez-moi. But, hey, I brought Coffee.”
Lafayette’s face exploded into a smile that had his dimples creasing his cheeks, “You did,” he yelped, rushing for the corrals.
Watching him go, Connor asked, “Coffee??”
“Oh, that is his personal mount.” Thaddeus answered, pulling the girth cinch tight.
“I see.” Connor chuckled, “Who be this big one?”
“His papers read Crowe’s Appalachian Blue. Yet, we all call ’em Cain.” Thaddeus winked, flopping the stirrup down. “He earned that name; he is a damn ornery devil. So, take this as your warning and be wary of ’em.”
A high whistle that dipped low and warbled back up rang out.
Connor cocked his head to the side at the sound of it.
Thaddeus hitched a thumb toward the corrals, “Watch.”
Four horses raced to the section of fence Lafayette was standing on.
“That is Connagáin, Leontes, Malcom, and Saffron.” Thaddeus said, listing the horses as he pointed to each. “Them quatre, is the ones he rides most often. The tall, dark bay is Connagáin Aillte or as Lafe calls ’em, Coffee.”
Watching his pal climb over the fence, Connor muttered. “Connagáin Aillte that be a Gaelic name.”
“Yeah, Father, says we have a good dose of it in us.” Thaddeus replied off-handily, tying on his saddlebags.
“Hmm, Boyo, ain’t never said anything of it.” Connor scratched at his van dyke beard. “I also never be hearin’ of horses who run up like dogs.”
“We train ’em all to respond to whistles and some to our own specific calls.” Thaddeus answered.
“Why did ye not be usin’ them whistles when they broke free?”
Thaddeus grinned, “You ain’t been around chevals much, have you?”
“I lived in cities most me life.”
Patting Connor on the shoulder, Thaddeus said, “You will learn,” and led Cain to the fence, “Hell Lafe, they seem kind of tickled to see you.”
“I know.” Lafayette glanced up from where he stood amongst his horses, sounding like a young boy as he chatted with and scratched each animal.
“I brought Nelly, too.” Thaddeus said, “Ain’t Jo goin’ be damn thrilled.”
“She would, but she ain’t here.”
“Quelle?” Thaddeus snapped, peering around as if he expected to see her sitting on a fence rail. “Where the hell is she?”
“Did Father not tell you she was gettin’ married?”
“He might have mentioned it.” Thaddeus replied, rolling his teeth across his lower lip.
Giving each horse a final pat, Lafayette sidled through the railings.
“Yeah, I think he did.” Thaddeus said. “But, hellfire, it always takes gals most of two years to get fuckin’ hitched.” Thaddeus spit on the ground and nodded. “Hmm, I do kind of recollect ‘em sayin’ something about it.”
With a snort, Lafayette threw up his hands. “How many times I told you to listen to everything someone says?”
Thaddeus brows drug down into a well-seated scowl.
Leaning against the fence, Lafayette state, “Jo, chose to have a quick wedding. It took place at her husband’s family home, in the Garden District. It was all rather quaint. Hell, I even gave her away.”
“All right...” Thaddeus said his brows still knotted up. “All right, fine. But, I want to know is who and why so fuckin’ fast?” Taking a step forward his scowl turned even darker. “And, par Dieu if’n you say, she was in a delicate damn condition... Lafe, I am goin’ to punch you right in the face.”
“Thaddeus Robert!?” Lafayette snarled, pushing off the fence. “Pour l’amour de Dieu! I guarded over our sœur better than that. If’n you had fuckin’ listened to Father, you would already know all you are askin’.”
Thaddeus’ nostrils flared.
Lafayette’s eyes narrowed; his voice dropping to a crisp, preciseness, “Jo is now, Mrs. Jonathon Burgess. Her husband had pressing business in England. She chose a swift marriage and traveling abroad rather than awaiting his return. Besides, neither Father, nor I saw any reason to make her wait if’n she wanted to skip all the bizarre customs tied up around a wedding; especially, when you consider most of ’em were created by filles anyhow.”
“You are pullin’ my fuckin’ leg.” Thaddeus said, his eyes canting to Connor. “Is he?”
“No, Laddy. Jo she left a fortnight ago. Been right boring with her gone, too, ’course it be no help how ye Bub insisted we spend each minute down here at these here stockyards.”
Thaddeus cocked his head, arching a brow, “Quelle?”
The brothers faced each other.
Thaddeus eyed Lafayette, and then his single dimple pitted his cheek as he broke into a
smile. Pulling him into an embrace, Lafayette said through a laugh, “Damn, but I have missed you... ill-temper and all.”