Lafayette moved up the line, hissing and chirking to the horses with Fox, Roland, and Connor doing the same from along both flanks, bunching the herd tighter together.
Abruptly Boreas snorted, throwing his head and rearing, the stallion spun, shoving the mares nearest him, nipping them into moving against the herd.
Thaddeus uncoiled a bullwhip; he had looped about the shoulders of his saddle. With a flick, the long whip snaked out, snapping loudly over the horses’ heads.
Boreas’ shrill challenging whinny rang out, his nostrils flaring and his legs pawing the sky in challenge.
“Boreas, you bastard.” Thaddeus grumbled, swirling his arm and making the whip sing as he cracked it repeatedly over the herd until it sounded like distant rolling thunder. The rear animals spooked by the sound surged against the head stallion. With a angry snort, Boreas switched direction, racing to take lead position as the herd streamed beneath the crisscrossed limbs of the two massive oaks standing sentry on either side L’Eau Sucree ’s drive. The horses raised tails streamed like silken banners with their sharp whinnies filling the air. Lafayette and Julien crowded the animals toward the fence line with Lafayette, hollering, “Keep ’em out of the cotton crop as much as you can.”
“Hep, hep there.” Thaddeus called, popping the coiled whip against his leg, as he and brought up the rear. “Come on, Cleo, get a move on.” He slapped the old brood mare on the rump, disrupting her from where she had halted to graze.
Across the plantation, slaves appeared to gawk at the racing line. A couple of them breaking free of their enthrallment to run to the house, calling, “Maîtresse Begnoir-Bueford, Maîtresse Begnoir-Bueford.”
With the horses traveling along the edge of the field as he wanted, Lafayette side-passed Coffee until he could see the grandiose, heavily columned house of L’Eau Sucree, enjoying the view of his property from the road and seeing his family strolling down the stairs, before the wide front porch, he held up a hand in greeting.
Spinning Coffee, Lafayette surveyed the elegantly manicured, floral studded lawn, the cotton fields streaming off into the dusky horizon, L’Eau Sucree’s wide pasture of sweet grass, the beautiful horses approaching the barnyard; lastly, his little brother and Connor riding side-by-side. He could not stop smiling, for at last, he had on hand so much of what he loved. In order to hold onto his joy, he pushed from his mind any dark thoughts of what had brought them all together; wanting for the moment to enjoy the happiness.
Kicking Coffee, he yelped out a yahoo racing the bay up the drive and reining him in at the steps, he calling. ”Bonjour, mademoiselles, it is bonne to see y’all and to be home.”
A chatter of warm replies flowed over him, and blowing them all a kiss, he called, “Come here, Mikey.”
The boy ran straight to him, holding up his arms. Leaning down, Lafayette snagged hold, pulling him to sit before him. “Let us get ’em settled.” He flung an arm toward the horses, “and we will be up for dîner.”
Locking Michaël between his arms, he whispered, “Hold on.” And, tightening his knees, Coffee took off in a fast rocking trot, leaving Lafayette and Michaël’s laughter to float back to the ladies standing on the steps, in the muggy gradually, cooling, evening summer air.
At the barnyard, the horses stamped and snorted investigating the green wood of the new corral and fragrant alfalfa being tossed into the line of feed bins that paralleled the fence.
When he rode up, the men Lafayette had ridden in with were dismounted and congratulating each other on a job well-done. Seeing them, Michaël yipped, turning so he could see Lafayette, he hollered. ”Oncle! Nobody told me Oncle Taddy would be here.”
“Told them not to.” Lafayette replied. “Wanted to surprise you.”
Michaël’s smile was so big, he looked fit to bust.
“Hey, Taddy.” Lafayette called, stepping from the saddle.
Seeing their nephew being lifted from Coffee’s back, Thaddeus squatted and stretching out his arms, braced for himself for impact.
“I was not told me you were coming.” Michaël said, his small hands encircling Thaddeus’ neck as he laid a big kiss on his cheek. “How is Patches?”
“Oh, that pup has become quite the hound. He stays at Dora’s side, although she does find ‘em sleepin’ on your bed. I would say he misses you.” Thaddeus answered, standing with his nephew wrapped in his arms. “Look at you, Mikey.” He bounced the boy. “You have grown like a weed down here in this heat.”
“I like it here. It is fun. But, I miss y’all,” he said, with a grin. “And look...” he pointed, in his mouth. “ I lost my first tooth.”
“So, you did,” Thaddeus answered with a laugh and seeing Katharine approaching, he blew her a kiss. “Evening, Sœur.”
“Bénis les Saints, you made it without harm down that horrible river,” she said, coming over to give Thaddeus a quick peck on the cheek. “It is good to see you, Taddy.” Her eyes shot wider as she took him in, “You appear quite restored, grâce à Mère Marie.”
“Been hale and hearty since two weeks after y’all left,” he replied. “But if’n I do not get some real food soon, I just might keel over.”
Everyone laughed except Fox Northrup, who felt the same and looked dumfounded from where he stood nearby.
"Dîner is being prepared. Your Tante Blanche and Grand-mère will greet all of you up at the house. Though they are eager to see you, above all; Grand-mère, you will not be setting foot in there until...” She smiled softly, her eyes peeking to Lafayette, Connor, Fox, and back to her little brother. “… each of you have removed a layer or more of dirt from yourselves. Much as I amour you, m’ frères, you truly reek like... well, I cannot even think like what. Just suffice it that you do.”
“I fully concede to your point, Katharine.” Lafayette said, nodding toward the corrals. “Soon as we sort out the stallions, we will head for the garçonnier to bathe.”
“Then I will ensure baths and attire is laid out.” She smiled at her brothers, “Until then... I shall see you again at dîner.” Bowing her head, graciously, she called, “Come along, Michaël.”
“Let ’em stay.” Thaddeus said. “I have a surprise for Mikey.”
“For me?” The boy shrieked, hugging tighter to his Uncle.
“Yup, for you.” Thaddeus replied, looking to his sister for her approval.
“Michaël, you pay heed to all you are told and return to the house with your Oncles.”
Michaël gave her, one of his quick affirmative nods, he had learned from Lafayette.
Carrying his nephew to the corral fence, Thaddeus placed him on the top rail, climbing up to sit alongside him.
“What is my surprise?” Michaël asked as soon as Thaddeus was beside him.
Thaddeus’ grin broke free as his green eyes scanned the herd. Leaning close to Michaël, he extended an arm pointing, “There... you see the little gray and white dapple way over there?”
Michaël nodded fast and continuously.
Thaddeus released a whistle that dipped high and low twice and the little dapple’s head popped around.
“You try it Mikey.”
Mikey’s whistle was similar, but very soft, and Thaddeus backed it up, his ringing out loud and sharp. The little horse came trotting toward them. “I will teach you how to whistle loud, Mikey, so you can call ’em.”
As the high-stepping dapple drew near, Michaël’s mouth fell open, “He sure is ace-high.”
Thaddeus peeked at his nephew, thinking, ‘Can tell you spend a good deal time with Lafe.’ And grinning, he hugged the boy close. “His name is Osage Blue Mist and he is all yours, with mon amour.”
“Mine.” Michaël’s brown eyes grew to the size of hen eggs.
“You are a Crowe and you must have your own horse.”
"Oncle Taddy, merci beaucoup. Can I ride ’em?”
“In the morning. He has been on a long journey and damn well deserves a rest.”
Michaël smiled and with an exhale, “in the morning.”
“Yup, you stay here and chat with ’em. I have work I need to accomplish.” Thaddeus said, climbing off the fence, but before walking to far, he halted. “Michaël, I do not want you to enter the corral, not one foot on the ground; there are some in there who ain’t too friendly toward petit garçons. You hear me?”
“I will not, I promise, Oncle."
"Bonne garçon.” Thaddeus answered. Seeing a someone approaching, he went to join Lafayette.
The stranger was a young man. He had flowing, golden ringlets and was wearing a brilliant, purple, frock coat, plaid vest and pants, along with about as frilly of a shirt as Thaddeus had ever seen. As the man drew closer, he was also amazed by his thin, tightly curled, waxed mustache.
"Bonjour, Lafe, it is tremendously great to have you once more home. And, this... why this must be Taddy,” Fay said, turning an admiring smile Thaddeus’ way. “My goodness, you should have warned me about your petit frère" Fay said, waving a hand at Thaddeus and then swooping in like a hummingbird; engulfing him in a hug. “It is wonderfully merveilleux to be able to welcome you to L’Eau Sucree.” Pulling back, Fay’s expressive, large, brown eyes took in every inch of Thaddeus; notably his exposed muscled chest and flat stomach. “I do so admire your western freedom regardin’ the conventional restraints of proper attire.” He smiled coyly and with a wink, said, “My, my, I must know...” He laid a hand on Thaddeus chest. “... how did you achieve such a spectacular Grecian form?”
Spooking from Fay’s touch, Thaddeus stuttered, “Fay... is it? Um, Hello.” And, set to rapidly re-buttoning the shirt, he had loosened earlier against the heat. “Good to meet you. Seems kind of odd to meet famille for the first time at our age.”
“Better to meet at any age, than never at all. And, m’chéri, I shall treasure this first rugged meetin’ eternally.” Fay replied. Leaning in, he kissed Thaddeus on each cheek.
Thaddeus leapt back, looking ready to jump out of his skin.
“Ah, Lafe, I venture he cleans up to be a rather impish cherub. Shame on you for not lettin’ me know he was such a beauté?”
Lafayette’s dimples dipped deeply, “Hell, I only see ’em as a damn imp.”
“Ooh, do not be nasty.” Fay shook a finger at Lafayette, wrapping an arm protectively about Thaddeus. “We shall not let ’em speak so cruelly of you. Maybe a punishment should be devised for him.”
Thaddeus’ mouth fell open, his head pivoting to stare wide-eyed at his cousin.
Fay’s arm remained firm about Thaddeus’ his stout shoulders, his enthusiasm unhampered by his dumbstruck expression. “Ah Chéri, I so amour your eyes. What I would not trade for them. Do you know Taddy chéri, green eyes are quite rare and...” leaning in so close his breath tickled Thaddeus’ neck, Fay whispered “... in some cultures they are considered quite the erotic sexual incitement.”
Thaddeus’ eyes dilated, and with a choked sound, he twisted out from Fay’s embrace. “Uh hum... Cuz, it is bonne to meet you and all but, I have work to do.” Spinning on his heel, he bolted for the horses.
Lafayette lost his barely contained mirth and fell to outright laughing at his brother’s discomfort. “Come Fay, you have made ’em blush, at least three different shades of red. Might be best to let ’em be.”
“Lafe, m’cheri, how can I let ’em be? He is so very sweetly innocent?” Fay replied with a lip biting grin.
“You are goin’ to have ‘em ducking behind doors, avoidin’ you, if you ain’t more reserved.” Lafayette said, clapping their cousin on the shoulder.
“Reserved!? Why the hell, would I want to be so nauseatingly proper? What enjoyment would that bring? Besides, as Maître of L’Eau Sucree, you placed yourself off limits.” Fay fluttered a hand at Lafayette, “Suppose you have the right... still Chéri..." He shook his head with a sigh, his heavy-lidded eyes drifting to study Thaddeus in a way that was far outside the boundaries of decorum, “.... he is such a delectable, tempting challenge.”
Lafayette snorted, “Temptin’ he may be but when he knocks you flat, I do not want to hear one word of remorse from you.”
Fay twirled one of his long curls, “You truly estimate he would brutalize me?”
Lafayette laughed harder and louder than he had before, swiping at his eyes, saying, ”Oui. You keep on at ’em as you are and I have non doubt of it.′
“Hmm, perhaps I will mind your warnin’,” Fay said, with a sigh. “Well, till dîner.”
Lafayette clapped him once more on the shoulder, “Till then.”
Walking away, Fay called out, ”Au revoir, Connor and Taddy, bon-aimé."
Thaddeus threw a look toward his brother, his eyes flashing with barely controlled rage.
Ambling over, a smile stretched across his face, Lafayette stood outside the paddock that Thaddeus was releasing Cain into. “Taddy, who would you prefer me catch up next?”
Slamming the gate, Thaddeus turned on his brother, “What the hell was that?”
Lafayette looked about them like he had missed something vital, ”Quelle? Where?”
Thaddeus pointed to Fay, sashaying along the path to the big house.
“Why that was our cousin, Fay.”
Thaddeus frowned, “Awful damn handsy.”
“You have to create your boundaries with ’em.”
“Boundaries?” Thaddeus barked.
“You will get the hang of it.” Lafayette punched him in the shoulder. “Course, you would do better, if you kept yourself fully damned clothed.”
“Aw, merde!” Thaddeus growled, grabbing for his saddle, he had left sitting on the fence to find it in the hands of a tall, thinly built negro. “What the hell? Give me that!” He demanded, holding his hands out for the saddle.
The man backed away in alarm, “Mes excuses, Maître Crowe.”
“Do not be calling me Maître! I ain’t your fuckin’ master. Him maybe...” Thaddeus jerked a thumb toward Lafayette. “...and them up there, but I ain’t. You call me, Tad and I will see to my own gear. You just show me where to store it.”
Laying a hand on his brother’s arm, Lafayette kept him from yanking the saddle the saddle out of the man’s hands. “Jacque would you kindly place, Taddy’s saddle and those of the others in the tack room.”
Jacque’s wide eyes shifted to Thaddeus before he nodded, ”Oui, Maître Begnoir-Crowe.”
Thaddeus turned on his brother, “I will not have men fuckin’ slave for me.”
“I agree, and I am lookin’ for amends here. Until then, Jacque knows the tack room, and we got stallions to deal with. Grab up your rope and get over it.” Calling to the slave unsaddling Coffee, Lafayette said. “Beaumont, leave my rope on fence.”
“Will do, Maître Begnoir-Crowe.”
Thaddeus nose wrinkled his lips pressing so tight together they had turned white.
“Taddy, s’il vous plaît, give a little here. These men...” He waved round at negros doing tasks about the stables. “... are proud of the positions they hold in the stables. Until I can achieve my goals, s’il vous plaît..." Lafayette closed his eyes, exhaling, before opening them again. “.... just s’il vous plaît.”
“I do not fuckin’ like it.”
“Did I ask you to like it? I do not like it! I asked you to give a little.”
Thaddeus nodded, “Let’s see to the fuckin’ stallions.”
Roping in stallions, they handed them off to Julien, Roland, and Andre settling each in their own private paddock. All the while, Michaël avidly watched from where he sat in between Connor and Fox atop the fence.
At last, there were just geldings, mares, and young in the large corral. Lafayette pointed to the far gate that opened to the pastures, “Taddy, release your bébés. I would say they are more than ready, would you not?”
Slipping through the fence rails, Thaddeus wove through the herd; the soft words he uttered, not traveling any further than the horses, he spoke too, his hands caressing each one he passed. In turn, the horses nudged and followed Thaddeus, not so much crowding him as surrounding him. When he flung the gate wide, they parted, spilling around him, snuffling, bumping him as they passed until he was alone.
With his herd running, kicking, bucking across the open pasture, he felt for the first time since pushing them through Sienna’s gates, like he could breathe. He knew Lafayette had been teasing him when he called the horses his bébés; truth was they felt exactly like that to him. Seeing them happy, he sighed contentedly, pleased not one had been lost on the arduous journey.