Wednesday, September 5, 1860
Lafayette’s gut rolled as much as the water as he watched the river boil out behind the steam boat. Although, he was not ill from the motion, but from his guilt over leaving L’Eau Sucree with so little warning. Taking a puff on his cigarillo, he thought, ’I meant what I told Grand-mère about returnin’ and that when I do, I will have the twins in tow. Despite what Taddy may think, being South is a far safer damn stompin’ ground for him. Father has told me as much in his letters. Knowing I was being truthful with her, should be enough to settle my pulsating nerves. But somehow it has not been so.′
“What you broodin’ on?”
Lafayette jerked, not having heard his brother’s approach. With a sigh, he looked back out at the water. “About my devoirs and about L’Eau Sucree.” He sucked at his front teeth. “Bet the filles are drivin’ Connor to the edge.”
“Maybe Fay more than the filles...” Thaddeus said, winking at Fox who had joined them. “Damnation Lafe. Leave it be. You have turned into the frettingest, damn bastard, I know.”
Lafayette winced, looked down, and then into Thaddeus’ eyes, “Truth be, I could say the same for you.”
Thaddeus crossed his arms across his chest.
“Hell, I believe that was the first twenty words you have strung together without speakin’ of the herd since we left Louisiana. A person would deem you to be the king stallion, the way you have gone on about ‘em, leastways, I am damn well frettin’ over humans.”
Squaring his shoulders, Thaddeus’ eyes narrowed like a snake beneath the brim of his hat and Lafayette glared back, giving as good as given.
Throwing his half-smoked cigarillo into the river, Fox rolled his eyes. Once they had begun the trek home, the brothers began nipping at each other like stray dogs. Exhaling loudly, he stepped between them. “Figure when we all dock at St. Joe, I aim to ride straight on home. Not even gonna halt for a shot of rye. I got me a hankerin’ for some of Ma’s cookin’.”
Not replying to him, the brothers returned to leaning on the deck railing, avoiding each other by watching the landscape slide by.
‘I reckon they is headin’ for a fistfight.’ Fox thought, covertly studying the pair. ‘I hope it happens on land where there ain’t no call for me to get involved.’ And exhaling again, he spit a stream of chaw. This earned him a quick, hard glare from Lafayette as it zipped past him to land in the muddy water. Stifling a smile, he felt sure would have Lafayette chewing on him, Fox asked. “Once I get home, I will have Lucas bring Ebby on over to Sienna.”
“You go on and keep ’em like, I told you before.” Thaddeus replied.
“It is fine to say such a thing, but I ain’t done nothing deservin’ such a payment.”
Lafayette barked, “Hellfire, if you ain’t.”
“Nope, I was bein’ neighborly,” Fox shook his head. “Been raised not to accept pay for being neighborly.”
Lafayette leaned backing looking at his brother, who nodded a go ahead to him, “Fox, I rightly see your point. Acceptin’ pay is just about as damn rude as offerin’ it. Fact being if’n you were not our neighbor... why hellfire, I would fill your pockets with double-eagles for all the bonne turns you have done us. But, that would not be proper.”
Fox nodded, his joker smile coming into play, “Exactly, so Lucas will bring Ebby back.”
"Non.” Thaddeus stated.
Fox’s squinty eyes became even smaller.
Lafayette held out a hand toward Thaddeus, “You know, I am with Taddy, I am startin’ to feel a touch insulted by how casually you are turnin’ down our gift.”
Fox’s eyebrows shot up.
“That is fuckin’ right.” Thaddeus said, picking up when Lafayette paused. “We ain’t payin’ you. Hell, that would be wrong. Erebos Wind is our gift to a true ami.”
Fox’s smiled played out as he peeked toward where he knew the red gelding stood with the other stock.
“Damnation Fox, you and Ebby fuckin’ match up well and he fuckin’ takes to you. If’n Lucas shows up, we are gonna send ‘em Ebby right on back. So, do not be wastin’ your petit frères fuckin’ time.”
Fox turned from one Crowe brother to the other. They were wearing matching sly, dimpled smiles and knowing there was no way he would change their minds, he shrugged. “All right damn it, y’all win. I will keep ’em. Thank ya. Thank ya kindly.” He said, grinning like a possum eating peach pits.
Looking over the top of Fox’s head Lafayette asked his brother, “Damnation, who would think it could be so hard to give a cheval away?”
“Some people are just fuckin’ hard-headed is all,” Thaddeus replied, hugging Fox’s shoulders before releasing him.
Fox sniggering laughter rose up, “Y’all ain’t ones who should ever be pointin’ out if’n a person is hard-headed. Not in my days, have I met a single person as hellish, mule stubborn as y’all can turn.”
Lafayette’s shoulders twitched, and chuckling softly, he pulled his pocket watch, “About St. Joseph, Taddy and I plan on disembarking at Rupe’s Landing.”
Fox’s mouth twisted to the side.
“It is closer to home,” Thaddeus added
“You are welcome to join us,” Lafayette said. “On the other hand, Joe will make for less travel to y’alls place.”
“Ya is right, St. Joe is closer.” Fox answered. “I think, I will go on and unload there.”
Clapping his pal on the shoulder, Thaddeus said, “See you around the County?”
“Not, if ’n I see ya first.”
Extending a hand to Fox, Lafayette’s face became serious, “Cannot say how much we all appreciate what you have done.”
“Best way to thank me...” Fox arched an eyebrow, grinning his joker’s smile, ‘Do not be fuckin’ goin’ on about it.”
“I ain’t plannin’ on it.” Lafayette grinned, shaking Fox’s hand, “We best be seein’ to our mounts, Rupe should be comin’ up within the hour.”
Once on ground with Cain and Coffee carrying them further from the river and their noses were no longer filled with the smell of decay; the brothers sniping at each other relaxed as they, at last considered themselves to be truly returning home. Inhaling deeply of the clean, mountain air, they grinned and as if reading one another’s minds, they leaned forward; urging their mounts to greater and greater speeds.
The big racers became streaks of gray and brown; their hooves skimming the ground, manes and tails streaming in the wind. They ran neck-and-neck, except Cain was tossing his head, demanding more rein.
Ripping off his hat, Thaddeus hollered, “Let ’er rip, garçon.” The muscled gray stretched out, leaving his stable mate behind.... way behind. Looking back under his arm, Thaddeus saw Coffee was becoming a speck on the road. Feeling quite pleased, he shifted in the saddle. “Whoa, Cain. Bring it down. Whoa now, garçon." When Coffee came charging up, Cain jerked at his bit attempting to bolt off. ”Non, you have had your fun.” Thaddeus chuckled, spinning his horse in a tight circle, patting him on the neck.
“Hellfire! Y’all left us in the dust.”
“I saw that.”
“That gray demon is fast,” Lafayette said, grinning widely.
“I done told you, we fuckin’ bested Boreas on the beach.”
“Yeah, but there were a lot of circumstances involved there.”
“Damnation Lafe, ain’t I been tellin’ you how fast he fuckin’ is since the first time I opened ’em up.”
“That you have... still being told and being shown are deux different things.” Lafayette studied the stallion moving smoothly alongside him. “Seems he has also chosen to listen to you.”
“Took a bit of doing.”
“Whatever you have done has worked.” Lafayette’s smile grew and he hooted, “Boy howdy! Hot damn! We must get the pair of you on the Metairie track. I wager y’all could best the top records.”
Thaddeus’ crooked grin expanded into a full smile. Then twice as fast, it fell away.
Lafayette’s smile, too, disappeared. Because he knew, what Thaddeus was thinking. Not wishing to fall back to arguing, Lafayette began whistling and switched his attention to a pair of swirling, diving bluejays. When their nimble waltz ended by diving into the boughs of a large cottonwood, his whistling fell silent.
The rest of the morning slipped by in silence as the brother’s rode up-and-down the rolling, green hillsides. It was the type of day a person wanted to be outside. The type of day when the birds sang so loud it was hard to imagine they were not sitting right on your shoulder.
“I am looking forward to being at Sienna.”
Thaddeus jumped in his saddle, at the sound of his brother’s deep, rich baritone, which set Lafayette off in an ear-splitting round of laughter.
Thaddeus’ muscles twitched tighter, his eyes scanning the countryside, searching for movement in the dense green surrounding them.
Not noticing his apprehension, Lafayette reached over, punching him in the shoulder, ”Mes excuses, suppose I have been a bit lost in my thoughts.”
“Hellfire, you ain’t spoken a word in hours. Which ain’t fuckin’ like you, figured you had a bonne sulk brewin’ and it was best to leave you be.”
Lafayette chortled, shrugging. “Nah, been figurin’ on what I will say to Father.”
“All this fuckin’ time?”
“Yeah, all this time, it ain’t goin’ to be non social chat.”
“Not too sure.”
“Well, I reckon he is gettin’ soft in his age. ‘Cause, he sure has been a damn sight easier to live with.” Thaddeus’ replied, pulling up to examine the open, green valley below that they would soon be crossing.
“I do not know--”
Thaddeus turned in his saddle, “Have I ever lied to you?”
"Non.” Lafayette answered, “It is just...well, I am being disrespectful and takin’ non heed of m’ devoirs and...” Lafayette sighed, scratching the back of his neck. “Just ain’t been able to work out what to say.”
“Tell you what,” Thaddeus said, moving Cain closer. “Why do you not begin by fuckin’ tellin’ me why you came back.”
Lafayette’s dark brown eyes flashed, turning icy black.
“Aw, come on Lafe, you had it damn bonne at Gran-mere’s. Louisiane suited you...” Thaddeus waved at Lafayette’s double-breasted silk vest, swallow-tail frock coat, and short top hat. “So, before you go speakin’ with Father, why do you not up and tell me gran frère… what has you returnin’ to the backwoods?”
Scowling fiercely, Lafayette pointed in the direction of Sienna, snapping, “This is my home, too!” And, he kicked Coffee sending the horse plunging down a twisting, deer trail. Reaching the bottom, Lafayette found the trees growing so snug to the embankment that it took a bit of searching to find a path out. Once free, he allowed Coffee to graze in the shade while waiting on Thaddeus.
When his brother rode up, he cleared his throat. “Taddy, you are correct Louisiane does suit me. Mon classes at Tulane are goin’ well, I enjoy the challenge of lookin’ after the Begnoir-Bueford estates, and I am highly interested in what I might do with m’ own maison.” He gazed at the clumped rows of hickory, oak, and cottonwood trees surrounding the valley floor, “The crutch is I did not like the damn way I left home.”
Thaddeus started to speak, and seeing Lafayette’s left dimple flickering sharply, chose to stay silent.
“I am quite cognizant of how deranged this sounds. Yet the truth is, Taddy, I need to tell Father farewell, climb on Coffee, and ride off with it being m’ own damn choice; not because he ordered me to do so.”
Thaddeus looked away.
“Told you it sounded fuckin’ preposterous. However, it comes down to me wantin’ Father to know, I am a man and that I make my own choices.”
“I get what you are sayin’. Still, I say you is not gonna get the damn argument you are expectin’. He has fuckin’ changed. Hellfire I ain’t got the words to explain it. But how about this…would you believe; I am lookin’ forward to chattin’ with ‘em? Does that not fuckin’ beat all and say how much he has changed?”
“It does,” Lafayette nodded, lifting Coffee’s head, preparing to ride out into the sunny expansive meadow when Thaddeus barked.
Lafayette watched his brother’s green eyes scan the wide meadow.
After a moment, Thaddeus said, “I judge we ought to circle round, keep to the shadows of the trees.”
Knowing how much longer that route would take, Lafayette’s mouth pinched flat. Yet his brother’s wariness had him recalling Thaddeus had been out on patrol and he conceded without a debate.
On the far side of the valley, they climbed a rocky ridgeline, the fine day having become a humid, steam bath. Even their horses plodded along with their heads hanging low.
"Dieu, it is hot.” Thaddeus complained for at least the fifth time in an hour. “Feels like we are back in Louisiane.”
“Feels hotter,” Lafayette grumbled, shifting in his saddle. His sweat, damp pants sticking to the leather. Taking off his hat, he re-gathered his hair into a neat tail, twisting it into a knot so the thick weight no longer lay heavy against his neck and back.
“Mams is goin’ to lop that damn thing off, first chance she gets.”
"Non, she ain’t.” Lafayette answered. “Took me over a year to get it this long.”
“So, what is goin’ to stop her?”
"Moi.” Lafayette replied firmly, hitching a thumb in his own direction.
“You want to place a wager?”
"Non.” Lafayette answered too quickly, setting Thaddeus to laughing.
"Ferme ta gueule!”
“Hellfire, I might hold you down for her.”
“I would like to see you try.”
An edge came to Thaddeus’ voice, “I am damn sight stronger than you deem.”
“Only funnin’ you, Taddy. Non reason to start buildin’ up a head of steam.”
With a grunt, Thaddeus shifted his eyes to the far horizon. “Damn, looks at the line building.” He said, pointing to a long, rising thunderhead where it swirled; churning its many hues of dark blue and gray across the sky. “Hope we make it home before it breaks open.”
“Do not know a little rain water might do you good.”
“You should know deux fuckin’ days on the trail ain’t made you into any fuckin’ award winning rose either.”
A sharp retort was on Lafayette’s tongue when he began laughing. The truth was he was plain enjoying everything: being back in Missouri, being with Thaddeus, arguing with Thaddeus, riding Coffee, even the feel of the building storm. “Taddy, m’ ami, soon we will be at Sienna; baths, dîner, hard lemonade on the front veranda... Doux Jésus, it is bonne to be home. I have missed the hell out of everyone and everything.”
Thaddeus glanced at his brother’s large, contagious smile and broke into one of his own, gigging Cain into a faster trot.
Each field, cove of trees, and stretch of road was an old friend as they drew nearer to home. When Lafayette hollered, “Hey Taddy, that area seem darker to you, than the rest?”
“Yeah... it is toward Sienna. You do not think it is a twister, do you?” Even as the words left his mouth, wind swooped down hitting them in the face.
The storm front had arrived, pushing the hot air before it with twisting touches of frigid cold. Cain and Coffee’s heads shot up, their nostrils flaring. Grass flattened to the ground and trees whipped wickedly in the rushing wind.
Fear crawled up the Crowe brother’s backs. The wind was filled with smoke. Not just a trace or hint that turned your head. No, the wind was doused in it. As it raged over them, it reeked potent and thick of rank smoke.
Without a word, they laid heels to their horses. Coffee following Cain, the long-legged bay, pounding the dirt for all he was worth to keep the younger horse in sight.
Above the sky roared like the devil’s freight train, lightening blinding them and still smoke filled their nostrils, making the air feel too thick to breathe.
Crossing the road by the upper ridge, Thaddeus pulled Cain up so sharp the horse reared, whinnying. In the valley below, the fields were garbed in hungry, orange flames.
All was being devoured.
Scorching flames stretched up to the midnight, blue sky, leaping and dancing from Sienna’s big barn even as more delicate, glittering flames arched from the shattered windows of the house.
Unable to tear his eyes from the horrifying tableau, a ragged scream rose from Thaddeus.
Not wasting time with the road that led down to the drive, Lafayette flew past his brother taking a treacherous, breakneck path to the valley floor.
Sending Cain after him, the stallion’s hooves created an avalanche of scree to flip, bounce, and twirl around Coffee.
The debris should have reminded the brothers to stay alert, one wrong step from their horses could easily be their last; but they were far from thinking rationally.
At the field’s edge, Coffee shuddered, fire snapping lividly before the bay’s rolling eyes. Leaning forward, Lafayette spoke to the gelding and, tightening his legs, the horse took timid steps. Then they were in the brook, that angled along the ridge, and back across Sienna’s fields toward the barnyard.
Up on the grade, Cain screamed.
The sheer terror in the horse’s cry caught Lafayette’s attention. Looking back, he saw the stallion balked up solid, head thrown back and to the side, refusing to move even as the slope was disintegrating under him. Looking to the house, Lafayette ground his teeth and turned back to assist Thaddeus.
But even as he spun, he saw his brother pull his Remington and fire it next to the stallion’s head.
Cain threw his head back the sound of the blast, his whinny sounding like a woman’s shriek. The pistol boomed for a second time with Thaddeus’ legs pounding the horse’s sides and Cain leapt, taking the last crumbling terrace steps in great bounds to splash into the brook alongside Coffee.
The gentleness they were known for showing to their horses evaporated in their desire to reach home. Each brother swung their long, split reins in continuous back-and-forth swipes across the rumps of their horses, forcing the animals to race along the uneven treacherous brook through the acrid smoke as crackling flames clawed at them. When abruptly, the raging flames shriveled for they had eaten all in their path, leaving behind white rocks gleaming starkly against charred earth.
Cain clung tight to Coffee’s side as they raced across the smoking, smoldering ground. Wind swirled ash, driving it into their eyes while above the clouds twisted and in unison the brother’s screamed for more speed, their own terror stripping away common sense.