Veering around the burning barn, Lafayette hauled Coffee up so hard the gelding nearly sat down. And before the horse had finished moving, he was on the ground running to the body lying in the stable yard. “Peter, non, Peter!” Tearing off his frock coat, he used it to smother the flames on Peter’s legs, even as Cain tore by on the way to the house.
Rolling him over, Lafayette gasped. The man he considered a second Father was beaten beyond recognition; half his face and skull caved in. Peter’s one remaining eye, milky with death. Rearing back, a carnal howl ripped from Lafayette; and lunging to his feet, he chased after his brother.
The howling wind carried Thaddeus’ curses to Lafayette. They were short, simple, and filled with the same pain that crowded his own chest, making it hard for him to breathe as he ran, his boots slipping on the white chat of the drive. Above thunder cracked like a cannon, sending Cain skittering toward him; the stallion’s saddle empty, and his reins swinging in the air as the animal swerved, bolting away.
Kneeling on the drive was Thaddeus. His hands gripping tight to the pair of bodies lying there. When Lafayette skidded to a halt beside him, his brother leapt up pulling his Remington, and the hammer clacking back sounding remarkably loud.
Thaddeus ran on, his mouth open, panting for air. The side of his face smeared with blood from where he had pressed his ear to Webster and Gabriel’s chests. Nearing the house, a strangled sob tore from him as he began screaming for Eudora.
Overwhelmed, Lafayette stared at the bullet riddled bodies, his eyes tracking from them to the numerous crimson pools on the drive. ‘Gabe and Web got a few of the bastards;’ he thought. His world was spinning out of control around him, and as it spun, a wrenching scream circled, elevating louder and louder. He twisted searching for the sound, when a corner of his mind barked, ‘It is you. You are the one screaming.’ Wrapping his arms about his ribs, he squatted to the ground, gasping, tears running from his face. Spotting a pistol beneath Gabriel’s thigh, he snagged hold of it, not even realizing he was doing so, until the cold metal was in his hand. Flipping the gate, he saw the cylinders were empty. ‘How many were there?’
With a reverberating boom, a plume of fire exploded from their home and a section of the house crumbled shaking Lafayette from the delirium he was drowning in. Flinging the empty revolver away, he pulled his own pistol; a special model LeMat, Jonathon had gifted him at Christmas. His gaze drifted from the LeMat to Webster and Gabriel to the fire erupting from Sienna’s great house and he began running. ‘I must catch Taddy and find the others.’
Waves of heat rolled from his home, clawing orange and blue flames reaching through the broken glass of the windows. Seeing his Father, Lafayette threw up an arm to protect his face and raced up the front steps, taking them three at a time.
Antonio was near one of the large porch columns, a charred noose, trailing from his neck. Peering up, Lafayette could see how his father had been hanging from the veranda railing. Flames having burned through the rope, he had been released to smash twisted and broken along the front steps.
With a shuddering gasp, he brushed his fingertips down his Father’s staring eyes, closing them forever. “FUCK!” the word detonated from him like a dynamite blast, and spinning, he began firing the LeMat, wishing there was someone, anyone he could kill. The revolver barked over and over till it clacked empty and sagging to the ground with a guttural cry, he slammed his hands against the hard stone steps. ’All of ’em... Peter, Gabe, Web, Father... all ’em gone.” And, just like Thaddeus had experienced at the Starks, Lafayette’s stomach twisted sideways everything from deep inside gushing out.
As he retched and his own screams no longer filled the air, he could hear Thaddeus’ baritone, strained and ragged calling for Eudora. Wiping a sleeve across his mouth, Lafayette stood, his black eyes a terrible sight to behold as his rage rose. His ‘red demon’ had ripped free, burning his insides hotter than the flames consuming Sienna. Closing his eyes, he rocked in place fighting to bring his emotions under control. His face became blank, impassive except for the deep pitted dimple moving in his left cheek. ’I must find the filles.′
Striding around the house, he searched left and right for a clue, and spied the latch off the cold, storage cellar. He paused. Swallowing hard, he knelt by the door. “Mams? Eudora?”
There was a shuffle of movement.
“It is Lafe.” He gripped the door handle, preparing to open it.
A frightened voice issued from beneath the door, “You best get. I got me a pistol and I will not blink about usin’ it, if that door even cracks. You go on, get away from here!”
“Mams, it is Lafayette Henri.”
“Mon Lafe not be here, bénis les Saints and I swear, you open that door, I will kill you deader than a side of hangin’ beef.”
"Mère, c’est me, votre fils, Lafayette Henri3," he pleaded. “I am goin’ to open this door, s’il vous plaît, do not shoot me.”
There was a metallic clatter, ”Garçon, it be truly you?”
"Oui.” He answered, swinging the door open. His eyes fell to the pistol lying on the bottom step and then to Mams with the others behind her. ”Merci Dieu!” he cried, a grateful smile erupting as he turned, bellowing, “TADDY! I found ’em”
Simone leaned against the stairwell wall, “How did you come to be here?”
Lafayette hollered again, “Thaddeus Robert. . . I found ’em!”
Racing from the back of the house, Thaddeus hollered, ”merci Dieu! I never considered the cellar.” Sliding to a stop, he laid a grateful hand on his brother’s back, “I was checkin’ the slave cabins.” Then he saw why his brother stood frozen with one foot on the top step.
At the bottom of the cellar, lying in the square of gray-green, storm-light was Eudora; her dress scarlet from blood.
“Dora!” Thaddeus gulped, shoving past Lafayette and tumbling down the steep steps.
Lafayette followed, noting Marie curled against the far wall, even as he knelt by his far too pale sister.
Eudora’s lashes fluttered, confusion shrouding her green eyes when abruptly they flew wide and she wailed. ”Non! Not them, not them. Non!”
Simone rushed to her, “Hush, bébé," she crooned, stroking her hair. “Hush.”
“I see Lafe and...” a pitiable sound escaped her, “and... Taddy. They must be dead; why else could I see ’em?”
“Sis, non..." Thaddeus kissed her. “We are here. We are really here.” He said, his tears wetting Eudora’s face.
“Oh, Taddy.” She reached up stroking his face and neck. “You are here.”
He nodded, gathering her into his arms. But, when he did, a heartrending screech peeled from her. Horrified, he recoiled, bouncing into Lafayette.
Lafayette stabilized Thaddeus and leaning forward, gently caressed Eudora’s cheek, “Oh, bébé fille.”
Her shining eyes met Lafayette’s and she latched hold of his hand, and moving it to her lips, she kissed his palm. ”Au revoir, Lafe.”
His whole body convulsed, tears sliding in straight lines from his face, ”m’chérie, do not speak so.”
Her eyes slid closed, she breathed out and with great effort opened them again, “You take care of ’em, Lafe.”
“You swear, Lafayette Henri, you swear to me.”
“I swear. I swear.”
She nodded, kissing his palm again, releasing his hand, her eyes drifted to her twin.
Bending Lafayette kissed her, tasting salty sweat on her brow, “Je t’aime, Eudora, ’till we meet again,” he whispered, feeling his throat might collapse from the pain building there. He scooted back, leaving the twins alone.
“I am here.” Thaddeus answered, through sniffling sobs.
“I am so cold.”
Lying himself on the stone floor, he cautiously wrapped himself about her and when she turned her head, they were nose-to-nose.
“Shhh.” She caressed his face.
A warm, wetness was soaking into his clothes, ′par Dieu, it is her blood, why can it not be mine.′
“It do not hurt no more, Taddy. Long as I do not move, it do not hurt.”
He nodded. “What will I do without you?”
“You will live a fine life.”
A choking sound came from him and he shook his head.
“You will, because I want you to,” she snapped.
A tear-filled gag racked its way out of him and Simone moved in close, stroking his back.
“I want you to have a good life, Taddy. I will be waitin’ for you, but I do not want to be seein’ you anytime soon.”
"Je t’aime.” A shudder ran through her. “You be good, brave, and careful. Make sure you enjoy life and laugh . . . . do it for me.”
“I will try.”
He grinned a bit, swallowing some of his tears.
“Hush.” She stroked his cheek. “You are here. With you here, I am not scared anymore. You do not be either.”
Leaning his forehead against hers, he whispered, “I do not want to be alone.”
“You are not. You got Lafe, and he needs you.”
“But, Eudora Lorraine, I need you.”
A painful, constricted sound came from her, causing her to convulse and her breathing grew heavier. “We will be together again, m’ twin. I go to meet Mère.”
"Je t’aime." she gasped, her eyes opening wider. And with an exhale of air, that brushed across his face, she left him.
"Non! Dora, non!” he howled, desperately pulling her to him.
Inhaling deeply, Lafayette threw his head back. Above, the sky was dark blue with streaks of turquoise. He closed his eyes to it, inhaling deeper... each breath feeding his rage.
"Mon bébés.” Simone said, stroking each twin’s face. She bent to kiss them. ”Mon doux bébés, watch over ’em Ava Marie, s’il vous plaît.”
Moving close, Lafayette wrapped the trio in his arms, the suffocating, gasping sounds of grief rising up to him. Outside the fire crackled and popped devouring all he knew, while inside his rage dug at his gut like bad food devouring his goodness, darkening his heart.
When with a lurch, Thaddeus pulled himself free. Leaping to his feet, he stared dazedly at the well-stocked cellar shelves; the light from the one lantern making the jars sparkle like deep, hued gems. Then his eyes came back to Eudora and with a howl, he bolted careening against Lafayette, and knocking his shins on the stairs he clambered and ran up them.
After watching him go, Lafayette turned his eyes for the first time, truly, to Simone. ‘Why she has been beaten and her arm is broken.’ He grimaced, reaching for her. ’I should have been here to protect her; all of ‘em.’ His fingers brushed her shoulder, “Mams?”
Unhurriedly, her golden eyes rose to his face. “What are deux doing here, Chéri?”
“We returned home,” was all he could think to say.
“Ah Chéri, I was so thankful you were both safe at L’Eau Sucree.”
Edging forward, Lafayette tenderly took her in his arms. “We are here now.”
Holding Simone, Lafayette closed his eyes tight, the harrowing sound of Thaddeus’ grief swirling down to him, ripping deeper ragged gashes in his soul. When at length, Thaddeus’ screaming turned to cursing. Exhaling, Lafayette released Simone and unfolding his legs, he slowly stood.
Simone touched her fingers to the back of his hand, her eyes pools of pain and sorrow when he looked into them. ”Mon Taddy, he be hurtin’ worse than an injured animal. You be wary of him, m’ fils.”
Lafayette nodded his throat too tight to even consider pushing words from it. He drug his feet up the stairs, his boots felt like they were weighted with dried clay. As he emerged from the cellar, the moist air felt good on his face and from behind the house, he could hear Thaddeus cursing everything from God, to the Jayhawkers, to himself. The way he was condemning himself was disturbing, and as Lafayette listened, the heavens opened; drenching him in cold rain.
Shutting the cellar door, he lifted his face to the storm, listening to the fire hiss as the rain touched it. ‘This pain is so deep it feels like it is rending me apart.’ Standing there, it came to him, he no longer heard Thaddeus. Running his hands back over his face, he headed for the rear of the house.
He found his brother standing in the center of the outdoor kitchen with his head hanging low. He was leaning on a table his shoulders heaving in time with his panting breaths. Around him, tables were flipped, benches broken, pots scattered like a twister had invaded this area alone. Drawing closer, Lafayette forced the muscles of his throat to loosen enough to choke out, “Taddy.”
Thaddeus spun, the barrel of his Remington stretched toward Lafayette like a gleaming, accusing finger.
The brothers stared at each other.
Closing his eyes Thaddeus turned the nickel-plated barrel toward himself.
Lafayette sprung, flattening his brother to the ground as flame bloomed from the Remington. The sound of it was so close, it rang in their ears, and sharp stone shards peppered them as the bullet embedded itself in the patio’s brick floor. Shoving his knee in Thaddeus’ chest, Lafayette captured his brother’s left hand.
“Let go of me, Lafe. Let me be with her. We have always been together... always!”
Ignoring him, Lafayette slammed Thaddeus’ hand on the ground, again and again, until the Remington dropped from his grip. Snatching it, he flung it, the metal of the revolver sounding profoundly loud as it skidded across the bricks.
With a roar, Thaddeus bucked free, his hands clenching into fists.
Before he made it to his feet, Lafayette dived, encircling him from behind; crushing his brother to his chest.
“Let me go! Fuckin’ let me go!” Thaddeus bellowed, straining, twisting, struggling. But he was no match for the iron grip Lafayette held him in.
All at once, the fight left him. Sagging, he sobbed; each sob sounded as if it were scraping a piece of his soul free.
Lafayette held him, rocking him; his own heart pounding like it might break out of his chest. With each pound, the curses Thaddeus had been screaming echoed through him.
The storm howled about them.
The rain coming down in a pounding deluge and shifting, Lafayette shielded his little brother. When the rain eased, he little by little released Thaddeus.
Instead of pulling away, Thaddeus turned; hugging him tight. “I hurt so bad, Lafe. I cannot do this. They... killed her. They took her from me,” Thaddeus sobbed, a tremor running through him that shook Lafayette to his core. “I feel like... I have been torn open and that when I look down; I should see blood oozing from me as it was from her.”
Lafayette placed his chin atop Thaddeus’ head. The storm was passing on and he could clearly see the burned, broken ruins of their home.
“Lafe, s’il vous plaît, I want to close my eyes and die, to be with her.”
"Non!” Lafayette roared, shooting to his feet, yanking Thaddeus with him. “Damnation, non!” he hollered in his brother’s face, shaking Thaddeus so hard his head bobbed back-and-forth. “That ain’t an option! You lyin’ down and dyin’ ain’t even on the table. Hell, doin’ so is dishonoring Dora’s wishes.”
Thaddeus allowed himself to be shook when as suddenly as it had left him, his will returned. He stiffened, twisting out of Lafayette’s grip.
The setting sun appeared from behind a dispersing rain cloud, highlighting the twisted, tight contours of Lafayette’s face, as he said with precise firmness. “We will find ’em, Taddy. We will make them pay. We will introduce this world to a new version of justice like they ain’t never seen. And, Eudora was correct, I do need you.” Clasping hold of his brother’s face, Lafayette looked him in the eyes. There was a look there like Thaddeus had never seen, like the darkness of hell had invaded his peace loving, laughing brother, and as much as he did not recognize the look; he recognized the commanding firmness in Lafayette’s voice even less when he said. “Taddy, I need you. Need you by my side, as we make ‘em pay for what they have fuckin’ done. Will you assist me, Thaddeus Robert?”
Lafayette’s eyes scanned away, the anger slipping as his face took on a skittish look, he had long ago outgrown. “You will not leave me... alone? S’il vous plaît, Taddy, do not ever leave me.”
For that one broken moment, Thaddeus felt he could see straight into his elder brother’s soul. What he saw was; Lafayette was just as young and scared as he was. Plunging forward, Thaddeus wrapped his arms about him, “I am all right now, Lafe. I swear I am. I will not leave you. Not fuckin’ ever! We will make ‘em pay. You are fuckin’ right. We will show ‘em how to play their game. Right smart, we fuckin’ will.”