Thaddeus sat on the wet steps smoking while above him the wet clouds shifted, revealing patches of blue sky. Out on the drive Lafayette was bidding farewell to their closest neighbors who were climbing into wagons and buggies. Several of them looked Thaddeus’ way, but he never noticed, his gaze was locked on the broken ruins that had been their home while toying with a small silver heart hanging on the same chain as his crucifix.
Burning the tips of his fingers, he dropped the over smoked cigarillo and standing, stomped on it. His gaze shifting to the fresh piles of dirt mounded in their family grave yard. ‘Dora, Peter, Gabe, Web, Father.’ Their names kept circling in his mind like a runaway merry-go-round. The sound of their names and their faces filling him, hurting him. His teeth rolled across his lower lip, tears rising up once more.
"Mon garçon,” Simone cooed, wrapping him to her with her one good arm.
He blinked, fighting the tears, “I... Father, Gabe and I...”
She rubbed a hand along his back, “Shhh, Garçon, shhh.”
“We were...” his words fell away.
She finished them, “You trios had at last settled into each other.” Simone shook her head, “You remember these past months, when you think of ’em, and you take their strength into you.” Her eyes shifted, following Lafayette where he paced on the drive. “Taddy,” she whispered, “his demon be on the outside now.”
Thaddeus stiffened, “He is still in control, Mams.”
"Non, bébé." She moved closer to him. ”Non, he is not his self!”
Thaddeus reared back, staring her full in the face.
She could perceive the same hardness surfacing in him. “You is changin’ as well. I can see the hate stoking up in you, m’ doux fils.”
Taking her in his arms, he thought, ‘if’n, I could curse the heavens and keep cursin’, until I had non voice left, maybe then the pain would leave me.′
“Mams, it is time.”
Simone turned sharply, Lafayette’s silent approach startling her. But with a nod, she took his offered hand, allowing him to aid her down the wet stairs and into the buggy alongside Marie.
“Mister Ericksen, merci; Thaddeus and I appreciate your famille takin’ us in.” Lafayette said, once he had the ladies stowed away.
“Lafayette, it is the least we could do,” Jackson’s father replied, shaking his head at the burnt shell that had been the great house of Sienna. “The least.”
“Still, merci beaucoup.” Lafayette said. “Taddy and I shall be along shortly.” Taking hold of Mam’s hand, he spoke much quieter, “Tonight I want to be made aware of all that occurred.” He laid a hand on Marie’s leg to speak to her and she shrank from him with an ashamed look. Stepping clear, he bid them farewell.
Closing his eyes, Lafayette stood listening to the normal sound of the buggy’s wheels turning on the chat drive. Sensing more than hearing Thaddeus’ arrival, he opened his eyes to see he was correct. Laying a hand on his little brother’s shoulder, he squeezed it before walking out to join their friends Jackson, Fox, Brody, and the Massey cousins; Clyde and JT, where they waited under the center cottonwood.
His hard dark eyes drifted up to the flickering green leaves, ‘amazing it did not burn.’ He thought, his gaze shifting to look to the barn and back to their home, ‘Unbelievable... so much life destroyed. Decades of labor and memories, snuffed out in mere hours.’ Inhaling, he realized there was no longer an ache to cry in him, he could feel himself becoming as hard and cold as a smooth, black, river stone.
Thaddeus bumped into him, bringing him back. Looking into his brother’s eyes, he bestowed a small smile on him before turning to face the others; his voice clear and strong as he said. “There is to be a retribution.”
Clyde Massey nodded, “Sure, should be.”
“Taddy and I do not have a timeline. However, when we are ready... are any of you willin’ to ride with us?”
Brody Johnson stepped forward, “You rightly know, Gabe and I were damn close.” Brody’s mouth pinched, his eyes scanning away to Sienna’s graveyard. “We two made it through a good deal of tight situations.” He nodded. “Gonna miss ’em something terrible.” Looking back, Brody’s gray-blue eyes roved over the faces before him, ‘ain’t nothing but a bunch of boys,’ and sticking his hand out, he stated. “Hellfire, I would be mighty proud to ride with y’all.”
“Good to hear.” Thaddeus replied, taking his hand and looking deep into Brody’s mirror like eyes, thinking, ’only time, I ever been ‘round Brody was when he and Gabe were razzing me.’
When Lafayette shook Brody’s hand, he noted the divot scar running along the older man’s high cheekbone and thought, ‘his experience is more than welcome, just hope he does not think he will get away with pushin’ us around the way he and Gabe have... did.’
Discerning a look in Lafayette’s face, Brody said, “As the head of your household, Lafayette, I appreciate you have had a heavy load thrust on you. Believe this... I will back any fuckin’ move you make. I will be there for you, just as Gabe was always there for me.”
"Merci, I will be proud to have you by our side.”
Tipping his hat to each of them, Brody nodded, “Once more, my sympathies.”
Lafayette’s mouth turned up on one side, “I am wantin’ far more than sympathy.” His black eyes slid meaningfully to the Colt on Brody’s hip.
Leaning close, Brody’s voice dropped low and hard, “and, you will damn well get it, too.”
Mounting his black gelding, Brody touched his hat, “Send word when you are ready. I will be there.” With a parting nod, he turned the gelding, trotting across the partially burned north fields toward home.
Clyde stepped forward with JT in his shadow, as was always the case. “Anything y’all do, me and JT will be by your sides. Know that.” Before either Crowe could react, he clasped them up in his long arms drawing the pair into a hug. “Our deepest sympathies, Lafayette, Tad. I will miss ‘em all, markedly Dora. She was... well, she was...” Clyde released them to look Thaddeus in the eyes, “I always saw her as happiness. Loved comin’ over and chattin’ with your sister. She made me feel this world was good and a person was meant to be cheerful in it.”
Stepping out from behind Clyde, JT peeked quick at Lafayette before approaching Thaddeus with tears streaming from his droopy, brown eyes.
Seeing how much grief was written on JT’s face Thaddeus grabbed in a hug. “How you doing?”
“Not so good.” JT mumbled into Thaddeus’ shoulder.
Thaddeus patted JT solidly on the back before pulling away. “I know you and Dora were great amis. She would get so excited when she talked of you.” Thaddeus nodded, swallowing hard. “She sure enjoyed your visits.”
“She’s the only one I never minded callin’ me Jonathon Thomas and...” He sniffed hard, “...she did it all the time.”
Thaddeus nodded, thinking, how his twin would call him, ‘Thaddeus Robert’ and it always sounded as natural as bullfrogs around a swimming hole coming from her.′
JT worked the brim of his hat between his fingers, his tears leaving dark spots on the felt, “Taddy, um, it might be wrong to say.”
Thaddeus tilted his head some.
“But, I want you to know... I was bidin’ my time for you to return from Louisiana. I almost spoke with your Pa, without you here and all. But felt it would not have been right. See, I had up decided to ask, if ’n it would’ve been all right, by both y’all, if ’n I could court Dora.”
Thaddeus brows puckered and he rubbed at the bridge of his nose.
“I understood she was different. Kind of like I am. I loved your Sis... truly I did.”
Abruptly, Thaddeus grabbed him once more in a hug. “Not sure what I would have said. But, JT, I know, she sure enjoyed havin’ you around.”
JT nodded and stepping back, he glanced at the others before limping off on his twisted knee to where he and Clyde’s horses stood with their hunting dogs. Kneeling, he scratched at To and Fro’s ears and then set to loving up on Patches; who was tied to the hitching post, looking as despondent as JT.
Tucking his thumbs into his vest pockets, Lafayette cleared his throat.
Clyde peeked up at him and ran a hand through his stringy, shoulder length hair, “I apologize. I told ’em not to speak of his plans. But, y’all know, JT rarely allows for good sense.”
Thaddeus raised his face, from studying his boots and passed Clyde a lopsided grin, “It is all right. Hell, it is nice to know someone else loved her. And again, I appreciate y’all taking Patches to your place. Seems he and JT gets along just fine.”
Clyde looked to his cousin and the dogs, “Times are, I think he understands animals better than people.” He offered his hand to the brother’s once more and they each shook it. “Send us word when the time comes. We will be there for anything which brings...” Clyde looked beyond to Sienna’s great house, “...as you said retribution.”
With Clyde going to join his cousin, Fox cleared his throat and walked up with Ebby’s reins trailing from his right hand. His narrow brown eyes were filled with sadness. He stared soberly at them, then grabbed each Crowe in a quick hug and leapt into his saddle. Spinning Ebby, he said, “I plan on being by your damn sides, even if it means we got to ride over brimstone.” Then he was trotting down the drive, passing the Masseys, waving goodbye to them.
Through the confirmations and farewells, Jackson had remained leaning against the old massive tree, fiddling with a singed cottonwood leaf. Now, with it just being the three of them, he released a deep, quavering sigh. “You realize I will be by your side. What has occurred here... plain sickens me.” And when he raised his face to them, beneath his long golden bangs, his cheeks were wet. “There are no words for any of it. Just know my family is yours.”
Stepping forward, Lafayette clasped hold of Jackson’s hands so they no longer fidgeted. “I cannot find the words either. And I ain’t goin’ to tell you, merci again. I have hit a point I cannot stand the feel of that word on my tongue.” He scratched his neck, “Jackson, would you mind givin’ Taddy and me, some time alone? We will be on over to your place, soon enough.”
Jackson nodded, and swinging into his saddle, he turned to ride Nero across the south fields as he always did. Taking in the blackened expanse, he paused, wheeling Nero to trot down the long curving drive to the road instead.
Exhaling, Lafayette bowed his head, rubbing at his temples, “Taddy, merci seems to be the onliest fuckin’ word I have been saying for the past twenty-four hours. And, fact is, I do not feel very fuckin’ thankful or merciful.”
“I agree.” Thaddeus answered, glancing to the graveyard, “At least, the others were with Gran-mere.”
Lafayette nodded, “I will have to write to ’em.” He shrugged and walked to the house.
Thaddeus, as a matter of course, trailed after him. Climbing the steps, the multi-colored shards of stained glass from the rose window crunched beneath their boots. Before gingerly stepping in, each of them peered into the house through the parlor’s broken French doors; heat still radiated like the residue of an old campfire.
Once inside, Thaddeus tilted his head back. Blackened stone walls rose up to the gaping holes in the upper stories where the missing sections of the roof allowed him an unnatural view of the blue sky.
Stepping over debris, Lafayette paused. Lying amidst the rubble was the curve of a face, full lips, and a delicately arched eye. It was all that was left of the painting of their Mother, Gena Lorraine. ‘Seeing so little of it... well of her; I can for the first time, see her features in each of us.’ Lafayette thought. And with a heavy sigh, he moved on, working his way toward their Father’s study.
The books had been perfect tender and it was blacker here than in other areas. No ceiling at all remained, all three floors had been incinerated; the wreckage tumbling, crashing, piling here in the study. “Taddy, we need to move them beams.”
Thaddeus, not understanding why they were here, turned a questioning look on his elder brother.
“The desk should be below that pile, near as I figure.”
“Probably is,” Thaddeus stated, eyeing the large, charred beams. “Still, I do not fuckin’ understand.”
“Take it, he had not got around to tellin’ you.” Lifting part of a burnt chair, he tossed it aside. “There is a safe under the desk.”
“I suppose. Then again; in reality he did not tell me either.” Lafayette grinned, “I found it when I was a garçon and I opened it.”
“By listenin’ to the tumblers. Took me more than a year to do it.”
“Why did you not ever tell me?”
“We all have our secrets.”
“You can open fuckin’ safes. That is a damn grand secret.”
“I did not say safes.” Lafayette chuckled. “I said this one.”
“Why did you do it?”
Shrugging, Lafayette, moved what he thought was a section of Gabriel’s low dresser, and answered “the challenge, I suppose.”
Grunting, they warily and methodically moved the beams.
“How in the hell, did you figure out what to do?”
“You could say all readin’ is not good for you.”
“You amaze me.”
Shuffling more wreckage, the remains of the cherry wood desk came into view.
“Did Father, ever tell you of the safe?”
"Non, but, Gabe did. Father trusted him with the combination as he was the oldest and all. Gabe deemed a few more of us should be ken to it, so he informed myself and Katharine.”
“Why not me?”
Lafayette threw several broken boards away, “Kind of a trifecta of elders.”
Stepping behind the desk, Lafayette paused what he was doing to look at his brother. “Not sure, we just agreed not to tell you and Jo. Maybe, we were waitin’ to ensure neither of you would run off with a travelin’ circus.”
“Hey, y’all were wild.” Lafayette said shoving the remains of the desk aside and picking up the barely charred rug, he flipped it back, “Behold.”
“Only one I ever seen is the big one in Harrisonville’s bank.” Thaddeus shook his head, smiling. But it dropped from his face like a sheet of ice from a building.
Patting him on the back, Lafayette said, “Go get a saddlebag or something.”
Thaddeus nodded, and when he returned, Lafayette had stacked several neat piles of currency outside the safe, which he handed to his brother.
“Homeless, but not destitute.” Thaddeus mumbled, shoving the money in his saddlebag. But when Lafayette passed him bundles of papers, his brows bunched tight.
Recognizing the look, Lafayette said, “Deeds of ownership for the horses and the lands of Sienna, as well as stocks and various legal issues.”
“Oh.” Thaddeus frowned, “What are we to do with ’em?”
“Send ’em to Louisiana and Taddy; remind me to give you the combination later.” Lafayette slammed the safe closed, spinning the dial. “There is still a good deal of cash and some jewelry in there too.”
The pair of them scattered rubble across the area they had cleared. Straightening, Lafayette arched his back, surveying the remnants of their home and when a few stray tears traced paths along the curves of his sooty face. He did not bother to wipe them away; just took a breath. Passing a bland smile to his brother, he said. “Let’s get over to the Ericksen’s. They are most likely holding dîner for us.”