Landry crossed his arms, his tanned face hard and stubborn as he stared at his brother so intently that Dawson thought his eyes were going to fall out of his face. Landry’s eyes were one of a kind, they were. So big and blue that they looked like the deep puddles outside where the surface of the water reflected the cloudless blue sky. It had been washed clean by the rains that had tormented the rural Indiana countryside for weeks, and now, finally, the small town and its inhabitants were left with the aftermath. As if it wasn’t hard enough already for everyone struggling to make the simplest ends meet.
Dawson and Landry were no exceptions. With the year 1929 just recently behind them, the next year stretched ahead, bleak and with little hope of improving their situation. There was simply no work to be found, though Dawson had paced the streets and spoken with every businessman in town. Frustrated and hungry, he wearily returned each night to the shanty along the riverside that had been nearly torn apart by the winds and rain of the past weeks.
“You’re going to wear this whether you like it or not,” Dawson insisted, thrusting the coat into Landry’s crossed arms. “It’s cold out there, and I don’t want you getting frostbite.”
“My coat I already have will be just fine,” retorted Landry. “There is no way that I’m gonna put that thing on. Where’d ya get it anyways?”
Dawson shook his head. The coat that Landry was so insistent upon wearing had at least twenty-four holes in it already, not to mention the seams gradually fraying and wearing away.
“Papa and Mama made me promise to take care of you, so I’m not going to have you go gallivanting off in that old thing.”
“Old? Old when you’re offerin’ me that moth-bitten rag? No, I don’t think so. Now, I gotta leave and you can keep this ‘coat’ for yourself if ya like it so darn much.”
Wincing at every word his brother spoke, Dawson found himself standing alone outside the shanty with the coat in his arms. Landry’s rangy figure was vaulting over the far fence with the shoes too large for him flopping raggedly about his feet, not even looking back as he disappeared into the woods.
A deep sigh escaped Dawson’s lips, followed by a racking cough so harsh that he was forced to sit down on a rock beside the door to the shanty. Gripping his sides and inhaling deeply, he struggled to stop the coughing because he knew that all it was doing was tearing his lungs apart. He coughed blood so often that he had gotten to the point where it scared him so much to cough.
But that was the least of their worries. Dawson had no idea where Landry spent his days, and sometimes, the sixteen-year-old didn’t return for days. He wished he could give up caring for the reckless, careless freeloader that only devoured the food Dawson managed to scrape up and stole the one cot they had. He wished that the boy would one day come to his senses and begin acting like the man that Papa had tried so hard to turn him into. And, least importantly, he wished that Landry would give up his bad habit of using the type of speech so common to the hobos down by the river.
He stared down at the scratchy wool coat in his lap and shook his head. Figuratively, he had given and arm and a leg for that coat, but that didn’t mean anything now. Landry hated it, and that was a fact.
“What is this?” he murmured to himself curiously, pulling from the one intact pocket a small card. “Thompson and Johnson’s Sons and Co. Upton, KY. Help wanted.”
Blinking in disbelief, Dawson quickly reminded himself that there was little to no chance that the offer still stood. After all, he had learned along with the rest of America’s population that a lot could happen in a year.
Dawson flipped the card over and almost jumped in astonishment.
We are well aware of the fact that the present circumstances make it difficult to find work, and we are willing to pay an approved applicant as much as we can. Thompson and Johnson Sons and Co. are making an effort to improve the economy in our area and are very appreciative of anyone who would take this job.
In a moment, he had left his spot on the rock and was pacing down the lane that led along the clear, cold stream, the cold wind stinging color into his pale cheeks. His own blue eyes flashed with a new light while he clutched the coat closer in his arms and walked as fast as he could manage.
It was only a matter of a few miles to the Indiana-Kentucky border, and from there, he knew that there would be ways to get to Upton in no time just because of how close it was to the border on the Kentucky side. Of course, he knew that there was a chance that the job had been taken, but while he was still well enough to stand, he would try his hardest to find work.
“Where are you going?” came a voice from behind him that made Dawson stop midstride and turn around.
“Fred!” he exclaimed with a smile at his good friend. “Never thought I would see you again after you said you were leaving for England.”
“I ended up coming back,” grinned good-natured Frederick Wentworth, ruffling Dawson’s brown hair and slapping his on the shoulder. “What about you? Where are you heading off to?”
“To Upton for a possible job offer. Crazy or not, I found this advertisement in this coat and am going to see if the position is still available—Thompson and Johnson Sons and Co.”
Fred nodded, interest piquing in his face as he peered at the small card that Dawson handed to him.
“Ah, I remember them. They’re a coat company that fabricates their products out of the cotton from the massive Thompson and Johnson families’ fields down in Georgia. I’m really encouraged for you, Dawson.”
“Thank you,” Dawson grinned past the tears gathering in his eyes. “This is the only hope I’ve had in so long…I thought I was beginning to think like one of those hobos living down near the edge of town. I don’t beg, and I never did. Papa told me that a man who has to beg should have done everything else in his power to improve his circumstances.”
“And how are they? Are they living down here with you and Landry?” Fred asked.
Dawson’s face blanked, his blue eyes clouding and searching Fred’s face. Was it possible—was it possible that no one had told him?
“Fred, it was the influenza…last year…both of them in one night.”
Visibly taken aback, Fred reached out for a fence post and closed his eyes. For a moment, Dawson feared that his friend would fall where he stood and took a step forward with arms stretched forward.
“I-I’m fine,” Fred faltered. “I just—I just can’t—believe it. They were so well when I left…”
“I had been out looking for work all night, and when I came back—Landry’s face was more than I could bear or will ever see again. After that night, he just stopped caring.” Dawson looked down at the ground and brushed the moistness from his eyes. “It’s been a struggle, but we’re still here and alive.”
Another sudden fit of coughing gripped Dawson, and he dropped to his knees as he struggled to catch his breath. Drips of blood stained the dirt in front of him, his lungs grating for each next breath that came so laboriously to the young man.
“Dawson, what’s wrong?” Fred demanded in concern, his eyes flying open as he crouched down beside his friend. “Do I need to go for the doctor?”
Shaking his head as the coughs still continued to grasp his body in their viselike hold, Dawson reached out a hand for the one Fred was offering to help him to his feet.
“This is not good,” declared Fred with worry evident in his dark eyes. “Where’s Landry? Maybe he can go for the doctor.”
It was in that moment when Fred finally realized that there was no way that Dawson could answer his queries. With a sigh, he looked up and scanned the surrounding countryside that was void of all the people it had once housed.
“It’s alright,” wheezed Dawson, weakly smiling as the coughing slowly abated. “I’ll be alright.”
Looking wholly unconvinced, Fred shook his head.
“No, you’re not. Where’s Landry?”
“I don’t know. He’s gone every day now.”
Silence settled between the two friends, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was the silence of two boys before their time turned men trying to take their whole growing-up-place into view before they would most likely never see it again.
“Who’s living in the house now?” Fred inquired quietly, his eyes on the house on the hill nearly a mile away.
“I don’t know,” admitted Dawson, the recurring thought of some stranger dwelling in his old home painful to his heart.
“If you’re leaving for Upton today, then we need to get a move on,” Fred advised him. “Shall we go?”
“Yes,” Dawson responded unhappily, turning his face away lest even his best friend see the grief in his face. “Let’s go.”
For what seemed like hours, the two friends trekked on through the countryside along paths that all too often were only narrow cattle paths carved through the woods. They talked some of the time, fell into thoughtful silence other times, and altogether reveled in the companionship both had yearned for over the Atlantic Ocean. Even though they both recognized that the times were rough and little likely to mend soon, both Dawson and Fred knew that they were blessed to have the opportunity ahead of them in Upton.
It was getting farther along in the day when the twosome decided to take a brief rest.
“I don’t have any food with me,” confessed Dawson guiltily as he noticed Fred looking askance at him. “I’m sorry. Most times I go without any dinner, so I guess I’m used to it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Fred shook his head.
Something all along the way had been bothering Dawson, and he sat down on the edge of a dead log with his hands folded across his legs.
“Fred, I can’t go on any longer. I have to go back,” he blurted out. “This isn’t right…”
“What do you mean this isn’t right?” Fred nearly shouted in amazement, throwing his hands up into the air. “This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, and there is no guaranteeing you’ll get anything like this again. Dawson—”
“I can’t just leave Landry like this,” Dawson said frankly as he turned up his clear blue eyes to look his friend in the face. “He doesn’t deserve to be left behind like this.”
“You told me yourself that he openly doesn’t want anything to do with you—that he hates being around you and slanders you in town. Do you think he wants to see you again? Do you think it will be best for him if you keep on trying to be a part of his life when he obviously doesn’t want it?”
“Yes,” replied Dawson slowly. “Yes, I think it is the best thing to do.”
“I’m not saying that I agree in any way with what he is doing, but there is a point when you just have to move on, Dawson.”
“But he’s my brother, and he doesn’t deserve being left alone.”
“You’re right. He deserves something much worse,” declared Fred heartlessly as anger flickered in his dark eyes.
“Fred, he will die if there’s no one there to feed him. He’s only sixteen!” exclaimed Dawson as the reality once again hit him with its very weightiness. “He will die.”
“Maybe it’s about time for him to step it up and stop acting like such a fool. You will die if this whole system you’ve both fallen into keeps up!”
“Better I die than I fail Papa and Mama and what they wanted me to do! They trusted me to care for Landry, and I can’t just run away when he makes it difficult.”
The quivering words hung in the air, and Dawson slowly turned around to face his younger brother standing in the road with blood trickling from one of his eyes.
“What difficult?” he asked again. His sandy blond hair was disheveled, his clothes torn and ragged.
“What happened to you?” demanded Dawson in alarm. “Landry—”
He words trailed off, his throat choked dry as he noticed the brilliant blue eyes blinking back at him with tears. Tears now dribbling down the mud-streaked face staring back at him.
“Did you hear any of that?” Fred gulped, his face turning a curious shade of red.
Nodding, Landry stood there with his hands hanging at his sides and his chest heaving up and down with each breath.
“Where were you goin’, Dawson?” he asked quietly, eyes still fixated on his brother’s.
“Upton,” responded Dawson in a whisper. “But I’m coming home, Landry. I’m not going anywhere—going to take care of you for the rest of my life.”
“But why?” Landry was asking. He was still standing there, confusion transforming the listlessness on his face. “Why?”
“Because,” Dawson said as he stood and walked over to where his brother stood, “because we are brothers, and that bond is stronger than anything else in this world. You’re all I have left, Landry, and I can’t give that up.”
“Dawson, I can’t see.” Landry’s voice was trembling while he reached up to wipe some of the steadily streaming blood from his face.
“It’s just the blood in your eye,” Dawson assured him. “We can take care of that.”
“Dawson, it’s not the blood,” wavered Landry, a sick look coming over his face. “My eye is broken.”
“I promise we’ll take you to the doctor.”
“But you’re leavin’ me—you need to leave me. I-I’m undeservin’ of anythin’ ya give me.” The sudden triteness in Landry’s voice unnerved Dawson.
“I told you I’m not leaving you. We’ll get through this together, Landry.” He stepped forward and drew his younger brother into a manly embrace, knowing now more than ever that it would be just as easy to leave his last family in the world left as to cut off one of his own limbs.
After all, blood was thicker than water, and always would be.