Blood and Iron Ch. 01bynomennescio©
Do be aware that, as seems to be a habit with me, this story proceeds fairly slowly, with a relatively small amount of explicit content. This first chapter, for example, has essentially none. If that would trouble you, you needn't waste your time in reading it.
Mid-afternoon. Summer. The sun burned high and bright in a cloudless August sky, searing down upon a dusty little town a few miles off the Rio Grande. Siesta time. Too hot to work, too hot almost to move - even the air outside held still and quiet as all the men and women hid indoors from the heat. Low homes of white adobe and of wood lined the wide boulevard to the center of the town, building up to the comparative majesty of a two-story saloon and flophouse. Four horses tethered up outside before a murky trough of water, shifting occasionally on their feet as they patiently waited for their riders to return. Far in the distance, the faint cry of a carrion bird delighting in some newly-discovered meal.
But closer issues were at hand. A sound of struggle rising past the batwing doors of the saloon, of angry exclamations and scattered furniture, building towards violence - at least until a tired holler cut through the growing din, loud enough to be audible even from the street outside. "All right now, you fellas take that outside. Ain't gonna be no brawlin' in here, understand?"
The reprimand won a few moments of quiet, of reprieve. Then all at once, three figures burst from the doorway, spilling out onto the wooden veranda - one man in front, shabbily dressed and lanky of build, shoved bodily backwards by those behind. The second of them larger, younger, his fists clasped furiously at the first man's lapels; the third man following closely after, smaller but still itching to throw a punch.
"You damned cheat." Sweat shimmered in a faint sheen on the larger man's face, hot and angry, as he bellowed down at the half-battered figure before him. A violent shove sending him to spawl upon the ground, his back striking one of the wooden columns with an uncomfortable crack. "Where's our money?" And as though to emphasize the point, the second of the aggressors delivered a savage kick to the prone man's side.
Breath hissed through clenched teeth, flecked with blood. The man on the ground doubled up protectively, writhing in pain but still defiant. He spat at the foot of his assailant, glared back into grizzled, crimson features. "I ain't a cheat."
The foot came down again, a filthy boot heavy on the older man's neck. "You're a cheat and a liar, Slim." A warning, a rumbling growl from deep in the throat. "You expect to live through the next few minutes, you better start whistlin' a different tune."
While the bigger man spoke, his companion dropped down to the wooden walkway, hands checking industriously at the pockets of their target while he was unable to resist. Just a scarce few moments later that he rose again, now clutching a small back of coin. "I got it, Jack." Pleased satisfaction in his voice as he pulled at the drawstrings, peering into the jingling leather sack. "We can split it up proper, make sure we each get back our stake. Little bit extra in here, too, looks like."
"Dammit, that money ain't yours." 'Slim' snarled up angrily, struggling fruitlessly against the larger man's weight. "You're so sure I cheated, fine, take back what you lost. But you ain't got no claim to the rest."
"You shut your mouth, Slim." The gun came out then, a revolver dark and ugly in Jack's hand. Hanging down loose, uncocked - a threat to which the older man's eyes were inexhorably drawn. "I got half a mind to fix you right here."
"Hey, now." A bit of diffidence gathered now in the voice of the smaller man. Hesitation. "We got our money back. No need to get yourself in no trouble over this louse."
"I hate cheats." His eyes blazed fiercely, still glaring down at his captive. "I hate'm, more'n anything else. You get robbed by a desperado out on the road, least he's got some damn guts. This piece'a shit..." He spat, a thick gobbet of saliva and tobacco remnants splattering messily on the older man's vest. "Ain't even got a gun. He's a damned coward. Expects folk'll let'm off the hook if he don't got a way to fight back." The barrel of the revolver rose up in his hand, deliberate and menacing, aligned with the eyes of the man below. An expression there now almost resigned, expectant. No longer struggling. "I ain't feeling that merciful."
"Quite a friendly scene."
It was a new voice that now spoke, drawling slow and sarcastic past the moment's tension. Not quite rough enough to hide its still-youthful pitch and purity, nor the subtly feminine melody of its tones. Three pairs of eyes rose up to find and boggle at the speaker - a woman's face looked back at them, but the garb beneath was that of a man. Perched atop a mid-sized chestnut stallion, she wore the long leather duster of a ranger, heavy boots with muddy spurs. Flashing green eyes and serious features bronzed by the sun, staring out from below a dark Stetson hat. Beneath the large and shapeless garb, one could scarce discern the smoothness of youthful curves, the low shoulders and narrow waist of the woman hidden away.
A moment passed in silence. Shocked at this interruption, and at the faintly preposterous figure behind it. "Well?" She spoke again, as her horse harumphed. "What's all this about?" Narrowness in her eye, and a curl of warning at her lip.
Finally, Jack stirred, waking from his surprise. His head shaking in disapproval still faintly astonished. "You best just move along, missie. This ain't gonna be pretty."
"You aim to shoot him?" Archness lined the question, her gaze flickering down to the silent man beneath his gun, then back up to his eye.
"Don't much have to aim, at this range." Black humor sparked in his expression, tugged at his lip. "But you got the notion of it. This man here's a low-down dirty cheat, and I mean to show what I think of his kind." The hammer of the revolver clicked into place, a punctuation mark on this dark promise.
It could have been an eyeblink, a lightning strike - the woman's hand scarcely seemed to flicked beneath the edge of her coat before emerging again with a weapon of her own. A long forty-five with a heavy barrel, polished steel shining like silver; on its side, a light tracery of engraving captured the image of a rose in bloom, tangled with thorns. "Where I sit," she spoke still cool and quiet, "That sounds like murder."
"Lady..." Jack sputtered in annoyed disbelief as his compatriot backed slowly away, hand dropping down near his hip. "You best put that thing away 'fore I decide to take you serious."
A moment's irritation flashed in the woman's gaze, her mouth tightening to a low frown. Brief deliberation, glancing at the uncertain watchfulness of the man behind, and at 'Slim,' looking up at her bloody from the corner of his eye. Then all at once, an explosion shattered the relative quiet of the afternoon, the two standing figures flinching backwards as the black revolver kicked suddenly to the air, clattered noisily across the wooden walk. The smaller man pulling his own gun, only to find the woman's steady aim and gaze already centered on him.
"My hand!" Jack was first to speak, gasping half in shock. His right hand cradled carefully in his left. "I think you broke my-"
"Quiet." An icy aside, as she stared down her target. "Toss it over here. Quickly, now."
Humiliated resentment burned in the smaller man's eyes - but it was no more than a moment before he acceeded, his own weapon set to tumble in the dirt, coming to rest by the hooves of the woman's horse. "Right, now," she gestured with the gun. "Get moving. Both of you. You listen good, maybe I'll pass along your irons to whoever passes for the law around here. Let him decide if you get'm back." Her gaze stayed on the pair, cool and unflinching, as they made their way muttering off the wooden walkway and down the road, Jack nursing still at his injured hand. Only once they were safely in the distance did she holster her weapon and slip fluidly down from the saddle, casting an incurious glance at the man still lying on the floor as she retrieved the guns from the dirt where they lay. "You all right?"
"...reckon so." The difficulty with which he spoke belied his answer - it was a visible effort for him to haul himself upright, one hand braced against the wall to keep steady. A small cut on his cheek, seeping crimson. Still, he managed to cast an appraising eye in the woman's direction, impressed...and a little bemused. "Guess maybe I owe you some thanks."
She shook her head in casual denial, stowing the revolvers in the fair-sized saddlebags that hung off the sides of her horse. "Ain't got nothin' to do with you, really. Just don't take kindly to people gettin' cut down in front of me." Glancing down the road at the pair of retreating figures, still visible. "You really cheat'em?"
The man shrugged with perhaps affected ease, pulling from his vest pocket a small tin of tobacco, papers nestled nicely in its bottom. "Don't matter much now, I suppose. Either way, they got all I won, and then some." Tying up her horse, she half-watched as he worked through a clearly familiar ritual of preparing himself a smoke, his hands slightly uncooperative after his experience. A match flaring briefly brilliant against the wooden railing, once he was finished - he took a long, steadying drag on the resulting cigarette, a look almost enterprising climbing into his eye as it slowly traveled across the length of the woman's body. Such as could be seen, at least, beneath her sturdy trail clothes. "Ain't ever seen a lady could handle a gun like that."
"Well, now you have." Brusque and careless, her stallion secured by the trough. "Listen, I don't mean to be in town long. You help me out, tell me what you know, you can call us even." He nodded genially - she continued. "See, I'm lookin' for someone. A man."
"Well, now." An edge of suggestion in his tone, a tiny smirk curled upon his lips amidst bruises and caking blood. "I reckon you found one."
No reaction. Not even a flicker of irritation; she just pressed onward, launching into a description with the even tone of long repetition. "He'd be getting near his fifties now. Stands a little under six feet. Hair and eyes are both dark brown, though I reckon the hair might be goin' grey now. He..."
Her voice suddenly faltered, hesitated, as her eyes caught upon the face of the man before her. Really looking at him for the first time, suddenly scrutinizing the stubbly curve of his jaws, the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes. Wondering, as her heart thumped deeper, faster. "He's lightly built...like you. Don't often give his name, what I've heard, but it's Blake." Her gaze, heavy in his features, caught the subtle flinch of surprise as she spoke the name. "James Blake." And from the way his eyes alit suddenly with calculation and suspicion, it did not seem that there could be further room for doubt...
"So..." He intoned gamely, after a moment's awkward quiet. "This 'Blake' fella...supposin' I might know where he is, what do you want with him?"
The woman just stared, swallowed in abrupt uncertainty. Her whole manner suddenly altered - the easy, reckless confidence that had carried her as she drove off his assailants now dissolved, her spine stiff with discomfort and anxiety. Her brow, low and almost disbelieving. A whisper on her lips. "It's you, ain't it."
His turn, now, to furrow his brow. Squinting back at her, puzzled. "I know you, lady?"
The woman shook her head, slow and ghostly. Not a denial; a question. "Do you?" Her eyes locked with his, searching, almost pleading. A distinctive, dirty green - an ember of anger, too, that seemed to spark and grow as moments passed, struggling with memory.
Something too familiar in those eyes. A far-off warmth. And a beauty in those sun-toned features that her rough, mannish clothes did little to disguise. A former lover? No, that was wishful thinking. There'd been nothing for too many years but the occasional whore. Even before that, none that looked like her. None that'd seek him out. None that could so casually shoot a gun from a man's hand at ten paces...he was sure he'd never known a woman who'd even have tried, or who'd dare appear in public dressed as she was. "No," he shook his head, frowned definitively. "I don't reckon so."
Her jaw tightened, disappointment and anger and hurt. Bitterness scraping at her throat as she took a step closer. "You don't even remember me?" Her right hand rose, sweeping the hat from her head, letting the sun's rays to illuminate her features still more clearly. "You don't remember Alice?"
Staggered silence fell like a clap of thunder, James' eyes shooting wide and white, his face paling with disbelief. No. It was impossible...but the name nudged the pieces together, sparked the recognition that had lain dormant in his mind. The faint, niggling familiarity of the woman's face - thinner than he had last seen it, sharper, but identifiable now that he knew what he was looking for. Muddy green eyes, burning fiercer than he'd ever seen them, looking smaller now beneath her thin and angled eyebrows. And the close-cropped hair, taken for brown in the shadow of her hat - an icy resignation clasped at his spine as he saw now its touch of flame, the deep and dusky red he'd last seen neatly braided, flying backwards in the wind. There could be little doubt. "Well." His voice sounded suddenly a decade older, weary and low. "Afternoon."
"Afternoon?" Fury crept slow and trembling onto her tongue, ignited in her gaze. "Thirteen years, and that's all you got to say to me? 'Afternoon?'"
"Beggin' your pardon," he drawled quiet and distantly sardonic, with another long drag on his cigarette. "But it ain't like I figured I'd ever set eyes on you again, little rose."
A sharp inhalation. Alice's shoulders lifted, stiff with upset, eyes blazing at this address so familiar and so long unheard. "Don't you call me that." The words rasped out harshly through a tightened throat, and there was a glittering of steel as the revolver flickered back instinctive to her hand. The barrel pointed trembling at his heart. "Don't you dare call me that. I ain't your little rose, hear? Not anymore. Not since you up and left us."
"All right," he agreed cautiously. Palms held outward at his sides, a simple gesture of surrender. "Didn't mean nothin' by it." And waiting there, until the long revolver dropped again, pointed loosely at the ground, her stance rigid with rage. A few more moments before he ventured to question, "You been looking for me."
"Damn right I have," she snapped back, arch and vicious. "I been hunting you down going on six years. Askin' in every molehill town if anyone seen a man with your face or your name. Trackin' down seems like every browned-haired James ever set foot west of the Mississippi. Didn't even know if you was alive, when I started out." Perhaps a touch of pride sat amidst the anger flush on her cheeks - her long efforts finally successful.
He stayed quieter. Colder. "And?"
"And..." The question lay heavy, leaden in her mind. The same question she'd asked herself so many times on this quest. If she actually found him...what would she do? What did she even want to do? So many different answers, changing from day to day, month to month, year to year. And now, now that it was real, now that he stood before her...
"And you're gonna tell me why." A glower burned in her gaze, seeking the certainty of fury. "I want to know why you done it, why you disappeared, abandoned ma and me. I want to hear the reason." Her scowl, low and thin, little suited to those delicate pink lips.
James shook his head minutely, exhaled briefly though his nose. "Ain't no great mystery." Looking away from her, as he leaned against one of the wooden pillars of the veranda. "You got to move on sometime. Can't keep pretendin' to be somethin' you ain't. A rancher. A father." His brown eyes glanced over to hers, flat and tired. "Don't rightly expect you to understand, but a man's got to ramble."
A beat passed, silent and expectant. Waiting for something more, something deeper, real. But he just took another drag on his cigarette, staring sightless at the blank walls of the saloon; when it was plain that no more was forthcoming, she rasped back "That's it?" The faint rawness of anguish cracking in her disbelieving voice. "That's all you got? The only reason? 'A man's gotta?'" Her head quivered with outrage as he casually shrugged, still looking away. "You just..." A snarl taking hold of her tongue. "Then I reckon a man's about the lowliest critter ever haul hisself up on two legs."
The faintest shadow of a smile seemed to fall across his lips. "Ain't so far off there, I don't suppose."
"I oughtta kill you." The gun rose up again in her hand, her knuckles white around the handle. "I oughtta shoot you in the gut and let you bleed out here in the dirt."
He didn't flinch. Barely even moved, just looked over at her with weary eyes and an unreadable expression. "Yeah." Low and gravelly. "Maybe you ought."
Long moments the gun hung there, trained on his chest as he silently smoked his cigarette, looking into nothing. Alice's finger trembling on the trigger, half-squeezing. The hammer waiting to fall. She'd thought of this, sometimes. Dreamed of it. Nights when the bitterness of rage had clutched at her heart, and she could only console herself with the thought that she'd find him, that she'd make him pay for all the hurt, all the tears...
"God damn it." Disgust roiled in her eyes as she spat upon the dirt, a smouldering frustration. The revolver dropped back into her holster. "I need a drink." No relief, indeed, no change at all in James' expression at this reprieve - but she growled still in warning. "I ain't near done with you, though. You best come along inside so's I can figure out what I'm going to do."
No word of response, just another careless shrug of agreement, pushing back up to his feet. In moments the pair was passed through the breezy door of the saloon into the shadowy interior, a handful of grizzled men slowly nursing drinks around a back table while the stout bartender rubbed at a shot glass with a cloth that barely qualified as clean. No fine establishment, this - bare pine for every surface, the boards often misaligned, and only the bar itself was even bothered with a varnish. Two small paintings hung on the wall, sleepy landscapes, but in the gloom of too-small windows and extinguished candle lamps, they little but added to the shabbiness of the room.
"Whiskey." Alice held up two fingers as she settled into a stool, the jaded man behind the bar hardly even batting an eye at her attire. James hunkering down beside, with a nod for another. Their drinks poured in silence - Alice took hers in a single pull, then grimaced darkly at the dregs slowly regathering at the bottom of her glass as the harsh taste burned at her throat.
James, meanwhile, just held his. Stared similarly at the amber liquid, speaking rough and quiet beside her. "Ain't quite sure what I ought to call you now."
"Same as anyone else," she muttered back. "You call me Alice. Alice O'Connor." Her teeth clenched around the final word.
"Your ma's name." He nodded slowly, sagely. "Well, I reckon that's fair, considering." A beat. "How is she, your ma?"
"Dead." She pronounced it crisp, cutting. A bitter solemnity on her tongue, not looking to see the hint of a wince that flitted through his expression. "Six years dead. Doc said it was the cholera...but you ask me, she worked herself to death. Tryin' to raise me, and to keep the ranch goin' by herself."
James let pass a moment's respectful silence, taking a healthy swig of his own drink. His lips puckering minutely at the foul taste. "'ts a shame." The even cadence of his voice barely altered, just touched with the somber. A note of contemplative inquiry. "Old Billy Jack never, ah...?"