Blood and Iron Ch. 02bynomennescio©
Little more than silence passed between them as they rode west again at a middling pace. James' weathered eyes glued to the horizon, sitting stiffly on his horse as his bones tugged down heavier than they had in what felt in quite a while indeed. Shame. Regret...it sliced slow and oily like a knife in the belly. Bad enough being half a man, a charity case. Bad enough knowing himself how he lived, off crooked cards and petty theft. He hadn't wanted her to find out, too. Hadn't wanted his only daughter to see how her pa was just a damned cripple, a useless wretch. Maybe it was inevitable, once she'd found him...but he'd had hopes of making it back to Anavio with the secret still intact, catching that bullet with her still unaware. Going to his grave with a shred of dignity. Maybe even with a trace of her respect. Now...better that he'd died in that dark and stinking room than this. Better for him to have succumbed to the infection, left her wondering, dreaming of the man he'd painted for her in a thousand bedtime tales, instead of finding the pathetic shell he had become.
She'd been the hardest part. The memory of her, when he was trying to forget the life he'd left behind. Friends were no concern; he didn't have a habit of trusting men enough to have any worthy of the name. Even his wife, sweet Molly O'Connor, hadn't been too difficult to push down into the unexamined past, beneath thought and reflection. But Alice...Alice was different. Her face had bubbled up, softly smiling in quiet moments, poisoning his mood with the dismal cast of loss. The high tones of her voice, the tinkle of laughter echoing in his ears like silver bells, reminding him of what he'd once had. What he'd thrown away. And the feeling of proud devotion that once had filled him as he gazed upon her features...without sustenance, it had withered to a cold and constant resignation, an icy distance that took up residence in his mind and flattened all experience with the weight of what had gone before.
He'd adapted, of course. Coped with circumstance as all men must, one way or another. When fortune favored him, that meant liquor enough to dull thought and feeling past the point of meaning - in leaner times, he could do little but endure, suffer through the dischordant pangs of emptiness that struck at his heart whenever he saw children playing in the dusty streets. Fight back the urge to return, just to see her face again. The decision to stay away had taken not a moment, but a lifetime - a dozen times he'd lingered in Oracle, the nearest town east of Anavio, struggling with himself over whether he ought to cross those last few miles. Each time, it was easier to stay away. As months became years, he could see more and more clearly the new life they surely had without him. Molly remarried to Billy Jack, the gold he'd saved up in his prospecting days covering any hard times at the ranch. Alice looking up to a new father, one without blood on his hands. Who could perhaps still throw her up into the air, as he once had. If James had come back, he'd have been an interloper, a cad, a low-down dog - there could be no happy reunion, after years of absence unexplained. Better just to stay away, leave them to their lives while he muddled through with his.
Or so it had seemed, at the time. More regrets to throw on the heap. Though he hardly saw what better path he could have traveled, maimed as he was. Perhaps best would simply have been to finish for himself what the fever hadn't. Take one last life, so she could never have tracked him down, never suffered the shattering of her illusions. He'd contemplated the idea anyway, time to time, in the dark and alone of those long desert nights...was hardly as though he was living for much. But he never scraped together the guts for it. Stayed yellow, when a better man might have ended things with honor.
His thoughts spun darkly in these circles for hours as they trotted slowly across the plain. And when they were finally ripped away, it was only to exchange one shame for another. The fascination he'd felt before, appraising her on that first night. Guilty awareness of her body, of the beauty which had grown with her years...they had stopped at a small stream to refill their canteens. Hardly more than an idle glance in her direction as she briefly doffed her hat, poured a measure of water across her scalp, cooling in the heat of the midday sun - but his gaze stuck like a fly in honey, watching as the liquid trickled down along the finely sculpted angles of her face, dripping damply down the elegant curve of her neck, glittering beads clinging like little diamonds on her skin. Shining brilliant in the noontime bright, a sheen of wetness alluring, pearlescent. A glow like that of gold. And beneath, the body he was finding increasingly difficult to ignore. His gaze tracking down unbidden to the modest swell of her bosom, to the narrow waist and slim, athletic hips vaguely outlined by her coat.
It was an effort of will to tear his eyes away, to turn his back to the too-enchanting vision she posed. Shame burning hot at the back of his skull - she was his daughter, damn it. His little girl, even if he no longer deserved the connection. Even if she'd become a woman in the time that had passed, had manifest all the loveliness of her mother, and a little more besides...it wasn't right, for a father to notice such things.
Didn't help, either, that he'd been too long without a woman's company - if the saloon girls and whores with whom he sometimes dallied could even be called such. Graceless ladies in masks of painted white...he felt a fool after every visit, swindled and empty. But he always went again, on the rare occasions when he had the money to spare. After days, weeks, months out on the trail, it got so the sight of a shapely leg could just about turn a man's mind to mush. And he was already well into 'months.' Even if he wasn't the kind of man to leer at the preacher's wife in the middle of a sermon, it was hard not to notice Alice's womanly charms. Hard to keep his eye from lingering on the lithe, acrobatic flex of her waist as she lifted herself again atop her stallion, on strong thighs, gripped tight around its girth. Or, what was more, on the tight contradiction in her features as she glanced back at him, steely determination in the firmness of her jaw alongside the anxious flash of uncertainty in her eyes.
Strange to think about, the paradox in her manner. Fearless when she was a child, and fearless now - even after just these two days, he could not think that he'd ever seen so bold and daring a woman, so intriguing in her intensity. And yet still bearing so plainly the wounds of her youth. Injuries he'd dealt her, hardly hidden beneath the costumed armor of a careless swagger and a narrowed eye. A note of vulnerability that pulsed painful in his heart, made him wish he could still sweep her up into her arms. The way he'd used to, a lifetime earlier, for skinned knees and bumped elbows. When a hug could cure the world's ills.
Pointless. He knew it well enough, certainty dark and bitter in his gut. He was the last man who could comfort her, the last she would want to. It was all he could do instead to corral the unrighteous interest that stirred inside him. Kick his tired old mare forward, ahead, so he couldn't watch her. Hurry on with this last journey, the final leg of the mess he called a life. The best he could hope was that she'd take at least some solace in putting him under - that blood would heal the hurt she carried, that he saw sometimes in her eye.
Another fire crackled between them by the time night fell across the plain. Another pot of trail stew, bubbling brightly, red potatoes and more dried beef. James sat silent, impassive in the sand as Alice slowly stirred with the same wooden spoon as before, still half-encrusted with the previous night's meal. Scooping up an occasional taste, prodding at the potatoes to test their firmness. No words - but eyes met at times above the flames, a momentary touch of brown and dirty green, when James glanced up from the glowing coals to find her gaze already on his features. Both dodged away, wandering in the outer darkness or amongst the embers as though their meeting had been a chance occurrence, unwelcome...but it was not long before she once more stared through yellow tongues of fire at the face which waited opposite. The features, shadowy and worn, that inspired in her such aching hesitancy, longing so conflicted. In this deepening darkness, the streaks of grey in his hair and new wrinkles on his face were all but invisible, and the child's voice inside her echoed in an endless chorus, desperately rejoicing. It's him, it's him, it's finally him...
Stomach twisted up with nerves, she ate little of the finished stew; the deep skillet was still mostly full when she rose up to her feet, wandered round the fire to pass it along to her father. Sat down again there next to him, Indian-style, with just a foot or so distance between them - she almost fancied she could feel him, his presence, as he ate in silence. Scraping up just a few large spoonfuls before he, too, pushed the food aside, set it down still half-full in the earth between them to grow cold and unappetizing.
"Ain't you hungry?" The words emerged after a moment, a tone tightened almost into demand by the ambiguous frustration at her throat.
"Ain't you?" His response rumbled back with the faintest shadow of humor.
Her head shook quick and desultory; it was a few seconds more before the answer came. "Don't much feel like eatin', just now."
It was true enough, though she could hardly say why. Just that her gut was twisted into knots. And that it was growing only worse as she sat there in the dark beside him, as the feeling of his company ran roughshod through her insides now that the shock of discovery was wearing off. Awareness of him searing in her mind like the touch of a brand, the past flowing again into the present. Memory. Standing there behind him on a dusky Sunday evening, after what felt like forever pleading for him to show her how he outshot the whole Statler gang by himself. Four cans arrayed on the fence, battered and holey now from her own practice; a little smile on his face, squinting into the setting sun as he glanced back over his shoulder at her. "Think I told ya, little rose, how the Statlers was some of the meanest, ugliest cusses I ever did lay eyes on."
She was nodding even as he gestured over at the cans, already transformed in her imagination into broad, scowling men with broken, craggy faces. The story familiar in her mind, one of her favorites. "Uh-huh! An' how you called'm out, told'm how you heard from even near across the country what kind'a wrong they did."
"'ts right." An affectionate grin briefly quirked his moustache upwards. "Dan Statler, the ringleader, he's the one shot'n killed a man just for sayin' he had on too small a hat. And it was too small, besides." Waiting a moment for her answering giggle before he continued. "They was real cocky, see, on account they'd killed three people tryin' to be sheriffs just in that one town. So when I said I'd take'm all on together, they wasn't scared a bit. Just laughed, agreed, said I'd come a long way just to get myself put into a pine box."
"But you showed them!" Alice crowed exuberantly, skipping already to the giddy delight of the story's conclusion.
"I would pretty quick," James agreed affectionately. "But right by then, I hadn't yet. Just got us all set up along the main road, four'a them and one'a me. Half the town out there watchin' from the sides - Statler had'm too scared to make a peep, but I could tell they was all hopin', prayin' that I'd succeed...even if most of'm didn't think I could." As he spoke, he turned to face the cans more fully, dropping into the stance of a gunslinger ready to draw. Legs apart, hand hovering above the weapon at his hip...
"Took the gang a good while to stop brayin' at each other and get ready," he continued, facing away. "Once they did, it was Dan't made the first move. Maybe the other three figured they was bein' polite, lettin' the boss have the shot - but they didn't take account who they was facin' down that day." His teeth glinted with a fairly theatrical smirk, voice lively with drama. "I ain't gonna deny, he was quick goin' for his gun...but I was quicker."
He moved then, swiftly snapping the black revolver from its holster, and Alice's features fairly glowed with excited admiration as four explosions swiftly split the evening's calm. One after another, firing quickly from the hip...she could almost see the bad men he fought falling down before him, clutching at their sides, defeated by the prowess of her father's hand. Destroyed like sinners before a vengeful god, her heart pattering rapid with pride and awe...until the last sounded, smoke beginning to drift away on the wind, and he replaced his weapon as he turned back to face her. Quiet again, just a low and worried mooing from the cattle on the other side of the house. "An' that was that. They was done."
"That's amazing, pa!" Enthusiasm sparkled gaily in her voice as she rushed across the short distance between them, burying her face in the rough fabric of his shirt. Her young arms up high, thrown around his waist, barely meeting on the side opposite. Hearing about his adventures always stirred such excitement in her heart, trembling and bright. Thinking about how lucky she was, how few other girls could hope to have so strong, so storied a father. There was only a gentle curiosity in her voice, blended with the warmer hum of adoration, as she lifted her head to look again at the fence. "What about that one?" Her eyes on the single can that remained standing after his volley, left untouched.
James' lip twitched up wryly, glancing over as well - it was a moment before he answered, before his loving little smile dropped back into place. "Well, ah, maybe I didn't mention before, little rose, but I didn't shoot all four of that gang. Last of'm, that man there," he gestured over at the can, "Looked hardly more'n seventeen...when all his fellows was fallin' down dead, him I shot just past his ear. Scared him so he dropped his gun down there in the dirt, so I didn't have to kill him, too." He nodded sagely, Alice listening with eyes wide and attentive. "Figured he ain't hardly more'n a boy, might make hisself a better man if'n I gave him a chance. And maybe carry word to other folk, how you can't make no life outta robbery and murder."
There was no question of belief, no thought of the oddity that this detail had gone unmentioned all the other times he'd told her of his run-in with the Statler gang. He was her pa - he could speak only truth. His words finding eager purchase in her mind, another lesson added to the many she'd learned from him - that there was room at times for mercy in the fight against evil men, that it did not always have to end with a bullet to the heart. The smile sitting small and fervent on her lips as she laid her head again upon his chest, as his hand descended to clasp gently at the back of her scalp, big fingers softly stroking in her hair. Inspiration circulating slowly through her, far-off dreams of adventure and of glory...but just now, she was happy here. A girl with her father. The way she ought to be, belonging warm and glowing in her soul.
Foolish. The dark reality crashing back around her, sitting beside him by the fire, tension hot upon her cheeks. Idiocy. It was a lifetime past, it didn't mean anything...but her lips moved all the same, shaping the words that sounded in her mind. "I wanted to be just like you."
His eyes stayed fixed to the fire, not turning to face her. A delay before he spoke, slow and carefully distant. "Did you, now." Scarcely even a question.
"When I was little," she quietly confirmed. "Or like what I thought you was, anyhow. All them stories you told...I'd dream how maybe it'd be me, one day. Stoppin' bank robbers, takin' down a corrupt sheriff, doin' special missions from the President hisself. Taking on a whole gang of outlaws with just my trusty six-shooter." Her tone twinging with frustration, with confession and faint humiliation.
"Better thing you didn't." A brief flash of brown as he glanced over, his voice rumbling back. Striving perhaps for comfort, reassurance, past its gravelly hardness. "You'd'a wound up dead, or worse. Things I told you..." Silence for a moment, his head shaking with the slow tempo of regret. "Only a fool'd go chargin' in outnumbered and expected. A fool, and soon enough, a corpse. Ain't how the real lawmen do things. A cowboy, now, a cowgirl...that's a fine thing to be."
Her turn at quiet, narrow jaw closed tight as she looked off into the distant darkness. When she spoke again, it was with a low quaver, a tremble of longing. "Was a while I thought maybe we'd stick together, work together, once I'd found you. Had the notion like I...like I'd be your deputy, helpin' you stop whatever bad folk we come across." She could feel her cheeks burning with the admission, the sound of it suddenly so childish to her ears - but she kept at it anyway, stubbornly, her voice croaking slightly with emotion and embarrassment. "Thought you'd teach me all the things I never got to learn, when you went away."
Her words hung there in stillness for long moments as James looked down, gazing deeply into the fire's retreating embers. When he spoke, there was a new softness to his voice, an almost apologetic tenderness. "I wish that could'a been, Alice." And her pulse pounded with a rapid, almost painful suddenness as his left hand reached across the short distance between them, grasping gently at hers atop her thigh. Calloused fingers squeezing minutely at the side of her palm, contact cautiously reassuring, the dry warmth of his skin against hers...
"Pa, I..." Words slipped out unbidden, forced to the air by her heart's quick ascent into her throat. All her hardness abruptly washed away in this tide of feeling, dizzy and desperate, her hand twisting upward to grip tightly at his. He was here beside her. Trembling exultation and terror, the touch of his hand reaching effortless past half a lifetime's armor, spurring her heartbeat to an open gallop. He was there. If she could just lean over, rest her head upon his side, if she could feel his arms around her... "I just..."
"Shh, easy now." Chiding, comforting. Hardly much of a father, he knew - but even he could hear the anguish in her voice, feel it in her feverish hold upon his hand. Could see all too plainly how he was the cause of her suffering. Even if he had little to offer but clumsy words, he could not just sit there and let her stew in it. "Easy." A murmur, an echo of the time before, of drying childhood tears. Though he in fact had held her at such times, a notion that now carried a sparkle of untoward interest as it flitted through his mind. To be close to her. To feel her gentle curves against him...imagination briefly played with the idea, coarse and vulgar, before he sternly shut it down. Squeezed a little at her hand instead, his voice thick with gruff concern. "You're all right."
She shook her head, faint denial...but sat there silent all the same, her hand clasped tight at his, as though to prevent him from pulling away. Her fingertips exploring, stroking aimlessly down the long bones at the back of his hand. Her eyes staring down sightless in the space between her knees, struggling to swallow the lump of emotion conflicted at her throat. He'd left her. Abandoned her for nothing, for no reason at all. Worse than nothing - so he could steal, so he could kill, no better than the worst of the villains from the stories he'd once told. She hated him. She had to hate him, nothing else made sense...but in this moment, anger was a slippery thing. Torn from her grasp by the deeper tides of feeling which roiled inside her, nameless wishes tugging like a lasso at her stomach, warmth trickling slow from her hand in his. She could bathe in it, if she closed her eyes. Surrender to it, if she only knew how, or what it would mean.