Blood and Iron Ch. 03bynomennescio©
Breakfast came an hour later, eggs and ground beef seasoned in the Mexican style. Five people seated at a long dining table of some dark, expensive wood - only one unfamiliar, a thin woman of middling years, well-dressed and well-preserved, who Javier was quick to introduce as his wife. Antonio, the young boy briefly seen the previous night, sat beside her, tearing through his food and largely ignoring the small talk that fluttered lightly round the table. Alice opposite her father at the middle of the table, a trace smile curved upon her lips, self-conscious but unwilling to be quashed. A pleasant warmth inside of her this morning, a buoyant cheer - the past evening swam slow and delightful in her memory, and she carried still the spark of happiness finally rediscovered.
At least, so it was at the meal's beginning. She could not fail to notice, though, how James refused to meet her gaze across the table, how he sat grim and silent through Javier's effusive chatter, and her cheer was swiftly dampened to a quiet worry. Wondering what had gone wrong. She had felt from him such tenderness in the past night, such regard, such...love. A shiver down her spine, just to think the word, but it was true - an echo of fuzzily-remembered childhood bliss, of heaven in her father's arms. When a bushy smile or an affectionate tousle of her hair could make her feel so cherished, so complete. That was the feeling that had sent her out searching, that had ached in her soul almost longer than she could bear. To taste of it again had been a dizzy delight, like rich food to a man half-starved. If he had but treated her such when first she found him, she might well have forgiven him the misery and the pain and the lies. Forgotten it all, just to have her father back.
But here he was, acting again the sullen stranger, his eyes cold and flat and tired when she tried to catch them. As though all their inching towards accord were undone in a single night, and frustration flashed hot inside her heart, torn between anger at him for acting this way and a fainter apprehension of why it should be.
"Do you know, señorita," Javier's faintly melodic voice pulled her attention reluctantly back to the head of the table, where he stabbed thoughtfully at a chunk of egg. "It occurs to me that I might still be well-served if I were to have a permanent guard here, for myself and for the villa. One that I could trust, of course." A thin smile at that, humorless acknowledgement of what had gone before. "I do not imagine that you would be interested in a job?"
"I got one already, matter of fact." Whatever pride would normally have gone into that pronouncement was lost to her distraction, muttering brief and distant. "Drivin' cattle."
"Have you?" A breath of admiring laughter, as his brow lifted high. "Marvelous! I suppose I ought not to be surprised...you are a most unusual young woman." Beside him, his wife let show a disapproving little frown at his exuberance, a glance at Alice pointed and narrow with warning. "Still, that is seasonal work, demanding and unpleasant. There are better options...you would surely find it more leisured here. Despite the circumstances of our first meeting, I assure you that I am not often concerned for my safety - it is largely just for peace of mind that I should like to have you around." A trace of a smirk tugged at his expression, sparkled in his eye. "You would be well-paid for your services, of course."
Her answer came first as a dismissive shrug, tones flat and apathetic. "'sa generous offer, señor, but I don't rightly-"
"Ah!" He interrupted her with a sudden exclamation, refusing her response. "Please, you have no need to answer now. Give the matter some thought - I know you have things to do, your business with Señor Blake. If you should find the offer attractive..."
He continued like this, chattering on with smooth refinement, but Alice no longer heard him - her lips parting with a sudden, shocked chagrin as she was belatedly struck with the obvious. Her gaze darting back over to her father, staring darkly into his meal. Of course. Her 'business' - how could she wonder why he would be cold, distant, when she still held over him a threat of death? What tenderness did she expect, of a man for his executioner?
He had wronged her. The years reminded again, sharp and vicious, the hardness of the woman she'd had to be. Not just her; her mother, too, lying now in that cheap pine box beneath the earth. He'd disappeared without a word, without a sign, leaving them just to worry and to struggle through alone. He'd killed honest men himself, and never paid the price. He'd told her those damnable stories, tales she'd thought were true...he deserved his fate, no less than death, no better. Hers was just the hand of justice, reaching those the law had missed. For his crimes, for what he'd done...
But this vengeful voice was not so loud as it have been in days before. Dissent quavered in her soul, rebellion, as her heart whispered mercy. The child's plea, urgent and sincere. He was her father. Her pa, the man for whom she'd spent a seeming lifetime waiting, praying, searching...a silent, senseless hope inside that somehow when she found him everything would be back the way it was, that all the years would fall away like autumn leaves, and she would be again a little girl swept up in his arms. Madness...and more fool still, how much of her helpless anger and frustration were born from the dashing of that dream, blaming him for the permanence of time and action.
"Listen..." The word was a slow murmur on her lips as she tried to smile, tentative and wry. Self-conscious apology simmering in her features. He'd hurt her, true. Abandoned her, a wound so great her life had warped around it like a long and jagged scar. But by that same token, there was no one in the world as central, as important to her as he. No one else whose presence had ever made her feel the way his had the past night, ringing with the echo of childhood bliss - and crackling as well with the burn of nameless wants. The memory of his hand, warm upon her side...her gut twisted, thinking of it cold and still in death.
"Listen, James." Catching his attention, his gaze turning up reluctantly to hers. His jaw tight and unfriendly before her faintly rueful eyes. "Maybe we ain't got to do that...that business, after all." A moment's staring silence without a flicker of response, his expression still flat and dour. As though he didn't understand her through the euphemism forced by their audience. She tried again. "You know, maybe just stick around here a spell. Forget them things we talked about before." A whisper of longing crept into her tone, of wishes only half-conceived. "Maybe try to start over. Find a way to set things up like-"
"You a liar, Alice?"
The interruption came quick and cutting, his gravelly voice now barbed with bitter spite and scorn. And hardly room for anything but stunned surprise in her response, just the slightest extra tinge of injury beginning to appear. "What?"
"I asked if you was a liar." He growled back, the sound of it grinding like a whetstone at a blade. His mouth pulled to a venomous frown, glaring at her across the table. Their audience watching in shocked discomfort - even Antonio looked up, hearing the tone if not the meaning of his words. "Plain enough it ain't no skin off my nose if you are, of course. But you said pretty damn clear where we was headed, an' why - seein' how high and mighty you been about talkin' truth, I'm mighty curious to know if you practice what you preach."
"But that ain't..." She protested vaguely, a slight warble of agitation in her voice. Her tones of still surprise mingling now with the rawness of upset, hurt and frustrated. "It ain't lyin' just to ask, to offer if you want to...to do somethin' different. I thought we-"
"Everybody's got a pretty reason why their lies don't count," James cut her off again, short and stinging. "But the truth is real simple. You do what you say you're gonna. Otherwise, your word ain't worth a hill of beans; you're just makin' up stories."
This struck home - her jaw clamped briefly shut as fury flooded redly through her nerves, her dirty green eyes glittering with sudden fire. The gall, the injustice of this accusation, coming from him... "You got some damn nerve," she snarled back, low and savage, heedless now of the eyes and ears of their hosts. "I ain't never lied, hear? Leastwise, not about nothin' important. You're the one't made up stories, one that's lied and cheat and stole...god-damned murderer, and you figure you can condescend at me about actin' right?" The breath hissed through her nose, shallow with outrage. "I ain't got to justify nothin' to you - you're lucky I ain't put a bullet in you soon's I found out the truth."
"Well." Abruptly, all the mocking was gone from his voice, the burn of scorn extinguished - he spoke to her again from a thousand miles away, slow and tired. Just the slightest edge fo emphasis to his words. "Then I reckon we're headed to Anavio for that business, after all."
"You're damned right we are," she spat back, the blaze of her own temper not so readily quelled. Rising explosively from her seat, she finally acknowledged their audience with a swift glance over to Javier, who looked back at her with a silent, discomfited frown. "Right sorry to cut this short, señor, but we got a place to be." The words coming quick from a tongue curled and sour. Muscles stiff with this sudden indignation, sweeping clear the quiet joy of minutes prior.
He gestured forgiveness, vague and uncertain, and her attention spun back to face her father, slumped heavy in his chair. His gaze once more turned away. "Get up." A snarl at her lips, regarding him, a clawing tightness of violence and anger at the top of her throat. His profile etched into her consciousness, the lines of his face too familiar, too thick with memory. Aching with devotion and despair, with hope and hate. All shot through with the bilious poison of self-recrimination - how great a fool she was to think he'd made her happy, to think there was any other way than this. He was heartless, cruel. A beast, a motherless bastard, as bad as any of the men in those fanciful tales he'd told so long ago...and deserving of the same fate. "Move." Her eyes on him narrow as he, too, rose slowly to his feet. "I ain't inclined to more delay."
The trail stretched out once more before them, long and hot and dry, marginal cropland swiftly giving way to chaparral. Thin, scratchy bushes and weeds growing on either side of the path with leaves of pale green and bodies white as bone, the living scarcely distinguishable from those already dead and dried. The air was still around them, almost silent - disturbed only by the steady patter of horseshoes on gritty earth, and the occasional skittering of a lizard frightened by their passage.
They didn't speak. Not now, not after that morning; there seemed nothing now to say, and no detente in which to say it. Alice rode behind again, hand sitting near her gun, watching him. Waiting for the bolt of escape that never came. Trying to hold on to the morning's anger through the long plodding of time and distance, telling herself how she loathed him, how his death would be a triumph. A capstone to all her years of wandering, of searching - his grave could mark them truly at an end, and she would be free. Free to...
The thought hung there empty, without conclusion. There was nothing. She could think of nothing, no other goal or purpose that might drive her once he was gone, no other dream to pursue once this one was buried in the dusty earth. The afterward...she'd thought about it from time to time, those naïve dreams of standing at his side as they wrote new tales of daring and heroics. Facing down a band of cutthroats with her father at her back, or she at his. And guiltier fancies, of being with him in the times between, the vague and anxious tingle of hands, of fingers, of bodies touched in darkness...always with him there, alive, beside her. She had never countenanced the opposite, had refused to consider that she might find him dead, despite the long silence and her mother's oft-unsubtle suggestions that he must be just that. There were no plans for it, no contingencies. Certainly none for when she would stand above his cooling body in the Anavio boneyard, revolver smoking in her hand as the earth stained crimson with his blood...
It was hard to breathe. A frantic tightness at her throat, her stomach twisted aching into knots. She couldn't. Whatever harsh demands the flame of fury inside her made, whatever dire threats it promised...she couldn't kill him, wouldn't. Not her Pa. There had to be another path, some way she could reclaim the warmth she'd felt from him so long ago. The tenderness he'd sometimes shown her even in the past few days - until this morning, and that petty, pointless fight.
How little sense it made, looking back. Reflecting now on how and why their peace had soured, what she had done to drive away the man whose calloused hands had clasped so carefully on hers, who had stood so tall and strong behind her, teaching her to dance...the feelings of that evening flowed still in her mind, when she permitted herself to drift back to them. The solidity of his chest against her back, when she dared to lightly press against him. That familiar bushy smile traced subtle on his lips, greying now but still the same. Kicking up her pulse as it carried her back to brighter times, to a world still new and free of sorrow. The soft and simple bliss of resting her head upon his shoulder as they trod slowly through the darkened town, his arm around her back...half-enclosed, his fingers barely spread upon her hip. Holding her oh so gently to his side, a shivering of sensation like cool water cascading down her spine, of longing and belonging both.
And the dreams that had crawled with her into that warm and cozy bed...the soft scratch of his whiskers at her cheek, large hands sliding roughly at her skin. Probing at those places she wasn't supposed to touch, rubbing slowly inside her legs, stoking the liquid fire that flowed outward from the core of her being. A familiar, yearning emptiness within her, throbbing with her heartbeat, desperate to be filled - and him there now to do it, the only man in the world. His hand at the split of her drawers, slipping boldly within to glide on ruddy fur softly kinked, to touch here at her center, her skin tingling at the contact. One thick finger pressing at her entrance, rubbing slowly back and forth on dewy flesh, swollen and hot, and a great pulse of feeling like a sigh unvoiced, a swell of satisfaction only whetting the hunger that tugged deep and primal within her.
An ageless moment before her womanhood reluctantly yielded before him, parting as he pushed inside. Luscious, trembling excitement, his finger penetrating her strong and confident, unafflicted by the guilt or the tentative reserve which restrained her own hand sometimes on lonely nights, when her body's urgent whispers grew louder than the stinging voice of judgement which warned her sternly from the Devil's will. Remonstrative always afterward, when she finished in frustration, still unsated, the shallow pleasures wrought by her hesitant fingers overwhelmed by a deeper chasm still of need. A gulf that loomed only larger when she pushed herself nearer its edge, towards the precipice she could never reach.
Not by herself. Oh, but in this imagining it was different, his digit thick and rough and delicious inside her, moving bolder and faster than she ever dared. She could almost see him there, laying half on top of her, gently trapping her with his size. His handsome face before her, leathered by the sun and pleasantly lined by his years. Softly smirking - hunger in those dark brown eyes, powerful and ravenous, a look she'd seen from time to time from men in saloons or out on the range, sizing her up like another head of cattle. She'd always stiffly ignored such looks, or warned them away, wanting no part in these strangers' filthy fantasies...but her heart thumped faster at the image of it in her father's eye. Adding to the wild thrill that danced up through her nerves like lightning in a summer storm, soaking in the heat of his desire as he lavished his attention on her. Pleasure roiling up hot and tempestuous in her breast, pushing her towards that great abyss, her body burning in anticipation of its unfathomable depths. Her pa carrying her to the edge, love and lust blended so delightful in his gaze, and in the dream, oh, she kissed him so ferocious, so fierce and urgent, holding herself tight against his chest and devouring desperately his lips as his finger pounded fast and final inside her. Falling forward into nothingness, into the beckoning unknown...
Her eyes snapped abruptly open, staring once more at the harsh desert landscape sedately passing at her sides. At James' back, slightly slumped, impassive atop his old grey nag, while her own cheeks burned a vibrant pink. Flush with embarrassment and with the heat still of arousal. Faint relief now mingling in this mixture, that at least he had not noticed her distraction, her sinful reverie. A proper woman wasn't supposed to think about such things. Still less to dive deliberately into the fantasy, to linger on the image of herself exposed to a man, touched, taken...least of all if that man was her father, her own closest kin. The man whose flesh had made her own, whose blood she carried in her veins. If her were to know the nature of the dreams she sometimes entertained...
The thought was a flash of panic, of sudden wondering and worry. Did he know? Was that the reason for this new cold and anger of the morning, that she'd somehow revealed to him her hidden thoughts, that he'd intuited her tangled feelings from some stray word, or from the way she leaned upon his side, or from the glances she'd given him that night, the longing in her gaze she'd not found a way entirely to quell...that he'd unearthed her secret, and now despised her for it?
She thought back desperate to their breakfast, searching for any sign of words unsaid, for harlot, whore, libertine. For the crushing weight of loathing and disgust behind his talk of lies - the seeming nonsense of his accusation could well have been a ruse, a sort of kindness. Telling her he knew the truth, without doing her the humiliation of speaking it aloud for the rest to hear.
But the more she thought about this notion, the less sense it made. Why would he have held back in such a manner, if he now hated her? Or if he did hold back, why say anything at all in public, instead of waiting for a private moment to tell her of his knowledge, and of his shame at her perversion?
The timing, too, did not seem to hold. If she had revealed to him her secret imaginings, she had surely done so in the night, when they were together. But there had been no moment when he'd pulled away in shock and horror - he'd stood warm beside her to the very end of the evening, arm gently clasped around her waist in a way he surely wouldn't hold a girl who had such thoughts inside her. Almost as close, as tender as she could hope...at least, outside those selfsame dreams. Only in the morning after had that broken down, in the time apart, when she could scarcely have let slip her secret.
And besides...she could not find in his expression the disgust she would expect, looking back. Indeed, even his anger and his bile seemed strangely hollow in her memory. Flat, formal - for all the venom his tongue had duly carried, his eyes were quiet, dark, reserved. As though it were all just some performance, distasteful and contrived. A play at scornful emnity, put on for her to see...