The Daltons on the River
Dawn crept over the sand, crisp cutout shadows drew out long across the barren landscape, and the whole earth was still just waking including four skulking figures hurrying in the first glow of morning. Like a pack of wolves they prowled close together with, what would appear to anyone who saw them, quite firm purpose, for besides being close together they were in near routine unison save for the last one who found the scene behind them rather charming: a pair of birds taking flight, a flower had actually budded on a cactus, and early morning painted everything in brilliant golden and violet hues.
The other three paid not the least bit of attention to their surrounding whatsoever as they silently congratulated themselves on their ill gotten gain still preserved and well-packed inside its neat, little box with brand new hinges. At the same time they also felt the need for agile speed, for they would not be safe from recapture until they reached the nearest border. So busy were they with their internal thoughts as Joe broke away from the group in his haste, for mentally he was already passed the boarder of Mexico. He was so caught up with idea of Spanish surroundings that he nearly ran right off the sudden bank and into the river.
He caught himself just in time. Yet he had barely time to become balanced before William (not far behind and paying about the same amount of attention as his older brother) tripped over Joe’s ball, which he had dropped in his surprise just seconds before. As William tripped so did Jack run right into William. The only one paying attention to his surroundings was Averell still following those two birds in the sky, but they were unfortunately flying far behind him. Thus though he was paying attention, he was paying attention in the wrong direction. He ran right into both William and Jack, and with the added force of Averell, all three ran right into Joe.
The impact was not quite hard enough to push Joe in, and he had backed away a couple steps from the ledge. It was enough force, however, to cause him to lose his grip on the box. It took flight out of his hands like a fledgling from its nest and sailed through the air. Like a fledgling also it did not make it very far, and just as Joe cried out in dismay at losing his treasure to the deep currents of the river, it landed as he had just at the edge. Half of the box even stuck out over the edge, and rubble fell like a sudden rain shower spraying the river.
For a split second Joe could only be relieved, but that relief soon turned to a feeling of great annoyance, as he leered out of the corner of his eye back at his companions. Their wide-eyed, blank expressions as they stared back at him did nothing to aid their side of Joe’s internal debate. Nothing would, they knew anyway. As the annoyance steeped, a few seconds later it erupted into downright rage and hot enough and red enough for midday to have already come upon them in the heat of the desert.
“YOU IDIOTS!” he snarled. “We could have lost the money!”
Talk is cheap, though, as everyone knows. Two seconds later, he sealed the sentiment with a good sock in turn for each of his beloved siblings. BANG! BONK! SMACK! The brilliant colors that flashed before their eyes, and the dismal black and blue that remained afterward was sure enough to teach them to take care of where they were going in the future. At least it might have taught them something if this had not been too frequent of an occurrence to keep track of one sock from another and one of Joe’s tantrums from the next. It was simply enough to remember to stay clear from Joe when the pot boiled over red above Joe’s head.
Once the physical implications had been accomplished, Joe then resumed a more sober mood, his anger quickly forgotten. Looking out across from him, he picked up the box from the ledge and shielding his eyes from the reflection of the sun he examined the river. It was quite a distance across, he realized. Their swimming abilities were not something to be proud of either. They could follow river, but if they were seen, the river would act like a wall against them and they would be trapped without weapons to back them up. To retrace their steps would be to walk right into the lasso of Lucky Luke who Joe had not the slightest doubt was not too far behind. It was then however that he noticed a long pole not far from where they stood.
Now, as tall as it was, it was not nearly long enough to help them across the river, but what he noticed more than the pole itself was the rope tangled around it. The gears in his mind turned, and an idea formed. Why should they fight against the river and cross it when they could harness the river and use it to further their escape? The rope could be used to tie together a raft.
Swiveling around he beamed with importance as he explained the idea to the others still recovering from their bruises.
“But, Joe,” said William. “We need wood to build a raft.”
“There are no trees big enough to make a raft for miles,” added Jack.
Slumping his shoulders, Joe realized they were right, and he scowled out across the river again angrily.
“I have an idea!” said Averell suddenly in his usual slow and happy manner.
Joe’s eyes shifted to his youngest and stupidest brother and looked most doubtful and very much annoyed.
But encouraged by the fact that the others turned his way, Averell pointed behind them and said cheerfully, “We could use the cactuses.”
The others followed his finger to the cluster of cacti some yards away.
Silence reigned for a moment or two. No one looked at all impressed. Then Joe said in a near casual manner, “Alright, Averell.”
“Really?” gasped Averell overjoyed that his idea was up for consideration.
“It’s a stupid idea,” grumbled Joe. “Let’s use the cactuses.”
“Oh, wow, great idea, Joe!” exclaimed Averell.
The middle two exchanged glances but said nothing. It was best to keep silent in such situations.
So with some difficulty as they had no sharp tools to work with, they pried the cacti from the ground. After some excruciating pain with the needles they tied the green beams that remained together as one would tie logs together for a normal raft. William had the duty of pulling out the cacti, removing the extra limbs, and tying the cacti together without having a pair of hands beaded with a million red pricks. Jack and Averell also had this duty.
Joe had the most important job of keeping lookout in case Lucky Luke showed up. Any movement across the wasteland could be a sign of Lucky Luke’s approach, and Joe was determined to get away this time with his crime. They had not even removed the balls and chains from their ankles, but Joe had a strong feeling this time. This time they would get away. The raft would take them straight on across the border … with their gains all neat and tidy inside the little wooden box Joe kept close to his chest. Sometimes he clutched it so hard his heart beat against it as he glared over the empty sands.
When the raft was finished, Joe nodded with approval. Although the middle two looked a little doubtful, the raft slipped into the river with relative ease, and floated just as a raft should.
“Except we won’t be able to sit down,” muttered William. Their hands and arms were already swollen from all the poking from the needles they had received in the construction of the raft.
“Quit complaining and get on!” snapped Joe. “Stand! What? Are you too weak to stand or something?!”
And shoving the box into Averell’s arms without a thought except to prove to William what a whiner he was being, he pushed Jack aside and climbed onto the raft first.
“Now come on, you babies!” Joe commanded. “Pirates don’t sit on the deck and their decks aren’t even full of prickles!”
There had been a more recent inmate at the penitentiary who had been a sailor at one time, or at least he had claimed to be one, and he also claimed that he had turned pirate in the Gulf of Mexico. What he was doing in Colorado then was anyone’s guess unless he had been trying to escape authorities elsewhere. He had gone on so much about pirates that after a while it had been ingrained into everyone’s minds, and it began to get on Joe’s nerves as well. He had spoken this last phrase with much sarcasm to his brothers now.
Who needs pirates? It’s easy to escape by ship. Let’s see some pirate escape by cactus raft!
He felt quite good about himself.
The others obeyed as the faithful minions they were. Ah, it made life easy to have one’s minions one’s own family. You never had to train anyone new in, for family was always more thickly bonded than any other relationship, after all.
Though, it must be admitted that Averell shuffled his feet getting on board for some unfathomable reason.
“C’mon, Averell, you moron. Let’s go! What are you? A cow?”
“Don’t be silly, Joe,” said Averell happily as he climbed on after them with the pole from the bank in his hands. He grinned. “I’d know if I was a cow. Besides we’re pirates. You said so.”
“What?” grumbled Joe.
“You said that we were pirates now, so I got our flag, see, Joe?” And after stabbing the center of the raft with the pole, Averell took off his shirt and hanged their colors high as he tied it to the pole by the sleeves.
After giving Averell a good kick in the shins, Joe rolled his eyes, and decided he was through with stupidity for the moment.
“Alright!” he said throwing an authoritative hand in the air. “You two, shove off!”
William and Jack pushed against the bank, careful not to fall into the water and even more careful to not get caught by a needle. (“Ouch!” Jack cried as his elbow hit the side of the raft. “Ack!” exclaimed William similarly wounded.) And as their transport became entirely free-floating, the current carried it away in a relatively southward direction, and far faster than they would have been able to go by foot. They went faster even than they would have been able to on horseback, because the river never took a rest. Joe thought with great satisfaction that the horse of Lucky Luke would have to rest too, but the Daltons would go on and on right into Mexico.
He laughed as he explained this all to his gang.
“Take that, Lucky Luke!” he roared then with triumph behind him, and he laughed some more.
William and Jack joined in, and Averell looked with interest to see what his brothers thought was so humorous, for he did not want to be left out of the fun. He had been previously occupied with the stones glistening beneath the river in the light of the sun, and with wondering where all the fish were. He was getting hungry.
On they went. The land grew brighter, and the sun beat down hard, but they had plenty to drink beneath them when they dared to lean down and brave getting pricked by the raft. They were a hardy group; though Joe had to admit that by the time the noon sun was right overhead he would have liked nothing better than to sit down and put his feet over the side to cool them off in the river. He also wished they had at least stolen some hats when they had robbed that stagecoach of its money, but they had been in far too much of a hurry for that at the time. Averell’s shirt flag provided little shade and was always flapping about when it wasn’t hanging completely limp. They had temporary relief only when they passed by a very close plateau, yet his spirits were lifted for the next hours of the beating sun.
At about four o’clock after hours of being at a steady pace along the river, another grave problem faced the Daltons. They had not eaten since they had woken at the break of dawn, and they had brought nothing with them.
Oh! Joe thought with a groan. Life would be a whole lot easier if we didn’t have to worry about in-the-way things like eating.
Everyone knew that Averell would be the first to disagree about an opinion like that, however. As if on cue too he heard Jack and William behind him complaining.
“Averell, don’t eat the raft!” they cried in their usual whiny way they did about everything in Joe’s opinion. “We need the raft!”
He might have given Averell a good whop on the head to make him stop, but something caught his attention for the moment in the form of a town where they could get what they needed and maybe some more loot to add to the treasure they already had.
“Listen up! We’re stopping here,” Joe said. “Jack! William! Grab hold of the bank there, and Averell, stop eating that raft and gimme the box.” He motioned his hand towards the latter with impatience.
Averell gulped down a huge mouthful of cactus in a manner that sounded a little sickening as it all went down in such a hunk in his throat. Turning to Joe and standing up, he twiddled his fingers a second or two and then said, “But, Joe, I can’t.”
“C’mon, Averell!” snapped Joe. “You can pig out all you want in town. Stop stuffing your face and give me that box!”
“But I just told you, I can’t,” said Averell fidgeting. “I don’t have the box anymore.”
“Wadya mean you don’t have the box anymore?!” Joe snarled. A low growl started up in the back of Joe’s throat as he turned all attention now to Averell.
“Well,” said Averell. “We’re pirates, right?”
Averell shrugged. “So, before we left I buried our treasure just like pirates do. For safe keeping. Burying it must be a whole lot safer than what other people do who put their money in banks.”
Thunder might as well have struck behind the livid figure of Joe, with eyes blazing like a pair of molding furnaces. His teeth ground together so hard one could hear the gnashing pearls scraping, and a deep rumble like the rumble of a volcano ready to erupt formed deep in his throat and shook his little body in such a way that it might have made one wonder how that slight form could hold any of that emotion in at all without exploding on the spot.
“You mean to tell me that all our money’s all the way back where we started?” demanded Joe through his still tightly locked teeth, and he spoke very darkly.
“Yes,” Averell said a tad too candidly for the situation, but he looked as worried enough.
“But no one will find it though,” Averell added. “Just like our new pal Morgan at the penitentiary said.”
Jack and William looked at each other and cringed, both from their fear of their older brother’s wrath and from their own anger at their younger brother’s dimwitted thought process. But they were not too angry to allow Joe to rip Averell limb from limb. Hardly had Averell come to the end of his last sentence when Joe leaped like a rabid coyote for Averell’s head, but the reflexes of the middle two were fortunately quick enough to grab him just before he got too far.
“Lemme go! You idiots! Lemme go!” he snarled, his dagger eyes and claw-like fingers all the while aimed at Averell’s wide-eyed, blinking face. “That—that—that idiot! That moronic dipstick! That meat-headed, freak, sorry-excuse-for-a-human-being idiot! Lunatic! Slug! I’ll kill him! Averell, you moron! I’ll bury him six feet deep with two X’s to mark the spot over his eyes! LEGGO! Let’s make a cactus plank! I’ll make him walk it barefoot with cutlass at his back! Cross his bones around his skull! Then hang him on the mast! Fifteen blows to a dumb man’s head! Pirates! I’ll give him pirates!”
“C’mon, calm down, Joe!” cried William, struggling to salvage his grip which he almost lost on Joe’s arm.
“Yeah, you’re gunna make us all fall in!” whimpered Jack.
“Killing Averell won’t do any good now,” William pleaded. “The box is already buried.”
Averell by now could only blink and stare the blanker, for he was not quite certain he understood exactly what Joe meant to do to him in that jumbled up mess of threats. None of it would be good, Averell knew, but he did not like the uncertainty of whether or not Joe was going to just simply beat the tar out of him or something more complicated.
“Just let me go!” snapped Joe.
Reluctantly, Jack and William obeyed, and Joe balanced himself again on the raft. He panted a little, but made no further attempt to attack Averell. He still, however, gave him the evil eye and a low growl before turning away with a sniff. He paused and looked out over the landscape above the river bank as his breath settled and his rage by all visibility subsided.
William and Jack wiped their brows in relief and smiled with satisfaction to one another.
Yet just as all seemed over, Joe spun round in a flash as fast as lightning and with a roar of renewed rage threw himself with all his might into the direction of Averell’s head.
Strangely enough, Averell ducked, despite the aerial speed of the assault. Throwing his hands over his head he shut his eyes and cringed. This left Joe’s aim wide open over the side of the raft. With that empty swoop in one’s stomach from missing the weight of solidity one expects, Joe became alert to his situation just in time to see the running water just beneath him instead of the green of the raft or Averell’s black hair. But there was little way he could respond to this realization, except to bite his lip in fright as he dropped like stone into the water. His brothers could only watch dumbfounded and frozen to their spots.
He might have been swept down by the current, but just as the river’s pull grasped him, his ball caught up with him and pulled him downward still. Slow but quite straight, the ball fell down deeper than Joe would have expected until a heavy and solid thump as it hit the bottom with in a cloud of wafting sand.
With eyes still open against the water, Joe looked down at the ball from where he now half floated away from it on his chain by the pull of the current. Terror struck. His swimming abilities were meager, but had he been a strong swimmer, to fight against the raging current and the weight of his ball, he still might not have been able to manage. In a panic, he reached upwards despite this knowledge. He ripped and clawed for the surface with feverish determination. The ethereal glow of the sun from above but so close, encouraged his pursuit, but in vain. He had a thought in his anxiety that the others should be trying to come to his aid, and this anger strengthened him for a few seconds of extra boost, but still to no avail.
This thrashing also wasted the power of the oxygen to his lungs rather quickly, and a dizziness clouded him and a burning swelled in his chest. A desire to breathe in devoured him, but he knew that to suck in the water would mean only his demise. The dizziness soon grew into a thick soup around his head and his grip on his consciousness began to teeter. All pursuit for the surface stopped, and thoughts of a new kind emerged.
A queer, wavering memory of some early moment in his life before he could talk or walk fluttered dreamily before him; his life began its flash before his eyes. He came into the world screaming and red as he would forever after. He remembered his mother coaxing him to calm down, and singing some half remembered lullaby. He remembered grabbing onto to his father’s leg and begging to go with him on his long absences. His father had been the only man in the whole world Joe had ever respected, and one of the only things in his entire life Joe admitted caring for out loud, to admitting that he loved in words. He remembered sharing his life with William when he was born and not liking it, complaining that he already had a brother when Jack was born, and complaining even louder about already having two when Averell was born. Hitching his younger brother Averell to a small cart a little later, Joe had him running with a carrot tied to a stick in front of his nose as one would a donkey. He actually got to join his father on some of his bandit adventures not long after that. His mother took care of him when he got sick, and would at those times forget that he wasn’t a baby, yet at those particular times he did not care. Some small adventures played in the back yard came to mind, in which he ordered his brothers about, and he recalled all those school days he skipped. He had only been to a full day of school once or twice in his life. The neighbors came to mind, and how many things they were always losing when the four Dalton boys practiced for their bandit futures. The humiliation and pain flashed by of when his mother held him by the ear when he beat up Averell or any of his brothers. The traumatic experience of the day he learned of his father’s hanging. The vow of vengeance he claimed on that day, and he had nearly forgotten it when he had actually grown old enough to go out on his own with his gang. There was the promise his mother forced out of him to take care of his brothers and to never leave them behind. The burning hatred he gained from his dreaded enemy Lucky Luke arose soon after. Time and time and time after time, Lucky Luke stopped the Daltons at every turn, and just at the right moment, always he would appear at the right moment! In one quick flash his life went right up to the moment of their most recent escape from that annoying penitentiary with that loser of a warden and his pitiful staff that could hardly hold in the Daltons for more than a couple weeks at a time. Then the river. Then the thing with Averell and the box. He had missed his head. Stupid Averell … unfair … stupid brothers … they weren’t coming to get him … was death next …? He had wanted his life longer … good life though … Dad would be proud … sure, he’d be proud … Daltons to the end … yeah …
And now …?
Blackness swept over him as the bubbles of Joe’s last bit of air escaped his lungs, and out into the blackness the warmth of life was leaving and the cold burn of his next step opened up beneath him.
He knew no more …
The water was not so deep that Joe could not be reached. Averell stood chest high in the spot where Joe had disappeared. Hanging on to Averell’s arms so the current would not make his lose his balance nonetheless, Jack and William kept careful hold also to a great bolder jutting upwards out of the bank. As Averell lifted Joe’s limp form up out of the water, Jack and William helped to pull Averell back ashore. Then once they had cleared the water, they had Averell put Joe down on the ground.
William dared to approach first, and he lowered his ear to Joe’s chest. He could hear nothing, and he cringed as he pressed his ear hard into Joe’s drenched shirt, hoping he could hear at least something.
Wringing his hands and tightening his shoulders, Jack asked cautiously, “Is he … okay? William?”
“He’s not breathing,” admitted William throwing up his head in his others’ direction. “And I can’t hear anything.”
“Maybe we should push it all back in motion like when a windup toy gets stuck,” offered Averell in a loud candid way as he pushed in midair to help demonstrate what he was trying to get at.
William and Jack glared.
“Or more like a balloon,” added Averell. “Like the one with the basket and the furnace. Don’t you remember?”
The other two now glanced at each other with uncertainty.
“What are you talking about, Averell?” William demanded crossing his arms with annoyance.
Averell made his way over and dropped to his knees next to William.
Again Joe perceived.
He felt first a queer jolt and a throbbing through his stiff and achy body. He felt solidity of water-free ground beneath him. Warmth. The sun was hot upon him and drying him quickly. Someone was beside him. His eyelids were as rusted shutters as he pried them open just enough to see a dim, blurry, sepia image through his dark wet lashes. Then his eyes popped wide open of their own accord as he saw Averell’s face right in his own and just finishing breathing inside of Joe’s mouth.
“YLACK!” screamed Joe, and he shoved Averell away with full force of all four limbs.
But he was far too in a state to be angry. As he pulled himself upwards onto his shaky knees all he could do was gasp heavily for the sweet air around him. Gasping in deep and frantic with tongue hanging out like a dog, he clutched at his still burning chest, and coughed and sputtered water that had not already been squeezed out of him by Averell. His heart pounded wildly in his head as it tried to make up for the minutes it lost.
“Joe!” “Joe!” “You’re okay!” he just barely heard William and Jack shout. “You’re alive!” “We thought you were dead!” “Say something, Joe!” “Give ‘im some air!” “I am! There’s plen’y!” “C’mon, Joe.” “Joe?”
Joe had barely come to a point at which he could breathe normally when quite suddenly he was grabbed around the shoulders and whipped right off the ground. Averell embraced him with a great soggy hug and held him over his shoulder with a wide smile stretched out over his whole blissful face.
All Joe could do in protest was moan bitterly. He then closed his eyes with exhaustion with a heavy sigh of relief to be alive.
“Averell, where’d you learn how to do that?” Jack asked then.
Turning to Averell also, William raised a brow and squinted another as he considered this a good question to ask.
But Averell was far too happy over Joe to notice the question, and no one pressed it further.