After the River

Frozen Toes

It seemed strange going north when the weather kept getting colder. Autumn was in full swing now and as trees slowly became more numerous eastward towards Chicago, the leaves began to fall in brilliant golds and reds. Nights possessed a biting chill that Jack had not felt since the Dalton gang had tried to hang low in Canada a couple years back. No one slept outside anymore though the sunny days were still warm and fresh.

Jack caught up with the O’Riley’s about halfway to Chicago. He might have caught up sooner, but he had chosen to travel alone for a while. His mind needed quiet; he needed time to think. It was a new experience to think so hard by himself. Both he and William had ever been in the shadow of Joe’s decisions, and on the rare occasion that Joe could not make them William took up all the slack without leaving room for Jack. Yet none of the Daltons most of the time not even Joe had ever needed to think too deeply from one event to the next in their entire wild yet easy slide of a life.

Now things had become difficult. Jack had not known the meaning of difficult until this time. It made him wonder why he still kept to his decision in reforming. He could not help but wonder what had made him fall in love with Caitlin and certainly why Caitlin had fallen in love with him.

He learned before Joe’s reappearance while Jack and Caitlin lived happily on the outskirts of Sedona that Mr. and Mrs. O’Riley had begun to wonder if she would ever marry. For it was that Jack learned just before his marriage that Caitlin had been nearly wed to a man once before and only shadows of interest had followed that one man. He had been among the travelers west when they left New York. Another Irishman. A good man too. Yet during a terrible storm in Missouri the oxen had gotten struck in a mire. Caitlin’s betrothed and a few other men tried to help them out. He had stepped out too deep and fell under, sucked straight down and out of sight.

“Drowned,” said Mr. O’Riley as he explained it to Jack …

Jack shuddered, remembering for a moment when Joe had nearly drowned.

“By the time we pulled him out he was dead.”

Then Jack learned that Aiden and his wife had been praying almost seven years for a new husband for Caitlin. It made Jack feel queer to know that he had been the apparent result of that prayer. He had never exactly believed or disbelieved that prayer could work, but he had never thought about it hard for so long. He never truly tried it since he was very little and his mother used to bring them to church for normalcy’s sake or what she called “Just making sure”, the same reason why the Dalton boys had been baptized much to Robbie’s disgust.

His mind shifted a while. He recalled Joe explaining that their father more than once thought it a stupid and hypocritical waste of time going to church or having anything to do with religion. He would as soon shoot the pastor as speak with him, and sitting through his service was something worth blowing up the whole church, which eventually old Robbie Dalton did. Five sticks of TNT and in one big explosion it was no more with Joe and William as jubilant witnesses whooping and leaping with excitement. Jack himself had been too young and slept through it along with barely three-year-old Averell. By the time of Robbie’s blast the new pastor, who did not fear the Daltons as much as the first, had told them not to come anymore if they did not repent and that had been the last straw in Robbie’s mind and the cause of his final decision to blow it up.

“Robert,” Jack just barely remembered his mother saying afterwards, “You didn’t have to go that far about it. Just scaring the pastor back to Pennsylvania would’ve been enough. Such a shame. It was such a pretty little church too …”

Back to the subject of prayer, however, it had been a miracle in itself the sudden money that the people gathered up to rebuild the church. It had been even more of a miracle that Robbie Dalton had not stolen the money from fund before it could be used.

Here and now, it seemed odd to say the very least that if the O’Rileys had prayed for a new husband for their daughter why in the world had it ended up being Jack Dalton? Was it a mistake? The last time he tried it himself as a boy of eight was in praying that his father was not dead anymore, and that had never come to pass.

Caitlin had suggested praying for his brothers’ salvation, and this Jack felt a hopeless cause in itself.

Joe did not want to be saved, and Jack doubted William did either. Jack tried to though. He tried to pray for Caitlin’s sake. At least he tried for a while until he decided not to again with further uncertainty. He had not tried praying since he was eight. He had not thought of it much for years. He had been a bandit. The prayers of the unrepentant were worthless anyway, weren’t they? That is, if he truly believed in God, which sometimes Jack was not sure he did even now.

Yet, he reminded himself. It was Joe’s return from the afterlife that had caused Jack to rethink whether God existed in the first place. God had been a game his mother played before that and an opium of the “honest people”, ever since he stopped believing that the Daltons were a Christian family anyway, which was at about eight or nine years old. He had meant what he said when he told Joe that it had been because of him that he had changed. It was because of Joe that he thought that perhaps there was a God and perhaps there was a place where men were punished for evil deeds, and that was what Joe had feared in death. Otherwise how would he have been so afraid of what he had seen? Dead eyes cannot see, nor dead minds think or comprehend. To put it simply, Jack had had a gnawing feeling that Joe had seen hell, and it had been no joke.

Upon his resting in the home of the O’Riley family from his experience in the well he had time to think about these doubts and worries, and he had finally come of the conclusion that if even half the stuff they told people at church was true then life truly only had one purpose: to be lived well and honestly. He married Caitlin O’Riley maybe for the mere reason that it was a way to escape his old life. He loved her, and that was true, but he would have been afraid to marry her if he had had no intention of staying with her for better or for worse and never going back to his old life again.

It made him both fear and long for Joe that after what he had gone through he only in the end fought harder for his life on earth. Joe did not care. Maybe it was proof that Joe had only dreamed the afterlife in between his death and life, but Jack did not think so. Joe would not be that afraid of a dream, and a dream would not have haunted Joe enough to hate Jack for reminding him of it. Did Joe even have a prayer left …? Did any of his family? Well, maybe Averell, but Jack was not sure he would be held accountable for any of the bad things they had done together in the first place.

When he met up with O’Rileys and his wife this time, they headed straight northward into the forests of north woods of the US. Raccoons, squirrels, and foxes abounded. Birds were on the move constantly southward in loud flocks pointing like an arrowhead for their winter homes warm and safe. It seemed almost crazy to Jack that they kept going northwards especially when he learned that Caitlin was in a weakened state.

“You’re sick!” he gasped. “It’s this stupid damp cold! Maybe New York would have been better!”

Caitlin laughed. “No, don’t be silly.”

“Don’t make light of this!” said Jack shivering himself despite the warmth in the wagon. “We should’ve wintered in Chicago! I hate the cold! It’s so cold my ears are freezing off my skull! My toes are freezing off my feet, and it’s not even midwinter. There’s barely been snow yet! How can Wisconsin be colder than Canada!?”

“Stop it!” hissed Sean. “It won’t help.”

“Now, will you listen to me, Jack?” said Caitlin as she shooed Sean away and scooted in close to her husband.


“I’m not sick,” she cooed and said even more softly so that no one else but Jack could hear, “I’m just working extra hard for your wee babe.”

Jack frowned. “What’re you …”

What Caitlin had said had been so straight forward a statement that at first Jack had not comprehended it, but as it sank it he sat up in alarm.

She did not look plumper than before, but women, he supposed would know about their babies before that part of it; though he could not fathom how. He glanced back at her face and could not help but smile, a strange, goofy sort of smile, and he forgot for a moment about the cold and his losses and worrying about meeting with Aiden’s cousins that he had never met before and that Aiden had not been able to warn of his coming, and even of Jack’s own family down south.

This was … new family.

Mrs. O’Riley near at hand darning a shirt smiled too though she was not looking at the young couple. She sewed surprisingly well in a moving wagon.

Sean had gone up front with Mr. O’Riley, so for the most part Jack and Caitlin were alone.

“Baby …?” said Jack.

And Caitlin kissed him just before he started thinking that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about fathering a baby.

Well, he would have a whole experienced family and possibly another in Aiden’s cousin to give him suggestions on that, he supposed.

“What about the cold even still?” said Jack suddenly.

“Cousin Seamus’ house will be plenty warm, and if we all help him out the best we can we will all be plenty welcome,” said Mrs. O’Riley promptly as if she had planned to say this for some time, “especially a new mother and a wee child. So no fretting anymore, Jack.”

“And pray the baby arrives well as can be,” sighed Caitlin.

“Aye … I—I mean right,” said Jack with another smile. “I’ll pray for the baby, and … and for our families. Y’know. All of ‘em. For real. Except …” And here he paused fidgeting a little. “I don’t really know how.”

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