After the River

Dalton in a Jar

“Averell,” grumbled Joe. “Keep up.”

“But, Joe, I’m only keeping the spot open for—”

Joe held up his hand for silence. “Shut up, Averell. Don’t make me lose my good mood. There’s no way Lucky Luke will think to look for us in this swampland.”

William let out a sneeze and brushed away a fly. “I don’t see how anyone could think to even live here …”

Their feet were covered in mud up to the ankles. Flies, mosquitoes, and strange weeds abounded everywhere, and though some of the flowers held an almost exotic charm as they sprung out from the sides of the path, the air coming from marshes on both sides felt oppressive and sticky. Their hair had become plated to their heads, and they dared not drink the water from that swamp. They had drunk down at a stream further back.

The only ones that seemed to be happy with the surroundings were the ducks and the muskrats sliding through the green film on top of the water, and even they were a bit apprehensive at the moment. They did not like the intruders. Visitors did not come often unless it was to hunt. Some ducks took flight as Averell went to peak at them through the reeds.

“We should have some duck roast!” exclaimed Averell watching the animals flutter away with scattering feathers.

Neither William nor Joe felt all too hungry.

“Yeah, if the mosquitoes don’t eat us first,” William complained, and he swatted the umpteenth bug on the back of his neck. It was swollen red now from all the bites. His hands, arms and even his face did not fare much better. His whole body would soon be as one contracting chicken pox from those relentless mini vampires.

He looked up at Joe and wondered why he seemed so able to ignore those things. He had a few visible bites on the back of his neck too, but aside from swiping the air from time to time Joe seemed far too preoccupied with his set mission.

Looking up from the path Joe with his great sack of cash slung leisurely over his shoulder spied a fairly freshly painted sign which read, “Moose Lake” in bold black letters. He stopped and mused for a moment and looked beyond at the final edge of the swamp where loggers left stumps and unwanted wood. The sound of a train whistle echoed rather near, and he glanced back at the rest of the gang.

“C’mon,” he said. “If we hurry we can catch the end of the train and ride it up to the Great Lakes. There’ll be plenty opportunity up there.”

“And less mosquitoes?” asked William dryly.

“Say, Joe, do you think you want me to catch more of these for lunch?” asked Averell.

He had been leaning over the edge of the swampy water and sticking a bare arm up to the elbow under the surface. Now as he held it up before Joe, Joe let out a cry and grabbed William in his shock.

“Those are leaches, you idiot!” Joe screamed kicking Averell’s arm away with a grimy shoe. He nearly reached for his gun to shoot at the ugly slugs, which certainly would not have ended well but he managed to change his mind before cocking the weapon and shook it to shoo Averell away further instead. “Get rid of ‘em!”

Averell with some painful effort plucked them from his skin of his own accord and began to eat them rather disappointed that the others did not share the enthusiasm. At least it meant more for him.

William and Joe shuddered with disgust.

They managed to catch the end of the train just as Joe had hoped, and they were on their way up to a shipping town called Duluth, a place some people around these parts had begun to call “the Chicago of the North”. Joe decided to slip off before the actual city and make his way to Duluth through its neighbor across the state boarder called Superior after the Great Lake it thrived upon. This was only a last minute change of Joe’s plans, for the train had stopped suddenly and someone came down to check the cars for some reason. Joe wanted to stay low for the time being until he planned out how to make a name for himself up here without arousing the attention of Lucky Luke. Thus before their car could be reached, he motioned the others to slip after him into the reeds.

Time had given him the experience to know that Lucky Luke would not be fooled easily with fake names and tricky slips and odd locations. He needed to make certain that his pattern of crimes did not match his style down south.

He tapped his head feeling quite important and intelligent as they stopped along the edge of an orchard to break for supper. (The apples were a little green but they were edible enough).

“If we change our style,” he insisted as he leaned back against his sack of money. “Then we won’t be discovered. Lucky Luke won’t think of that. He thinks I’m a moron and that I wouldn’t come up with something like that.” And he snickered evilly. “Well, let ‘im think I’m a moron.”

“Why do you want him to think that you’re a moron, Joe?” asked Averell. “I thought you wanted everyone to think that you were the most feared bandit in the West.”

“I AM the most feared and the most awful bandit of all time,” Joe returned with a sniff and a bite of his apple. “But now we’re gunna be the sneakiest crooks of the Midwest.”

“I thought you didn’t like sneaking around, Joe,” said William.

“I don’t!” declared Joe. “And that’s just why Lucky Luke wouldn’t expect it.”

“Oh, but you know Lucky Luke, Joe,” said Averell. “He thinks of everything. He’s a genius.”

“Not as much of a genius as me,” snapped Joe. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

Averell smiled in a goofy sort of way. “Yours, Joe!”

Joe might have hit him then. He really might have, but he decided against it.

They took shelter in the wood across from the orchard and spent the night in a weird, little hollow. It gave them a rather restless sleep, for the animals were leaping constantly from the treetops, and in the middle of the night the Daltons thought they had heard a bear. They sat up two hours waiting to see if their fears were true. After they had fallen asleep again, they awoke in the very early morning from a short shower of rain, which after that stopped they went to sleep once more. They woke up at about ten thirty and after another trip to the orchard for some more apples, and Averell had somehow caught himself a wild turkey (very delicious, once they cooked it) they moved on refreshed even if a little stiff.

All stiffness wore off, however once they got moving.

“Hey, Joe!” exclaimed Averell suddenly at about noon.

“We’re not stopping for lunch until we catch sight of Superior,” Joe returned.

“No, Joe, no, look.”

The sound of a low cowbell in the distance seemed to emphasize Averell’s need, or to further emphasize his idiocy. Joe did not care which.

With a roll of his eyes, Joe pushed past William. He raised a good fist to give Averell motivation to move, but as he reached the little clearing through the bushes they had been skulking through, Joe stopped suddenly and pulled Averell roughly down with him.

“I don’t believe it!” whispered Joe peeping his eyes through the green leaves and wiry branches.

“What? Did he find us?” asked William pressing in to see too, and he gasped.

Joe clasped a thick branch for support.

“It’s Jack,” he breathed. “It’s gotta be Jack.”

Averell nodded happily, and opening his mouth he prepared to call out to his long lost brother, but he had not been able to utter a sound before Joe wrenched him back down by the collar.

“Averell, c’mon! Shut up,” Joe hissed.

“But it’s Jack,” protested Averell. “We haven’t seen him in ages.”

“Not for five years,” William said quite sadly.

“Six,” muttered Joe.

“Shouldn’t we just keep going to Duluth?” asked William leaning back inside the shelter of bushes and looking at Joe uneasily.

“But I wanna say ‘hi’ to Jack first,” whined Averell slipping back too.

“He doesn’t want to say ‘hi’ to us,” muttered William.

“Yes, he does,” said Averell. “He’s our brother.”

Joe pushed his branch out further, anger filling his eyes, and red beginning to heat his face.

“I miss Jack!” Averell said beginning to pout, and he crossed his arms stubbornly.

“We should just keep going!” William growled.

With a very low growl of his own Joe released his branch so that it struck both Averell and William in the head.

“Shut up! You idiots!” he hissed to his now moaning younger brothers. “I wanna closer look before he disappears on us.”

Averell clasped his hands together.

“Then can we say ‘hi’, Joe?”

“Shut up, Averell,” hissed Joe again, and he leaned forward again to look out at the figure of Jack in the sunny field.

He wore a straw hat upon his head, and he had a very strong-looking horse in front of him helping him in his field work on the first crop of the season. He had the help of some other people too. Joe did not remember Jack’s brother-in-law’s name but remembered the name of Aiden O’Riley, the man who shot him. He could not tell if any of the people helping Jack were that man in particular. Jack himself was a little too far away for anyone but his brothers, mother, or Lucky Luke to recognize him for certain.

Joe pictured the sweaty brow of his brother from his slight stoop. He pictured his grimace, the same as it would be on a boring day at the penitentiary. Yet here Jack chose to work of his own free will rather than escape it to live a life where gaining money was an exhilarating experience and the pay quite well. But no, Jack wanted to waste his life in this miserable, sweaty, humid landscape only to hunker down in a frozen winter year after year — a farmer … one of the honest people.

No one would recognize Jack as a Dalton. That in itself irritated Joe, yet if one would have asked him why he would have not have been able to give a descent answer if he did not chose to shoot the questioner instead. He had heard somewhere long ago; though, he did not know where, that the literal meaning of the surname “Dalton” was “farmer”, which to him made this whole scene so sickeningly ironic that he smacked Averell over the head without saying a word.

“Ow! Joe!” whined Averell. “Why can’t we see Jack?”

“I said ‘no’,” said Joe.

William sighed with relief.

“But I wanna see ‘im, Joe,” pressed Averell harder. “I don’t get it.”

“Shut up!” hissed Joe.

“But Joe!” cried Averell.

Joe lifted a dangerous fist, and Averell turned away with a heavy sulk. “It’s not fair,” he moaned as he watched Joe return to his post through the bushes.

“Joe …?” asked William hesitantly. “What about Duluth?”

“What about Duluth?” snapped Joe. “We’re still going.”

“Then what’re we gunna do now?” asked William.

“Go to Duluth!” Joe growled, but he didn’t go anywhere.

Kneeling before the opening in the bushes Joe continued to watch Jack with the penetrating eyes of a hawk.

“It seems real strange that we found him by accident all the way up here,” admitted William after a few moments of sitting between a sulking Averell and a grumpy leering Joe. “One in a million, y’know?”

Averell crossed his arms. “But Joe doesn’t like Jack anymore. Think of what Ma would say.”

“Ma doesn’t know what happened to Jack,” snapped Joe.

“Well, she knows something happened to Jack,” William muttered. “She’s not an idiot.”

“I like Jack,” grumbled Averell. “And I’m gunna go see him before we leave whether you like it or not, Joe.”


“Well, I am!” Averell declared.

William glanced at Joe and Joe glanced at Averell.

Grabbing Averell by the collar Joe shut him up pretty quick, and though Joe had made quite a lot of noise doing so, no one had heard. And once he had finished Averell was too sore to complain anymore about Jack for a while as he nursed his bruises. Joe continued then to watch Jack.

William and Averell eventually went to go get something to eat, but when they returned they still saw Joe sitting and watching Jack in the same spot where they had left him. His interest in eating only came up when they offered it to him and Jack had broke for lunch too. He continued to watch after their meal and he remained seated until the sun sank low and Jack who had gone into a little house and back out again himself went in now the final time for the evening.

Only then did Joe emerge and without a word to his other brothers he slipped down towards the house.

Exchanging unsure looks and shrugs, William and Averell felt they had no choice but to follow. Besides, even William could not hide the fact that he did want to know more about Jack here.

“Did you change your mind, Joe?” asked Averell coming to Joe’s side.

A black eye seconds later answered Averell’s question.

The house was a little larger and far nicer than the little shack Jack and Caitlin had lived in before. The windows showed a warm glow from inside as the remaining Dalton Gang slipped into the shrubbery growing beneath the largest of the windows.

An owl hooted somewhere in the trees beyond the house, and crickets creaked all around them in the grass.

Joe was the first to lift his head from the crawl space up to the window and he peered inside like a vile little goblin or perhaps a changeling fairy as when he popped up his eyes instantly latched onto the sight of the cradle near the window where a infant stared wide-eyed back at him with huge bluish-grey eyes. At first Joe feared the baby would cry, and he ducked again below. Averell and William crept closer behind Joe before Joe dared to look again. This time the invading goblin eyes were accompanied by two more pairs.

“Look, Joe, dinner!” whispered Averell excitedly.

And indeed it was. The aroma of the meal spread outside to them and made even Joe a little hungry, but his hunger dissipated, for he knew it had been Caitlin who had made the meal. Jack was sitting down to it now with an eager little girl coming to reside beside him with wild hair bouncing. Caitlin went to fetch the baby, and the goblins outside had to duck once more before looking again. None could help but look quite bewildered at the foreign little creatures who happened to be their niece and nephew.

“Jack’s got kids, Joe,” whispered Averell.

Joe still did not respond as he watched Jack rub his daughter on the shoulders and give her merry, rosy cheek a kiss.

William shook his head in disbelief.

Joe’s mouth dropped ajar and his eye lid twitched.

Averell clasped his hands together in admiration, but it was difficult to tell whether it was about Jack’s daughter or Caitlin lifting the kettle. Either way, his attention drew to the kettle once the cover was gone, and he began to drool.

“Oh, Joe,” sighed Averell like a child at a candy shop window with his friends already inside. “We should join them now.”

The quaint little family had begun their grace, and Joe at last flashed his fiery eyes blazing at Averell.

“I said ‘no’!” growled Joe grabbing the other by the collar.

“Calm down, Joe,” begged William. “They’ll hear you.”

And they had heard something. Jack went to investigate, his daughter chasing after him curiously.

The goblins pressed up flat against the house as quickly as they could so that when Jack peered outside he saw nothing but the still violet evening. He closed the window again and went back to his meal.

“We should go,” whispered William barely loud enough to be heard over the crickets.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Joe hissed. “That’s what started this mess is people trying to overthrow the order of things. I’m in charge, William. Not you.”

William nodded with a gulp.

“What people tried to throw you, Joe?” asked Averell scratching his head.

Waving his hand aside, Joe said, “Forget it.”

“But, Joe, if anyone threw you you’d plug ‘em all a good one with the fastest shot in the West, except for Lucky Luke’s shot.” And then Averell stifled a giggle.

Teeth grinding and fists clenching, Joe glared off into the night steam rising from his head.

“Shut up, Averell!” said William. “Don’t make ‘im mad here.”

“Let’s go,” growled Joe; his leer turned to William rather than to Averell. “We’ll come back in the morning, and we’ll give Jack something to think about. Take his horse and ride for Duluth.”

“But, Joe, we can’t steal from Jack,” gasped William. “He’s our brother even if he isn’t in the gang.”

“He isn’t in the gang,” huffed Joe. “Therefore Jack is fair game just as much as everyone else. Besides he might as well be an O’Riley. It’s only that law that makes his wife change her name to his. But he’s an O’Riley now. Not a Dalton, and I’ll be sure to make him know it.”

Averell lifted a finger to speak.

“No,” said Joe, and Averell’s finger dropped with a sour look on his face.

They slept in the barn that night. The rough night before caused them to be tired enough to ignore wild thoughts about the next day and to allow them sleep now. Yet Joe did think about his plans a little bit before he curled up in the hay eyeing the horse that he wanted to take from Jack in the morning after he had taught him a lesson. Needless to say Joe had forgotten all about keeping low and not leaving a trail for Lucky Luke, or perhaps he did not think that Jack would go so far as to turn them in for it even if the rest of the family would.

And the next morning quite early Joe and his gang woke to the milking of cows and the feeding of animals. Jack did not see them as they slipped away, but he heard them go out from the door, or rather his dog did … as fast as they could the Daltons leaped from the barking dog and hid in a shed.

Jack called after the dog and ran outside the barn after him.

Joe, William, and Averell in very awkward positions amid sawing blades, buckets, rakes, and sacks, found themselves very crammed together and very uncomfortable. If he twisted his spine and stepped up on tiptoe while holding onto a handle of something, Joe could just barely peak through a peephole in the wood. He watched Jack coming along with his dog just a few feet in front.

“Joe,” whispered Averell. “He has a dog almost just like Rantanplan” (he was nothing like Rantanplan whatsoever; he was not even the same breed) “Jack’s so lucky, Joe, isn’t he?”

Joe relaxed his pained body away from the peep hole and closing his eyes he muttered, “Shut up, Averell. I don’t want to be mad at you right now.”

“That’s okay, Joe,” Averell assured him, while spinning a rotating blade just to the side of his nose. “I don’t think I want you to be mad at me right now either.”

William could peak through the peephole a little better than Joe could from his position if he stooped his shoulders and pressed his hands against the wall.

“He’s passing the shed,” said William. “Maybe his dog’s like Rantanplan after all.”

The truth was that Jack knew quite well who was sneaking around his place. Once behind the shed his suspicions were confirmed as he placed his ear against the side of the shed to hear. Biting his lip he found he wished this could only be a dream. He felt uncertain what to do next. Although it was the others trapped in the shed, Jack felt like a bug trapped in a jar. Maybe they would just move on. He hoped so, but he doubted it.

His dog growled toward the shed, but Jack held him back.

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