After the River


His brothers were not going anywhere soon. How they found him here he could not fathom, but with the truth undeniable now, Jack had to think of what to do next.

Get authorities?

Maybe, but Joe was not afraid of authorities. Only Lucky Luke caused him any fear and even that was buried under heaps of hatred first. Unless Joe was killed no authority, no bars, no chains, and certainly no law would stop him. He was Joe Dalton, the most feared bandit in the West, and maybe the craziest. Now, certainly Jack did not want Joe killed. The very thought made him sick, but the thought of Joe hurting Caitlin or his children made Jack equally sick and quite angry.

If only Joe would disappear. If only Joe had taken William and Averell to anywhere in the whole world but here. Maybe Jack should have taken Caitlin to Australia! Joe would never have found them there.

But it was too late for silly fancies.

He lived in the United States of America, the land of the free. He did not feel very free right now. But it was also home of the brave …

A look of determination overtook Jack then and he went around to the front of the shed again away from the side through which those inside could peek. Taking hold of the handle, he wrenched it open.

Joe’s glaring face was only to be expected. So was the low glowering face of William, and the smiling face of Averell.

“Jack!” sobbed Averell wiping a tear from his eye as he managed to slide out between the blades and saws with only a small cut on his finger. “Ow!” He stuck it in his mouth, and before he could continue making his way for Jack, Joe snatched him back into the shed.

“Joe doesn’t want anyone to talk to you,” sulked Averell, and he crossed his arms glaring at Joe.

“Get outa here, you big idiot,” growled Joe and shoved him out again.

“Well, make up your mind, Joe,” grumbled Averell in return brushing himself off a bit and straightening his penitentiary uniform.

Joe ignored him, and once he and William were out too, Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Joe interrupted.

“We’re just leaving now,” he declared as he passed Jack by.

Neither Jack nor William said a word while Joe shoved the remains of his gang away. The dog growled again, but Jack also held him back again and patted his head for reassurance. But they had not gone far before Averell turned around again. Ignoring the protests of Joe he went back for Jack.

“We miss you, Jack!” he said wringing his hands together. “I don’t care what Joe says. We want you to come back! I want you to come back! William wants you to come back! And Joe wants you to come back too. Ma doesn’t even know where you are. Joe made up things so that we wouldn’t have to go home ever again. I miss Ma. And even Lucky Luke knows the gang’s not the same without you. I still saved you your spot and everything. Please come back and be bandits with us again.”

“I …” Jack started.

Joe pushed Averell out of the way and held up his gun.

“Ah, you know Jack,” said Joe with a dry sarcasm like gagging chalk dust while the chalk itself screeches over the chalkboard, and it that made Jack and William shudder. “He’s too good for us now! He’s repented and found religion and all that stuff. A true figure of honesty and goodness.” Here he waved his free hand carelessly above his head in wide gesticulation. “Disgraces the proud name of Dalton.” His hand pressed to his heart. “Abandons his mother.” It thrashed out ahead into a fist. “Makes his baby brother cry!” It flew to his forehead. “Forsakes his given career! And shuns the very mention of his family for a bunch of Dark Ages serfs who still believe in smells and bells.” His left arm swung round his back, while the gun hand raised to the side of his head aimed skyward. “A martyr to his cause to the end!”

Jack frowned. “What do you want?” he asked hesitantly.

“Hmm, well, food, water, your horse, and maybe to get rid of your stupid dog!” Joe growled and violently kicked the also growling dog into the shed. The angry animal tried to leap out at Joe with jaws at the ready, but Joe slammed and locked the door just in time.

“I hate dogs!” cried Joe.

“I like dogs,” said Averell perhaps a little brighter than the situation called for.

“Shut up, Averell,” said Joe; then he turned to Jack. “So … get it all for me now, and I might change my mind about kidnapping you for ransom.”

“Ransom?” cried Jack.

“But, Joe, they don’t have any money,” said William. “They’re poor farmers.

“Go get the horse, William,” said Joe.

William hesitated.

“Averell, go with him.”

“The horse?” asked Averell blinking.

“Go and get the horse, you meat head! Now beat it!”

Averell began to head for the barn, and William began to slowly follow him.

“Joe, why can’t you just leave me alone?” asked Jack. “Kidnapping me for ransom? What’s that gunna do?”

“Shut up!” snarled Joe. “Just shut up! I want you to shut up!” A shot fired in the air. “Hold still! I’ll kill you right now!”

And he aimed his weapon right between the eyes of poor stupefied Jack.

“No, Joe! Don’t do it!” wailed William. “Calm down! Get a hold of yourself!”

Joe, as usual with most everything in his entire life, did not listen. Shots again fired. None of them hit Jack in his rage. Caitlin heard the gunfire and rushed outside. William shrank and cringed. Jack too was cringing up against the wall of the shed with his dog barking from inside.

“C’mon, Joe,” said Averell deciding something should actually be done about the situation. “That’s enough. Listen to me! Stop trying to shoot Jack. You might hit him.”

He went forward and stepped out in front of Joe, and it succeeded more than any word could have in stopping Joe’s boiling rage. It was the last bullet, and it most likely would have missed Jack yet again, but it was far too close a range to miss Averell. At first Joe only looked because of the empty clinks in his revolver. He thought to reload the weapon, but when he opened his eyes he saw not a cowering Jack against the shed door but the wide eyes of Averell just above him.

It took the slow mind of Averell a moment or so to realize exactly what had happened to him and that the sudden pain in his shoulder was Joe’s bullet.

Joe’s eyes dropped to the blood dripping over the horizontal black stripes of his shirt as if breaking through floors of a building. The white of Averell’s eyes seemed to bulge in the sockets as Joe returned to the others face, which as a whole had turned an awful ashen color. The gasping breaths that escaped Averell made Joe feel as though he would throw up, and his own breath grew very short as he watched Averell stumble and fall to his knees. Tears of pain and shock escaped his eyes before he collapsed on the ground at Joe’s feet.

Joe closed his eyes and swallowed hard, and then he opened them again to Averell still breathing terribly and moaning. Joe could not tell if Averell was fully conscious or not, but a whirl of déjà vu swam through Joe then as renewed images and pain of his own experience being shot strummed through him like a terrible chord.

Unable to stand this feeling of empathy, this feeling of downright guilt that he had never experienced before in his entire life Joe dropped to the ground himself onto his knees.

“Averell …?” he croaked.

The gun fell beside him and he clenched his fists.

Averell did not answer. Whether he could hear him at all, Joe could not be certain, for he made no indication that he could sense anything of the world around him. It frightened Joe all the more that Averell’s breathing became less harried and frantic as though consciousness truly was leaving him.

Joe clenched his fists harder still, and his teeth set so hard it hurt.

Caitlin had been the first to react. She did not know Averell. She did not understand the shock of the other three who had ever near considered Averell an immortal entity, a spirit or a sprite more than an actual human being and that something like this could not happen to him. Even Jack had not changed that long held thought as unconscious as it was in the inner hearts of the Daltons.

Thus with Caitlin not understanding this in the least, she ran to him. She had seen that he had been trying to stop the shooting. She knew enough about Averell to know that he was not to blame for any of this, and even if he had been, her tender heart could not stand the sight of the poor suffering person who no one else came to aid.

Next to wake were Jack and William.

Joe did not hear what they said. He barely saw what they did. No one spoke to Joe, but if they had Joe would not have known it. His eyes remained fixed on the closed eyes of Averell until they could no longer be seen. Where he had gone, Joe had barely been able to perceive, but he at last recognized that everyone had gone into the house including his youngest brother.

Not long after this Jack returned to release the dog from the shed. He hesitated and looked down at Joe first, but Joe had not moved. Although he had a vague perception that he was there Joe did not raise his eyes to Jack. The dog’s growls did nothing to shake him. Jack quietly took the dog away; though, he stopped once more to look back at the eldest Dalton brother.


Joe barely blinked.

After putting the dog in the barn where he would still be out of the way but would not harm himself on all the tools in the shed Jack went into the house.

Joe remained behind. A shiver went through him, and he closed his eyes trying to keep the gobbing tears from falling down his pale cheeks. He had no anger left. His mind had not yet escaped a state of shock. Biting his lip he stared at the bullet holes left in the shed door, and then he closed his eyes once more.

Aiden knew more about such wound tending than either Jack or Caitlin did, but he certainly was not pleased to hear that Jack’s brothers had returned. At Mr. O’Riley’s door, Caitlin started by explaining that the other Daltons had showed up, but before Caitlin could explain about Averell, Aiden demanded to know what had happened and if Jack had been hurt. And where was Tom (the baby), for Fiona (the daughter) had come along with Caitlin.

“They’re alright!” Caitlin exclaimed shuddering at the idea that anything bad might have happened to Tom or Jack. What had happened was bad enough, but Aiden had heard the gunshots, and once he knew of the Dalton Gang’s presence he knew at once that either something had to have been damaged or someone.

“It’s Averell,” said Caitlin.

“Averell?” Aiden demanded.

“Their tallest one,” said Caitlin. “The slower one.”

“Aye,” said Aiden. “I know who you’re speakin’ of, lass.”

His worry now that questions had been answered turned to anger. Yet he went nonetheless to the house of his son-in-law to do something about the situation.

Mrs. O’Riley barely had time to receive poor bewildered Fiona before Aiden departed with hat shoved onto his head and jacket completely forgotten. After a kiss to her daughter Caitlin hurried after her father on the horse which she rode there.

Aiden heard Tom first crying for his mother. Caitlin ran to him leaving Aiden to take in the scene of poor Jack trying his best to clean the wound in Averell’s shoulder with the help of William. Averell himself had settled down since he had been brought in. He still moaned a little, but he had become quite weak and consciousness was slipping again. Dripping with sweat and red with pain Averell’s face contorted again as alcohol was applied for a disinfectant on his wound.

At the sight of Aiden however William backed away as though a grizzly or an angry bison had just entered the house. Indeed the sight of Aiden’s angry face and huge shoulders raised behind his head would seem to an enemy a great fearsome animal ready for the kill.

William seemed to be trying to figure out how to get past the door to the outside without getting too near the bear.

“You miserable little worm,” growled Aiden snatching the squirming William by the scruff.

“Ak!” cried William.

He stood not a chance against Aiden; he was only a head taller than Joe. Trying to wriggle himself free he clutched at the foreign fists holding him by the collar.

“Why did you come here?” Aiden demanded.

“I didn’t want—” William tried to squeak out. “Lemme go!”

“Why did you come here?” Aiden said again, bringing him closer to his face after a firm shake.

“Please, don’t kill me,” William whimpered. “I didn’t even wanna be here. Honest! Please. I wanted to leave Jack alone. It was Joe’s idea! He was furious! When Joe’s mad—”

“I’M furious,” said Aiden. “But, aye! Joe may be mad, quite mad, I’ve no doubt! Before long he’ll’ve killed his whole family in his rage. But you’re no better! I’m sick and tired of you wretched Daltons!”

Another firm shake from Aiden, and William whimpered and struggled.

“Please! Lemme go,” begged William.

“Dad …”

Aiden turned to the voice of his daughter where she stood with her son in her arms still sobbing. As he turned to a rather dejected looking Jack he saw how he seemed to be silently pleading with Aiden to not hurt his brother. And the youngest of the Dalton brothers breathed heavily upon the bed that had been pulled away from the wall, and he moaned miserably and trying to clutch at his shoulder. Jack pulled his hand away.

With a heavy sigh Aiden put William, though a tad roughly, back onto the floor. Once on his feet William had to catch his balance to keep from stumbling backward. Clutching his neck he backed up to the side and plopped down onto a large trunk, his eyes still locked on Aiden even after Aiden’s gaze left for his daughter and son-in-law again.

“Jack,” he said calmly. “Where’s Joe?”

“Outside.” Then Jack hesitated. “You’re not going to … I mean he’s not dangerous at the moment. He’s just by the shed. I think he—”

Aiden left once more, and Caitlin and Jack hurried after him. The air had turned rather cool with the sun disappearing behind a veil of thick clouds.

Without a word Aiden went to go see Joe for himself, and he beheld the miserable wreck who only stared up at him desolately and looked away again. Aiden picked up the gun from the ground where Joe had dropped it. Joe did nothing to protest, and Aiden said nothing to Joe. There would be time to deal with him later.

Thus Aiden returned to the house to see in what condition Averell was in.

“Does he still have the bullet?” Aiden asked setting the gun on the table.

“Yes,” said Jack wringing his hands miserably. “We’ve been trying to keep the blood down, but I wasn’t sure if we should—”

“Move over,” said Aiden.

Jack did so instantly, allowing Aiden the full view and work-space he needed over Averell. One still had to wonder where the man had learned to deal with a bullet wound so well. Hesitating, Jack drew as close as he dared, and he brought to Aiden anything he asked for within seconds. When the bullet was removed and the wound properly cleaned and bandaged Aiden and Jack helped Averell, who was by now quite unconscious and sleeping deeply from the weakness brought on by loss of blood, under the covers after removing his shoes. Caitlin drew the covers back up over his body and took the shoes away along with his very bloody penitentiary shirt.

Then it was all over. They pushed the bed to the side a little bit, and they simply had to let Averell sleep.

“Will he be alright?” asked Jack.

“I think so,” said Aiden, “but we’ll have to wait and see. If it had been any further along his shoulder we might have had to bring him to a doctor for an amputation of his arm, and if it had been any further in it would have been even worse. With that in mind he’s proven again the luck of you Daltons. Will he be more patient and willing than his brother outside …? That is a question that will no doubt better determine the outcome of this.”

“The poor creature is like a child,” said Caitlin. “If we’re gentle I’m sure he’ll be willing to heal well.”

“Don’t let that trick you totally,” said Jack. “Averell can be plen’y stubborn when he wants to be, and he’s grown to be a Dalton just as much as the rest of us even with his, uh … stupidness.”

“No one’s like Joe Dalton, though,” murmured William darkly from his corner.

Aiden snorted. “Joe Dalton,” he grumbled. “He won’t be doing anymore damage today. I’ll get the authorities.”

William jumped.

“No, please, not yet,” said Jack suddenly in alarm. “Please not yet. If they come and take them away—! I mean—! Averell’s not well enough for that. Please don’t. Like you said, Joe won’t do anything now, and William’s not gunna do anything. Not yet.”

Aiden glowered at William a moment but said nothing more on the subject.

“Ma …” Averell moaned as he felt the wet cloth upon his head.

He felt simply awful and he could not for the moment understand why. The memory of the shot remained rather muddled in his half conscious mind, so that at first he did not know where he was or how he came to be lying in a comfortable bed with a roof over his head. He did know for certain only that none of his brothers placed the rag on his head, and a woman stood beside him full of concern. The only person he could think of who would have fit such a description would be his own mother, and the only house he would be cared for so nicely would be the one in which his mother lived.

“I don’t feel good, Ma …” Averell croaked clutching his stomach with shaky arms.

“Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh,” said the voice of Caitlin above him. “It’s alright, Averell. You’ll be all right. Just relax now.”

Averell lifted a painful eye and both went rolling in his head like a wounded dog’s in his surprise to see that the woman’s voice sounded quite unlike how he expected it to sound.

“Ma?” he asked.

“No, no. I’m Caitlin. Jack’s wife. You remember?”

Locking his vision as well as he could upon the woman above him, he looked somewhat disappointed for a moment that she was not his mother, but he smiled as a thought occurred to him: “My sister,” he said out loud. “My sister-in-law.”

In the glow of firelight behind her fiery red hair she almost looked like an angel. He might as well have still been in a dream, and Caitlin’s return smile was so gentle that all he could do was grin goofily before he closed his eyes again.

“I smell potatoes and carrots,” sighed Averell with a smile that only grew wider.

“I’m cooking them for supper,” said Caitlin. “Do you think you can manage much to eat, though?”

“He’s Averell,” muttered William. “He lives for food.”

Jack and Aiden were outside harvesting again, and Joe, to everyone’s knowledge, still remained in his spot by the shed. Only William, Caitlin, and the baby were with Averell now.

“I smell leftover chicken too …” sighed Averell even dreamier.

“For the stew,” said Caitlin nodding, and turning to William she said quite practical in her manner, “A little stew would probably be good for him anyway.”

“He’ll want the whole thing,” said William.

“Not his condition,” retorted Caitlin.

Averell meanwhile opened his eyes again and looked around the room with a slow and heavy head. His shoulder hurt if he lifted his neck up too high, but as he shifted his head right and then left he frowned. Memory came back into place and though he never could quite recall the impact of the bullet, he remembered then that Joe had been very angry, and that he, Averell, had been pretty upset himself. Joe had been shooting at Jack, something Ma would have hated to see, and Averell was glad she had not seen it. He did not hold it against Joe. Not really. What concerned Averell more at the moment was where Joe had gone to, and he soon voiced this concern.

“Where’s Joe?” he asked. “Where’s Jack too?” he added after a moment of thought. “They’re not still having a fight, are they?”

“No,” said Caitlin. “Jack’s working, and Joe’s … uh, Joe is …”

“Around,” William cut in. “He’s around, Averell. Just not here.”

“Oh …” said Averell. “Where’s Lucky Luke?”

“Wha—? He was never here,” said William.

“I know, but he never showed up. That’s not like Lucky Luke.”

“I guess Joe lost him better than we hoped he would,” said William with a shrug. “Are you … uh … feeling better, Averell?”

“I wish Ma was here,” Averell moaned.

“Do you want me to get you anything? Averell?” asked Caitlin.

“I wish Joe was here …”

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