The Near Apology of Joe Dalton
A storm seemed ready to happen but the rain never broke through the clouds. The chill air around Joe however might have caused him to expect snow more, but his own emotions so consumed him that the weather could not penetrate his consciousness more than to realize that he had a shiver now and again that would run up his spine.
Joe did not hear the voice the first time so that when he heard it the second it sounded impatient. A roll of deadened anger shook through him like a rumble of thunder a horizon away. Eyes closed and the rumbles receded. A dull ache remained, and he looked up to see Jack’s feet as they approached him from the front. With a heavy sigh he craned his neck up to see Jack’s face from where he knelt in the grass before the shed.
“It’s gunna be cold out here.”
“Averell’s … uh … he wants to know where you are.”
“Of course he does,” said Joe in a rather automatic sort of voice.
Jack shuffled a little.
“I’m not coming in with you,” said Joe.
His shoulders slumped a little but otherwise Jack seemed to have expected the answer. He had a blanket with him, and he gave it to Joe. Joe snatched it away rather rudely and muttered something about taking care of himself, but he threw it over his shoulders nonetheless.
Although it did not rain or snow that night, the air became quite cold once the cloud-veiled sun disappeared and a clear starry night took over. Once or twice Jack woke to the howling of the wind outside from where he slept on the floor on a makeshift mat. Averell snored and William muttered something in a corner on a chair where he had fallen asleep. The thought of Joe outside by himself troubled Jack a little. He knew he should be upset with him, furious even, but all he felt for him was a wish that he had decided to be inside too. Jack closed his eyes and after a little while he slept again.
In the morning he saw that Joe was no longer near the shed, nor was he in the shed. There seemed to be no evidence that Joe remained on the premises except that the horse had not been stolen—no, not even a scrap of food or a weapon. Averell and William were here with Jack at the moment. Joe would not leave his gang whether or not they were his brothers too. He couldn’t be a gang with just one member.
Averell seemed to be getting better at a steady rate even if that rate proved rather slow. At least he ate and drank and rested. The thought of Joe did not stray far from his mind, however, and he asked for him several times a day. And one morning he said to Jack, “I heard Joe last night.” He seemed very pleased about it.
“Did he … come in here?” asked Jack raising a brow and squinting another.
“No, but it was Joe alright,” said Averell as if he thought Jack did not believe him. “He was upset about something. You remember that, right, Jack? He gets upset and gets all red and yells and his teeth get really sharp and his eyes get all yellow and swirly, and he hurts you with his—”
“Yes!” snapped Jack despite himself. Then he sighed. “I remember.”
“Poor, Joe,” said Averell. “He must want to keep getting that loot up to Duluth.” He paused. “Oh. Wait. I don’t think I was supposed to tell you that.”
He glanced over at William who had not yet woken up in his chair; Jack followed Averell’s gaze a moment, but Jack did not see any loot on either William or Averell nor could he recall any loot on Joe. It must have been hidden somewhere, but Jack was more interested at the moment in the fact that he had woken to his dog barking late that night. He had seen nothing when he had gone out to check, but it had probably been Joe that had made the creature so upset.
With a sigh, Jack left the house for the barn to feed the animals, and it was here that he saw what had happened. A broken stool had apparently been thrown against the door. A few milk buckets were strewn about, and hay had been thrashed through as if a dance of madness had taken place in the center of the barn.
After a moment or two of taking in the scene including the broken gate of one of the cows, Jack wondered why he had not heard complaints from the horse or the cows.
“Joe?” Jack called stepping carefully inside, and he closed the barn door behind him. “Are you in here, Joe?”
There was no answer, and Jack went to work on milking the cows and feeding them and the other animals. Joe did not make a sound if he was still in the barn. Some of the animal feed was missing, and Jack felt certain Joe must have been taking some to eat …
An egg and a slice of meat and cornbread: a good meal, this Jack set on a plate on a mended stool.
“Are you hungry, Joe?”
“Hrmph!” Joe growled although he could not be seen.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief. At last. Joe spoke. It had been nearly a week now. But perhaps as Joe had been unable to keep his presence secret he did not feel the need to keep himself from speaking, a very difficult thing for Joe to do, especially for days at a time.
“You can still come inside,” said Jack peering in the direction of the piles of hay in the loft where it sounded like Joe was lurking.
Indeed he heard now Joe rustling his hay bed as if to make himself more comfortable. Jack could picture him with his hands behind his head.
“Averell’s still looking for you.”
“He’s still alive?” growled Joe. He growled, but Jack could hear the worry in his voice.
“Yes. He’s still really hurt and sick, but he’s healing good. He’s alright, Joe. Really. … Joe?”
After a short pause Jack took a crate and used this for his stool as he milked the cows in silence for a time. The hay rustled in the loft from time to time. When Jack had almost finished with the milking he stopped suddenly and heard a choke and a sniffle. He looked up at the loft. Joe was crying. As tough, mean, and angry as Joe was, he was also the one who cried the most often, but Jack never liked when he did and it usually was for the strangest reasons. Was he really crying about Averell this time? Or was it something else that Jack could not think of.
Swallowing hard on his dry throat, Jack stood and looked up at the loft. He almost said his name, but he bit his tongue back. Whether or not speaking to Joe would only make things worse, Jack could not be certain, and to be on the safe side he supposed he should be silent unless he thought of something worthwhile to say.
Joe growled out unintelligible things drowning in chokes and sobs. Then just as Jack touched the ladder to the loft, Joe went silent again. Maybe he had remembered Jack’s presence, or maybe he just come to a stop. Hesitating a little, Jack took the ladder nonetheless. He climbed up a few creaky steps before Joe said, “Oh, go away!”
Jack nearly lost his balance, but catching it and regaining his grip he did not go back down.
“All I’ve ever done my whole life is try to live up to the Dalton expectations,” said Joe. “Make the name Dalton the most infamous, the most feared, the most dreaded name in America. The whole world! To make Dad proud. Who made it great? Me! Not William. Not you. Not Averell. Just me! And then you — you — you — Drrr!” He choked again and then said, “Are you sure Averell’s alright, Jack?”
He did not sound well at all. In fact he sounded downright sick. His voice was strained and his breath gasping. Had he rested at all since Averell had been shot? Had he really eaten nothing all week but a few scraps of animal feed? Certainly Joe had lived on little food, rest, and even water in the past to escape from the penitentiary or to plan some demise for Lucky Luke, but not in such a miserable state as this.
“He’s much better,” said Jack at last.
“But is he ALRIGHT?” Joe demanded.
“Yes. Yes, he’s alright,” said Jack. “Or at least as well as can be expected. He’s better than you were when you … uh …”
“Oh, shut up.”
Jack began to climb upwards again.
“Leave me alone,” said Joe darkly. “I don’t wanna hear any, ‘Calm down Joe’s’ from you, or any ‘But Joe, this’ or ‘But Joe, that’. I could’ve killed you, y’know. I could’ve killed … Averell! I’m the most feared bandit in the West, and you don’t know if I got a gun or not.”
Jack descended the ladder and left Joe alone without another word, but he doubted that Joe had a gun on him. The only guns around were accounted for, and Joe had certainly not gone much further than the barn. Nevertheless he let him be and did not return until evening when he saw that the food had been eaten. He gave Joe some more and left again. Once more in the morning he gave him some breakfast after he had eaten his own.
The end of the harvest would come today and just in time before winter would set in. The nights were already beginning to frost, and this was what Joe came to when he emerged from the barn that morning after Jack had gone.
Dawn had barely broken and everything from the barn doors to the shed roof to every blade of grass had been stroked with a feathery ice brush. The frosty blades and fallen leaves crunched beneath Joe’s shoes as he made his way across the grounds. He reached the house and peered inside where Caitlin was picking breakfast plates up and helping the baby while William seemed to be trying to assist Averell with a glass of milk. Fiona, the daughter, had returned home by now too, and he looked down at the girl watching her mother move from place to place and then looking at Joe’s brothers with a childish puckered brow.
The foreign thing called a little girl, Joe had never had any experience with. He could not help but linger on her a moment, but he found no joy in the sight of her, only curiosity and disgust before he followed her gaze to Averell again. His heart swelled achingly as Averell struggled to drink his milk with such difficulty and such painful effort.
Joe tried to banish the feeling. He hated any feeling that was not gratifying to his image as the heartless outlaw he was meant to be. Yet somehow that importance he usually gave to his reputation, of which he was most proud of more than anything in the world, diminished a little as he continued to watch Averell. He glowered as Averell dropped again into his pillow with an, “Ouch!” when William accidentally let his head slip. Though, his annoyance with William did not last long.
Withdrawing from the window he wrapped his hands around his back and paced back and forth a few times with great uncertainty. He had thought about going inside, but now that he was here he was not sure he wanted to anymore. He did not want to talk to anyone but Averell, and even then he did not want to say much. The act of the others looking at him caused a shiver of anger at the thought. Yet after a few more moments he stopped again, staring this time at the door. Crossing his arms as he studied the knob, he stepped forward and took it without knocking, and walked right inside the house.
Caitlin and William looked up in surprise to see Joe coming in as if he owned the place. Fiona seemed to have frozen to her spot like one of the blades of grass outside. Joe glanced idly at her, The little girl ran away behind her mother, and her mother with a frown seemed about to demand what Joe thought he was doing, but she knew what he was doing well enough. Neither William nor Caitlin could think of anything to say as Joe took a chair and pulled it up alongside Averell’s bed. William moved out of the way for Joe, and Joe climbed onto his chair.
Hands clasped together then, he looked down at the one in the bed. Averell seemed to be in the process of falling asleep again, and he did not seem to notice Joe above him.
“Av …” Joe started to say but changed his mind with a shake of his head as he turned away.
He felt about ready to leave his chair, but Averell recognized the voice which phrased that one syllable, and he recognized it instantly as the voice belonging to his oldest brother.
“Joe?” asked Averell in surprise.
With a start Joe spun back around.
“I’m glad you decided to come in instead of living in the barn, Joe,” said Averell in his usual dopey manner.
Joe frowned, but he did not get angry. He knelt down in his chair, his feet dangling out over the side, and he shook his head at Averell’s toothy grin.
“So,” said Joe and after a pause added, “You’re feeling better then?”
Averell nodded. “Oh, much better, especially now that you came in, Joe.”
“You know I’m the one who shot you, right?” said Joe crossing his arms.
“Yeah, I know,” said Averell, “but I know you didn’t do it on purpose. You would never shoot any of us on purpose. I KNOW that.”
Sinking a little into his shoulders and arms crossing tighter, Joe began to take on a sullen face as he glowered into the covers of Averell’s bed. Uncrossing his arms he held instead the edge of the seat on side with one hand and the edge of the chair back with the other.
“But,” Averell went on in a way that seemed to be meant as sage and earnest but just looked rather silly. “You know Ma wouldn’t’ve liked it.”
“Ma wouldn’t like any of this,” muttered Joe, temper rising again, but he did not feel the energy for blasting off like a Chinese firework at the moment.
“She would like that you were worried about me,” said Averell happily. “But she mostly wouldn’t like how you lied to her. She’s probably already sad cuz we don’t visit her no more.”
Joe rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, just shut up.”
Averell’s smiled vanished and he nodded vigorously and closed his eyes as if he meant to fall asleep. Yet Joe, without the eyes of Averell upon him, felt a queer sweep of emotion fly up through his body. To fight it proved in vain. With a sniffle and a choke he threw out his arms and hugged his brother as tightly as he could around the middle, and he imparted all the straw pieces on his front onto Averell’s blanket. Most of the tears he managed to keep back, but some squeezed out just the same and fell in gobs as they dripped down and rolled off his nose onto the blanket.
To his great surprise at seeing this most unusual display of fiery Joe, Averell at first did not know what to do after a good jump and a wince from his throbbing shoulder which had not been too pleased with Averell’s jump. It did not seem right that Joe should be this way. It was unnerving, unnatural, and almost uncanny like a plate without food before it could be eaten. Except unlike an empty plate he could not exactly say he disliked it really either, but then he had been longing to see Joe.
Although he felt a little like pushing Joe away for showing way too much affection for what Averell felt to be the health of Joe’s character, Averell decided that he had missed Joe too much to care. Besides he also saw for the first time how very tired Joe looked. How deep the bags under his eyes had become! How much straw and dust stuck out of his hair, how hard Joe clenched his teeth and how tightly he held Averell’s middle.
“Uh,” said Averell with uncertainty, fingers fidgeting in the air a little. “Are you okay, Joe?”
No answer. So with a shrug, Averell decided that he would hug Joe back.
Joe could feel his approach and backed away into his chair again before Averell could grab him. Sitting up with back against the chair he took up a standard posture for such sitting save for that his feet only just reached over the side of the chair.
Averell looked disappointed, but he said nothing either as he slumped back into his pillow with obvious annoyance. He knew saying anything about it to Joe would just annoy Joe.
So they remained in silence; though neither one’s discomfort lasted long. They seemed quite content for a time to be with each other in silence.
Caitlin and William looked at each other. Two completely different minds they may have possessed but at that particular moment they agreed quite well together that Joe and Averell could be left alone and that there need not be anything said about it.
In fact in leaving the pair so entirely to themselves, it seemed that both brothers’ weariness showed through as Averell with a smile went back to sleep, and Joe, after leaning against the bed with head held by slumping arms, fell asleep on Averell’s side.
Averell woke up and looked down. With a pleasantly sleepy smile, he lifted his heavy eyes up at William as if to say, “Everything will turn out now.” Then reaching his hand over, he patted the black bird’s nest on Joe’s unconscious head before he too went back to sleep, and there they both slept for some time.
And, thought William later, it was as good of an apology as Joe can give, I think. It was almost kinda scary … but then everything Joe does is kinda scary.