After the River

The Daltons, Storm Bound and Determined

“Do you actually like this stuff, Jack?” asked William who was placing a feed sack back into place rather roughly.

With Joe now staying with Averell (whether he was helping was debatable) William had to work with Jack. Although it made Jack a little uncomfortable leaving Joe alone with Caitlin and his children he did not think Joe would do anything now with his mind so fixed on Averell’s quick recovery. Anyway he did like some help with chores. The reaping was finished but today after taking care of the animals the wheat and corn kernels had to be separated from the stalks. The corn then had to be put in the silo for the animals, the wheat and potatoes packed to be sold or saved for the winter for the family’s own consumption, and William to say the least, did not look forward to any of this with much relish.

At least William had not been asked to clean the stalls, but it can be supposed that Jack decided that William would have refused anyway. He was annoyed enough with the feeding of the animals and the brushing of the horses; how much more would he despise the cleaning of their waste.

After William’s question Jack frowned. William had not said much since they woke up that morning. He had been half asleep and spoke little more than a grumble while the feeding process took place. Only now did he seem to have woken up, and he had not even been around for milking.

Jack determined to say nothing in response to William. He shoveled deep and with some annoyance into a pile of crap, but otherwise he did not give any indication that he had heard William at all.

“This is worse than penitentiary work,” William said. “At least at the penitentiary they don’t make us go to work ‘till six thirty and most of the time they didn’t enforce it ‘till seven to let us finish our food.”

“If you like creamed corn with the consistency of cement,” grumbled Jack. “Or left over tomato soup that burns a hole through your gut. Or, the usual porridge the consistency of baby erp and smells worse sometimes too.”

“Isn’t that gruel?” said William.

“Yeah. And how ‘bout that disgusting egg mess of slop that the cook would sometimes make when he felt like being creative, and we were supposed to consider it a lucky treat? I don’t think it had a single egg in it. I think it was just a bunch of corn juice, tomato soup broth and porridge all mixed together and made into a jelly thing. The best we could ever hope for to eat there was when they just gave us bread and water. I don’t miss any of that, and I don’t miss pounding away at rocks for no reason, or staying up all night digging tunnels.”

William paused a moment, arching his back a little in the usual catlike fashion of the Dalton brothers. He then shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked a large splinter left over from when Joe smashed the stool.

“Well, when we were outa prison we never had to work hard for our food. If Lucky Luke wasn’t around we got to eat at the best saloons in the West.”

Except when Joe was too busy to allow us to stop and eat, thought Jack.

Silence took control again as Jack continued to work without response, but looking at him one could see his annoyance growing as much as he tried not to.

“Besides …” said William at last. “You choose to work here. We don’t want to stay at the penitentiary. I’m just sayin’ that even the penitentiary is better than cleaning up poop every day and slaving away in this wet, steamy place in the summer and freezing in the winter with no hope of escape … I don’t want to separate grains.”

“Then don’t!” snapped Jack. “You stay with Averell, and Caitlin will help.”

“You trust us all alone together?” asked William.

“If we want enough food and wood and enough money for supplies over winter with the extra people, we all have to help,” said Jack practically.

“I don’t think we’re staying the winter,” said William after a pause. “Joe seems fixed on going as soon as possible.”

Jack did not answer yet again and merely worked.

After a shrug William grabbed a brush and went to work grooming the horse.

“Do you have more of that soup!?” Joe called to Caitlin. “Soup makes people healthy faster. He needs more soup.”

Averell lit up instantly at the idea, and he beamed as the bowl was brought to him by Joe’s hands!

“Wow!” he said after a bite. “This is the first time you actually wanted me to eat more, Joe!”

“Don’t wave that arm around, Averell!” snapped Joe. “It’ll make the healing go slower.”

Averell laughed a little. “You’re sounding more like Ma all the time.”

“I mean it.”

Joe already lost his earlier sensitivity, and although he was still far gentler to Averell than he used to be, he had regained most of his vigor. He wanted only for Averell to get well, and he always found time to be on the lookout for Mr. O’Riley and most-likely Lucky Luke as well through the windows and sometimes outside. In between these rounds he would be hanging around Averell mostly making sure progress marched forward on his brother’s shoulder. He wanted to leave before anyone would come to stop him.

Summer wanted to try one last time with grabbing fingers to plant itself in instead of giving way to winter. The air had become warmish again. Certainly not summery, but the frost of the night melted fast, and the sun shone with comfort. Of course it was false this far into the year. Summer was only fooling itself despite the fallen leaves and the sun which set sooner and sooner. However, it seemed to be doing a very good job at fooling Joe who began to think that a Wisconsin winter could be nothing like winter across the U.S. border where he and his brothers had faced the season’s harshest cold.

“We’ll still have time to get to Duluth if he gets well in a week or so,” said Joe to William one day when no one else could overhear.

November had just begun two days before, and Averell had been healing there for nearly four weeks. He could walk about the little house with no problem at all, but any strain to his shoulder proved detrimental for hours after the fact. William looked at the tallest Dalton now and by the look on his face William did not share Joe’s enthusiasm for the idea that Averell would be in real hiking or even horse-back riding condition even if they had until Christmas.

Yet William did not bother voicing such an opinion. Returning to Joe he nodded in agreement, a very weak nod.

Not long after speaking with Joe William found himself muttering to Jack, “Averell would probably be better off if he just stayed here.”

Jack was taken aback by such a remark, and at first he could find nothing to say. After a moment or so of shuffling feet and studying a nail in the wall, he turned to William and shook his head, “Averell would never stay here.”

William shrugged. “Only if Joe stays.”

“Which I know he won’t, and,” said Jack. “… I kinda don’t want Joe to stay.”

“He’d make a mess of things for you,” agreed William in a rather careless manner.

“Okay!” whispered Joe clasping his hands together with William just behind him. “Tomorrow early we leave.”

“What about Averell?”

“What about Averell?” Joe snapped. “He went hunting with Jack yesterday and that’s good enough for me. He’s well. He’s going. And we’re only going to Duluth. It can’t be that far away. We’ve gone clear from Santa Fe to San Francisco before without mounts the whole way. Hey! We went all the way from Texas to Wisconsin just this spring and early summer. Distances don’t hinder a Dalton!” He sniffed.

William looked about to argue, but with a shrug he said, “You’re the boss, Joe.”

“Of course I’m the boss!” Joe retorted. “At least someone’s remembering, and I found where they’re hiding my gun, so now this is the end of it.”

He displayed the weapon hiding beneath his new jacket against the autumn wind, and he smiled.

And with that he made for the house leaving William still frowning with uncertainty near the cluster of trees where they had been talking. Somehow he did not feel as hungry for supper as he thought he would be, but he would come to regret his decision of not eating much supper the next morning when Joe left before they had a chance to have breakfast.

Luckily for Joe, Averell was still half asleep when he urged him to leave. He did not start complaining about food until they were miles down the road toward Duluth, yet no one could complain long before the snow began to fall.

“It’s just a little snow,” muttered Joe. “It’s not like it’s a blizzard yet or anything.”

“I hate snow …” grumbled William anyway. “I’ve seen enough of it to last a life time already.”

“Aw, quit griping,” Joe snapped. “The sooner we get to the Duluth the sooner we forget all our past troubles, right Averell?”

“Right, Joe …” he did not sound so sure either, and when Joe looked at him, he noticed that Averell’s steps dragged along the ground wearily and his face had absolutely no enthusiasm.

Joe frowned, but as he returned to the front he commanded to the pair behind him, “Keep up!”

They had brought some food with them and the streams had not quite frozen over yet, so that they could drink, but Averell was slowing down more and more as the snow grew higher and the wind brisker.

Often Joe had to turn round and drag Averell forward, and William began to feel more uneasy than ever about the situation. He did not want to say anything, but he knew it would have been better for Averell if they had stayed at Jack’s house over the winter. Averell was not acting his usual peppy self, nor in one of his grumpy sulky moods about leaving Jack behind, for he mentioned nothing of Jack or his “sister”.

“I wish we were back at the penitentiary.” Averell moaned. “I want the soup specialty, and the walls in the yard, and Rantanplan. I wish we were in our little cell.”

William sighed. At least when Averell started talking he sounded a little more like himself.

“Shut up, Averell,” said Joe. “We’re never going to the penitentiary again.”

“Never again?” Averell said shuddering against a blast of snowy wind.

Never again!” growled Joe.

“But, Joe!” Tears began to fall down Averell’s face, but Joe did not see them. Then Averell began to sob. “I want to go home!”

Averell!” snapped Joe. “Stop acting like a baby!” He spun around and made to smack him, but William held him back.

“Calm down, Joe!” he cried. “Not now! That won’t help! He just doesn’t feel well, I think. Let’s just rest!”

Joe yanked out of William’s grasp, and leered at the cringing Averell before him. Lifting his head warily Averell made himself more ready to hit than he already looked to Joe, but turning around Joe resisted for now. Again he gave the order to keep up, but they did not go for long before they resigned themselves to a break.

Those breaks were too frequent.

“We’ll never get there at this rate,” Joe growled. “And we’re running out of food no thanks to you.”

Averell shrugged.

“Your appetite hasn’t changed,” said Joe with a sniff.

Averell’s mouth was full of snow and brush.

They slept in a barn that night and left early in the morning with Averell moaning.

“I’m tired, Joe, and it’s cold outside!” whined Averell grumpily trying to get himself comfortable again in the hay. “You go outside.”

“I don’t care if it’s fifty below!” snapped Joe. “We’re leaving!”

And they did. They did not get the chance to steal any horses. Joe was in much too big of a hurry.

“The bridge can’t be far now,” Joe kept saying out loud to himself.

But he would not have liked it fifty below. It was barely ten below and Joe was having trouble facing the wind stinging like a river of needles against his exposed face. The wind chill was high enough. Trying to ignore his quaking limbs, and the numbness in his face, he pressed onward for some time. William and Averell stayed close behind even if only to have the wind blocked on the lower half of their bodies one behind the other.

“The bridge can’t be far now,” Joe said yet again through chattering teeth. He blinked away the water forming at the edges of his eyes from the chill, and the chill seemed to freeze the tears to ice as they blew off his face and into his hood. “We’re almost there.”

“Joe!” gasped William.

Joe growled impatiently and stopping heavily in the snow, he spun around and glared at William.


William pointed, and Joe could see Averell on his knees in the snow looking quite miserable.

“Oh, great!” snapped Joe as he marched back for Averell yet again.

When he got to Averell, however he did not look miserable so much as exhausted as he panted with tongue lolling out like a dog’s.

“Averell!” Joe growled. “What’s going on!?”

“I’m tired, Joe!” snapped Averell back. “I’m tired, and I can’t walk anymore! And I’m hungry! I want to go to sleep! And my arm hurts!”

“I don’t care if your arm hurts,” Joe retorted. “Get on your feet or I’ll—”

“But, Joe!” cried William.

“WHAT!” Joe shrieked.

“If his arm hurts it’s cuz of his bullet wound!”

“I know what he’s complaining about!” snarled Joe. “I ignored it! So can he!”

“But Lucky Luke had to drag you back sick again when we escaped from him on the way back to the penitentiary. You almost came down with heat stroke cuz you weren’t well enough to be running around like that.”

“Don’t talk about Lucky Luke!” growled Joe shoving William away.

“But what about Averell?” William cried.

“What about Averell?”

“We have to stop and let him rest,” said William. “Or he might just collapse. We should have just stayed at Jack’s house. At least it was warm there and there was plenty to eat.”

Averell fidgeted a little. “Yes, Joe, we should eat.”

“There’s nothing to eat!” Joe growled.

“Ah, no, Joe,” said Averell smiling helpfully. “There’s snow and shrubs and plenty to make something to eat with. The only thing that would be missing would be the roast.” He sighed. “Too bad we can’t just cook it on the fire from that place where that smoke is coming from over those trees.”

William and Joe’s eyes widened.

“Smoke?” asked William as both he and Joe followed Averell’s finger.

“There!” gasped Joe.

“Should we go and see?” asked Averell.

Wrinkling his nose a moment, Joe stared at Averell at eye level on Averell’s knees.

“No!” retorted Joe. “You and William will stay here. There’s only one gun between us and I’ll be the one to use it. I’m tired of everyone getting in my way. I’m doing this all by myself!” He cocked his weapon as he pulled it out from beneath his coat.

“Well,” grumbled Averell crossing his arms. “We’re not in your way, Joe.”

“Good!” said Joe smiling as he glanced at his remaining brothers. “I’ll be back in a minute. Hopefully with food.”

“What if they don’t know you’re a Dalton here?” asked William. “And what if there’s a lot of them and it would only be you.”

“They may not know the Daltons by sight, but even Canada knows the name of ‘Dalton’,” said Joe. “Wisconsin will know it too, and if they don’t they’ll soon learn.”

“But I thought we weren’t going to tell anyone up here that we’re the Dalton Gang,” said William.

“I’m confused,” said Averell. “What’s the plan again?”

Without paying them the least bit attention any longer, Joe made his way toward the smoke coming from behind the trees. He glanced at his foot prints to make certain he could find his way back to his brothers, but after that he had no concerns. Like a rat along a wall he wound his way against the shelter of pines until he saw the source of the smoke, which happened to be a little chimney from a small cabin.

“Ah! Perfect!” he told himself.

It looked rather charming amid the fresh glistening snow, but more than that Joe could smell something cooking in that smoke. His stomach growled, and with full determination he made for the door not bothering even to look in the window first. With full strength he threw the door open and at the top of his lungs he shouted: “EVERYTHING YOU OWN!”

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