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After the River

By Fiona_Fargazer

Drama / Humor

The Death of Joe Dalton

Inside were only a woman and a girl of about eight years old. The man of the house was missing, and the girl shrieked at the intruder’s appearance. Joe sneered with satisfaction, and he allowed himself to savor his vile pleasure for a moment as he watched the shivering pair Then he shot a hole through their floor to show he meant business. He deserved this after all this time of misery since he found Jack in that stupid little house with his stupid little life and measly little children.

Joe sniggered as he followed the woman’s gaze to the other side of the little house where rest a rifle that she could never hope to get to without the risk of Joe’s gunfire.

“There’s no use fighting,” he hissed. “You’re completely surrounded by the rest of the gang just outside! I want food. Supplies. Money. Now!” And he growled a good, mean coyote growl.

The girl began to cry. The woman gave Joe what he wanted.

Soon there was a pile of valuables and food at Joe’s feet. He knew he had to hurry, because by the way the woman tried to stall he knew that the man of the house was probably not too far away. It was not of course that he was afraid that the man would stop him. Hardly. No one stopped Joe Dalton, but he did not feel like dealing with any sort of resistance from someone who did not know his reputation yet.

His greedy hands reached for the watch and the piddling amount of money. He made to swipe them off the ground, but he found himself snatching the loaf of bread first.

Then he tried to pick up the valuables again. He leaned over, but just as his hands opened to take them he couldn’t. He growled and shoving the bread under his arm, he lifted his gun again and cocked it at the pair. Then it faltered again as his eyes stared deep into the valuables at his feet. They were right there! All he had to do was grab them! It was so easy! It was fox in a chicken coop. It was taking candy from a baby.

He tried once more, clenching his teeth and sweating. His whole body burned red as he reached down with determination and grit.

He couldn’t.

It was stupid, cliche even, but Joe for the first time in his life could not take the money. He could not take the watch, or the heirloom necklace.

He bit his lip and swallowed hard as though he was a little boy pick-pocketing a rich gentleman for the first time rather than a poor wife and a little girl and he a quite seasoned bandit.

“Well, we gave you want you wanted,” said the woman with the girl now in her arms.

A shiver of rage went through Joe as he ordered her to shut up at the top of his lungs, spittle escaping onto the floor. Wiping his mouth on his coat sleeve he then took up the loaf of bread and marched out the door, but he stopped dead two feet out.

He felt ill, queasy, almost as if he might vomit. Never in his life had he felt this way during a robbery. Tingling thrill at times perhaps, burning sadistic pleasure, always, but this time … Prickling needles fastened into his stomach like a thorny vine squeezing it. The prickling feeling rose to the top of his head and even penetrated to his burning, blazing coal of a heart. Its solid walls had been damaged a little already by the shot he had given Averell, and had been cooled just a little by its after affects, but this …

With a painful gulp like swallowing too much to drink at once time, he spun around clutching the bread hard in his arms, but even this he could not take. He threw it with all his might back into the house and with a loud growl he yelled, “Keep it!”

And he spun away from the sight of the wide eyes of confusion and uncertainty from the woman and the girl.

“JACK!” he snarled, and with eyes rabidly spinning he stormed away; a blaze followed that melted snow behind him.

Averell and William stood up in alarm as they saw Joe running back.

“What happened?” asked William. “What’s wrong?”

Shut up! Let’s just go!”

“But, Joe, you’re going the wrong way!” Averell called as Joe passed them by back the way from which they had come.

Joe did not listen, and after a few moments of looking at each other with their own uncertainty, William and Averell decided they had no choice but to try to catch up with him. The wind, at least, blew at their backs this way, which made it a little easier. When at last they caught up with Joe they collapsed exhausted just behind him.

Not appearing to see them, Joe scanned ahead with a hand over his eyes, although the sun already had a shield of clouds to keep everything from being too bright.

“My arm hurts again,” Averell moaned massaging his shoulder tenderly.

Joe grumbled something inaudible, but they did rest a while before they continued. They might have rested longer had William not been pestering him so much about why they were suddenly going back.

“Didn’t you want to go back to where it was warm and with lots of food?!” hissed Joe waving his gun toward William’s stomach before he jabbed the weapon into William’s coat.

“Yes,” said Averell brightly as William backed away from the gun, afraid that he might actually use it after what had happened before with Jack and Averell; Averell did not notice any of this however in his joy. “Are we gunna go back to the penitentiary, Joe? It’s really warm there, Joe, and it has all the tomato soup you can eat!”

Joe growled and began to walk again, but at a slower, easier pace this time, so that they all could keep up with one another.

“We’re going back to Jack’s house?” asked William.

“Yes, we’re going back to Jack’s house, idiot,” said Joe.

“But, Joe, I thought you said you hated Jack’s house,” said Averell. “And Jack and Caitlin and Fiona and Tom and especially Mr. O’Riley who lives down the road.”

“I have unfinished business with Jack,” returned Joe, eyes ahead of him, and those amber-lit orbs would not deter from their purpose.

A slow glower appeared on William’s face and a small pout formed on his lips. “But what about that smoke, Joe? What about the food there? Wasn’t there any? Did they have any money?”

Joe stopped. “SHUT UP!” he yelled and started walking again. “Don’t ever mention that smoke to me again as long as I live.”

“What about other smoke?” asked Averell scratching his head.

Rolling his eyes William muttered, “Averell, shut up.”

That night they slept in a barn and the next morning; though William suggested they take the horses to get back more quickly, Joe, to both William and Averell’s surprise, refused. There would be no horse stealing for two reasons. One: they were laying low and two: Jack would not let them return if they had stolen horses in their possession.

“William,” whispered Averell, “I’m startin’ to get kinda scared of Joe.”

“Kinda?” muttered William.

William had a bad feeling that Joe had something awful planned for Jack. All attempt to get anything out of Joe about what had happened between leaving for the smoke and his infuriated return proved futile, and soon enough it became dangerous for one’s health. Any attempt of William’s to try to put the pieces together himself in his own mind ended in complete failure. The only clue he had was the sound of gun fire, but that could have meant anything. Had someone been killed? Had Lucky Luke been there?

William had to shudder at that, and he glanced around to see if that so familiar lone figure could be seen, but there were far too many trees and far too many cliffs. It appeared that where Jack had set up his farm was possibly the furthest up north someone could dare to grow anything. This was all game and logging country up here, and one could not see far behind or in front as in farmland and certainly not the empty wastelands and naked plateaus Out West.

At least the wind had stopped. Traveling was much easier today than yesterday so far, but the clouds had not given way to sunshine. It could begin to snow at any time again, and the air was heavy and very cold when they stopped walking even for a few moments. Each hot breath plumed a great white cloud, and Joe’s breath plumed the most with his heavy angry panting so that at time his head completely disappeared in it.

Then there was the familiar bend in the road, which had suddenly become broader and more civilized-looking.

“We’re almost there!” cheered Averell, and he laughed pleasantly.

Joe certainly shared the enthusiasm, but not the happiness of it. Averell had hardly finished speaking before Joe bolted down the road ahead of William and Averell for whom he had no longer an obligation to wait for. When Averell had finished laughing and stopped to look down at Joe, he found only a bemused and deeply concerned William standing motionless beside him.

“Joe?” asked Averell.

“Come on,” said William waving for Averell to follow.

It was amazing how hard Joe could push his small body. Although completely exhausted himself and with every step unsteady, he still did not lessen his pace until he reached the door of the barn where he guessed Jack would be. He could barely breathe he was so out of breath, and yet as he kicked open the doors he still had strength left to scream, “JACK!”

Hair on end, Jack sprang upright and spun around.

“Joe.” He clenched his teeth.

A haggard version of him, though the blazing rage in his eyes was nothing too unusual. He marched into the barn throwing the doors closed behind him just for an excuse to slam something.

“What are you doing back?” Jack squeaked.

“It’s your fault!” snarled Joe; he fired a shot upward causing the animals to cry out in panic. “It’s all your fault! Look what you’ve done to me!” He thrust his hands upon his chest in earnest.

“I didn’t do anything to you,” Jack protested.

“Yes, you DID! Don’t deny it! I tried! I really tried! I had it all at my feet, and I could have taken it! Sure, it wasn’t much, but we were starving, Jack! I couldn’t even take a loaf of BREAD! You …” He had to take a break to breathe a bit in heavy wheezing that made him look as if he might faint. “You …” He swallowed hard on his dry throat and panted a little more. “You gave me guilt! I … you …” He panted for a while yet again, and then he violently shook his head. “Oh, forget it! This is stupid,” he growled and kicking the doors open again he marched angrily away leaving a wide-eyed Jack to drop his jaw without being witnessed.

Yet as Jack slowly recovered from the experience he noticed that Joe had thrown his gun in the doorway.

William noticed this too as he approached the barn, but as he tried to open his mouth to speak Joe simply gave him a great shove so that he fell backwards into the snow. He was not at all hurt, of course, and as he stood up again, he watched Joe leave across the empty fields of Jack’s land out toward the woodland.

Something fell on William’s nose and after blinking in surprise he looked to find that snow had again begun to fall in gentle but tiny cold flakes. He turned around to the barn and bit his lip as Jack appeared lifting up Joe’s gun.

“You gotta go after him,” said William.

“Why me?” Jack demanded.

“Because he won’t listen to me and this is between you and him,” said William. “I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to do now, but he’s so mad he won’t care about the cold until he freezes to death.”

“He’ll probably just find his way into my barn again,” grumbled Jack, but William was right about the fact that this had to end, and somehow he knew it had to end now. He paused and thought a moment or two first however. “Where’s Averell?”

William looked around. “I think he went for the house.”

At that very moment in fact Caitlin had just opened the door for him, and after a neighborly “Howdya do, ma’am” and Caitlin inviting him in it did not take long for Averell to curl up in front of the fire right on the floor. He was asleep before Caitlin could ask where the others were, and she left him there because of the gunfire earlier, which she now knew to have come from Joe whether or not Averell could answer. She ran out to see for herself. The last thing to be said of the scene is that Fiona, who had taken a bit of a liking for Averell while he had been recovering (especially the last few days before his departure), had taken it upon herself to bring him a blanket now, which she tucked up over his shoulders before patting him on his sleepy head.

Caitlin found neither Jack nor Joe. The Dalton she came across was William alone at the doors of the barn.

“Where’s Jack?” she asked him nervously.

“He’s going to go get Joe,” said William with a shrug.

Caitlin looked out after where Jack had gone, his dog following not far behind him.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing?” Caitlin demanded.

“Joe doesn’t have a gun,” said William with a sniff. “Not anymore anyway, so you don’t have to worry about that.” Annoyance grew in William’s voice, and he turned away from Caitlin, crossing his arms with a huff. “Joe’s completely lost it,” he muttered.

“Hmph,” Caitlin said. “Aye, and long ago.”

With a roll of his eyes William marched away, and Caitlin made no attempt to stop him from doing so before she ran to catch up with Jack. Jack only told her to go back to the house, and Caitlin did with reluctance to take care of her children and Averell. She could only hope Jack knew what he was doing; though Jack himself was not certain he did.

He found Joe much in the same spot where he had been in that tree last summer near the wooded greenery now bare save for its dusting of snow. Joe sat at the foot of the tree looking quite wretched, and he glared now at Jack as he approached and glared even more at his dog.

Noticing this Jack shooed the dog away, but the dog did not want to go. He growled low at Joe and made a low barking sound.

“Go away, you stinkin’ mutt!” growled Joe, but the dog instead of obeying leaped right at him.

Joe ducked with a yelp, but it seemed the dog really had no interest in Joe so much as something in the wood beyond. A wild animal of some sort, no doubt. Jack let him go about his search and did not call him back.

“What do you want?” Joe demanded. “Leave me alone.”

“So you can freeze out here?” asked Jack.

“Yes,” said Joe. “What do you care so much anyway what I do?”

Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. Cuz you’re my brother. I love you, I guess.”

“Hmph.”

“We’re family,” said Jack slowly. “Just cuz I’m not a bandit doesn’t mean you’re not my brother anymore.”

Tears were welling up in Joe’s eyes, but his rage was still heavily upon him. He looked up at Jack with such a deadly leer as to burn the ground beneath him in spite of the snow. The hot tears seemed to make his rage all the fiercer.

“Family doesn’t have anything to do with it!” he growled. “It’s got nothing to do with you or your wife or Averell or William! Or even LUCKY LUKE! I hate you …” His shoulders slumped, and he breathed heavily for a moment or two. “I died, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Jack taken aback by the sudden change of tone in the conversation.

“I was dead!” Joe choked. He shivered terribly, but it wasn’t from the cold. “I know what I’ve done! I’m the most feared bandit in the West! I know everything I’ve done! Every robbery, every murder, every attempt at murder, every time I knock Averell over the head and every time I tell you all to shut up. Everything.”

Jack looked down at the snow uncomfortably.

“I can’t … I can’t fight it anymore!” wailed Joe. “I give up! My life’s not worth living. I should have died at that bottom of that stinkin’ Rio Grande ten miles from the Mexican border and Lucky Luke nowhere in sight.”

“Joe?”

Joe turned away with a growl.

“I’m Joe Dalton!” said Joe. “Joe Dalton! I can’t be anything other than what I am! Just like Uncle Henry. Just like Uncle Zeke. Just like … just like Dad.”

“Joe.”

“You win!”

He wiped the tears from his eyes and tried to regain his voice breaking up more and more. He gulped heavily and looked up for the first time at Jack since his first glare, but this time a very different expression appeared on his face.

“Just let me freeze to death. I can’t … I just can’t do it anymore.”

“Joe!” said Jack.

Joe blinked strangely as though waking from a dream, and he let out a heavy sigh as he lowered his eyes to the snow.

Squatting in the snow in front of him Jack leaned as close as he could without invading personal space.

“What?” asked Joe.

Jack sighed. “Come inside,” he said. “You’re just a wreck. You’re exhausted. Look at yourself.”

“I am!” cried Joe.

“No! I mean …”

Joe clenched his teeth.

“You’re not dead, Joe,” said Jack very firmly. “You’re not dead yet. Tell yourself that.” There was a pause before Jack continued. “It’s your choice what happens. It’s still your life.”

“I don’t know what I want anymore,” said Joe. “I don’t even care about being the most infamous outlaw in the West. I’m … I’m … I’m sorry, Jack. I’m sorry for stalking you. I’m sorry for wanting to kill you. I don’t really want to kill you or Averell or William. I don’t want to hate you. I don’t want to be a bandit anymore. I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want to be a bandit anymore. I just want to stop being so tired.”

And here Joe dropped his head forward onto his arms in the snow. Snowflakes fell upon his thick black hair exposed now as his hood fell back.

“Well, sleeping in a bed might help,” said Jack.

Joe did not answer. Instead he began to sob pitifully.

“Calm down, Joe.” It came out as force of habit.

But Joe was not angry with him for it. He laughed humorlessly and sobbed all the more.

“You STILL win, Jack. It really is better to live an honest life. You weren’t even the one who died and you still got it more than me. You changed because of me.”

Jack fidgeted a little. “I guess,” he said somberly. He shifted his weight and stood up again. “Come on. Come inside with me.”

Sniffling and wiping his nose on his sleeve Joe only shook his head.

“Please, Joe.”

At first Joe looked more as if he would bite Jack’s hand rather than take it, but after a moment or two his eyes softened and he closed his eyes as though he intended to fall asleep right there. Jack closed his eyes too and sighed heavily, but just as he was about withdraw his hand and straighten himself again, Joe took it. Jack helped Joe to his feet, and Joe stared down at his boots sheepishly.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Joe?”

“Sorry” was one thing. But “thank you”? Either Joe was very, very sick, or he meant it. Jack had never heard Joe say “thank you” sincerely in all his life not even to his mother, not even to Dad. “Thank you”?

Joe sighed. “Let’s go inside.”

“Okay,” said Jack smiling just a little; though it was quite sincere, because Joe too had never said anything so sincere or meaningful about anything good in his whole life.

Would it last? Jack could not be certain of that, but if Joe had been serious about losing his ability to be a bandit or whatever had happened to make Joe return to Jack’s house, this certainly was the beginning of something very strange for Joe. He hoped it was a good strange. It may have not been the death of Joe Dalton, and Jack was very thankful for that, but Jack had a feeling even then, regardless of whether or not it sounded too good to be true, that this day marked the end of the gang of the most feared bandits in the West …

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