The Willpower of a Dalton
A weary red eye opened in the dim predawn. Rolling closed again the eye seemed to prove that its owner would return to sleep. Indeed, he should have. Joe needed his rest, and it certainly did not need the pressure that it would endure if the idea, winding in the gears of his half conscious mind were put into action. Sleep still pulled him down. He could feel it trying to reclaim him like weights trying to suck him down into quicksand. But it was not very deep. All he had to do was lift his head to escape it, but to lift it was an agony, not so much for pain but stiffness in his neck and the grogginess of sweet dreams trying to entice him to stay.
But the will of Joe Dalton was never defied once his mind was set.
He was the only one awake in the camp. He would not lose this chance now. He could dream later all he wanted if he only would wake now. Finally he pried his head up. His elbows lifted his shoulders and upper back as the pressed against his mat. The wound in his side above his hip bone began to complain, and Joe let loose a shudder and he clenched his teeth against it.
I will not wait around to be well enough for Lucky Luke to drag me back down to prison! thought Joe focusing his eyes ahead of him with a more characteristic flame in his eye than he had possessed since he had been shot.
He pulled his legs under him slowly until he could sit in a rather sprawling position. He rubbed his arms against the sudden chill for it was not exactly warm in Wyoming, and without his covers he had only a bandage on his upper body to shield him from the cold air. In fact the blankets seemed to call him once more back to sleep. He would never make it anyway. Not in his condition.
But he shook his head against such thoughts.
There was nothing in the tent with which to pull himself upward easily, but he slunk out of his bedding as well as he could on all fours.
“Ow, ow ,ow …” he moaned clutching his bandaged wound.
The door! Just concentrate on the door.
He pushed open the flap, and scanned around. A dim purple glow foretold the sun’s entrance soon to come on the scene. Snores emitted from William and Averell sleeping back to back near the opening and inside the wagon, and more snores came from deeper inside. His eyes fell to the dog whose head was stuck out of the wagon. He jolted at first, but on further examination he saw that the dog was fast asleep somehow managing the position of his head in a manner that Joe would not be able to understand unless he could see inside the wagon.
Well, it did not matter anyway. They were all asleep. That was all that counted.
Joe slipped out crawling upon the cold rocky ground. His side complained louder now, but he ignored it as best he could.
Where were the horses?
He looked and saw them just over a ridge at the edge of the camp.
With a weak smile of self-encouragement, he pried himself towards it. He tried to use a rock to help him onto his feet, but his side would not have it. Compromise was his only option. He would have to continue to crawl to the horses, which he did after a fashion. Once or twice he looked back at the wagon to make certain the dog still slept, but for the most part he kept his eyes on the ridge alone.
It will be painful to climb over it to get to the horses, a part of his mind told him.
It’ll be more painful to be humiliated after this defeat, thought Joe back. This is different than some bank robbery. Lucky Luke is invading on personal business. It’s bad enough that he interferes with visits to Ma’s but this is just unforgivable, and I won’t let him win.
Thus onward he pushed himself half crawling half slinking along. Over the ridge his side let out a silent wail, which deafened his senses for a moment or two, but he gathered himself together enough to make it right over to the other side of the ridge. He panted and rested covered in sweat. He wiped a drip from his brow and looked up where the light of the eastern sky began to appear. The emergence of the sun would not be long in coming. Only moments away in fact!
He crawled along a little further through the tall reedy grass, but very slowly for the pain was beginning to grow to a point which no man could ignore or fight. He saw the ankles of the horses. How he would climb up onto the horses he was not certain yet, but his mind was too set to stop and think about that until he would reach them. A few more feet he went.
Almost there. Almost there, he told himself. Just a little further. Luck’s on my side today. Just a yard more, and—
“Good mornin’, Joe.”
Joe stiffened, and his head flew upright of its own accord at the calm and sickeningly familiar voice.
“Lucky Luke!” he squeaked.
He spun around and hurt his side, but nothing could stop Joe from facing his enemy.
There, Lucky Luke was leaning against a tree with some bedding beneath him. Jolly Jumper glared out from the behind the tree with disgust, but Luke himself was smiling in that mocking sort of way he always did when Joe’s efforts proved in vain.
“How far did you think you were gunna get exactly?” His enemy asked this as one might ask a child.
Inside Joe was screaming, raging, filling the sky with all the cannon fire of the Civil War. His head might have exploded into ash after the shattering of his voice box in roars greater than those of lion's and the rest of his body burnt to a crisp with his heart a molten coal still fuming with toxic smoke of hatred and egotistical anguish.
But he did not even yell at first. He just stared with wide red eyes at his adversary. The spurt of rage inside him only beat upon his weak body, causing all strength or reserve to fall and hot tears to spring from his eyes instead.
“It’s not fair!” he sobbed. “It’s not fair!”
His head dropped to the ground and he pounded the earth. The tears grew larger, into great gobs of molten splatter upon his already hot red cheeks and landing like steaming hail stones into the dry dust beneath him.
The noise woke Rantanplan who ran over to investigate.
“Lucky Luke,” Joe wailed with a choke and a gag. He did not seem to hear the barking dog at all. “It’s not fair! Not fair! Not fair! Even when I’m dying he’s here! It’s not fair …”
Lucky Luke for a moment only shook his head at the pitiful mass before him. He found it pretty easy to pity the strain on the weak, sick body while the insane mind attached could not listen in its grief and rage. Joe’s eyes were swollen and dark, his body pale. The heat in his cheeks was soon replaced with blue, but he continued to cry like a tired, little boy throwing a tantrum before bed. Part of Luke wondered if it would not be better for everyone to just let him wear himself to death right here, but he couldn’t. Luke could never do that.
Without a word the still quite calm Lucky Luke plucked Joe with ease from the ground. The only thing that proved difficult was to keep from grabbing him too far down at the wound for the way Joe’s body struggled like an injured cat against him. He soon fell limp from exhaustion however, and did nothing more to resist as Lucky Luke plopped him into Jolly’s saddle to bring him back to the wagon.
Aside from a few sniffles and loose tears, Joe did not give Jolly Jumper any trouble.
The others were naturally awake now as well. Sean was the first out of the wagon and Jack was not far behind him. Everyone was at least looking out of the wagon, and they watched as Joe returned upon his enemy’s horse who himself looked a tad annoyed by the whole thing.
Luke did not stop until had led Jolly within a few feet from Jack. Then he plucked the miserable Joe, now nursing his wound, off the horse and handed him to Jack.
“Why don’t you take him back to jail right now?” asked Sean. “If he’s well enough to scream a storm like that.”
Jack looked down at the crumpled heap in his arms.
“I could take him to the nearest jail,” admitted Lucky Luke.
“But he could die in there,” said Jack in hallow voice. “I … I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything like that again.”
“We should have him brought to a doctor,” said Mr. O’Riley. “If he’ll accept one.”
“Aye!” agreed Caitlin. “Does the nearest town have a doctor, Mr. Luke?”
“I think so,” answered the one so-named. “It’s been a while since I’ve been up this far, but I do know for sure there’s a few places in Cheyenne. They have a stronger jail than most around here too. That would be about three or four days from where we are. I’ll take him.”
“No, no,” said Mr. O’Riley. “We’ll leave him in the care of his brother for now. He’ll stay with him in the wagon.”
“Are you sure?” asked Mrs. O’Riley uneasily.
“Mr. Luke will accompany us as well,” said Mr. O’Riley. “And either way I don’t fear the little imp.”
“What about the other two?” demanded Mrs. O’Riley.
“I’ll take care of them,” said Lucky Luke.
William and Averell were the only two sticking their heads out of the wagon and still inside it as they had been watching the scene in silence up to this point. William winced now, but Averell smiled.
“I like it when Lucky Luke takes care of us,” he said. “He’s always so nice to me, making sure the knots aren’t too tight and that we get to rest when I get too tired, and he buys us such nice things to eat cuz he says the money was earned by us anyway.” He paused as a slow thought occurred to him. “But we’re still staying with Joe and Jack, right?”
“We’ll be traveling to Cheyenne together,” Lucky Luke answered.
“Oh, good!” said Averell. “Can I help take care of Joe too, Jack?”
Joe was almost a dead limp rag by that point but he growled nonetheless in protest of even the suggestion of such a thing.
“Maybe some breakfast would make him feel better,” offered Averell.
Jack lifted the flap of the wagon as it trundled its way toward Cheyenne.
Lucky Luke rode behind with William and Averell tied behind him. The dog circled them from time to time annoying the horse, but otherwise Rantanplan trotted quite merrily near Averell who had given him a taste of his breakfast earlier and had become his favorite for the day. It would have been a very normal scene if Jack had stood between William and Averell and Joe complained and tugged at the ropes in vain in between Jolly Jumper and William.
The flap of the doorway dropped back into position as Jack returned to the dim light of the wagon. Though, the kiss on the cheek from Caitlin suddenly at his side brightened things up a little. I say a little, because Joe was in the wagon with him and had only lain there never totally conscious for two whole days. It kept him from making remarks and from trying to escape against the will of his aching body, but his head was hot and his appetite very low. They could get him to drink enough but feeding Joe even half conscious proved most difficult. Once he even threw up.
“He pushed himself too hard,” said Caitlin who cared for Joe’s health because he was Jack’s brother; her own personal pity could not be helped either with how pitiful the writhing little creature suffered on his mat.
She had said more than once before this however that if Joe did not want help there would be nothing anyone, not even Jack, could do to help him. She said this again now in a quiet voice.
“He might change his mind,” said Jack. “Maybe he already did. Maybe that’s why he’s not giving us any trouble now.”
“Well,” Caitlin said with some encouragement. “He does seem to be a little better today than yesterday.”
Kneeling down before Joe’s mat she rinsed the rag and placed it new upon his sweaty head, and as she pressed it down against the burning of the frontal skull so that it practically steamed, Joe moaned a little. An eye opened and a murmur he uttered in unintelligible garble before the eye closed again and a deep sigh escaped him into silence yet again.
“Is he awake?” asked Sean who was further toward the front of the wagon where his parents sat upon the seat outside. He too tried very hard to care (and Jack appreciated his effort) for Jack’s sake and also for the well-being of his sister’s brother-in-law. It proved a far more difficult task for Sean than for Caitlin.
Without looking back at Sean Jack shook his head.
It was the voice of Averell.
Lifting up the flap once more Jack looked out of the wagon.
“Jack!” said Averell cheerily looking out from behind William and Jolly Jumper. “Is Joe better today?”
Jack was about to open his mouth to say something in return, but he stopped at the sudden murmur of Joe, “Shut up, Averell …”
Glancing back at Joe, he looked as he had before, but the fact that Joe had heard Averell seemed to Jack to be an improvement. He lifted his head from Joe to Caitlin and back to Joe again.
“A little!” Jack then called back to Averell.
“Oh, good!” exclaimed Averell. “Can I talk to him?”
Joe moaned in the negative.
“Uh … not right now, Averell,” said Jack. “He’s still trying to sleep!”
“Oh … okay,” said Averell nodding, and he returned to his position.
“Why’d you do it?” Joe wanted to know; his voice was weak but his determination strong. That too was encouraging in some ways.
“Sh-sh-sh,” said Caitlin. “Don’t you get riled up again. You’ll never get better if you don’t stop getting all riled up the moment you get well enough to do so. You’re like picking a scab at the point of healing that way.” And she gave a prompt nod before she adjusted the rag on his head, for it had slipped a little as Joe turned his head to one side.
“Jack …” said Joe. “Is Lucky Luke still back there?”
“Yes,” said Jack.
“Help me up to see ‘im,” said Joe.
Sean made a face; no one but Joe noticed it and he gave him a deadly leer as well as he could with his swollen eyes.
“Joe!” said Jack. “That’s what made you get so bad the first time.”
“Second …” murmured Joe.
Sean rolled his eyes, and made his way to the flap. “Why we’re helping you ungrateful wretch is beyond me,” he said and leapt out of the wagon to walk beside it a while. “We’d be better off leaving you where y’d dropped.”
Caitlin sighed. “So you want anything to eat, Mr. Dalton?” she said to Joe.
“I’m not hungry,” said Joe.
“Certain as anything you are,” said Caitlin. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Do you want to starve, Joe?” said Jack.
“Then eat something,” Jack begged.
“Only if she leaves too,” said Joe. “There’s too many people here. There’s too many people watching me. I wanna be alone. Just Jack.”
Jack and Caitlin exchanged glances.
Joe took the bowl and the spoon as well as he could, refusing Jack’s attempt to assist him after he brought the food near him.
“You didn’t have to do that to them,” muttered Jack.
“Well, you didn’t have to be here at all,” murmured Joe in return, his voice weak despite the glint of anger in his eye. “I don’t like your wife. I can’t even believe you have a wife. And besides that your wife bothers me.”
“She has a name,” said Jack quietly.
“I don’t care,” said Joe after a careful swallow. “It’s her fault you’re here. Falling for her like some drooling idiot. Giving up the whole Dalton name for some stupid girl.”
At first Jack said nothing. His shoulders slumped and his lip pouted as he sat upon his knees before the mat. Yet Joe still noticed the strange new glint in the usually so dull eyes of Jack. Neither William nor Jack had ever carried that glint in their eyes against him. Other people on occasion but never against Joe, the leader of the gang, the oldest of the brothers, the pride of their father, the secret favorite of their mother. Never. And the coal burning in Joe’s heart grew hotter inside; though Joe had at last gained enough control over himself after the last fiasco with Lucky Luke to remain for the most part calm enough on the outside to keep from messing up the healing process. For the moment, at least, his body won in that regard.
“She’s not a stupid girl,” said Jack in the tone of a stubborn child.
Joe snorted quite unimpressed as he shoved another spoonful of left over stew in his mouth.
But the second phrase got Joe’s attention more than the glint in Jack’s eye had. With severity and maturity unknown to any of the four Dalton brothers Jack said, “And … I didn’t change because of Caitlin.”
“Yes, you did,” Joe retorted back before Jack had completely finished.
Jack shook his head. “I changed because of you!” he hissed not realizing the anger suddenly in his own voice and eyes until after he had spoken with an almost Joe-like growl.
For a long time Joe glared. Jack could not face the sight of his old brother’s eyes, and he wrung his hands together as he plopped himself down upon the side bench uneasily.
At last Joe closed his eyes and shoved another spoonful of stew into his mouth.
Jack looked back up at Joe, but Joe seemed to have no intention of hurting himself or Jack at the moment. Maybe he had resolved something for later in his mind. Jack could not know for certain what went on in Joe’s cogs and gears that made up his thought process. Perhaps Joe had simply dismissed the comment altogether, but Jack quite doubted that. By the look on Joe’s face Jack felt that Joe had cataloged for later, whatever that meant for him, Jack did not know, and the silence was killing him.
“Joe …” Jack tried and faltered.
“You know I wouldn’t have changed because of Caitlin, right? … I mean I would have gone with you the moment you arrived at our house if it had only been about Caitlin. You know that don’t you? The willpower of a Dalton’s stronger than that. Whether bad or not. Even Marcel had a stronger willpower than that.”
“I understand,” muttered Joe with a shrug. “You changed because of me.”
Oh! Jack knew that Joe had not dismissed the comment. He bit his lip.
“But you still fell in love with that stupid girl,” said Joe.
“Leave Caitlin out of this!”
Joe shook his head as though in pity; though he himself began to lose strength to his pillow again. “Calm down, Jack. Calm down.”
Jack’s fists were clenched, his face hot, and he had become quite sweaty in his exasperation. Yet the sound of Joe’s mocking words Jack, though quite angry by this point, plopped back down onto the bench and said nothing more.
It was Joe who opened his mouth next again in an attempt to speak more, but their conversation was interrupted by the sound of thunder.
Both pairs of eyes opened wide as the ears listened. The horses out front stopped, and the sound of Averell asking what was going on followed. The dog began to bark.
“A storm?” asked Jack.
Had he understood the dog it might have given him a clue, for Rantanplan was calling out to everyone to get out of the way of the jackalope herds.
Jack popped his head out front.
No. The sky could not be bluer.
“Is the cavalry?” gasped Jack.
“That what?” demanded Mr. O’Riley, and he laughed. “Don’t be silly. It’s buffalo, laddie. We gotta turn round and fast.”
His direction falling from the sky, it landed in the direction of the buffalo. They were headed straight for them.
“AH-H-H!” cried Jack.
But Mr. O’Riley had some experience with maneuvering horses, and they got out of the way just in time while Lucky Luke, Averell, William, Sean, and Caitlin ducked behind the safe side of the wagon. Jolly Jumper who for all his complaining about the dog was the one who snatched Rantanplan by the collar who had been standing quite dumbfounded before the horns of the first buffalo. A few tail hairs were blown off but otherwise the dog proved well and safe as well.
Everyone watched as the stampede thundered past; then all was silent. The party moved on. Joe was left by himself to rest some more in the wagon, for Jack had decided to walk outside too for a time.