Chapter 1: Wild Horses, Tamed Passions
“Here,” John says, calloused hands offering an unopened can of beans to his son, a sort of peace offering from the day they’ve had.
Jack takes it, an empty look in his gaze, peering off into the nothing. John gives him a can opener before sitting down. They’re both sitting on the ground, right outside the shack the MacFarlanes had given John. It’s some sort of repurposed storage shed, much too small for the both of them. Between them is an invisible brick wall called silence, refusing each other a conversation, so they both stare into nothing, the night sky clouded over, the distant sounds of the ranch workers, and the clinking of their spoons against the metal rim of the bean cans. John looks as Jack, noticing the boy’s stressed face, and he can’t blame him.
“Jack?” John gasps, taken aback by the boy’s tight hug, wincing in pain. His arms slowly return the hug.
“They took Ma, took her away and I hid,” Jack pants, breath uneasy and shaking.
John prys Jack away from him, hands on his shoulders. “You got away?” He questions, and Jack nods.
“Them government agents asked about me, Ma told ‘em I ran away awhile back, that she didn’t know, then they hauled her off. What do they want, Pa?”
John repositions himself against the wooden shack, a pained look on his face as he instinctively reaches for his waist. Any little movement and the wound would remind him of it’s existence. He grunts, and Jack glances at him.
“I ain’t the one with a bullet in his side, pa,” Jack finally urges, “You should take the bed.”
John ponders this for a second, but eventually retorts, “What, and let you sleep on the floor like a dog? You take it, it ain’t my first time sleeping on the ground.”
“Alright.” Jack answers, quiet as a mouse. He sets his can of beans beside him, and bends his knees up to his chest, elbows resting on his knees. While John has his mouth filled with cold beans, Jack speaks.
“You were going to kill Uncle Bill, weren’t you? Before he shot you?” Jack asks, and John swallows, preferring not to look at his son.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Hoping I could get him to come quietly.”
From the corner of John’s eye, he sees Jack’s brow furrow. “Alright, Pa,” he pouts, “John Marston, wanting to go the peaceful route.”
John grimaces, “What’s that supposed to mean?” John finally looks at Jack, and he realizes Jack’s glaring.
“Ma and I both know you’d always shoot first.” Jack snaps, head turning away from John.
“If I had been itching for a fight, I wouldn’t have a bullet in my side, and Bill wouldn’t have escaped. You know that. I didn’t want him dead.”
“Alright, Pa.” Jack says, not entirely convinced.
The brick wall between them is a little more thicker, and as Jack looks at the ground, John aches.
“You blame me, don’t you?” John finally asks, and Jack is taken aback.
“For all of this,” John elaborates, “All of this.” He gestures towards the entirety of the ranch, and Jack, troubled, can’t fully answer.
“Yes, no,” He stutters, “I don’t know.” Jack slightly cowers, holding his head with his hands.
“It’s okay, Jack.” John comforts, “I haven’t been a good man, I understand being angry.” Jack stays silent. “If I had my way, none of this would’ve happened. Would’ve been fine with never seeing the old gang again, or not having my family be threatened, it ain’t fair to you, and it ain’t fair to Abigail.”
The outside world’s gotten much quieter, the ranch workers mostly heading to their respective beds, and the sky has cleared up, allowing the stars to shine clearly. John takes his hat off, resting it against his chest. “You should get some rest, boy,” He says. “We got a busy day tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asks.
“Well, I plan on workin’ off my debt with the MacFarlanes here, least I can do after they hauled me to the doctor. I’d appreciate it if you’d help too. Maybe we’ll learn how to be a real ranchers in the process.” John actually chuckles hoarsely, and Jack finds himself snickering along.
“Alright, Jack, get to bed.” John parents, and Jack sighs, getting up from his seat and brushing the dirt left on him off.
“Okay, Pa. Goodnight.” Jack finally enters the worn down shack, leaving John to fester in his own thoughts.
John lowers his head, cursing at himself as he finally sets his hat down onto the ground, close to his person. He finds himself worrying about Jack, where he will go when John ultimately has to chase after Williamson and his gang. He knows it’ll be an argument, having to leave his son like he had done so many times before, he knows that Jack will demand to join him, but John knows this path will be covered in blood, and he’d much rather shield his son from that, he knows the boy has seen more than a boy should, and he can’t let it happen again. He wonders if the MacFarlanes would be kind enough to watch the boy, letting him work on the ranch while John is gone, but some part of him fears the Government would come after him, locking him up wherever Abigail is, just another piece of blackmail to them.
John, confused and worried, finally finds it in himself to fall asleep, head rolling to the side gently, arm wrapped around his side.
Jack rubs the back of his neck as he steps into the shack, eyes tired and body tense. He sits on the bed, back hunched forward and head hung low, he thinks. Inside him is a wildfire, leaving him pained and resentful. He rubs his face, eyes cloudy and wet, he prays for his mother, for her to stay safe wherever she is, and he curses his father, but he isn’t too sure what about. He’s angry, but something about this makes him happy he’s with his father, and not holed up in something like a prison. He’s seen things no boy should see, and that makes him eager to grow up, and Jack prays that his father won’t leave him like he had done so many times before. Jack feels that something is eating away at him, and as he slowly lays down, he finds himself praying for his father not to get cocky.
Jack lays with his knees hugged close to his chest on a bed that’s closer to a table than an actual place to sleep, shuts his eyes tightly, confused and worried, finally finding it himself to fall asleep.
The first thing Jack sees is the blinding sunlight shining through the open door, eyes squinted as he slowly pushes himself up to a seated position.
“Pa?” He asks, wiping his crusted eyes clean. He opens his eyes fully, watching his father sling a bandolier around his chest.
“Hey, Jack.” John greets, “We should head up to the MacFarlane homestead, see if they need anything.”
Jack flings his legs over the bed, feet on the ground and gives his father a nod.
The trip to the MacFarlane’s homestead is a short and silent one, with Jack hanging behind John, not trying very hard to keep close. When they approach the house, Jack’s eyes are upon it.
“Ain’t that something?” He says, astonished. “This ranch’s more like a town.”
John actually smiles, looking back at Jack. “If they could do it, so can we, right, Jack?”
“Even after all this time, Pa, and you’re still a bad rancher. I’d like to bet that I’m a better farmhand than you.” Jack remarks, a smirk across his face. John stops at the door, turning around.
“After all I’ve done for this ranch? You’re gonna stand up to your old man like that?”
Jack laughs, but manages to retort, “Yeah, and when one of our cattle began calving, you were too busy out in town! I had to step in and be the man of the ranch.”
John rolls his eyes, “Where do you learn these things?”
“I read more than stories, Pa. Made sense to start reading about ranch life, since I’ll probably be the only one keeping the ranch afloat when I’m older.”
John pats his son on the shoulder before turning back around towards the door, offering him peace of mind, “And I know you’ll do great things with the ranch, better than I ever could.”
“Jeez,” Jack manages, a sheepish smile on his face. “Thanks, Pa.”
When they enter the MacFarlane’s house, Bonnie is quick to greet them, John specifically.
“Well hello, Mr. Marston,” Bonnie says, a smile on her face and her hands on her hips. “How are you?”
John removes his hat and holds it against his chest. “I’m fine, thank you.” Bonnie walks over to him, placing a hand on his back, gesturing for him to follow. “How are you?” John asks.
“I’m fine, thank you.” She answers, and as the two enter the living room, they’re greeted by the burly man on an armchair, with a cartoonishly large handlebar mustache. He observes them, leaned forward. Bonnie gestures to him, “Did you meet my father?” The man on the seat rises up, and makes his way to the trio, chest puffed out. “John Marston, this is my father, Drew MacFarlane.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Marston,” Drew says, giving John a firm handshake.
“You too, sir. This is my son, Jack.” John pulls away from the handshake, and gestures to Jack, who appears slightly uneasy. John knows he’s never been one for social contact with strangers.
“Nice to meet you, Jack,” Drew says, giving the boy another firm handshake, and John notices that it’s more like swinging a wet noodle around than an actual handshake.
Jack lets his hand fall back to his side, and sheepishly smiles. “Thank you, Mr. MacFarlane.” He says.
A conversation, something Jack doesn’t really pay attention to, follows. It’s not something that exactly interests him, political jargon like that. Instead, he waits for it to finish as the pair take a seat on the couch Mr. MacFarlane offers to them.
Eventually, while zoned out, Jack gets lightly smacked back to reality. “Come on,” John says, gesturing for Jack to follow him out of the house.
“What are we doing?” Jack asks, perplexed as he quickly regains his composure, following John and the MacFarlanes.
“You didn’t hear them? We’re breaking in horses.”
When they climb down the stairs, Bonnie hands John a lasso, who then hands it to Jack. “Give this to your boy, John,” She says, “Lets see if he’s a better learner than you.”
The ride towards the wild horses is nothing special, but as Drew and John talk, Jack can’t help but hang back. Bonnie takes note, and brings her horse to his speed.
“Heard a lot about you, Jack,” Bonnie says over the galloping hooves of their horses.
“Yeah?” He asks, and Bonnie nods.
“That man you call a father is as stubborn as a mule when it comes to talking about himself, but I could tell he was real proud of what he had.”
Jack shakes his head. “You ain’t been around him long enough.”
“You oughta not be so doubtful! That man’s given me a few surprises since we’ve met, give him a chance.”
John looks back at the two, clearly curious. “You two talking about me?”
“Yes, Mr. Marston, he’s telling me about how he plans to poison you, and take your family’s fortune for himself.”
While Jack only snorts, John actually begins to laugh. “Yeah, seems about right,” he states in between his laughter, a rare smile on his scarred face.
Past the trail they’re riding on, the announcement Drew makes draws all their eyes onto the herd of wild ones, beautiful horses with shining coats, all varied, shaded by a large, old tree. Jack catches himself staring, but as he realizes the others have quickened their pace, he spurs his horse to chase after them.
“There they are,” Bonnie calls, “Let’s get after them!”
John stays behind Drew as their horses gallop towards the herd, who start to flee, heading off in their own directions, forcing them to track a single horse.
“Jack,” John shouts, “Lasso one of them!”
“What?” Jack sputters, quickly retrieving the lasso John gave him, which he safely put on his belt. “Alright, alright!”
Galloping ahead, past Bonnie and John, Jack swings the lasso over his head, taking a deep inhale as he rides alongside a Chestnut Tobiano, throwing the lasso onto it’s neck, watching as it kicks it’s front legs up in protest. Jack’s heart is pounding, drumming in his ears as he keeps a tight grip. He watches as Drew repeats this, enabling safety when approaching the horse.
John’s nearly shocked, by his son’s quick reaction, his ability to know just what to do, and some part of him is incredibly proud at the sight, but as he dismounts his horse, he feels rather inclined to mount the wild horse before it can yank Jack, or seriously harming him.
“Keep him steady!” Drew commands, and Jack tightens his grip, not letting the stallion get the better of him.
“Now, Mr. Marston!” Bonnie cheers, watching John quickly jump onto the horse, fists clenched around it’s thick mane. When it starts bucking, Jack automatically removes the lasso, not looking for a bone to be pulled out of it’s socket today.
“Shit,” John howls, “Easy!”
“Uh, be careful, sir!” Jack shouts, but John’s a little preoccupied to listen.
Keeping on a bucking bronco isn’t too hard, John thinks, like keeping yourself balanced on a tightrope, but as the horse hangs its head low, kicking its hind legs like a madman, John realizes his head really, really hurts.
“Easy, boy! Almost there!” John eases, trying his best to stay afloat on a horse he’s sure is part bull.
Suddenly, John’s grip on the horse falters, and he’s sent backwards, tumbling off the horse with a loud curse. Pain immediately greets him like an old friend, his entire torso on fire, the horse quickly galloping off. Jack rides towards his father, worried.
“You almost had it!” Bonnie sighs.
“Pa, are you alright?” He frets, but to everyone’s shock but Jack’s, John climbs back up onto his feet, no worse for wear.
“I’ve been better, he’s a stubborn son of a bitch, I’ll give him that.” John groans before quickly returning to his own horse, but he stops from speeding off towards the lost stallion by Jack’s noticeable chuckle.
“Something funny, mister?” John asks, a brow raised. Jack shakes his head.
“You two have something in common!” Jack explains, “Maybe he’s your perfect companion,”
“Ha.” John deadpans, but the two are torn from their touching bonding moment by Drew, who reminds them they’re riding after horses.
They soon catch up to the horse John had lost control of, it being far behind the rest. This time, Jack and Bonnie lasso the horse, and John quickly remounts the bastard, not one to back down from a challenge.
As the trio watch in anticipation, Jack’s eyes watch as the stallion lets out a neigh, rearing itself into the air, and for some reason, Jack’s sure the man he sees on the back of that horse isn’t his father, and is instead some hero from his stories, as the sun shines upon them, and as the horse calms, returning to a normal stance, John pats it on the neck.
“See? We’re friends now,” John says to the horse, watching as Drew quickly lassos the horse yet again.
“That’s enough for an old timer like me,” He says, “I’ll get this one back to the farm.”
Drew departs, and Bonnie urges the two Marstons on their journey.
“Come on, then! Let’s see if your son can outdo you, Mr. Marston.” Bonnie teases, and this time, Jack is as ready as his father to help.
Bonnie and John lasso this one, a Cleveland Bay who’s a little more eager than the Tobiano.
“Stay calm, son,” John warns as Jack dismounts slowly, “It knows when you’re stressed.”
Maybe Jack’s not the one he’s talking to, because John’s nerves are thin, plucked at like a guitar, as he watches the wild horse, and his son who would easily be killed by such a beast. Yet, Jack doesn’t quickly climb onto the horse as John did, instead, he slowly approaches the stallion, hands raised. The horse lets out a whine, and Jack actually coos, like he had with the cattle when he was younger.
“It’s alright, boy,” Jack coaxes, “Easy.” With a voice like a mother to a son, the horse genuinely seems calm by his voice, but John, ready for the part where the horse ends up kicking Jack, speaks up.
“Come on, Jack!” He calls out to his son, but the horse’s ears flick, and suddenly it’s just as tense as John, as it cries out, and begins to buck, forcing Jack to step away.
“I almost had him,” Jack grimaces, yet even though the stallion isn’t so calm, Jack doesn’t back down. He quickly mounts the horse, wrapping his fist around it’s mane for support, the other attempting to calm the horse with a gentle stroke along the neck, despite being jostled around like he weighs nothing.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Jack yelps, “Don’t worry!”
“You got this, Jack!” Bonnie encourages him, “Already doing better than your father!”
“Yeah,” John strains, “And he’s about a hundred less pounds than I am, just a boy and trying to tame a horse,”
With a sharp breath, John then lets out a long exhale as the stallion suddenly gives up, allowing Jack control, which Jack proudly congratulates the horse.
“Good boy, good boy,” He repeats, giving the horse a well-deserved pat.
Bonnie chuckles, “Getting sweet on the horse already?”
Jack shrugs. “He’s a good boy, It’s only right I let him know.”
John rides beside Jack, “It ain’t a dog, son, try to remember that.” and Jack gives his father a nod.
“I, uh,” Jack says, “You didn’t have to shout, when the horse was lassoed, I had him, he was just about calm.” It’s a nice way of saying ‘I don’t need you.’
John shakes his head. “Just making sure you didn’t let your guard down, you think you’ve gained its trust and the next thing you know you’re trampled to death.”
“Fine, pa.” Jack slowly dismounts the horse, and returns to his own horse, running a hand over his shoulder.
“This should just about do it,” Bonnie exclaims, throwing her lasso over the horse, “Let’s get back to the ranch.”
When they ride back, Bonnie and John babble, and Jack’s left with an empty feeling in his gut.
“Just,” John begins to say to Jack, “Don’t go off and try to break one in on your own just yet, you’d probably end up with your teeth kicked in, alright?”
What Jack hears is ‘I don’t trust you,’ so he bites the inside of his mouth and says “Okay.”
When they return back to the MacFarlane’s ranch, Jack’s ready to call it a day, but as the horses are brought into the stables, Bonnie asks John to accompany her and a guy named Amos to herd a pack of horses, John insists Jack follow, so he does.
On the way down towards Bonnie’s boys, Bonnie asks Jack about his mother, and without anything meaningful to add, he simply says, “She’s my mother,” with the matter-of-fact tone he has learned from her.
When they finally reach Amos and the men accompanying him, Jack hangs back, feeling as if he’s an outcast in a world that sees him as a boy, yet a man, immature, yet supposed to know everything, and so he hangs back, yet his father gestures a hand to him, urging him to move up to John’s side, eyes on the herd in the distance, all free and uncaring.
Bonnie raises her hand, signaling for the band to slow as she says; “Wait for my signal, and don’t let the horses out of your sight.”
“I’m gonna be needing you to ride with me, Jack.” John says. “Keep up, now,”
Jack follows his father as they approach the herd, spooking the horses into a steady path towards the canyon, and as John tries to watch the horses, he can’t help but glance at Jack, silent and hunched slightly.
“You doing alright?” John asks.
Jack shrugs. “Doing just fine, sir.”
John, not entirely convinced, leaves it be. “Well, I think you’re doing pretty good,”
Jack blinks. “Huh?”
“At being a real rancher, you have a real hand for it.”
Getting the herd into the canyon isn’t hard, it’s a silent ride, and as the horses ride into the MacFarlane’s hands, a single stallion escapes, riding through the canyon, and as Jack watches it, he understands.
Instinctively, he grabs the reins on his horse, spurs him into a full gallop, and rides off towards the stallion, and John is left cursing, quickly attempting to follow them, but by their speed the stallion and his son were already out of sight.
Through the canyon, John only spurs his horse to go faster, overworking the thing to get past the path, and wherever Jack and the stallion ran off to, he told the boy not to try to tame a horse by himself, he told him. Maybe he has himself to blame, the boy is a Marston, and a Marston is a stubborn son of a bitch, and maybe his son really is meant to be more independent, yet the nagging feeling of Jack growing up too soon eats away at John, so as he rides, it’s less worry over him getting trampled by a horse, and more chasing after the last few years he will have with Jack, young and in need of guidance, to make up for all the years he couldn’t have, because he didn’t care.
“Jack!” John shouts, riding pass the cacti and dead grass, up past the hill past the canyon, and looking over the evening sun as Jack has a lasso around the stallion’s neck, and a gentle hand on it’s head.
“I told you,” Jack mumbles, but he clears his throat to speak a little more clearly, “I got this, pa.”
John blinks, watching as Jack, holding onto the lasso around the stallion, remounts his own horse.
He chuckles, “I guess you don’t. Guess you can handle yourself, then.”
Jack sighs. “I’ve been able to handle myself, Pa.”
And what John hears is 'I don't need you'.
“Alright, Jack. Let’s get back to Ms. MacFarlane.”
When they finally return to the ranch for the last time today, Bonnie congratulates the both of them, thanking them for their assistance. Jack offers to return the lasso she had lent his father, but Bonnie insists he keep it. When John and Jack go to back, John is sleeping against the shack’s walls, and Jack is sleeping on a no good bed, no closer, yet no farther apart, and when John sees the complicated look in Jack’s face when he says goodnight, he can only see a mirror into who he used to be, and fears, and when Jack sees the artificial strength in his father’s worn down face, he sees a mirror into who he could be, and fears.
Chapter 2: The Burning
His father told him not to do anything stupid.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
John leaves Jack at the MacFarlane’s ranch while him and Bonnie head out to search for Bonnie’s father. As it was starting to reach into night, John requested Jack to not do anything stupid, and don’t head into town, and as Jack watched them ride out, he couldn’t help but sneer.
The setting sun greets him, his body still sore from two days ago, so he winces and continues on his way. His books left in Beecher’s Hope, there’s nothing to keep him occupied, so he greets the man he recognizes as Amos flinging chicken feed among the clucking hens, and asks if he can take the job.
“Hey, ladies,” Jack says, loud clucking being his answer as he pours fistfuls of food onto the ground, and by now they’re all pecking at the ground.
“Do you want to help me collect their eggs?” The man asks, and Jack nods.
By now, it’s completely dark, save for the lights coming from the various buildings in the homestead, and even now, the place is lively, with workers still doing their jobs even as the night sky greets them. Once Jack bids the man farewell, along with the new supply of eggs, Jack begins following the main path through the makeshift village, hands shoved into his pockets, his head hung low, his father’s voice in his head, ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’
What dictates what is stupid or not? Will John get angry by Jack simply doing something other than the strict guidelines John gave him? Is speaking to people considered stupid? Jack grumbles, and grumbles more as he kicks the ground, lifting dirt from the ground. A whistle calls him over. He perks his head up towards the noise, and sees the man leaning against a support beam outside the Foreman’s office, a man Jack is sure is the Foreman himself.
“Hey son,” He says, “What’re you doing?”
“Nothing, sir.” Jack responds.
“And that’s a problem, now I know you’re Marston’s boy, and he’s helped me in the past, so I’ll do him a favor. How’d you like a job?”
“A job?” Jack begins walking towards the Foreman’s office, hands now out of his pockets and folded across his chest.
“Night patrol, kid, nothing too bad. You take Charlie over there and follow him towards any sorts of trouble.”
By the office’s front steps, a border collie lays, dirt in his pelt and a dumb smile on his face when he hears his name, and Jack can’t help but smile back at the dog.
“Now don’t worry, anything rarely happens here, I’m sure you can handle it. You’ll probably just be taking out vermin threatening our supply. You up for it?”
Jack pauses, mouth slightly agape. “I, uh,” This is the best chance he’s got of actually doing something that his father doesn’t force him to do, now that John’s not here, so he smiles and says “Alright, sir.”
Jack mounts his horse outside John’s shack, a rifle he found on the table strapped to his back, and a lasso kept on his belt. “C’mon, boy!” He signals Charlie, who begins a brisk pace towards the ranch perimeter, Jack close behind.
In Jack’s head, hes rightly proud, a job he chose himself, him and him alone with a responsibility, he can’t help but puff his chest, sitting high on his horse like he’s the sheriff, and as he sends a bullet through a rabbit’s skull, he’s honestly itching for some kind of criminal to apprehend, or shoot, or something to increase the tempo, a rustler, or a horse thief, and as Charlie leads him to a pack of coyotes threatening the chicken supply, he pouts, because he’s sure that’s the closest to a thief he’ll get, and he’s sure it’ll be his only time on nightwatch. He hears somebody thank him, for none of the chickens were harmed, and Jack returns with Charlie to continue the perimeter path.
He’s not exactly sure why his father has been so strict with him lately, and he wonders if it has anything to do with those government agents that took Abigail. Maybe John is right, Jack ponders, but he’s sure he doesn’t need his father breathing down his neck every step of the way, he’s nearly grown, for God's sake, not the toddler he’s sure John sees him as. He’s just waiting for his chance, a chance to show his father he can, and when Charlie begins to bark loudly, and the screams of the workers echo through the night, Jack thinks he has it.
“The barn,” he hears somebody cry, “The barn’s on fire!”
Like a bonfire in the night, a barn burns loudly, brighter than any light anywhere in the town. Jack nearly dismounts, but as he sees a figure ride off away from the fire, he find himself spurring the horse towards it, leaving Charlie in the dust, a whimpering dog to await his return.
“Go,” Jack tells the horse, the shadowed figure soon turns into two, and Jack, blinded by confidence, only rides further.
“Stop!” He tells the two, “Why are you running from the barn?” a false baritone voice in his throat as he grips his lasso.
“Shit!” One of them calls, “We’ve been found out,”
Suddenly, a gunshot rings through the air, forcing Jack to duck his head, yet even without getting shot, he cries out.
“Just keep riding,” The other screams, “Two of us and one of them!”
Jack realizes just now that he may die, and he nearly turns the horse, hands tight on the reins, but with a drumming in his ears, he bares his teeth and continues riding behind them.
He thinks about his father, and Bonnie, who must surely be back by now, fretting over the burning barn, yet while they do that, Jack is throwing his life away biting off more than he can chew.
“Who sent you?” He demands.
“We ain’t telling you, fucker,” One says.
Jack grimaces, and with a few seconds more, he’s riding closer to them.
“It’s over, you’re caught!” Jack bluffs.
The night sky, the moon in the sky, and the stars painted in the sky is nothing but peaceful, moonlight peeking through the trees Jack rides through, and for a second, everything is quiet, yet the revolver in his face breaks all the tranquility, and before the man can pull the trigger, Jack feels time stop.
Jack’s read a lot of stories throughout his life, yet nothing interests him more that the tales of gunslingers, heroes in a dark and lawless time, and when he was quite young, it was all he wanted to be. ‘Did you stop the bad guys,’ He’d ask his father, and although he didn’t give an answer, he would smile as his uncle would ruffle his hair and say ‘Yes.’ All those heroes Jack read about, they’d roll into town, point their guns, and the day was saved, riding off into the setting sun, a hat hiding their face, and a serape flying behind them. It was those stories that inspired Jack, filled him with a call to action, but as he grew older, he taught himself those stories never truly happened, nothing more than a child’s tale, and that maybe heroes only existed in stories. Their amazing aim was nothing more than a hyperbole, for no man could do what those fairytales did, and with a revolver right between Jack’s eyes, his hand twitches.
“Fuck, my hand!” The man shrieks, holding his palm, for the revolver he held was now deserted, and Jack’s rifle smoking from the barrel, right eye shut, and left eye trained, and like an old gunslinger from the stories, he silently returns his rifle to the holster on his back, and while he continues riding on his horse, he retrieves his lasso.
“It’s over, now,” Jack warns, and before the man can scream at him, Jack throws the lasso, pulling the man off the horse and into the muddied dirt, while the other man flees to avoid meeting the same fate.
Hands tight on the lasso, the man begins to twist and turn as Jack dismounts, and slowly trudges toward the man. He’s lassoed animals before, yet hogtying a man is something he’s never done before. He’s seen criminals caught by sheriffs, he’s seen men captured by his uncles, and as he grabs the man’s hand, he tries to replicate what he’s only seen in vague memories, a classic hogtie.
“Sorry, sir.” He says, tying the man’s ankles together, ignoring the man’s grunts.
Good enough, he tells himself, the man won’t escape, and probably won’t ever get untied again.
“Where’s your buddy heading to?” He asks, yet the man only spits in his direction.
“Well, let’s get you back to the ranch. I’m sure you’ll love being behind bars.”
As Jack attempts lifting the man, his knees slightly buckle under the man’s weight. He pushes him towards his horse, and the man sputters.
“Wait a fucking second, you’re a fucking kid?”
“Watch your language.”
“I can’t fucking believe I’m being turned in by a God damn kid.”
Jack manages to throw the man onto the rear end of his horse with a loud grunt, and as he mounts the horse, he warns the man.
“Stay there and don’t annoy the horse.”
“Have you seen Jack?” John asks Bonnie, sweat dripping down his forehead, and surely seared skin. He wipes his brow, hat on his chest as he exhales.
“No, I didn’t, but I was a little too focused on my livelihood getting destroyed.” Bonnie says.
Amos, with his sleeves rolled up, scratches his ear. “That boy, last time I saw, was helping the Foreman out, left on his lonesome with Charlie.”
John, with wide-eyes, gets up from his seat. “He went on night watch? By himself?”
“I believe so, sir,”
“Shit. If he ran into Williamson’s gang,” He doesn’t finish, it’s more of a fearful thought, so he bids Bonnie and Amos farewell, who both return to their respective duties.
“I got one of them,” A voice yells, a scratchy yet high pitched voice, and John turns to the commotion, as his son rides into the ranch, a wave of relief washing through him.
Jack stops in front of the foreman’s office, with Charlie greeting him with a happy yelp. The Foreman quickly opens the door, with a worried expression, but once he sees the source, he smiles.
“I got one of the men who tried burning the barn, sir, I did,” Jack pants, a large smile on his face.
“Damn, son, all by yourself?” The Foreman says.
“I did, I did, one of them got away, but I got one!”
“I owe you, son. Let me get this waste of space into a cell, and I can talk about repaying you.
“Jack,” John calls out, and Jack’s grin doesn’t falter as he looks to John, and runs to him.
“Pa, I helped, I got one of the men, I did,” He frantically announces, and John’s expression remains unchanging.
“Are you hurt?”
“I shot his gun from his hands,” Jack's hands shake with fear, yet excitement.
“They shot at you?”
“They did, both of ‘em! But I didn’t get hurt, and it was like time stopped, like the story of, of,” Jack pauses, as if trying to come up with the answer, “Red Harlow, It was like him, Pa, and I shot the revolver from his hands, and then I captured him!”
John puts his hands on Jack’s shoulder, giving him a slight shake. “Jack,” He sighs, and the boy’s face slightly falls, “You can’t do that, what would you have done if they shot you? And if they killed you? That would’ve been my fault, for not watching you,”
Jack blinks. “You ain’t proud?”
“You’re just a boy, you can’t just go after dangerous men like that,”
John looks into his son’s devastated face, and shakes his head.
“I’m glad you’re safe, Jack. Be more careful, alright?”
Jack shrugs him off, devastation turning into fury behind a twitching brow. “Okay, sir.”
The Foreman returns from his office, calling Jack over, and thankful he can get out of this conversation, approaches the man, claiming a reward of forty dollars, and a firm handshake.
Jack shoves the rifle he took from the shack into John’s hands forcefully, eyes set on the ground, and the brick wall between them grows, and when he storms off, John looks at the rifle, and closes his eyes.
“Dammit, Marston,” He mutters, “God damn,”
this ones a bit shorter than the last chapter
Chapter 3: The Hanging of Bonnie MacFarlane
John and Jack are back to back.
The chirping of crickets is enough to keep any man awake, especially in such a dinky, run down storage shed. Jack huffs as he pushes himself up off the bed, peeking through the cracked door to see the darkness from outside, and so he decides to leave.
He shuts the door to the shack, and notices his father isn’t in his usual spot, so he assumes his father is out again, and as he walks across the main path, he notices Bonnie sitting on her porch, hand on a rifle, so he walks up the steps, and gestures towards her.
He hasn’t really gotten the chance to speak to Bonnie, she is a working woman, after all, and usually babbling on with his father, so he folds his arms across his chest and leans against the railing of the porch, and sparks a conversation.
“Hey, Miss,” Jack says, and she looks up from her rifle and the cloth she’s cleaning it with and smiles at him.
“It’s nice to see you, Jack.” She says, a voice gentle and sweet.
“I, uh, how are you?” He asks, slightly tilting his head to the side.
“Doing fine, Jack, thank you. Just trying to keep busy.”
There’s a silence for a second, something not so disturbing as the silence that separates Jack and his father, but a silence that is gentle, unhostile, yet somewhat awkward.
“Your father headed into Armadillo, to help the sheriff I believe.” She finally says.
“Really? He don’t tell me too much about his business.”
“Fathers can be like that.” She chuckles, and Jack finds himself laughing too.
“Yeah, I guess they are. You turn your head one way and when you look back they’re fifty miles west without as much as a goodbye.”
Bonnie sets her rifle leaning against her seat and folds her legs at the ankle, leaning into her seat. “Yeah, I know how that feels. You doing alright, though? I saw you storming off last night. Seemed awful steamed.”
Jack waves her off, shaking his head. “Naw, it’s fine, just a little annoyed, that’s all.”
She begins to lean forward, hands together on her lap. “You’re doing that thing your father does. He would rather act aloof than be a human.”
Jack lowers his arms, instead opting to rest his elbows on the railing, rolling his eyes. “Alright, fine. I got one of the men that burned your barn, carried him back to the Foreman, and my pa wasn’t too pleased.”
She crinkles her nose, like she smells something rotten, “You ain’t kidding? I would’ve been thanking you!”
Jack throws his arms up in the air and exclaims, “I know, right? He’d rather treat me like a dog than an actual son, with the way he treats me.”
Her mouth goes agape, “Jack! He may be an idiot, but he’s still your father,”
Jack runs his hands through his hair, letting out a huff. “I know, I know. Sorry.”
She sighs, shaking her head softly, “It’s okay, I get like that, too.”
“I just,” He swallows, “I don’t know. I just wish he’d see me as a man, not some child that needs coddling.” He kicks the ground.
“You should tell him that, then! Smack some sense into him, God knows he needs it.”
“I do, sometimes.”
“And what does he do?”
“That silent thing he does! Like he don’t know what to say, then he just keeps on repeating the same thing, like I never told him how I felt! Acting like nothing happened.”
Bonnie gets up from her seat, waving her arm as she accentuates her words, “Men would rather act like a brick wall than a father! My father’s always doing that, pretending there ain’t a problem, but you wanna know what I do?”
“I don’t just shut up and pretend with him, I look at him and I say; “Daddy, why don’t you listen?” You keep letting him know that you aren’t a machine, you’re human too!”
Jack blinks, and lowers his head. He is all too keen on staying nonverbal with his father, and maybe that drives them apart further. He nods, his brow lowered, but when Bonnie puts her hand on his shoulder, he fixes his gaze on her.
“You’re a good boy, Jack, hardworking, too. I know your father loves you, just as much as mine loves me. They just got real funny ways of showing it.” She gives him a pat, before letting her arm drop.
“Thanks, Miss MacFarlane.”
“You’re welcome, son, and it’s Bonnie.”
Jack snorts, and nods. “Okay, Bonnie.”
Jack can somewhat see an amount of his mother in Bonnie, resourceful and unable to take things standing down. It gives him a lasting smile, one that stays as he bids her farewell, as he realizes he has a friend, perhaps his only that isn’t on four legs.
When he tries to sleep again, the crickets chirp a little more softer, so he shuts his eyes, and waits until morning.
Another day passes of silence, nothing special happening, and another day passes of silence. He knows his father is helping the sheriff now, and when the thought of his father killing more and more men crosses his mind, he forces it away. He is no stranger to death, he knows that, yet throughout his teenage years, he’s found it to be a particular fear of his, the last time he saw his father gun down men, he had broken down sobbing, yet he was thirteen when that happened. Sixteen has come, and although the thought displeases him, he knows it’s a fact of life. His father is still killing people, although he promised to never do it again, and that’s a fact of life.
A routine similar to that of Beecher’s Hope stays imbedded in the two, an awkward conversation, Jack brushing him off, rinse and repeat, and unknown to Jack, John’s been trying to do a little better, yet doesn’t have the words to say, so they keep like that, barely conversing as if there’s nothing to say, yet both of them have a mouthful.
One morning, a few days after the night Jack spoke with Bonnie, Jack stumbles out of the shack, and is greeted by John, saddling up his horse.
“Hey, Jack.” He croaks, and Jack gives him a weak wave. “I’m heading to Armadillo.”
“Okay, Pa.” Jack begins walking off, but as John opens his mouth again, he stops.
“You haven’t seen Armadillo yet, I’ll show you the way.”
“What?” Jack turns his head, floored. “You want me to come with you?”
“Yeah, Jack, I do. Come on.” There’s a different tone in John’s voice, something apologetic and soft.
Jack wipes away any remaining crust around his eyelids, and nods.
When they arrive at town, they hitch their horses outside the general store, and with more important things in Jack’s mouth, he instead begins talking about clothes.
“Do you think I’d look good in a hat?”
“Huh?” John responds, tilting his head towards Jack with a laugh.
“A hat, everyone I’ve seen here has some sort of hat except me. It feels weird.”
“Jack, I swear to you, the next clothes store we go to and I’ll buy you a hat.”
“Yeah, right, Pa. The second we stop talking you’ll forget everything I said.”
“You’re too hard on your old man sometimes, I swear, boy!”
“What can I say? Ma and I love making fun of you.” Jack and John begin to laugh together, like two old friends.
Their laughing dies off when they hear yelling, loud demanding exclamations echoing from the Sheriff’s office, a loud slam that must be a fist on a table.
“Another usual day in the Sheriff’s office, it seems.” John muses, yet when Jack narrows his eyes towards the window of the office, he stops.
“Isn’t that Mr. MacFarlane?” Jack points out, and John can’t help but look with him.
“Sure looks like it.” A worried look crosses Jack’s face, and John furrows his brow.
“I should check it out. Why don’t you head to the general store?”
Chewing the inside of his mouth, John nears the Sheriff’s station, the yelling only growing louder, and despite what he told Jack, Jack remains close behind him.
“It’s that Government boy,” Drew growls to the Marshal, and as John turns the doorknob, they continue.
“We’ll ask him,” Says Marshal Leigh, “Find out what he knows.”
When he does enter the station, Drew shifts his anger, turning to John with the wrath of God in his eyes, storming up to him, John instinctively puts his hands up, one keeping Jack behind him as he backs away.
“Where is she?” Drew demands, and the two Marstons share a perplexed face.
“Who?” John asks, and like adding wood to a flame, Drew only grows angrier.
“Who? My daughter, you fucking scum,” He snarls, “Where’s Bonnie?”
Jack pushes John’s arm away, stepping forward. “Bonnie’s gone?” He asks.
Drew, a little bit softer on the boy, slightly eases his expression. “Gone since yesterday,” yet as he looks back to John, the wrath returns, “You have something to do with it?”
John glares, fingers itching to be pulled into a fist. “I don’t know, haven’t seen her since the fire.”
Jack backs out of the office, heart racing as he begins rubbing his shaking hands. It really does seem wherever his father goes, trouble seems to follow, so he backs, and backs away, mouth open and eyes like saucers, and unable to hear the galloping coming his way.
“Oh, god,” He exclaims, twisting his body around and forcing himself to jump back, tripping and falling onto the ground, all to avoid the disgusting looking man riding onto his horse about to trample over him.
“Out of my way, you little shit,” The man snaps, and soon he begins singing for the Marshal.
The three men in the office all pour out at once, and John, seeing his son on the ground, instinctively crouches down with him, helping him to his feet.
He asks for Norman Deek, a man Jack does not know, but John does, and spits out words like acid, cruel and inhumane, and he’s gone.
“Sir,” John says, with a voice Jack has never heard before, “I will get your daughter back. I owe her that.”
John turns to Jack, a grimace on his face. “Jack, get back to the ranch, you hear me? If there’s trouble, you shoot it.”
Jack opens his mouth to protest, yet shuts it again, about to nod, but he hears Bonnie’s voice in his ears, and with a changing face, one of determination, he straightens his back.
“No.” He says. “I’m coming with you.”
“Jack, I’m not playing around,” With his voice slightly raised, John begins to glare.
“I’m not going to sit around waiting for you to get back again, I am coming with you.”
“I don’t have time for this, Jack, you’re doing this now?”
Jack bares his teeth, fists clenched, eyes squinted, when he takes a step forward, John takes a step back.
“She’s my friend,” Jack screams, blood boiling over after years of simmering, he screams, “I won’t take no for an answer, she’s my friend, Pa.”
As Marshal gathers his posse, they all mount up, and Jack watches his father close his mouth, expression unchanging. When he turns around, whistling for his horse, Jack is about to keep screaming.
The horse arrives, and John seems to be reaching for something. Jack begins walking towards him, to continue arguing, and when he hears “Jack,” he stops.
His father turns around, retrieving a rifle and throwing it to him, and Jack nearly fumbles to try and catch it. “Alright.” John says. “Come on.”
When Jack saddles up, he keeps the rifle on his back, and when the posse rolls out, Jack is in the middle.
“You sure bringing a boy is right?” The Marshal asks, and John nods.
“He can shoot, Marshal, better than he appears.” John says, with the slightest amount of pride in his tone.
“Don’t worry about me,” Jack says, “I ain’t a boy.”
And so, Marshal Leigh Johnson and his posse ride towards the town of Tumbleweed, Norman Deek on the rear of his horse.
“If your son steps out of line, you whack him,” The Marshal says, and before Jack can speak up, his father does for him.
“Beating your son only makes him resent you more. It ain’t the way to be a father.”
In a conversation of Bill Williamson, and laws, Jack’s a bit surprised, taken back, even, something good about his father to put on his gravestone, is that he knows somewhat to be a father, and less of a monster.
Eventually, Jack says something. “Pa,” he starts.
“I,” He stutters, “I’ll have your back.”
With those words, any wall can be broken through, and the looks they exchange show that. John gives his son a nod, something meaningless then, but now an act of trust, one that Jack cannot afford to waste, so Jack moves up the formation, now next to his father, and front in line.
The wild soil eventually tames into Tumbleweed ground, and right outside town, the posse dismount, and Deek is thrown onto his feet.
“John, you’ll be exchanging the prisoner for Bonnie in the middle of town,” The Marshal says as John pushes Norman forward, watching the man nearly tumble over. “Keep your eyes open, I sincerely doubt these scum will play fair.”
“You bet, besides, Norm here is gonna be my shield, ain’t you, Norm?” John snides, giving Norm a little shake.
“You bet,” The filth says.
Jack quickly catches up to the posse, retrieving his rifle from his holster.
The scum named Deek begins to cackle, “I’m sure it’s been nice for the boys to have-”
Jack cuts him off, pointing his gun forwards. “Sir, You best learn to keep your mouth shut. Pa?”
John begins to laugh, more of a death-warning than anything humorous, “You best listen to the boy, Deek.”
As the posse walk down the desolate path, Jack whispers to his father, “This doesn’t look right,”
John grinds his teeth, “Just keep your gun ready, Jack.” He whispers back.
Four men greet the posse, with no Bonnie.
Deek fearfully greets his brothers in arms, “What are you waiting for? Untie me, fellas!”
John growls, sneering at the filth. “Where’s Bonnie. I thought we had a deal.”
There’s a pause, a pause that feels like a century, yet only lasts for a few seconds. On the drop of a hat, the filth begin reaching for their guns, and when Jack blinks, John simply closes his left, staring down the sighthole.
And like that, four men fall dead on the ground, a sickening thud greeting them, with Deek caught in the crossfire, he too lay dead.
John ducks, and so does the rest of the posse, with Marshal screaming to his men, “It’s a trap, take cover!”
Behind an abandoned wagon is where John pulls Jack, throwing him into safety’s arms.
“You stay here, behind cover,” He says, but when Jack points his gun directly at John’s skull, he ducks, and Jack sends a bullet straight into the scum that stood on top of the church, blood splattering across God’s domain, and falling.
“I’m with you.” Jack demands, breath frantic, but voice clear, and without a choice, John nods.
“Fine, come on,” He exclaims, scuttering out of cover, and sending a revolver shot through a man’s skull.
Jack, though his hands shake uncontrollably, is able to provide cover for his father. Through the hot desert air, lizards scattering from the town, and crows crying out in the sun, it’s all Jack can focus on as he drives another bullet through a man.
“Where’s Bonnie, you son of bitches,” John screams, fury as unrelenting as a fearsome bear, he screams.
As they run through the town, picking off targets as they come, John can’t help but look at his son, the rifle in his hands, trained on the men that peek from cover, and he shakes his head.
A gunshot, “Your tense,” John grunts, with another gunshot.
“I’m fine, Pa,”
“You’re making the gun jump, son, ease up.”
Jack loosens his shoulder, and when a man jumps out of cover, he shoots.
“Nice,” John exclaims, afterwards sliding behind a barrel for cover, so Jack takes that as cue to tumble towards the box next to it.
“You see Bonnie anywhere?” John asks, and Jack frantically shakes his head.
“Shit,” John hisses through clenched teeth.
“The Marshal and his men are way behind, should we wait for them?” Jack asks, but when they hear a high-pitched shriek, nothing else seems important. John snarls, and Jack huffs. John peeks from cover, and when his eyes go wide, he snarls at Jack.
“Stay down, don’t look.”
Yet, Jack does look. He climbs over a rock he calls cover, and screams.
Bonnie, covered in cuts that are sure to scar, clothes torn, and hair disheveled, her hands bound, and the noose around her neck. Although they appear far, John sees her eyes on them, breathing heavily on a stool.
Rose-colored glasses are always meant to come off, it’s a normal part of growing up, and when Jack was growing up, those lenses shielded him from everything. The bodycount on his Uncle’s names were nothing to him, and he would much rather bury his nose in a book than pay attention to the blood. There were things his parents tried to protect him from, yet nothing could protect him from the world, and what it had for him. Those stories Jack reads, the hero always saves the day, be it from a noble sacrifice or bloodshed, yet for all the bloodshed, you’re never meant to truly care for that, for they’re nameless targets. It’s those stories that kept those glasses on Jack, and when a monster kicks the stool away, and Jack watches Bonnie’s body fling like a ragdoll, kicking and flailing, he silently screams, nothing to come out of his dried throat, and the glasses shatter, and pierce the last of what Jack had of innocence.
It’s that face, the face that twists on Jack, that John looks to, and he feels something shatter too.
Jack panics, he panics and panics, breath uncontrollable and frantic, he panics, but something boils. Like bile filling his throat, the anger that boils in Jack’s heart drives him to jump over his cover, a loud scream erupting from his throat, despite John’s attempts to keep him behind cover.
“Jack,” John screams, “Dammit,” He slams the ground, and is forced to follow after him.
Jack runs towards Bonnie, nothing to stand in his way. When a man attempts to shoot at him, he doesn’t back down, for he points the rifle at the scum, and sends a bullet flying,
“Bonnie,” John shrieks, “We’re coming,”
From the distance, more of Williamson’s gang ride towards Tumbleweed, forcing John to shove himself behind cover.
“Jack,” He calls, “Incoming,”
But Jack doesn’t listen. To him, it’s nothing but pure noise, his shoes stomping over the bodies of scum.
Jack closes the gap between him and the gallows, and as he tugs his hunting knife from his belt, he reaches up, his chest hollow as Bonnie chokes for air.
The rope snaps, and Bonnie tumbles onto the ground, gasping and heaving, and Jack nearly cries.
“Jack,” John shrieks again, “Get down,”
Jack curses as men roll into the ruined town, so he reaches for Bonnie, wrapping an arm around her, and telling her he’s sorry as he pushes her to run with him to cover, out of sight from John.
“John,” Marshal Leigh calls, rolling into cover next to him, “Where’s Bonnie?”
“With the boy,” He answers, breath steadying. “She’s safe,”
Gunshots echo through the town as Leigh’s posse take out several of the gang.
His boy’s anguished face, now burned into his skull, is all he can think about as he scans for him and Bonnie, nowhere to be seen.
“Fuck.” John says, “Cover me.”
Leigh nods, and John hauls himself over the cover, pointing his revolver towards the pieces of shit that believe they’re human. From behind a broken wall, he notices Jack.
Jack points his rifle from over cover, and instead of blood, he’s greeted by a click. He quickly pulls back, and begins to shake the gun.
“No, no,” He whines.
Bonnie, though safe from the noose, is still in danger, so he tells her to stay put, for he pokes his head up and meets his father’s gaze.
“I’m out of bullets, Pa,” He announces.
Time stops around the both of them, and for a second, John is a real father, and Jack is a boy, out in the field, with a ball and glove, so John wraps his hand around his revolver, and gives his son a look.
“Jack,” He yells, “Catch!” John hurls the gun across the battlefield.
Jack jumps over the broken down brick wall, nonexistent to him and John, and he reaches his hand out, running past men who point their guns at him, and the bodies that litter the ground, and like a boy with his father in the sunny field playing catch, both hands wrap themselves around the barrel of the gun, and he forces himself to roll, repositioning the gun so his finger’s on the trigger, as John retrieves a pistol from the ground, he points it behind Jack, and Jack unrolls and points behind John, and they pull the triggers.
Two men die on the spot, falling back in sync as John and Jack stand back to back.
“Are you alright?” John asks, not looking back to Jack, who doesn’t answer.
Eventually, every man in the posse’s path is dead, and blood is stained into the abandoned ground. Jack leads Bonnie out of cover, letting her lean on him as they approach the Marshal and his boys.
“Bonnie, are you okay?” John asks, arm reaching out.
“I’m,” She pants, red streaks along her neck, “I’m fine, thank you, thank you and your boy.”
The Marshal approaches them. “You did good, boys. I’m sure without you, Bonnie’d be dead.”
Jack helps Bonnie to the Marshal’s stagecoach, and as they ride out, Jack and John are left in the town of ghosts.
“Ow,” Jack whimpers, and John whips around.
There, without anybody noticing, Jack holds his arm, for only now has the red in his eyes vanished, he realizes the gunshot that grazed him, skin red and striped shirt ripped.
“Jack, boy,” John says, quickly, yet gently taking his son’s arm. “You got grazed?”
Jack begins to frantically nod, and as the realization hits him, his breathing fastens, and his knees buckle. He falls back, catching himself with his unharmed arm, and he breaths.
John quickly is by his side, on his knees, a hand on his back.
“You did good, son, you did so good.” He whispers. “It’s okay.”
Jack shakes his head back and forth, “My arm, my arm,”
“Don’t worry, Jack, it’s nothing serious, can you walk?” John curses, for his bandages are packaged on his horse’s saddle. He whistles for the horse once Jack manages to say no.
Eventually, as the sun shines high, and Jack’s arm is bandaged, they sit nearby outside the town, and away from the bodies.
“Breath, Jack,” John says, “Just breath.”
When they finally do head back, it’s a very gentle ride, Jack sniffling softly and John offering him stories, funny stories.
“Do you remember when Rufus took off with my hat?” He eventually asks, and although Jack doesn’t nod, he continues. “Chased after that little bastard for over an hour. You and Abigail came out of the house when I started hollering after I fell into the mud trying to catch him.”
Jack, with a voice quiet yet amused, smiles. “Ma was so angry you had gotten your shirt dirty right after she washed it.”
John snorts, ugly and all funny-like. “And then, after I did nothing but chase after that dog, there you went and whistled, and he came trotting up with a shit-eating grin, with my hat, too. I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier.”
Slowly, they do return to the ranch, and when Jack reaches the shack, he immediately flops onto the bed, and shuts his eyes, sleeping like a baby, and John is sure that’s the fastest he’s ever fallen asleep. He gives his son a pat on the head, proud yet sad, and sleeps on the chair right by the bed, leaning over on the table, with his arms as a pillow.
When John dreams, he dreams of home, a time before Edgar Ross, and when Jack dreams, he dreams of a camp, faces blurred and unknown, crowding around him and a warm campfire, the night blanketing the sky, and a man’s voice singing with words Jack doesn’t remember, his mother’s arms around him.
Chapter 4: You Shall Not Give False Testimony, Except for Profit
Jack meets a funny voiced man, and is left in the dark.
It’s been a week after Jack and John saved Bonnie, and the routine has slowly shifted back into place. John’s been slightly more open towards Jack, telling him of various things he’s done, people he has met. The people of Armadillo, and those surrounding the town sure are weird, Jack has concluded. Jack’s been frequenting the town more often, now, becoming a regular in the general store. He bought a book with the money he earned from the Foreman, a story about a bank robbery, and a man who bites off more he can chew, and the consequences that follow. To Jack, it’s a bore, so he rarely touches it, instead, he’s found he rather likes his father’s stories. Eventually, John tells him of a man he found in the middle of nowhere, and he talked all funny like.
On a particular day, John and Jack ride alongside each other, a steady canter towards Armadillo. Their conversation remains lighthearted, and as the town comes into view, Jack rolls his eyes.
“I think I deserve my own gun. One that I don’t borrow from you.” He says.
John laughs it off as he says, “You ever heard of taking your time? You take down a few men and you suddenly think you’re Landon Ricketts.”
“Come on, sir, I don’t need hand-me-downs from you,” Jack groans.
“I’ll think about it. For now, stick to my rifle.”
Eventually, they reach the town, hitching their horses outside the saloon. Across the town, a commotion grabs their attention, a man dressed well yelling at whatever’s in the doctor’s clinic.
“Seems he’s having fun.” John says, before strolling across the town towards the man, with Jack by his side. “That’s the freak I told you about, the one in the desert.”
Jack begins to snicker, “He does talk real funny. You were right, Pa.”
They both begin to laugh as they approach the man, and Jack sees just how ridiculous the man really is. A top hat, and an ego more noticeable than an elephant ear.
“And I can tell you,” The man wails with a voice like a foghorn, “With no uncertainty, that miracle cures are no laughing matter!”
John’s breathy laugh dies off as he crosses his arms, shaking his head softly as the man finally turns around to notice their existence.
“Ah, Mr. Marston!” He says, “Good to see you! How have you been keeping?”
“I’m fine, Mr, uh,” John replies, yet unable to recall the man’s name.
“Mr. West Dickens,” West Dickens answers, “Nigel West Dickens of East Cheap, London, New Waverly, New York, and,” He waves his arm, turning on his heels, “Armadillo, New Austin,” He strikes a pose, one that makes Jack laugh, “At your service!”
“I feel like I’ve heard of you, Sir,” Jack tells Dickens, who looks to the boy.
“Ah, good things, I presume?” He asks,
“Yeah, you could say that,” Jack snickers, exchanging a funny glance with his father.
“Young man, is there something behind your ear?” Dickens asks, and Jack gives him a look.
Dickens reaches towards Jack, pinching his fingers near the boy’s left ear, and before Jack can pull back, the man exits Jack’s personal space with a penny in his fingers. As Jack processes it, he can’t help but begin to laugh, while from the corner of his eye, he sees John pinch the bridge of his nose.
“A magician man, ain’t you?” Jack says between the giggles, and Dickens gives the penny to Jack.
“Not just magician, young man! Entrepreneur, scientist, miracle worker!” He announces, clearly not knowing the definition of inside voice.
Jack pockets the penny, and takes a step back as John catches the man’s attention, allowing John to ask about the man’s wounds.
Although Jack can see the man’s obvious false bravado, something about him makes Jack like him already.
“I need men like you!” Dickens eventually says, “Young and healthy!”
That one gets Jack laughing harder, holding his stomach as John whips around with a look.
“Sorry, sir, seems my son’s joining the circus today, since he keeps acting like a clown.”
“Laughter is the best medicine, Mr. Marston,” Dickens says, “Come! Ride with me to Ridgewood,”
John has to elbow Jack’s arm to get him to stop laughing at him.
“Young and healthy, yeah right,” Jack wheezes.
“Be quiet, boy. I think I like you better when you have your nose in a book.” John muses.
They board Dicken’s rather dressy stagecoach, with Jack squeezed into the middle of the two men.
“Jack, when you’re older, if you become like this crazy old fool, I’m disowning you,” John eventually says as he leads the horses down the path out of Armadillo.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dickens gasps, holding a hand over his chest.
“I think he’s calling you a hack, sir,” Jack says.
“Excuse me? I am a lifesaver, my dear boy! You are much to keen on accusing those who help!”
“You call hoodwinking the weak and gullible out of their hard-earned money ‘Help’?” John says with a crinkled nose, a clear sneer in his voice.
“I believe you, sir, are the gullible one, if I may be so bold for heeding such ill-informed scuttlebutt!” Dickens retorts, and Jack finds himself turning his head back and forth like he’s watching a tennis match.
“You’re as full of wind as a horse with the colic!” John snaps back.
“I have been blessed with the gift of language,” Dickens shouts,”and for that, I will not apologize, but the West Dickens Elixirs speak for themselves! My thousands of happy customers can attest to that!”
Jack twists his head to Dickens and snorts. “You talk real flowery, sir, speaking without actually saying anything.”
John chuckles and reaches to give Jack a pat on the shoulder. “Good boy, you tell him.”
Eventually, Dickens finally gets to the plan, a stupid one, Jack thinks, having to fake improvement from whatever the hell sits in those bottles.
“I believe it’ll sell the truth even more if both of you show off your skills after tasting my West Dickens Elixir, can you shoot, boy?”
“Can I shoot? Can you read?” Jack says, jabbing his thumb towards the rifle on his back.
“Point taken, dear boy!” Dickens is nearly cut off by the laughing John does, slapping his knee and all that.
Dickens requests the two stroll into Ridgewood on foot, as not to drive suspicion, so once they climb off the stagecoach, Dickens leaves them in the dust, leaving them on their own. As they walk towards the homestead, John turns to Jack.
“How’s the arm?” He asks.
“Like you said, nothing too serious. Feels just like a bruise.”
“I’m glad. I was worried back there.”
“Don’t say that in front of the bad guys, unless you wanna be soft.”
“Jack, sometimes I swear, you’re just like your mother.”
“Thanks, I think.”
When they finally enter the homestead, Dickens has already earned himself an audience, presenting a dressed table holding his elixirs.
“Gather round, gather round,” He shouts, gesturing his hands around like a mime.
Jack and John slowly push through the crowd, and as Jack watches his father cross his arms, he does so too.
“Do you suffer from rheumatism? Lumbago?” Dickens continues, and Jack elbows John.
“Wow, we can finally cure Uncle,” Jack whispers in a deadpan tone, and John elbows him back.
“I was happy enough pretending that old bastard didn’t exist.”
As Dickens continues talking about nothing, eventually he rubs his hands together with a sly smile.
“I am sure there is a customer here that could prove the qualities of it by taking a drink right now!” Dickens starts, and quickly points towards John. “You, sir! Come on up!”
John takes his sweet time slowly stumbling through the crowd, sauntering towards the table silently. Jack quickly pushes through the crowd so he can get a front row seat to what will be the funniest thing he’s ever seen.
John finally reaches the table, keeping a relaxed posture as he tucks his thumb into his belt, looking out to the audience, and when he does, he sees Jack give him a thumbs up, and John gives him acknowledgement with a tip of his hat.
“That’s the spirit!” Dickens cheers, as he reaches over the table to retrieve a long metal bottle, slamming it into John’s hand. “This poor wretched volunteer, completely unknown to me, will demonstrate the effects of Dr. West Dickens’ Own Patent Tonic!”
Slowly, John begins to bring the bottle up to his lips, taking the smallest sip from the bottle before quickly lowering his head, the bottle too, and nearly coughing his lungs out, the liquid burning his throat. Without time to rest, Dickens takes the bottle, and begins to drag John by the arm, poetically going on, and on about the elixir. The crowd, Jack too, begin to move back as Dickens drags John to the middle, asking him a question.
“Your eyesight is greatly improved, is that not so, friend?”
“If you say so,” John answers, and behind him, Jack shakes his head.
John is tasked with shooting a skull off a door, and with the gleam in the distance, a single bullet knocks it off it’s peg, sending the audience into uproaring cheers, while Jack simply grins.
As John continues his show, Dickens quickly pulls the audience’s attention back to him as he quickly joins Jack’s side, putting a hand on his back. “The tonic even works on the youth, young boy, do you suffer from anything?”
“I, uh, suffer from chronic ‘Annoyed by talentless hacks’ syndrome.” Jack deadpans, with the audience laughing at this, Dickens plays it off as a joke.
“Do not worry, young man! Once you take a sip from this,” He raises the bottle John had sipped earlier, “And you’ll see this is no funny business!”
As Jack takes it, he whispers harshly. “I’m not drinking from this, he already put his lips on it,”
Dickens eyes the audience and whispers back, “Son, please,”
So Jack grumbles, wipes the mouth of the bottle with his sleeve, and takes a large gulp of the tonic, and the second it fills his mouth, he’s pretty sure he’s going to vomit.
“How do you feel, son?” Dickens asks, and when John turns around, he sees that Jack is green in the face.
“I feel like a thousand bucks, sir, yup,” Jack wheezes, shoving the bottle into Dicken’s arms.
“Do you see those birds up on the roof? Why don’t you show off your new gifts!” Dickens urges Jack, so Jack stumbles forward, and quickly retrieves his father’s rifle from it’s holster.
John nearly stops the show altogether by the sight of poor Jack, and he swears if Dicken’s poisoned his kid with whatever the hell was in that thing, he would go crazy.
“Pa,” Jack hesitates, “Mind shooting your gun, scare those things?”
John reluctantly raises his revolver into the sky before pulling the trigger, and with that, the birds cry out and fly into the sky as Jack quickly points his gun to the heavens.
Jack eyes the sky, and with a deep breath and silence around him, he pulls the trigger, and a bird far in the sky falls, and the audience begins to holler.
“See that? A young boy goes from a novice to a legend in seconds thanks to this miracle tonic!” Dickens shouts, raising his hands to the heavens, while John finds himself cheering, and Jack slowly lowers his gun, smiling along with the audience’s cries.
Suddenly, a man from the crowd storms into the clearing, Jack quickly backing away from Dickens, and John quietly eyeing the man.
“Anyone could’ve made those shots,” The bulky man shouts, “They’re frauds” He points directly at Jack and John, and while John stands proud, Jack slightly slouches forward. “If you’re both damn good shots, why don’t you try shooting my hat out of the air?”
Dickens takes this opportunity to urge this forward, “My friends, our specimens have been challenged to shoot a gentleman’s hat out of sky above our heads!”
The bulky man begins to back away slowly, eyes narrowed on the two. “You can fool these people, but you can’t fool me.”
Jack slowly raises his rifle, and lightly nudges John, who notices the gentle tap.
“You got this,” John whispers, and Jack forces himself to believe him.
The man slowly removes his black hat, shaking it slightly. “Right, let’s see how good you is with a moving target,”
John’s revolver remains in it’s holster, and as the man readies his throw, John’s fingers twitch, while Jack’s finger remains on the trigger, itching slightly.
“Get ready, boys!” Dickens tells the Marstons.
The man, with quite the opposite of a drop of a hat, launches his hat into the sky, and with John’s encouragement, the world slows, and the hat is torn into pieces by the bullets of John and Jack Marston, and the audience goes wild.
“Behold!” Dickens screams, “The power of the elixir! Plucked right out of the sky!”
John gives Jack a solid pat on the back, and Jack’s wide grin brings him to smile too.
The bulky man, enraged, cuts the cheers short as he screams, “What, you think you can just shoot a man’s hat out of the sky, and just walk away, do you?”
The man storms forward, eyes set on John, and with Jack in the way, the man grabs Jack and throws him aside, the boy stumbling back. John grimaces, eyes narrowed as his hands ball up into fists.
“It don’t work that way, mister,” The man growls.
John averts his eyes just for a moment to look at Jack, who gives him a nod that he is okay, yet as Jack’s brow furrows, the nod gives a new meaning, one that says ‘Teach this man a lesson.’
“Are you a man or not?” The man shouts, giving John a forceful jab, sending him stumbling backwards.
“A challenge has been offered to the stronger of our volunteers, it seems,” Dickens announces, presenting the two men with his hands. “Prepare for a display of Herculean strength!”
The man throws the first punch, and John stumbles back as he feels the brunt of the man’s fist on his face.
“Pa,” He hears Jack call, and when he looks back, he sees Jack making a motion with his right arm, and when John looks back, the man flings his right arm forward, and John catches the man’s arm, and quickly delivers a kick to the man’s stomach, and throwing him back. The audience gasps, and cheer.
John looks at Jack, who, with his arms, shows John to parry to the left. The man quickly flings himself forward towards John, so John takes a dip, and with an opportunity, sends a gloved fist right into the man’s cheek.
With Dickens providing commentary, John imagines himself in a boxing match, the cheering crowd, and the snarling man as his rival. With every glance as Jack, he has insight in on his enemy, and with a punch, and another one, and another one to the head, the man falls back into the muddied ground, and the audience screams, throwing their hats into the air in celebration, and Dickens the happiest man on Earth.
“Come on, Aquila,” A lonesome man says, urging the large man on the ground to his feet, and with that, John quickly returns to Jack.
“How’d you know what that brute was going to do?”
“I became a psychic after downing that poison.” Jack deadpans.
“Ha.” John responds.
“Alright, when you’re watching a fight, it’s pretty easy to see what move a brute like that will pull. He reaches his arm back when he’s about to punch.”
“I actually think I’m going to vomit.”
John snorts. “How much did you drink?”
Jack shrugs. “I don’t know, a mouthful?”
“Well, if you die, we’ll know why.”
“Ma would kill you.”
“And then we can laugh about it at the pearly gates. Once that rotten bastard’s done rolling in money, I’ll get you something normal to drink.”
Soon, the crowd disperses, and Dickens is left a very happy man. He soon calls John and Jack over, thanking them, and before John can escape, he stops them.
“Wait,” Dickens says, taking John’s shoulder. “I think I may be able to aid in your conquest,”
John glares, yet turns around, arms folded over his chest. “Jack,” He says, “Why don’t you head towards the entrance, I’ll meet you there.”
“Huh?” Jack tilts his head.
“Go on,” John urges, and as Jack reluctantly backs away from the two, and turns away to head towards the gate to the farm, John brings his voice to a whisper. “What do you mean, old man?”
There’s a plan, a stupid one, but a plan nonetheless, and a name; Seth, and as John returns to Jack, he gives John a funny look.
“What were you talking about?” He asks.
“Nothing.” John answers, and even without looking at Jack, he can feel the boys disbelief.
This isn’t Jacks fight.
Chapter 5: Fatherhood, For Veterans
resentment and apologies
Jack hasn’t seen his father in days.
Maybe that’s stretching it, Jack has seen his father in glances, a hello and a goodbye, yet the stories, the laughing, it hasn’t been seen since Jack met Dickens. For Jack, it’s been too long since he has truly spoken with his father, and the silent, cold exterior his father has put up around others, he has now turned on his son.
Thankfully, Jack frequents Armadillo, and is a regular in the MacFarlane’s house, and just yesterday, Drew MacFarlane ruffled the boys hair, a gesture Jack found himself leaning into. His rifle is out of ammo now, and sits on the table inside the shack, and Jack hasn’t been able to have a decent conversation with his father in awhile to ask for a refill.
Jack tells himself not to worry, for this happens a lot, and that it will blow over, and his father will be normal again, yet when he sees his father’s face, it’s not a man he recognizes, and he’s sure his father is more akin to a puppet on a string than a man capable of conversation. He sleeps, he drinks, he eats like any other man, but in the morning, Jack watches him ride off to God knows where. When he rides off, there’s the nagging in Jack’s skull, that he won’t come back, and though he knows better, the fear that arises in his gut is something he can’t stop.
There’s a night in particular, where Jack stays up, eyes upon the roof, and he never does hear his father come back. No door opening, no bag dropped on the table, no cigarette smell to clog up his nose, and it’s that night, where Jack brings himself to a seated position, hides his face in his hands, and allow the sting and burn in his eyes to flow.
One night, there’s a dream he has, where his father lays in a makeshift hospice, a cot surrounded by pearly white snow, and while it seems Jack’s too small to understand, he understands that his father would rather die than acknowledge his son’s existence.
It’s this dream that wakes him up in the middle of midnight, crickets chirping, and a dog’s echoing bark being his reminder of the outside world. When he goes outside, he sees his father sleeping on the ground again, and in his mind, he hears John’s cigarette voice, ‘Well, he’s seen me,’ and the chill of imaginary winter air on his tongue.
His father sound asleep, Jack wants to pretend John doesn’t exist, and that he’d rather die than acknowledge him.
John wakes up missing Abigail.
It’s nothing new, ever since Edgar Ross came into the picture, he’s been missing Abigail pretty much everyday.
He helped the freak named Seth find his ‘friend’.
He horse-raced for Dickens.
He met a merry trio, and only one walked out of the barn, and the only one that walked out of the barn led him to nowhere.
He hasn’t been sleeping consistently.
When John slowly stirs awake on that shack wall, he rubs his eyes with a gloved hand, and slowly returns his hat to it’s proper place. It’s dark, and darker in the sky, and he slowly leans his head back, eyes sliding shut again. The crickets chirp, and the dog’s barking, and a door opens. It creaks, and there’s a couple of steps that die near John, yet John’s eyes remain shut.
When he opens his eyes again, Jack’s horse is gone, and without incentive, for some reason, in his head he hears Abigail’s voice. ‘The boy wanted to see you,’ She said to him, looking down to a makeshift hospice in winter cold, and to John, in New Austin heat, suddenly he feels the winter nip at him like it really is there.
For Jack, he tried, and still tries, and the look of his son’s face, twisted and wide at the sight of Bonnie haunts him more than any ghost in the corner of his eye. Fort Mercer stands between him and Jack, and when he eventually gets Bill Williamson’s blood splattered across his face like acid, he isn’t too sure he can look into his son’s eyes again.
He lights a cigarette, and as he sits in the night, he pretends he isn’t a waste of space, and when he croaks out ‘Sorry’, he hopes it isn’t an empty word, and somehow, Abigail can hear him.
Eventually, he gets up and finally enters the shack, feeling as if it’s much too small for him now. The wooden floor creaks under his boots, and the walls feel crooked to him. He puts a hand on the table across the bed, tired eyes scanning the rifle left behind, and silently takes it. It’s empty, he realizes, and then he realizes that’s why it’s been left behind. He digs into his bag, digs further, and digs further, and retrieves a box and he sets it and the rifle on the table, a refill of ammo for his hand-me-down rifle.
When he leaves the shack, his bag across his shoulder, he mounts his horse, and leaves the ranch yet again.
‘It ain’t fair to Jack,’ he writes in the dirty journal in his bag, the one he hasn't written in for years, ‘I ain’t doing right for him.’
Jack eventually returns to the ranch, and when he peers into the shack door, lips slightly part and eyebrows raise at the gift left behind. He sits his bag on the bed, takes the gun, places it in his lap, and slowly reloads it as he opens a can of peaches and eats it.
The next morning, John returns and is the one to wake Jack up. When Jack pulls himself out of bed, John pulls a seat up to the bed, bag in his lap, and with Jack’s confused and tired look, he opens his chapped mouth.
“Give me your arm,” He says, gesturing with his hand.
“Why?” Jack says, voice groggy and throaty.
“Just give me it,” John repeats, and although reluctantly, Jack slowly holds his arm out. “No, the other one,” John says, gesturing to the one still wrapped in a bandage around his bicep.
Jack makes an annoyed kind of noise before giving John his arm, and John slowly removes the bandage, revealing the still torn shirt underneath, the red streak along his arm mostly faded.
“What are you doing?” Jack groans, eyes squinted nearly shut, but as John opens the bag, he groans louder.
With a white thread, the closest color to Jack’s baby blue sleeve, and a needle, he attempts to recall the time Hosea once showed him how to sew.
“Your mother got you this shirt,” John huffs, “And she’d kill you if she saw you weren’t taking care of it right.”
“Ow,” Jack hisses as John accidentally pricks him with the needle, almost about to pull away fully.
“Sorry, Jack.” John mumbles.
Eventually, the shirt is repaired, albeit a badly done job at repairing. John cuts away the loose amount of thread with his hunting knife, and Jack is left with a perplexed look.
“You bought sewing supplies?” He finally asks.
“Yeah, and I ain’t good at it.”
“Uh, thanks, Pa.”
“Don’t thank me, Jack. I’m just trying to be a father.”
Eventually, as they sit silently, Jack turns away from John, bringing his knees up to his chest, crossing his arms together, and slowly rests his head on his arms, all without a word.
“I’ll let you rest.” John says before getting up and leaving, the door creaking loudly, then gently, and soon, no more noise.
Chapter 6: Paying A Social Call I
jack pays a visit.
“How’re you doing?” Jack asks Bonnie as he rests his cup of tea against the coaster.
“I’m surviving, Jack.” She responds, “Thank you, again. I owe you and your father a great debt.”
Jack leans back on the MacFarlane’s couch, shrugging. “You don’t owe us anything, Bonnie.”
She shakes her head, laughing. “Just like your father.”
Bonnie’s bruises have faded well, barely noticeable now. Her personality has just about returned, the same bright smile and loud voice. While John has been to the ranch less and less, Jack has been making himself more useful. The other day, him and Bonnie broke in a pack of wild horses, and the day before that, he milked cows. He nearly feels apart of the family, Bonnie a bit like an older sister.
“I did what you told me, the other day,” Jack begins, and Bonnie leans forward.
“Did you, now?”
“I, uh, when you got captured, I, I wouldn’t let him brush me off. I told him I was coming with him, and that I was going to help.”
“Judging by your heroic rescue, I’d say it went well, then,” She smiles.
“I guess it did, Bonnie, I guess it did.”
Eventually, their conversation shifts gears, and as Jack finishes the last of his tea, he sighs.
“I think he’s trying, but he sure as hell can’t speak to me.”
“And you talk to him?”
“I try, sometimes. I get a grunt, or a yes, nothing important.”
“The travesty of Man. When they’re not talking out of their asses, they’re not even speaking, right?”
Jack snorts, and nods slowly. “Ma always did get real annoyed with Pa because of that.”
“What’s your mother like? You never did answer me fully last time.” Bonnie asks, and Jack ponders.
“Like I said before, she’s my mother, real smart, I think she’s smarter than Pa. She likes it when I read books to her, she don’t like the real violent ones. She, uh, she’s my Ma. I miss her a lot.” Jack’s voice begins to waver, threatening to break, so he gives Bonnie a look and she understands.
“I don’t know about all this business you and your father are wrapped up in, but I’m real sorry. You seemed real shaky when I first found you.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Jack muses.
It was Bonnie that brought Jack to the ranch, shaking and crying like a leaf, reuniting the two Marstons was an accident, yet for that action, Jack owes her.
“Bonnie, can I ask you something?” Jack eventually asks.
“Yeah, Jack, of course,” She responds, her head tilting slightly, a concerned look.
“Can you tell me about Bill Williamson?”
“That son of a bitch’s been a thorn in my side too long. His gang’s a bunch of crazy pigs.”
“He used to be my uncle.” Jack mumbles.
“Damn, I’m sorry,” Bonnie says.
“I don’t remember him much, I was real little. It feels weird, hearing about him again.”
“The man’s bad news. I’m glad you’re able to see that. The Marshal’s definitely not doing anything about it.”
Jack begins to rub his hands together, brow furrowing. “Do you know why my father’s here?”
“Getting that man to talk is like pulling a tooth, I’m gonna be honest,” Bonnie begins, leaning forward slightly. “He told me that if he didn’t find Williamson, something real bad would happen.”
“Oh.” Is all Jack says.
“Everyone knows,” A loud voice enters, Drew’s trudging boots across the wooden floor, “That he’s a government lap dog right now.”
“The government’s the ones that took my mother.”
Drew’s brow eases gently, as he offers a slight sympathetic glance. “It’s what they do. They’re sick son of a bitches, don’t know one thing about the freedom they pretend they’re protecting.”
“So, my father needs to kill Bill Williamson, or just arrest him or something, because the government told him to, and they’re using my mother as blackmail.” Jack says, less of a question, and more as a statement. Bonnie and Drew look at each other.
“That ain’t fair,” Jack sighs, “It’s not right.”
Bonnie slowly takes a seat next to Jack and gives him a gentle pat. “I’m real sorry, Jack. This just ain’t something a boy your age should have to learn.”
Drew crosses his arms. “Jack,” He starts, “You’re a good kid, better than most. You helped me out a great deal. If there’s anything you need, let me know.”
Jack chews the inside of his mouth before answering. “We have a ranch, not too far from here, Beecher’s Hope. I, uh, I’d appreciate if you, uh,” He shuts his eyes before sighing, “Just help us.”
“I’d be more than happy to help you and your family, son,” Drew answers.
“Thanks, sir, Bonnie. Thank you.”
Jack bids the MacFarlanes farewell, and as he walks, he rubs his face, runs his hand through his hair, and sighs. His horse, hitched outside the Marston shack, huffs as he mounts it, giving it a pat on the neck as he leads it out of the ranch. With a deadset glare in the burning sun, he spurs the horse into a full gallop towards the town of Armadillo, and in the blinding light, he can’t help but wish he has a hat.
Chapter 7: Paying A Social Call II
jack pays another visit
“West Dickens,” Jack shouts in the middle of Armadillo, “Hold up,”
Nigel quickly halts his stagecoach before concluding Jack isn’t an angry customer.
“Hello, dear boy! What brings you to Armadillo? Do you seek my medical prowess?”
Jack begins to climb up the ladder to shotgun, rolling his eyes, “No, sir. Not today. I just wanna help.” He whistles loudly, echoing through the town as his horse quickly runs alongside the stagecoach, ready to follow.
Dickens gasps, a smile across his cartoonish face, “Just like your father, it seems, my boy! The soul of an angel! Come then, let us ride!”
As they ride through New Austin, Armadillos scutter across the road, and birds circle the skies, and Jack begins to laugh.
“You oughta become a comedian, sir,” He says, “You’d probably be making more money.”
“Maybe so, I am a man of many skills, yet the song of science continues to draw me into it’s loving arms.” He begins to act with his hands again, when he should be driving the horses.
Eventually, with the stagecoach rattling against the bumpy roads of the desert, Jack crooks his head to the side.
“So, where are we going?” Jack asks.
“Well, I was planning on heading to Warthington Ranch, yet a new plan crosses my mind! How are you with a horse, my boy?”
“I’ve beaten my father in a race every time, sir,”
“Marvelous! Then we shall head towards a popular spot for horse racers and prizes alike! At Rathskeller Fork, is where we will head.”
“Alright, sir, then let’s move it,” Jack says with a clear smile in his voice.
During the ride, Dickens tells Jack about his father, and how they attempted to con, (Dickens doesn’t call it con) and it went a little less smoothly than last time. He also tells Jack about the horse racing his father has been doing, yet when Jack asks why, he doesn’t exactly answer.
“I’m going to enter a race, finish first, and then what?” Jack asks.
“Then we’ll walk away like kings, my boy, you will be the talk of the town! Young horse riding prodigy steals the show, they’ll say,” Dickens fantasizes, with the wave of his hand, and Jack can’t help but chuckle.
“Alright, sir, I understand.”
It seems there’s no other man that can make Jack laugh like Mr. West Dickens, for throughout the rest of the drive, Jack is slapping his knee at the man’s stories, and the fancy words he uses. When the conversation shifts, Jack is grinning like a drunk fool.
“Jack, you are a boy beyond your years, never have I seen such a cultured young fellow,” Dickens eventually says, and Jack snorts.
“I read a couple of books and suddenly I’m cultured?”
“It’s rare, in these lands, to find somebody who respects the fine arts such as literature, science, all too rare, I say,”
“Whatever you say, sir,”
As they near Rathskeller Fork, Jack soon stops the stagecoach, climbing onto his own horse, giving it a solid pat for following them all that way.
“I’ll win you that race, Mr. Dickens,” Jack promises, and Dickens quickly swings his arm forward.
“Then go, my boy, go!”
Up the hill, Jack spurs his horse into the settlement, a crowd surrounding the the many contenders on their steeds, cheering and awaiting. Jack slowly walks his horse forward, to the back of the riders. One looks back and stares.
“This ain’t a kiddies race, kid,” He says.
Jack clears his throat, and with his father’s voice in mind, fakes a deep tone. “I ain’t a kid, old man,” He snaps.
The man at the front of the charge, with a pistol aimed at the sky and a crowd behind him, straightens his crooked glasses and shouts, “Gentleman, this will be a fair race,” He says, listing off several activities that are forbidden, “Get yourselves ready,”
Jack shifts around on his saddle, hands gripping the reins tightly. He turns his head, noticing Dickens just entering the settlement, and as he turns back to the front of the race, the man pulls the trigger.
The riders, including Jack, take off down the set path, smoke markers in the distance. With a goal, and the wind in his hair, Jack spurs his horse forward, sharply inhales, and fights his way to the top.
An eternity passes, and as West Dickens wrings his hands continuously, a figure returns to the settlement, a boy with a dirtied striped shirt and a grey vest, his boy, and as the audience screams and cheers, Dickens cheers as well.
Jack halts his horse in the middle of town, and as several more of the riders pour in, the man with crooked glasses shakes Jack’s hand, and raises it victoriously. “We have a winner,” He screams, and Jack can’t help but laugh.
Jack and Dickens claim their reward, and as Jack climbs into shotgun on Dickens’ stagecoach, he sighs.
“I won a race,” He says, exhausted.
“That you did, boy, that you did,” Dickens congratulates, patting him on the back. He splits the money, giving Jack half.
“What are you going to do with the money?” Jack asks.
“What I always do with money, expand my supply, and make my name known to the stars above,”
Jack repositions himself, now staring Dickens down.
“What are you going to do with the money?” He repeats, voice a little more strained.
“Whatever do you mean, my dear boy?”
“I’m not stupid, I know you and my father are planning something, and I need to know,”
“I am not planning anything, Jack, you are far too delusional, it seems!”
Jack’s brow lowers, and his eyes slightly squint, and for a brief moment, Dickens is sure he’s staring at John himself.
“Don’t lie to me, old man,” Jack growls, and finally, Dickens breaks.
“I am simply your father’s Trojan horse, a ticket into Fort Mercer,” He explains.
“So you’re going to sneak him in?” Jack asks.
“Well, I am but a singular cog in the machine that is this plan, your father has many allies to complete this fruitless endeavor.”
“No one important, dear boy,” Jack reaches behind his back and wraps a hand around the barrel of his rifle. Dickens makes a kind of sound, and Jack can see the sweat on his brow.
“Our accomplices, a man named Irish and Seth, I assure you that is the truth. You are one stubborn boy, might I add.”
“And where can I find them?”
Eventually, Jack forces Dickens to stop the stagecoach, hand finally leaving his rifle be. He gives the man a nod, he would give a tip of the hat if he had one. As Dickens quickly drives away, carriage rattling, Jack backs away slowly, boots scratching against the sand below. He calls his horse to him.
Jack rubs the back of his neck as he settles on his saddle, locking his boots in the stirrups, stirring the horse forward to Thieves Landing.
Chapter 8: Paying A Social Call III
Jack meets two drunken fools
A piece of shit, is what it is. Humidity and clouds, hidden in the trees, marshes and swamps, and as Jack’s horse climbs over the bridges crossing over water, Jack gets looks and glares alike, and as he hitches his horse, he’s sure he hears a glass window break. He walks with feet wide apart, shoulders squared, and a thumb tucked into his belt, the other balled into a fist. He doesn’t spare looks towards the locals, instead using his shoulder to force the saloon doors open.
Men, sad and grouchy, with shoulders hunched forward and lips around bottles, with sunken and drunken eyes, and faces flushed, meet Jack’s eyes as he saunters into the saloon. Jack clears his throat, before lowering his head and squinting his eyes. Deep within the dreary shithole, his boots click against splintering and creaky and moldy wood, and as he takes a seat at the bar, the bartender gives him an odd look.
The man next to Jack, with a stained, yellowed work shirt covered in god knows what, with hair shaggy and shitty, an unkempt beast on his face, doesn’t acknowledge his existence. So, Jack elbows the man forcefully, the man snapping into consciousness with a shout.
“Are you Irish?” Jack asks.
With a breathy, accented voice, Jack can smell his whisky voice from a mile away. “I never heard of him.” He says, nearly keeling over.
“And you’re the only man I’ve met with an accent like that. Don’t lie to me.”
“Oh, oh I ain’t lying to you, I only thought you was somebody else, simple mistake.” He sings before taking another sip of the bottle in his hand. “What do you need, boy?”
“You know my father, John Marston, is that right?” Jack says, words impactful and slow, as not to confuse the poor, drunken idiot.
“Mister Marston, that man? Didn’t know he shagged, the sly dog. I oughta congratulate him, a woman could actually stand him long enough for him to,”
“Sir, no offense, but I need you to shut up.”
“Just being honest, Junior, I’m a little fluthered as you can see. Take a load off, Junior,” Irish sloppily leans the bottle towards Jack.
“Yeah, no.” He answers.
“Got a stick up your ass, don’t you? Just like your father, then, but at least he can respect the drink.”
Jack glares before snatching the bottle, “Fine, you crazy fool,” hesitating, he brings the bottle to his lips, slowly leaning his head back. As soon as the whiskey hits his tongue, he keels and coughs, returning the bottle to Irish, almost certain he’s drinking something West Dickens made. Irish begins to laugh as he pats Jack’s back.
“Now that’s just sad. Keep at it, boyo, and you’ll be drinking like the rest of us.”
“God,” Jack coughs out, “Keep the alcohol to yourself, buddy.”
Irish turns around, smacking the man next to him awake. “Shaky, come on buddy, no sleeping on the job.”
The man called Shaky stirs away, just as disheveled as Irish. “Shut up, Irish,” He says, a clear stutter in his voice.
Irish puts a hand on Shaky’s back, “We got a visitor, it’s Marston’s boy, uh,”
Jack slightly pushes Irish back as he reaches across him to offer a hand to Shaky. “Jack,” he says, “Nice to meet you.”
Shaky takes his hand, and Jack notices the man’s slight quiver in his fingers, giving it a limp shake before letting his hand drop back. “This fucker managed to convince me into drinking with him, again,” Shaky says.
Irish makes a shushing sound, “It’s a friends outing, Shaky, ain’t it? With Marston Junior over here, we got ourselves a boys night, don’t we?”
Jack pats him on the back. “You keep telling yourself that, you crazy idiot.”
Before Jack can prod the two for answers, the saloon doors swing open again, as stomping boots cause everyone to turn their heads. From the corner of his eye, Jack sees Irish quiver.
“You drunken piece of shit,” A rather large man growls, with two other men behind him, “About time we fucking found you.”
Irish stands up, nearly falling over in the process as he greets the three gentleman with raises hands. “Boys, am I glad to see you! What brings you here?”
“Where’s our money, you Irish spaz?” The large man asks, with a handlebar mustache and a stupid hat on, Jack glares at him.
“Dunno what you’re talking about, Charlie, I’ve been here with my buddy Shaky, ain’t that right, Shaky?”
“What did you do?” Shaky asks, groaning as he stands up with Irish. Jack remains seated.
“Give us back our money, Irish,”
“Well, you see, you ever been in a bar fight, Junior?”
Before Jack can open his mouth, Irish grabs his bottle and smashes it against the handlebar-mustache man Irish calls Charlie, who stumbles back shouting.
Shaky shatters his bottle against the bar table, transforming it into a shank as one of Charlie’s posse quickly jumps him. Jack staggers out of his seat, eyes wide as the third man of Charlie’s posse focuses him. Jack quickly ducks under the man’s arms as the man reaches out, and he pushes the man forward, sending him into the table with a grunt. From across the saloon, Jack can hear hollering, and a chair flying across the room. Why, he doesn’t know.
He stumbles backwards, fists readied and knees bent as he looks at Irish. “Are you crazy?” He shouts, “I ain’t a fighter,”
Irish, with Charlie in a headlock, shrugs. “Well, today’s your lucky day to learn, boyo,”
The man Jack pushed soon recollects his composure, turning around with a growl. Jack swallows nothing, and takes a slight step back.
“Fucking kid,” The man spits, and propels himself forward, grabbing Jack by the collar of his shirt, the fabric threatening to rip, and shakes him. Jack grabs the man’s arm, attempting to pry it off of him. A flash of white, and Jack is sent to the floor, holding his cheek with a yelp, as the man had punched him with a meaty fist. The man forces Jack to his feet before flinging him aside, sending Jack rolling.
From behind the man, Shaky smashes a stool over him, causing the man to stagger and shout. “Get up, kid,” Shaky stutters before getting knocked over.
Jack forces himself to his feet, rubbing his cheek gently, sure that it’ll bruise soon. As the man shakes the stool splinters off, he reverts to a boxing position. The man closes in on Jack, and without an escape, Jack grunts as he punches the man, and seeing the man’s nose go red fuels him to hit a second time, harder this time. The man grabs Jack, shoving him further and further back before throwing him onto a round table, the men who sat there forced to scatter away. With a hand around his neck, Jack gasps as the man raises a fist. Without an escape, Jack knees the man as hard as he can, right in the gut, and he lets out a howl as he retracts his hand. Jack rubs his neck, and as he reaches back, he feels a bottle at his fingertips. While the man holds his stomach, Jack grabs the bottle, flinging himself forward and slamming the bottle against the side of the man’s face, glass and whiskey sent flying. The man falls to the side, and Jack quickly jumps off the table, grabbing it and flinging it onto the man, watching the ashtrays and shot glasses fall on the man. The bastard groans, and continues groaning as Jack runs a hand through his hair. He coughs, and spits on the man.
“How’s it feel to get beat up by a teenager?” He snarks, a chuckle on his tongue.
As Jack backs away, he scans the scene for Shaky, who has gotten himself behind the bar counter, threatening three men who had no business in the fight, yet for some reason, are in the fight. The fourth guy, Jack recognizes as the scrawny fellow with Charlie. Shaky, well, shakes with his shank in his hand.
Jack runs across the saloon, jumping over a man knocked out on the ground, and slams himself into the scrawny fellow, and with the opportunity, Shaky grabs the man, dragging him onto the bar and slamming him into the shelves behind him, causing several bottles to fall and shatter on the man, knocking him out.
“Thanks,” Shaky croaks.
Jack backs up when one of the men slowly close in on him, and when he feels the other against his back, Jack ducks and watches as one accidentally punches the other, offering Jack an escape. He runs, jumping onto the bar counter and standing. In the crowd, he sees Irish standing on a round table, surrounded by men including Charlie, threatening them with a knife.
“Irish needs help,” Jack says to Shaky, who shrugs.
“The fucker seems to have got it covered,” He stutters.
When a man comes near Jack, Jack kicks him in the teeth, sending him to the ground. “If he dies, my father’ll blame you.”
That gets Shaky jumping over the bar counter, and Jack quickly jumps off with him.
“Get the fuck away from me, you bleeding maggots,” Irish screams, swinging his knife blindly.
Jack groans as he looks at Shaky, who rolls his eyes.
“Hey, idiots,” Jack announces, “Back away,”
As they all turn towards Jack, Irish laughs as he jumps off the table, and onto Charlie. Jack lowers his head, readies his fists. One of the men, with what’s probably vomit residue on his chin, turns around with a violent stare. One second, Jack’s fists are tightening, the next, there’s a fist in his face, sending him back into Shaky, howling as he holds his nose, and he soon tastes blood. Shaky moves him aside, and with his shank, slashes the man’s face, sending him to the ground incapacitated and groaning.
With his eyes squeezed shut, Jack holds his nose as he leans forward. He opens his eyes, and there’s a man in his face. He backs away, yet the man throws his arm forward, something shining in his hand, and Jack’s eyes widen. When he looks down, blood is on his hands.
He’s not sure what happens next, yet what he does know is that he is on top of the man, holding his hands above his head, digging his fingernails into the man’s palms to pull the knife from his hands. From above, Shaky stomps the man’s hands in, and quickly kicks knife away. Jack snarls and, with a shout, knocks the man out with a fist.
He climbs up onto his feet, arm around his stomach. From across the table, he watches Charlie fall to the ground with a loud thud, out cold as Irish gives him a kick in the ribs.
“Is he dead?” Jack grunts.
“Wish he was, the bastard. I think I’ll let him live.” Irish answers.
Jack leans himself against the wall and winces. Shaky takes notice, and as Irish returns to the front of the bar, gives Jack a pat.
“Are you,” He stutters, “alright?”
Jack shakes his head, showing the blood on his palm. Shaky shudders,
“Nice one, Irish, you got,” Shaky spits as he attempts to speak, “You got a kid tangled in your bullshit.”
From behind the counter, the bartender slowly climbs up, shaking. Irish orders a drink, and returns. “Aye, the boy’s fine, ain’t you, sonny?”
Jack slowly lifts his shirt, trying to assess the cut in his gut. Shaky winces.
“Just a cut, nothing too deep.” Irish muses, and Shaky shakes his head.
“He needs stitches, you fucking idiot,” Shaky says, and Irish mocks him by repeating the stutter back to him.
“Fuck.” Jack hisses, and he’s pretty sure his mother would smack him.
“Alright, alright,” Irish sighs, “Come on, you baby.”
With groaning and crying men on the ground around them, the trio waltz out of the saloon, with Jack leaning slightly against Shaky, Irish offers him a bottle of whiskey. This time, he takes it, and chugs.
As Dr. Francis Gallagher stitches his stomach up, Irish and Shaky lean against the wall.
“I got business to attend to,” Irish says, but Shaky grabs him by the collar and forces him back against the wall.
“I, ow, I need answers, ow,” Jack manages, holding a cloth up to his nose, his voice nasally. “I want you, ow, to tell me about the Fort Mercer plans.”
“Sorry,” The doctor says, tugging on the needle.
“Fort Mercer, yeah? Snooping in daddy’s business, aren’t you?” Irish sings.
“Just tell me,” Jack demands.
“Got him a pretty thing of a gun, supposed to mount it up on West Dickens’ stagecoach.”
Jack pays the doctor with the money he won from the horse race when he finishes.
“Don’t pull the stitches out, alright? You’ll just make it bleed again. Take it easy.” The doctor says as he wraps a bandage around Jack’s stomach.
“Thank you, sir,” Jack sighs. “Don’t tell my father you saw me if he comes by, alright?”
Irish begins to laugh. “So you’re finding out papa’s plans, for what purpose?”
“Because he’d never actually tell me the truth. He wants me to stay out of his business, but it’s my business too,” Jack leaves out the part about his mother. “I’m in this fight, whether he likes it or not.”
Irish takes a swig of his whiskey. “Your father’s a hotheaded little fuck, no offense.” Irish offers the bottle.
“None taken.” Jack takes it, and with a scrunched face, takes a sip.
“You’re a scrappy little bastard, just like him. Good in a fight, too.” Irish continues.
“Thanks.” Jack rests a hand on his stomach, letting out a long breath. He slowly stands up, needing to re-roll his sleeves back up to the elbows. He buttons his shirt back up and pulls his sleeveless vest back on.
“Take care of yourself,” Shaky says, and Jack waves him off as he stumbles around.
Soon, he finds himself out of the doctor’s clinic. He looks down, frowning at the torn fabric of his clothes. He gives a pained groan as he climbs onto his horse, the last man’s name on his tongue. He attempts to fix his hair, and without a mirror, it’s a badly done job at that. With deep, purpled bruises across his face and around his neck, dried blood down his nose, and a taste of whiskey and blood in his mouth, Jack decides what happened in Thieves’ Landing will stay in Thieves’ Landing. As he crosses the bridge, he begs for his next destination to not end up so badly.
Chapter 9: Paying A Social Call IIII
among the dead
Lightning flashes, thunder clashes, and Jack’s lip quivers violently. From Thieves’ Landing to Coot’s Chapel, no one could expect the sudden turn in the weather. Jack nearly turns back to the MacFarlane’s ranch, but as his cheek throbs, he turns against that notion. He doesn’t want to see his father’s face when he wanders in, clothes wrinkled and face purple. The rain has washed away most of the blood on Jack’s face, leaving only a faint streak down his nose to his chin. His stomach still stings, and he’s having a difficult time riding on the horse through the bumpy terrain. The clouds haven’t let up, and Jack isn’t too sure what time it is, yet he knows it’s dark, the flashes of lightning being his only source of light. He slicks his hair back, unable to handle it dangling in front of his eyelids any longer. He’s not too sure where he’s going anymore, yet when he sees the silhouette of a large, dilapidated cross in the clouded sky when the light flashes, he knows he has found his way. Lanterns surround the abandoned church, surely lit by whoever bums around there, giving an eerie orange hue surrounding the place. Idle hands clasp around themselves, realizing they had let go of the reins long ago, and they shiver and shake.
He dismounts his horse outside the church, the lanterns providing enough light for him to scan the sign that stands above the gates partnered with the building. Cemetery, it says, victorian in it’s appearance. From the chapel doors, he can swear he hears whispers. Jack stumbles through the gates, graves dug through and destroyed, gravestones chipped and eroded with time, and the cries of crows above the sky. In the distance, illuminated by yellow, a shadow looms over the dugout grave deepest into the yard. Jack rubs his nose and begins to approach the figure, mud under his shoes squishing in rhythm with his infrequent steps. He yelps as he almost falls into a grave he is sure he sees a body in, decayed and skeletal.
“Seth?” He asks the figure, assuming it’s Seth, yet not too sure if it’s even human, by it’s boney shape, “What are you doing?”
The figure, with a shovel in hand, the blade forced in the soft ground, grunts. In a breathy voice, it answers. “I don’t know anymore.”
As Jack nears the skeletal man, the lightning flashes in the sky, and all Jack can see is the man’s sunken eyes and gaunt face, a large hat shadowing most of his features.
“You’re a grave robber, aren’t you? Stealing off the dead?” Jack questions in a mumble.
In a garbled laugh, it echoes through the yard in a disgusting kind of way. “I don’t have a reason to steal off the dead anymore, boy.”
“Then what are you doing, disgracing the dead here, if you aren’t after their things?”
The crazed man laughs as he slowly stands up, albeit hunched severely. “I don’t rightly know, it’s all I know how to do anymore,” He says, shovel in his palm. “They’re the only ones I got anymore.”
The thunder rolls in, and with rain running down his face, Jack glares. “Why would my father ever associate with you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He answers.
“John Marston,” Jack announces, “My father’s John Marston.”
“Him,” Seth croaks, “Never heard of him,”
Jack takes a step forward. “Don’t play stupid with me, you crazy bastard.”
Seth, with inhuman eyes, stares, “Maybe I am crazy, feller,” He sniffs, “That’s my business, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, well, my business is finding out what you have to do with the Fort Mercer plans. Spill it, freak.” Jack spits out, voice threatening on stuttering in the cold.
“I don’t like people.” Seth breaths, and Jack backs away slightly.
“You’re just a sad excuse for a man, then,” He says, “You’re lucky I don’t just put you out of your misery right here.”
“I don’t got any more misery, son, not anymore, can’t feel it no more. Already drained of it when my wife took my children away from me.” His tone indicates he doesn’t even feel bad, no inch of sadness.
“I wonder why.” Jack snarls.
“I wasn’t always like this, always hated people, but didn’t speak to the dead, not once.”
“How did this happen to a person?” Jack finally asks, and Seth goes quiet, lip quivering and rain upon his face.
“When your dirt and maggot-encrusted hands spend too much time dug into the bodies, you eventually forget what got you here.”
Jack takes a step back, hands itching towards his rifle.
“Yeah, you run away,” Seth cackles, “This is mine.”
When the lightning flashes again, Jack’s shoulders tense, as Seth’s body is hunched enough for him to view the grave he just defiled. A young boy, only 12, who died of tuberculosis. His name was Hank, and he was a MacFarlane. One of Bonnie’s many brothers.
Jack trudges forward, lunging his arm out as he grabs Seth and pulls him forward.
“You sick freak, digging up a boy for your sick reasons, have some decency,” Jack spits out, “What would your wife say? Your family?”
Seth, silent and unmoving, begins to breathlessly laugh. He stands up, shovel in hand, lunges forward, shoving the shaft of it against Jack’s throat, sending the two of them tumbling to the muddied ground.
“Don’t you talk about them,” Seth croaks out, sunken eyes wide, “I got my reasons, I got my reason,”
Jack chokes as mud splatters across his face. He wraps his hands around the neck of the shovel, attempting to push it off of him.
“Marston don’t know what it’s like to lose everything,” Seth says, “He don’t know anything,”
Jack wheezes and kicks his feet, leaving imprints in the dirt as he whines.
“When you’re dead, will you have anything good on you?” Seth asks, and with no answer.
Jack manages to save his windpipe, coughing loudly as his arms strain to keep the shovel off of him. “You wouldn’t kill a boy,” He wheezes, “You wouldn’t kill me, just to make him feel your pain,”
Seth forces the shovel back down onto Jack’s throat, and as the lightning flashes, Jack watches Seth’s eyes squint, a pained look on his face.
Seth lets go of the shovel, allowed Jack to throw it off of him and cough madly, wheezing and crying for breath. Seth removes himself from on top of Jack, and slowly returns to the grave, getting down on his knees and possibly crying, as the rain in Jack’s ears drown anything else. Jack turns himself over, wheezing as his face rests against the mud for only a second. He eventually gets onto his feet, holding his neck in his palm.
“You still got time to turn your life around,” Jack finally says, “You aren’t dead yet.”
Seth laughs. “I’ve always been dead, boy, just like you, you just haven’t realized it yet.”
Jack scrunches his nose, brow furrowing as he tries to understand Seth’s words, but Seth wastes no time in continuing.
“I’m real buddy buddy with Bill’s gang, you hear? I’m their ticket in.” He says.
Jack backs out of the cemetery slowly, rain beginning to let up.
“You may live among the dead, Seth,” Jack gulps, “But you aren’t one of them, you just haven’t realized it.”
When Jack exits the gate, across the path, the tall grass sways, and Jack is sure he sees a stag, antlers held high, and when he does, he wonders if he, too, is among the dead.
‘You’re a brave kid,’ A voice echoes as the stag looks him in the eye.
Jack, terrified, leaves the chapel behind, the large, dilapidated cross in the distance, for it’s a godless land.
Chapter 10: The Assault on Fort Mercer
When Jack stumbles back home, the rain is mere droplets now, and he can see the moon in full. He leaves his horse unhitched, trusting it to stay where it belongs, and once he realizes his father’s not home, he sighs in relief. He rubs his face, the roughness of his cheek being the result of dried, crusty mud. He looks down at himself, disappointment in his eyes as he finally observes how filthy he really is. He wanders into the shack, placing his rifle on the table, and sighing as he sits on the bed. His father’s not home yet, and he’s certain by morning, whatever his father’s planning will be carried out. He rubs at his eyes, making a whining kind of sound, shaking his head softly. This is it, his attack on Troy. He slowly gets up from the bed, holding his stomach as it aches, in more ways than one. He grabs the small, rounded mirror left on the table and stares at himself, tired brown eyes staring back at him, mud splashed across his face, and a large, lasting bruise on his left cheek, nose swelled in red. With a few more hits, and his nose’ll look as crooked as his father’s, and that thought makes him drop the mirror back on the table. He runs his hand through his hair, eyes shutting tight as he breathes, slow and steady, hoarse and scratchy. There is rarely any sound echoing from the outside, seeming that everyone’s gone to bed by now. As he stands there, silent and sad, there’s a knock at the door.
“Jack?” Bonnie’s voice asks, and Jack, without any time to clean himself up, simply opens the door. He doesn’t look at her shocked expression. “Oh my God,” She says, “What happened to you?”
Jack sighs. “A lot of things.”
Bonnie pulls him out of the dinky shack, bringing him into a much nicer environment, her house. Drew is asleep by now, so her voice drowns into a hushed, gentle tone.
“Go clean yourself up, the washroom is upstairs on the right.”
As Jack climbs up the stairs, they creak under his no good boots, and when he reaches the bathroom, he hesitates as he wraps a hand around the doorknob. He opens the door, and closes it behind him. There’s a sink, a mirror, and a bath. He doesn’t wish to dirty up the bath, for he feels slightly bad about even muddying up her humble abode, so he turns the sink on, and stares himself down in the mirror. Once the sink has filled up nicely with lukewarm water, Jack lowers his head down, splashing his face and rubbing it roughly, further angering the bruises on his face. When he stares at himself again, his face is much cleaner, yet the puffy, purple bruise remains, and to Jack, makes him pretty damn ugly. He grabs a washcloth nearby, dunking it into the water and then scrubbing and scratching at his arms until they’re free of the mud shackles. There’s mud in his hair, so with the washcloth, he scraggles his hair roughly. When he drops the cloth back into the sink, he looks slightly more human. He lifts his shirt, the bandage around his gut still there. When he feels his stomach, the stitches are still there, the skin around it probably still reddened and gross. He makes a disgusted kind of face and drops his shirt back down. He’s slightly glad the man had slashed him in the stomach, and not somewhere noticeable, such as his face. He goes about making an excuse if his father brings them up, if he even does see his father soon. He decides on a detailed story of how he ran into a wall, punched himself in the face, and falling on a doorknob. It’s good enough, Jack decides, and he turns the sink off. He grabs another washcloth and kneading his hair again, drying it completely, and leaving it fuzzy, something he snorts at when he sees it in the mirror. He hopes Bonnie wont mind if he uses her hair brush, and quickly straightens and fixes his hair, now completely a normal person, and not some freak like Seth.
When he returns downstairs, Bonnie’s sitting in the living room, on the armchair, gesturing for him to sit on the couch. He rubs his arm as he saunters over, taking a seat and wringing his hands.
“Alright, tell me everything,” She says, and Jack relents.
“I horse raced for West Dickens, and then I was dragged into a fight at the saloon with Father’s friends at Thieves’ Landing, and then I almost got choked to death by another one of Father’s friends at the abandoned church.”
Appalled, Bonnie is speechless at first, holding her hand over her necklace, or her heart, eyes wide. “My God,” She finally says, “You poor boy.” Her eyes wander to the arms Jack holds around his stomach, and shakes her head. “What did you do?” She asks.
“What do you mean?” Jack responds, eyes darting.
“You’re a terrible liar, Jack Marston. Show me your stomach.
Jack’s hands shake as he lifts his shirt again, and as she sees the bandages, she gasps.
“The saloon fight, a man had a knife.” Jack says, swallowing his pride.
“Does John know?” Is all she asks. Jack takes her hand, shaking and quivering as he looks her in the eye.
“Don’t tell him,” He says, “He can’t know. Not now.”
Without any way out of his vice grip, she nods, and with wet eyes, Jack lets his hands drop, along with his head. When he breathes, he realizes it’s fast and uncontrollable, and soon, his face burns as tears stream down his cheeks. Bonnie moves from the armchair to his side on the couch, an arm on his back rubbing circles.
“I ruined Mama’s shirt,” He cries, “I ruined it.” he wraps his fingers around the rim of his shirt, the baby blue dirtied by blood and mud. He cowers and shakes like a boy frightened of his own shadow, and as Bonnie allows him to cry on her shoulder, her heart aches.
Eventually, when his cries dissolve into mere sniffles, Bonnie retrieves a shirt from upstairs, one of her own, a creamsicle colored dress shirt not too different from his striped baby blue, this time striped with a much more saturated sunset orange. As he holds it in his hands, he can’t help but feel how soft it is.
“I wore this when I was about your age, maybe older.” She says, “Keep it. I got plenty of shirts, I don’t mind letting one go.”
When he puts it on, Bonnie takes the ragged dress shirt and it’s companion vest, and when Jack looks at himself in a mirror again, he looks brighter. He rolls the sleeves up to his elbows, and although the shirt reveals his bruised neck, for some reason, he doesn’t care anymore. When they sit back down, Jack tells her about the assault on Fort Mercer, sure that it will take place tomorrow, and how he can’t afford to miss it.
As he stands in front of the open door, he gives Bonnie a hug, which she returns fully, and as he pulls back, she looks at him.
“Give that old fool a piece of your mind, alright?” She says, and Jack nods.
“Thank you, Bonnie.”
He’s about to exit, but before he does, he turns to her.
“Do you have a hat I can borrow?”
When he returns to his shack, he feels although it is much too small for him now, the walls tilted and wrong, and as he sits on the bed, he has his rifle in his hands, and through tired eyes, a large black hat covering his face, he waits.
Early morning comes soon enough, and Jack is quick on his feet. He holsters his rifle on his back, repositions his hat, and walks out of the shack, sure enough his father would be present soon. He climbs onto his horse and rides to the edge of the homestead, out of clear shot of the shack, yet somewhere he could keep an eye on it.
Sure enough, John Marston rides into the ranch on his chestnut horse, and flags Bonnie down. With a hamper in her arm, she saunters towards John.
“What do you need, John?”
“Have you seen Jack,” John says, “I need to see him.”
Bonnie shrugs, “No, sir, I haven’t.”
Jack nearly cracks a smile as John shakes his head. “I’ll talk to you later,” He says, and quickly turns his horse back, out of the ranch, giving Jack his opportunity.
Jack leads his horse out of the ranch shortly after, following his father’s trail loosely. With the hat, and the sun shining high, it’s casting a rather large shadow over his face, and without a close look, one could probably not discern who he is with a quick glance. From a distance, he watches as John spurs his horse into a full gallop, and with the fear of losing him, Jack copies his speed, fists knuckle white around the reins.
John straightens his back, his spine cracking softly as he lets out a funny kind of groan. As his horse’s hooves beat against the New Austin dirt, he is sure his posse’s already setting up. He ponders about Jack, sure that the boy must be in town, yet the look in Bonnie’s eyes worries him. His knuckles grip his reins tighter, and he considers turning back around to look for his son, but he decides against it, regardless of what Abigail would say. The plan would be too hard to repeat, and this will probably be his one shot at catching Williamson for good, so he rides, and rides. The night before, John had been hunting down a bounty, slamming the man’s hogtied, knocked out body on the sheriff’s floor, leaving him tired today, yet he continues riding. He slows down as he rummages through his bag, retrieving Arthur’s journal, letting it rest in his gloves hands.
‘Bill Williamson’s a dead man today, and by afternoon, my darling will be in my arms again,’ he writes, ‘I hope Jack is having a good day.’ John nearly curses, for that’s something really stupid to write. He closes the journal and returns it to it’s domain in his bag, and rides. From the bottom of his heart, he can’t help but imagine Arthur riding by him.
‘You’re a real idiot,’ He’s sure Arthur would say, ‘That angry, mysterious enigma thing only worked on Dutch.’
‘Whatever you say,’ He would answer, and they’d laugh and laugh.
But, Arthur’s not here, and what he is left with is the ‘What would Arthur do’ in his head.
He passes by a herd of deer, all staring as he races by, and he swears it’s not just deer, but that may just be the sleep brain talking. He shakes his head, attempting to stir himself a bit more awake, because this is it.
Up a hill, right outside the fort, John dismounts his horse, cacti and tall, dried grass surrounding him as he stares it down. Men, more figures that human, stand, walk, talk in the distance. He crouches, ignoring the popping in his joints, and hopes his accomplices remember that this is the rendezvous
Jack dismounts his horse a distance away, and waits.
Eventually, everyone comes into play. Marshal Leigh and his posse of white-trash idiots, Nigel West Dickens and his Trojan horse, and then, after a millennium, Irish finally wanders in, almost appearing as if he has no idea where he is. John lights a cigarette and flings the match away.
The Marshal cocks his rifle, giving John a tip of his hat. Dickens struts to the front of the group, announcing his presence with a telescope in his hand. As John gets onto his feet, and Irish stumbles into the front of the group (and is promptly pushed back by the barrel of a rifle,) Dickens looks through the telescope.
“It’s time,” Dickens says, “We must go.”
John narrows his eyes, and as the posse stands in a V-formation, he turns to Dickens.
The grass rustles, and a rifle cocks, sending the men turning their heads, and for a second, John wonders if his plan’s a bust.
“I’m coming, too.” Jack says, with a new shirt and new face.
“What the Hell,” John responds, dropping the cigarette and stomping it out, while Marshal’s posse point their guns at him, Marshal quickly smacks the two boys. “What are you doing here, Jack?” John growls as he walks forward, towards Jack.
“I’m not going to let you leave me in the dark. I’m coming.”
“Like Hell you are, this ain’t no place for a child, Jack, for God’s sake,” He barks.
Jack squares his shoulders, and for once, he’s looking his father face to face, eye to eye, finally realizing he is about his father’s height. The sun begins to shine on his face as he glares.
“I’m not a child.” Jack hisses, and for once in John Marston’s life, his eyes are wider than a saucer.
“Who hurt you?” He asks, voice throaty, threatening on rage.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jack explains, “Like it or not, I am with you.”
John glares, reaching forward and snatching the rifle from Jack’s hands. “I am your father, Jack, and you will listen to your father when I say you are not apart of this.” He directs a finger towards wherever Jack came from forcefully, his face glowering.
“The boy saved my skin, he did,” Irish pipes up from the crowd, sending the Marston’s heads turning. “A real fighter in a scrap, didn’t cry or nothing!”
Dickens stutters, but nods. “The dear boy won a race, and without that, I may not have been able to outfit our Trojan horse,”
Marshal Leigh shrugs. “He pulled his own weight on the assault on Tumbleweed, but it’s your call, John.”
With his hands wrapped around a hand-me-down rifle, John stares back at Jack, and for once, he realizes just how tall Jack really is.
“Gentlemen, we best be moving, please,” Dickens strains, directing his hands towards the stagecoach.
“I,” John tries to speak, yet his voice is caught in his throat. He sees his boy, shot and killed, and he sees Bill with the gun, and he sees Micah, and he sees Arthur, and his eyes go wide. “I,”
There’s a brick wall around them, not between them, and as the wind makes Jack’s hat fall back slightly, John realizes how alike him and his son are. He sees a 13 year old scrappy troublemaker, promised to swing by the adults and world around him, never given a chance to prove himself. He sees the boy brought in by Dutch Van Der Linde, the older man teaching him the ropes of life, or what he thought of it. To shoot, to fish, to fight, those were the things John learned. He sees himself in his boy’s eyes, more than he’d like. For moments like this, he begs for Arthur to be there, to make the right call, to know what to do, but Arthur isn’t here, Hosea isn’t here and Dutch isn’t here. He alone must be the father, the responsibility he slacked on for so long, and there’s a century passing around them, and John is sure that if his boy had slashes on his face, he’d look identical to his old man. There’s no way for John to form his words properly, they’re caught in his throat and making him choke, and he wants to scream at himself, scream and scratch and kick for him to say something, anything, to Jack, to tell him ‘Yes, I’ll play sword-fighting with you,’ to tell him, ‘Yes, I am proud of you,’ to tell him, ‘I need you to watch my back,’ but as he tries to open his mouth, all he can do is close it again. John’s fists clench around the hand-me-down rifle, and he kicks himself for not buying his son a gun the moment he asked, or the hat, or anything else Jack needed him to do, and simply shrugged it off for another day.
He wants Jack to know that he can rely on him now, and he won’t shirk the responsibility, he wants to say sorry, sorry, sorry, that he can’t be the father Jack needs, and as he looks at Jack, the four year old that looked up at him with wide-eyes is no more, and will never be brought back again, because that four year old is dead with time, and this Jack is alive, and must be acknowledged to be alive. He tried to resurrect that time, but that time is gone. He sees the boy’s anguish, the solitude, and he screams at himself, fully realizing how he ignored Jack, never visited and never talked, for he realizes how busy Jack has been. He doesn’t need John, and finally, John is able to realize that is a good thing, for his boy is able to manage himself. The bruises along Jack’s face and neck worry him, that he may be completely crazy with what he’s thinking right now, that Jack does need protecting, and that he should shove Jack back onto that horse and back to the MacFarlane’s ranch, but there is no time. With his eyes, his tired, weary eyes, he gives Jack the kind of look that says; ‘I am proud of you,’ and without the ability to say it, his brow lowers, and his eyes squint, and he shoves the rifle back into Jack’s arms, walking away, back towards the front of the posse.
“Alright. We need to move.” He finally says.
The sun behind him, Jack’s eyes do not dare wander as he slowly crawls to the back of the posse, finger twitching and stomach stinging and face aching, all those things yet he is sure he has never been more prepared in his life. He stares at his father’s back, sure he’s in his father’s shadow, but as he looks down, the sun shines behind Jack, and John is the one in the shadows. He sheds the Jr. moniker, and allows himself to be alongside his father, and for a second, they’re not Pa and Little Jack. They’re John Marston, and Jack Marston, two men with an invisible brick wall around them, eye-to-eye.
John climbs into the back of the stagecoach, with Marshal’s boys lifting the cover back on as Dickens takes his seat. Before the hatch shuts, John looks at Jack, and Jack looks at John, equal height and the same eyes, brown and tired and weary, yet the same rebellious spark that’s carried from John’s youth, and Jack’s upbringing. The cover closes, and the Trojan horse is ready to ride.
“Pa,” Jack shouts, “Don’t you die before I get there, you hear?”
There’s no answer, yet the throaty laughing echoing from the stagecoach is answer enough for him.
As it rides towards the fort, Leigh gives Jack a pat. “You’re with me, kid,” He says, and Jack nods.
Through the tall grass, Irish, Leigh, Eli, Jonah, and Jack squat, hands on the triggers of their pistols and shotguns and rifles.
Irish laughs, “Guess we’re fighting side by side again, ain’t we, boyo?”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Let’s hope this time I don’t end up with stitches.”
Leigh raises a hand. “Quiet, you two.”
Even from the hill they stand on, they can hear Seth’s hooting, and Dickens’ flowery, spokesman voice. The wind blows softly, the brustling of grass brushing against Jack’s legs as he tries to focus. The birds chirp, and Jack sees a coyote run around the fort, coat black and jarring against the bleached white dirt. The birds chirp, and there’s a tap, and there’s shouting.
“Nows our cue,” Leigh says, and when he looks at Jack, he blinks.
“Alright,” Jack says, standing in a proud stance as he runs with the posse. He looks back and shouts. “Irish, pick up the pace.”
The mounted gun’s scream dies, and Jack watches just how easy it is to paint with blood, as it’s painted across the gravel and walls, men torn apart at the seams by his father and his big iron.
“They fled to the other side of the fort,” Leigh notes, gesturing with the tilt of his head to follow him.
Up a flight of stairs, and several men point their guns forward, and men lunge from doors and rooms with all sorts of guns. Behind the crowd, Jack stares at a particular figure, the one farthest down, and aims his rifle towards it. He pulls the trigger, and a sniper falls dead on the spot. John, with his revolver, fills men, filth and scum alike, with lead.
“I take my leave,” West Dickens announces as he escapes from the scene with his Trojan horse, and Jack rolls his eyes.
Jack points his rifle forwards, hat shielding his eyes from the sun, and when a man with a stupid looking face jumps from cover, attempting to take an element of surprise, Jack slams the butt of his rifle against the man’s skull before watching him fall, and then he shoots him.
John holsters his revolver and tugs the shotgun out of the holster on his back. He cocks the beautiful contraption, heavy and cold in his hands as he walks forward with a certain type of swagger. Three men look at him, guns swinging, and then three men are dead, bodies blown apart by the shotgun’s voice. He changes guns again, returning to his trusty revolver.
Like a shooting gallery at a carnival, Jack aims, pops a head peeking from cover open, and repeats. John kicks one of the rooms open, drawing fire from the several men in the room. With just a second, the room is quiet and lifeless, and John leaves. Jack watches one of Bill’s men crawl against the ground, bloodied and dying, and without hesitation, he trudges to the man, puts a boot on his back as he attempts to reach for a nearby pistol, and blows his brains out. As the Marstons are soon side by side again, aiming down their own sightlines, Jack snorts.
“You missed that shot,” Jack says, and begins running, leaving John in the dust yet again.
As Leigh leads the charge, Jack attempts to catch up, but a man jumps him from cover, grabbing his rifle and attempting to wrestle it from his hands. Jack lets out a grunt as he twists himself around, the man too, to the edge of the walkway. He shoves his boot into the man’s lower regions, and the man staggers, and falls to his demise, falling onto the gravel below with a thud.
“Watch your step,” Jack says with a breath before racing across the 2nd story. Soon, Marshal and his men are behind cover, swarmed with scum. Jack peers to the ground, at a corpse, and it’s pistol, and breaks for it. He reaches down mid-sprint, wrapping his hand around the pistol, and quickly pointing it towards the swarm, pulling the trigger into the crowd, giving the posse opportunity to escape from cover and gun the swarm down.
“Fuck,” He hears behind him, “Get off of me,”
A man has his arm around John’s neck, the other currently being held up over his head by John’s hand. Jack aims his rifle, pocketing the pistol beforehand, and pops the man right between the eyes, splattering blood across the side of John’s face. John exhales before giving his son a nod.
“Lets catch up,” John says.
More and more men empty out from rooms, providing more and more targets for the posse. While Marshal and his men remain above the rest, the two Marstons hang back, Jack splattering brains from a distance, and John taking out stragglers they missed, and Jack is sure he sees Seth shank a man to death.
Jack and John catch up to the posse, the two sliding behind cover in sync. John aims his revolver towards the last remaining group, about six men, yet, Jack intervenes.
Jack breathes slow and steady, and as time slowly crawls around him, he can see the blood-painted targets on the men’s skulls as clear as day. He licks his dry lips, finger itching, and then, boom.
Six men fall to the ground simultaneously, and John looks at Jack with a proud, yet shocked look, yet Jack seems much too distracted to look back.
“Come on, let’s regroup downstairs,” Leigh tells his men, and before John follows, he turns around.
“You coming?” He asks Jack.
Jack notices the involuntary shake in his breath, and as he stands up tall, he breathes it off. “Yeah.”
As the men climb downstairs, as Jack passes by a groaning man, without looking at the man, he points his rifle downwards and shoots, no more groaning anymore.
As Jack returns to the posse, he sees his father shake his head.
“We still can’t find Williamson anywhere,” Leigh says.
“It’s the snake oil guy,” Eli says from the top of the fort, and Leigh gestures to the gate.
“He must still be hiding,” John says.
“Gentlemen, let me in for goodness sake,” Dickens’ voice echoes from the other side of the gate, pounding on the door erratically.
“We’ll tear this place apart until we find him, and get that gate open! And lock it behind him!” Leigh commands, as Jonah and Jack pry the gate doors open. Dickens pours into the fort, shaking and quivering.
Dickens, arms flailing, announces, “Oh, we’ve got company, gentlemen, these scoundrels have reinforcements coming this way,”
Jack gives John a look before climbing up the ladder near the gate, up to where Eli stands, and as he meets the idiot’s side, he curses.
“Pa, there’s a lot of them.”
Up on the horizon, men on their feet and men on their horses, men in carriages and men mounted on guns pour into view, the pounding of horse hooves more akin to a beating drum.
“What do we do?” Eli says, and Jack glares.
“Are you seriously asking a teenager that?” He responds, taking Eli’s pistol from it’s holster and shoving it into the man’s arms. “We’re going to kill every last one of them.”
Jack quickly sets up shop, resting his boot upon the rim of the fort’s second floor, holding his rifle tightly.
John pushes the doors open, greeting the army with open arms, mounting the machine gun on Dickens’ stagecoach and showing no mercy.
“Shit,” John hisses before calling up to the roof, “Jack, you see ‘em?”
Jack looks in the distance, at the stagecoach armed with it’s own gun. “Yeah, I got it,” He answers, and with a narrowed eye, he takes out the man behind the machine gun, watching him fall, and the roar of the enemy gun die.
Soon, the gunfire fades, and the battlefield turns into a graveyard. Jack climbs down back to the men below, and soon Irish finally appears.
“You missed the party,” Jack tells him, and he shrugs.
“Sorry, I seemed to have lost my way, honest mistake.”
Jack laughs and pats him on the back, “You keep telling yourself that, you crazy fool,”
Jack reholsters his rifle and cracks his knuckles, wringing his hands as he saunters to the group, Irish behind him.
“Bill ain’t here,” Eli says, face red, “We looked everywhere.”
Jack crosses his arms, as does John.
“So we did all of that for nothing?” Jack says, exasperated.
John tucks a thumb into his belt and rubs his face, frustrated.
Suddenly, Jonah, pushing a man forward, cries, “Marshal, Mister Marston, we got a live one,” Eli reaches out to aid Jonah on holding the man’s arms behind his back as Seth slowly creeps behind John, who puts his hands on his hips and saunters to the man.
“He says,” Jonah explains, “Bill’s already run off to Mexico yesterday morning.”
The man with a green, torn coat, cackles. “You’ll never get him,” He says.
John begins to nod his head, backing away slowly. “Javier Escuella.” He states, and Jack’s eyes widen. “He’s gone to see Javier Escuella,” he repeats, this time louder.
“Uncle Javier?” Jack asks, “You mean Bill’s fucked off to Mexico?” His voice cracks, anger bubbling up inside of him. “You have to go to Mexico?”
“Yeah, yeah he did.” John answers. “And it sure as Hell seems that way.”
As Jonah and Eli force the man onto the ground, John shakes his head. “That should make things interesting. Where in Mexico?”
“How should I know?” The man wheezes, and Jonah forces his knee into the man’s face, sending him to the floor.
“Where in Mexico, you little shit?” Eli demands, while Dickens holds his heart in overacting shock.
“I don’t know,” The man repeats, and for a second, Jack forgets how to breath. He trudges forward, glaring at the man.
“Fucker,” Jack screams, sending his boot in the man’s face, “Stop lying,” he shrieks, beginning to repeatedly kick the man, in the ribs, in the stomach, anywhere, he wheezes and grunts, kicking the man like a scrawny dog.
“Stop, stop,” The man cries out, attempting to crawl away, yet Jack sends his boot into the man’s stomach, and he falls back onto his face, “He’s in Chuparosa,” but Jack keeps kicking.
Irish curses as he turns away, Dickens backs away, Seth eyes him warily, and Leigh rests his hands on his hips.
“John, keep your son on a leash,” Leigh warns, “Or I will,”
John intervenes, putting a hand on Jack’s shoulder and pulling him back, “That’s enough, Jack,” he warns. As the man crawls away, Jack threatens him with his boot again, causing the man to whimper and cower. Jack spits before pushing John back, and for a second, John can only see hatred in Jack’s face. Jack huffs, storming out of the fort.
The man, now free of torment, laughs, which Eli and Jonah make sure to shut him up.
“Your boy’ll fit right in Chupa-fucking-rosa.” Irish muses as he saunters behind John, catching his attention.
“Can it, Irish,” John answers, “He ain’t going.” but Irish opens his mouth again.
“Whatever you say, Marston. I can get you there, I’m real popular. You just, uh,” Irish begins to back out of the fort slowly, “meet me at the ferry,”
“I’ll see you at the ferry, Irish,” John acknowledges, giving Irish a nod off as Irish begins to jog away.
From outside, Jack watches Irish exit. “You’re a drunken fool, Irish,” He snorts.
Irish waves him off, “And you’ll miss me, I’m sure.”
Soon, West Dickens exits, and he says, “You, dear boy, are quite feisty! I will miss your company dearly.”
“Thanks, Mister West Dickens. Whenever I taste something foul, I’ll think of you,” Jack flings a penny into Dickens' hands.
And then finally, John exits, leaving the Marshal and his posse in the fort. He backs away slowly, scanning up and down, before calling Jack over.
“You calm?” He asks.
“Yeah, sure,” Jack answers.
“You did well, back there, you’re a good shot.”
“I know.” Jack says.
“Let’s get you back. Come on.”
When they ride, it’s nowhere specific, and when John looks at Jack, and there’s a lasting scowl on his bruised face.
Jack scowls, for his normal life has been delayed, boiling and fuming, he's threatening to boil over.
His heart aching, John wraps both hands around the reins, deciding there’s only one destination meant for them at this moment. Beecher’s Hope.
John begins to doubt himself.
Chapter 11: Come With Me
“Jack, I want you to be honest with me,” John finally asks.
Their horses canter along the path towards West Elizabeth, and for the past couple hours, it’s been silent, John even looking behind him just to make sure Jack’s still there. John doesn’t want to say it, but he is worried.
Jack is falling down the same hole John did long ago, and John can’t catch him. It’s the same kind of anger he saw long ago, the same kind of anger that consumed Dutch after Hosea died, grief and misery and rage stirring and stirring until it’s released like bile, hocking out the resentment he holds towards the world, an anger that acts as chains, casting anybody to a life of damnation, and the fear that Jack resigns to this fate, it scares John more than the wolves that tore him apart long ago. The boy has never had a normal life, attempts were made, yet like the empty promises of a bright future, Jack has only experienced isolation and death around him, the same life John was raised from, and the same life John ran away from. He’s angry, and all John can do is watch, without further prodding and provoking, he’s angry, and John is afraid there will be nothing he can do. He turns around, wrinkled eyes lying still on the boy, the black and blue bruises along his neck in a vague, blob-like shape John can’t make out.
“What happened to you?”
Jack perks his head up, a slight noise escaping him as his attention is captured. His eyebrows raise, and his nostrils flare, and for a second, he hesitates. His eyes fall, and his head slightly dips forward, and he instinctively rubs at his neck like an embarrassed child who had just been caught stealing.
“It’s nothing,” Jack answers, teeth grinding.
John gently pulls his reins back, bringing the horse to Jack’s speed, allowing them a normal conversation without John twisting his neck.
John’s jaw clenches, and his eyes squint only slightly. “Jack,” he warns, “Answer me, boy,”
Jack’s face falls, and he leans forward, hunching his back.
“Don’t be mad,” Is all he says, and John sighs, offering him a sympathetic look.
“I wont be mad. I’m just worried, is all.”
Jack wrings his hands, his face pale. “There was a fight, and there was a man,”
“Was he at the Macfarlane ranch?”
Jack shakes his head. John lowers his head slightly as he ponders what to say next.
“And the man did this to you?”
Jack nods. “Another one got me in the nose.”
John’s eyes widen, and his lips part. “Jesus, were you alone?”
Jack shakes his head. “People helped me. I weren’t, uh, wasn’t alone.”
“Did anything else happen to you?” John says.
Jack’s head turns away from John, and his hand moves to rest on his stomach. “No, sir, that’s all.”
John shifts around on the saddle, not quite sure what to say, but as he looks back at Jack, and the boy’s downward gaze and chin held close to his chest, he gives him a tap.
“Did you give them what for?” He asks, a crooked smile on his chapped lips.
“The guy who tried to choke me, I smashed a glass over his head and threw a table on him.”
John actually laughs, eyes crinkling nearly shut. He reaches over and ruffles Jack’s hair. “Attaboy,” Is all he says, and although Jack doesn’t look at him, he smiles.
When New Austin shifts into West Elizabeth, and the dead, yellow grass soon colors green and fresh, and the cacti become trees, the sun wanes in power, and the sky becomes a brash red. John turns to Jack, whistling to catch the boys attention.
“We’re almost home, Jack. You ready to see Rufus?” John says.
Jack shrugs, “I guess. Uncle’ll be there, right?”
John huffs. “I don’t know how you get along with that lazy bastard.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, sir,”
“I don’t know, probably? Unless the fool’s drowning himself with a bottle again.”
Jack quiets down, head still hung low, eyes averted. Like a mouse squeak, he opens his mouth, a voice John barely recognizes. “I miss Ma,” He says.
“I know, son, I know.”
“Would she be disappointed in me?”
John’s face falls as he turns to Jack, brows raised. “About what?”
“Because,” Jack mumbles, “I killed people,”
John is quiet for awhile, maybe too long, his fists knuckle-white around the reins of his horse. His jaw clenches as he turns his head away. He doesn’t know the answer, or maybe he does and just doesn’t want to say it. He inhales, raising his head and straightening his back, hoping for Jack’s sake that he appears confident in his answer.
“I,” John begins, “I don’t think she’d be disappointed in you, Jack, just sad, sad that we couldn’t protect you from that life.”
Jack looks at him with owlish eyes, his face bleak.
“Maybe she’d be disappointed in you cursing like a sailor, though.” John says, giving Jack a crooked smile. Jack looks down.
John backtracks, “Sorry, bad joke.”
Something awkward looms over John now, so he returns his eyes to the road, coughing into his fist. The two slow their speed, now at a snail’s pace crawl.
“You read anything recently?” He eventually asks.
“No.” Jack responds, voice a little strained.
“What about that book you had on the table a couple times?”
Jack questions him for a second, but realizes it with an, “Oh.” the book he’s talking about must be the book Jack bought in Armadillo. He’s not even sure he has it, he might’ve left it in the shack. “It’s not very interesting.”
“Can’t be that bad, Jack. Just tell me about it, alright?”
“Uh, okay,” Jack obliges, but scratches at his face, trying to remember whatever the story was. “It’s, uh,” He begins reaching into his bag, fumbling around in it for a century before pulling it out. Alright, so he does have it with him. The cover’s black, and slightly damp, most likely still damp from the storm a night ago. “It’s a story about the west, and uh, a bank robbery that backfires, and the gang that robbed it is forced to go on the run.”
John raises a brow. “Really, now? And that’s not interesting?”
“Well, it started dissolving into mushy romance.”
“And you ain’t a fan of that?”
“It’s supposed to be an adventure, not melodrama,”
John begins to laugh, “Drama has a habit of rearing its ugly head into situations, don’t it?”
Jack flips through the pages, as if trying to remember it’s details. “Hold on, there is this one part I really like,”
John smiles, “Alright, boy, let’s hear it.”
As he scrambles through the pages, he finally comes across his bookmark, the folded tip of a page. Jack clears his throat, trying to hold the book steady enough to read.
“Uh, let’s see,” Jack mumbles, but soon finds what he’s looking for. “Okay, here it is, ‘Joseph looked to his scrawny brother, his bloodied hands limp in his brother’s grasp. “You gotta go on without me, Joey,” Joseph growled. Joey’s hazel eyes peered to the ground, and he squeezed Joseph’s hand. “I will avenge you, dear brother, if it’s the last thing I do.” And then, Joseph looked to the sky, and passed into the night.’”
John’s silent for a moment, processing the excerpt before snorting. “That’s cheese like I’ve never seen before, and you said you liked this part?”
Jack closes the book and holds it in both hands. “Well, Joseph died for Joey, but, uh, he doesn’t want Joey to avenge him, he just wants Joey to find a better life.”
John chuckles and shakes his head. “Well, maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere buried under all that nonsense.”
Jack drops the book back into his bag. “Maybe.”
“Y’know, you oughta start writing your own books. Put schmucks like that outta business.” John says.
“You don’t think writings stupid?” Jack asks.
“Well, some of it sure is, but not all of it. I think you’d be one of the good ones.” John answers, offering Jack a smile.
“Thanks, sir.” Jack says.
Eventually, as they near closer and closer to home, the two spur their horses into a gallop, and while riding, John gives Jack a look.
“So, where’d you get the new shirt? The hat?”
Jack puts a hand on his head, and sighs. He forgot to give Bonnie the large black hat back. He hopes she doesn’t mind, for it is a pretty damn ugly hat.
“Miss MacFarlane gave them to me.”
“Really now? What’d, you got sick of your old shirt?”
“No, of course not! It just, uh, got messed up. I didn’t want to look like some kind of drunken fool.”
“I think it suits you pretty well. The hat’s real big on you, though. Oughta get you something better.”
Soon, the moon takes hold of the sky, and the stars open their eyes. Jack’s rode ahead of John, now slowly remembering the path they’re on, and the way back home. They’re both silent, letting the crickets sing their song without interruption. The ranch comes into view, the fence around it being the first thing the two see. The house in the distance is lit dimly, an orange hue breaking through the darkness. Jack begins riding faster towards the gate, making a sharp turn to enter. John slows his horse down as he enters home, homesickness overtaking him. It’s been rough the past few weeks, and John’s a little thankful to be home, albeit for not very long. He can’t imagine what it’s been like for Jack, he’s been ripped from home after home. It feels right having him return to where he belongs.
When they hitch their horses, Jack’s still, quiet. There’s something nagging at him, something that’s eating him up inside as John looks at him. Jack, may be where he belongs, but it’s not where he needs to be, so when he looks at his father, he glares. Unable to contain it any longer, he opens his mouth.
“This isn’t just a visit, is it? You’re going to leave me here.”
John gives him a glance, his brow lowered. “What do you mean?”
Jack’s voice raises, and he waves his arms. “You’re going to Mexico, that’s what that man said, and you’re going to leave me here, is that it? I told you that I’m with you, and you’re just turning on your word,”
John raises his hands. “I’m not turning my back on you, Jack, you know that,”
Jack sears with rage as he takes a step towards John. “You always say that, and then you leave, you keep doing it,”
John clenches his jaw. “So what do you want me to do, Jack?” He bellows, “Let you come with me and then you die? Fort Mercer is nothing compared to what you’ll face in Mexico. I know you can handle yourself, but you’re still a teenager. You’re not going.”
Jack, through stinging eyes, screams. “I’m not going to let you disappear again,”
“I’m not going to leave forever, Jack. Do you think I want to go somewhere I’ve never been and hunt down my brothers?”
“You’ll leave me behind, and whoever took Mama will take me too, or do you want that to happen,” Jack snarls, pointing a finger in John’s face, “You want me off your back so you don’t have to bother with me,”
John runs his hands through his hair, exasperated, eyes blown wide. “I never said that, Jack, where the Hell did you get that idea?”
“Maybe it’s because you can’t bring yourself to actually talk to me, it feels like weeks since I’ve actually seen you at the MacFarlane ranch, you didn’t even know what I was doing because you were never there,” Jack shrieks, fists clenched tight. “You didn’t even know I went to Thieves’ Landing, or the abandoned church, or Rathskeller Fork, because you didn’t care to check on me, you don’t know what I’ve been through. At Fort Mercer, Irish said I was good in a fight, and that’s because I found him in Thieves’ Landing, that’s the fight I got these from,” Jack gestures to his face. “I was choked in a graveyard,” Jack’s finally breaking, his voice cracking, “I thought I was going to die, and how were you supposed to know? You didn’t care,”
John’s shaking now, nostrils flared as he breathes heavily. “I didn’t know, Jack,” He whispers, “I didn’t know,”
Jack holds his hands to his eyes, wiping away tears. “They took my Mama away, and you just expect me to not do anything,” His voice has disappeared, nothing but a croak.
“Jack, I don’t know what to say-” John tries to say, but the boy pushes him out of his way, sending him stumbling as Jack escapes up the steps and into the house, leaving the front door open.
John has no choice but to follow him.
John climbs the steps, yet as he nears the door, he turns around. Against the railing of the porch, Uncle sits. John turns around.
“Heard everything, John,” Uncle says.
John shakes his head. “Yeah.”
Uncle groans. “So you’re dumping him on me, is that it?” Uncle stands up, brushing himself off before resting his elbows against the railing. John walks to the railing, resting against it next to Uncle.
“Shut up, you old bastard, before I knock you out.” John snaps, but his voice falls again. “No, I don’t know.” He sighs. “He’s just a boy, and already has a body count.”
“Well, then, he’s just like you,”
“That’s not funny.”
Eventually, Uncle looks at John, offering a rare sympathetic face. “You’re just trying to protect him from himself, then?”
John rubs at his eyes. “Protect him from himself, protect him from me, the world, shit. What am I supposed to do, Uncle? Leave him here and he resents me, take him with me and he turns out just like me, I don’t know what to do,” He flails his arm out in anger, leaning back and beginning to pace. “I mean, I know he’s capable of so many things, and that I can’t keep babying him, but every time I look at him, I see myself. I don’t want him to grow up too fast, I don’t want to make him feel like a toddler, what the Hell am I supposed to do?” His voice grows increasingly louder, more shaky. “I keep ignoring him, shutting him out of my life, and I don’t know why I keep doing it, and it’s only making him more and more curious, and I don’t know what to do. He’s angry with me, and he has every right to be, but I just don’t know how to make it right.” As he paces, his boot steps grow heavier and heavier until Uncle steps forward, stopping him.
“You can’t keep tearing yourself up over what-ifs, John. God damn, you’re still the idiot Dutch picked up from the gallows all those years ago. Grow a brain, boy! Whining to me when you should be talking to him. He’s got more brains than you, and he’s a teenager! He was real angry, and you just froze up, instead of actually saying a Goddamn thing. You’re an idiot, John Marston, crying to me instead of making things right with your boy,”
John continues wiping at his eyes. “I know I’m an idiot, Uncle, I just want him to be okay.”
Uncle sighs. “Like it or not, John, but controlling him’s only gonna make him rebel more, and ignoring him’s only going to make him rebel more. He’s your kid, John, and you were just like him when you were young. The difference being you had Arthur to keep you from doing the real stupid shit. You’ve gotta be his Arthur, John.”
John hides his face in his hands, letting out a noise. “Goddammit,” is all he says.
“You gotta show him you ain’t gonna disappear on him again.”
John chews the inside of his mouth, eyes still on the ground. “Alright, Uncle.” He croaks, eyes still damp.
“Don’t you start crying on me, boy.” Uncle says, something he’d normally say with a harsh tone, holds no hostility.
John laughs weakly. “The day that I cry, will be the day pigs fly.”
The two men finally open the door to the house, John leaves Uncle and heads for his bedroom, figuring things out as he stumbles forward.
He hasn’t been doing right, he’s realized this. Jack’s done so much, and he didn’t even know. He left his son in the dark again and again, and he sees that Jack’s anxiety’s all because of John. He left the boy, and left the boy, and left the boy, and he can’t blame anybody but himself. Jack handled himself mostly when saving Bonnie, and Jack handled himself beautifully when storming Fort Mercer. He can ride, he can shoot, and he can kill. He’s been through so much, and as John rummages through his closet, he knows he can’t protect Jack forever.
Jack wheezes and cries, sitting cross-legged on his bed, hands in his hair. Rufus sits by him, huffing softly, beady brown eyes looking up at his owner. Emotions, like the waves of the ocean, twist and crash and Jack’s throat burns, and he feels like he’s going to vomit out the bile he hocked out at his father. When he was younger, he would wish for a normal life, and then he had it, and now it’s being ripped away from his palms again. It’s moments like this where he remembers his family, uncles, aunts, and how they all died, blurred and mumbled figures that are too tall to see fully finally pull away the curtains, and he sees Uncle Arthur’s tired face, Uncle Dutch’s funny facial hair, Uncle Hosea’s kind eyes, and then he thinks of his father, and he screams, pounding a fist against his head. He’s seen more blood than most, more loss than most, and more loneliness than most. He wants his mother back home safe, and he wants his father to do something, he doesn’t even know what he wants his father to do. He wants to kick and scream and shoot. When there’s a knock at his door, he doesn’t even notice, and then his father’s there.
“Jack,” John whispers, and Jack stares at him, eyes squinted. “I was thinking.”
“Leave me alone,” Jack demands, but John shakes his head.
“I need to say this, Jack, please,” John pleads. Jack sniffles, wiping his eyes and finally nodding. John exhales. “I am so proud of you, Jack. I never meant to hurt you, or ignore you. I’m not, dammit, I’m not good at talking in situations like this. I just thought if I kept you away from what I was doing, that somehow you’d be safe, but, now I see that it only pulled you closer, and I am sorry. I wronged you, and there ain’t no fixing that.”
Jack slowly crawls out of the bed, looking at his father with a strange look. “You’re apologizing,” He sniffles, “How do I know you mean it?”
John steps forward. “You’ve kept yourself alive well enough, and I can’t help but worry, but, I trust you. They took your mother away from us, and I only saw it as something that affected me, I never thought how it’s your business, too. We’re in this together, Jack.”
Jack wipes his eyes and nose, face red and eyes puffy. The top of his hair’s free of a hat, the oversized one thrown on the floor, and to John, that’s a problem. He reaches out and takes Jack’s shoulder.
“We’re going to get your mother back, together.”
Jack’s eyes shut as something’s placed on his head. When he opens his eyes, John’s looking at him with such pride.
“I think he’d want you to have it.”
Jack’s eyes widen slowly as he pulls the hat off only to inspect it. Worn and dirty, it’s Arthur’s hat in his hands, and then he’s sobbing again. He sticks it back on his head and begins wiping at his eyes.
“I’m sorry for yelling, Pa, I didn’t mean it,” He whimpers, and John pulls him into a hug, tight and loving, Jack shoves his face against his father’s shoulder, grabbing onto the back of John’s clothes as he cries.
“It’s okay, Jack, it’s okay. You’re right, I haven’t been treating you right. You’re coming with me to Mexico, and we’re going to solve this together, alright?”
“Okay, Pa.” Jack answers, voice muffled. “Okay.”
The hat's a perfect fit.
Chapter 12: For We Shall Be Together In Paradise
When they leave Beecher’s Hope, Uncle’s waving them off with a bottle in his hand. Jack tips his hat towards the man, and for a second, Uncle’s sure that’s Arthur’s hat. He shrugs it off, thinking it’s just his imagination, and lays back down, bottle around his lips. Jack’s the first one out of the gate, off like a speeding bullet, while John rides to catch up with him. The sun’s just beginning to rise, the sky a pink sort of color. John soon meets Jack’s side, announcing to the boy with a loud voice.
“We need to reach Brittlebrush Trawl, south of Hennigan’s Stead. That’s where Irish will be.”
Jack grunts, his face shadowed by his hat. “Alright,”
The ride back always is faster. Jack remains slightly ahead of John, his head hung low, hat shadowing most of his face. John, in contrast, holds his head up high. Like bats out of Hell, the pair ride out of West Elizabeth, the green grass dying more and more with every step, soon yellowing, appearing more and more scarce. As the sun climbs higher and higher, the sky settles on a baby blue sky, vacant of the usual clouds. Coyotes yelp as they run past the path, wild horses stare, and deer skip across the vacant landscape the Marston’s pass. Eventually, closer and closer to the San Luis river, Jack turns to John.
“How long do you think this will take?” He asks.
John shrugs. “I’m hoping not long. I just want to get this over with.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then we’ll deal with it.”
Jack pauses, John nearly thinks he’s done speaking. When he opens his mouth again, his eyes a slightly narrowed. “Is Javier one of the bad guys?”
“You sure got a lot of questions, boy.”
“And I don’t get the chance to ask much.”
There’s a long silence, with John keeping his eyes on the path. He thinks, and he thinks, for these are wounds left healed being reopened violently. Javier was on Dutch’s side all those years ago, one of the ones that left him to die on that train heist, yet there was a certain kindness to Javier that wasn’t in Bill, or Micah. He wasn’t a gutless bastard, and when John was left in the snow, it was Javier and Arthur who dragged his sorry ass out. He’s not too sure why Bill would go to Javier of all people, the two had never been on good terms, so he concludes that Bill must be growing desperate. When John and Arthur faced the old gang down, it was Javier who held the most hesitation, but in the long run, Javier trusted Dutch.
So, when John looks back to Jack, he rubs his face, hesitating before answering. “No, no I don’t think he is, or, was. Just misguided, I think.”
“And what about Bill?”
“Ah, Hell, Bill’s an idiot and always has been an idiot. He was always a bastard, but he was loyal as a dog. Went off the deep end on his own, went crazy. I don’t know.”
“They were our family.”
“They were, Jack, they were. It’s giving me no satisfaction having to face them again, this time as enemies.”
“Do you think they’d recognize me?” Jack eventually asks.
“Maybe, if they don’t try to shoot you first. I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”
“I don’t remember them too much. Javier sung, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Almost every night he’d be out there strumming his guitar.” John scratches the side of his face, slowly turning his head back to the road. Something about this conversation makes John feel uneasy.
“Do you miss them?” Jack asks, and John lets his head fall, eyes sliding shut.
“Sorry, Jack, I, I just want to keep my mind on the road, alright?”
Jack shifts back to the path, hands readjusting on the reins as he stutters. “Sorry, sir.”
John sighs. “It’s alright, Jack.”
When they both turn their heads away, there’s an awkward silence, save for the beating of horse hooves. John’s gripping his reins a little bit tighter, and he curses at himself for freezing up like that, unable to think harder on the topic. It’d be easier to say no, to say those days are long over and that he doesn’t care anymore, yet everyday, he is missing his family. He was angry, deservedly so, furious at those who claimed they loved him only to abandon him when he dare question Dutch. Now, as he grows older and older, he can only look back at those times with sorrow. He does miss his family, more than they maybe deserve. Twelve years have passed since the gang tore themselves apart, and twelve years have passed since John heard anything of Javier, or Bill. He finds himself thinking about Dutch, and where the Hell he is. He somewhat hopes Dutch is dead, or at least a miserable old bastard, from what he wrought, another part of him wishes Dutch found whatever it was he was looking for. John has no idea what that would be, but he wishes nonetheless. He lowers his head, hat casting a large enough shadow to hide his face, and he sighs.
Galloping through New Austin, it’s not long before they finally reach Brittlebrush Trawl. Jack’s the first to arrive, quickly dismounting his horse in front of the run down shack by the dock. John’s close behind, hopping off his own horse alongside Jack’s. The sun shines on the San Luis River, and from across it, John finds himself staring at Mexico’s soil, only a raft away. The Marstons saunter onto the dock, and to their surprise, West Dickens is alongside Irish, waving his finger along with his words.
“That’s what makes you such an interesting fellow, Mr. Irish,” He says, with Irish spinning with his shoe in his hand, like he stepped on something sharp. When they notice John and Jack, they turn towards them.
“Ah, Mr. Marston, and little Marston, too, I’ve come to wish you well, how are you boys?”
Jack’s almost about to laugh at the name given to him, but he coughs to hide that. “We’re fine, sir, it’s good to see you.” Jack looks towards the raft, with Irish standing on it, and greets him. “Hello, Irish,” He says, with Irish waving towards him, which looks more like a flail of the hand than an actual wave.
“Yes, Irish here is well connected south of the border,” Dickens announces.
“Oh, it’s true,” Irish croaks, “They love me down there, it’s like a second home!”
Jack jumps onto the raft, crossing his arms at dear old Irish. “You’re a lot better at attracting the wrong kind of folk than actual friends, Irish,” He snorts, and Irish shakes his head, gesturing with his index finger.
“I’ve got more friends than you can shake a stick at, should you so desire,” He says, and Jack gives him a deadpan kind of look, one that John can’t help but chuckle at.
“You know the way then, Irish?” John says, thumb tucked in his belt, and a turned head.
“Oh,” Irish sings, “It’s easy, we just get on my raft here and let the current sweep up away to paradise,” Irish reaches his arms out, presenting the so-called paradise to the men. When he notices John is still unconvinced, he reaches a hand out to John, bowing down like he’s offering a dance. “Come on then, Dovey,” He says. Jack puts a hand on his hat and covers his face as he begins to quietly laugh.
John shoves Irish’s hand away, and gives Jack a funny look. “I’m not sure your idea of paradise and mine are quite the same, Irish,” He argues, yet Irish simply waves him off as he begins to back away.
“Relax, we’ll have a great time and we’ll find your man Williamson, no bother,”
“I hope so,” John growls as he hops onto the raft. Without sparing Irish a glance, he walks to the edge of it, looking off.
Irish begins to laugh. “Hey, come on now, look at it this way, John, I know we ain’t exactly old pals, but, you know,” He pauses, “Have I ever done you wrong?”
John turns his head towards Irish. “No, but not through lack of trying.”
Irish shakes his head, turning towards Jack, “I think I like you better, Junior,”
Jack elbows him in the arm, “You’re lucky I don’t shoot you, Irish,”
“Ah, you’re just saying that to impress the old man, I get it. Still got those bruises, yeah?”
Jack rubs his cheek, nearly forgetting the bar fight. They’ve gotten less purple, but still noticeable. “I would’ve been just fine if it was you who got punched instead.”
Irish laughs, giving the boy a pat on the shoulder. “Not just a punch, I saw you get slammed into a table, I was sure that brute would’ve snapped you in half! You’re a scrappy young fellow, I’ll give you that.”
“Thanks, Irish. You’re lucky my father doesn’t kill you for getting me into that fight.”
John turns around. “I’d shoot him where he stands if we didn’t need his help, isn’t that right, Irish?”
Irish snorts. “You jest, old buddy.”
“Yeah, sure,” John deadpans, before turning back around to West Dickens. Jack walks to John’s side, accidentally bumping into Irish on the way. West Dickens claps his hands together.
“You boys have fun down there, I shall miss you two.” He announces, while Irish raises his hands as he realizes West Dickens isn’t including him.
“Thank you, where are you headed?” John asks, while West Dickens gestures with his arms as he always does.
“Oh, me?” He says, pointing towards him. “London, or Paris, or maybe Saint Denis, I’m a travelling man, sir!”
Jack rolls his eyes. “I hope you learn to make a fake elixir that doesn’t taste like puke in a bottle.”
West Dickens points at Jack. “For you, Jacky boy, I’ll make a vanilla flavor West Dickens Patent Tonic!”
Jack begins to laugh, covering his mouth to hide the fact. “You’re ridiculous, old man.”
“Try not to get yourself killed,” John says.
“Us men of science aren’t very loved in this land of myths and superstitions, I know, I’m off to the civilized world where men like myself are revered and given medals!”
Irish laughs loudly, like some kind of crow.
“Have fun,” John wishes, and West Dickens smiles.
“The same to you, sir, the same to you!”
As Dickens begins to walk off, Jack waves. “I’ll be looking for your name in the newspaper, sir,”
“Then you won’t have to wait long, my boy, for I am a quick enough man. My name will get out there soon enough!” Dickens calls out as he prances away, all too showy yet slow as a turtle.
Jack leans to John. “The only thing I think I’ll see of him in the newspaper is an obituary.” John laughs, maybe a bit too loud.
As the trio get situated, Jack sits on top of one of the various crates on the raft, while John stands at the edge. Irish takes the rope from New Austin to Nuevo Parasío in his calloused grasp and begins to pull, the raft beginning it’s snails pace across the river. John crosses his arms and turns to Irish.
“Nice of you to actually turn up for once, Irish,” He says, and Irish raises a brow.
“What’s that mean?” He asks.
“In usual fashion, you conveniently missed all the action in Fort Mercer.”
“What can I say? I woke up with my head in a pair of tits, sorry Junior, and it felt ill-mannered not to get reacquainted with them!”
Jack grimaces. “Ew.”
John laughs, eyes shutting. “At least you have your priorities straight.”
“You know me, Johnny Boy,” Irish sings, “I’ll be late to my own funeral!”
“If it weren’t for Shaky and I, you would be dead,” Jack laughs, while Irish rolls his eyes.
“I had it covered, Jacky, you should have more faith in me, you know,”
“You were on top of a table surrounded by crazy fools! They would’ve torn you apart.” Jack responds, a grin on his face.
“And you got beaten to a pulp, you did! Learned how to take your whiskey like a man, too.”
John looks at Jack.
“What?” John says, and Jack blinks.
“That didn’t happen. Nope.” Jack quickly spouts while Irish laughs at the boy’s backtracking. John raises a hand.
“Calm down, calm down, it’s alright. Just don’t become an alcoholic like this idiot, alright?” When Jack looks away, John gives Irish a death stare.
Irish lowers his head. “You’re lucky I owe both of you, or I’d be across the country in the arms of a lovely lady by now.”
John laughs, and for a brief moment, as his laugh fades, the birds in the sky chirp, and the grass rustles gently. His brow furrows as Jack climbs off the box, ripping off the rifle on his back and pushing John out of the way.
John whips around, and facing them on their destination in an ambush, men aim their guns towards the raft, calling the trio out.
“Shit,” John snarls, “Cut the rope, Irish,”
Jack shoots one of the ambushers, the body flinging back in recoil. Due to the tall grass and overabundance of cover, Jack can only wait for them to poke their heads out like a shooting gallery. John quickly pulls his revolver from it’s holster, stomping towards the edge of the raft and shooting another of the men.
“Are these your friends, Irish?” Jack yells, quickly backing away towards the boxes he can use as cover.
“I should have mentioned, there’s a bounty or two out for my head in Mexico.” Irish responds, and the two Marstons glare. Irish pulls out a rather large knife, grabbing the rope and cutting away at it. As John shoots a man in the skull, the rope snaps, sending the trio down the river.
The boat begins to turn rapidly, allowing cover from the crates as it rides along the river, and just in time too, as bounty hunters alike take position along the coast.
“We’ll ride along the river, they have to stop chasing us eventually,” Irish concludes, drawing his own pistol from his belt.
A good old fashioned shootout is on the trio’s hands, as men pour into view, John’s the fastest draw of the three, while Jack is sure Irish isn’t even shooting at anything.
As Jack blows a man’s brains out, he turns to John. “Does anything ever go right in your life?” He asks.
John reloads, keeping on his knees behind the crates. “When something does, I’ll let you know. For the moment, no,”
Riding along the river, eventually men on horses ride along the cliff side, guns pointed towards the men. John groans.
“This ain’t exactly the reception I was expecting, Irish,”
Irish shrugs before pointing his pistol and killing a man, “They’re not ones to forgive and forget, these fellas,”
For a second, behind cover, Jack stares up into the distance, at the fort standing upon a high cliff, El Presidio standing high and mighty, and for some reason, it sends a chill down Jack’s spine. At a particularly loud one-liner by his father, he’s returned to the moment, and he quickly takes aim.
Jack, with an eye down his sightlines, yells, “What did you do, Irish?”
“I think it had something to do with money,”
“Doesn’t it always,” John butts in.
“And possibly some misunderstanding about a fella’s daughter, the details escape me,”
Jack’s fuming as he replies, “How are you not dead yet, Irish?”
Irish snorts. “Luck of the Irish, I presume,” He answers.
With the assailants slowly shrinking in numbers, Jack and John soon move from cover, facing the bounty hunters fully. While aiming, John looks at Jack, and for a second, Jack’s a different person. Maybe it’s the confident stance, but John is sure Jack’s got the swagger of a gunslinger.
“You’re getting good with that rifle, boy,” He says.
“Thanks, sir,” Jack replies, sending a bullet into a man’s chest.
“I oughta start fearing for my title as ‘Best Shot in the Family,’ if you get any better,” John remarks, and Jack chuckles.
Irish cocks his pistol, eyes on the Marstons. “Ain’t that a beautiful sight? Brings a tear to my eye, it does.”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Tears in your eyes’ll only make you an even worse shot, Irish,”
“You wound me, Jack!”
Eventually, as Jack’s reloading, and Irish is shooting, Irish looks down at him.
“How’s the belly?” He asks, and Jack swallows.
He never told John about the stitches, the knife, only ever specified the bruises. So, hoping John doesn’t notice, he gives Irish a look, a sort of gesture towards John with his rifle.
“Oh,” Irish sings, “Right, I got you, don’t wanna stir up the old man,”
John turns around, “What?”
Irish shrugs, “Oh, nothing, Johnny boy, just talking to myself.”
Finally, after what feels like a century, the last man falls by Irish’s hand, and the gentle silence returns again.
As they near a clearing, Irish sighs, “I will really miss these escapades, boys, I really will,”
Jack reholsters his rifle as John does the same. “For some reason, I think I’ll miss you too, Irish,” Jack laments.
Meanwhile, John gruffly responds, “I doubt you’ll remember any of it, Irish,”
Irish laughs, while Jack fiddles his his fingers. “Irish, if you’re ever in West Elizabeth, and you need some poor fool to have your back in a bar fight, I’ll be there,” He says.
Irish gives him a pat on the shoulder, a wide grin, “You’re the best of men, Jacky boy,”
John shakes his head, and as the raft docks itself on the coast, the trio retreat to land.
“I arranged for horses before you came, I did, we’re lucky they weren’t found by those bounty hunters,” Irish explains as he brushes his hands together.
Sure enough, the Marstons are greeted by three stallions, a dark chestnut color similar to John’s horse.
“You’re lucky I asked for three,” Irish remarks.
“How’d you know I’d even be here, Irish?” Jack asks as he pats one of them on the neck.
Irish shrugs, “Like I said, luck.”
John turns to Irish. “You do know people down here? Aside from your friends who welcomed us on the way?”
As Jack climbs onto one of the stallions, Irish begins to think. “Yes, I think so. I was really drunk last time I was here, John. You know how it is.” He explains with a laugh, while John remains unimpressed. “I met an American guy, saw him shoot a man. Drank with him in the village of Chuparosa, so that’s where I would be headed, failing that you could try the provincial governor, Colonel something or other. He’s based out of Escalera.”
John nods. “Thank you for your help, Irish. Where will you be heading?”
Irish mounts another one of the horses with a strained grunt before turning back to John, reins in a single hand. “I’ve never been one to overstay my welcome, so I’m off to greener pastures.”
As the winds blow, Irish points towards John, an earnest smile on his face. “Good luck, John. You’re an angry and a fuck ugly man; but not a bad one.”
Jack smiles at this moment of sincerity, reaching over to tap Irish. “It’s been nice fighting by your side, Irish.”
Irish snorts. “You too, Junior. Keep the old man in check, will you?”
“Can do, Irish.” Jack nods, and with that Irish rides, leaving the two by the shore.
As John finally mounts the last horse left, Jack turns to him. “Where are we heading first?”
John settles on the saddle, and without a second thought, he leads the horse out of the clearing, Jack behind him. “Chuparosa.”
The heavy winds send dust across the sky, vultures cry as they circle the sky, and the sound of the running river is drowned out as the two exchange a glance. They’re both desperate, though prepared. John grips the reins, his chest aching. Jack makes sure his hat remains straight on his head, his eyes narrowed and sight blurry. They’re far from home, on different soil, and without a moment to rest, they ride, the burning sun behind them.
Across cliff sides, alongside the San Luis river, they ride, and John is ready to put this to rest.
Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella are dead men.
Chapter 13: The Gunslinger's Tragedy
Jack lifts his hat, wiping his forehead of sweat over the paradise sun. Waiting for his father to hitch his horse, he begins using the hat as a fan. John glances towards Jack.
“That ain’t the proper use for a hat, you know,” He says. Jack blinks, and quickly returns the hat to its proper place on his head.
“I don’t mean to exaggerate, sir, but I feel like I am going to die in this heat.” Jack whines.
John readjusts his sleeves as he begins to walk towards the entrance to Chuparosa. “Don’t die of heatstroke yet, cowboy, we just got here,” John jests, while Jack huffs.
It was a completely silent ride, the ride to Chuparosa, and now the father and son have finally arrived at the quiet town. Jack can only look into the town and think ‘ Wow, that’s a lot of dust, ’ John keeps his head low, head shaded, while Jack’s eyes are wandering all around the town. It’s a quaint kind of town, people babbling to each other in the distance. Jack’s slow behind John, and nearly bumps into the woman trying to catch her lost chicken. From that shock back to reality, Jack quickly jogs back to John’s side.
“Do you speak any actual Spanish, Pa?” Jack asks.
“I know enough,” John replies, voice quiet.
Jack nods, and for a moment, he’s distracted by the jingling of his fathers spurs, before walking right into John’s back, stumbling.
The two watch as three men throw a rather scrawny fellow out into the clearing of the town, all pouring out from the hotel. One of the men, with a large handlebar mustache, growls, “You piece of shit,” He says in Spanish, and by the tone of the man, Jack can gather what he’s saying, “We’re done playing around.”
The man on the dusty ground whimpers, hand over his face, “I haven’t done anything wrong, sirs,” He says, while the trio only laugh.
Another one of the men, this time with an ugly kind of face, kicks the man. “Why don’t you pay up?”
While Jack can’t exactly understand what they’re saying, he knows when he sees somebody in trouble. He pushes past John, hands balling into fists. “Leave him alone,” He says, putting on a fake voice. John nearly stops him, not wanting his son to draw too much attention to himself. Since he’s too late, he provides some sort of intimidation, hands on his belt.
The third man, a skinny guy, turns to the handlebar mustache. “Who are they?”
The handlebar mustache crosses his arms, whispering back to his friend. “No idea.”
The ugly man walks over the man on the ground. “You new here, strangers?” He asks, now speaking English.
“You could say that,” John says, “You best listen to him,” he gestures to Jack with a tilt of his head.
“You shouldn’t be beating on people like that, it’s just wrong,” Jack says, yet is reminded of his own loss of temper at Fort Mercer.
The ugly one looks at Jack, looks to his friends, and they all holler with laughter. He turns to his friends. “The kid’s gonna preach to us,” He announces, while the other two only laugh. “He’s shaking!”
The man with the bad mustache saunters towards Jack, pushing him back into John with a shove, “You got papa to come protect you?” He asks.
“No.” Jack says, and without a second to spare, punches the man, sending him stumbling back.
John’s hand quickly goes to his holster as the man snarls, “You little shit,” before retrieving his pistol, his friends following suit. Jack retrieves his rifle, and as the two quicker draws, the three men fall to the ground dead.
John backs up slightly, reholstering his gun as Jack does so too. Jack leans down, offering an arm to the shaking man. “Are you alright?” He asks as he pulls the man onto his feet.
“You saved me from those men, thank you,” The man stutters, a shaky smile on his lips. Jack’s only able to pick up on the last bit, so he nods.
“You’re welcome, sir,” He answers. The man raises his brows.
“I shall repay you soon,” The man says, now in English, words slow.
“Don’t worry about that, sir, just take care of yourself,” Jack answers, and the man nods, thanking him one last time, John too, before stumbling over the trio of bodies, and back from where he came.
John crosses his arms. “You didn’t have to do that, you know,” He says.
Jack blinks. “And you would’ve just kept walking?”
John shrugs. “I don’t usually get in people’s business.”
From the shadows cast by the tiles over the inn, a man stands up from his seat and saunters to the duo.
“Very good,” He says, “Very good, indeed,”
The man has a long grey coat on, a yellowed work shirt underneath. With a brown hat and a rather grizzled face, hidden by the large mustache over his lips, Jack’s sure he’s seen the man before, John too. They glance at each other, then at the man.
“Doing my job for me, then,” The man continues, “I take it this isn’t a family vacation?”
John’s brow lowers. “It ain’t none of your concern, sir,”
The man rolls his eyes. “Oh, but it does concern me, when two men saunter into town, obviously fresh off the ferry, butchering the local peasants, acting like gunslingers, yet both have terrible aim.”
“That man was in trouble, sir. I mean no offence, but I don’t like sitting around waiting for something to happen like you.” Jack retorts, and for a second, the man pauses before laughing.
“Bold, too. With that kind of aim, and that boldness, it’s a surprise you’re not dead yet, kid,” The man responds. “I fear Mexico may not be for you,”
John gets between Jack and the man, a glare in his eyes. “He’s a better shot than most, old man, better than me.”
The man snorts. “Clearly. Sure, you can face off against lowlifes like these, but against a real man? You’d both never stand a chance.”
Jack tilts his head. “And you do?”
“I can show you both a few tricks. Come with me,” The man urges, gesturing to outside the Chuparosa entrance. John stops him.
“And who are you?” John asks.
“Ah, doesn’t matter anymore. What about you two?”
“I never had a name, mister. Grew up in an orphanage.” John answers, and for a second, Jack’s about to inform the man of John’s actual name, but he stops himself.
“A real American, then. Wonderful. And you?” The man looks to Jack, who gives him a deadpan look.
“Rip Van Winkle.” Jack answers, and John covers his mouth, masking a laugh with a cough.
“Perfect. I’m dealing with two fools with bigger egos than any schmuck down here. Come on, then,” The man says before gesturing for the two men to follow him. Although they’re both reluctant, they trail behind the man long forgotten by time, and worn by age.
The sun is slowly starting to fade into night, the sky in a brilliant red as the sun gives one last hurrah, while Jack shatters a bottle with a bullet from his rifle.
“You’re hesitating, son,” The man says, standing next to Jack while John watches, a cigarette between his lips. “You’re scared of the gun’s recoil, and flinching.” He explains, while circling around Jack. “If you wanna aim like you got some sense, I’d say find your balance.”
Jack grumbles, slowly adjusting his posture, and the position of the gun. He exhales, shutting his eye again and pulling the trigger. Another bottle shatters, and the man nods.
“Better,” He says, placing more bottles on the crates covered in glass. “You got more potential than your old man, he’s rustier than me.”
Another bottle shatters, and the two turn around to see John, revolver in his hand. “You’re right about that, old man.” John says.
The man holds his belt, tilting his head to the side. “Now, who are you two really?”
John avoids eye contact, shooting another bottle. “No one important. Who are you?”
The man’s coat gently flaps in the dusty wind, and as he looks at the two Marstons, he chuckles. “Landon Ricketts, not a name that means much anymore.”
Jack’s eyes go wide as a saucer. “That’s where I know you from. You have a cigarette card, you were famous!” He announces.
John nods. “You were famous when I was a boy,”
Landon weakly smiles at Jack’s awestruck face as he saunters towards John. “Yeah, killing men's a strange kind of fame.” He sits down, and John follows, sitting back down next to Landon. “I was the fastest in my time. I must have been.” He looks down, and John’s not sure if it’s in sadness, or remembering better times. “I'm the only one left.”
Jack reholsters his rifle, a grimace on his face. “I’m sorry for talking real rudely before, sir, I forgot my manners,” He stammers, while Landon raises a hand.
“Calm down, kid,” Landon says, and Jack instantly shuts his mouth tightly. “I would’ve been been standoffish, too.”
After a pause, Jack offers a hand. “Jack Marston,” He introduces himself, and Landon takes his hand, giving it a firm shake.
“Marston, eh? Nice to meet you, Jack.”
After Jack pulls his hand back, he only gives Landon a look. “What are you doing here?” He asks, and Landon stares off into the nothing.
“Living quietly, waiting.”
John leans forward, arm rested on his knee. “For what?”
“I don’t know, and you?”
Jack backs up slightly, returning his focus to the shooting targets facing him. Maybe he’s trying to impress Landon, or his father, but he quickly returns the rifle to his grasp and gets to shooting.
John puffs a cloud of smoke. “I’m looking for a couple of men,” He explains, “Bill Williamson and Javier Escuella. Javier’s from here.”
Through the gunshots, Jack’s not too sure where their conversation goes, only able to catch snippets as he places more bottles on the crates. He hears the name Allende, who sounds like a real bastard, and goes back to shooting.
Landon pats his knees as he gets back onto his feet. “Alright, Marston Senior, let’s get back to it. Remember what I told your boy, keep the gun from jumping.” He unholsters his own hand cannon, presenting it to John. “See if this Schofield makes a difference.” As John takes it, it’s heavy in his gloved hand. “Now that’s a real gun,” Landon says.
Landon sets up six bottles, three for each, and steps out of the crossfire.
In a heartbeat, all six bottles go down, smoke rising from the barrels of both men’s guns.
They’re given a harder challenge, shooting vultures from the sky. Landon’s the one to frighten the birds, and for the good people of Chuparosa, half the flock go down by the barrels of Jack’s rifle, and John’s revolver. Landon tips his hat. “You’ve been taught well, gentlemen.”
Jack has that starry look in his eyes again, and John gives Landon a nod.
When they head back into town, Jack doesn’t hang behind John like before, instead walks side-by-side with him, no longer in his shadow, but in the shadow of Ricketts.
“Your son’s a natural, Marston,” Landon remarks.
“He grew up among the fastest draws I knew, I’m proud of him.” John responds, while Jack hides his face with his hat.
Suddenly, the trio is stopped by a man running out of the bank, stopping in front of Landon with a terrified look in his eyes. “Mister Ricketts, he stutters, “Our bank wagon's under attack just outside of town,” He gulps. “We need your help again.”
Landon puts a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, “Don’t worry, Ramon. We’ll take care of it.”
Ramon, the man, smiles. “Thank you, mister, you really are the savior of this town.”
As Ramon returns to the bank, now relieved, Landon turns to the Marstons. “Well, you two, are you ready for a less theoretical exam?” He asks.
“I’m with you, sir,” Jack says,
“Sure. I don't think I ever rode with no savior before.” John remarks.
Landon quickly leads the charge towards their horses, the Marstons close behind him. “Come on,” He says, “These people need me.”
When the trio ride out, Landon is quick to look at John, a wary gaze in his eye. “So, why are you looking for these two men? More importantly, why is your son with you?”
John doesn’t spare Landon a glance. “It’s a long story. Those men were family once, friends.”
Landon grunts. “Only a buzzard feeds on his friends. There must be a high bounty on their heads.”
“Somebody took my mother.” Jack says, while John nods.
“Great harm will come to her if I don’t bring those men in.” John states, while Landon only nods.
They near the wagon, an influx of bandits circling it. When they catch wind of the trio, they draw their guns, one of them grabbing the driver of said wagon, holding a gun to his head.
Landon glares, “They have a hostage,” He says, drawing his pistol.
As Jack retrieves his rifle, finger twitching on the trigger. “Don’t worry, I have him.”
John grabs his revolver, “Alright, let’s clear them out.”
The man holding the wagon driver by the neck is the first to go, blood splattering across the driver’s cheek as Jack blows the bandit’s brains out, a bullet straight to the eye. The rest go shortly after, a small sort of competition between Landon and John to see who can land the killing shot first. They regroup around the driver, who shakily comes to his feet.
“Thank you,” The driver says, slowly clambering back into the front of the wagon.
Landon nods, and turns back to the Marstons. “Keep your eyes peeled, I doubt these bandits plan on giving up.”
As the wagon’s pulled out of the brush and back into the path, Jack’s the first to respond, “Them stories I heard about you, I always thought they weren’t true,”
“Is that so,” Landon asks.
“Now I know they’re real, sir. It’s an honor to fight alongside a legend.” Jack answers, voice shaking just a tiny bit.
Landon chuckles. “And it’s nice to fight alongside a fan that actually knows how to point straight.”
“You haven’t lost your touch, Landon,” John says, a smile on his face.
“Nobody said I had, Marston,” Landon responds, “You talk real big for a boy who couldn’t shoot straight half an hour ago.”
“And you talk real big for a man who can’t stand up straight no more,” John retorts, and Jack snickers. With that, Landon and John share a laugh.
“You’re a long way from being a Landon Ricketts, partner; young, old or otherwise.” Landon teases, while Jack’s absolutely enjoying watching his father be the punching bag for once.
The wagon driver suddenly points, exclaiming, “Look, sir, there’s more of them!” The Marstons are able to catch the man’s meaning as bandits ride out from the horizon. They quickly draw their weapons. While Jack remains in the back, John rides towards the bandits, barrel pointed towards the men. With a shot by Landon, a shot by Jack, and a shot by John, it’s quick work taking out the bandits. The last one left alive is trampled under John’s horse accidentally, and with that, the day is saved. As John circles back to the wagon, Landon’s the one leading the wagon down the path, while Jack follows by the wagon’s side. John rides alongside Jack, and Landon turns back to the Marstons.
“I think that’s all of them,” Landon says.
“So much for this quiet life of yours, Mister Ricketts.” John remarks.
As Landon responds, Jack’s watching with awe. “I didn't say I'd become a coward,” Landon explains, “I'm not going to stand by and watch good people suffer. They've been beaten down for too long, I give them some hope.”
The sun’s gone now, and the moon takes it place as it shines over Landon, nearly like a silhouette in the moonlight, and Jack agrees with Landon’s words. Maybe, just maybe, Jack wants to be like Landon. A beacon of hope for the suffering, a quick draw, a hero. Hope is something Jack has lacked for a long time, but now, looking at Ricketts, he feels hopeful that the day will be saved in the end, and they will ride into the sunset. When John turns to look at Jack, he sees that face he rarely sees on the boy, the hopeful one, and he smiles.
“They don’t know how lucky they are,” John says to Landon, yet eyes remaining on Jack.
“Damn right they don’t, my sarcastic little apprentice.”
The wagon is returned safely back to the bank, and as the wagoner climbs off his ride, Landon is off his horse and is having his hand shaken. “Safe and sound,” He says, “I could never thank you enough,”
Landon has a cigar in between his teeth, puffing a cloud of smoke as he says; “Buy me a whiskey later, and we’ll call things even.” Ricketts waves the Marstons off as he escapes to the bar, and the two are left alone on their horses. After a long pause, Jack looks at John.
“Pa, I think I’d like to help folks, like Mr. Ricketts.” Jack says.
“I think he’s an old fool stuck in his former glory, Jack. Come on, it’s dark. We’ll get a room at the inn.”
The two retire, yet as John sleeps, Jack has his nose deep in the book he bought all the way back in Armadillo. With Landon Ricketts, Jack believes legends can exist. With his rifle at the foot of his bed, back against the headboard, and his hat resting near a window, the moon light shining on it’s dusty surface, Jack ponders if he could be a legend in the making, too.
Chapter 14: Landon Ricketts Rides Again
jack plays the hero
Jack’s the last one out of the hotel, lagging behind John in a sleepy daze. As John realizes this, he crosses his arms.
“Did you stay up all night, Jack?” He asks, voice stern.
“No, sir, I didn’t,” Jack responds, yet yawns afterwards.
John, unconvinced, shakes his head. “We should find Mister Ricketts.” He says.
Jack rubs the back of his neck. “Where do you think he’ll be?” He asks.
“He’s an old American fool. He’ll be at the saloon.” John answers, and Jack nods.
As the pair approach the saloon, John looks at Jack. “You really look up to Mister Ricketts, don’t you?”
Jack turns his head away. “I guess, sir,”
John chuckles at Jack’s embarrassment. He gives him a nudge. “I do, too,”
“He’s the fastest shot in the west, or was. I’d hear of him all the time when I was your age, maybe younger. He may be an old coot, but fighting alongside hims a bit of an honor.”
Jack’s a little surprised at his father’s honesty. Maybe in some other time, John would put on that aloof persona and act he’s above it all, but not today. When they finally enter the saloon, Landon’s sure enough there, sitting with two gentlemen.
“Very interesting,” Landon says in Spanish, “Thank you, friends.” When he sees the Marstons, he returns to English. “Senior and Junior Marston, how the devil are you two?”
John and Jack take a seat at the round table Ricketts sits at. Jack’s the first to answer, “It’s good to see you again, Mister Ricketts.”
“Yeah,” John adds, “How are you?”
Landon leans back, arm slung over the back of his seat. “I’m good. I'm glad you're here, because these men were just telling me about Mister Escuella.” Landon says, which causes John to lean forward, intrigued.
“Javier Escuella?” John asks, emphasis on Javier. Landon turns back to his friend.
“Emilio, let me ask you something,” Acting as a translator, Landon asks his question, leaning forward slightly. “His name is Javier?”
Emilio shrugs, saying “Not sure, Mister.”
Landon sighs before leaning back again. “He doesn’t know.”
John blinks. “I got that bit.” He deadpans. He shifts gears, gesturing with his arms to explain. “Ask him if he was about five foot eight, mustache. Did he have an American in tow?”
Landon’s gaze returns to Emilio. “Emilio, was he with an American?”
Again, Emilio shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Landon looks at John. “No.”
And again, John blinks, brow lowering in annoyance. “Again,” he strains, “I got that.”
As Landon continues, Jack leans forward, arms resting on the table. “But,” Landon starts, “They have his sister. Emilio’s I mean, she's a fine young woman, teacher, a human being. Not the clothed vermin so many people seemed to have turned into.”
Jack turns his head. “Who’s they?” he asks.
“Colonel Allende’s men, they kidnapped her, have her in prison.”
Jack’s face twists, first confused, then angry. “We have to do something-”
John shakes his head. “Tell him I’m sorry,” He says, and Jack turns his anger on John, and he finds that Landon shares this.
“When a man's family is involved,” Landon snaps, “you need a little more enthusiasm than mere apologies.”
John glares at Landon, “I have enough worries, sir.” He reaffirms, “This man's problems pain me, but they're not quite my own.” He gestures towards Emilio, and before Landon can speak, Jack already has it covered.
“What would you do if I was kidnapped, sir? Wouldn’t you want help in saving me?” Jack retaliates. John turns his attention on Jack, brow raising.
“That wouldn’t happen, Jack. And besides, I don’t even know these people,” John replies.
“And what about Bonnie? She was kidnapped, and we saved her, what makes this any different?”
“That was different, Jack,” John strains, while Jack slumps back into his chair frustrated. Landon remains unimpressed.
“Those who sit on the fence make a choice in their own way.” Landon mumbles, leaning close to John, “Don't you think, Mr. Marston?”
John nods his head, “Of course,” Yet, his voice grows louder, “And what about you, Ricketts, a man living in the past, a man who ran away from home, what choice did you make?”
As Landon leans forward, his eyes narrow, voice gruff. “I'll tell you what choice I made. I'm a fighter, sir, and I'll fight to the end.”
Before John can reply, Jack stands up from his seat. “I want to help you, Emilio, Mister Ricketts.”
Landon pats the table as he gets onto his feet. “Seems your son’s got more brains than you, John. Thank you, son. We should get going, both of you.”
John’s eyes are narrow, mouth left open in disbelief. Did that just happen? He takes one last glance at Emilio, then back to Landon and Jack who are already walking out. He’s forced to follow them, and for once, he’s left in the back as Jack and Landon converse.
“You’re a brave kid, Jack. Heard about the business with Williamson and your father. I think he may be in need of my help more than I thought,” Landon mumbles to Jack.
“Thanks, Mister Ricketts. He doesn’t like admitting it, but I think you’re right.” Jack whispers back.
Landon looks back at John. “We’ll be taking the train to Casa Madrugada, and continue riding from there.” John finally catches up to Landon and Jack, walking alongside Jack.
When they board the train, John has his gun next to him and a hat over his eyes, while Landon and Jack babble to each other. On some level, John’s a little glad, Jack growing up was never social, and now he’s eager to strike a conversation, and do things himself. John doesn’t want to say he’s jealous that Jack has a new idol, because he’s sure Jack never looked up to John in the first place. He’s sure if Jack had to take advice from one of them, he’d pick Landon, and maybe that’d be the right choice. John, influenced by Abigail and his own experiences, doesn’t want Jack to become like Ricketts, some old fool stuck in a bygone era, and he doesn’t want Jack to end up like him, an idiot who makes wrong call after wrong call. Jack said he wanted to be like Landon, a hero that helped folk, and although John’s proud of his son’s good heart, he worries Jack will just throw his life away trying to be a legendary gunslinger from the tales of old, instead of living in the changing times.
John sighs and closes his eyes. He tells Jack to wake him up when they arrive, and Jack agrees.
Jack’s eyes widen again, and his smile spreads. “What happened next?” He asks.
Landon chuckles, waving his hand as he speaks. “The man, a corrupt son of a bitch, he was pissed to say the least when his trap didn’t work, and fourteen of his men lay dead. He tracked me down in the middle of town. He finally decided to try and take me himself, instead of just sending idiot after idiot. I was relaxing, having a drink when he called me out. I walked outside, looked him in the eye, and before he could even blink, I shot him dead. I walked back into the saloon, sat down, and went back to drinking.”
Jack’s smile turns into a grin, “You single handedly took on an infamous gang and won?”
Landon leans back. “That’s the story.”
“That’s amazing, sir,” Jack cheers, “Thank you for sharing.”
Landon smiles, though it’s hard to tell from the bushy mustache on his face. “Kid, when your journey comes to an end, you’ll have a story, too, and it’ll be one Hell of a story.”
Jack’s left starstruck, leg bouncing incessantly. “You really think I could be like you?”
Landon shrugs. “It ain’t about being like me, son. Any man can pick up a revolver and call himself a gunslinger or hero. It’s about the choices you make that make you a real hero worth remembering.”
“Thank you, Mister Ricketts,” Jack stutters.
Eventually, the train stops at their destination. Jack shakes John awake, and as they hop off the train, John turns to Landon.
“What’d you two talk about?” He asks.
“Nothing too interesting, sir,” Landon answers, yet John’s unconvinced.
“You oughta not be filling my son’s head with stories.”
“Well, he needs something to believe in, especially in this kind of world.”
The trio climb onto horses, and Landon’s the one to lead the charge, “Alright, let's head to El Matadero and see what they know about Luisa.” He instructs, the three riding against the dusty land and blue sky, void of clouds. “We need to find a man called Carlos. I was told he could help us.”
Jack tilts his head. “What does Colonel Allende, or his men, uh, want from the girl?”
“She's a rebel, and apparently close to their leader, Reyes.” Landon explains, “She's a pretty young thing. That's normally reason enough for Allende.”
Jack’s face twists in disgust, fists clenching the reins a little tighter.
“So I’ve heard,” John muses.
“She's a good woman, a teacher, and if they lay a finger on her, I swear I'll feed those bastards their balls.” Landon growls, head lowered.
“It just ain’t right,” Jack says, “I hope we can save her in time.”
“Me too, kid,” Landon responds.
As they near the town, Landon remarks on it. “We’re nearly there. It seems sleepy, don’t it?”
They ride into town, quick to dismount. “Alright, let’s find this Carlos guy.” Landon says.
It’s not long before they find Carlos, after asking around, he’s in the butchery. The trio wander in, the butchery itself is dim, with pigs dangling by their feet. Jack grimaces at the dried blood on the floor, and doesn’t meander in the large room. John notices his son’s uneasiness and without hesitation, gives Jack a pat on the shoulder before walking in front of him. Walking into the back room, the first the Marstons hear is an axe thrown against meat, as the man suspected to be Carlos chops his future paycheck in half. Landon opens his mouth, scratching the side of his face.
“Carlos?” Landon asks, and the man quickly perks his head up, axe left on the table.
“Yes,” He responds.
“We’re here for Luisa,” Landon explains, “Is she still being held up in the caves?”
Carlos nods as he approaches the trio, cleaning his bloodied palms with his shirt, which happens to be just as bloody as the rest of the room. “Yes, she’s still up there. Who are these people?” He asks, gesturing to Jack and John.
“We’re here to help,” John quickly replies.
Jack, who has been standing there hunched, adjusts his posture to seem a little more mature.
“Very good,” Carlos says, “I can distract the guards, while you and your friends can get inside.”
Landon takes a quick glance at John, who returns the look. They both nod. “Let’s do it,” Says Landon.
Carlos leads them out of the butchery, the sound of flies slowly fading as Jack breathes a sigh of relief to be out of that building. John walks at Jack’s pace, while Landon and Carlos lead.
“Don’t like the butchery, huh?” John asks.
“No, sir, it’s, uh, creepy.” Jack answers.
“Well, at least we know you won’t become a butcher.” John remarks, while Jack shivers.
“I ain’t one for slaughtering livestock, not one bit.”
“That’s alright, Jack,” John replies, “You don’t gotta do anything you don’t wanna do, alright?”
Landon gestures for the pair to catch up, which they do. “I will keep them talking, sir,” Carlos says, “The rest I leave to you.”
As Carlos leads them through the town, they’re soon led to a canyon. Down, at the bottom, torches are lit, while two guards are stationed, protecting the entrance to the cave.
“Hope you’re both ready for this,” Landon says. “Come on,”
While Carlos travels down the canyon, Landon, John and Jack take cover behind a large boulder along the trail down. They all retrieve their weapons.
“How are you doing on ammo,” John asks Jack.
“Doing just fine, sir, don’t worry about me,” He answers. Landon pokes his head out from cover, observing Carlos.
From the distance, down below in the canyon, Carlos converses with the guards. Although it’s muffled, it’s clear that is grows increasingly more heated.
“You ready to pick a fight with the military, kid?” Landon asks.
“It’s nothing I can’t handle, Mister Ricketts.”
“Good.” Landon replies.
Suddenly, the guards curse out Carlos and begin to chase the man, forcing him deeper into the canyon. As their curses die out, Landon turns to the gentlemen.
“Well, I say we've waited long enough.” He cocks his pistol and moves from cover, straightening his crooked back. “Follow me! We'll shoot our way in there.”
John gestures for Jack to stay close behind him while he trails Landon down the canyon, and to the torch-lit cavern the military inhabits. As guards catch wind of the trio, two pour out of the cave, and are quickly gunned down by Landon and John.
“Alright, let’s get in there,” John exclaims as he takes the lead, killing anyone in his way. Jack is close by his side, with little room to move in the claustrophobic caverns. It’s a steady incline up deeper in the cave, the echoing of bullets ricocheting off the walls. Jack, with his trusty rifle, takes up long distance shots, allowing Landon and John to take out the more closer targets. As the guards poke their heads out from cover, there’s Jack popping them in the skull, leaving bloodstains on the rocky terrain. John shields Jack as they move up, the barrel of Jack’s rifle poking out beside John. It would be easier to take cover, but Landon’s quick to rush them, so John is the boulder Jack can hide behind as he takes out targets.
Landon’s ahead of the charge, and as he passes by two large crates stacked on top of each other, a guard lurches from them, pushing Landon against the cavern walls.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Landon growls, holding the man back. John and Jack, in a moment of perfect sync, hold their guns up and splatter the man’s brains against the wall, and maybe Landon too. As the man slumps to the ground, Landon sighs. “I’ve taught you boys well,” He says. Jack smiles, and from the corner of his eye, he sees John smile too. “Alright, let’s move it,” Landon exclaims to the two, gesturing for them to move deeper.
Soon, about seven or so men stand between them and the prison cells, and as Jack takes aim, peering down the sights to a rather ugly looking man, he pulls the trigger. Instead of red mist, there’s a click. He checks his pockets, and he curses. John whips around, and just as he’s about to tell the boy to watch his language, he sees Jack’s predicament. In a flash, John pushes Jack down, forcing him into cover. He shoots a man he’s sure was aiming for Jack, and yells.
“I thought you said you had ammo,”
Jack sputters, “I thought I did!”
“You should’ve checked before we picked a fight with the military!”
“I could’ve sworn I had some, Pa, honest!”
Landon turns around, not even looking as he kills a man. “Can you have this squabble sometime later?” He asks.
John grumbles, taking a look at the mess on the ground he stands on. Alright, this is absolutely fine! Jack remains shielded by a box, so he’s fine. This is fine. John holsters his revolver and crouches above a man with a good chunk of his eye gone, a shot surely delivered by Jack. In the deadman’s hand lays a pistol, so John quickly tugs it from the man’s grasp and throws it to Jack, who’s quick to catch it. Jack holsters his own rifle, hoping to resupply it soon.
“Thanks, sir,” Jack says. John retrieves his revolver and gestures for him to follow.
“We’ll resupply you soon, just come on,” John urges, and Jack quickly escapes cover and returns to John’s side.
The pair return to Landon’s side, who happens to be ducking behind a large crate. “Nice of you to actually show up,” Landon jests, while John rolls his eyes. Landon gestures to what lays beyond with the nod of his head. John and Jack both look up to where Landon’s looking, and sees their objective. The prison cells, just beyond the targets that guard it.
Jack takes aim, arms resting on the crate and hands wrapped tightly around the pistol. While he’s not as good with a pistol as he is a rifle, a gun is still a gun, so one second, a man stands, the next, he’s dead, a shot to the heart.
“Nice shot,” John exclaims.
“I know, right?” Jack replies as he shoots another man, this time in the shoulder.
Eventually, the sound of gunshots die out, and the only people left alive are the heroes. Landon holsters his gun, approaching the cell. “She must be in here,” He says, standing in front of the cell on the left.
“Then let’s open it,” Jack says, “And get somewhere safer.”
Landon thinks out loud as he puts a hand on the door. “I’m gonna see if I can blow the door open.”
John folds his arms across his chest as Jack tilts his head. “With what?” Jack asks.
Landon shrugs. “Not sure. There oughta be a box of dynamite around here,” He takes notice of Jack’s wide-eyed look. “Never seen a dynamite explosion before?” He asks. Jack shakes his head.
“You’re all kinds of trouble, old man.” John says with a slight chuckle. The brief moment of peace is interrupted by the sound of approaching boots. “Dammit, keep guard,” Landon instructs as John and Jack look at each other. Jack retrieves his new pistol, and John reaches behind, retrieving a rather menacing shotgun, and they nod to each other.
With one man short, Jack takes cover while John simply stands, watching the approaching targets. Jack stares at him. “You’re gonna get shot,” He says. John keeps his eyes narrowed, and with the cock of his shotgun, he cracks his neck and walks forward. Jack quickly pokes his head out from cover, gunning a man down, and then watches as John shoots a man’s brains out.
“John Marston, remember the name,” John taunts, his loud voice echoing over the gunshots. Well, that’s definitely happening. Jack realizes that he should never get on his father’s bad side as he jumps over cover, joining John and soon, they find themselves back to back, much like the fight at Tumbleweed.
Soon, the men are dead, and again, the heroes have won. John returns his shotgun to his back and gives Jack a smile. “Nice shooting, Jack, I’m real proud.”
Jack stands there expressionless, but soon gives a sheepish smile. “Thanks, Pa.”
The moment is cut short by Landon’s voice. “Come on, boys,” He says.
Returning to Landon, the two find that he did actually find a crate of dynamite, his hand filled with about three or so sticks. He drops them at the foot of the door, turns around, and returns to the Marstons. Landon gestures to the table behind them and yells. “Stand back, dammit, here it goes.” He retrieves his gun from it’s holster, and immediately John holds his arm out, pushing Jack behind him, backing the both of them behind the table.
“Cover your ears, Jack,” John warns, and Jack obliges, palms over his ears as Landon shoots the dynamite, the explosion sending the ground quaking. The door swings open, dust and smoke filling the entrance as John and Landon slowly stand upright. Landon’s the one heading into the cell, leaving John behind.“So, Jack, looks like you’re one of them knights in shining armor in those books you always read, saving the day.” John muses, and Jack removes his hands from his ears.
“What?” He asks.
John blinks. “Nothing,” He replies.
Soon, through the smoke, Landon climbs out, a young girl thrown over his shoulder. For a second, Jack fears she’s dead. “Come on, you two. Poor girl’s barely alive. Let’s get the Hell out of here before more of them show up.”
John and Jack lead Landon and Luisa out of the cavern, providing safety from the oncoming targets pouring into the exit. Jack is the first one out of the cavern, tackling a man who nearly shoots John to the ground, shooting the man right between the eyes before getting back onto his feet.
John’s the second one out, taking his hat off to wipe his forehead. “Is that the last of them?” He asks.
Jack nods. “Yeah, I think so.”
Landon trudges out of the cavern last. “Looks like Carlos left us some horses. Come on!”
The trio mount up, with Landon helping Luisa onto his horse.
Not out of the darkness yet, there still is the ride out of the canyon. John is the one leading yet again. He calls Jack to ride next to him.
“You still got your rifle?” He asks.
Jack retrieves it from it’s holster on his back. “It’s right here.”
“Let me see it.”
Jack reluctantly hands John his rifle, who quickly reloads it with some of his own ammo, able to actually make the gun useful now that they’re out of danger. Just as he’s about to hand it back to Jack, a man standing at the top of the canyon takes aim, and like an X-marked target, John takes out the man without a second thought.
“You mind if I hold onto this, I’ll give it back once we’re out of here. I would use my shotgun, but it’s a bitch to try and use that to take somebody out long distance.”
Jack pauses, but eventually nods. “Alright, sir.”
As John takes to disposing with anyone in their way, Jack lags behind to ride alongside Ricketts. “How is Luisa doing?” He asks.
The girl is hanging loosely onto Landon’s back, eyes shut, with furrowed brows. Landon grunts. “She’s safe now, that’s all that matters. We’ll get her home, and back to her family.”
Jack nods. “I’m glad we were able to help.”
“Me too, kid. You did good in there, John, too,”
As Jack’s about to respond, a gunshot nearly grazes his shoulder, interrupting him. He curses, retrieving his pistol and killing the man, watching as his body drops from the top of the canyon and onto the ground below. He looks back at Landon. “Thanks, sir.”
John leads them out to safety, into an open clearing, and stops. In the sky, birds chirp softly, and the grass rustles with the wind. Landon gestures to the distance. “There’s Carlos. About time, too.”
Jack hops off the horse, and John follows as Carlos approaches them on horseback. “Luisa,” He cries, “Thank God,”
Jack rushes to Landon, and John watches as Jack gently helps Luisa off the horse. She leans forward, almost about to keel over, but Jack quickly catches her, hand around her back, the other holding her arm. Landon joins Jack, keeping a hand on her back. “Don’t worry,” Jack says to her, “You’re safe now,”
As Landon calls John over to follow, Luisa attempts to speak. “Thank you for saving me,” She gasps, “You’re good men, friends of the people of this land.”
Landon tilts his head to the side, making sure she’s steady on her feet. “Was, uh, someone named Javier Escuella one of the men holding you?” He asks. Luisa struggles to think and slowly nods her head no.
“No,” She stutters, “I don’t know, I don’t think so.” She looks at Landon. “But, I remember that name from prison. Bad people spoke of him.”
Jack looks at John, who looks at Landon. “Then he hasn’t gone anywhere,” Jack says.
“I told you, John.” Landon remarks.
John nods. “Alright, we’ll keep looking.”
Just as John’s about to help Luisa onto Carlos’ horse, Jack’s managing to hold Luisa up, albeit struggling as she climbs onto the horse, Carlos helping her along the way.
“Thank you,” Carlos says.
Luisa wraps her arms around Carlos and smiles at the gentlemen before Carlos spurs the horse forward, leaving the heroes in the dust.
“Alright, I’ll see you two at Chuparosa.” Landon says as he mounts his horse. “Stay out of trouble, alright?”
John waves him off and Jack nods. “You, too, Mister Ricketts.”
Soon, Landon departs, and John lights a cigarette.
“I mean no offence, Jack, but you oughta do more heavy lifting.”
As John puffs out a cloud of smoke, he elaborates. “You got the arms of an emaciated fool. You could barely help that girl up onto the horse.”
Jack blushes, face red as he stutters on his words. “I, uh, okay.”
“Who were you trying to impress? Ricketts or the girl?”
Jack groans as he hides his red face. “Shut up,” He whines.
John laughs. “Don’t worry, I’m just teasing you.”
Eventually, silence fills the air. John returns Jack’s rifle to him, and so Jack sits on the ground, a cloth in his hand as he wipes the barrel down. It’s a gentle kind of silence, peaceful. John finishes the cigarette, crushing it underneath his boot. “Alright.” He finally says. “Javier’s still in the country. We oughta hurry before that changes.”
Jack gets onto his feet. “Do we have any actual leads?”
John shakes his head. “I’ll go to that man Seth mentioned, the colonel. He oughta know something.”
Jack’s face twists into a grimace. “The same colonel that wanted that girl? You’d want his help? He sounds real evil, though,”
John shakes his head. “I don’t care about politics, or whatever that man’s doing. I just need information. If you want, you can stay in Chuparosa while I head to Escalera.”
Jack frowns. “But, sir, he don’t sound right.”
“Jack, it’ll be fine. You don’t gotta worry about me.”
“But,” Jack stutters, “It ain’t just you I’m worried about. What if he asks for your help in doing something real bad, or hurting someone good, just for information. You wouldn’t do it, right?”
“Jack,” John repeats, attempting to calm the boy down. “You know I wouldn’t do anything wrong. I’ll just talk to him and come back, alright?”
Jack nods. “Alright, Pa.”
“We should head back to Chuparosa before it gets dark.” John eventually instructs as he climbs onto his horse. Jack soon follows suit, and as they ride back, John thinks.
John is one step closer to Javier and Bill’s trail, and one step closer back to Abigail, yet a voice nags at the back of his mind, saying ‘ Those who sit on the fence make a choice in their own way .’
John suspects he’s about to get caught up in something he has nothing to do with, and he fears Jack will be an unwilling participant in it.
Jack thinks about the girl, and hopes she makes it home safe. That taste of heroics lingers on Jack’s tongue, and for today, he played the hero, and the day’s been saved. He worries about the man called Allende, and he’s somewhat thankful John isn’t making him meet this Allende man.
Jack suspects he’s about to get caught up in something he wants everything to do with, to help the helpless against the big monster, yet the consequences of what may come don’t cross his mind.
It’ll all be fine.
Chapter 15: Runs in the Family
When Jack awakens, it’s morning and John is gone. As Jack sits on the hotel bed, he’s thankful of how much better it feels compared to the wooden plank he slept on in the MacFarlane ranch. As he gets up, he notices a note left on the table. He takes his time approaching the table, and he slowly lifts the note. ‘ Jack, out to Escalera, be back soon, ’ it says, hastily written like chicken scratch. As Jack sets the letter down, he notices a few dollars, food money left behind for him. At that sight, Jack’s sure that John’s lying when he says ‘ Be back soon. ’ though, Jack has to at least appreciate John took the time to write, instead of just disappearing like before.
Jack stuffs the cash into his bag, slings it over his shoulder, and places his hat on his messy hair. He rolls his sleeves up to his elbows and fixes his shirt collar, although without a mirror he’s guessing it looks right. He takes no time in getting out of the hotel and out into the Chuparosa sun, the sky blue and burning. People chatter around Jack, and chickens wander aimlessly as he walks down towards the saloon. As he does, he notices Landon sitting alone at a round table. Landon takes notice of Jack and waves him over.
As Jack takes a seat, Landon tilts his head. “Your father’s not with you?” He asks, hand around a bottle.
Jack shakes his head. “He’s, uh, out. He said he was heading to Escalera.”
“Hm.” Landon grunts. “Any particular reason why?”
“He’s going to speak with the colonel, I think.”
“I think so, yeah.”
Landon leans back in his seat. “And why the Hell would he go and do that?” He asks, a harsh tone in his voice.
“Information. I didn’t like it, which is why I’m not with him right now.”
Landon takes a shot from his bottle. “Allende’s a mean son of a bitch. Though your old man was smarter than that, to trust a man like that.”
“He said he wasn’t gonna do what Allende says, just ask him and come back, but I don’t think I believe him.”
“Hm. He’s dumber than a bag of hammers, thinking he can trust Allende with delivering information.”
“Yeah. I don’t like saying it, but sometimes I wonder how we’re related.” Jack muses as he leans back in his seat, legs crossed.
Landon laughs hoarsely. “You oughta not let him hear that, you might make him cry.”
“I ain’t sure that man can cry! I’m nearly an adult and not once have I seen a tear in his eye.”
“It’s the pride. A man like that’d rather die than be seen wailing like a child.” Landon replies, while Jack shrugs.
“He ain’t too bad, when he’s actually around.”
Landon leans forward a bit. “He disappear a lot?” He asks.
“He wrote me a note this time, usually he’d just take off for a couple of days, doing God knows what. It ain’t nothing I’m used to,”
Landon grunts. “What’s that mean?”
“Well,” Jack also leans forward, resting his arms on the table. “When I was a boy, he’d have a habit of taking off. I’m just waiting for the day he don’t come back, whether by a bullet or because he decides he don’t need no family and takes off.”
Landon takes another sip from his bottle. “I don’t think he’d run off. It’d be more likely the poor bastard gets shot to death, and seeking information from the wrong people might be his downfall.”
Jack sighs. “I don’t know.”
Silence stands between them for a short while until Landon pipes up. “You drink?” He asks.
“I do believe I need to drink to survive, sir,” Jack jests, while Landon waves him off.
“Smartass.” He snorts.
Jack rubs the back of his neck, laughing softly. “Yeah, no. I don’t like it.”
Landon shrugs. “Nobody actually likes drinking it. We do it just because.”
“Well, my father’d shoot you if he knew you’re offering his sixteen year old son alcohol.”
“Alright, point taken.” Landon says, raising his arms up as he leans back, chuckling.
As they’re talking, Landon eventually asks Jack something. “I know why John’s here, but why you? Don’t think he’d want to bring his son into harm’s way.”
“He didn’t, not at first. I convinced him.”
Landon tilts his head. “And why’d you do that? You got some reason to be hunting those men down?”
“Same reason as him. The government men’s got my mother. Either those men die, or she does.” Jack replies.
“Damn. John mentioned him and those men were in a gang together. You know any of them?”
“They’re my uncles.” Jack states, and Landon’s taken aback slightly. “I was real little though, when my Pa left.”
“So,” Landon sighs, “You’re taking on your father’s problems, and for what?”
“I don’t know, closure?” Jack sighs, “To prove myself?” He chuckles, and not in a sincere way. “Sometimes I’m just as dumb as him, right?”
Landon holds his bottle up, nodding it towards Jack. “Maybe so, maybe so. Boys like you should be chasing after girls, or doing farmwork for a dime a day, it’s rare to see one with a body count like you nowadays.”
Jack twiddles his thumbs, eyes on the ground. “I know my father ain’t too happy with how I’ve turned out. Maybe it’s just nature, that I’m gonna end up like him.”
“You think so?”
Jack hangs his head low, eyes shutting. “I’m supposed to be better, but I’m happier out here than I’ve ever been back home.” He swings back, arms extended. “I like killing folks, only the bad ones, though. I ain’t supposed to be like that.” He slumps back into his seat, sighing. “My ma would cry if she saw me now. Killing men left and right.” He rubs his face. “Did he make me like this, or was I meant to be like this from the start?”
Landon sits quietly, watching Jack’s rant with a sympathetic look. “The times are changing, cars and government men all around, but,” He leans in, his brow lowering. “You gotta do what’s in your heart. If you want to fight for what’s right, then you fight. You either win, or you die trying, and most men die, there’s a reason I’m the last one.” He takes a sip of his drink. “You can repress it all you want, but there’s no changing what’s in your heart.”
Jack simply peers down, hat obscuring his face.
“But,” Landon says, “You’re not your father. You gotta live with the hope in your heart, or else you’ll be a pessimistic bastard like him. That’s the thing that’s gonna set you off his path.”
Jack’s silent for too long before finally speaking. “Thank you, Mister Ricketts,” He croaks.
“Don’t thank me, kid.” There’s a loud commotion coming from outside, so Landon finishes his beer, abandoning it on the table as he gets up from his seat. “So,” He grunts, “Ready to help the good people of Chuparosa, and make a name for yourself?”
“Yeah, I am.” Jack says, following Landon out of the saloon, and into the burning sun.
A man, holding a knife to a woman’s throat, is the one screaming, threatening her with a quick death. Landon gestures for Jack to take a step forward, which he does, and as the man’s about to slice her throat, the barrel of a rifle bumps itself into the man’s temple.
“Step away from the girl,” Jack growls, a voice emulating his father’s. “Unless you wanna ruin that poor girl’s dress with your brains.”
The man’s quick to drop the blade to the ground, it clattering loudly as he steps away, arms raised. The woman keeps behind Jack, eyes narrowed. “Jesus Christ,” The man says, “I wasn’t actually going to do it.”
Jack takes a step forward each time the man takes a step back, gun remaining aimed at his head. “Why don’t you apologize to the woman, then you can be on your way, alright?”
“You,” The man stutters, “Fucking kid,”
Jack’s finger lingers over the trigger. “That don’t sound like an apology, sir,”
As the scoundrel takes a glance at the woman he harassed, then back to the boy threatening him with a rifle, he breaks. “You’re crazy,” He says, then he’s off bolting like a bat out of hell. Jack spits in the man’s direction, hoping something real foul comes his way. He turns around, and there’s Landon, sitting under the shade of the saloon’s roof giving him a proud nod. The woman, a working girl, shudders.
“Thank you, sir,” She says. “I won’t forget this.”
Jack holsters his rifle and offers her a smile. “You just stay out of trouble, alright?
“I will,” She says, before she’s heading back into the saloon, alive and well.
Landon approaches Jack as he lights a cigarette between his lips. “Nice one, kid. For a second there, you really seemed like a threat.”
Jack crosses his arms. “Nearly wish I killed him. I ain’t a fan of men who think they can hurt a lady like that.”
Landon chuckles. “Well, you’re certainly a better man than most. Anyone else would’ve just kept walking and let that poor girl die.” Then, he looks behind Jack, at the hand-me-down rifle. “But, you ain’t gonna be doing much with just that rusted thing.”
Jack pouts. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you ain’t much of a threat when you run out of ammo. You need help, kid. You don’t even have a proper holster on your belt. Where did you even keep that pistol you had?”
“My front pocket.” Jack responds. Landon sighs.
“Well, then. Come with me, we’re gonna fix that.” He waves his hand for Jack to follow him, and although Jack’s stunned for a second, he’s quick to join his side.
“Wait, you’re going to buy me guns?” He asks.
“Well, John sure as Hell ain’t doing that, leaving you with that poor man’s rifle.”
Down deeper into the town of Chuparosa, Landon greets the gunsmith like an old friend. Soon, Jack has two holsters on each side of his belt, and two rather threatening revolvers living within. The gunsmith offers to trade Jack’s rifle for a new one, and just as Jack’s about to agree, he stops.
The gun, given to him by John, may not be the best in the west, but it gets the job done. It’s a hand-me-down, and so, he takes it back, and says, “Sorry, I think I’ll keep this with me.”
As they depart from the gunsmith, Landon takes a look at Jack. “You’re looking mighty dangerous, kid. You’ll give your father a run for his money in no time.”
Landon takes Jack behind Chuparosa, and back to Landon’s small shooting gallery. Retrieving the two revolvers from their holsters, Jack holds them up, heavy in his palms. Landon sets up various empty bottles on the crate still covered in shattered glass, and takes a seat.
In the distance, yet still in earshot, coyotes yelp and wander, yet as Jack shoots a bottle, the sound is drowned out.
Maybe it should be John here with Jack at this moment, new guns and a new all kind of confidence instilled in Jack.
And that’s the thing. Jack, for once in his life, can say he is confident. Years and years of feeling insecure, of feeling his father held all the cards, that he could never be as brave and strong as John, years and years of that is left to rot as Jack’s grip tightens on the two revolvers. He thinks, that somehow if it ever happened, he could take his father on in a fight. He wonders if he should buy himself some spurs, big ones, like Johns.
As it gets dark, Landon congratulates Jack on being a good shot, giving him a pat on the shoulder, and leaving the boy to his own devices.
Jack, with his food money, buys an apple, and some spurs, large ones too, the kind that jingle loudly with each step, a visual representation of a new kind of confidence.
Maybe it does run in the family, the urge to the gunslinger life, but Jack thinks he isn’t too scared of that anymore. He sits in the hotel room, apple eaten to the core, and begins to think of his past, Uncle Javier and Uncle Bill especially.
They’re faded memories, but with each mention of their names spring forth another memory.
Javier was nice to Jack, more than John. He’d sing, give Jack a pat on the head, and tell him stories. Jack’s not sure the details of the destruction of the gang, and he’s hoping that somehow, Javier will turn himself over.
Bill wasn’t very open towards Jack, and Jack remembers the man having a menacing stance, and a loud scary voice. Maybe, at one point, Bill was human, but from what Jack saw of Bill’s gang, and what they did to Bonnie, Jack is sure Bill is beyond help.
It’s a quick flash of the name in Jack’s mind, but it’s a name that sticks. He remembers Arthur, his hat, his voice, his sad eyes, his sacrifice. John never talks about Arthur anymore, the name is like a curse in the Marston household. When Jack was thirteen, Abigail said that Arthur saved them all, and as he’s remembering that, he remembers the book he read about King Arthur.
He remembers gunshots, loud and booming, and his father carrying him across a battlefield into his mother’s shaking arms. He remembers Uncle Hosea and Lenny not coming home, and he remembers seeing a man without his head before his eyes were shielded by his mother’s hands.
These are things he knows John would never speak of.
‘ Closure, ’ He guessed when Landon asked him what he wanted. Jack wonders just what really happened, all those years ago, and if he could ever ask his father. As he lays in his bed, he hears the distant barking of dogs, and howling of wolves, and the chatter of people still awake. When he dreams, it’s a memory of a gentle ride on a wagon with his father, and the blood splattered on the ground by his father’s gun, and when he blinks, it’s not his father. It’s him, staring back at himself, the blood splattered on the left side of his cheek like a pair of scars.
Chapter 16: The Demon Drink
Tesoro Azul Burned Down
John is in the Escalera saloon, filled with soldiers and whoever else, as he downs another glass. People sing, and bellow, and recount their tales, and John’s just another shadow in the crowded room, sitting at the bar, staring off into the glass. He is nowhere near close to where he wants to be, in fact, he believes he has taken a few steps back, the thing he wants dangling right in front of him, yet yanked away each time he reaches out. Two days ago, he reclaimed a hijacked train, and hours ago, when sunrise hadn’t even begun, he burned down a town, slaughtering everyone in his path, and watching as De Santa and his men hauled the women away. As the soldiers left, John hung back, watching the burning buildings with a new kind of emptiness. Now, he’s in the bar, trying to fill that emptiness, even if he knows it wont work. Abigail would never forgive him, Jack would be appalled, and John burned a town down, all for information he has yet to receive.
He ain’t no hero.
So, John leaves the glass on the bar table as he slides off the stool. The many soldiers crowded around tables speak of their duties, the mention of a military wagon, and the hitting of heads to get back to work. He gives the bartender the tip of his hat, and he saunters out of the saloon, the heels of his boots clicking against the creaky wood. People glance at him, soldiers who recognize him stare, and as he pushes the saloon doors open, his eyes are shadowed by the brim of his hat, and the judging sun. He leans against the wall right by the saloon doors, standing among beggars and drunken fools alike as he strikes a match with the sole of his boot, lighting a cigarette between his chapped lips. He watches as soldiers line rebels up against a wall, counting down from three, and watching as they all fall to the ground, blood splattered against the originally white, dusted and dirtied wall, just another audience member in the circus of death. Jack’s alone, left in Chuparosa, and John’s nearly glad Jack doesn’t have to see what has happened, yet, despite that, he curses at himself. He told himself that he wouldn’t leave Jack like this, for days on end, and here he is, trying to forget everything with a glass. He crushes the cigarette under the heel of his boot, huffing out the last bit of smoke from his lungs, and continues walking down the steady decline of Escalera’s architecture, just another shadow cast by the looming stature of Allende’s mansion.
Jack’s hair is getting long. Not long like his fathers, no, but long to reach his neck. As he stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, he rubs at his face. His bruises have healed, now barely visible, and he feels the scruff on his face. He looks old, tired, worn down, and weary. It’s a strange kind of look, so Jack doesn’t spend much time looking at himself. He’s quick out of the hotel, bag around his shoulder and hat on his head, and is quick to scout out Ricketts. John’s still in Escalera, doing God knows what, and Jack’s not worrying too much about him. He’s been a regular in the saloon, more prone to break up squabbles and harassment than actually drink. As Jack enters the saloon, Landon’s quick to flag him down. Jack takes a seat across from him.
“Any word from your father?” Landon asks, drink in his hand.
Jack shrugs. “No, not at all.”
“Hm.” Is all Landon grunts, and Jack tilts his head.
“What?” Jack asks.
“I’m just hoping the idiots not gotten himself killed, is all,” Landon replies, while Jack sighs.
“It’s been four days, and I haven’t seen him.” Jack informs, while Landon simply drinks.
“Could be he’s helping Allende.” Landon muses. Jack shakes his head.
“He said he wouldn’t.”
“People, especially rotten men like that, lie.”
Jack’s silent for a moment before responding. “I should go after him, right?”
Just as Jack’s about to get up, Landon’s quick to stop him, urging him to sit back down. “Woah, there. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. It ain’t your problem, Jack. You just relax.”
“But,” Jack stutters, while Landon finishes his glass.
“But nothing, kid. John’s most likely fine. I bet he’s having the time of his life. You gotta live your life without constantly worrying over your old man.”
Jack stands there silent before lowering his head and sitting back down. Landon’s right, Jack has been stressing a lot, stressing more than a boy should. Maybe his father not being around is a good thing, no Javier, no Bill, no government looming over him. “Maybe you’re right.” He says.
Landon leans back in his seat. “Take a breather, kid. Worry about yourself for a moment, not anyone else.”
Jack’s about to open his mouth, but something interrupts him. A girl sprints to the table, hair messy as she pants, panic in her breath as her chest rises and falls erratically. Landon’s quick out of his seat and to the girl’s side.
“Luisa?” Jack asks, worry in his eyes as he pushes himself out of his seat. Landon quickly places a hand on her back.
“What’s wrong, Luisa?” Landon asks, a comforting tone in his voice. Luisa finally catches her breath, head hung low.
“Mister Ricketts, it’s awful, they burned down Tesoro Azul, killed almost all the men and took the women,” She wails. Landon and Jack exchange a look.
“Almost? Are there survivors?” Jack asks, eyes wide.
“We have many injured who managed to escape before the town was destroyed.” Luisa explains, “But we don’t have the supplies to keep them alive for long.”
“There’s something we can do, right?” Jack immediately asks, taking a step forward.
“I don’t know,” Luisa says, “Will you ride with me, Mister Ricketts?” She puts a hand on Landon’s shoulder, a sense of urgency in her voice.
“I will, Luisa. Jack?” Landon responds, and quickly glances at Jack, who quickly nods.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
Luisa smiles, and she puts a hand on her heart. “Thank you, both of you.”
Luisa and Landon make quick to head to the hitching posts outside the saloon, while Jack retrieves his stallion from outside the hotel. When he reunites with the pair, he jumps onto his horse, while the others follow suit. When they ride out of Chuparosa, Luisa’s the one leading the charge.
“We will need to ride to Agave Viejo, there we will be able to plan our next course of action,” Luisa explains, while Jack listens attentively. Her voice is certain, commanding like a leader. “It’s awful, what has happened.”
Jack lowers his head. “I’m real sorry, Luisa.”
Luisa shakes her head. “A sorry will not save my people. We must act, not speak, that is how we will win.”
Landon spurs his horse forward to ride alongside Luisa, so he doesn’t have to yell from a distance. “Things don’t seem to be getting better, Luisa.” He says, voice gruff.
“We just have to keep fighting, Mister Ricketts. I know we will persevere. With Abraham Reyes, anything is possible.” Luisa’s voice is hopeful, and she looks up with a light in her eyes with the mention of whoever Reyes is. Jack tilts his head.
“I think I’ve heard that name,” Jack says, “Who is he?”
Luisa smiles sweetly. “He is our leader, a proud one. He fights for us, and we fight for him. He will lead us to victory, Jack, I know it.”
Jack nods. “He sounds like a fine man, Luisa. I’m glad to be helping his efforts.”
As Jack looks at Landon, he can nearly see a strange kind of look on his face, like he doesn’t believe Luisa’s words.
“Many people ignore the atrocities that Colonel Allende has carried out. Those who speak out, they must stick together. Alone, we are at our weakest, which is why Abraham Reyes is our leader. He has brought us all together with his words and actions. I am proud to fight for him, and this movement.” Luisa assured, voice certain.
“I’m all for teaching that son of a bitch a lesson, Luisa,” Landon drawls, “But your leader ain’t exactly pure, either.”
Luisa sighs. “That is what Allende and his men want you to think. If you were to meet Abraham Reyes face to face, you would see the truth.”
“And where is your leader?” Jack asks.
“He will be in his headquarters. He is very busy nowadays, we must all do our part to aid him in his planning.”
Jack’s silent for a moment, thinking of his father. John left Chuparosa for information from the Colonel, and hasn’t returned. Jack’s only heard vague details of Allende’s tyranny here. He doesn’t want to know, yet at the same time, he does.
“What can you tell me about Allende?” Jack voices, tone hesitant and unsure.
Luisa huffs, head lowering and shoulders hunched. “He is a monster. He has murdered, cheated, and raped. He collects women from the rebellion like trophies, and kills anyone who dares speak up. He manipulates those he sees as weak,”
Jack feels sick. His brow furrows, and his nostrils flare. “That’s not right,” He says, voice cracking.
Luisa straightens her back, narrowing her eyes. “And that is why we must fight, Jack. The burning of Tesoro Azul was only the latest of his actions, sending out his dogs to do his dirty work.”
Landon shakes his head. “It’s evil, what Allende is doing, and it isn’t just him. De Santa’s just as bad, if not worse.”
“I heard that it was De Santa and another man who burned down the town,” Luisa adds.
“Acting on Allende’s behalf, I’m sure.” Landon muses, while Jack keeps his head low.
Jack wonders if his father was made into just another pawn by Allende, and he wonders if his father cares about Allende’s actions. He hopes that John isn’t actually helping Allende, and it is only paranoia.
It’s a quick ride behind the blue sky, riding against the sun-stained soil. Luisa leads them to a large settlement, tents and people all crowded around a large mansion, white in architecture, standing high and mighty like a man with an ego surrounded by the mere small, green, dirty tents. People, men and women alike live in this settlement, singing and speaking with proud voices. Crates are scattered about, marked with their contents in bold white letters. As the trio ride in, Luisa is greeted full heartedly by the community, and as they hitch their horses, Landon scratches his chin.
“A lot of sad faces around here,” Landon remarks, and as Jack hops off his stallion, he stares out into the sea of green tents.
“We are struggling,” She murmurs. Jack’s about to speak, but a boy, around his age, clamours to the trio, breathing heavily.
“Raul, what is wrong?” Luisa asks the boy.
“Nothing’s wrong, Miss Fortuna,” Raul says with a grin. He’s scrappy, clothes dirtied. His hair is disheveled, and he has a crooked grin. “We’ve learned of a military wagon running through Perdido,”
Luisa seems shocked. “A prisoner wagon?”
Raul shakes his head. “No, supplies. It could be weapons, or medicine, or food. All things we need.”
Luisa contemplates this for a moment before turning to Landon and Jack. “We will assemble a squad to take control of the wagon. Jack, Mister Ricketts, will you help?”
Landon shrugs, placing his hands in his pockets. “I ain’t one for heists anymore. I’ll stay behind, help around camp, boost morale.” Luisa, although saddened, nods. Jack steps forward.
“I’ve never stolen a wagon before, but I can sure as Hell try.” Jack announces, and Luisa grins.
“Thank you, Jack. I must begin preparations, but please, show yourself around, get to know the brave faces here.” Luisa says, gesturing towards the boy. Jack nods.
The trio disperse, Landon and Luisa walking off into the clearing the tents surround, while Jack looks at Raul. The boy’s Jack’s height, a large red scarf around his neck, and scruff around his face. “I can show you around,” He says, waving a hand for Jack to follow him. Jack hesitates at first, but the boy’s insistence brings him to follow. As they walk, Jack’s boots jingle with each step, and Raul walks with quick, short steps. “Nice to meet another friend, friend. The name’s Raul, but you probably already got that.”
“My name’s Jack,” Jack introduces himself, and Raul gives him a toothy smile.
“Alright, Jack, that’s a nice name. Are you a new recruit?”
Jack shrugs. “I’m just here to help.”
“We need all the help we can get, friend.”
Jack speeds up to walk side by side with Raul, not wanting to lag behind. “What do you do?” He asks. Raul smiles.
“I’m an informant, messenger, and gun repairman,” Raul sings, while Jack scrunches his face.
“Repairman? You mean a gunsmith?”
“Whatever,” Raul shrugs Jack off, waving his hand.
Raul brings Jack to a campfire, where many men and women sit around it. Without any seats, the two boys sit on the ground next to each other. There’s a large, bulky man who groans at the sight of the two. He’s got a large scar across his nose, and a large hat. Raul leans close to Jack.
“That’s David. He was there at Tesoro Azul when it was burned down,” Raul whispers, although not quiet enough, as David looks up, glaring.
“Shut up, Raul.” He growls, while Raul scoots forward.
“You threw a rock at a soldier’s head, right?” Raul asks. David sighs.
“Yeah, I did. Didn’t look like a soldier, though. Real ugly son of a bitch, too. He was about to kill me before I threw a rock at his head. I couldn’t stop laughing as he stumbled back, he nearly dropped his gun. I was lucky to make it out,”
Another one of the men, a lanky man with a large beard pipes up. ‘What about dying for the cause, David?” He snidely remarks, while David nearly smacks the man.
“Shut the hell up, Miguel. You know I have a family to care for.” David growls, while Miguel waves him off.
Jack blinks. “Sure is a friendly group you have here,” He remarks, while Raul shrugs.
“We’re just under a lot of stress,” Raul mumbles, “We’re like a big family, you know?”
Jack rubs the back of his neck. “I guess.”
Eventually, Raul nudges Jack’s shoulder, and Jack turns to Raul. “So,” Raul says, “Why are you here? Is that old guy your father?”
Jack pauses for a second, questioning Raul’s words before answering. “Landon? He’s not my Pa. He’s just,” He looks around, and catches Landon in the distance. He’s waving his arms around, telling a story to many of the rebels, and judging by their expressions, they’re entranced by his words. “He’s a friend.”
Raul nods. “He looks cool, but you didn’t answer my first question, why are you here, friend?”
Jack gives him a look. “I told you earlier, I’m here to help.”
Raul shakes his head. “No, not here, here. I mean, why are you here?” He adds emphasis to the last ‘here’, and Jack’s dumbfounded. “You oughta have some sort of business here. No American would want to vacation here for no reason.”
Jack brings his knee to his chest to rest his elbow on it as he begins to explain. “My Pa and I are looking for some men.”
Raul scoots in close, leaning forward. “Are you bounty hunters?” He asks.
“No, we ain’t bounty hunters. It’s just important that we find them.”
Raul tilts his head, a curious look on his face. “Who are the men?” He asks. When he sees Jack’s not answering, he leans closer. “Come on, friend. Maybe I know them! Tell me!”
“Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson,” Jack finally caves, revealing the names with a mumble.
“Never heard of them!” Raul answers, and Jack rolls his eyes, slouching his shoulders.
“Yeah, I assumed as such.”
On a chair sits a man with a large scar on his arm. He’s leaning back in his seat, and takes notice of Raul and Jack.
“Is this a new guy?” He asks Raul, whos quick to answer.
“He said he’s here to help, Virgil, and he’s my friend,” Raul explains, while Jack simply glances at the man.
Virgil has a voice like gravel as he chuckles. “Better not get him into any trouble.” He muses, while Raul simply shrugs him off.
“I ain’t that much trouble, right, friend?” Raul asks, turning to Jack.
“Well, I’ve only known you for a day, Raul.” Jack replies, a forced smile on his face. As he looks at Raul, he discovers something.
Jack never really has spoken to people his age.
His upbringing didn’t allow for him to have friends, instead he had his many aunts and uncles, then he didn’t have his aunts and uncles, and it was just his father and mother. He never went to school, or spoke to locals in the various towns the family skipped, he truly had no friends his age, so now, speaking to somebody on his level, he absolutely has no idea what to do. He sees Raul as immature, because he has spoken to no other teenager. Has Jack ever actually been allowed to be an immature kid? His whole life, he was coddled and protected, raised on the detailed, word heavy books given to him by his uncle with the old face.
“We’ll have a lot more time to hang out, then, right?” Raul asks, tilting his head inquisitively, a crooked and goofy smile on his face.
Jack hasn’t had the chance to live his life the way a kid should, he sees that as immature kid’s stuff, and that he is much more mature than that. Yet, he gives in. He decides to be a kid, instead of a man with a gun. No government, no Javier, no Bill, no John.
“Yeah, I think we will,” Jack answers, allowing a genuine smile on his face.
Raul begins to blabber about something Jack has trouble keeping up with, but he tries. Time flies, and the sun begins to fade into night, the brightness of the campfire really showing off now. Virgil, and David, and Miguel, and anybody else have disappeared now.
“And then, my Papa got so angry at the goat, he threw his boot at it, only for the goat to pick it up and run away!” Raul exclaims, waving his arms around.
Jack begins to cackle loudly, bringing the attention of all the people around him, yet he doesn’t seem to notice. “The goat just took the boot?” He wheezes.
Raul nods erratically. “My Papa had to chase the goat through the mud, no shoe on one foot! It was amazing,”
“My Pa once had to chase my dog after it took off with his hat,” Jack remarks.
Raul’s just about to ask for the whole story, but a voice interrupts him. It’s Luisa, gesturing for Jack to come to her. Jack’s quick to approach her, yet Raul’s close behind. “Hi, Miss Fortuna,” Raul quickly greets, smile on his face. Luisa’s not to keen on returning the smile as she holds a rifle in her hands. Virgil’s near her, and Luisa’s quick to hand the rifle to him.
“We’re ready to steal the military wagon. Virgil will be leading the charge.” Luisa explains, while Virgil nods. Raul accidentally pushes into Jack as he walks forward.
“Can I come too, Miss Fortuna?” He asks. Luisa shakes her head.
“It is much too dangerous for you, Raul. You are just a boy,”
Raul gestures to Jack. “But he’s my age, and he’s going,” He whines. Luisa chastises him.
“And Jack has proven himself to be capable of fighting.”
“But this can be my chance to prove myself! Right, Friend?” He turns to Jack.
Jack’s put on the spot, as Luisa also looks at him, so he stutters on his words. “I, uh,” He tries to say, “I’ll keep him in check,”
Luisa pauses for a second before caving. “You may go, but you must listen to Jack and Virgil. We cannot afford to lose another soul to Allende’s forces.”
Raul grins, looking back and forth between Luisa and Jack. “I won’t let you down, Miss Fortuna,”
Suddenly, David joins the group, adorned in a bandolier and bandana around his neck, carrying a shotgun. “So we’re taking the kid?” He growls.
Raul’s quick to pick up a pistol from one of the opened weapon crates. “Hi, David,” He says.
Jack, mustering his serious face, crosses his arms. “Remember, Raul, this isn’t a game. We need to be serious about this.”
Raul stares at Jack and suddenly begins to sputter and laugh. “You aren’t very good at being serious,” He wheezes.
Jack finds himself laughing along too, yet Luisa’s quick to interrupt. “Jack is right. Those supplies are vital to our success as a movement. Virgil, I leave them to you. I must attend to our wounded. May you all stay safe.”
Virgil tips his hat to her, and Raul waves her goodbye as she disappears into the sea of green tents, while Virgil quickly nods his head into the direction of his menacing horse. “I expect you all to be on your best behaviors.” He glances at Jack and Raul.
The squadron’s quick to climb onto horseback, with Virgil leading them out of the settlement.
“The wagon should be moving through here shortly. We’ll need to take out the driver. Anyone want to take that?”
Jack’s the first to answer. “I’m a good shot, I can do that,”
“Alright, rookie,” Virgil responds. Raul pipes up.
“His name is Jack,” He says.
Virgil rolls his eyes. “He’s still a rookie, kid.”
David rolls his neck to the side, an audible crack popping out. “Still can’t believe we’re bringing two kids on this. And what about Reyes? Isn’t he supposed to be the one to arrange this type of mission?”
Virgil turns his head, glaring. “You questioning Luisa? You know Reyes is a little preoccupied with keeping this revolution alive to watch over every task.”
“Yeah, David, are you questioning Luisa?” Raul repeats, while David simply groans.
Eventually, Raul leans over to Jack. “Do you think there’ll be a bunch of guards?”
Jack looks at him weirdly. “It’s a military wagon, of course there’ll be guards,”
Raul leans back to a normal position. “I hope we’ll find something good in those crates they’re transporting.”
David yawns. “Better be hoping that ugly bastard back at Tesoro Azul’s not with them. I saw that man kill four of us at once with just a revolver, or maybe a pistol.”
Jack grimaces. “I hope not.” For some reason, he thinks of his father. He pushes the idea away.
“Shit,” Virgil growls, signaling the squad to halt. “I think that’s it.”
Everyone holds their breath, thankfully the night sky blanketing them in darkness as a wagon lit with lanterns carries on along the path, guarded by heavily armed soldiers. The wagon’s wheels creak under the weight of whatever it’s carrying. Jack reaches behind himself, wrapping his hand around the stock of his rifle.
Virgil hisses under his breath. “We need to do this quickly, alright? I’ll give the signal.”
Jack eyes Raul, watching the boy fidget with his finger hovering over the trigger of his pistol. “Keep calm,” He warns, “We got this, alright, friend?”
Raul looks at Jack with a smile, and the fidgeting stops. Jack unholsters his rifle and eyes the driver of the wagon. David holds his own rifle close, and Virgil eyes it as it passes by, the guards unaware of their existence. Suddenly, Virgil drops his hand, the signal to open fire.
One second, the driver’s alive, the next, he’s dead, slumping down in red mist. Virgil spurs his horse into a gallop, while the rest of the squad follow suit. The horses pulling the wagon panic and begin to run in a full gallop, leaving the guards in the dust.
“Fuck,” Daniel exclaims.
Virgil kills one of the guards, watching his body slump off his horse. “Raul, Rookie, you catch up and jump onto the wagon, alright?” He commands.
Raul looks at Jack, and Jack looks at Raul. “Alright, Virgil,” Raul says, while Jack’s quick to lead Raul down the path the wagon follows, trailing it quickly. Raul speeds up to ride alongside Jack. “Do you think they’ll be okay?” He says amongst the distant gunshots.
“Don’t worry about them, we just need to get to that wagon,” Jack instructs.
Raul smiles. “You really got that driver, one second he was fine, then boom! He was dead, and you did that!”
Jack sheepishly smiles. “Yeah, I think I did do that, but uh,” He shakes it off. “We can talk about that later, I think I see the wagon,”
The wagon’s still going, the horses pulling it quickly. Jack and Raul quickly spur their horses to catch up to the thing. Raul’s faster than Jack, and is able to quickly jump into the driver’s seat. As Jack hurries to catch up, Raul holds his hand out. “Come on, I’ll help you!”
Jack gulps, palms sweating as he nearly hesitates, but he swallows the fear, and braces himself as he leaps off his horse, grabbing onto Raul’s arm and the side of the wagon with a loud grunt. He’s shaking as he’s pulled into shotgun, while Raul quickly takes the reins. Jack catches his breath and looks at Raul. “Thanks,” He says.
Raul pauses. “I can’t drive.” He states. Jack looks at him wide-eyed.
“Uh, give me the reins, I can drive,” He quickly snatches the reins from Raul’s hands and attempts to get himself calmed. Jack has only driven a wagon on occasion, he is no expert. He flicks the reins, pulling them to the side as the horses return to the main path.
“Should we head back?” Raul asks. Jack’s quick to disagree, shaking his head.
“No, not yet. We should continue riding, to see if we’re followed.”
“And what if we are?” Raul asks.
“Then we fight whoever followed us,” Jack concludes.
The wagon continues at a fast pace, while Raul begins to bounce his leg up and down. Jack lets out a long sigh.
“That was crazy,” Raul eventually says.
“But we did it,” Jack adds.
“Hey, when we get back, do you wanna see my rock collection?”
Jack, caught off guard, blinks. “What?”
“My rock collection, it’s pretty cool.”
“Uh,” Jack stutters, “Sure?”
“Nice!” Raul exclaims.
Soon, the galloping of hooves behind them cause Jack to peek his head out, looking into the darkness to no avail. Raul turns around, hands on the back of the driver’s seat. “Is that the boys?” Raul asks. Jack’s eyes narrow, and for a second, everything is quiet.
It’s not them.
“Raul, get down,” Jack immediately commands, but Raul takes too long to listen. A bullet’s sent straight through Raul’s side, and he stumbles back into a seated position. Jack’s eyes widen. His hands let go of the reins, watching as Raul clutches his waist, eyes darting around, panting.
“I got shot,” He says, voice shaking.
Jack’s face twists, first it’s shock, then it’s anger. He goes for his revolvers, turning around and standing up, one foot on the seat, the other on the footboard. His hands are up, guns pointed into the nothing, and time stops.
Darkness fades, and Jack sees the guards trailing them with bright red targets on their skulls. As time begins to move again, the men are dead, falling off their horses in near perfect sync. Jack stands there for a moment, eyes narrowed as he reholsters his guns. Raul’s breaths are what bring him back to reality.
“Dammit,” Jack hisses as he quickly sits back down, reaching down and picking the reins back up. “I won’t let you bleed out,” Jack yanks the reins, sending the wagon into a U-turn, back to where they came, back to the base. He flicks the reins hard, and the horses sprint into a gallop. He takes out a single revolver, keeping it ready.
“It hurts really bad, friend,” Raul wheezes.
“Just keep your head down, alright? There might be more,” Jack warns.
As they ride, Virgil and David nearly run into the wagon, eyes wide.
“Shit,” David gasps, “The kid got hit?”
Virgil curses. “We weren’t fast enough. More guards just sped past us, they really want this wagon.”
The two men ride alongside the wagon, and David glares. “I thought you were supposed to be keeping an eye on him,” He snarls.
Jack points his revolver at David, and as David yanks his head back, Jack shoots the guard behind him. “You should be the one keeping an eye out,” He retorts.
Raul lets himself lean to the side, nearly falling onto Jack. “Mister Reyes said we should be ready to die for the revolution, but I don’t think,” He gasps, “I’m ready to die.”
Virgil eyes him. “It’s a side shot. He’ll survive.”
Jack glares, quickly speeding the wagon up as the men follow suit. “We still need to get him help.”
“This sucks,” Raul groans weakly. Jack’s reminded of the time he got grazed by a bullet back in Tumbleweed, although his injury was much less severe.
“Tell me about it,” Jack replies.
“Well, it sucks, and it hurts,” Raul strains.
“Raul, shut up and rest,” Jack commands. David nearly laughs.
As they ride closer and closer to Agave Viejo, more and more soldiers crop up. Virgil and David’s quick to take them out as they come, while Jack focuses on driving the damn wagon.
“This better be worth it,” David exclaims.
“We’re almost there,” Virgil warns, killing a man as he speaks.
Virgil speeds up to lead the wagon past the path, back towards their destination, while Jack takes the time to shoot at the soldiers trailing behind them.
As the last soldier falls to the ground dead, they reach the crowded settlement. Jack yanks the reins back, forcing the wagon to a halt while Virgil dismounts, calling over for help. Jack helps Raul off the wagon, guiding him towards the gathering crowd. David’s quick to calling for help alongside Virgil.
Luisa pushes herself past the crowd. “Raul, are you alright,” She asks.
Raul hangs his head low. “Jack saved me, Miss,” He says.
Jack looks at Luisa. “I made sure we weren’t followed. We got the wagon,”
Two women quickly take Raul into their care, while Jack watches them cart him off into an empty tent for care.
Luisa quickly runs to the wagon, opening the back of it to reveal the many unmarked crates inside. Jack’s fast to pry one of the crates open with his hunting knife, sliding the top off as Luisa begins to survey its contents. Jack stands on his tip toes, just to look into the box.
“It’s,” She pauses, “Medical supplies,” Indeed, supplies greet them in the crate. Poultices, bandages, whatever. Luisa smiles and looks back at the crowd. “Quick, begin bringing these to the camp, we’ll be able to treat our wounded properly,” She orders as men and women quickly take to carting the crates. The crowd quickly disappear into the sea of green tents, while the squadron’s left with Luisa. She closes the back of the wagon back up, turning around to face the men. “Thank you.” She says.
Virgil crosses his arms. “I just wish Raul wasn’t hurt.”
Luisa nods. “But thanks to you, we will be able to heal him properly. Thank you.”
Jack puts his hands in his back pockets. “I should be heading back to Chuparosa,” He says.
Luisa’s quick to take his arm, “You should at least stay to make sure Raul makes a smooth recovery, Jack. You have done us all proud, you should enjoy that for the moment.”
Jack blushes, and caves, following Luisa, Virgil, and David into the camp, watching the happy faces as they all unpack the stolen supplies.
It takes awhile for the crowd around Raul’s tent to disperse, and when it does, Jack’s standing outside it with crossed arms. Raul’s got a bandage wrapped around his gut as he slowly pushes himself into a seated position. “Hey, friend,” He croaks. Jack walks into his tent, taking a seat on the chair next to his bed.
“I’m glad to see you’re not dead,” Jack muses.
“So am I. Thanks for vouching for me earlier,” Raul says.
“But you got shot,” Jack responds, while Raul shrugs.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”
Jack pauses, twiddling his thumbs. “You know, if I got shot, I would’ve been a sobbing mess. You’re taking this pretty well.”
Raul snorts. “I’ve scraped my knees falling off of stuff before, and I made it out fine.”
Jack has to admire his persistent optimism, something he can hope to achieve one day.
Raul gasps, nearly getting up but quickly yelping and laying back down. “Check under my bed,” He says.
Jack pauses. “What?”
Raul grins. “Just do it, friend,”
And so, Jack reaches under his bed and retrieves a box, a black and dirty one.
“Open it,” Raul says, and Jack does so.
“It’s, uh, rocks,” Jack says. It is indeed rocks, all kinds of rocks, round ones, sharp ones, shiny ones, ugly ones. As Jack looks up, Raul has that goofy grin.
Jack looks down back at the rocks, taking one into his hand and holding it up to his eye. It’s one of the glittery ones, shimmering as he rotates it. As he sets it back down into the box, he nods. “Yeah,” he says. “That is cool.”
Soon, as the boys converse, Landon finds Jack, who quickly turns around to face him. “I’m looking at rocks,” Jack says.
“Rocks, huh?” Landon says, brows raising.
Raul sits still on his bed. “They’re cool rocks.”
“Mighty interesting,” Landon says, “But we oughta be heading back to Chuparosa, just in case your father’s returned.”
Jack nods. “Alright,” He sighs, closing the box back up and setting it back where it belongs. Raul frowns.
“You’ll come back to visit, right?” He asks.
Jack nods. “Yeah, don’t worry,” He reassures. “Get better soon, alright?”
Raul snorts. “Okay, good luck, buddy,”
Landon gives Raul a nod. “You’re a tough kid. Stay strong, alright?”
Raul gives a thumbs up. “Okay, old man.”
Jack snickers, while Landon simply shakes his head as he exits the tent, Jack following close behind.
Landon eyes Jack as they head outside the camp. “So, you got a friend?”
Jack nods. “I think his rock collections neat.”
“Well, you’ll probably be seeing more of him soon enough. Let’s get back to Chuparosa.”
John’s been reading through Arthur’s journal.
He sits in the hotel room, sitting on the foot of his bed, eyes scanning each early page carefully. The words are nearly hard to read, John never was one for cursive, but he reads on. For a moment, he’s back in Horseshoe Overlook, sitting in a small tent, voices familiar to him echoing in his head. His weapons are left on the table, along with his hat and vest. He was nearly asleep, but the nagging in his mind kept him awake, so here he is, nose deep in a long forgotten memory. Jack’s not here, and John assumes he’s taking care of himself, not wanting to keep an eagle eye on the boy anymore, as he isn’t much of a boy anymore. The pages are worn, torn at the corners, and old, adding character to the words, and the faded ink. Arthur’s sketches, detailed yet faded with time, bring a gentle smile to his face.
“Wish you were here, brother,” He mumbles, “But maybe then I’d have to kill you.” He chuckles to no one.
His heart stops as the door opens and Jack wanders through, John forcefully closing the journal and setting it beside him. The two exchange eye contact. “Hi, Pa.” Jack says, closing the door behind him.
“Hey, Jack. Where were you?”
Jack blinks. “Where were you?” He echoes back to John, emphasis on the ‘you’.
John lowers his head, hands resting on his knees. “Escalera had nothing for me, nothing but time wasters, but I’m back.”
“Oh.” Jack says. John eyes him, and he stares. “What?”
John surveys Jack, eyes stopping at the boots. “Are those spurs?”
Jack swallows. “Uh,” He stutters, “I liked them.”
John begins to laugh. “Ease up, Jack. They look good.”
John then looks to the holsters on Jack’s hips. “You got new weapons?”
Jack’s quick to unholster the two revolvers. “Mister Ricketts got them for me,”
“Did he, now?”
“Yeah, he did. Do I look cool?” Jack attempts to spin one of the guns, but ends up dropping it. “Guh,” He yelps as it clatters to the ground and he quickly retrieves it.
John wheezes. “Cool?”
As Jack picks the revolver back up, he looks down. “You know, uh, like Mister Ricketts, or you?”
“So you’re asking me if you look like an old bastard?”
Jack stands there, eyes wide. “Uh,”
John smiles. “No, I get what you’re saying, and yeah, you look good. Intimidating.”
Jack actually grins. “Thanks, Pa.” He sets his guns on the table, revolvers and rifle. He immediately approaches his bed and flops down onto it.
John stares at him. “You forgot to take your hat off.”
Jack touches his head, hat still there. “Oh, thanks.”
When the lights go off, Jack’s laying in bed. He has a friend. Not his father, or a surrogate father, or whatever, but a real friend who showed him his rock collection. Even Luisa smiled at him, and he thinks Luisa is sort of pretty. He wonders if this is what a normal life is like. John stays awake, laying on the bed staring up at the ceiling. Jack’s got an all new confidence, like he’s a different person from when John last saw him. Maybe it’s Landon’s influence, or something, John’s unable to tell, but John’s proud.
Chapter 17: My Sister's Keeper, the Hunter of Men
the marstons help Luisa, and then they go hunting
The homestead’s called Campo Mirada, something that means Field View, a fitting name as Jack looks back at the vast landscape behind him. John’s the first off his horse, and Jack’s close behind him. Outside the small house, Luisa and who the two assume to be her family are hauling crates and bags onto a nearby wagon. A girl, a year or two younger than Jack, sits on the steps with a wrinkled woman, her mother, outside, comforting the crying woman. As the two approach, Luisa sets a small box on the wagon as she notices them. She climbs onto the porch, calling to her parents.
“Mama, Papa,” She says in Spanish, “These are the men who have helped me,”
Luisa’s father, a man with a beige hat and blue blazer, gives the Marstons a nod as he carries out a basket. “Thank you,” He says, “My family is indebted to you. Forgive my English.”
John tucks his thumbs into his belt, tilting his head towards Luisa. “What’s happening?” He asks.
“Great and terrible things,” Luisa strains, “The revolution is coming.” She turns away from John, heading back into the small house. “The country will be in turmoil once again, this time, we hope is the last time.”
She begins to haul out folded blankets as John responds. “Does that seem likely?”
Luisa looks back at him as she places the blankets onto the wagon with a huff. “With Abraham Reyes, anything is possible.”
Jack follows Luisa off the porch, while John leans against one of the support beams of the shack’s wooden roof. “Where’s your family going, Miss?” Jack asks.
As Luisa’s father carries out a large vase on his shoulder, Luisa sighs. “My parents and brother are headed to the hills,” She then gestures to the girl on the steps. “My sister has to flee. The army have an unfortunate way of treating women.”
Jack shakes his head. “So I’ve heard.”
John, from the porch, eyes her. “And where will you go?” He asks.
Luisa looks to Jack, then to John, a hardened look across her face. “Do not worry about me. I am living in history, I am not afraid to die.”
Jack, impressed by her bravery, nods. “You’re real brave, Miss Fortuna.”
John, unimpressed by her bravery, sighs. “Your nobility's almost as affecting as your naivety.” He says, while Jack gives him a narrowed glance.
As Luisa bends down to pick up a sleeping bag, she eyes John. “I would rather be dead than be a cynic like you.” As she lifts it up, she trudges to John, shoving it into his arms.
As John accepts it, he pauses before nodding. “I would, too.”
Jack accidentally bumps into Luisa’s father as he walks into the shack, grabbing a heavy box and carrying it to the wagon, John following him to place the sleeping bag onto the wagon. As they pack the baggage up, Luisa crosses her arms. “I know you're not really like that. You saved me.” She tells John, while Jack looks at her with a kind of look that says ‘Yes, he is like that.’
Luisa’s father puts a wrinkled hand on her arm. “Who will save Miranda,” He whispers to her. “We have to get to the port, her boat departs at dusk. There's no time,” He hisses, worry in his tone. Jack and John turn to him as Luisa nods. She takes a step forward.
“Jack, John. I must ask of one more favor from you,” She says.
John watches as Jack quickly steps onto the porch, nodding. “What do you need, Luisa?” He announces, while John nearly scoffs at his rushing to help. Always the knight in shining armor, he thinks.
“Can you take my sister to the docks?” She asks, “We are sending her to work for a kind man in the Yucatán. She is too young for revolution.”
The young girl looks up at her sister, then to the Marstons as she puts a hand on her mother’s back. Jack almost waves, but to keep up the serious persona, he simply looks back at his father, who looks like he’s contemplating the task. John sighs before joining Jack’s side. “Okay. Anything I can do to help out.” John says.
Luisa smiles at them before turning to her sister, waving her arms out. “The boat leaves at sundown, Miranda, go!”
As Luisa’s mother sobs, Miranda gives a kiss to her mother’s forehead. “Goodbye, Mama,” She whispers.
Her mother wipes her tears. “Goodbye, Miranda, be careful,” She sobs.
As John walks down the steps, he hears Jack say something. When he turns around, Jack’s knelt down, putting a hand on the woman’s back. “Don’t worry, Ma’am. Your daughter will be safe, I’m sure you’ll see her again soon.” He comforts, “You take care of yourself, alright?”
The woman offers him a tired old smile, sniffling as she says, “You are a good boy.”
Jack nods before looking up at his father, who quickly nods in the direction of Miranda, who’s gesturing for them to follow her. He leaves the woman and quickly joins John’s side. Jack’s about to apologize, but instead, he stops himself. “I felt for her.”
John actually smiles. “You still continue to surprise me, Jack.”
The two quickly jog to keep up with Miranda. “My brother, Emilio, works as a driver. We will take his stagecoach,” She commands, leading the two Marstons to a large wagon. Jack quickly catches up to her, and is the first at the coach as she climbs into shotgun. John glances at him with a strange look. Jack climbs up, and before he even gets his feet on the footboard, he looks at John.
“I’ll drive,” He says.
John’s left to the seats in the back of the stagecoach, so as he climbs into the back, he grunts. “You sure?” He asks.
Jack flicks the reins, and the horses begin to canter along the path. He looks back at his father. “I’m better than you think, Pa.”
Miranda shifts a little in her seat, almost antsy. “It is not far, I will show you the way.”
Jack leans forward, gripping the reins tightly as they ride past a canyon. He glances at her, and her uneasy look. “Don’t worry, Miranda, we’ll get there,”
Past a hill, and taking a left, John pokes his head out from where he’s sitting. “Jack,” He warns.
Jack gently pulls the reins. “I see them.”
Three men stand in their way, each of them carrying some sort of weapon. The middle one steps forward, raising a hand for the wagon to make a complete stop. Miranda gulps.
“Stop,” The man, clearly military, says. “This road is prohibited.”
“What do they want now,” Miranda cries, before turning to Jack, leaning closely to whisper to him. “Act normal, it’s nothing to worry about,”
As John leans back into his seat, he quickly retrieves his revolver. He gives the back of the driver’s seat a tap, as if to signal Jack to stand guard. Jack’s hand idly drifts to his hip.
One of the military guards nears the coach, narrowing his eyes. He turns to his comrades. “I know them, they’re fucking rebels,” He hisses.
Another one of them quickly points his rifle towards the wagon. “Shoot,” He commands, “Do not let them escape,”
As the trio point their weapons, John steps up, poking his head out from the back seat, pointing his revolver out from between Jack and Miranda, while Jack unholsters his own gun, placing a hand in front of Miranda as she shields herself. The Marstons are quick to kill the men before they can gun them down, watching as the men fall to the ground. Jack whips the reins, causing the horses to neigh loudly, taking off past the roadblock. John holsters his revolver, and quickly retrieves his own rifle, standing on his knees on one of the seats in the wagon, keeping his head poked out while aiming the rifle, while Jack keeps his hands on the reins. “Oh god,” Miranda cries, shutting her eyes and grabbing onto the seat for stability as the wagon rumbles.
“Shit,” Jack hisses, eyes widening at the sight of another army roadblock.
“Language,” John says, before aiming his gun towards the checkpoint. “You sure you don’t need me to drive,” John questions with a rather loud voice.
“I got it,” Jack responds, voice just as loud. As the army takes notice of the charging stagecoach, they open fire.
“Take a left here,” Miranda cries, “Stay away from them!”
With assault rifles, holes are left in the wooden wagon as it races by them, Jack leads the wagon through a path between two cliffsides. Miranda turns to Jack. “I will show you the way, we must avoid the army, or they will kill us all,”
John’s about to respond, but Jack’s quick. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep us as far away as I can,”
As the descend down the hill, a wagon filled with soldiers rides down the path to the left to greet them. John elbows the back of Jack’s seat, to catch his attention. “On the left, boy,” He shouts.
As Jack sees the wagon, Miranda’s quick to gesture to the path ahead. “Turn right, turn right,” She yells. Jack yanks the reins, the horses forced to make a sharp turn to avoid the army. As they pass, John jumps to the other side of the wagon to face the army, shooting the two men in the driver’s seat to avoid being followed. The wagon rides against a rather narrow road, threatened by the cliff right by the path, not helped by the winding pattern of it. Jack’s met with a split in the road, greeted by another roadblock on one end, soldiers hiding behind sandbags and others waving at the wagon to stop.
“Drive through it,” Miranda commands, just as Jack’s going to turn the wagon away. He obliges, ramming the wagon through the roadblock, forcing John to provide cover, gunning many of the men down as they race through it. The men still left proceed to shoot at the wagon while Jack continues to spur the horses to go faster, and faster, just to avoid their deaths. John holds onto the wooden side of the wagon, the other hand holding tightly onto his rifle.
“This a good enough driving practice for you, Jack?” John remarks.
Jack huffs. “Now’d be a great for you to not joke around, sir,”
John turns his head towards Jack, and although Jack can’t see him, he can feel his eyes. “What?” He asks.
Jack inhales deeply before responding. “I said shut up,” He hisses. John’s taken aback at first.
“You getting cocky on me, boy?”
Jack’s voice gets increasingly louder. “I’m getting shot at! That’s what’s happening right now! Shut up!”
Miranda taps Jack, pointing forwards to the bridge they’re approaching. “There’s more of them, near the train tracks!”
Jack nods. He retrieves a revolver, while his other hand remains on the reins. He kills one of the army soldiers, while John takes down the others. As more approach over the hill, Jack’s forced to turn the wagon, riding under the train tracks and off the main road. On some other path, it grows quiet as Jack rides through, offering the trio a moment of peace. Miranda lets out a shaky breath, holding a hand over her heart.
“That was so scary,” She says, breathing heavy and fast.
Jack keeps up the speed, and he turns to her, offering a comforting smile. “Don’t worry, Miranda. You did good, keeping us on track, even as people were shooting at us,”
Miranda steadies her breath, swallowing as she leans forward. “Thank you, Mister,”
Jack snorts. “Mister? I ain’t much older than you, I’m Jack,”
“Oh,” She says, “Thank you, Jack,”
John gets himself situated on a seat, rifle on his lap. His son stood up to his old man during a shootout with the army. Alright, then. As he listens to the young girl and his boy, he can’t help but think back to when Jack was about thirteen, acting about the same way as Miranda now, shaking and stuttering, though Jack must’ve been much more severe. In Jack’s own way, he’s helping Miranda though the shock, just as John did years ago.
The moment’s cut short, as Miranda points ahead, to the path on the right. “Another roadblock,” She cries out. “Take a left, here,”
John elbows the backseat again. “It’ll just delay us again, Jack, you gotta ride through it,”
Jack lets out a heavy breath before turning to Miranda, “Keep your head down,” He instructs.
The army men hide behind cover, others simply point their guns towards the wagon, but as it charges through, destroying much of the cover, many of the men are sent staggering back, jumping to avoid getting run over. John’s quick to dispose of many of them, climbing onto the seat at the back of the wagon, breaking off one of the boarded walls of the wagon with the stock of his gun to provide a window for shooting, keeping one knee on the blanketed seat, the other on the floor. As Jack rides past the block, all of the men are dead by John’s smoking barrel.
Past a hill, Miranda and Jack take notice of the river greeting them from afar. “We’re almost there,” She announces, “Don’t stop now!”
Stuck down a single path, a rather large wagon’s in their way, filled with soldiers tough and brittle. Jack nearly halts the wagon, but time’s almost up. He glances back, to his father, then back to the road ahead. “Hold on,” He commands the two passengers. Miranda holds onto her seat, while John quickly grabs onto one of the wooden planks providing support for the wagon. Just as soldiers take aim, Jack yanks the reins, and the wagon runs off the road, nearly sending it tumbling to the side, evading the enemy wagon as Jack forces the wagon back onto the path to avoid running right into a boulder. He looks back at the wagon, taking his revolver and shooting at the soldiers pouring out from the back of it, while John’s quick to gunning them down with his rifle. As they’re far enough away, Jack turns back just as Miranda gasps.
“Look, over there,” She cries, a smile on her face, “They’re still here!”
Indeed, as they ride across the riverbed, the dock’s still holding the boat to be Miranda’s ticket to safety.
As Jack stops the wagon in front of the dock, Miranda climbs off, but before she’s on the ground, she looks at Jack. “Thank you, Jack. Will I see you when I return?”
John jumps out from the back of the wagon, holstering his rifle. “Not likely, we’re not planning on sticking around.”
Jack shrugs, practically ignoring John’s answer. “Maybe we will see each other again. Stay safe, Miranda.”
Miranda smiles. “Thank you, again. Both of you,”
John waves her off. “Yeah. You should get going.”
As the people on the dock wave at Miranda, she’s quick to run to them, taking a second to turn around, giving the Marstons a wave goodbye. When she reaches the docks, she gives the two people there a hug, and they’re quick to return it.
John climbs up to sit in shotgun just as Jack leans forward to rest his arms on his knees, letting out a relieved sigh. The man and woman lead Miranda into the boat, and they set off shortly, while John reaches for the reins.
“We should get this back to Luisa and her family,” John says, while Jack snatches the reins away, avoiding John.
“And I’ll keep driving, thank you very much.” Jack replies.
John gives Jack a strange kind of look, eyes narrowed. “What’s gotten into you, boy?” He asks as Jack begins to ride.
John leans forward. “Sure as shit seems like something,”
Jack’s quiet for a bit, head hung low. “Just,” He mumbles before speaking up. “Just stressed, is all.”
“Why?” John asks.
Jack tilts his head, “Well,” He gestures his hand forward. “All of this. Worried that girl was gonna die, that you was, uh, that you were going to die.”
John hesitates, but slowly gives Jack a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Well, we both made it. You did good, son. Kept us both alive.”
Jack huffs. “Yeah,” He sighs.
John and Jack are both quiet for awhile, the sun slowly fading into the night, and the moon taking it’s shift.
‘ I ain’t the one taking Jack on fishing trips, ’ John once said, voice immature and loud.
‘ Just do one thing or another, ’ A voice replies in John’s mind, ‘ not be two people at once, is all I’m saying. ’
As John looks at the moon, bright and waning, he speaks. “Y’know,” He says, turning his head towards Jack. “You ever been hunting before?”
Jack, caught off guard, looks at him, brow furrowed. “What?”
“You heard me, Jack.” John replies, while Jack pauses.
“Uh, no sir. You never took me.”
John punches himself in his head. “Well, you wanna change that?”
“Ain’t you worried about Bill and Javier?”
John waves the thought off. “Those idiots ain’t going anywhere. You wanna go hunting or not?”
“Well,” Jack says. “Sure,”
“Alright, then, we return this wagon to Luisa’s family, then in the morning I’ll teach you how to hunt.”
Jack snorts. “Do you even know how to hunt?” He asks. John almost looks offended.
“I know enough. Hell, when I was younger, I was earning my keep by hunting.”
Jack blinks. “What does that even mean?”
“When we ran with,” He’s about to say Dutch. “Them, uh, the old gang, we all had to earn our keep, remember?”
Jack looks down for a second, thinking, remembering, before returning his eyes on John. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, I was off hunting all sorts of things, selling what I could skin. Probably because I couldn’t,” Rob a house without getting caught, steal a stagecoach without getting it damaged, steal from a man without accidentally killing him, “Do other things.”
“Pa,” Jack mumbles, giving a grim look to John as he gently shakes his head. “You don’t have to dance around things. I know what you did, what all of you did.”
“I ain’t stupid, I know you were a criminal. Stop sugarcoating it.” Jack details, and John’s left quiet, turning his head away from Jack. Jack sighs, closing his eyes as he does so. “I’d like to go hunting with you, Pa,” He says, “As long as we leave all of this behind when we do. I don’t wanna think about it, just for a day.”
John looks at Jack. “Yeah.” He says. “Alright.”
When they arrive, Luisa’s the only one left in the small house. She thanks them for their help once again, they mount their own horses, and they return to Chuparosa in the dead of night.
When they reach their hotel room, and Jack places his hat on the table, John gives him a strange look. “What?” Jack asks.
“Your hair’s getting long,” John remarks. “You wanna cut it?”
Jacks hand goes to the back of his head, running his hand through his hair going down his neck. “No,” He answers, “I think I like it.”
John chuckles. “At least keep your bangs maintained, before they blind you.”
Jack scrunches his face. He likes his bangs, thank you very much. “Whatever you say, sir,” He responds offhandedly as he places his gun belt on the nightstand by his bed, taking a seat on the bed shortly after. “Go to bed, old man, before you get cranky.”
As John leans against the wall right by the window showcasing the whole town, he shrugs. “I’ll sleep soon.”
And so, as Jack falls into a deep slumber, Johns smoking, the window opened and elbows leaned against the window sill. His heads hung low, and he watches the people still awake carry on with their lives. He burned down a town, and he knows he won’t be able to rectify that by simple tasks given to him by Luisa, or anybody else. Even now, years and years past, he dances around the past at a distance, and it still hurts. Sooner or later, Jack’s going to confront him, about everything, and he’s not sure he’ll be able to take it. Later, the cigarettes chucked out from the window to be crushed under whatever, and John’s hands are around his hand-me-down journal. Many pages are still yet to be filled.
‘ I can’t be a stranger one day, then be a father the next, ’ He writes, ‘ I’m taking the boy hunting, something I should’ve done a while ago. ’
When Jack wakes up, the sun shines through the opened window, and John sleeps seated in the chair by the table, head rested on his hand. He gets up, rubbing the back of his neck, and slowly approaches John. When he gives him a shake, John jolts awake.
“Shit!” John yelps, leaning forward, eyes widened. Jack takes a step back.
“Sorry,” Jack says on instinct. “You were sleeping,”
John remains leaned forward, his elbow on his knee as he rubs his face. “Yeah,” He grumbles, “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,”
“Bad dream?” Jack asks.
John shrugs. “Something like that,” He replies.
It’s a quiet morning, the two eat at the saloon, and they’re out of the town an hour later. The day’s hot, as usual, and the two’s hats are the only shield from the unrelenting sun. They don’t stay on any path, simply riding through the dead grass, past the cacti stout and tall, and past the critters that skitter on the ground around them.
Jack turns to John. “What are we even going to hunt out here? It’s a wasteland out here.”
John chuckles. “Have more faith, Jack. You’d be surprised at what I run across out here.”
They’re heading down south, riding at a steady canter. Eventually, Jack leans forward, huffing. “This is really boring, Pa,” He whines.
John stares at him. “You are so quick to give up, boy, I swear. The only thing you’d stick to is reading,”
Jack rolls his eyes. “With a book, you don’t gotta wait five hours for the words to appear.”
Soon enough, John stops Jack in his tracks, a hand raised. “You see that?” He asks.
Jack sighs. “What?” John points out, towards a large, yellow field, and Jack settles down. “Are those deer?”
John smirks. “Sure looks like it. And you said this was a wasteland.”
Jack slowly retrieves his rifle. “Yeah, shut up.”
As Jack readies his gun, one of the deer, a large buck, brings his head up, his large antlers like the branches of an old tree. Jack thinks the buck is staring at him, so he hesitates.
John brings his own rifle out. “What are you waiting for, Jack?” He asks.
Jack pulls the trigger, and misses, sending the herd into a panicked shock, many of them scattering. “Damn,” He hisses.
“Language,” John says. “Let’s get after them, alright? Kill two, then we’ll sell what we get, alright?”
John’s the first to ride after the herd, and Jack’s close behind. John’s quick to take down one of the does on her own, and as she falls to the ground with a thud, Jack stays on his horse while John hops off his.
He retrieves his hunting knife from his hip, giving Jack a glance. “This is how you skin a deer, you watching?”
Jack gives him a look as John gets on his knees. “Is this going to be gross?” He asks.
John rolls his eyes. “Just look.”
John pushes the deer onto her back, cutting the fur with an incision down the stomach, walking over the deer as John tugs the skin off. Jack makes a disgusted look as John rolls the flesh up.
“That’s really gross,” Jack says.
As John makes his way to his horse, he throws the pelt over the back of it. “Quit your whining, Jack. You’re up next.”
Jack watches wide-eyed as John then returns to the doe, picking her up and hauling her over his shoulder, then stowing it onto his horse, tying her to keep her safe and sound. John pats his hands together. “There. That’s how you do it, genuine venison meat, good for selling. Or eating.”
“So I’m going to do that?” Jack asks as John climbs onto his horse.
“Yup,” John answers. “And get to it, too. Those deer are probably scattered all to Hell.”
“Alright, did you see where that antlered fellow got off to?” Jack asks, looking around.
“The buck? Ran off back where we came, maybe a bit more east,”
“That’s the one I want, I missed it the first time.” Jack replies, turning his horse back. John gives him a look.
“Well, then, you lead the way,” John says, gesturing his hand out for Jack to take the lead, and so he does.
With no tracks left in the dirt, Jack’s running on pure luck, riding back where they came with his rifle in his hand. He’d show that deer, and he’d show his father.
And then, he catches him, the buck.
“That’s a buck,” Jack announces, looking back at John.
“That is a buck,” John replies. So, as Jack takes aim, John offers advice. “Aim for between the eyes,”
Jack shuts one eye, watching the buck graze. “I got it,” He licks his dry lips, then whistles. The buck quickly raises his head in surprise, and with the opportunity there, Jack shoots him, right in the head. The buck tumbles to the ground, and Jack smiles.
“Nice shot,” John says.
“Thanks, Pa,” Jack responds, quickly jumping off his horse and running towards the poor animal. As he pulls out his knife, he looks back at John. “Do I really have to skin this thing?” He asks.
John rolls his eyes. “You kill it, you skin it.”
“Alright,” Jack whines. He gets down on one knee, trying to recreate what John did just earlier, skinning the buck. As he yanks the pelt off, John’s quick to speak up.
“Get the antlers, too,” He says.
Jack grumbles, but obliges, grabbing the buck’s antler in one hand, and cutting it off with the other. He does that with the other antler, and soon he rolls the pelt up, the antlers sandwiched in the middle. “It’s done,” He announces.
John scratches the side of his face. “I doubt you’re gonna be able to fit that big guy on that horse, with the pelt, too. You oughta just leave him here for the vultures, and sell what you got.”
As Jack walks back towards his trusted steed, he looks at John. “You sure?” He asks.
“Yeah, you’ll be able to make good money off that pelt, I’m sure. The antlers, too.”
Jack stows the pelt onto the back of his horse, whistling quietly to himself, listening to the birds above. He gives the horse a gentle pat, and just as he’s about to mount the horse, he looks at John, eyes staring straight forward, wide like saucers, lips slightly parted.
“Pa?” He asks.
“Get on the horse,” John advises, voice firm.
“What?” Jack asks, turning his head around, and eyes quickly widening.
Wolves, about ten or so, near at the smell of the newly deceased deer. At the sight of the two men, they snarl.
“Jack, get on your horse, dammit,” John hisses.
Jack quickly climbs onto the horse, hands clinging to the reins, yet the wolves are quick to charge. Jack yelps, nearly falling off his horse as one gets dangerously close, yet John’s quick to respond, killing the wolf with a shot to the head. “Ride,” John commands, “Go!”
The two spur their horses into a quick gallop, half of the wolves giving chase, keeping up with the horses. “What the Hell, Pa,” Jack shrieks, hands shaking as he attempts to aim his rifle at one of the wolves.
“This wasn’t my idea of a hunting trip, believe me,” John responds, taking down one of the dogs with the shot of his revolver.
Yet, as Jack’s behind John, the wolves focus on him. The horse, terrified, suddenly kicks up it’s front legs, sending Jack tumbling to the ground and running off. John yanks the reins, sending his horse to an immediate halt as he throws himself off the horse.
Jack, hands still around his rifle, kicks himself away from the wolves, taking aim and blasting one of their brains out. John sprints to Jack, and without a second thought, he kicks the last remaining wolf in the head, casting it away from Jack.
“I ain’t afraid to get scarred again, you furry son of a bitch,” John growls at the wolf, while Jack catches his breath, still on the ground, watching as John gets between him and the wolf.
The wolf runs forward, and before it can wrap it’s jaws around John’s arm, he fills the wolf’s opened mouth full of lead, and it falls to the ground dead.
John whips around, eyes wide as he holsters his gun. “Jack, you alright?”
Jack shakes, and slowly pushes himself into a seated position. “Fuck,” He says, and John lets him off the hook. “My back really hurts.”
“Can you walk?” John asks.
Jack sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, I think so.”
John offers his hand, and Jack takes it. On his feet, his knees buckle slightly before he steadies himself. John lets out a relieved sigh. “I’m just glad those wolves didn’t turn you into their next meal, or God forbid you end up looking like me,”
Jack pats his shirt off, cleaning off the dirt. “That was terrifying, but,” He exhales. “Exciting, I think,”
John gives him a funny look. “Exciting?”
“Yeah, when we were running from the wolves, that was real exciting, before the horse threw me off.”
John looks around. “Speaking of which, we should find your horse.”
So, as John approaches his own horse, he looks at the deer on the back. “Sorry, ma’am,” He says, “My son needs this seat,” John throws the deer off, leaving only the spread out pelt.
“Did you just talk to that deer?” Jack asks.
“Does it matter?” John responds, offering a hand to help him onto the horse.
As Jack pushes his hand away and climbs onto the horse himself, he shrugs. “I guess not.”
Jack whistles, hoping for the horse to come, but with no response, they’re forced to follow the horse’s trail. “Can’t believe we wasted that time for a deer we’d just throw into the dirt,” Jack grumbles.
“There’s always more deer, Jack. Let’s hope our friends appreciate our gift to them, the ones we didn’t kill.”
Eventually, they do find the horse, spooked all to Hell off back towards Chuparosa. By the sound of Jack’s whistle, it calms, allowing Jack to approach it, giving it a calming pat on the neck. “There, there,” Jack coos as he climbs onto the saddle. “Should we head back to Chuparosa?” He asks.
John nods. “Yeah. You can relax, and I can sell the things I still got from that deer. What happened to your things?”
Jack pauses. “I, uh, think it got thrown off when I did.”
“Well, some hunter will come across it. He’d be a real happy bastard, then.” John muses.
So, as they ride back, they’re mostly silent, but eventually, Jack turns to his father. “Did you really get your scars from a bunch of wolves?” He asks.
John nods. “Yeah, I did.”
“And how did you not die?”
“Wolves usually get scared off once you shoot one of them in the skulls. Usually.”
“I think I remember when that happened. You were hurt bad,” Jack says.
“Mm, yeah. Wasn’t fun, being cooped up in a bed for weeks. Your mother had to treat me,”
“Wow, real romantic,” Jack deadpans, while John chuckles.
“Wouldn’t say that. When you was a boy, I wasn’t the best gentleman. I’m surprised she didn’t kill me in my sleep, by the way I was acting.”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t killed you, too. That woman could take on an army.”
“And that’s what I love about her,” John says, ending it with a gentle chuckle. “Puts me in my place when I ain’t acting right, making me see the truth,”
“Yeah, guess your right. I hope we see her soon. I hate to say it, but I think I miss her cooking.”
John then laughs, a real one, loud and endearing. “Yeah, yeah,” He wheezes. “Me too,”
And so, the Marstons return to their hotel room after John sells off the remaining things he had from the deer he skinned, giving Jack half of the profit, even if it isn’t much. In their hotel room, John sharpens his knife, and Jack sits on his bed, reading the book all the way from Armadillo. Soon, John tears his eyes away from the knife, and looks at Jack.
“What’s happening in that book of yours?” He asks.
Jack swings his legs, his boots clicking against the wooden side rails of the bed with each kick. “Uh,” He sings, “The main character, Joey, found out that his brother faked his own death, and is currently running after him. He just shot down four men with one bullet,”
John pauses. “How the Hell do you do that?” He asks.
Jack snorts. “The bullet ricocheted off a bunch of walls, I think.”
“I don’t think that can even happen,”
Jack shrugs. “I think that’s why it’s in a book, Pa, it’s fiction.”
“Wow,” John deadpans, “I had no idea.”
Jack laughs, and as it dies down, he looks up from the book. “You wanna hear a part?”
John leans back in his seat, placing the knife on the table. “Yeah, sure.”
“Okay,” Jack announces, sitting up and coughing into his fist. “Uh, lets see, ‘You saved me,’ The beautiful woman cried,’” John nearly laughs at Jack’s fake high-pitched voice, “‘She then threw her arms over Joey’s neck. ‘Sorry, lady,’ Joey snarled, pushing the woman away as she gasped. ‘I don’t do romance,’ And with that, Joey blew the smoke from his very large revolver, putting it into its holster. He tipped his hat to the woman, then walked out of the town, his cape flying behind him. The day was saved, yet Joey was no closer to finding his brother.’”
With the finale of that passage, John laughs. “Is that right after killing four men with a single bullet?”
Jack nods. “Yeah, she was captured by them because they knew Joey wouldn’t let an innocent woman die. He’s too heroic for that.”
John returns to sharpening his knife, giving a final glance to Jack. “And don’t be getting any ideas from that book. If I catch you trying to kill four men with one bullet, I’ll smack you upside the head.”
“Yeah, yeah, old man,” Jack remarks, snickering softly.
It’s a moment of peace, and it’s nice.