He sucked in a deep breath of the frigid night air, savoring the harsh burn on the back of his throat, and couldn’t help the bitter smirk that tugged lightly at his lips. It appeared that the old saying proved true- the air does taste sweeter with freedom.
With a grimace, he turned awkwardly to cast a look over his shoulder, back into the night he’d come from, once again assuring himself that it remained dark. He had figured that it would be, but his once iron certainty in how events would play out once set into motion had been shattered, and despite the seven years since it had happened, the wounds those shards had cut had never completely healed.
Just like his legs.
He thought that he had her. All her speeches were just empty words, trying to delay the inevitable, when he called her bluff, as he had on the day they met, showed her that she wasn’t any heroine in one of her ridiculous books, that she still didn’t have what it took. He could see the hesitation in her eyes. The goodness. He just needed to even the playing field a bit to make the conversation go a little easier. She wouldn’t be so mouthy with a .45 in her face.
He needed her to take a step back, and to drop the barrel of her rifle. Careful to keep his intentions from broadcasting, he brought his fingers up to his brim, and from the corner of his eye, he saw the confusion flicker across her face and her grip on her Winchester loosen ever so slightly. But it was enough. And he acted.
He heard his hat hit her solidly and his hand had already found the small handle of the revolver he’d taken from that pathetic look out. He’d have to kill her. And for a fraction of a moment, something like doubt flickered in his mind and down his muscles. But his hand was already swinging out to clear his hip, thumb finding the small hammer to cock it back to fire.
Then his gun was gone, his hand stinging violently from the force of the rifle shot as the bullet ripped the revolver from his grip.
As he straightened to face her and meet her eyes again, now completely at her mercy, something like awe clenched around his heart. But he also felt something coil in his gut that he’d not felt in a long time.
In her eyes, a light flickered into existence as he watched, and its tentative glow was the only warning he got before she’d pulled the trigger and the next moment seemed to happen as if moving through molasses.
It didn’t even register as pain, just an irresistible force ripping his knee out from under him and he hit the ground hard, knocking the breath out of him. He could hear the diminishing echoes of the rifle, and as silence fell, he was able to pull in a breath. Then he registered the pain.
He couldn’t bite back his scream.
He had just enough time, as he clawed at his leg, to comprehend that she’d done it. She’d taken his kneecap. She’d pulled the trigger.
Then he heard the pump action of the rifle.
A line of agony seared up his other leg as her second shot found its mark. He screamed again. His hands couldn’t decide which leg they wanted to grip against the agony, trying to cut the pain off with their grip.
And just above the pounding of the rain and the pounding of his blood in his ears, he heard it again.
The rifle reloading.
He forced his eyes open to see past the hazy red of pain to look up. At the smooth, machined metal of the barrel of her rifle, pointing down at his face. At the young woman above. The longing for the horizon he’d first seen in her eyes, the wanderlust he’d used to string her along, seemed to have settled into something else. Now her eyes were hard and bright. Eyes ready to chase the horizon. Ready to catch it.
A strange sort of silence fell over him, his soul still for the first time that he could remember as he looked up into the face of his death, one of his own making, one he’d found and brought with him. And he felt the oddest sense of relief.
He was going to die.
But the final report from the rifle never came. Instead the thundering grew louder and the screaming of high tempered horses carried over the storm. And the face of death turned away, looking towards the trees.
Then she was gone, turning abruptly and rushing to the horse that he’d intended to make his get away on. The horse he’d stolen from her. And now she was stealing it back.
The sounds of the pursuit drew closer and he watched in a haze as she looked over her shoulder at them, before swinging around to look across the river and her one chance at freedom. Then she urged her horse forward, into the current.
He couldn’t help, even amidst the mounting fury and agony, the small swell of pride as he watched her.
But all thought was driven away by the echoing rounds of the men pursuing him, and a moment later he watched as Deke stepped clear of the tree line and down onto the bank. The bounty hunter slowly approached, and a deep shiver ripped through his body as the freezing rain mingled with the insticutal terror of prey that knew it had been caught by its predator.
Deke’s face showed no happiness. There was no joy in his eyes. Not even as he took in his prey laid out before him.
But he thought he might have detected a glimmer of satisfaction in the other man’s eye as he screamed in agony, the sharp pressure of the boot on his bullet wound sending waves of agony through him. Even in the freezing rain, the fire in his veins was too much.
His world went black.
He grit his teeth as he shifted in the saddle, his useless leg dangling and forcing his weight off center. The freezing night air was settling into every space it could find, and he knew that soon he would have to find some sort of place to hunker down for the night. He put his hands against the saddle to shift himself in his seat again, feeling the saddle rash that was starting to bloom from the crooked way he was riding.
He shifted a bit too hard and twisted his leg against the horse’s flank and he sucked in a sharp breath at the lancing pain that shot up his thigh. It took everything he had to breathe through it and keep his scream silent. He refused to let what kept him alive be the death of him.
Not after all this time.
He remembered nothing of the journey to the jail house where they kept him, save for jolting moments of excruciating agony. When he came to, he was laid out on a cot. Every breath felt like molten lead being drawn up from his legs and into his chest. It took several long moments to push his awareness past the hellfire that seemed to have been kindled in him to take in the room.
Or, three quarters of a room, because he saw, as he managed to find enough will to force his head to turn, that one side was open, lined instead with iron bars.
But the burning fire was too much to face, and he closed his eyes to force it away, and passed out again.
The next time he dragged himself into consciousness, it was to the feeling of something wet sliding down his throat. Instinct kicked in and immediately his throat closed up and he choked on whatever was being poured down his throat.
“Easy there son, it’s just water.”
The gruff voice was so close that his entire body clenched up in surprise, and he couldn’t hold back his scream. Although what actually came out of his throat was a hoarse croaking yell.
“Easy boy, easy.” And then strong hands were holding him down at his shoulder and hip while he tried to pull away. But after a few moments, his body’s strength gave out and he went limp, harsh breaths now the only thing he could manage beyond keeping his heart beating.
As soon as he relaxed, the hands withdrew and a rough and calloused palm ran across his forehead, “You just rest easy. There ain’t no justice in hanging a dyin’ man, so the law ain’t gonna come for you quite yet.”
As the words registered in his mind, he was suddenly able to gather strength enough to force his eyes open. He could just make out a face at the limits of his vision. A man, roughly sixty, skin tanned by long days in the sun, a thick full beard, and eyes that seemed to twinkle with a strange merriment, even as the man looked down at him.
The man tilted his head, and after a moment, offered an easy smile, “Name’s Adam. And you’d be the outlaw that’s been bothering these here parts, ain’t ya?” At that the smile slid away as the man raised a bushy eyebrow. “You’d be the one that talked that poor lass right around your little finger to do with as you please, no?”
At the mention of her, a calm fury overcame him. It was the same kind of stillness that came before the storms on the open plains. A calm that was itself a threat.
“That’d be me,” he managed to cough out, past the rawness in his throat, which he realized must have come from screaming in his sleep.
Adam scoffed quietly, “Well there’s no need to sound so proud ‘bout it boy.”
“ ‘m no boy,” he growled out, but his harsh words just seemed to amuse the man, because he merely shifted forward with a chuckle.
“Sure, you ain’t. But you sure as hell ain’t no man to me either.” He felt his blood begin to boil at the man’s insolence. He’d show him who was a man. “Quite the temper you have on you. Well that’ll serve you well, cause you ain’t out of the woods yet.” His brows pulled down. “You musta vexed your lady friend well and good. She wasn’t gentle. She got your right knee, straight through the kneecap. You’ll be lucky if it don’t need to be amputated to keep the infection out.” His whole body stiffened and the pain flared again and he let out a hissing breath.
“But whether or not you can keep the leg, you’ll never walk on it again. Leastaways, not pleasantly.”
He would never walk again. He almost felt like he was in the middle of some twisted, demented dream, because there was no way that this was real. There was no way he could have misread her so badly. No way his plan would fall apart so quickly. No way he would never walk again. It just couldn’t happen. Not to him.
“However, looks like she had a bit of mercy for ya.” His eyes refocused on Adam, who gave him another easy smile. “See on ya right leg, she done took the kneecap. But your left leg? Well she just shot ya through the thigh.”
“Oh how merciful,” he spat out, his ire growing.
But the man was either stupid or intentionally ignoring his tone, because he nodded in agreement. “Indeed. See if she had shot even this much lower” he held up his little finger “she’d have taken your other knee the same. But as it stands, ya might be able to keep ya left leg working. And walkin’ with a limp is a right bit better than no walkin’ at all, innit?”
“Oh I’ll be sure to thank her for her kindness when I next see her. Right after I’ve emptied my Colt into her.”
Adam frowned down at him for a long moment, “By God, they be right. Spoke to some of the folk that brought you and they insisted that there ain’t nothing in that chest but ash. And Lord help me, I didn’t believe ‘em. You ain’t got nothin’ but darkness in ya.” Adam dropped his eyes as he shook his head. “Didn’t think it could actually happen to a man. I always figured that every man got one soft spot. One place inside ‘em that kept their heart beatin’. That if the right person came along, they’d be able to grab hold and make it shine. But here you be, livin’ proof that even after all this time, mankind can still disappoint folk.”
With that, Adam turned and opened the cell door which, he realized, had not been locked. Then the door slammed shut, the lock bolt slamming home, and he was left alone. Alone with his thoughts, his pain, his hate, and the memory of her eyes as she stared down the barrel of her gun at him.
At the latest bout of shivering, he decided that he’d put enough distance between himself and the town and that he could stop for the night, and set about finding a suitable place to dismount. With his only functioning leg still weak, it needed to be flat enough that he could trust his leg to catch his weight. It took a few more minutes before he spotted a downed log, which would be ideal.
He brought the horse up alongside before bracing himself against the saddle and swung his good leg up and over the saddle so that they both hung over the same side of the horse. Then just as carefully, he shifted, keeping his waist in place, he twisted so that his belly was pressed against the saddle. Very slowly, he lowered himself down, searching with his toes until he found the log. Once he was sure that his footing was sound, he allowed the rest of his weight to settle onto his leg.
He held on for a moment longer to ensure that he had his balance, then straightened, taking the crutch he’d tucked into the rifle holster on the saddle out and settling it on the floor. He nudged the horse out of the way, and once the ground was clear, used the crutch to brace his weight and hopped down.
It wasn’t graceful and it certainly wasn’t pleasant, but it still meant that he could get around, even with one leg dead below the knee. Getting himself up into the saddle had been a challenge, but he’d managed it before they realized that he was missing.
And now he was finally free. He could go anywhere he wanted, be anyone he chose. He supposed that was one of the few benefits of being locked away for nigh on a decade was that everyone forgot who he was. Most of the townsfolk hadn’t even batted an eye at him as he’d ridden away. Though he supposed the gaunt face, uncut hair, and scraggly beard had all lent themselves to making him unrecognizable.
He limped around the log, grabbing the horse’s reins as he went, and taking the easy-going animal around the log and tossing the lead over the fork of the dead tree that appeared to have been a brother to the one that had now fallen. He knew that the horse wouldn’t wander off.
He pulled the rolled blanket from the saddle bag and tossed it to the ground next to the fallen log, before gingerly lowering himself down as well. Once he was seated, he used his good leg to lift his dead foot from the ground, then pushed on his knee, forcing his leg to straighten. Once it was fully extended, he pulled his good leg out from underneath it to push as he propped himself up against the log.
Taking the blanket and shaking it out, he flicked it up to cover him, before leaning back to rest his head against the bark and gaze up at the stars.
Every day passed the same way. He would wake in agony, his leg muscles tense and straining as he dragged himself from dreams of sitting at a table in a home he knew was his, a woman humming as she fixed dinner, while he could hear the little ones playing outside. But just as she turned to bring the food to the table, fire would erupt between them. He could hear the little ones screaming. But the true terror was the voice that haunted him as he caught the barest sight of locks of blonde hair.
You will regret that you ever betrayed me.
And then he would snap his eyes open to see Adam sitting on the other side of his cell bars, holding whatever newest novel had caught his eye. And the man would be watching him over the top of his book, studying him.
Then he’d set the book aside with a sigh and heave himself from his hickory rocking chair to come to the cell door. He’d open it and step through, leaving the door open as he came over to the cot to check his wounds.
The first few times, he had downright refused to allow the other man anywhere near him, but after he fell sick with an infection fever, he bit his tongue and rallied his patience to let the man peel back the wrappings, check the wounds, and then run his hand down both legs, digging his fingers in to massage the muscles and keep them warm.
He would just lay back and try to force his muscles to move on their own, but try as he might, he couldn’t get anything below either knee to so much as twitch. Then Adam would leave and return with a basin of water and a cloth. The first few times, he’d been so weak, he’d had to face the absolute humiliation of Adam bathing him. But as his strength began to return, Adam would just leave the bowl and cloth and mumble, “Gotta stretch me legs a bit.” And then he’d relock the cell and leave, allowing him to bathe himself in private.
At first, he’d simply refused on principle, but as the days passed, he could feel the build up of sickness on his skin, a cloying mix of weakness and sweat that eventually he could not stomach any longer.
Once he’d cleaned himself, he’d lay back and wait for Adam to return. Once he had, the man would remove the bowl and towel and then settle in for the morning, spinning yarns about the townsfolk and sharing the latest gossip. At first, he’d been insulted. Why would the likes of him give a rat’s ass what the little folk did about their little town? But as days turned into weeks, and he was able to stay awake for longer periods of time, and they continued to deny him whiskey to pass the day along, he came to cling to the little morsels that Adam would deign to share to keep from losing his mind.
At some point, he’d have to relieve himself, and after he lost all semblance of dignity having to use a bedpan, he accepted, with minimal complaint, Adam’s assistance to stand up and let the man practically carry him over to the bucket in the corner to relieve himself. Then he’d be settled back into the bed, and Adam would leave, until late evening.
Most of the time he was left alone. Although, the bounty hunter who had caught him, Deke, did come by just once to speak to him. The judge, who was a good Christian man apparently, had held that nothing less than a healthy man would ever walk up his gallows, and so Deke solemnly told him that his execution was postponed. And then the man asked very quietly, just as he paused at the threshold, “Did you know she was in the house?”
He didn’t deign to answer and the man just scoffed. Then he asked one more question that, for some reason, felt like a shadow passing over his soul.
“Did you know she was pregnant?”
His stomach rumbled and he let out a sigh, shifting himself sideways until he was lying stretched out on the ground. He tucked the blanket up under his chin as he found a comfortable position, settling his head and closing his eyes to savor, once again, the luxury of being stretched out under the stars, free.
The days grew tedious, and he could only envision taking his revenge on her so many times. After all, you can only kill a person so many ways before it gets too messy. And having it messy just meant more bother trying to clean up afterward. He didn’t even have the luxury of drinking his days away into oblivion.
So on one particularly dreary day, he noticed that Adam had left his latest dime novel on his chair by the cell bars.
“Do you wanna read it?”
“No.. I- I read people, not books.”
He grit his teeth and shifted, getting his upper body off the bed before turning over to carefully back his legs off the bed, sliding on his butt across the floor, grabbing his pant leg to lower each foot to the ground. The dull ache that the bullet wounds had faded to redoubled and he had to stop moving for a moment to catch his breath against the pain.
Once he’d mastered himself, he used his hands to push himself along the floor up to the bars of the cell. He stuck his arm through and managed to snag a few pages between his fingers, and was able to pull the book off the chair.
He studied the cover, a title that he couldn’t make out, but a sketch of a woman that looked strangely familiar to him, but he couldn’t place the face. He looked back up at the cot and suddenly the thought of getting himself back up onto the bed seemed far too daunting, so he just shifted himself against the bars more comfortably, before opening the first page.
He couldn’t make anything out. It was just a jumble of markings to him, although occasionally his eyes would light on a word that he could recognize, like sheriff, saloon, brothel. But they may as well have been equally as unintelligible as the rest for all he got out of the few words he could pick up.
He stared at page after page, getting more and more frustrated until he’d had enough and in a fit, threw the book away from him.
“What is it you read in me?”
He scowled at the wall, once again cursing the vivid memories that swirled in his mind, but as hours lengthened, his temper cooled and his back started to ache from here it was pressed up against the bars. So with a sigh, he laboriously dragged his lower half across the cell to pick up the damn thing before dragging himself back. By the time he’d situated himself next to the cot, in the position to hoist himself up, his arms ached and his whole body was shaking.
He just lay down right there, the fight and fire suddenly completely gone. He only stirred again when an easy voice said, “You know, they have recently invented these things you can sleep on instead of the floor. It’s called a bed, would ya like to try it?”
He opened his eyes to see Adam kneeling next to him, his palm open in an offer to assist him up. A shiver ran through him, forcing him into action, grabbing the man’s hand and using Adam’s arm and strength to assist himself in raising up to the bed. As he settled on the bed, the dime novel slid from where it had lain on his leg.
Adam looked down at it with a raised eyebrow, “Still can’t help with a little theiven’, can ya?”
He scoffed, “Lot of good it did me.”
“Oh?” Something seemed to occur to him. “You can’t read?”
He bristled at the tone of surprise. “I can read what I need to.”
Adam held up his hands in a placating gesture, “Alright alright, no need to rattle your tail at me, lad.” He bent over to retrieve the book and straightened, paused a moment, then said casually, “Would you like to learn how?”
He looked up at the man disbelieving, “What for? I am going to be hanged as soon as my legs heal, and while that happens, I’ll be trapped inside three walls and a grate.”
Adam nodded, “True, but that’s all the more reason to learn. Then you won’t have to spend your days trapped here. You could be off fighin’ dragons or followin’ the trail of Calamity Jane.” Adam waved the dime novel and he suddenly realized why he knew the woman on the cover. It was the same picture as the one she’d been reading.
It took another week for him to finally give in, the monotonous days just too much for him to bear. So when Adam settled in for the morning, he cleared his throat, trying to get out the words past the pride stuck in his throat.
Adam looked at him as he struggled to get his request out. Looking down, he tried casually, “Would you still be willin’ ta teach me?”
Adam looked at him a few moments longer, then gave him a gentle smile, “O’course. But,” the warning tone that suddenly entered his voice had him looking up at the other man, “you best keep a rein on your temper. I won’t teach ya if you can’t keep yourself in check.”
He looked down at his hands, the very temper he was being told to check flickering to life.
“Alright, fair enough.”
The weak caress of the dawning sun drew him from his sleep, and he wiped his eyes with a sigh before propping himself up to ready himself for another day of riding. He folded up the blanket and readied himself to ride.
He would need to head north, to where he kept his secondary stash. He’d never fully trusted Cimmaron, and had made it a point, when she first started running with him, of removing a portion of his stock pile in the beaver dam to hide it in an abandoned silver mine half a day’s ride from the river. Eggs in one basket and all that.
Once he had money enough to feed himself and his horse, he’d turn westward and start his hunt.
It was almost sunset when he finally laid eyes on her. Almost a year of searching had finally paid off. He had situated himself on the porch of saloon, the perfect perch from which to observe the town. He had needed to wait almost two full days in town, occupying himself with a book that had come out some time ago, but was only just reaching the frontier- Ivanhoe.
But then he’d heard her voice, practically unchanged in the eight years since he’d last heard it.
“Come now, y’all, we don’t need no trouble here. Now just hand over your firearms and be on your way.”
He dropped his book down enough to watch the events play out in front of him.
Maddie Hawkins stood tall and proud in the middle of the street, dressed in trousers and vest, her still blonde hair pulled back in a tie underneath her hat. He ran his eyes over her body as he took in her stance.
She seemed to have grown into herself. Her hips were wide, curves well situated, a strength and authority in her stride and across her shoulders that she once only pretended to have. He saw that an ammunition belt sat comfortably around her waist, two holsters sporting what looked like two Colts with inlaid mother-of-pearl handles. Expensive weapons that she was clearly well acquainted with.
But it was the Winchester she held casually that stirred the icy fury that had built up in his heart over the last eight years. She still carried the damn weapon that had stolen his life from him. He had to take a tempering breath and forced himself to stay in his seat.
She stood before two men, both clearly drunk, and each fingering their still holstered revolvers.
He felt his belly tighten as he saw what was about to play out before it did, the wave of familiarity making the blood thunder in his veins.
He watched as one of the two men dropped his hand to his revolver, yanking the weapon free. Maddie reacted almost instantaneously, the rifle coming up to to sit easily against her shoulder. The man finished drawing his gun and he could hear the hammer cock. But the Winchester fired first.
The gun was ripped from the man’s hand, unsurprisingly. But he was taken aback when, only a moment after the poor sod registered that she had, in fact, just made that shot, there was a solid crack as Maddie reversed her rifle and rammed the wood stock into the man’s face, knocking him off his feet.
She casually flipped the gun back around and pointed it at the other man, who staggered backward to put distance between him and the still smoking barrel. “You got anythin’ ta say or you gonna be on your way?”
“I’ll just be headed home, ma’am,” he mumbled before tucking tail and hurrying up the road. Maddie watched him go before turning back to the man who was still sprawled on the ground. She stared down at him, her brow furrowed.
And for all that he could read her back when they met, he had no idea what Maddie was thinking now. Then she sighed and squatted down beside the man, “I ain’t gonna warn you again. This is the only warnin’ you’ll get. We don’ tolerate this type o’ rukus around here. Now you pull yourself together and go on back to wherever it is that you came from. Ya hear me?”
The man squinted up at her, his eyes clearly still full of tears from the pain of his smarting nose, but he managed a weak nod before he brought his hand up to his face with a groan and settled back on the dirt.
With a scoff, Maddie stood, rolling her shoulders back as she did, looking for all the world like she just stood up from a chair where she’d been sipping tea, instead of standing up from where she’d been hunched over a man whose nose she probably just broke. Then he heard the church bell ring, and he watched as surprise crossed her face before she pulled out a pocket watch.
Popping it open to confirm the time, a tired but genuine smile lit up her face as she made her way back up the main street. He continued to watch her right up until she pushed open the door to the sheriff's station and vanished inside.
He forced himself to remain seated as his heart pounded. He was so close to getting what he had strived for the last seven years for. He just had to wait a little bit longer.
And sure enough, about a half hour later, she stepped out of the sheriff's station. He felt his skin start to tingle in anticipation as he watched her say something over her shoulder before stepping down to the hitching post and untying a roan. His roan.
He grit his teeth, forcing the rising tide of hatred back as he watched her swing up into her saddle with an easy grace, a sureness and confidence to her movements that suited her very well. He waited until she had turned her horse north and set off up the main road, towards the edge of town, before he allowed himself to move.
As soon as he was sure of her direction, he stood, limping quickly around the building to where he’d tethered his horse. He untied it before moving around to mount, bracing himself before jumping off his good leg and heaving himself forward to get his upper body over the saddle, swinging his good leg over the horse’s rump to situate himself fully in his seat. Glancing around to make sure he was unobserved, he nudged his horse to a walk, setting off northward.
It did not take him long to find her lone figure up in the distance, and sure that he didn’t need to worry too much about losing sight of her, he kept his distance, not wanting to risk alerting her to his presence. As he trailed behind her, he could see a weariness about her that didn’t seem in keeping with the Maddie he used to know.
He followed her for some time, the sun just starting to brush the horizon, before a farm house came into view. It was a simple thing, just a single floor, wood shutters, brick chimney. He could see just beyond the house what appeared to be a paddock and a barn beyond that.
Just like his father’s farm.
An unpleasant sense of longing started to creep up from the depths of his memories and he scowled at the slowly shadowing figure ahead of him. His fingers itched to pull his rifle from its sleeve and just fire. But he forced himself to wait.
He wanted to make sure he could destroy her life as completely as possible, and he needed to see her life before he could do that. So he waited, pulling up the reins as she approached the porch of the farm house.
As she reached the house, his brow furrowed as he watched two strangers come out to greet her. He squinted a bit against the waning light to take in the features of the two strangers. A boy on the cusp of manhood and a girl teetering on womanhood, their builds slight with rich blonde hair. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.
She had managed to find the siblings she thought were lost to the reaches of the western expanse. Against his will, he felt himself smile slightly at the sight of her swinging down from her saddle before stepping forward to wrap her arms around her sister’s smaller frame for a quick but deep hug before releasing her to turn and accept a hug from her brother as well.
The boy said something into her hair and she pulled back, tossing her head back in a joyful laugh as her brother and sister joined her.
His horse shifted under him and he realized that he had been sitting completely exposed on the road. He shook his head cursing himself for his foolishness. She had family. Perfect. Maybe he’d kill them first and then her.
His smile turned feral at the thought.
He turned his horse’s head and led the beast off the road and into the wild braken of the plains, taking a wide route around the stead to approach the barn from behind, allowing him to get much closer to the house unobserved. Once fully concealed by the barn, he dismounted, gritting his teeth as he landed hard and jarred his leg.
He tied the reins to the fence of the paddock, making sure the beast wouldn’t be able to pull free. Then he pulled out his rifle, running an eye over the gun, making sure that it was loaded. He felt like he was going to break through his skin with anticipation as he turned back towards the house.
It was finally time.
He licked his lips before he limped forward, trying to keep the drag of his dead leg as quiet as possible as he shuffled around the barn, every step adding fuel to the kindling fury that was licking at his bones and heating his blood. His lips stretched tight over his teeth in a snarl as he moved more quickly, his seven years of patience finally used up.
He finally rounded the corner of the barn, the front of the house now perfectly visible. He heard laughing and muted voices and thought he could detect a trace of garlic and spices from the meal that was being cooked. His own belly growled slightly at the delicious smell, but he shoved the thought away, finding convenient perch on the edge of the watering trough.
He settled, letting his dead leg dangle as he leaned against the siding of the barn, letting his mind settle into the same sort of state as when he was hunting. A patience and calm born of absolute certainty. He gently laid his rifle across his lap and waited for the perfect moment to strike.
But he couldn’t help noticing, as he waited, the joyful sounds coming from the home. He heard off key singing followed by loud laughter, figures moving quickly past the windows as the sound of pounding feet accompanied shouting. And against his will, against the resolve he had forged over the years of his imprisonment, he felt himself… considering.
But as the house quieted and the night deepened, the cold triggered sharp pains in his knee and the bullet wound in his thigh. And as the pain increased, the mirage of a future he thought he might have seen in the waning sunlight vanished, the sharpness of his hate-filled reality coming back into focus.
He grit his teeth as he shifted, shifting his weight back onto his feet, something in him, his hunter’s sense perhaps, telling him to be ready. Something was about to happen.
He only had to wait a few minutes. The light coming from the windows had slowly dimmed until only the inconsistent light of a flickering flame danced against the glass panes. Then the front door opened quietly and Maddie stepped out onto the porch, approaching the roan. With a weary sort of patience, she removed the horse’s tacking, letting out a sharp breath when she lifted the full weight of the saddle from the horse’s back, before she lugged it to the porch rail.
Settling the saddle across the wood, her hands resting against the smooth leather, she tilted her head back on a sigh, her breath misting in the moonlight. He was abruptly reminded of the stories of nature spirits he had read about, solitary and beautiful in the moonlight. He had never had a hard time looking at her, and as he shifted, bringing the rifle to his shoulder, he had to admit that she looked even more beautiful in the full bloom of womanhood.
But like everything beautiful, it hid temptation and ruin.
He refused to wait any longer, to hell with her family. His business was with her and her alone.
He settled the rifle, closing his eye as he gently tipped his head against the stock. His left hand wrapped around the grip like he was cradling glass, while his right slide down the polished steel to slot into the guard, his finger brushing against the trigger like a lover’s caress. A slight tremor ran through him and he shifted one more time, making sure that his shot would fly true. His finger started to press, feeling the delightful resistance to the pressure, as if the gun itself were hesitant to unleash its power.
But in the breath before the trigger passed the threshold, he heard the only thing on earth that could have stayed his hand.
The small voice carried easily across the darkness, and his whole body locked up, unable to move. Unable to stop watching as Maddie turned towards the door, bending her knees as her arms opened to welcome the source of the voice.
A tiny figure appeared from the porch and was swept up into Maddie’s embrace. He racked him memory to see if he had somehow missed the signs of a man, but he was certain that he had heard not talk or even allusion to any sort of relationship that the sheriff may have been involved in.
He had no idea where the child could have come from. There was something, like a memory of a dream, that taunted the fringes of his thoughts. But he could not fathom what it was.
Then Maddie turned with a quiet laugh in the moonlight, holding the child up as she did. And he could clearly see the child’s features.
A little girl with her mother’s glowing smile and round face. And slightly tapered ears, jet black hair, and crystal blue eyes.
Her father’s eyes.
The resemblance was there. She was the right age. She had to be his.
Ice flowed through every muscle and vein in his body, violent trembling overtaking him as he very abruptly registered that his gun was still pointed at the two of them and he yanked the barrel away, completely removing his hand from anywhere near the trigger, suddenly terrified he might somehow accidentally fire the round that he had only moments ago so eagerly been waiting to dispense.
He refocused on the two across the yard, his whole body at war with itself as he watched the woman he had sworn vengeance upon, and the daughter he had fathered before he broke that woman’s heart.
Maddie was holding the girl on her hip, shifting slightly back and forth and she brushed the dark locks out of her daughter’s face.
“What are you doing out of bed, little one?”
The little girl wrapped her tiny arms around her mother’s neck, snuggling into her neck, the perfect picture of trust and adoration.
“I thought I saw a ghost mama,” came the girl’s tentative reply.
Maddie brought a hand to cup her daughter’s head, ‘What did you see darling?”
There was quiet for a moment, and he felt like something in him was aching, like he needed to rid the little girl of the trembling fear he could hear in her voice.
The little girl sat back and he actually flinched forward, a gut instinct to protect her from falling. Her eyes shimmered in the moonlight like the stars in the sky above her as she looked at her mother.
“I saw a ghost on the road behind you when you came home.”
“You did?” There was no trace of humor in her voice, just gentle concern.
The little girl nodded, “Yeah, it was on a horse and had a hat. And then I saw it again at dinner outside the barn. Like the stories you tell me sometimes. ”
He had to close his eyes against the wave of vertigo that washed over him as the little girl’s words hit home.
He was the ghost. She was afraid of him.
Maddie shifted the girl slightly, “Was the ghost doing anything darling?”
The girl shook her head earnestly, “No, it was just watching.”
“Then maybe you don’t have to be frightened of it.”
The girl tilted her head, “What do you mean mama?”
Maddie wandered over and managed to lower both herself and her cargo to the porch step, letting the little girl sit across her lap, leaning against her shoulder.
“Well darling, you said it wasn’t doing anything. What if the ghost is actually watchin’ out for ya?”
The little one gasped, “Like an angel?”
Maddie laughed quietly, and he watched as the weight of memories shadowed her face, “No darling. There ain’t no such thing as angels.” There was a bitter bite in her words. “Ain’t no man good enough to die and end up one. But ghosts, them folks that die with with something still weighin’ on their mind? I don’t doubt they exist. May not even be dead yet ‘fore they become one.”
He felt a strange cold steal down his spine at Maddie’s words. Words that seemed to settle around his lungs and squeeze.
“Mama?” The girl seemed to pick up that her mother’s words meant something more, but at her daughter's voice, the shadow vanished from Maddie’s face and she smiled down at her daughter.
“You don’t need to be afraid of ghosts darling. I’ll keep you safe.”
That seemed to satisfy the little girl, who curled up more tightly on her mother’s lap, snuggling into the warmth. He knew that no more words were going to be exchanged, and that every moment he stayed, he risked discovery. But he could not tear himself away, the tiny figure arresting his entire attention. There was a strange itch in his arms, like his muscles knew that they should be holding the child across the paddock.
He was only able to drag himself away from where he had positioned himself when Maddie stood up with a quiet groan, turning to take her daughter inside and out of the cold. Out of his view.
He leaned against the wood siding of the building, wincing at the ache in his legs, an exhaustion the likes of which he’d rarely felt before settling into his bones. Sleep the last few days had been hard to come by, his mind circling and circling, trying to find a way to keep the fire of vengeance burning in his chest. But every time he managed to kindle some kind of anger, the soothing blue eyes quickly smothered it. And when he did manage to find sleep, his dreams were of gunshots and fire and the screams of a child and the weeping of a mother.
He had been following Maddie around, trying to talk himself into doing the deed he’d planned for every day for the last seven years. But every time he had worked himself up to raising the barrel of his gun, he could not bring himself to do it.
He had ended up watching as she went about her daily life, interacting with the townsfolk on the days she went into town, giving life to the land on the days that she remained on the ranch with her siblings. For all she had grown up, the longer he studied her, the less she seemed to have changed. She was still earnest and forthright, still restless and eager. But her excitement had been tempered by experience, her fervor with responsibility.
He shifted again against the wood siding, waiting for Maddie to come back out from the sheriff’s station. She’d been there for hours, and the barrell he’d chosen to perch on was digging into the backs of his legs. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out on a silent sigh. As he shifted again, a sharp pain laced up his leg, and he slid to the floor with a grunt, bracing his weight with his rifle, holding onto the barrel as he ran his hand down his leg to try and massage the sharp ache away, focusing on trying to keep his breathing even.
“Are you alright mister?”
He went rigid, somehow knowing exactly who was speaking, despite only having heard her voice once, soft and frightened in the darkness. He almost didn’t want to look up, a foolish thought that if he couldn’t see her, she wouldn’t be there.
He gathered himself then straightened, turning towards her.
She was dressed just like her mother, tan pants tucked into leather boots, a white collared shirt, and a tiny blue vest, hair tied up in a braid and a small felt hat set jauntily on her head. It was so reminiscent of how he used to wear his hat that something in his gut clenched.
“Yeah, I’m alright girl.” His words felt thick and awkward coming out of his mouth, hyper aware of every syllable as he produced it. “Just a bit of an old wound givin’ me a bit ‘o trouble.”
He watched her eyes flick down to his leg, where his hand was still wrapped around the top of his knee. Her head tilted slightly, before she chirped, “How’d ya’ get it?” before she turned bright pink and clapped a hand over her mouth. “M’sphthruph,” she mumbled into her hand and against his will, his lips tugged up in a small smile, something in the vicinity of his heart chipping to expose that which had been hidden for so long.
“Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you.”
Her face turned even more pink, but she lowered her hands, reaching down to fist at the fabric of her pants while she rocked up on her toes and down again. “ ‘M sorry. That was rude. Mama says ‘m no supposed ta ask personal questions of strangers.”
He was absolutely charmed by the girl before him and suddenly wanted to comfort her. “Well so long as you try not to do it again, I won’t say anything, alright? It’ll be our little secret.”
She looked up at him with wide eyes before she nodded vigorously, her hat sliding wildly on her head. Then, in the way that only children have, she completely switched tacks.
“What’s your name?” This time there was no embarrassment, just earnest curiosity and as much as he knew he should not be giving his name, he couldn’t bring himself to lie to her.
He straightened, releasing his leg with a slight wince, “Its ummm… It’s JJ.”
He was unprepared for the dramatic gasp that she let out. He looked at her confused and watched as a beaming smile overtook her face.
“That’s my name too!”
His heart stopped beating.
“What?” It came out as a hoarse whisper.
She nodded, oblivious to his change in tone, proud to share with him, “Yeah! Its JJ! It stands for Josephine Joy! Josephine was my mama’s mama’s name. She wanted to name me after her cause Mama, Aunt Sarah, and Uncle Michael lost her when they was… when they were,” she corrected herself seriously, then continued, “real young.” She nodded sagely, as if she’d departed some deep wisdom to him.
He swallowed hard, almost scared to ask, but needing to know, “And your second name?”
An expression of sorrow and dark anger that should not belong on any child’s face settled over the girl’s features. “It stands for Joy.” She paused, looking up at him with clear blue eyes, shimmering with an innocence that his had not had for decades. “Mama named me that ‘cause when she was at her saddest, when she didn’t think there was anything left for her, she found out that she had me, and I was her little Joy. The Joy that healed her heart.”
He couldn’t get air into his lungs. He could feel his leg shaking under him and his hand trembling against the barrel of the rifle he still held. He was staring at the future he could have had, a life that he’d longed for until his father’s farm had been destroyed. And he couldn’t have done better than the darling child before him.
But there was one last question he had to ask. One answer he needed to know. But he was having a hard time getting his body to respond to his desires. He wanted to wrap his arms around the little girl before him and hold her, protect her until the dark shadow of her mother’s pain was nothing more than a memory. He didn’t ever want her to wear that expression again. But he had to know.
He managed to force the words from his throat. “And what about your pa?”
The frown deepened as she shook her head, “Mama won’t tell me that much about him. She says that he was ….” she paused, and he didn’t realize he was leaning forward to make sure he heard what came next until he almost lost his balance. The little one looked confused, and yet, no less certain of her mother’s words. “She said that he was lost. But that he refused ta look up at the sky ta find his way by the stars.” Once she finished, she seemed to be considering her words, before she nodded, like she was affirming the accuracy of what she had just recited. Then she squinted back up at him. “I don’t really get what that means.”
He felt the same wash of vertigo he had when he first saw her as she looked up at him with such trust in her eyes. He had to swallow back the bile he felt rising up in his throat as he looked down at her. “I think what your ma means is that your pa could have been a good man, but chose not to be.” He offered a tiny false smile, feeling the truth of Maddie’s wisdom as it clamped around his soul.
It appeared he was no more forgiven than she was.
Did she too dream of vengeance? Or had she satisfied her lust for revenge on the shores of the riverbank so many years ago?
Her sweet voice drew him from his musings. “So what does your JJ stand for?”
He had no idea how to answer her, but he was spared the need to do so when he heard a frantic voice call out, “JJ! JJ!” He recognized Maddie’s voice, and the same hysterical tone of worry she had once had when she’d called his name, standing at the edge of a shore while he thought of nothing but the store of money that would never serve its purpose.
Her voice was closer, and the little girl had turned in response to her mother’s voice. He knew he had to leave, knew that if Maddie caught sight of him, he would not make it to the next sunrise. But he couldn’t bring himself to back away. He needed to learn more about the little girl before him. His daughter.
The little girl turned back to him. And she smiled.
It was a radiant, beautiful thing. More bright than the sunrise. More filling than the finest whiskey. He couldn’t give it up. He could not relinquish the light now that he’d finally found it.
“You said it was our secret right?”
He tried to take in as much of her as he could. Trying to burn her smile into his memory. He didn’t want to give it up. “Yeah, our secret.”
Her smile somehow grew impossibly wider.
She turned away, heading back to Maddie’s desperate shouting. “Comin’ Mama!”
He could hear Maddie’s hurried step approaching, and now that he couldn’t see her smile anymore, he was able to force himself to turn away.
Heart pounding, he hurriedly limped away. Away from his past. And away from what could have been his future.
“JJ, up, come on. It’s well past dawn.”
JJ groaned as she pulled the blanket over her head, turning away from the door. Maybe if she just ignored Mama, she’d get to sleep a bit more. There was a moment of silence, and she thought that maybe her gambit had worked.
“Josephine Joy, you get up out of that bed ‘fore I come make you.” She wrinkled her nose, still trying to ignore her mother. There was a pause, then she heard the door open.
The blanket was ripped out of her hand and off her head. “Up. We need to get an early start. You were the one that insisted that you wanted to come. And how many times do I have to tell you ta close your window at night!”
JJ was suddenly wide awake. She rolled over and sat up so abruptly that her mother raised an eyebrow at her. “Alright Ma, I’m up.” Her ma looked her over for a moment before shaking her head slightly and leaving the room.
As soon as the door shut, JJ let out a breath, relieved that her mother had left. She turned toward the window sill. She was certain that she had closed it the night before, which could only mean one thing.
Biting her lip, she carefully pulled the wood shutter back a little farther, exposing more of the window sill. And sure enough, sitting in the corner of the window was a small folded piece of paper, a tiny posy of wild flowers resting on top, tied together with a small strand of twine. She couldn’t contain her smile as she gently picked up the flowers, looking them over, taking in the small blooms of yellow, blue, and white. Then she turned her attention to the letter.
Her ghost letter.
JJ had been receiving these letters for as long as she could remember. Every once in a while, she would wake to find that the window she had shut the night before would be cracked open. Just enough to tell her that the ghost had visited.
She had no idea what it was, why they visited her. She had a vague memory of a figure on a horse in the sunset, of a man hunched over in pain, with sharp blue eyes, of a secret. But she had never been able to see them.
One more than one occasion, she’d tried to stay up through the night to see if she could catch a glimpse of her mystery visitor, only to wake up still sitting upright in bed, the sunlight creeping in around the edges of the shutters.
Eventually she had just accepted that she would never know what her ghost was. But that was the one thing she was absolutely sure of. It was her ghost. She had never heard her Ma, Aunt, or Uncle ever mention it, and once she’d brought it up, trying to see if they would talk about it, but they were just confused.
So she kept her secret.
Glancing towards the door, making sure she would be undisturbed, she unfolded the letter.
Make sure you take a good look at the flowers. These plants are edible, and if you get stuck in a place where you don’t have food, it will always do you good to know what you can eat.
There was a man, an outlaw, who once got himself into a situation like that.
JJ looked back at the flowers, doing her best memorize their colors and leaf shape. The letters were often like that, providing little bits of information or wisdom on various things. There had been the letter that corrected how she was holding her rifle. There was one telling her the best time to plant wildflowers in the garden to get the best bloom. Little guiding lights that she filed away for a time she might need to know.
Once she felt that she had gotten the shape and color engrained in her memory, she turned back to the letter and the story that was about to unfold. The outlaw was a frequent character in the stories. A man with questionable morals but a fascinating life, a black heart and a quick wit. Her own personal Calamity Jane.
She loved the stories she received, love riding beside him on his adventures. She eagerly dove into her newest tale, of how the outlaw had been run out of town and had to make a getaway on an unsaddled horse. How he swung up onto the animal’s back and rode it like thunder over the plains. But then, because of his haste, he was stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat but the food he could scavenge. And how knowing about the little flowers ended up saving his life to let him ride on to another day.
She was just reaching the last of the story and the last line of the letter, never signed, but always the same-
And so the outlaw made it to sunset, and the next sunrise.
Remember, overcome your fears and there is no river you won’t be able to cross.
-when she heard her mother coming back up the hallway. She stuffed the letter and flowers under her pillow and jumped up from the bed, hurrying to get herself ready, even more excited about the day than she had been.
Ma was taking her the big festival a town over for the first time. In the past, every year, she and Uncle Michael would load up the wagon with the last of the harvest and head out while Aunt Sarah would stay behind with her. But Mama had finally given in to her begging and agreed to bring her along.
She managed to get herself all changed into her riding clothes before Mama made it to the door, so when she knocked, JJ was able to pull the door open ready to go. Her ma looked her over, a strange, sad sort of smile tilting her lips. She brought a hand up to brush some of the dark locks away from JJ’s face.
“You look more and more like him every day.” She said it softly, almost like she hadn’t meant to say it out loud. JJ had to force herself to not ask any questions. She had learned that any questions about her father made a shadow of anger and sadness settle over her face. JJ hated that expression.
She had mixed feelings about her father, whoever he was. She was curious about him, how could she not be? But what little she had learned from the information she’d gathered over the years, she was fairly certain that her father was not a good man. That he’d broken her mother’s heart. But it also seemed like, in some strange way, her Ma was also grateful to him.
JJ waited in silence until her Ma let out a quiet sigh, “Alright then, off we go.”
JJ had decided that she did not like festivals. It was loud and crowded and smelled bad. She was used to the open plains of the farm and the silence of the foothill forests. She wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the congested streets full of shouting people.
At first, she had been fascinated with the variety of people and colors. Workers dressed in overalls with dust on their faces. Women in bright dresses that Ma pointedly told her to ignore. Men with bellies so big they couldn’t see their own feet. All types of folks she’d never seen before.
But as the day wore on, the sights lost their novelty. While she trailed behind her Ma as they made their way from stall to stall, selling what they’d brought from the farm, she kept getting jostled and pushed. More than once, she’d felt her skin crawl as dirty men sent cruel smiles her way, sending her scurrying to hide in her mother’s shadow.
By the time the sun had set, JJ was tired, dirty, and irritated. She just wanted to go home, take a bath, and go to bed. Ma had sent her off to get some last supplies from the general store that the one in town didn’t carry. As she ambled her way back to where her Ma had left the wagon, she was looking at the roads in disgust. The dirt roads were soggy with urine and piles of horse dung were scattered around, making it almost impossible to walk without stepping in some. There were slumped over figures sitting up against buildings, the empty liquor bottles reflecting the waning light.
She decided, as she stepped into the alley between the last row of buildings in town, squinting into the direct glare of the setting sun, that she was never coming to a festival ever again. Her Ma could do it and be welcome to it.
“Where you goin’ girlie?”
The guttural voice came from behind her and she spun around. With a shiver of fear, she took in the form of a lumbering man, dirt-stained and scarred, standing at the end of the alley she had just entered from. The sun, shining its waning beams over her shoulder, lit up his face clearly and she knew that the smile on his face was not a pleasant one.
“You stay away from me mister.” She tried to put as much force into her voice as she could, trying to keep the fear from cracking her voice.
But her demand only seemed to amuse him. She watched as his hand slid down to his waist and he casually pulled out a revolver, casually pointing it in her direction, “And what are you gonna do if I don’t ‘stay away mister’?” He imitated her voice in a horrible falsetto.
She grit her teeth, but knew that the only thing she could do was run. The man seemed to know it, as his grin widened, talking an easy step forward. JJ felt her heart rate pick up.
“Now why don’t you just come along? I don’t wanna ‘ave ta shoot ya.” But the wicked gleam in his eyes told her that he might just want exactly that. He continued to move forward and JJ was frozen in fear. She didn’t want to move and risk him shooting her, but she couldn’t stay where she was. And he was getting closer.
A gunshot sounded, echoing in the tight space of the alley.
JJ gasped, waiting for the pain. The man screamed out instead, collapsing to the ground, gun tumbling from his hand, forgotten, as he clutched at his leg.
It took JJ several shell-shocked moments to understand that the man had not fired, someone else had, and that the shot had come from behind her.
She whipped around, immediately blinking against the sunlight hitting her straight in the eyes. She could tell that there was someone standing, half concealed by the corner of the building, but she couldn’t see anything more than a distorted silhouette. She could make out the outline of a coat and the brim of a hat set crookedly on the head it sat on. The one thing she could clearly make out though, as it glinted in the light, was the barrel of the revolver that was leveled at her. No, not at her.
Slowly the figure lowered the weapon.
“Are you my ghost?” The question slipped out before she could catch it, and she clamped her hand over her mouth. The figure didn’t answer, not that she expected it to. But she thought she may have heard something like a sad laugh.
As the excitement of the situation faded away, she finally began to process what had just happened. What could have happened. “Thank you,” she breathed as her. She started to shake, her breath getting short, her muscles locking up. But she focused on the figure, who stood still, keeping hidden in the light, her ghost.
Slowly, she got herself to breath through it, the trembling slowly fading away, and as she steadied out, she noticed that the sunlight was starting to fade away. A little more time, and she’d be able to make out her ghost. Able to finally see it.
She had come close once, years before.
“I hate you! I never wanna talk to you again!” JJ screamed at her mother before she turned and ran out the door. She was furious and decided she was going to run away. She was grown up enough. She didn’t need a mother anymore.
With that in mind, she sprinted across the paddock and out of the yard, heading towards the forest that covered the foothills that acted as the property line for eastern edge of the farm. She could hear her mother calling out her name, but refused to stop. She couldn’t boss JJ around anymore.
She made it to the tree line as the sun set, but continued to travel deeper and deeper into forest until she was sure that her mother would never find her. When she finally stopped running, she couldn’t hear anything other than the wind whispering in the trees.
Delighted at her new freedom, she explored her new kingdom, not caring a whit if she fell and got her clothes dirty. Her mama couldn’t yell at her about it any more. Because she’d run away.
She found a clear pool and it looked perfect for swimming in, and without another thought, she walked up a rock overhang and jumped right in. The water was freezing cold and she came up gasping and coughing. Desperately she struggled towards the edge of the pool and when she finally managed to get to the edge and crawl up the bank, she was shivering violently, trying to cough the cold from her lungs.
She curled up, trying to get warm, but it felt like she had frozen down to her heart. Maybe she should go home.
She weakly pushed herself up and managed to get her shaky feet under her. But when she straightened and looked around, she could barely make anything out. The light was dim and she had no idea where she was. Her previous joy at her freedom rapidly changed to fear as she realized she was very lost, and a fall night was coming. She gripped at her arms, trying to keep the heat in as she staggered forward, just trying to keep moving.
But her steps dragged and her legs felt weak. When her toe caught on a root and she fell to the ground, she crawled to the closest cradle of roots and curled up, unable to stop her tears. She was scared. And she was so cold.
“Mama,” she whispered, wishing more than anything she was there. “Auntie. Unca.” Anyone to help her. Her eyelids felt heavy. “Papa, please.” And then her eyes closed.
She was stirred from the darkness when she felt something heavy and so warm cover her. She tried to open her eyes, head lolling.
“Shhh, it’s alright.” The voice was soft and gruff. A voice she didn’t know. But then a moment later, she felt arms slide under her and lift her from the ground. That managed to wake her up a little further, but the next moment, she was being held against something warm and firm, and despite not knowing the voice or the smell that surrounded her, she felt immeasurably safe.
As the warmth soaked into her frigid limbs, she felt sleep pulling at her. But her insatiable curiosity had her force her eyes open for just a moment, struggling to move her lids enough to see.
She caught sight of a face, the chin above her covered in a short beard, but it was too dark to make out any other features clearly. Except when they looked down at her as they cradled her in their arms and she was able to make out eyes the color of the sky and a smile that told her everything would be alright.
When she next opened her eyes, it was to the sound of her mother screaming frantically for her and the sight of a horse’s muzzle breathing puffs of warm breath onto her face. She sat up, confused, feeling her wet clothes pulling at her skin, as she took in the interior of the barn, a saddle blanket draped across her lap, where she lay nestled on a bed of hay among the horses. The only indication that the night hadn’t been a dream was a small cluster of wildflowers placed inside a whiskey bottle and the memory of sky-colored eyes.
The temptation was strong, to see if the haunting memory of a scruffy face with black hair and eyes the color of the noonday sky was real. But for some reason, the idea of finally knowing didn’t sit right with her, and after one more breath, she nodded towards the silhouette then turned around. “Our little secret right?”
Then she headed back up the alley, stepping around the now whimpering man, and to the main road. When she turned to look back towards the now nearly set sun, her ghost was gone.
When she finally made found her way to the carriage, Mama asked what had taken so long, and she’d just answered with a shrug.
And several nights after they had returned home, JJ woke to a slightly open window, a note that instructed her The best marksmen only need to fire their gun once. Keep it with you, and you’ll always be able to stand your ground, and a revolver. The same revolver the man had threatened her with.
She never again left the house without it.
Something was off. The last few days, JJ felt like there was a looming shadow over her day to day activities. She was still unsettled from the encounter she had that seemed to be haunting her, that seemed to be the start of her unease.
She’d been wandering around the streets of town, savoring the chill on the air as October began to blow across the plains. She hadn’t really been paying attention when she heard a man say, “That’s quite a gun for a pretty girl like you to be toting around.”
She whipped towards the voice, her hand drawing the gun in question without a thought. “What do you want?”
“Easy, easy.” She took in an older man, probably in his mid sixties, holding up his hands in a soothing manner. He was standing at the entrance of an alley, several large paces away, nothing about his presence feeling threatening. As she took in further details, a faded vest and well worn pants, a felt hat that had seen one too many rains, standing uncomfortably, she couldn’t help but feel like his worn face was familiar. Dark shaggy hair hung over dull blue eyes and a rough cut beard covered gaunt cheeks. It was a face that she thought she should recognize, like a memory of a dream, but she wasn’t able to place it.
However, his soothing presence had her lowering the weapon and she holstered it as she continued to look him over. When he saw that she was no longer offering a threat, he lowered his hands before he took a heavy step forward. His gait looked odd, and when he took another step forward, she realized that the lower half of one of his legs wasn’t moving.
He caught her look and gave a wane, weary smile, “Yeah, just a bit of an old wound that’s givin’ me a bit o’ trouble.”
His words echoed in her head. She knew she had heard them before, but she could not pull the memory.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” She paused, then tilted her head slightly, “Was there something you needed?”
The man’s eyes studied her face, before he took another halting step forward, “Would you… Can you come closer? I’d like to get a good look at you.”
Confused, she looked him over for a moment, but as she took in his frail frame and haggard appearance, it was clear that this man was no threat at all. So she closed the distance, putting herself within arm’s length of him.
She could tell that in his prime, he had been a powerful man, with striking features and an intimidating presence. But his day had long since passed, and at the close distance, she could make out tremors as his body fought to stay upright.
He didn’t speak, but just drank in her face, studying her as if to memorize her features. Which was just a foolish notion. But then he moved, slowly raising his hands towards her face.
She flinched away, but then he gave a quiet plea.
The desperation and need in his voice was so palpable that she bit back her qualms and kept still. He gently cupped her face in his hands, palms rough and leathery, but warm. His thumbs brushed her cheeks as he continued to gaze at her. For some reason, as he cradled her face, she felt almost cherished, which was impossible, since he was a stranger.
Then he gave an almost silent sigh before dropping his hands back to his sides.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.
She nodded, still unsure what had just happened or what he was thanking her for, as he took a shaky step back and turned away, not looking back at her as he slowly limped away. She thought she might have seen his shoulders shaking. And then he was gone.
Every day since then, she’d kept an eye out for the man, a strange worry for the stranger having taken root in her. But she found no trace of him. He didn’t seem to have stayed anywhere or spoken with anyone. Those who may have caught a glimpse of him were so unsure of what they’d seen that their words were useless.
She had spent another fruitless day searching for some sign of him, heading out to speak with the outlaying townsfolk, who kept to their farms more than town. But there was still no trace of the man. Frustrated, she made her way home, trying to work out in her head where the man could have come from and where he could have gone.
She was just riding up to the far side of the paddock when a thought occurred to her, and it set her blood thundering through her veins. It was as if he was conjured up from thin air and disappeared again just as quickly. Like he was a ghost.
But the next moment, she heard Ma scream. She was off her horse in a flash, rushing up to the porch where her Mama stood.
“Mama? MAMA?” she wrapped her arms around her mother as the woman stood stock still, the slightest trembling passing through her. JJ looked at her mother’s face, trying to figure out what the matter was, when she noticed that her mother’s focus was over her shoulder. Quickly she turned.
And she too, went still.
For leaning against the porch railing was a propped up rifle, a felt hat that had seen one too many rains resting on top of the barrel. And next to it was a folded up piece of paper and a small posse of wildflowers tied together with twine resting on top.
And in a sudden flash of clarity, JJ realized that she had finally met her ghost, finally seen the face of the presence that had watched over her since she was a little girl. Then her mother stepped forward, and her whole world was shattered.
The still trembling woman approached the hat and very, very gently, lifted it from its perch, looking down at it with an unreadable expression. Then she ran her fingertips softly across the brim and whispered the words that ensured that she treasured the gifts laid out in the setting sun, bearing the well oiled rifle and the felt hat that had seen too many rains with pride for the rest of her life. Words that were whispered as if they were sacred to her, holy things of both awe and fear, instilling a sudden grief in her for a man she’d never known and an abrupt understanding of exactly who her ghost had been.