A lonely young woman in need of a husband; two brothers caught in a trap. One finds love, and the other that the tree of self-knowledge bears costly fruit.
Response to an R-forum challenge
NB: Contains scenes of a sexually explicit nature.
Rated: MA WC 25,000
Mark of the Beast
A few stray snowflakes drifted against a gray sky as the wagon drew to a halt.
“Listen hard, girl,” said the woman driving, pushing the reins into the reluctant hands of her younger companion. “I’m going to take the shortcut over the rocks, head those two fellers off before they reach the creek. I want you to drive on real slow.” She picked up the rifle that lay on the wagon seat beside her. “I’ll be back with you before you reach them.”
As she jumped down from the seat, with a nimbleness that defied her fifty seven years, the younger woman made a failed attempt to catch her arm. “Oma, please don’t do this!”
Her grandmother fixed her with a stern frown. “I’m doing it for you, girl. With all your whining and sniveling about Abel Thurlow, I thought you’d be pleased! I’m going to bag you a fine, rich cowboy, so quit the bellyaching and do as I tell you!”
The young woman watched in helpless apprehension as the broad figure of her grandmother headed with deft determination up the rocky slope, away from the road. The old woman’s shapeless tan coat and her dun-colored hat soon disappeared into the dull gray-brown tones of the bleak October day, and the girl waited, shivering intermittently, until her grandmother was gone from sight and nothing moved in the whole circle of landscape around her except for the few small drifting snowflakes. It was only when one of those happened to land on her eyelash that she finally stirred, shrugged herself down into her own faded coat, adjusted her grip on the reins, and nudged the old horse that pulled the cart.
Her mind was all on the two men. She had seen them in town while she hovered aimlessly outside the mercantile, her mind bored with the dullness of waiting. Oma was in the saloon. The saloon was not normally a place for women, but no one in Redwater had ever counted Oma a woman and Kitty had yet to meet a man –- or a woman — with the courage to gainsay her grandmother in anything.
“I’m as strong as most of ’em; I can outshoot most of ’em; I can drink ’em all under the table, and I sure as heck have more brains than any of ’em!” Oma would brag on the nine mile return journey from their monthly excursion into the dreary little mining town that was the furthest Kitty had ever traveled.
Even for a girl with no experience of the world, Redwater struck Kitty as a dismal, run down place. Most of the mining claims thereabouts had started to run dry a year or so back, and the town, which had never quite managed to reach the peak of its potential, had already begun to take on the sense of a place past its best. Fraying at the corners; fading like an armchair left too long in the sun.
Once she wouldn’t have been bored. Once there had been Sapphire to talk to during the tedious hours her grandma would be occupied in the saloon. Sapphie, in her shiny blue satin and her flaming hair, like a bright nugget in a bed of silt. But now Sapphie was gone and there was no one but the slouching miners, as worn out and dried up as the mines they worked. The handful of hard-bitten women who lived around the town rarely showed their faces out of doors, and they all avoided her grandma. Even though those townswomen were hardly fine ladies, they still looked down their noses at Oma –- or they were afraid of her — and because of Oma, they avoided Kitty too.
Which was why she noticed the two strangers. Strangers were rare in Redwater, and it was even rarer that their appearances coincided with her own.
It was the laughter that caught her attention. She’d been hovering outside the shabby mercantile, her mind half occupied by what she would buy if she were ever to possess any money of her own. She’d long harbored a secret dream to own a pair of satin slippers like Sapphie had worn. She had no idea where such things were sold. Certainly not in Redwater. She imagined they’d come wrapped in fine tissue in a white box tied with a silk ribbon. Sometimes she wondered if she liked the idea of the box as much as the slippers. She was just contemplating the reality of her own mud-caked, hob-nailed boots when she heard the laughter.
Her head jerked up with surprise. It wasn’t that folk in Redwater never laughed. The miners stumbling out of the saloon in rowdy groups often laughed; raucous drunken laughter that made Kitty shrink down inside herself. But this laugh, although it belonged to a man, was light, almost a giggle; a strangely delicious sound that made Kitty want to smile too. She looked up to see who was responsible for this unexpected burst of merriment, and there were the two strangers. A tall, round-faced fellow, as big as a horse; and his companion, the owner of the infectious giggle, younger and smaller. They were grinning together, teasing each other as they made their way to their horses. The big man had on a woolen coat of reddish brown but the smaller man –- little older than a boy really — wore cheerful blue plaid, an unexpected splash of color between the drab buildings. The high-pitched giggle spilled its music once more across the street. The big man pulled himself into the saddle with an agility that defied his bulk, but the younger man, ignoring his stirrup, sprang lightly onto the back of his pretty paint horse.
Kitty’s heart did a little leap of its own. She had never seen anyone mount a horse that way, and that, and the giggle, and the sheer vivacity that emanated from the young stranger, even across the divide of the dirty street, sent a jolt of unexpected delight through her. For a brief moment, it was as though a sunbeam had pierced the threatening sky of a premature winter and gilded the dingy town with luminescent gold.
Then the two men were riding away, their pack horse bringing up the rear. Kitty stepped out into the road to watch their departing backs. They were still leaning their heads together, laughing easily in each others’ company as they went. A vague sense of disappointment tugged at Kitty as she wandered back to the mercantile window, all dreams of satin slippers pushed from her mind.
And then, although it was still early, Oma hurried out of the saloon and across the street.
“Did you see those two boys?” There was liquor on her grandmother’s breath and a flame of fixation in her eyes.
“They’re heading to Virginia City. Max told me all about them. Their name’s Cartwright. They own a big ranch called the Ponderosa. Real big, Max said. They’re rich, Kitty my girl. Real rich!”
“They looked… nice,” said Kitty, and Oma gave her a stare that was half puzzling, half pitying.
“Yeah. Rich is my kind of nice,” agreed Oma. “How do you fancy getting out of this dirt hole, Kitty, and taking up residence in a grand ranch house?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Ponderosa, girl, that’s what I mean!”
Kitty looked blank. Oma clicked her teeth and shook her head in exasperation. “I’m meaning, my girl, that we should catch you one of them nice Cartwright boys.”
“Me?” Kitty’s eyes widened in disbelief.
They had reached the wagon. “Of course you, you idiot girl. They ain’t gonna want to marry me now, are they?” Oma gave a low chuckle. “Though I reckon I could still give ’em a fair run for their money.”
“They’ve gone,” said Kitty, pointing out the obvious and feeling familiar tendrils of anxiety wrapping themselves around her insides. She pulled herself into her seat, her mind replaying the way the boy had swung himself so neatly into that saddle.
“Yeah. And we’re going after ’em. That big feller, now he’d be a real catch!”
“The big feller?” said Kitty, unable to keep the note of surprise out of her voice. She frowned at her own distraction. What was she saying, for heaven’s sake! First she had to find out what on earth was going on in her grandmother’s devious mind. Kitty had had plenty of experience of Oma’s scheming designs and they were always fraught with peril.
“Oma, what are you going to do?” She fought to keep the apprehension out of her voice but she knew her grandmother had detected it. The old woman gave a wicked smile.
“Those two boys don’t know it yet, but they’re about to be bushwhacked.”
So here she was, alone in the wagon, helpless as ever. She was still shivering, and not just from the evening chill.
When the gunfire rang out, sharp and close in the wintry air, she leaped several inches off the hard wooden seat, even though she had been expecting it. She hunched down, her stomach churning horribly, stupidly close to tears. No wonder Oma lost patience with her! Miserably, she drove on, not wanting to think about the two happy young men she’d seen leaving the town only an hour before. She knew better than to hope that her grandmother might have missed her target.
Ten minutes later, and the old woman was waving at her from the ridge. Kitty halted the wagon and Oma slid down the rocky slope with the ease of someone half her age.
“Well?” said Kitty, when Oma had heaved herself back onto the wagon and settled the rifle back in its usual place beside her. She hoped her grandmother didn’t notice the fear in her eyes or hear the heavy hammering of her heart.
“Exactly as I planned it!” said Oma, reaching over and taking the reins back into her own hands. Breathing heavily from her sprint over the ridge, she still managed a satisfied smile. “I got the boy. In the leg. I don’t reckon there’s any lasting damage. We should be up with them pretty soon. If you can’t hold it together, Kitty my girl, then you’d just best keep your mouth shut all together. You understand?”
Kitty nodded dumbly, her eyes and her heart full of dread.
Hoss leaned out from the small jumble of rocks and squinted cautiously at the rocky hillside in front of him. Nothing moved but for the tiny haphazard flakes of snow drifting randomly in all directions, too fine even to settle.
“Reckon they’re gone,” he muttered, half to himself and half to his brother, prone on the ground behind him. Keeping his grip on the rifle in his hand, he slid across to Joe’s side. “Hey, Little Joe, how you doing?”
Joe, teeth digging into his bottom lip, opened eyes that had been screwed tight shut. Sweat stood out all over his face despite the wintry chill. A crimson bloom surrounded the dark hole in his left thigh, his right hand clutched protectively at his left arm.
“Just great!” he whispered in a voice hoarse with pain. “Did you get them?”
“I don’t know. Don’t think so. But it’s gone real quiet out there. I reckon they’ve run off.”
Joe lifted a cynical eyebrow. “Scared away by the strength of the opposition, I suppose?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Hoss forced an encouraging smile. Tugging at the scarf around his neck, he jerked his head at Joe’s leg. “I’m gonna tie up that hole, Joe. Try and stop the bleeding.”
Joe gritted his teeth. Hoss knotted the makeshift bandage and threw an anxious glance at his brother’s left arm. Unbuttoning Joe’s coat he ran his hand over the injured shoulder. The telltale lump was unmistakable. Joe yelped as his fingers found it. His brother had been flung right out of the saddle by that bullet in his leg and he’d hit the ground with a bone-crunching thump. That shoulder was well and truly dislocated!
“You reckon you can ride, Joe?”
“I can try.”
Hoss scanned the hillside one more time then risked poking his head and shoulders around the rocks. Nothing. He frowned. Why would anyone take a few pot shots at them and then run away? A few more moments and he got fully to his feet, his eyes continuing to search for any signs of movement. Still watching and puzzling, he went to retrieve the horses.
The moment Hoss tried to help his brother up from the ground, it was apparent that Joe wasn’t going to be riding anywhere under his own steam. Not that he didn’t make a valiant attempt, but the pain from his shoulder and the alarming quantity of blood soaking the whole top half of his trouser leg, overcame him halfway to his feet, and he slumped in a dead faint. Hoss lowered him carefully back to the ground. He was going to have to find something more substantial to bandage Joe’s leg and see if he could get that shoulder back where it belonged if they were going to out of here. He raised his face to the sky and his lips tightened. The specks of snow right now amounted to nothing, but there was a scent in the air, an ominous weight pressing down on the sky. Dang his luck! It was only October, yet it felt like midwinter already!
He felt the rumble of the cartwheels before he heard them. A wagon trundled around a bend in the road, heading in their direction. He paused in the process of shredding his own spare shirt to make dressings, and raised his hand to wave down the driver.
“You got trouble, mister?” said the driver of the vehicle. Hoss was surprised to find he was looking into the faces of two women, one older, one young.
“It’s my brother, ma’am. He’s been shot.”
“Shot!” The white-haired woman raised her eyebrows. “Where is he?”
“He’s Just over there ma’am, behind that rock.”
The woman indicated the wagon behind her. “I’ll shift those sacks. You put your brother in there.” She jerked her head at the sky. “We need to get under cover before that breaks. Our place is just a couple of miles from here. We’ll take him there.”
Hoss gave his hat a quick nudge in acknowledgement of her kindness. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m sure glad you happened along!”
The girl in the front of the wagon blanched when Hoss emerged from behind the rocks with his brother’s bloodstained body limp in his arms.
“It’s all right, Miss. He ain’t dead. I just got to stop this bleeding.”
“Here,” said the girl, her voice little more than a faint whisper, “take this.” And she dragged off the blanket that had wrapped her legs against the cold.
“Kitty, help catch those horses,” said the old woman, and the girl jumped down from her seat, as if she was relieved to have something distract her from the sight of so much gore.
Hoss laid Joe in the wagon and went back for the torn shirt. As he climbed up beside his brother, Joe was stirring again, his face already puckering.
“Hey, little brother!” said Hoss, arranging the girl’s blanket around Joe. “Looks like luck’s on our side after all. We’ve been rescued!”
The sound of the boy’s groans as the wagon bumped and jolted over the uneven surface of the road, was almost more than Kitty could bear. Every now and again she would glance behind her and see his face, white and twisted, and her stomach would flip with guilt and the terrible reality of what her grandmother had done. The big man bent over him, his own face pale and creased as if he was sharing his brother’s suffering. Kitty remembered how they’d laughed and joked together as they’d gotten ready to leave town. She remembered how the boy’s laugh had lifted her spirits, just for a moment. Now he was lying behind her, bleeding horribly and moaning in unbearable pain. The knowledge brought her close to tears. Only the fear of her grandmother’s wrath kept her from giving into her misery.
“See to the horses,” Oma growled at her as they pulled into the dirt yard in front of their house. Kitty nodded, relieved to be alone. As she led the pinto into the barn, she leaned her head against his neck and whispered, “Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
By the time she’d unhitched, unsaddled, rubbed down and fed all four horses, there was no sign of the two strangers in the main room of the house. Only Oma was there, rummaging in the drawers of the dresser. She hoped her grandmother wouldn’t notice that she’d been crying. Oma never normally missed a trick, but today she was busy.
“I’ve put those boys in my bedroom,” said Oma. “I’ll bunk in with you.” She set two of her sharpest knives on the dresser top and looked round at Kitty. “Did you bring the supplies in?”
Kitty paled at the sight of the knives. “No. I’ll do that now. What are they for?”
Oma rolled her eyes. “Pull yourself together, girl! There’s a bullet in that boy’s leg that’s got to come out. Pour some water into that bowl, will you? And fetch some more towels from the chest.”
Kitty poured and fetched and then she went back outside to unload the heavy sacks, grunting as she hefted them off the back of the wagon, trying not to look at the dark bloodstains that had soaked into the planks of the wagon bed. She put the animal feed in the barn, and the flour, sugar, potatoes and other supplies in the storehouse. Then, with perspiration still damp across her forehead, she headed back inside.
The door to the Oma’s small bedroom was ajar. Kitty could hear voices; Oma’s and the big man’s. Then she heard the boy’s wavering cry, high-pitched and desperate, and her stomach knotted. She tried to imagine what they were doing to him to make him scream that way. He cried out again, the howl of a creature in torment. She waited, hovering uncertainly by the stove, unsure what she should do next.
The bedroom door opened and Oma stood in the opening. She saw Kitty and gestured at the table. “Fetch those towels here.”
Kitty picked up the cotton towels and hurried to the bedroom door. “How is he?”
Oma held out her hands impatiently. Behind her, Kitty could see the broad back of the big man, bending over the bed. Only the head and shoulders of the injured boy were visible to her from where she stood. Sweat glistened on his skin in the pale light from the window. His eyes were closed, almost as though he slept, his lips slightly parted, and his damp hair clung in untidy curls around his face. He looked younger than ever.
“He’s better now we’ve put his shoulder back where it belongs.” Oma’s face gave away nothing, her voice coolly matter of fact. “But that bullet doesn’t want to come out. Hoss is just about to have another try.”
Hoss, thought Kitty. What a strange name! Yet it suited the huge man. She looked back at the face of the younger one. He looked exhausted, she thought. All that pain and it was all Oma’s doing!
Oma took the towels from her hands, turning away and pushing the door to behind her. In that instant, the big man –- Hoss -– lifted the sheet that covered his brother and moved down to the foot of the bed. For less than a second, between his moving aside and the door closing, the boy’s naked body lay exposed to Kitty’s view.
The door closed. Oma and Hoss would not even know she had seen, the moment had been so brief; yet she stood there, numb.
His nakedness shocked her. She thought of the men she had seen, stripped to the waist as they worked. Old men, for the most part, with gnarled, wiry limbs and bony backs, their chests as grey and bewhiskered as their wrinkled faces. Yet the boy’s skin was smooth with the firmness of youth, dyed brown by the sun across his shoulders and chest and down to his taut-muscled belly, while his legs and his hips were creamy pale, except where the blood-stained towel lay on his thigh. Beneath the flat angularity of his hips, she had caught a hint of his firm-fleshed haunches, and almost, she couldn’t breathe.
It was that part of him, the pale, secret part of him that even the sun didn’t touch, that made her heart race and her insides tremble.
She turned from the bedroom and crossed to the stove, her face burning at the memory of what she had witnessed. A vision burned into her brain like an indelible tattoo. Make supper, she told herself firmly. Focus on something else. Keep busy. It was wrong that she had even seen him so exposed, so vulnerable. She must put the image from her mind. Fetching onions and potatoes from the store, she set them on the table. Knife in hand, she sat down, but instead of peeling vegetables, she found herself staring blankly at the scrubbed pine and seeing only the young man’s naked body.
She couldn’t ignore it. With a jolt of guilt that once more brought the blood rushing to her face, she realized she didn’t want to ignore it. Something had happened inside her the instant she laid eyes on him. Her existence — never monumental even to her own mind — felt suddenly doubly small and drab, and yet, in exposing its own dreary pettiness, life had unexpectedly revealed a hidden mystery, a beauty, a brief glimpse of something before only half imagined.
She let herself remember. She stared at the table and recalled every tiny detail. The slender, chiseled hardness of his body, the sun-brown muscles of his bent left arm in stark contrast with the white flatness of his narrow hips; the mat of curly, dark hair springing at the base of his firm belly, drawing her gaze, fixing her gaze, on the astonishing, undreamt of reality of manhood.
And how could she not have noticed, after all? So brazen, so alien. Nothing in her imagination could have prepared her for its strangeness. Not like the rest of him at all. Darker and softer. She thought of ripe plums and almost giggled. Ripe plums in a bag. Balls, men called them, she told herself, shocked at her own daring, but plums were closer. And the soft protuberance slumped above, wrinkled like loose calfskin. She had never imagined anything like that. Remembering it now, a small shiver passed through her. An inexplicable desire spread inside her to see more of him.
She glanced back at the bedroom door knowing it was wrong to wish for such a thing but wishing it anyway, and the door opened. Oma appeared. Flustered, Kitty dropped her eyes to the potato in her hand. Her knife flew through the skin in sudden intense concentration.
“Leave that for now, Kitty, and put these into soak.” Oma dumped a bowl of crumpled, crimson-soaked towels on the table beside her. The boy’s blood-stained trousers were folded on the top.
In the small wash house, she tipped the bloodied towels into a tub of lye and took up the pants. The blood had made a terrible mess of them, and there was a jagged blackened hole where the bullet had gone through, but she could still see the creases behind the knee and across the crotch where his legs had moved and bent. She remembered him swinging into the saddle. Then she fastened the topmost button and imagined it fastened over that small, neat navel, at the point where the brown skin met the white.
She dropped the pants swiftly into the milky water as the memory turned sour and she remembered, not the buttons on the boy’s trousers, but on Abel’s, straining over his hideous, jutting bulge as she’d tried to wriggle her way out from between his protruding belly and the wall behind her. One hairy hand kneaded her breast while the other gripped her wrist and pressed it to the hard lump beneath his paunch. Sick with fear and revulsion, something Sapphie had once told her -– gray eyes burning with fervor — slipped into her consciousness: “If all else fails, grab the balls and twist!”
So Kitty had grabbed, and twisted, as hard as her fingers would grip. Abel had gone red and then white, and made strange noises before falling back, hiccupping curses, his hands clutching, almost comically, between his legs.
When she’d told Oma about Abel, her grandmother had given her a withering look. “What do you expect?” she’d said. “He’s a man, girl. Men have needs.”
Kitty should have known she wouldn’t get any sympathy from Oma. After all, it was Oma who’d encouraged Abel to pursue her. “Wooing,” Oma called it. Abel Thurlow was one of Oma’s drinking companions. He owned one of the few successful mines outside Redwater. Owned it, didn’t work it. That made him a man of some standing in that desperate little town. Abel Thurlow was considered by many to be a ‘good catch’.
“You’d better get used to it, girl,” said Oma. “When you’re married, there’ll be plenty of that.”
That? What did Oma mean by that? Whatever it was, it sent an involuntary shiver of dread through Kitty. Oma never dwelt long on anything intimate. Not even when Kitty was twelve and discovered, in horror, the bleeding between her legs. After she had finally plucked up courage to confide in Oma, the old woman had shrugged in a way that told Kitty she was making a fuss over nothing. “That’s just your monthly curse,” said Oma with a flat finality. “You’ll get used to it.”
Get used to it; Oma’s advice for life. “Life’s tough!” she would tell Kitty again and again, as if Kitty had somehow managed to miss that fact.
The day Abel Thurlow died, Kitty went out into the barn and wept with relief. He’d been playing poker in the Lucky Strike and toppled off his chair. When his friends went to his aid, he was already dead. Oma, who was one of those friends, had been intensely irritated by his inconsiderate demise. With Abel gone, she grumbled, they would have to lower their expectations in the hunt for a suitable husband for Kitty. Lower, wondered Kitty; was there anything lower than a cockroach?
Back in the kitchen, she took the leavened dough from the proving shelf where she’d left it before they went into town. It was strange to think that while she had been mixing and kneading that morning, she’d had no idea of what was about to come; how life would be changed by the evening; how she would be changed.
Kitty had very little experience of men, but instinct told her these strangers were an entirely different species to Abel. She cut up the remains of a joint of ham to add to the vegetable stew simmering on the stove. Oma would want to impress. There were no more sharp cries from the bedroom now. She wondered if the bullet was out and whether the boy had passed out from pain or was simply asleep. Just thinking about him made the little shiver run through her middle again.
After a time, Oma came out and took some more red-stained cloths out to the wash house. Kitty got on with the supper. When Oma came back, she sniffed at the stew and gave a nod of approval at the loaf Kitty had just brought out of the oven.
“How is he?” asked Kitty.
Oma shrugged. “Hard to say. Leg’s a mess. Bullet hit the bone, but I reckon he’ll live.” She nodded at the bedroom door. “You go in there and tell Hoss Cartwright to come on out and have some supper. And,” said Oma, putting extra emphasis on the single word, “give him a sweet smile.”
Kitty looked blank.
“Smile,” repeated Oma. “Don’t give him your sour face. Try and look pretty. Play up to him, girl.”
Kitty flushed. “Oma!”
Oma narrowed her pale blue eyes. “Don’t play the innocent! You know what this is all about. I’ve gone to deal of trouble to arrange this for you so you do your part, d’you hear me, Kitty? D’you want to end up scratching a living with some dead beat miner with nothing but holes in his pockets? No? Well then, this is your chance. You’ll be twenty three this Christmas, girl. An old maid before you know it. What man’s going to want you then? You may not be pretty, but you’re passable enough. And you can cook. That’s always a bonus in a man’s eyes. So get in there and make Hoss Cartwright feel special.”
Hoss Cartwright’s round face looked wrung out, thought Kitty, as she pushed open the door and went into the bedroom. His hair was awry and his shirt was streaked with blood. His brother lay in the bed, decently covered now, eyes fast shut, breathing evenly. She could see the edge of a broad strip of linen running across his chest, just visible above the quilt, knotted over his right shoulder. It looked very white against the smooth brownness of his skin.
Kitty had no idea how to ‘look pretty’. But she knew how to smile, and somehow it wasn’t difficult to smile at Hoss Cartwright. For a huge man, he had a gentle presence. He scraped to his feet as she entered the room, dipping his head almost bashfully in her direction.
“I’ve made some supper.” Kitty couldn’t stop her eyes from flicking to the young man in the bed.
“Thank you, miss,” said the big Cartwright man.
“Kitty,” said Kitty, dragging her eyes back to his face and smiling again.
“Thank you, Miss Kitty,” Hoss corrected, and smiled back. Instantly his face relaxed. He had clear blue eyes and something of the child about him, despite his size.
Kitty nodded at the bed. She hoped her face wasn’t revealing the nervous tingle in her blood as she gazed at the boy’s sleeping face. “How is he now?”
“We’ve done just about everything we can. The rest is up to him.”
“What’s his name?”
“Joe, Miss. I call him Little Joe.”
She gave a small frown. “Why?”
“He’s my little brother, that’s all. There’s three of us and he’s the youngest.”
“What’s your other brother called?”
“And is he younger than you too?”
“No, Miss Kitty. He’s the oldest. Ain’t you got no sisters or brothers?”
She shook her head.
There seemed to be nothing more to say then, but she knew Oma would be hovering just outside the room, no doubt listening to every word, so she made another effort.
“Do you want me to sit with your brother while you go and eat?”
Hoss looked down at his brother and shook his head. “Oh, I don’t reckon he’ll wake up for a while yet, Miss Kitty. He’s about all in.”
“We’ll leave the door open,” she said. “It’ll keep the room warm and you’ll know straight away if he wakes up.”
He nodded. She thought he seemed almost nervous. She followed his eyes down to the boy’s tousled head. Joe, she thought to herself, trying his name for size. She tried to imagine him laughing again, the way he had earlier, but he looked so silent, so still.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Hoss. He was saying it to reassure her. Had her face given away her thoughts?
Kitty had little experience of making conversation with strangers. She couldn’t think of a thing more to say. Her mind was empty of everything other than the knowledge that, beneath that quilt was the mystery she had glimpsed earlier, naked and real, perfect in its serenity.
They sat at the table. Kitty ladled steaming stew into bowls and set the bread on the table.
“Thank you for your kindness, ma’am,” said Hoss, inclining his head in Oma’s direction. “And you too, Miss Kitty.”
“We’d do the same for anyone,” said Oma, dipping bread into her bowl. She raised her head to her granddaughter. “I was saying to Hoss, Kitty, it was probably them renegade Indians as shot his brother, don’t you reckon? They’ve been giving the sheriff the runaround for weeks now.”
Kitty concentrated hard on her stew.
Hoss frowned as he dipped his spoon in his bowl. “Soon as Joe’s on the mend, I’ll go in to town and talk to the sheriff. Maybe I can help track them down.”
“Well, it ain’t safe to travel on your own. I’ll go in with you.”
Hoss looked aghast. “Oh no, ma’am. I couldn’t put a lady in danger.”
In spite of herself, Kitty was amused. She wondered when anyone had last referred to Oma as ‘a lady’.
Oma gave a snort. “Those Indians wouldn’t dare shoot me, mister! They know as how my hide’s so tough, it’d turn their bullets!”
“Where do you come from, Mr. Cartwright?” asked Kitty, desperate to turn the conversation away from who’d shot Joe.
“Aw, Miss Kitty, call me Hoss. Most everyone does.” Hoss broke off a lump of bread and dipped it into his stew. “My pa’s got a big ranch just over by Virginia City. About a week’s ride west of here.”
“What’s it like there?”
Kitty watched Hoss’s big face soften as he thought about his home. He talked about a lake, snow-capped mountains, forests of deep green pine. As he warmed to his subject, the shyness melted out of his face and his voice grew eager.
“A thousand square miles!” Oma let out a low whistle. “That’s a heck of a lot of work!”
“Yeah, I reckon.” Hoss took a mouthful of bread. “But we don’t mind it all ourselves, ma’am. We have plenty of help.”
“You’d need plenty of help! Kitty and I struggle just to keep this place together!”
Hoss blue eyes widened in sympathy. “Yeah. Must be tough, just the two of you.”
Kitty saw his eyes flick to her face. No doubt he was wondering why she didn’t have a husband to help out. She felt herself redden even though she had no idea of his real train of thought. She rose from the table. “More stew, Hoss?”
“I wouldn’t say no, Miss.”
“Oh, we manage,” said Oma, picking up on Hoss’s comment. “’Course it’s tough on Kitty. Not much excitement for a young woman stuck out here alone in the wilds.”
Kitty’s face burned. She hardly dared turned back from the stove for fear they would see how red she was. She refilled Hoss’s bowl and replaced it in front of him, keeping her eyes fixed firmly downwards. Then she turned her head away and looked at the window. “Look,” she said. “It’s starting to snow properly.”
“He’s a fine man, Kitty!” said Oma, later that night, brushing out her silvery white hair in front of Kitty’s mirror. “Strong. Imagine having a man like that to look after this farm.”
Kitty drew up her knees beneath the blankets and nibbled nervously at her bottom lip. “I thought you said I’d go and live on the Ponderosa.” She knew Oma would hear the resentment in her voice.
“What’s the matter with you, Kitty? A man like that is just what we need around this place. Strong, kind, polite. And rich! What more could you want?”
“Why does it have to be the big one?” Kitty laid her head on her knees and pouted her lip. “What about his brother?”
Oma blew a little puff of dismissive air from her lips. Laying down the hairbrush, she climbed into bed beside Kitty.
“He’s just a boy!” She settled herself down and hitched the quilt to her chin. “I watched those two in the saloon, kitty, and that young one’s not the settling down type, believe me. You need someone steady and reliable, my girl, not some little dandy with big eyes who’ll be tempted by every pretty piece of skirt that passes him by. Mark my words, Kitty, I know all about men!”
How did Oma know all about men, wondered Kitty? Sapphie had certainly known. Was Kitty the only one in the world who knew nothing? The only man she had ever come close to knowing –- in an intimate way at least -– was Abel Thurlow, and he was dead. And while Sapphie had told her a lot, that wasn’t the same as knowing it for herself.
Not that she wasn’t grateful to Sapphie. She would always, always be grateful. Sapphie had been… well, like the sister and mother she had never had.
From the beginning, it had been a strange friendship. Kitty had just turned sixteen, increasingly aware of a vague sense of dissatisfaction about her whole existence. It wasn’t the hard work of daily living or even the loneliness of her isolated life that had prompted these doubts. It was something more nebulous; a sense of grayness closing in from ahead, like mist on a drizzly day. Little comments and asides from Oma about her future; hints about how she was old enough to be married; how she must find a husband before she was ‘past it’. Suddenly every anonymous man in Redwater had a face, and, worse, a personality. Kitty had never really thought much about Redwater. It was just there. The only town she had ever known. Now she saw it through the eyes of a stranger. It was ugly and coarse and it bred ugly, coarse men. They’d always stunk, and drunk too much, and cursed and spat. Now she felt it personally. Faced with the reality of marriage to one of those spitting, swearing, whiskey-soaked creatures, she began to withdraw into a shell of revulsion and despair.
And then she met Sapphie.
It was outside the Lucky Strike on one of their routine visits to town. Oma was in her usual place, inside the bar, no doubt drinking the miners under the table, and Kitty, tired of mooching without purpose around the dismal streets, had rebelled, and sat down on the sidewalk outside the saloon. She knew Oma would be angry to find her there. It wasn’t proper for a lady to stand around on a street on her own, especially right outside a bar. But Kitty’s impatience with the whole scenario of her life made her defiant that day. So she hunched on the edge of the street and stared moodily at the dirt and the few passers-by.
She saw the bright blue satin slippers first, and then with a jolt of shock, the bare ankles and calves, before her eyes reached the shiny satin and lace of a dress that seemed barely designed to cover the body of the young woman wearing it.
“That your grandma in there?” The young woman had red hair and scarlet lips. Even with all the rouge, her face couldn’t have been redder than Kitty’s at that moment.
“She’s some woman, ain’t she?” said the satin lady, and she sank down on the ground beside Kitty. “Have a lemon drop,” she said, and offered a twist of brown paper in Kitty’s direction. Kitty took one, trying not to stare at the way the woman’s breasts were squeezing themselves over a neckline scooped so low, Kitty couldn’t help but wonder how they stayed inside at all.
“My name’s Sapphire,” she said. “Call me Sapphie if you like. I’ve seen you here before.”
Kitty found her voice at last. “I have to wait for my grandmother.”
You looked lonely.” Sapphire wrinkled her nose and looked out across the street. “Ain’t much female company around here, is there?”
“No,” said Kitty. But she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Sapphie didn’t seem to mind the silence.
“I like your shoes,” said Kitty at last.
Sapphie stretched out her bare legs in front of her and wiggled her toes inside the shiny blue satin. “They’re too small. Charlie had them ordered in from somewhere.”
“Do you work here?”
Sapphie turned her face to look at Kitty and their eyes met for the first time. Kitty saw amusement in the other woman’s face. “You don’t think I dress like this out of personal taste?”
Kitty might have felt silly for asking such a question, but Sapphie’s laugh shrugged away the embarrassment. “Yeah, I work here. For my sins.”
Kitty wasn’t sure why she said what she said next. Certainly the idea had never entered her head before that moment, but once she said it, she wondered why she’d never thought of it before. “I’d like to do what you do.”
“Oh no!” said Sapphie with such feeling, Kitty forgot about her outrageous attire and saw her properly for the first time. “You wouldn’t!”
Kitty looked at the satin slippers and unconsciously slid her own heavy boots under her skirt. The niggling sense of discontent that had hung over her like a cold that wouldn’t be shaken, suddenly intensified and jabbed her in the middle with a sharp elbow.
“I just want to get away from here! Do something different!”
Sapphie regarded her in solemn silence for a few moments, then she held out the lemon drops again and said, “What’s your name?”
“Do you know what I do, Kitty?”
Kitty felt silly again. She had a vague idea of what a saloon girl did, mainly gleaned from her grandmother’s disdainful comments, but did she really know? She gave a hesitant shrug. “You entertain the men. In the saloon.”
“Yeah.” Sapphie nodded. “I entertain them.” She lowered her voice and cast a surreptitious glance behind her. “I sit on their grubby laps and they grope me. And I flirt and I tease, and I stroke them. And I let them do whatever their seedy little imaginations tell them to do.”
Kitty flinched. She bit her lip. “But you get paid!” Even to her own ears, she sounded desperate.
Sapphie nodded again. “Oh, yeah, I get paid. But it’s not the life for you, Kitty.”
At the time, Kitty had been put out by Sapphie’s dismissal of her potential, but later, when she’d had time to think about it properly, she knew Sapphie was right. She stood in front of her mirror that night, before she slid her nightgown over her head, and imagined herself wearing a short satin dress like Sapphie’s and the very thought made her blush to the roots of her hair. Her mirror wasn’t very big. She could never see more than a small section of herself at a time, even if she stood right across the other side of the room. She did her best, angling it first so that she could see her own breasts. They seemed low and heavy compared to Sapphie’s bursting mounds. She crossed her arms over her chest and squeezed them upwards, and was pleasantly surprised with the result. It was more difficult to look at her legs. She had to stand on a chair and turn this way and that, and then she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Her legs looked… well, like legs. She tried to imagine a saloon full of men ogling them and felt slightly sick. She climbed down from the chair and the mirror caught her hips in profile, and the roundness of her buttocks. She ran her hand over the curve. Tightening her fingers, she grabbed a handful of the soft flesh. Staring at the reflection, she tried to imagine the hand belonging to a man. The thought sent a small shiver of fear through her belly. She reached for her nightdress and turned back to her dresser so she could set her mirror straight once again, and there, reflected back at her, was her middle, from the bottom of her ribs to the top of her thighs; a disembodied torso filling the scrolled gold frame of the mirror.
For a brief moment it was as if she saw the body of someone else; the curve of the white belly leading down to the triangle of smoky golden hair and the ivory swell of her thighs. She thought of Abel and the bulge in his trousers. She tried to conjure the image of a man forcing his… his thing in there. It made her want to cry. And that was when she knew Sapphie had been right.
Snow lay thick on the ground by morning. Kitty took some scraps to the chickens and the snow rose over her boots. She came back in, stamping and shaking loose snow from her hems, to find Oma and Hoss eating eggs at the table.
Kitty sat down with them.
“How’s your brother this morning?”
Hoss looked up from his plate. “It’s hard to say, Miss Kitty. He had a bad night, with the pain and all, and I don’t like the look of that hole in his leg. What he really needs is a doctor.”
Kitty could tell he and Oma had already had the conversation regarding the lack of a doctor in Redwater. Until a few years ago, they’d had Doctor Roberts, but he’d died, under the wheels of a runaway cart. But then, everybody said he was a bad doctor; killed more people than he cured.
“Can I do anything?”
He gave her a grateful smile, but the anxiety over his brother stayed in his eyes. “I don’t know what we can do, other than wait and see.”
After breakfast, he went back to sit with Joe. Kitty and Oma got on with their chores around the farm, although many of them were hampered by the snow. Around mid morning, Kitty came back to the house, squeezing her blue fingers under her armpits to try and restore some warmth to them. She put the coffee on to heat and poured a cup for herself. Then, remembering Oma’s instructions, she poured another for Hoss.
The bedroom door stood open. It was the only way to keep the room warm. Hoss was standing by the window, gazing out at the snow, a distant look in his gentle eyes. Kitty looked at Joe and felt a small tightening of anxiety in her chest. Hoss had been right. He didn’t look good. His skin was clammy and his closed eyelids bluish. They flickered as she watched him, and he turned his head with a restless jerk.
“Thanks, Miss Kitty,” said Hoss, seeing the coffee.
“He’s starting a fever.”
He nodded, his face sober. “Yeah, that wound’s turning bad. I made a real mess trying to get that bullet out.”
Kitty went back to the kitchen. She found a small bowl. In the store cupboard, she took the lid off the honey jar and spooned the thick golden liquid into the bowl.
“Here,” she said, holding out the bowl to Hoss. “Put this on the wound. Smear it on thickly.”
He reached out his hand. She watched him breathe in the heady scent. “Honey? You sure?”
The words found their own way out of her mouth. “Shall I do it?”
How had she dared be so bold? Her heart began to race. What if said yes? She felt almost dizzy at the thought.
“Oh no, Miss!” The color rose up in his cheeks then, and she blushed harder. What must he think of her? “I can do it fine. It’s just…”
She nodded her face still burning. “I… I’m sure it will help,” she stammered, and backed swiftly from the room.
Oma was pleased when she came back to the house and heard about the honey. “Good thinking, girl,” she said, nodding. “You should stay here in the house, be close by to help him when he needs you. Bake him a pie or a cake or something.”
So Kitty stayed in the house. She baked a walnut cake and made a pie for supper. She took a slice of the cake into Hoss with more coffee, and she could see how he liked it. His brother was semi-conscious, troubled and restless. She brought fresh snow in a bowl so Hoss could lay cold compresses on his head and chest. And when Joe sank back into fitful sleep, she sat in the chair by the window while Hoss sat by the bed, and listened to more tales of his home. It seemed to ease his mind to talk about the Ponderosa, and about his pa and older brother. She had never been further than Redwater. Her starved imagination lapped up Hoss’s stories of the lakes and forests and the rocky sierras.
“I’d love to see it,” she said, unable to keep the wistfulness out of her voice. “It sounds so beautiful.”
“Yeah, it’s real beautiful, Miss Kitty,” he said, smiling, but he didn’t say that he’d love to show it to her. Not yet.
That evening, being Sunday, after they’d eaten the pie and the table had been cleared, Oma brought out the big Bible.
It had been a tradition for as long as Kitty could remember. Only at Easter and Harvest did they attend the church in town. Instead, on Sunday evenings, when the day’s work was behind them, Oma would bring out the big book, shrouded like some precious relic, and lay it solemnly on the table, unwrap it from its linen, and run her hands reverently across the fine leather binding before selecting her page.
She did so that night, Kitty’s eyes preceding her every movement because she knew the ritual so well. Hoss, rising from the table to tend to his brother, sat down again swiftly, looking slightly embarrassed at his oversight.
Oma opened the Bible close to the middle. Kitty knew it was a random selection. Neither she nor her grandmother could read much more than their own names, but Oma regarded the meaningless words as if they had a religious significance all their own.
“If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee,” began Oma, reciting from memory, with deep feeling. “It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee,” she went on, her dramatic emphasis on the word ‘eye’ causing Kitty to flush guiltily, as if her grandmother had seen into her mind, “pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”
She pronounced the ‘pluck it out’ with some relish. Kitty, who had heard these same words proclaimed every Sunday for more than twenty years, squirmed as an accusing and invisible finger suddenly stabbed at her conscience. And the harder she tried not to remember the boy’s nakedness, the clearer his image was in her mind.
Oma turned a page. “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity,” she pronounced with authority. “He shall cast them into a furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Kitty cringed inwardly, sensing her own doom. Fortunately Oma was too engrossed with her declamation to pay much attention, and Hoss was listening politely, with a small frown across his forehead. When Oma paused again and turned some more pages, he leaned forward, gesturing at the Bible, and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, may I?”
Oma looked surprised but not offended. She moved aside, almost curiously, and let Hoss take her position. He looked down at the open book in front of him. Kitty saw his eyes moving across the words and felt a little rush of excitement. He really was reading!
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Hoss’s rendition lacked Oma’s drama, but his voice held a quiet passion and assurance. “My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.”
Kitty rose from her seat and went to stand beside him where she too could see the book. “That’s beautiful,” she said, moved. “Really beautiful. Will you read it again and show me?”
“Show you?” Hoss looked puzzled.
“The words. Which words you’re reading.”
So he read it again and she listened to the strong drawl of his voice and followed his finger as it traced its way across the page. A little later, after he’d been into his brother, and Kitty was darning the bullet hole in Joe’s trousers by the light of the lamp, he came back out into the main room and looked down at her, as she sat sewing.
“If you like, Miss Kitty,” he said, a little awkwardly, “I could show you how to read some.”
Five days, thought Kitty, as she scrunched through the snow of the yard to the barn. Five days, and her life was so changed.
Hoss was teaching her how to read. Each evening, after they’d eaten and cleared away, they would bring out the big Bible –- the only book in the house -– and he would point out words to her. There were no writing materials, so he found a piece of wooden board and with a scrap of charcoal rescued from the stove, he showed her how to write letters.
“When I go into town,” he told her, “I’ll buy you paper and ink, then you can practice properly.”
She liked it when he said that. It made her feel they would be staying forever. She knew Oma was pleased too.
“He likes you girl,” she said, grinning, as they prepared for bed. “His face goes all soft every time he looks at you.”
Kitty knew that Oma was right. Hoss’s face did soften. She was right about other things too. He was kind. And gentle. And patient. And he said sweet things to her.
The night after the Bible episode, she’d woken in the darkness. There were stirrings in the kitchen. Beside her, Oma spoke.
“The boy must be bad. Go on out there, Kitty, see if you can do anything to help.”
“But I’m not dressed, Oma!”
“Just put on your robe, girl! Hurry, hurry!”
There was no one in the kitchen by the time she got there, but lamplight spilled out in a soft pool from Oma’s bedroom.
He was bending over the bed. Her voice took him by surprise.
“Miss Kitty!” She’d startled him. Immediately she felt embarrassed about her night attire and her unbrushed hair. She had the kind of hair that coiled itself into tight springs all around her head and refused to stay neatly in any kind of fastening. Straight out of bed and not fixed at all, she knew she must look a real fright.
She didn’t have to ask how Joe was. She could see him shivering beneath the blankets. “He’s worse.”
“No, not really, Miss. His leg’s bad but I think that honey treatment’s helping. I had to take the stitches out. They were turning bad. And this fever’s plaguing him. I stepped outside to fetch in some snow. I’m sorry I woke you.”
She saw he was staring at her and felt her cheeks grow hot. “You must be tired,” she said. “You’ve not had any sleep at all.” She reached out and took the compress from his hand. “You rest for a bit. I’ll keep an eye on Joe.”
“Me? No, I’m fine.” But he let her take the compress from him and she sat down on the edge of the bed and laid it across Joe’s forehead. Joe opened his eyes and stared at her, his gaze blank.
“I’m Kitty,” she told him.
Joe blinked and closed his eyes again. She looked over at Hoss who was settling himself comfortably in the armchair, and he gave her one of his anxious smiles. There were deep shadows around his eyes.
“You sleep. I’ll wake you if he needs you.”
The room fell silent, apart from Joe’s restless fidgeting and his intermittent bouts of shivering. She was sitting so close she could sense the heat radiating from his burning body. A moist scent rose from his fevered skin. Her fingers brushed back the clinging curls from his face, and she felt the warmth of his breath against her forearm. His face was beautiful, even in torment. Only once before had the look of a man made her catch her breath. She and Oma had been leaving town in the wagon and three men had come riding in the opposite direction. They were all young –- that was surprising enough in Redwater — but she noticed only the one in the middle. He had taken off his hat and tilted his head back, as if he were offering himself to the sun. His golden hair, worn long to his shoulders, rippled in the sunlight, and his lean body exuded a feline grace, even in the saddle. Kitty saw him only for a few seconds, and then they were past and he was gone. She never even discovered his name, but she had never forgotten him either.
But she knew Joe’s name. She could touch him with her hands, study every detail of his perfect face; feel the roughness of his jaw against her finger, the beat of his heart beneath her hand.
Hoss snored softly across the room. Joe moaned softly and shivered. His sound arm broke free of the covers and pushed them down below his injured left arm. She reached out to draw them back over him, and hesitated. How easy it would be, she thought, how easy to sneak another look at him while he slept.
The trouble was, she no longer wanted just to look at him. Now she had a nagging desire to touch him too. She thought about the taut skin of his belly where it was fragile and white and her fingertips ached to know how it felt. And that other part of him, the dark, hot-looking, secretive part, the part that was so unlike any other bit of him, when she thought of that, a quiver tightened deep in her middle and her breath came harder.
Hoss gave a snore and shifted in the chair and she hauled guiltily at the covers. Looking over at the big man, slumped in the chair in innocent sleep, she felt suddenly hopeless. She had found a man who would make her an ideal husband and she had found love in the same day, and they were not the same.
She rose from her chair and took up the spare blanket draped over the rail at the foot of the bed. Unfolding it, she spread it carefully over Hoss’s sleeping form and was startled when he jumped awake, frowning.
“What is it? Is it Joe?”
Embarrassed, she drew back. “No. Joe’s fine. I just thought you might be cold.”
He looked down at the blanket she had tucked in around him and the frown melted from his face. He looked up at her and smiled his endearingly bashful smile. “Oh! That was thoughtful of you, Miss Kitty.”
She turned back to the bed. Behind her, Hoss said in a hesitant voice, “Miss Kitty, has anyone ever told you, you have beautiful hair?”
After that, she started to take more care with her hair. No amount of brushing tamed it, yet Hoss gazed on it the way men had gazed at Sapphie’s. It was oddly exciting. Until she’d met Sapphie, Kitty had never really given much thought to how she must look to others. There was no one to impress and no one to comment other than Oma. But it was hard not to notice Sapphie’s female assets, and once she’d noticed them, her eyes were opened to her own womanliness. Not that she could display it like Sapphie did. But the awareness was kindled, yet it only added to the underlying sense of vexation she felt with her life.
The fact that Hoss noticed, pleased her in a selfish way. For the first time in her life she felt special. In his gentle, unassuming way, he appreciated her. She had almost managed to push from her mind how her grandmother had snared him. Maybe Oma was right about that too, thought Kitty. Life didn’t give you anything you weren’t prepared to snatch for yourself.
The strange part about it was she enjoyed Hoss’s attentions. She was flattered he found her attractive, but, in her heart, she was in love with Joe. She didn’t even know Joe; not like she knew Hoss. She began to wonder if his mystery was part of the attraction. While he’d been ill, she’d sat with him, helped cool his burning head with cold cloths, tidied the room around him, brought him food. She relished every detail of him, every little contact she made with his skin or his hair, or even the cloths and the sheets that had touched him. But as he roused from the fever and became lucid and aware, there was decorum to be considered. Chores around the farm were falling behind too. And while Oma was in favor of her spending time alone with Hoss, Kitty knew she would feel the back of her grandmother’s hand if she ever caught her alone with the younger man. Oma had deep suspicions about Joe, although the boy had done nothing to earn her disapproval other than by his injuries and delirium, which, in truth, were Oma’s doing, not his own.
“His sort are the wrong sort,” Oma would say if his name arose when they were alone together. “You steer well clear of him, Kitty. Hoss is the man you want.”
Yet it was Joe Kitty thought about constantly, even when she was sitting next to Hoss at the table, but although Joe was often less than twenty feet away from her, he might as well have been twenty miles for all she got to lay eyes on him now.
And soon it would be too late.
In the barn, Kitty pulled up the milking stool and settled herself with her head resting against the cow’s flank. Her destiny, always vague and gray-looking until now, had suddenly begun to close in around her; and it had begun yesterday evening.
Oma had taken out scraps to the pig. Hoss was reading to Kitty.
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me.”
“Wings of the morning,” Kitty had repeated, her voice soft and wondering. “That’s lovely!”
Hoss had nodded. “Yeah, it is. Like real poetry. You should hear my brother Adam read poetry, Miss Kitty. He reads it real pretty.” After that, he’d fallen silent for a moment. And then, without warning, he’d said, “How would you like to meet Adam, Kitty?”
Her heart had jumped as though something momentous had happened. It was the first time he’d dropped the ‘miss’. She’d looked around at him and smiled. “Adam and your pa. I’d like to meet them both.”
Hoss had looked relieved. After another pause, he’d said, “You know, Kitty, you’re a real special gal.”
They’d both blushed then. Flustered, she’d shaken her head. “There’s nothing special about me.”
“Oh yes there is. To me, there is.” Then he’d cleared his throat. “I don’t know if you… if you have any special feller around here, Kitty?”
She’d shaken her head again, too frightened to answer. She’d known it was coming then. Sealing her fate. He’d looked even more relieved. It had taken him a while to recover enough composure to continue. “Little Joe’s not going to be up to riding anywhere for a few weeks yet. Seems we might have to impose on your hospitality a little longer, so you and I — I hope we can get to know each other better.”
She’d experienced an unpleasant sensation of being swept along in a current too fast to escape.
“And if…and if you decide you like me enough, we could maybe consider…” He’d had to stop and clear his throat again then. She could sense the nerves trembling in his big body. “We could maybe consider the possibility of the two of us… getting wed?”
“At least look happy!” said Oma when Kitty broke the news. “Walk around with a face that long and he’ll change his mind. I don’t know what’s the matter with you, Kitty. You didn’t like Abel and now you look as miserable as a whipped mule when I find you a man the queen of England would be pleased to marry. You need a good thrashing to knock some sense into you, my girl, and I’ve a mind to give it to you! You just make sure you do all you can to make that man happy!”
“I am!” protested Kitty. “I’m doing everything you told me, aren’t I?”
She knew she should have been happy. She knew she would have been happy — maybe even joyously happy — but for Joe.
Kitty had never expected to fall in love. Falling in love was a dream. It had nothing to do with real life. Real life was tough. You knuckled down and you got on with it. It was a woman’s duty to get married if she could. Find a man to look after who would look after her. It was the best she could hope for.
“Do you want to get married?” she asked Sapphie one day.
“I’ve been asked a few times,” Sapphie told her.
Sapphie shrugged. “Customers. Regulars.”
“You’ve never said yes though?”
“Nah! If I married one of them, I’d have to screw him for free. What’s the point?”
They’d both laughed then, Kitty a little in awe, as always, at the casual way Sapphie talked about sex. Then Sapphie had stopped laughing and said, “I fell in love once though. I’d have married him in a flash if he’d have asked me.”
“Just a drifter. He was only around for a few days. His name was Carlo. Eyes to melt your heart and a voice to steal it away. I wish you could have heard him sing, Kitty!”
“What happened to him?”
Sapphie gave another shrug. “He left. He said he’d come back, see me again, but he never did.”
“Maybe he will.”
“That was over a year ago. Never heard a word from him since. Could be dead for all I know.” The wistful look on Sapphie’s face was replaced by her usual undefeated sparkle. “Women like me, Kitty, we have to take what we can get. I guess I’m lucky to have fallen in love at all. Even if he didn’t fall in love with me!”
Sapphie was right, thought Kitty, as she took up the pail of milk and headed back to the house. Women had to take what they could get. She would marry Hoss and dream of Joe. She could see no other way forward.
In the meantime, Hoss glowed with pride and pleasure. His happiness made her feel doubly ungrateful and undeserving.
The sense of dissatisfaction grew stronger.
Kitty was stirring soup on the stove when Oma came in from the cold, with snow caked all over her coat to the waist, and cursing long and loud.
“Dang this snow!” Oma hauled off her coat and hung it over the back of a chair.
“Has it started again?” Kitty lifted the pan from the stove and set it on the trivet.
“No, but it’s banked up higher than me in that top meadow.” Oma dragged the chair in front of the stove. “I reckon I could use your help up there, Hoss. Cow’s in the ditch, up to her neck in snow, and I can’t shift her.”
Hoss, already seated at the table, gave an earnest nod. “No trouble, ma’am. I’d be pleased to help. If Kitty could keep an ear out for Joe, I can come up and give you a hand with that cow.” He looked at Kitty. “Joe won’t give you no trouble.”
Oma nodded. “I’d be mighty obliged. I’ll shoot her if I have to, but I don’t want to. She’s one of my best.”
“To tell you the truth ma’am, the fresh air and exercise would feel real good. Now Joe’s mending, I reckon there’s plenty I could be doing around this place to earn our keep.”
Kitty went to the barn with them to help them saddle up, then she stood in the yard and watched as they rode away into the whiteness. In the yard, the snow had tuned slushy and brown. Inside the door she took off her wet boots.
The house was silent. Her eyes trailed across the width of the big room to the threshold of Oma’s bedroom. The door stood half open to keep the room warm.
Don’t, she reprimanded herself. Don’t even think about him!
She busied herself sweeping. There was no sound from Joe. Without any conscious thought on her part, she discovered she’d swept her way to his door. Fate had made the decision for her. In one swift movement, she set the broom aside and stepped into the room.
The boy was asleep, as still as he’d been the first time she’d seen him, his face turned away from her towards the window. She stood very still, watching him, and a sense of her life slipping away in front of her made her feel, for a moment, inexplicably sad and hopeless.
Three short steps and she was beside the bed. Close to, his beauty stunned her afresh. She reached out with tentative fingers and laid them lightly against his cheek. It felt smooth and warm. His left arm was still strapped across his body. She could see the knotted linen above his right shoulder, but little else with the blankets drawn close around him against the cold.
She was conscious of her heart beating wildly. Her fingers fluttered at her side. Her throat felt tight. It was wrong. It was so very, very wrong. What was she even thinking?
She turned away, but swung back again on an impulse. He hadn’t moved. Silently she willed him to wake up — to save her from herself — but he slept on, oblivious.
“Joe?” she said. Not a muscle flickered in his face
With trembling hands, she took hold of the covers where they lay against his shoulders. Slowly, she lifted them away from him, and slowly, slowly, she drew them down.
And there he lay, unbelievably real and complete in front of her. She stared, as much in amazement at what she’d done as at what she saw.
He shifted in the bed, his hand groping automatically for the lost warmth. She saw the small frown that preceded the opening of his eyes, and then he was staring at her, his gaze blank for a fraction of a second, then widening in growing horror as awareness hit him, with a slap as sharp as the cold.
“What are you doing?” His right hand flew down, and his sound leg jerked up in an effort to shield himself from her gaze. “Give me back the blankets!”
She couldn’t have spoken or moved if she’d wanted to. Stunned into a state of near terror by her own bravado, the sight of him rendered her helpless. She knew she was gaping at him, while he stared back at her, his face mirroring her own shock.
He tried to sit up, but with one arm bound and the other fastened firmly between his thighs, he struggled. His face contorted with pain and he gave a sharp yelp. Kitty wasn’t sure whether he’d hurt his leg or his shoulder, or both, but it roused her back into movement.
“All right. I’ll do it. Just hold still.”
She’d meant to move then. She’d meant to drag the covers back over him, but something — desperation maybe –- held her back.
“Kitty, please! This isn’t right!”
He was right, of course; it wasn’t. It was wrong. Absolutely and inexcusably wrong. She knew that and yet she didn’t reach out and pull those blankets back over his nakedness. Instead she stared and wondered.
“You are so beautiful!” she whispered.
His expression made a slight alteration, some of the horror giving way to disbelief and bafflement.
“If your grandmother -– or Hoss –- were to come back now!”
She gave a slow, almost trancelike shake of her head. “No, They’ll be a good while yet.” Her gaze went slowly over him, from his shoulders to his feet, and back to his eyes. He didn’t say anything this time, just met her stare with mute pleading.
“Just a few minutes,” she said, softly. “Please, let me look at you.”
He looked taken aback. “It’s not…” he began again and she knew he was going to say “right” again.
“Sssshhh!” she urged quietly. “I just want to see you.”
“Well, you’ve seen me now, so give me back the covers!”
She sank down on the edge of the bed, close to his injured left leg. Driven by a force that was stronger and braver than she was, she put out her hand and touched the top of his thigh, just above the bandage. Her touch was light, but he winced, as if she had hurt him.
“What are you doing?” No mistaking the desperation in his voice.
What was she doing? She hardly knew herself. Driven on by a sense that fate was closing in on her, she had succumbed to a desperate urge to seize a shining jewel from the drab dreariness. All her life, men had been creatures apart, ugly, coarse, to be feared. Even the young pastor, who had once called on them when Kitty was ten, had terrified her with his fierce eyes and his talk of evil and the death of the soul.
Death of the soul? Her soul had been dead for years, but at last it was stirring again, because it had found something beautiful, something worthy, to make it feel again. To make it ache and tremble and quiver with a thrill she barely understood.
Why did he keep talking? She didn’t want him to talk. She wished he could have lain oblivious, his eyes closed in peaceful sleep. She wanted to run her hands across his warm, smooth flesh, feel the alien hardness of the muscles beneath the skin, examine all his strange maleness, unobserved, without the need for explanation.
She let her hand trail over the bone of his hip, onto the hard flatness of his belly, fascinated by the narrow line of hair that led from his navel to the thicker nest lower down. He flinched again, but she took no notice. He could do nothing. His damaged leg and shoulder prevented him even turning over in bed, and his one good hand was planted firmly over that strange, dark mound that defined his manhood. But even his hand had a sculpted muscularity that intrigued her. She slid her own palm down to rest over the back of his, her pink fingertips touching the small jutting bones of his strong brown wrist.
His body tensed. He drew in an audible breath. Kitty’s eyes widened in disbelief as she saw what was happening. Beneath their hands, the part of him he had been attempting to hide was growing, stretching upwards. Startled, she glanced at his face, wondering if he was doing it deliberately, but one look at the expression of horror and remorse written across his features told her this turn of events was one he plainly had not sought.
She could not keep from staring. The expanding flesh had broken free of his hand. The soft skin, wrinkled and slack only moments before, was now stretched smooth and tight, struggling to contain a swelling beast that was trying to force its way out.
She thought of Abel. She thought of the animals on the farm. All different, yet all part of a disjointed mystery that was only now beginning to make sense to her.
Joe gave a small groan. He had turned his head into the pillow, his face screwed tight against his predicament. Part of her felt his dismay. After all, if the tables had been turned she would have been mortified too; but another part of her –- the selfish part — was heedless of his humiliation. This precious time alone would be short; she must not waste a single moment.
Her mind was full of racing memories; stories Sapphie had told her. Stories she hadn’t really understood until now. Her grandmother’s voice saying, “There’ll be plenty of that when you’re married.”
Her hand tightened around Joe’s wrist. It lifted his hand aside. She felt him jerk away from her and throw his arm across his burning face, as though by blocking her from his view, he could pretend she didn’t exist. Freed from restraint, the gleaming creature at the base of his belly rose dark and formidable, and inside Kitty a deep, primal pulse awoke and tugged somewhere way down inside her, eliciting an unexpected softening, like a sigh of wonder, in the secret places of her own body.
In awe she gazed, and in awe she reached out and laid her fingers lightly on the proudly arching shaft. Like an animal that wants to be touched, it nudged gently at her hand. She stroked softly up and down its length, wondering at its strength and rigidity. That the soft wrinkled mound she had seen nestling so quietly could become this monster astonished her and roused a hot excitement so intense, she could barely breathe or even swallow.
There was no going back now, she knew. Curiosity and desire mingled and drove her to a boldness she hadn’t known she possessed. The creature was alive; it was bursting to be free. Her heart pounding, she tightened her fingers around the straining sheath and drew it back.
A shiver ran through Joe’s body and a small, harsh grunt caught in his throat.
In silent admiration, she fastened her eyes upon the full glory of the proud creature she had released as it raised its gleaming head to her, so bizarrely magnificent. Even the sac at its base that had reminded her of a wrinkled bag of ripe fruit was now stretched firm and tight. She took it into her cupped hand and massaged its taut softness, and discovered the hardness inside. Brushing her fingers once more along the bulging ridge of the shaft, she paused, enthralled by a glistening bead of moisture gathering like a tear at the very tip. Despite its arrogance, there was an honesty and a vulnerability about this unknown creature that moved her. She touched the dewdrop delicately with a curious finger, and felt her own body throb and grow softly moist in response to its slippery wetness.
Joe’s voice came on a groan, tight with anguish. It made her jump. She’d been so absorbed, she’d almost forgotten he was there.
“Kitty, stop! Please stop!”
She dragged her eyes upwards and met his. They were wide and dark with torment. “I can’t,” she murmured, half afraid. Her fingers tightened their grip around him as if to prove the force of her words. The alien creature responded instantly to the pressure, swelling and nudging against her palm. With her other hand, she reached over and anointed its head with its own dewy wetness. Joe gave another harsh moan.
“If you don’t stop, something’s going to happen.”
He closed his eyes and screwed up his face. “Oh God!”
The cry was so heartfelt, so full of agony, she was suddenly fearful. Reluctantly, she released her hold, her restless fingers twitching. But letting him go didn’t seem to ease his dilemma. He twisted his face away, still wracked with torture.
She looked back at the other part of him and her insides tugged with a fierce longing. She had always wondered how it happened. How a woman let a man inside her. Now she understood. It was nothing to do with rational thought. It was the body only. The body knew what it wanted. Like it knew how to breathe and how an itch must be scratched, it knew the only way to sate the unendurable physical longing now constricting her middle was to take him into her, to feel that fearless, splendid, terrifying maleness inside the aching void.
She thought of Sapphie. Of all the times she must have done this. Had Sapphie too felt this heady mix of terror and elation? Had she gazed at that pulsing rod and felt her heart tremble and her insides melt in anticipation?
She could do it now. She could do it if she didn’t allow herself to think too much. Hitching her skirts, she set her right knee on the bed and swung her left leg over his middle so she was kneeling above him, her petticoats settling in ripples around his belly and thighs. His head swung around to stare at her in gaping disbelief.
“What are you doing?”
She didn’t answer. It seemed to her it must be apparent, and her mind was too taken up with her own necessity. She fumbled beneath her skirts and found the creature, poised and waiting. With no accurate notion of her own anatomy, she could feel only where the ache inside her throbbed most intensely. His stiffened flesh nudged her hidden recesses, but there was no opening. Still the sensation of being touched in a place so intimate, and the power of the straining, pulsing creature between her fingers, was almost more than she could bear without crying out. She tightened her grip and felt the thing in her hand jerk in response as she eased it back a fraction. Incredibly, she felt herself give, felt him slide inwards.
She froze then. Suddenly her fear was stronger than her excitement. What was she doing? There was no way that huge, engorged stem was going to fit inside her! What if it drove like a spear into her belly? Impaled her?
Joe made a small helpless noise deep in his throat as he tensed his hips and lifted his body. Alarmed, she felt him nudge deeper into her. She looked at his face, but she could tell he hadn’t done it deliberately. Everything in his expression spoke of desperate restraint. Sweat glistened on his skin; his teeth dug into his lower lip; his eyes were feverish and wild. Just visible above the flannel of her petticoats, the muscles of his stomach quivered. But she was frightened now. She pulled away and he winced, drawing breath in a sharp hiss of pain.
A pang of guilt prodded her conscience. “Did I hurt you?”
“Not exactly,” he panted, grimacing, his voice strained, his breath short and hard. But she could not spend long contemplating his plight because her own was growing critical. She must go one way or the other, and yet she was afraid. Afraid to move into the unknown, and yet afraid that if she stopped now she would regret it forever. What if this should prove her only chance? She must take it and be damned, or never know.
She thought of Sapphie and her courage flared anew. With her hand still restraining him, she lowered herself cautiously. As her body eased around his thickness, a surge of nervous excitement went through her like a shiver of fear. But the fit was tight and abruptly her body tensed, resisting him further. She winced as the tightness became discomfort, and then a sharp burning sting, but she was almost there by then. She could not hold onto him any more. And then her thighs were enfolding his hips and the whole length of that solid gleaming shaft was somehow inside her, tight and hard. With a deep breath of triumph, she looked at his face. His lips were parted, his eyes closed, his skin flushed; trembling and vulnerable in his loveliness. She had to shift slightly to ease the pain, and as she moved, he drove helplessly upwards, as though pulled by the pulsing energy now holding them together. His fullness was like a swelling thrill inside her and her response was instinctive, enfolding his thrust, clamping him tight.
His breath caught in his throat; he let out a small noise like a cross between a groan and a whimper. She felt him stiffen; his eyelids fluttered, his features contorted, his mouth opened on a silent gasp of painful ecstasy. Beneath her, his body convulsed in long, hard, shuddering spasms. She felt them vibrate deep within her, like an ancient rhythm she’d always known existed but never before recognized.
He sank back in the bed and opened bewildered eyes. They stared at each other for a long minute, as if neither of them could quite believe what had just happened. Gradually she became aware he was shrinking inside her — an absurdly unreal sensation -– yet it didn’t ease the soreness he’d left behind.
She scrambled to her feet, trying to ignore the discomfort, smoothing her skirt around her in a single efficient motion. The arching beast with the proud head had slumped, in much the same way the boy had fallen back in his bed. It wasn’t yet the dormant soft thing she had first seen nestling under his belly, but its rigidity had relaxed to a supple firmness. It rested, docile and replete against him. It was hard to believe this was the hungry beast that had strained to reach into her. She lowered her hand and touched it, almost reverently, as if she was bestowing a token of benediction. She knew she had fallen in love with it.
As she reached for the blankets, in a tangle at his feet, she felt a warm stickiness dribble down the inside of her thigh. She was still hurting, the physical pain mingling with the emptiness he’d left behind him, and a slight baffling sense of dissatisfaction. Over it all loomed the growing enormity of the terrible thing she had just done.
“Kitty,” he said softly, as she made for the door, but she didn’t look back. She didn’t want him to see that she was crying.
“A few more days,” said Hoss, as he wrapped a fresh dressing around the wound in Joe’s thigh. His big, meaty hands were surprisingly gentle and dexterous as they secured the bandage and pulled the sheets back over Joe’s slumped body. “I’m sorry, Joe. I’ve done my best, but I’m not a doctor. If those stitches could have stayed in, it might have closed up by now. But if you put any weight on it, it’s just going to bust open again and then we’ll be right back where we started.”
Joe scowled and turned away, half rolling his body onto his right side. Hoss said nothing. He would have preferred Joe stay flat and still on the bed, but he knew his brother better than that. He was peevish. He’d been cranky ever since Hoss got back yesterday suppertime. In fact, he’d been in such a sullen mood, Hoss hadn’t even told him his news yet. It was being left alone, thought Hoss, and Joe’s resentment that he was stuck in bed while his brother was out in the fresh air.
On the up side though, thought Hoss, it seemed Joe was feeling better. He was always restless and bad-tempered when he was made to do something he didn’t want to do, like lie still. But Hoss couldn’t shake off his anxiety over the bullet wound in his brother’s leg. It wasn’t healing anywhere near as well as Hoss would have liked. It had been bleeding again too. When he’d changed the dressing the evening before, he’d remarked on it to Joe and watched his brother redden. Straight away, Hoss guessed what had happened.
“Joe, did you try getting out of bed while I wasn’t here?”
Joe’s guilty expression gave him away. Hoss shook his head in exasperation. “Dadburnit, Joe! I told you! You’re going to set yourself right back again. Why couldn’t you just call Kitty if you needed something?”
Joe blushed even deeper and Hoss instantly grasped his embarrassment. He smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, little brother. I guess there’re some things a feller doesn’t want a gal’s help with. I shouldn’t have left you so long. Just promise me you won’t try anything like that again.”
Joe gave a petulant shrug. “I just want to get out of this bed, Hoss. Go home.”
“I’m sorry, little brother, but that’s not going to happen for a while yet. Not if you want to keep that leg you’ve grown so attached to.”
Joe had given him a hard look then. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
Hoss pursed his mouth. “It’s not good, Joe. That’s why I’m serious when I say you’ve gotta do as you’re told and stay in that bed.”
Since that conversation, Joe had been as tetchy as a bear with a thorn in its nose.
“If the snow holds off, I’ll try and make it into town, maybe tomorrow or the next day,” Hoss told him. “Send a wire to Pa. He’s going to start wondering any day now. “
“That’s not going to help me,” Joe reminded him, with a sulky grimace. “I’m stuck here with nothing to do!”
“Why don’t you help Kitty with her reading? There’re plenty of chores I can be doing to help out and you could help her.” Hoss lowered his voice and glanced at the door to make sure no one was listening. “Those two women have been good to us, Joe and they ain’t got a nickel to spare. We owe them big time, little brother.”
Joe paled. “I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be right.”
Hoss was puzzled. Since when had his brash younger brother been so squeamish about respectability? Still, if Joe really was embarrassed to let a woman into his bedroom, there was something Hoss could do to ease the dilemma. “It wouldn’t be so wrong, would it, if…if she was…engaged to be my wife?”
Joe’s head spun round. “You…what?”
Hoss felt his cheeks suffuse with heat. He fidgeted awkwardly and gave his brother a nervous smile. “What…what if I’d asked her to be my wife?”
He was relieved that Joe was lying down then because he turned so white, Hoss thought he would likely have passed out if he’d been standing up. “You don’t have to look so surprised!” he said, with a slight feeling of affront. “I already told you I liked her.”
“Liked her, yes! Marry her, no!”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
Joe stared at him in horror. Hoss began to feel vaguely annoyed. After all, Joe didn’t even know Kitty yet. Not really.
“She’s a great gal, Joe. I reckon we’ll suit each other down to the ground.”
“You’ve actually asked her?”
“I’ve asked her to think about it.”
“And what did she say?”
“Joe, what’s the matter with you? I thought you’d be happy for me. Do you think there’s something wrong with me that no girl’s ever going to want to marry me?”
“No, of course not. It’s just…”
“Just…you hardly know her yet!”
“We’ve been together six whole days, Joe. We’ve got to know each other in that time. And she likes me too, I can tell. We’ll be good for each other. What you got against her?”
Joe hesitated, seemed about to say something, then changed his mind and relented suddenly. “I’m sorry, Hoss. You took me by surprise, that’s all.”
Hoss was used to Joe’s outbursts and used to forgiving them, but he wished his brother could have been a little more gracious. “Yeah, I guess I did. You just need to get used to the idea, Joe. Get to know Kitty a little better, then you’ll understand.”
After that, Joe didn’t say much and Hoss let him be. Joe was notoriously difficult when he was cooped up in bed, but Oma found checkers and a board, and a pack of playing cards, to help relieve his boredom. And there was Kitty to take his mind off Joe, lovelier by the day. Since they’d talked about the possibility of marriage, it seemed to Hoss she’d already begun to bloom from the timid, frightened creature he’d seen that first day. Her face radiated a quiet glow of excitement and there was a new brightness in her eyes. It made him absurdly happy that he had brought about these changes in her, and everything in him melted when she looked at him with her soft, imploring eyes, like a hurt deer.
There was no more snow that day or the next, and in the evening, as they ate supper, Hoss said, “What do you reckon the chances are of making it into town tomorrow, ma’am? That snow’s melting fast now and I sure would like to wire my pa before he starts to think the worst.”
“We can take shovels,” said Oma. “The snow’s melting but there’re places where it hangs around.”
“I promised Kitty a few things too.” Hoss looked across the table at Kitty. She gave him her small, demure smile. He took a deep breath. “And if there’s a pastor in that town, I think I’d like to call on him as well.”
Kitty knew nothing would keep Oma from getting into town once the pastor was mentioned. She saw her grandmother eyeing her narrowly as Hoss climbed aboard the wagon the next morning, so she stepped close and beckoned him to lean down as if she had something to say into his ear. As he ducked his head down, she stretched up and planted a kiss on the side of his cheek. His face fired.
“Go carefully,” she said, smiling.
His eyes were radiant from the kiss. “We’ll be careful,” he promised. “Keep an eye on Joe, will you? I don’t want him doing any more damage to that leg.”
Back in the house, Kitty set about clearing away the breakfast things. She swept the floor and took the scraps to the chickens. Then she brought in the flour and made dough. When she had set the bread to rise, she chopped vegetables and put them to simmer on the stove. As she stirred the pot with a wooden spoon, she finally acknowledged that her hands were shaking.
Three days. She had waited three whole days for another opportunity to be alone with Joe, without any assurance it would actually ever happen. There had been moments she had wanted to scream or weep with the sheer frustration of not knowing. What if the snow kept falling so Hoss couldn’t go into town? What if Oma were to tell Kitty to escort him? What if Joe had gotten better in the meantime and been fit enough to go with his brother? There were too many unthinkable possibilities. Yet here she was, alone in the house with Joe, still bed-bound and helpless.
She hesitated outside his door, steadying her mind and her nerves. She had had three days to think and this time she was determined to do this right.
In truth, she had no idea what ‘right’ was, only a vague sense of dissatisfaction that told her last time it hadn’t been quite right, and the recollection of a conversation with Sapphie on the subject of Carlo.
“When I did it with Carlo,” said Sapphie, her gray eyes shining even at the memory, “it was so different. It happened for me every time.”
Kitty frowned. “What happened?”
Sapphie gave her an amused glance. “Oh, Kitty! I forget what an innocent you are! You know how men get their moment of pleasure when they do the business? Well, that can happen for women too if you do it right.”
And Kitty had stored away another piece of the intriguing and slightly alarming puzzle she almost dreaded to solve. It had never occurred to her that procreation involved pleasure. At least not for a woman. Oma only ever made derogatory comments on the rare occasions she referred to the subject. “Men have needs,” she’d say, “but they’re soon over and done with. You’ll learn to grin and bear it, child.” Kitty had always imagined it was a one way process, at best.
But what she felt for Joe, that had to be akin to what Sapphie had felt with Carlo. She loved Joe, she was sure of it. When she had sat astride him –- she caught her breath and flushed, even at the memory — and felt him push into her, it had stirred something deep in her middle, something powerful and thrilling, but it hadn’t been all. She understood that now. There was more. She had felt the promise.
Joe was sitting up in bed, propped by pillows, a blanket draped around his shoulders against the cold. She had the distinct impression he’d known she would come. She saw how his hand tightened on the sheets and drew them to him.
“How are you?”
He didn’t say anything but his gaze was wide-eyed and fearful.
“About the other day…” she began and stopped, uncertain.
He swallowed hard and colored up. “I…I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
She flushed too. How had he known that? She dropped her eyes and shook her head. “No, I’m all right.”
She was wondering how she would ever pluck up the courage to do the thing she had come to do when he said, “Kitty, what about Hoss?”
She looked up again, distracted. “What about him?”
“Well, you’re thinking about marrying him…”
Joe shook his head as if he didn’t understand. “You’re thinking about marrying Hoss and yet…and yet, you did…those things with me?”
He sounded baffled. She tried to explain. “Oma says I have to marry Hoss, but I don’t love Hoss, Joe. I love you. I wanted to…I wanted us to be together, before it’s too late.”
“You can’t love me, Kitty. You don’t even know me!”
She wanted to tell him that had nothing to do with the kind of love she was talking about, but it sounded wrong, even in her own head. “It’s not to do with knowing,” she told him, “it’s to do with feelings.”
He didn’t have an answer; he just looked baffled again. “But what about Hoss? What are you going to tell him?”
“I’m not going to tell him anything. It wouldn’t be right.”
“But if he ever finds out what happened –- between us –- he’ll be hurt. Very hurt.”
“Don’t tell him then.”
“I’m his brother!”
“Then I don’t know why you want to hurt him. Listen, Joe, Hoss is a good man. He’s very kind. I’m sure he’ll be good to me. And I’ll be good to him. I will be a good wife, I promise. But, I want this time with you first. Please. Before it’s too late.” Women like me, we have to take what we can get, she thought. She wondered if Sapphie had managed to remember the sweetness of Carlo the day the drunken miner beat her to death.
He gave his head a vehement shake. “No, Kitty, we mustn’t! It’s wrong.”
“I thought you liked it. You looked like you did. In the end.”
He went very red. “That doesn’t make it right.”
She hadn’t planned for an argument. She decided to try starting over.
“About the other day,” she began again, “I wanted you to know… I haven’t done that before.”
He had an almost pained expression on his face. “I think I guessed that.”
Now it was her turn to blush. “I suppose you have.”
He looked flustered. He even dropped his eyes for a moment. “No, not really,” he said, his cheeks still burning.
“I’m not sure I did it right.”
He gave a nervous laugh. “You did. You really did!”
She frowned. “It didn’t feel right.”
He looked anxious. She knew he didn’t understand. Her heart was racing, simply looking at him. The time had come to act. She bent her head down and began unfastening the buttons of her blouse.
“What are you doing?” The panic in his voice was unmistakable. She kept unbuttoning. With her shirt unfastened she began on her flannel chemise.
She took no notice. Each button left her more breathless. And then they were all unfastened. She was sure he would see her heart pounding beneath. Her hands held the garments together where the buttons no longer did. She swallowed hard.
“Just one more time Joe. And this time…”
He gulped too. She saw his throat bob. He shook his head and looked about to say something, but before he could, she drew back her shirt, tentatively.
He blinked and he took a deep breath, and then he dropped his eyes.
He shook his head as though trying to shake her image from it. “Kitty, what are you trying to do?”
The strange thing was, she had been desperately nervous about revealing herself to him, but now it was done, she was oddly excited. The chilly air brought tiny goose bumps to her flesh, but also made her skin tingle so that she sensed the presence of every tiny pore. She slid the blouse and chemise from her arms, letting them drop unheeded, and gave a little shiver as the cold wrapped itself around her back too. She ran her hands down her arms as if to smooth away the goose flesh, then she took two paces across the room and sank down on the side of the bed.
She saw how his eyes slid sideways, how he blushed as he saw her still exposed. Raising his hand to his face, he groaned.
“Please Joe!” Her plea was barely louder than a whisper. “Just one more time.”
“No,” he said with difficulty. “It’s not right!”
“But we’ve already done it, so what difference will it make, one more time? Joe?” She remembered Sapphie’s breasts, squeezed tightly in her scooping bodice. How men had adored those! She pushed her hands beneath her own and pressed them together, the sight and feel of her own naked flesh provoking an unexpected thrill in her lower body.
She saw he was watching, in horrified fascination, his gaze drawn against his will. She looked down at her nipples, puckered and protruding. Never had she realized how sensuous her own skin could be. She lifted and squeezed the two soft mounds and then let them sink again.
He raised a tentative hand and she felt his fingers brush hers as he slid them beneath the heavy curve of her left breast. He gazed, round-eyed, as he held the weight in his palm. After a few moments, his thumb began to massage in gentle, cautious circles. As he brushed her nipple, she felt a sharp tug in her groin. Her eyes opened wide in mild surprise. She remembered Abel, kneading her like bread dough. The shiver that ran through her had nothing to do with the cold.
He reached behind her and urged her closer then his hand came back to her breast. He leaned forward and, like a puppy, nuzzled, first with his nose and then his mouth. She held his head as he pressed his face into her left breast and his lips closed around her nipple. His fingers searched out her right breast. She wanted to keep watching him, fascinated by the suckling man-child, but the touch of his tongue was making her head swim like she’d drunk too much whiskey, and stirring fluttering sensations between her belly and her groin as excitement tightened inside her. Her eyes closed of their own accord, her hand tightened on the thick curls of his head as she pressed her tingling flesh deeper into his hungry mouth.
His hand slid down to her waist, and into the small of her back. Then his fingers were fumbling blindly with the fastenings of her skirt. A small stab of nervousness shot through her. If he undid her skirt and petticoats, there would be nowhere to hide. She hesitated, but in spite of herself, his ineptness was making her impatient. She had come this far, she must go the whole way. With expert hands, she reached behind her and finished the job.
Still with his face buried in her flesh, he tugged away the layers of fabric and found the curve of her haunches. He was moving so fast, she was panting for breath. She lifted her hips and let him push the bundled clothing down her legs, but her woolen stockings caught and tangled.
“Wait!” she muttered, suddenly desperate to be rid of every impediment. She rose from the bed, her back to him and slid her garments down, stepping free. She saw how he gaped at her bare flesh, his eyes dark and burning, his lips full and deeply red.
Her own nakedness roused a new excitement. Leaning over the bed, she pushed down the blankets and this time he made no attempt to stop her.
He was already swollen and hard beneath the sheets, the engorged monster rising willingly to meet her groping fingers. Embracing it rapidly with both hands, she leaned down on an impulse and kissed it, running her lips along its length, letting her mouth linger on the tip where a bead of moisture left its bitter saltiness on her tongue.
Her body was crying out to take it inside her again. Once more the awareness of her own cool skin sent a shiver through her middle. This time she would do it properly. With no clothes to hinder her she straddled him swiftly as she had done before.
But he stopped her. His hand reached out and caught her waist. The boy was gone, his eyes burning with a fire so fierce, he reminded her instead of a god. The feverish intensity of his stare drew her forwards, his hand moving down with slow deliberation over the roundness of her hips, caressing the slope of her buttocks, the back of her thighs. She flinched and gave an involuntary shudder as his supple fingers found the secret place between.
With a soft sigh, he probed hungrily, then ran his hand once more over the fullness of her behind, across her hips, and around to her belly, tracing the line from her navel into the rose-gold crown of her maiden hair. She tensed with a little gasp, waiting without breathing as his fingers continued down and slid beneath her. A sharp breath broke through her lips, a mixture of disbelief and horrified desire. Even she had not done what he was doing, touching the forbidden places of her body. She tensed and closed her eyes so she would not see his face. She didn’t want him watching her and yet she craved the unbearable pleasure he was arousing.
His fingers scared her. At first they were cautious, but as they discovered more they grew bolder. They found unexpected places that made her gasp and quiver; they held her at their mercy. They stroked and stretched and prodded and caressed until every nerve burned and tingled, and rational thought melted. Her innermost parts ached to yield themselves to his insistent touch. And when he slid his finger inside her, almost she was deceived. Of its own accord, her body drove down to meet him. And then, as though she’d been rudely awoken from a deep sleep, her eyes sprang open and met the fervor of his smoldering gaze. He pushed deeper. Desire became a desperate ache inside her. She longed for more, yet it was not his fingers she wanted but the mysterious, pulsing rod of flesh she had fallen so deeply in love with.
Driven now by an inexplicable sense of urgency, she drew away from his hand and moved down his body until she could take hold of the thing she yearned for, the glorious creature whose towering turgidity had made her falter last time yet now filled her with breathless exultation as her eager hands guided it to the place it belonged. There was no pain this time, only relief and the flutter of tiny wings trembling as, with a soft sigh of delight, she pushed herself slowly down, her body greedy for every exquisite inch of the hard, taut flesh.
Her breasts still tingled with the memory of his mouth, and the swollen, secretive parts of her body, prised gently open by his fingers, were inflamed with a longing understood only by some innate part of her being. Without conscious thought, her hips flexed gently. The fluttering feathers stirred with a purpose, the rhythm of the wing beats pulsed harder, faster, deeper. Desire flared in every nerve, so acutely intense she heard her own incoherent murmurs of desperation as somewhere deep inside, her whole being constricted, every morsel of longing converging into a tight ball at the point where their two bodies met. In that fluttering instant, Kitty knew she had waited her whole life for this single moment; the elusive jewel that had been hidden between the mundane layers of her existence was suddenly in her grasp. Her soul broke in a rapturous swell of wild elation as the jewel burst inside her, like a rainbow exploding, and filled her full of colors she had never imagined.
And a sound erupted from her throat like a cry of triumph.
Joe gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the naked splendor of the woman as she straddled him, her soft thighs as pale and as fine as alabaster. She was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined. Ecstasy arched her body and stretched her white throat in a long curve. Her breasts, proud and heavy, thrust forward, swaying slightly beneath their own weight. Her loveliness was so overwhelming, he forgot for a brief moment even to feel guilty.
He’d been feeling guilty for days. From the moment he’d opened his eyes, found himself exposed, and seen her staring at him, astounded and enraptured. Just remembering how his body had responded so rapidly turned him hot with shame. It was always the same. No matter how hard he tried, that part of him would not be controlled. While his head was struggling with confusion and outrage and humiliation, his body was rousing eagerly to the thrill of the moment. As if his conscience stopped just below his waist.
The mark of the beast. He remembered the preacher who had visited Virginia City a few months before. Joe wasn’t much into sermons generally, but this man had been compulsive. He leaned forward in the pulpit, eyes bulging, and proclaimed fire and brimstone with such passion, the congregation was transfixed. “The mark of the beast is on each one of us,” he declared in a terrible voice. “The mark of the beast leads our human natures into transgression: lechery, fornication, adultery, greed, drunkenness, murder. The mark of the beast brings us all into burning judgment.”
Even Pa had looked a little stunned by the end of the sermon. Joe had squirmed uncomfortably throughout. It was almost as if the preacher had come to Virginia City that Sunday morning specifically to point the finger of accusation at him. There! That young man there! He has a beast in his soul! Ask him about the dance last night. Ask him about Betty Renshaw!
Betty Renshaw. Joe hadn’t dared mention to Pa who it was he was taking to the dance. Maybe Pa hadn’t heard about Betty’s reputation, but it wasn’t worth the risk. As he’d set out for town with Hoss and Adam, Adam had asked, “So who you taking, Joe?” and Hoss had sniggered and said, “Betty Renshaw.” Joe had blushed scarlet. Adam had raised an eyebrow and given Joe a hard look, but he hadn’t said anything else.
There were plenty of girls Joe could have asked to that dance. Nice girls, without reputations. But that was precisely why he’d asked Betty. There were things he needed to know. Things he was tired of not knowing. And he had no chance of finding them out with a nice girl, so what else could he do?
He thought about Betty Renshaw now. He remembered the heavy breathing in the darkness as he grappled with her formidably clad curves. She had been such a greedy kisser, it had been hard to concentrate on anything else. He’d worked his way through one layer of ribbons and buttons only to find himself confronted with the hooks and laces of her stays, which had completely defeated him. In frustration, he’d fought his way in from the top and been rewarded by the squashed softness of her generous frontage. The way she’d pushed her hips into him as he groped clumsily among her clothing had been more than he’d hoped for. His crushed fingers had fumbled the nutty hardness of her nipple and she’d responded by slipping her hand inside the front of his waistband and seizing hold of him where no one had ever seized him before. The shock and excitement had been so overwhelming, his head had spun for several seconds. Just as life had seemed too sweet to be bearable, Adam’s voice had hailed him from the end of the alley, and they’d had to pull rudely apart, hastily adjusting themselves and trying to steady their racing breath.
“Why are you following me?” he’d demanded of his older brother, his blood boiling with rage and unquenched lust.
Adam had given him a knowing look. “To keep you out of trouble.”
“I wasn’t in any trouble!”
Adam had smiled his little half smile and nodded his head at Joe’s groin. “Then perhaps you and he would like to head for home.”
Neither his pa nor his brothers seemed to have the lack of control he had. The preacher was right. It was a beast. It led him into depravity –- or it tried to anyway. Depravity wasn’t that easy to come by.
Until, out of the blue, he found himself lying naked and half helpless beneath the close scrutiny of Kitty’s astonished gaze.
He’d tried to tell her no. He wondered afterwards if he just hadn’t tried hard enough. It was difficult to sound convincing when his mutinous body was so obviously saying the opposite. But that wasn’t him; that was the beast inside him. He’d known it was wrong. And yet, when she started doing things he’d only ever done to himself before, all conscience evaporated. The beast took over. It knew what it wanted and everything else faded into insignificance. Its power over him was so strong, even his brother’s feelings ceased to matter.
For three nights he’d lain awake, torturing himself for his own treachery. It wasn’t so much what had happened –- after all, there was little enough he could have done to prevent her, he had to keep reminding himself –- it was the undeniable fact of his intense pleasure that filled him with gnawing guilt. Worse, simply thinking about it afterwards stirred the heat in his loins. His head felt shame, his belly felt only lust.
He’d tried to hold back. He’d tried everything he could think of. He imagined Pa standing over him with a scowl as black as thunder; he imagined Hoss and Kitty being married; he imagined confessing his duplicity to Hoss; nothing worked. Holding back just made the ending more inevitable. When he felt himself sliding -– unbelievably — inside her, he knew he was lost. He was trapped in a delicious nightmare, trembling on the edge of the unthinkable. He couldn’t have stopped himself if his life had depended on it. And then it was done. It was over. And as he drifted back to cold reality, he knew with a heavy heart that life had suddenly become very complicated.
And now it was even more complicated. Joe gazed up at the woman with a mixture of fear and fascination, so beautiful and so remote. He had known the instant she dropped the blouse from her shoulders that the beast would win again. He could feel it surging through his blood, pulsing in his groin, thudding in his heart. Her reality was better than anything he’d ever dreamed. He’d wanted so much to touch her, to explore her soft, white curves. And she presented herself to him like an offering. No demands for words or explanations. A kindred spirit, asking simply to know and be known.
He’d wanted it to last forever but when she’d turned her back and bent over to remove her skirt and stockings, it was nearly over for him there and then. He’d held on with gritted teeth. And then she leaned over and brushed her lips over his throbbing, aching shaft and he’d thought he was about to explode, except he could see her naked hips, the forbidden triangle of her rose-gold hair and the thought of discovering for himself what lay within almost stopped him breathing.
He could feel his injured shoulder twitch to be free as she knelt astride him and he ran his hand over the rounded smoothness of her buttocks and felt the hot, moist place tucked beneath. A heady delirium almost overwhelmed him as he slid his hand between her soft, creamy thighs, glimpsing the dark, mysterious folds of flesh even as his fingers touched them.
He lost all sense of time and place then. Even Hoss was reduced to a niggling doubt in a vast, warm lake of musky sweetness. Her breath came in heavy gasps, interspersed with sharp catches, and tiny moans of pleasure that swelled in him an anticipation he could already barely contain. Spellbound, he watched her face react to the working of his fingers. He had never given any thought to a woman’s gratification. Somehow he had imagined that moment of intense release happened only to men. He was panting almost as hard as she was as he explored the warm, succulent opening to her body, and drunk with exhilaration, slid his finger inside. She drew a sharp breath and drove down on his hand as he pushed harder and deeper into the soft, hot, intoxicating darkness.
If she hadn’t jerked away at that moment, the intensity of the excitement they had reached would surely have been enough to finish him. Now he was glad she had distracted him enough to pull him back, to wonder at her loveliness as she stretched her back and uttered her small, helpless murmurs of bliss, while he waited tense and rigid, motionless inside her.
And then he felt her tighten around him, felt the powerful pull of her muscles as they contracted. He had been so close for so long, when the moment of release finally gripped him, it was with such force he too cried out in a strangled gasp; relief so exquisite it was almost agony. The fierce spurts drove him upwards, thrusting deep, deep inside her. He had never felt anything so good, so satisfying, so perfect.
She tried to pull away. He uttered a choked yawp of protest and clutched at her with one desperate hand as the powerful spasms swept through him, undiminished. But she was clambering away, abandoning him. He gave a yelp of anguished despair and his eyes flew open.
He made another sound then, a strangled cry of horrified dismay, as he saw what had disturbed her. In the doorway, eyes wide and white, stood Oma and Hoss. He heard Kitty’s voice wail, “No, Oma! Don’t!” at the same time as his shocked senses registered the shotgun in Oma’s hands. Even as he braced himself, wincing inwardly, for the blast of the gun, he saw that she was raising it, stock down, a look of fury contorting her face as she headed for him. Instinctively he curled his arm around his face as she prepared to ram the butt down into his head. Kitty yelled again, and tried to grab the gun from her grandmother’s hands. Oma gave a bellow of rage, Joe tensed, and a deafening explosion reverberated around the room. Something heavy fell across him, crushing his injured leg. He cried out in pain.
For a confused moment, as he lowered his arm, he wondered why he wasn’t dead. Then he saw the spattered crimson bedewing the sheets, and Kitty’s pale body, sprawled across him, one side of her face completely missing. Horror and revulsion seized him. He turned his head just in time to vomit over the side of the bed.
He saw everything else as if through a buzzing mist. Hoss reached out and took the shotgun from Oma’s hands. She didn’t resist, just stood staring in disbelief at what had happened, muttering, “Oh no, Kitty! No, no!” Joe couldn’t move either, even though Kitty’s weight was sending waves of nauseating pain through his leg. It was Hoss who dealt with that too. Standing the shotgun in the corner of the room, he crossed to the bed. Tugging free one of the bundled blankets now in a heap at the foot of the bed, he wrapped it with some difficulty around the body of the young woman, thankfully covering her decimated head, and lifted her bodily. Joe winced as the weight was removed from his thigh, but Hoss gave no sign he even knew Joe was there. Nobody said a word. Hoss went out of the room, with the dead girl in his arms, and Oma turned and followed him, pulling the door to behind her. Joe was left alone.
He lay in a mess of melting snow and wondered at the pristine blueness of the sky above. Cochise leaned his nose down and nudged at his shoulder and Joe winced. It was still sore. But it could have been worse. Could have dislocated it again when he fell. It didn’t matter in the long run, but that dislocated shoulder had hurt like hell, and if he was going to die, lying here under an absurdly beautiful sky, it was easier to do it without that extra burden.
He didn’t remember falling. He didn’t remember much about riding at all, except how much it hurt. He didn’t even know how far he’d managed to get before pain and exhaustion defeated him. All he knew was that it had still been dark when he fell and now it was morning and the sky was a perfect blue, and he could go no further.
For more than two whole days he and Hoss had not spoken and Joe had begun to wonder if they would ever speak again. Hoss was not Hoss anymore. The silent, stony-faced man hunched in the driving seat of the ramshackle buckboard was a stranger and his coldness frightened Joe. In the terrible moments after the shotgun blast, when the world had slowed and faded into unreality behind a grey mist, Joe had struggled to get himself out of bed and dressed. He had had no idea what he was doing; just knew he had to find his clothes and get away from the house somehow. He’d managed to free his left arm from its bindings, and his shoulder was useable but sore, but his left leg refused to hold him. The pain that had shot through the bone of his thigh every time he tried to walk was enough to make him cry out. When Hoss returned, he’d been slumped in a trembling, half dressed heap on the floor. Hoss had made no comment on Joe’s ludicrous predicament, simply hauled him up by his good arm and dragged him out through the house and into the yard. The wagon had been waiting; Oma hunched and silent on the seat. Joe had been deposited like a sack of grain in the back, beside Kitty’s shrouded body. Hoss had tossed his coat at him, still without a word.
Miserable and shaking, Joe huddled in the back of the wagon, trying not to think about Kitty’s shattered face beneath the blanket. It was a grim journey. Three times they’d become stranded in deep snow -– the reason he later discovered that Oma and Hoss had abandoned their original attempt to reach Redwater. Only Hoss’s unsinkable strength and stubborn determination got the wagon moving again. And still nobody spoke.
Two days out from Redwater, there had been no more fresh snow, but there was plenty still lying in the ground, and the nights were especially cold. Joe slept on the back of the buckboard. It was warmer than the ground, but that wasn’t why he slept there. The real reason was because he couldn’t get down without help from Hoss, or pain so severe it all but caused him to swoon.
He didn’t want to ask Hoss for anything. It meant looking into the face of the stranger who had once been his brother. So he managed alone as best he could. And Hoss left him to himself. Hoss could have slept beside him where it was warmer, but he chose to sleep elsewhere, on the cold ground. They didn’t talk about that. They didn’t talk about anything. Hoss made food and put it in front of Joe. So far Joe had not eaten any of it. Hoss would finish his own and wordlessly take away Joe’s untouched plate.
Joe had not looked at the wound in his leg since leaving the farm. Hoss showed no interest. But the pain was worsening. It scared Joe. He kept telling himself he should do something about it. He knew the reason he didn’t, even if he didn’t like to admit it, even to himself. To tend to his leg, he would have to bare it, and he could not deal with the shame of his brother’s eyes on him, remembering.
They had been heading home. Once, that would have filled him with relief. Now he felt only dread. Hoss had wired Pa from the town. Joe had no idea what he’d said. Like he had no idea what Hoss had said to the undertaker and the sheriff; no idea what had happened to Oma; no idea where Hoss had gotten the buckboard that was now carrying them home.
He’d had to leave. What else could he do?
Hoss had tethered the horses to the side of the buckboard. That was lucky. Joe could not have mounted his horse from the ground. His leg plain refused to hold him up, but he could slide from the back of the wagon onto Cochise’s bare back, biting his lip against the fierce protest from his thigh. Hoss had slept on, oblivious, uncaring, rolled in his blankets on the ground.
The blue sky was flawless. Not even the smudge of a cloud. It seemed wrong somehow. It should have been gray and dismal. Joe made no effort to rise. What was the point? Everything hurt, and there was no place to go anyway. He was only eighteen and he’d messed up his life beyond repair. His life, and Hoss’s. And Kitty’s.
Well, Kitty wasn’t messed up anymore. For Kitty it was over. She was dead because of what they’d done, and something inside of Hoss had died too. Joe had destroyed them both. And all because he was weak; because he could not control himself. Because he was ruled by a beast he could not control.
Such a blue, blue sky. He didn’t deserve to die under such a perfect sky.
Cochise nosed him again, as if he couldn’t understand why Joe was lying on his back in the wet snow and making no attempt to rise.
“You’re gonna have to find your own way back, Cooch,” Joe told him, with a small sigh of regret. “I’m not going anywhere anymore.”
Heaven and hell, the borderline was murkier than he’d ever imagined.
Hoss stared down at the bedraggled heap of his brother’s body. The wintry sun had passed its zenith. A few feet away, Cochise nosed the ground where the snow had melted.
“Well, the horse stuck with you,” said Hoss to Joe’s insensible form, “so I guess there must be something worth saving.”
He took hold of Joe’s coat and hauled him to a sitting position. His brother’s head lolled drunkenly. Hoss slid his hand inside the woolen lapel. The melting snow had soaked right through. Joe’s shirt was saturated.
“Damn you, little brother!” he muttered, half angry, half despairing. “As if you ain’t given me trouble enough!”
He gathered Joe’s limp weight into his arms and carried it to the buckboard. His face was stony, but his eyes were sad.
Pain woke Joe at last; the deep, angry pain of his thigh bone. And cold. He was cold through to the very middle of his being. The sky was no longer bright blue. It was a deep indigo, spattered with bright, sharp stars. A cold sky. That seemed right. More fitting than a perfect blue sky.
Someone was touching his leg, where it hurt most. He turned his head and was aware of the smell and scratch of woolen blankets against his skin. He was no longer lying on his back in the snow. There was a fire beside him and a tarp beneath him. In the light of the fire, he saw Hoss, busily absorbed with a pot of steaming water and a wad of cloth, bent close over his aching leg.
“You might have gotten a bit farther if you’d had something to eat,” said Hoss, in a flat voice, not even lifting his head, yet somehow sensing his brother’s return to consciousness. “Told you before, you won’t get far on an empty belly.”
Joe winced as the wet cloth sponged the wound. Speaking felt like a huge effort. “You should have left me there.”
“Yeah,” said Hoss. “It crossed my mind.”
He took up a strip of linen and wound it roughly around Joe’s thigh, seemingly oblivious to the pain he was causing. Joe flinched, bit his lip and looked away. Hoss pulled the blanket back over Joe’s leg and got up to empty the bowl of water.
Joe pushed himself up on his good elbow. “Why didn’t you then? Leave me there?”
Hoss came back to the other side of the fire, but he didn’t look at Joe. Joe saw his own clothes, propped on sticks, drying in the heat of the flames.
“You’re my brother.” Hoss sank down on his haunches and stared moodily into the fire. “If I make you some food, you gonna eat it this time?”
Joe slumped back. “I’m not hungry.”
The silence threatened to swallow them again, but then Hoss said, “I always thought you had more spunk than that, Joe. Running away and lying down to die.”
Joe turned his face away from the fire, into the darkness. Hoss busied himself sorting his own blankets and Joe heard him settle down on the ground.
He couldn’t even die without messing it up! He stared with blank eyes at the stars, shining jewels in the blue-black velvet of night, so cold and so distant. And he thought of Kitty. Was there a star somewhere up there for her? Or was she burning, in judgment, because of what they’d done? The preacher’s voice came back to haunt him as it had haunted him for days. Fornication! It was a harsh word, yet they’d barely known each other. Certainly he hadn’t loved her; not like Hoss did. If he’d have passed her in the street, he’d never even have given her a second glance. And yet, he had loved her womanliness, her detachment, her fearlessness, her wonder.
Adultery? Hoss and Kitty hadn’t gotten as far as marriage, but he’d still taken the woman his brother intended to marry. It had to be as bad; it felt as bad. And then, what about greed? Lechery? He couldn’t deny those. He was marked with guilt as surely as if the beast had branded him across his forehead.
He awoke to a cold dawn breaking in the east. His head ached behind his eyes and he felt as if his remaining strength had been drained out of him in the night. Hoss was moving about, stoking the fire, putting coffee and last night’s leftover beans to heat. He didn’t even glance in Joe’s direction. Joe looked at his clothes, still hanging by the fire. The day ahead was a dark void he did not wish to think about. Cold and stiff, he sat up and dragged himself across the ground until he could tug free his pants and shirt. Hoss spoke then, his voice expressionless.
“You want that leg to heal up, you better deal with that first.” He got up and crossed to the buckboard. When he came back, he had clean dressings and a glazed pot in his hands. Without any comment, he set them down on the edge of Joe’s tarp.
“What’s that?” Joe frowned at the pot.
“Honey,” said Hoss. “I bought some in Redwater. Kitty was right. It helps clean out the wound. If you’ve got any sense, you’ll put it on.”
Joe’s heart made a violent lurch as Hoss’s voice pronounced Kitty’s name. With hands that had started to shake he pulled the blanket from his leg and fumbled the dressing undone.
It was the first time he’d really looked at the ugly wound, dark and angry-looking, and the whole of his thigh inflamed and a deep purplish red. He knew then that Hoss hadn’t been exaggerating when he talked about keeping his leg. Yesterday he had thought he didn’t care about dying, but the reality of losing a limb made him feel physically sick. He could feel his body trembling as he picked up the honey pot. He had not wept for Kitty or for any of the terrible things that had happened, but now, suddenly, without warning, grief rose in his throat and he could not swallow it down. He lowered his head to his raised right knee and buried his face in the coarse wool of the blanket to stifle the sobs he could not hold back.
Hoss spoke cautiously. “Joe?”
Joe pressed his face away. “Leave me alone!”
Struggling furiously with himself, he regained some control, but the tears kept coming in spite of his efforts. He made a clumsy job of wrapping his leg and then struggled into the rest of his clothes. It made him angry to cry so helplessly, and anger made him defiant. Forcing himself to his feet, balancing on his one good foot, he even managed to lurch five steps to the buckboard before the hot flashes of pain inside his brain blinded him. He made a grab for the wagon, missed and fell sprawling with a cry that was as much frustration as pain. Dragging himself back to his feet, swearing and sobbing in a continuous stream, he tumbled again, with a sharp bellow of fury.
Hoss’s hands were beneath his arm. He twisted violently. “Get off me! I don’t need your help!”
Beneath him the ground was slippery with melting snow. Wet and muddy and half blind with rage, he tried again to rise and was almost on his feet before his leg gave out for the third time. Once more, Hoss’s hands were there, and once more Joe cursed loudly and tried to shrug him away.
“I can do it!”
“No, you can’t! That’s pretty obvious. Little Joe, stop this!”
Joe gave another fierce jerk. Hoss let go of him, threw up his hands in despair and marched back to the fire. Sinking down on his blanket, he reached for the coffee pot. Joe slumped in the mud, chest heaving, exhausted. After a few moments, he heard the clank of a cup hit the ground and turned his head.
Hoss was hunched over his knees, his hands clasped behind his neck, rocking back and forth, his great shoulders heaving.
“Hoss?” Joe stared in horror. Hoss kept rocking.
“Hoss, don’t!” Dragging his body across the ground, Joe reached his brother and stretched out a tentative hand to the broad back, his own voice still unsteady. “Don’t, Hoss. Don’t.”
Hoss made strange whimpering noises, like a small frightened dog. Joe leaned his head against his brother’s arm and stroked his back. “Hoss, don’t,” he whispered again, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m sorry.” He kept repeating it over and over, but Hoss just kept rocking, and making little high pitched moans of anguish. Joe pressed his face into Hoss’s sleeve and his tears soaked into the wool of his brother’s coat, but still Hoss seemed oblivious, trapped in his own desolation. Joe tried to pull him closer, but Hoss was too big, too solid to move, so he hugged him as best he could, still murmuring his futile pleas and apologies.
At last the tension began to ease from Hoss’s taut shoulders. Joe kept his arm tight around him. Still without raising his head, Hoss said, “How could you do it, Little Joe? How could you do it?”
Joe shook his head in misery. “I’m sorry,” he whispered for the umpteenth time.
“You knew how I felt about her.”
Joe tried to think of something to say, but he wasn’t sure he could speak, even if he could have thought of something helpful.
Hoss drew a shuddering breath. “Oh God, Joe!” he muttered, raising his head at last and running his hands over his wrung-out face.
Joe stroked the arm that was damp from his own tears. “If I could change it, Hoss, I would.”
Hoss shook his head slowly as though it weighed too heavily on his shoulders. “It’s too late.”
“I know. I know. You’re right to hate me.” Joe drew his arms away.
Hoss stared at the fire for a long minute. Then he took another quivering breath. He turned his face to look at Joe, his eyes hollow and red-rimmed. “Hate you?” he said, blankly. He looked back at the flames and frowned. “I don’t hate you, Joe.”
The October sun was barely above the horizon yet, but it wasn’t the temperature that made Joe pull his coat closer around him. He shrank down into himself as if he hoped to find some refuge that way from the misery engulfing him.
“I did hate you,” said Hoss, his voice as empty of warmth as the air. “When I walked into that room and saw the two of you; I hated you then.”
Joe’s insides curled. He pushed his chin down into his lapel to hide his face from his brother.
“But then…well, you know what happened then. When that gun went off, and…” Hoss’s voice broke and he had to stop for a few seconds. “Well, after that, there didn’t seem much point in hating you.”
“I tried to stop her.” It sounded a feeble excuse even to Joe’s ears. “To begin with. But then…”
“You got carried away. Yeah, I could see that.”
“There wasn’t anything between us. Not really. It was just…”
He saw Hoss grimace. “I ain’t sure you’re making it any better, Joe.”
“No,” said Joe, in a hopeless voice, and felt the tears burn afresh.
Hoss stirred and pushed himself up from the ground. “We’d better get moving or we’ll never get home.”
He made to rise and then dropped down again. He spoke hesitantly.
“There’s…there’s something you should know, Joe. When I was talking to the sheriff in Redwater, seems he’d already chased off those renegade injuns. Said there was no way they’d have been over where we were that day. And then he questioned the old lady and… and it turns out it was her shot you.”
Joe gaped at him, uncomprehending. “I…I don’t understand. Why?”
Hoss’s shrug was noncommittal. “Seems like she wanted a husband for her granddaughter, real bad. She laid a trap and we walked right into it”
Joe stared at him, his mind suddenly numb.
“She used us both, Joe.”
There was a long awkward silence. Then Hoss cleared his throat and said in a voice much more like his normal one, “You want a coffee?”
Joe nodded. Hoss seemed relieved to have something useful to do and there was something immensely reassuring to Joe in accepting the cup from his brother’s hand. When the silence had stretched out again, Joe said in a voice none too steady, “I think there’s something wrong with me, Hoss.”
“Hoss raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? What?”
“You know…with women. I can’t…” Joe bit his lip and shook his head as if he could shake the torment out of it. “Do you remember that preacher, Hoss? The one who said about the mark of the beast? Well, that’s me. There’s something inside me that’s plain evil.”
Hoss stared at him oddly. Joe sank his head onto his good knee and cringed inwardly, once more dangerously close to crumbling. Hoss said nothing for a long moment, then, out of nowhere, he laughed, an odd, strained sound. Joe looked up, surprised.
“It isn’t funny,” he protested, unable to keep the alarm out of his voice.
Hoss stopped laughing and instantly the cloud came back down over his face. “No, you’re right; it’s not.” He shook his head. “But you ain’t evil, Little Joe.”
“I don’t know how you can say that after…after what happened.”
Hoss frowned. “Bad things happen, Joe. We all do crazy things. I was a fool to think Kitty loved me.”
“No,” Joe put in quickly, but Hoss shook his head.
“It’s true. I was just flattering myself. Gals don’t…well, they don’t fall for me like they do for you, little brother. When she started paying attention to me…I guess it kinda turned my head.”
“She didn’t love me, Hoss. She just fell in love with…with an idea.” Joe swilled the coffee around in his cup while he tried to think what to say. “And I would have told you. I wanted to…after the first time it happened.”
“The first time!” Hoss’s head swiveled, his stare incredulous. “Exactly how many times were there?”
Joe flushed a deep shade of crimson. “Just twice,” he said quickly. “I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t know how. I…I was…well, it was just…humiliating, I guess. You know, I woke up and she was…just there. Staring at me. She pulled off the blankets, and….” He lowered his face onto his arm again as his insides shrank away. Hoss was silent beside him. Trying to explain was impossible. He couldn’t even get his voice to come out clearly. “I didn’t want to. Honestly, Hoss….I said no, but she…she…” He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried not to remember. “I knew it was wrong, but…well, when she touched me, I just kind of…couldn’t help myself. It’s like I said, there’s something wrong with me.”
He could feel Hoss’s eyes boring into him, shriveling his courage into an even smaller ball inside him. He was trembling again. The terrible silence seemed to drag on forever. Then he flinched as Hoss laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Joe twisted his face to him, but he couldn’t meet his brother’s gaze. His throat had constricted into a lump so tight he could force out only a husky whisper. “I’m so sorry, Hoss. If it hadn’t been for me, she’d still be alive.”
Hoss’s hand rested on the back of his neck. “Listen, Joe, you weren’t responsible for that. If anyone’s to blame, it’s the old lady.” After a moment of consideration, he went on, speaking slowly. “I guess it was the shock as much as anything. Finding the two of you…like that. And it’s hard to believe that Kitty…it’s just…well, she seemed so shy. So quiet. Just trying to imagine….”
Joe fingered the rim of his coffee cup, his insides squirming. “She had real respect for you Hoss. She…” His face was burning. “I don’t think she saw me as a person at all.” He didn’t have to look round to feel Hoss’s pained gaze fixed on him.
“You know,” said Hoss after a few moments of thought, “sometimes I’m real jealous of you, little brother, the way the gals trip over themselves to get at you. And sometimes I’m just plain glad I ain’t got that to deal with.”
“You’re a better person than I am, Hoss.”
“I don’t know about that.” Hoss stared down into his empty coffee cup and shrugged. “In your place, I’d probably have done the same.”
Joe stared at him in surprise. “Would you? Really?”
Hoss’s cheeks colored up. “I’m just flesh and blood, same as you are, Little Joe.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just….” Joe looked down and there was another stretch of silence, then he raised his head again. “Hoss, you ever…have you…you know?”
Hoss blushed deeper than ever. “What kind of a question is that, Joe?” He tightened his mouth and gave an embarrassed shrug. “Well, since you ask, yeah, a couple of times. And I ain’t proud of it either. Saloon girls, before you ask. First time, I got talked into it by some other fellers who shoulda known better. Second time, I’d had way too much liquor. It weren’t right, Joe, not for me. I know that now. Other fellers, they don’t think twice. But I ain’t going down that road no more. I want me a wife I can care for.”
“I wish I could be like you, Hoss. But soon as a pretty girl smiles at me…well, you know.”
Hoss’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, I do know, Joe. But it gets easier. That feller downstairs, he ain’t got no brain, you just remember that. You gotta do the thinking for him. You got to be stronger than he is. Kinda like riding a frisky horse.”
Joe managed half a smile.
“You’ll work it out.” Hoss told him. The silence moved in again, but it had lost its cold edge at last. They sat shoulder to shoulder, watching the flames for a long while, then Hoss stirred again and lifted his head. “Time’s getting on. We should be packing up and heading on homewards.”
Joe’s stomach knotted afresh. He dropped his gaze.
“What’s up, Joe? You wanna go home, don’t you?”
Joe said nothing. Facing up to Hoss was one thing, facing up to Pa and Adam was quite another.
Joe tightened his shoulders. “I can’t, Hoss. I can’t tell Pa and Adam. I just can’t.”
Hoss picked up the coffee pot and threw the dregs onto the fire. In silence they watched the flames hiss and spit. When Hoss spoke again, his voice was thoughtful.
“You know, Little Joe, I don’t tell Pa everything.”
Joe lifted his face and for the first time, he felt a glimmer of hope reach his eyes.
“You’re my brother. We’ll work this out between us. We can get through it.” Hoss got to his feet, brushed himself off, and thrust out his arm. “Come on, let me give you a hand.”
As he helped Joe clamber onto the buckboard, Hoss rested his hand on his brother’s good leg. “You know, Joe, that preacher you mentioned? That was some chip he was carrying on his shoulder! I wouldn’t let it get to you, boy. There’s a difference between real evil and making a mistake. Maybe one is the mark of the beast, but the other? Well, that’s just being human. And God sure ain’t gonna punish us for being human ’cause that’s the way he made us.” He frowned as he thought about it. “Besides which, little brother, you do a good enough job of punishing yourself.”
For the first time in days, Joe met his brother’s gentle blue gaze and held it firmly. Tears still blurred his gaze, but now they were tears of gratitude. Hoss gave his leg a gentle squeeze.
“Come on, Joe, let’s go home!”
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please consider leaving a review, however short. I’m always pleased to receive comments via PM too.
Other Stories by this Author
- Julia (by Inca / aka Tye)
- The Secret (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Unto Us a Son (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Last Christmas (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Sweet Revenge (by Inca / aka Tye)