Friday, August 17, 2012
This is updated with the final chapter of this story. I can't believe I actually finished. It can be done! I've still got Dillon on the brain so expect a couple more of the Gunsmoke fics. "Prodigal Soul" is up next for completion -- I made drunken promises at the Vegas con that I would get right on it.
Thanks for Spockjonesing.
*No beta. All my fubars are belong to me.
~~After the Gallows
And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed close behind him. –Revelation 6:8
Almost all lies are acts, and speech has no part in them. – Mark Twain
If you read the Bible, the only good day to be had in Egypt is the day you leave it.
A typhoid epidemic in Cairo took my mother and my brother Lucien but spared my father and me. When we were barely well enough to travel, Father got us as far away from Egypt as he could. We were sickly when we boarded the ship to America and half-dead when we landed in Boston. We were ghosts by the time we changed trains in St. Louis, wretchedly thin and lungs full of coal smoke, traveling across the prairie on a moonless night, the lights of Dodge City blinking in the distance like fireflies trapped in black cotton.
We brought with us the monsoons, breaking the four-year drought, turning the dirt from the powdery, pinkish gray of incinerated bones to the color of burned coffee. The prairie seemed to rise six inches, the thick mat of grass swelling with juice, the roots streaked blood red and tough enough to prevent the hoof of a horse punching through a prairie dog hole.
My father received an appointment auditing accounts for the War Department. He negotiated the contract by mail, his status as an Anglican priest vetting enough for the Army still doing damage control after the Ridge Town scandal. The position was stationed at Fort Dodge, out on the high plains of southern Kansas. There were no quarters for women or families at the fort but they would allow one fourteen year old boy to share a bunk room with his widower father.
The problem was that I was neither fourteen years old, nor was I a boy.
I suppose the disguise was my idea. I loved my mother and I mourned her as much as any child who loses a mother too soon. But Lucien was my twin. We’d never been apart, not even for a day. Grief cleaved me in half. It was a living thing within me, seizing my heart and wringing the air from my lungs. I began wearing his clothes and when I stuffed my hair under a cap, it was Luc’s face that gazed back at me from the mirror. I couldn’t let him go.
My father, listless with sorrow, did not discourage my behavior. When the contract came through, I looked at him and said, “It is only one year.”
In the end, the prohibition against women was the least of our problems. The Calvary was segregated and there were no Negro troops at Fort Dodge. A black man could not live there, not even a priest. There was nothing to be done for it. It would be months until the Army found another man and they needed someone right away. An embarrassed Colonel Honeyman escorted us back to Dodge City, where no one seemed to care what race we were as long as we weren’t Indian.
To the people of Dodge, we were only that Frenchman preacher and his boy.
Doc Adams took one look at me and knew I was a girl. He said nothing—unless you understood Doc’s sign language. He twitched his mustache, tugged on his ear, took off his hat then put it back on. Marshal Dillon studied me with narrowed eyes.
Father and I set up in the storefront below Doc’s office and moved into the two-room living space above. We placed a placard with the War Department seal in the window and raised a flag on a post outside the office every morning. When Father lined the walls with shelves and filled them with our books, any thought of us living a quiet, anonymous life in Dodge went out the window. People came in to borrow books and to use the massive dictionary father kept on a wooden podium by the door. Father also wrote letters for illiterate cowboys for two cents a page, there was always a pot of Army coffee brewing and we had the only complete chess set in town. Chester began referring to the office as “the library” and soon, so did everyone else.
My father lost his faith when my mother and Luc died but he still said mass at Christmas and Easter for the few Catholics in town who settled for an Anglican if they couldn’t have a “real” priest. He would not hear confession nor would he perform communion. Only once would he administer last rites.
I made extra coins grooming for Moss Grimmick and as a bonus, learned quite a few excellent American curse words. In France, the hunt was also a ladies’ sport and I was a crack shot with a small rifle. When I occasionally sat in for Chester as helper companion for Doc when he had to travel far out, I bagged a few guinea fowl for the table. Even as Doc groused about my bringing a gun on his rounds, he was lured by the aroma of French cooking and took supper with us often. He and my father became fast friends and fierce chess opponents.
It wasn’t all chess and coq au vin. The streets were ankle-deep mud half the time and choking, sifted- flour dust the other. There were August flies and seed ticks, insane buffalo hunters, shootings and brawls, rattlesnakes, sub-zero winters, boiling summers, outlaws and Texas cowboys. Sewage ran in streams behind the buildings and shit and garbage drifted in wet piles beneath the boardwalks such that on a hot day, even the stables were a welcome relief. We didn’t drink water that Father hadn’t first boiled or tinted with whiskey. Drunken trail hands relieved themselves everywhere. The stench of unwashed bodies, full spittoons and leather soured by horse lather fumed from the open doors of saloons and no amount of pine sawdust and scrubbing could cover the smell of wood floors steeped in the blood of a gut-shot drifter. The odor hovered faintly, like death waiting.
There were three other Negro families living in Dodge and there was enough Yankee liberalism and Southern politeness for them to abide in relative peace. They lived side-by-side in rather grand New Orleans Queen Anne townhouses, just far enough from the squalor of Rat Town not to be included in that neighborhood but not quite far enough into New Dodge to be considered part of the gentry. I once saw a tall black man in a finely tailored suit, embroidered waistcoat, buff top hat and smoked glass spectacles in conversation with the Marshal. He rode past me on his Justin Morgan horse without giving me a glance. I only saw the others when Father said the holiday mass. They turned up their Creole noses at my African genetics, even though my family was seven generations in Marseille. My father was Algerian, his skin the rosy golden color of a ripe peach. I inherited the café noir complexion of my mother’s Ghanaian ancestry. In France, we were more apt to be identified by my father’s profession or his family’s holdings than his heritage but Father and I took our cues from the other people of color in Dodge City. We never ate at Delmonico’s and I stayed off Front Street when the drovers came during cattle season.
But nights were quiet on our end of Front Street. Dillon’s office was across the street, three doors down. We were on slightly higher ground than the rest of Dodge, sewage didn’t pool behind our building and the prevailing wind brought with it the hot popped corn smell of drying prairie grass and the sweet scent of night blooming moonflowers. On warm summer nights, I would lie in bed and listen to the distant tink tink of the player piano in the Long Branch, the low, warm murmur of Father and Doc debating Spinoza in the library below and Chester singing “Run Rabbit run/the dog’s gonna catch ya/ Run Rabbit run/ you better get away” at the jail. I’d drift on the edge of sleep until the sound of the Marshal’s boots on the boardwalk passed beneath my window.
At the end of the year, Colonel Honeyman renewed Father’s contract with a substantial increase. I believe he felt guilty for exiling us to Dodge. By then, Father was not only writing love letters for cowboys but was also pulling a tidy side income preparing documents for ranchers and business owners from as far away as Hays City.
I had recurring bouts of fever that Doc Adams would diagnose, not as the remnants of typhoid but as an immune system compromised by grief. It was more than a year before I could keep a bit of flesh on my bones. Hollows started to fill in and angles started to curve. My breasts went from apricots to peaches. Bib pants and Lucien’s shirts hid that evidence, but would not for much longer.
Doc shared supper with us the evening of my seventeenth birthday. He finally broke his silence.
“Did you really think that girl wouldn’t grow up, Lémieux?” he said. He cocked a brow held up a finger. “Don’t start. I’m a doctor. I know a girl child when I see one. What were you thinking?”
Father sighed. “I was doing more grieving than thinking, Galen,” he said.
Doc tugged thoughtfully on his ear. “Grief’s brought more than one man to Dodge.”
“My original contract was for one year then we would return to Paris.”
“Why in thunder did you sign another?”
“I had four thousand reasons, mon ami.”
“Four thousand? I’m in the wrong business,” sighed Doc.
“More than enough for Sorbonne, a shop, a small townhouse. I would not leave her in Paris alone,” said Father. He looked at me. “Je ne vous partirais jamais, petit,” he said.
“I know, papa,” I said.
“I’m an old man. I had no business starting a family so late in my life.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“I could talk to Honeyman. Make him understand,” said Father.
“They’d send you to prison, Vicar,” said Doc.
“When I had my faith, I was an honest man.”
“You’re still an honest man. No one can fault you for wanting to keep your child with you.”
“I do not mind staying a boy,” I said.
“Well, that’s good because you’re going to have to for another year,” said Doc. “What’s your real name, by the way? Is Jimmy short for Jennifer? Janey?”
Doc chuckled. “I would say that’s unusual but I delivered a girl named Michael. By golly, that baby could caterwaul. She’d be about your age now, maybe a little older. Yardner was the family name. Mike Yardner. She was going to be something. Anyway.”
We waited a few moments. You had to let Doc wind down, complete his thought. If you didn’t know him, you might think he rambled but everything he said was relevant to the conversation.
“Come here, little one,” he said, motioning me over. Doc never treated me like I was a boy—he didn’t treat me like a girl, either—at least not when anyone was watching. He had taken to randomly checking my temperature with a cool hand to my forehead, ignoring the glass thermometer attached to a fob pinned to his waistcoat. Now, he cuddled me to his side and pressed his lips to my temple for good measure. “Not too bad, not bad at all. It’s the rosehips. The Pawnee know a thing or two about medicine. My advice is to keep insisting James Anna here is a boy,” said Doc. “Most people only see what you tell them they’re looking at.” He looked out the window at the small brick building across the street. His arms tightened around me. “Most people.”
“Don’t put yourself where trouble can find you,” my mother always said.
I tried to keep my distance from Dillon—going out when he was coming in, greeting him with a nod from across the street, doing what I could to only see him in passing--but it seemed, if he wasn’t already where I was going, he arrived soon after I got there. I could feel him watching me, more curious than suspicious, trying to measure what his eyes were seeing against what his instinct was signaling. He held doors for me and relieved me of the heavy boxes of Army ledgers that I carried to and from the depot. He hovered protectively as we maneuvered around roughhousing cowboys on the boardwalk, his fingers gripping my elbow or his warm hand resting lightly against the small of my back. Dillon was at Quint Asper’s one day when I brought in his spare horse for shoeing. Before I could dismount, he reached up and lifted me off the horse’s bare back with his hands around my waist, startling us both. He nearly dropped me when Quint brought his hammer down on a hot horseshoe.
Dillon was attracted to me and didn’t understand it. His gaze lingered on my thin wrists and traced the line of my neck. I would adjust my posture, rolling my shoulders forward, sinking my chest, trying to project the impression of a frail and bookish boy. I didn’t believe that he would haul me into his office and take down my pants; but given time and opportunity, he would figure it out.
Part of me half-hoped he would.
Dillon didn’t have to try hard to draw a woman’s attention. He would’ve had mine under any circumstance. Each time I saw him, I was surprised by how big he was. He radiated heat and strength and standing next to him was like standing next to a horse. He vaguely referenced a rowdy youth but he was courtly and well-read, his manner almost genteel. A conversation with him consisted of his listening quietly, while you spilled all of your secrets. His hat, boots and saddle were plain but expensive, his hands calloused but well-groomed, his teeth healthy and white. If I didn’t know him, I would’ve thought him born with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps the son of a wealthy rancher. I discovered; however, that these were not the trappings of wealth. Dillon was not a frivolous man. His needs were few but they were costly.
I’d peer at him from my window while he sat in front of his office, long legs stretched out before him, ankles crossed, arms folded and pretending to sleep. I was still female under these boys’ clothes and I responded to him the way a woman would. The sight of him standing in the sunlight made me blush with my entire body. I wanted to touch Dillon, to slide my hands up his chest and over his shoulders. I wanted to grip his hair in both my hands and kiss his mouth. I wanted to feel the weight of him on me.
I knew I was being foolish. I knew that he occasionally visited Kitty Russell in her rooms late at night. I knew that the ivory cameo and expensive perfumes that she described as “sort of presents” were from Dillon. But I once watched him begin a game of Solitaire while he sat across a table from her. I got the message, even if Kitty didn’t. Dillon would never settle with any woman, and certainly not with a skinny Negro girl.
At any rate, in a year, he would be part of my history.
I stood on the boardwalk with Doc and watched the Marshal mount his horse. He was taking poor Pruitt Dover to hang at the gallows in Hays City. It was a bitter business. The day was cold and bright and the sun picked out golden highlights in Pruitt’s bent head as my father administered his last rites. He smiled with bemusement when Father traced a cross in oil on his forehead then kissed him softly on the lips.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritūs Sancti” said Father. “Go with God, my son.”
“Thanks, Padre,” said Dover.
Father turned to the marshal but Dillon looked away, his face grim.
I choked back tears but Doc allowed his to roll freely down his cheeks. Dover shook hands with Chester, turned and waved at Doc, bemused, sunny smile still on his face. I felt Doc grope for my hand and I gripped his fingers in mine. Doc lifted our hands to his chest and held them there. In that moment, Dillon looked over at us. I removed my hand from Doc’s and took a half-step away. Dillon gazed at me with a level of grief in his eyes I recognized in my own. He touched a finger to the brim of his hat, wheeled his horse around and he and Dover rode away.
“He’ll let him go,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” said Doc.
The Marshal was two days overdue from Hays the morning I took his spare horse out. It was an hour before sunrise. The grass shivered in the warm pre-dawn breeze and the low full moon slicked the prairie with silver. An Indian summer took hold the day after Dillon left and the sky had lowered like a blue glass lid, holding the heat close to the ground. I dreamt of Lucien several nights in a row and my throat ached from the tears lodged there. This was the year we planned to go to Sorbonne--Luc to read for law and I to study medicine. My heart felt too large in my chest and I could feel in my limbs the peculiar, watery weakness that preceded one of my fevers.
I’d discovered a spring in an outcropping of rock that topped the crest of a hill in an askew circle like a jester’s crown. The boulders formed a natural fortress that cupped a clear, deep pool in its center and when I floated on my back with the blue sky bowed above me, I felt like I was the only person alive in the world. I needed to soak in the cool water, cry for my brother and curse the God I still loved.
I put a jar of cold café au lait, a packet of calas, a bar of soap and clean pantaloons into a flour sack and headed to the stable to get Dillon’s Bay mare. She liked to run and I was less than half of her owner’s weight. I slapped her rump lightly with the reins and we pounded down the road out of Dodge.
When we reached the hill of my hidden spring, I tied off a long lead and gave the horse a couple of withered apples to munch. I tugged off my woolen cap and unrolled the chignon pinned tightly at my nape. My hair sprang free and I did not look forward to detangling the tight ringlets. The fever came on full force, my head hurt and I carelessly stripped off my clothes as I climbed. I stood on a boulder and squinted through the haze of my headache, massaging the back of my neck with one hand and pushing down my dungarees with the other.
A big Indian buckskin cropped grass in the trees on the other side of the hill.
My thought that the horse looked familiar was almost idle as I as I stepped out of my pants. I looked to my left and saw undergarments, tan canvas pants, a red shirt and a suede vest airing on sticks stuck upright in the cracked rocks. A gun belt with an empty scabbard sprawled nearby. I looked to my right.
Matt Dillon lay naked, three feet away.
I stood frozen, my pulse pounding in my ears. It wasn’t his nudity that stunned me. In a town like Dodge, the sight of a naked cowboy was not uncommon. Dillon was on his back with his face turned to the sunrise.
I thought he was dead.
I pressed a trembling hand to my eyes when I saw his chest rise and fall. I swallowed hard and tried to still my galloping heart. He turned his head toward me.
There were dark smudges under his eyes and he looked exhausted, even in his sleep. His brow furrowed as if his dreams troubled him. He’d needed a haircut when he left for Hays City and now, two weeks later, chestnut curls tumbled over his forehead. His skin was smooth but punctuated with scars. He’d gotten very lean of late and the way his belly sank below his ribs pained me more than his wounds. A wince twitched over his features and he made a small sound in his throat. His eyes fluttered open. He stared at me. He blinked once, slowly. I saw myself in his eyes: a skinny, wild-haired black girl clad only in loose, cut off pantaloons.
I turned to flee.
Dillon’s hand shot out and clamped around my ankle. He snatched me off my feet, rolled me onto my back and pinned me beneath him. He pushed my hair from my face, grabbed my chin and roughly turned my head from side to side. His eyes dropped quickly to my chest then came back to my face.
“You’re a girl,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Marshal. I didn’t see anything,” I said.
“You’re a girl.”
“I wasn’t spying. I just came to—I come here to--.”
“I could’ve killed you,” he yelled.
“I didn’t know you were here.”
He examined my face, running his thumb across my cheek and sifting my hair between his fingers. I could feel his ribs expand and contract with his breathing. I could feel his heart beating and the soft, heavy warmth of his sex pressed against my thigh. He smelled of wood smoke and horse and testosterone.
I pressed my palms lightly to his chest. “You’re crushing me, Marshal,” I said.
His face darkened. “Don’t call me that,” he said.
He rolled to his feet and snatched his pants off its stick. He glared at me, making no attempt to cover himself. The sun had not yet broken the horizon but his skin glowed in the growing dawn. A healing bullet wound glared red just above where his heart would be. I saw he held his gun by his side. I brought my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them.
“Were you going to shoot me?” I asked.
“You shouldn’t be on the prairie by yourself,” he said. He turned his back and pulled on his pants.
“I can take care of myself.”
“Where’s your rifle?”
My rifle was in the boot of my saddle on the horse tethered at the other side of the hill. Dillon was right. I should’ve had my rifle with me. It was lunacy for a woman to come out here to bathe, alone, naked and unprotected. I never liked being told what to do and I liked being wrong even less. My ears rang with fever but I couldn’t resist pushing back.
“No one knows about this place,” I said.
He picked up his gun belt and shoved his gun in the scabbard. He laid the belt on a rock and turned to me with his hands on his hips.
“There are people who believe the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t apply to them, Jimmy,” he said.
“It has been years since slavery was abolished,” I said, raising my chin. “I have more to fear from the Indians.”
He seized me by the arms and yanked me to my feet. He bent his head until our faces were close and gave me a shake hard enough to click my teeth together.
“Indians are the least of your worries,” he said. “Despite what they told you over in France, there are men who will pluck you from the prairie and drop you on a sugar plantation in Cuba. And that’s if you’re lucky.”
“Mr. Dillon, you are hurting me,” I said.
“What if it wasn’t me you found here?” he said. “I could’ve been anybody.” His fingers squeezed my upper arms. “Men are capable of dark and terrible things.”
“Please, Mr. Dillon.”
He released me abruptly. I stumbled back and nearly tipped into the pool. His face was pale, his fists were clenched and his chest heaved. He looked down at his hands and unclenched them.
“You need to go,” he said. “Go home.”
I couldn’t make my feet move but my whole body trembled.
He stepped away from me. “Go get your clothes.”
Shame washed over me in a hot wave. I folded my arms over my bare breasts. My eyes filled and spilled over.
“Don’t you cry,” said Dillon.
I wasn’t going to cry until he told not to. A sob broke from my throat.
“Look, just--.” Dillon sighed heavily. “Shit,” he said. He dug his kerchief out of his pocket and pushed it into my hand. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Stop crying.”
“I am not crying because of you,” I said.
“It’s not safe out here, Jimmy.”
“I only wanted to take a bath. To be alone for a while.”
Dillon ran a hand through his hair and looked out over the prairie. “Yeah, me too,” he said. His skin stretched tightly over his shoulders and his collar bones protruded alarmingly. His pants hung too low on his hips. He scrubbed his hands on his thighs.
“I can’t get the smell of gunsmoke off my skin,” he said. “It’s in my hair, on my clothes. I can taste it in my food.”
The sun broke over the horizon with a blast of hot air. My head thumped and my stomach hitched once, in warning. I felt heavy and weightless at the same time and despite the heat, my skin chilled.
“Mr. Dillon. I think I’m going to faint,” I said.
“And blood. I smell old blood all the time.” He stared at me, confused. “What? What did you say?”
“Oh. Oh, no,” I whispered.
Dillon caught me around the waist with one arm.
“Whoa, Jimmy. Hey, now.”
I heard his voice as if from a great distance. I felt myself being lifted and I stiffened in panic. “I’ve got you,” he said, easing me to the ground, gently cradling my head. “Stay with me, Jimmy.”
“I’m all right. I just need too--.”
“Be still,” he said, kneeling beside me.
He dipped his kerchief into the water and bathed my forehead and neck. His eyes followed the motion of his hand as he stroked down the side of my face, under my chin and across my collarbone. His gaze dropped to my breasts and lingered there. There was no intent in his eyes and he didn’t seem embarrassed.
“We need to get you in to see Doc,” he said.
I sat up. “This…happens to me,” I said. “Doc just makes me drink water and orders me to bed.”
Dillon retrieved a tin cup from his saddlebag. He scooped water from the pool then held the cup to my lips.
“Drink,” he said.
After a few sips, I pushed his hand away. “I am better now,” I said. I tried to stand. My vision blurred.
“Uh huh. You just sit for a while.”
I gazed at his face. He’d turned thirty-nine this year. The line of his jaw was losing the softness of youth and the small crease of concern between his brows was becoming permanent; but he was aging rather slowly for a man who lived every day with the relentlessness of evil.
“Blood soaks into the wood,” I said.
“The Long Branch. It smells bad. Blood decays. Like flesh. It is not your imagination, Mr. Dillon.”
His eyes followed a hawk gliding high above the prairie. He splayed his fingers and massaged his palm with his thumb. His face was sad. He nodded. I reached out and stroked my fingertips through the hair at his temple then laid my hand on his cheek.
The stubble on his chin pricked the inside of my wrist. He closed his eyes.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“You should rest.”
He wrapped his fingers around my forearm and gently removed my hand from his face.
“You’re not fourteen,” he said.
“Are you going to arrest my father?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dillon. For lying.”
“Can you ride?”
“I think so. But Mr. Dillon--.” I looked longingly at the pool. Dillon glanced back.
“Make it quick,” he said.
I rose slowly to my feet. The world tilted for a moment then righted itself. When I slipped into the pool, I dipped under and struggled out of my pantaloons. I looked up at Dillon. “I have to get out again,” I said, pointing to the bag that held my bar of soap.
Dillon reached down and hauled me out. We stood awkwardly for a moment then he turned away. I soaped my pantaloons and used them as a substitute for a wash rag. I glanced at Dillon. He sat on a boulder with a forearm propped on his knee. He gazed out at the prairie.
“Mr. Dillon.” His eyes shifted to me. I nodded at the pool. “You might as well,” I said.
He blinked. “Uh, I’ll just—.”
“You’re choosing now to get red in the face?”
“No, I’m not.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound, Mr. Dillon. Propriety has already been factored out of the equation.”
“I doubt your father would think so.”
“In France, I might have married by twelve.”
“This is Kansas.”
“Then I am of age plus three years.”
“That’s not my point.”
“It’ll take you five minutes,” I said. “I’ll be dressed by the time you’re done.
He gazed at me thoughtfully. “Okay.”
I got back into the pool to wash off the soap. I tread water as I massaged my scalp with my fingers. I dunked under to rinse my hair. I stayed down and let myself float. The water was bright green with sunlight reflected off of the rocks the faced East. I could see Dillon clearly when he jumped in feet first. His penis was thick, his pubic hair dark but sparse. He tread water for a moment then started swimming toward me swiftly. I kicked to the surface. Dillon stopped a foot from me.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
I sat on the edge of the pool and rinsed my pantaloons. Dillon got out and scrubbed himself down with my soap and his kerchief. I watched him. His face and neck were darker but he was lightly tanned all over.
“Do you come here often?”
“When I can, until it gets too cold.”
“I guess it wouldn’t do to get shot in a tin tub at Mr. Teeter’s,” I said.
“No, it wouldn’t.”
He jumped back in and when he came up he pinched the water from his eyes. He rested his arms on the rock ledge. His wet face looked young and vulnerable and very tired.
“You really should rest, Mr. Dillon.”
“We have to get back.”
“When is the last time you ate?”
“Had some beans a couple days ago.”
“When’s the last time you slept?”
His brows crowded in the center of his forehead. “I got about twenty minutes this morning before someone woke me up.”
“I have some callas and café au lait if you’d like some. Calas are sweetened rice rolled—.”
“I know what they are.”
“You should eat something.”
He heaved himself out of the pool and stood over me. The head of his cock was completely exposed now.
“This weather won’t hold for more than a couple more days,” he said.
“We should enjoy it while it lasts,” I said. I barked out a laugh.
Dillon cocked his head.
I waved a hand, indicating our naked bodies. “We’re talking about the weather,” I said.
“I guess I’ll have some of that coffee,” he said.
When I retrieved the jar of coffee, I took a moment to wonder at my lack of astonishment that I’d just had a bath with Matt Dillon – who was still naked as a jay and about to sit down to café au lait and pastry with me. I watched him hold up his undergarments, grimace and stuff them into his saddlebag. He frowned at his dirty canvas pants. He combed the fingers of both hands through his hair and yawned. He picked up his hat and smacked some of the dust out of it.
“This story won’t make any sense when I tell it to my grandchildren,” I said, giving him the coffee.
“So long as I don’t have to explain it to your father.”
We sat on the slab of rock at the edge of the pool. I set the packet of calas between us. Dillon poured coffee into his tin cup. He drank half then handed it to me. I picked up a calas between two fingers and held it out to him.
“They’re a bit messy. It’s best to eat it in one bite,” I said.
He leaned down and opened his mouth. When I hesitated, he dipped his head and captured the rice ball and my fingers with his lips. His mouth was hot and soft. I felt his teeth scrape lightly against the pad of my thumb. I curled my fingers into my palm and held my hand in my lap.
“That’s good,” he said.
“My father likes to cook things he thinks I will eat,” I said.
Dillon picked up a pastry and fed it to me. He withdrew his hand, watching his finger slide from my mouth. He brought his fingers to his own mouth and sucked the powdered sugar from them. The act was so casually intimate that I wondered if this wasn’t one of my fevered dreams.
“Sweets in the morning make me sleepy again,” he said.
He sighed and stretched flat on the warm rock. He picked up his hat and dropped it over his midsection. He closed his eyes.
I could not count all of the scars on his body -- so many, that I wondered if even he knew the story of each one. There were flat circles from entry wounds and tissue puckered like small flowers where bullets exited. There were ridges from knife wounds and curiously, a heart-shaped patch of clear, hairless skin the size of a dollar coin stamped above his right hip, like a tattoo. I reached out to touch it but drew my hand back. On another man, the scars would be disfiguring, but they decorated his vast body like hieroglyphics scored into smooth stone. How was he not dead?
“It’s impolite to stare,” he said.
“Do they hurt?” I asked.
“All of them.”
The sun had barely cleared the horizon and the prairie was blazing hot already. The shops in Dodge would open in about an hour. I started tugging my fingers through my hair, cursing myself that I forgot my comb.
“You had me wondering about myself, Jimmy” said Dillon.
“I tried to stay out of your way.”
He cracked one eye and peered at me. “You do make a very pretty boy.”
“I’m not sure how to take that.”
“That web could’ve gotten pretty tangled.”
“We were perhaps not in our right minds, my father and I” I said. “I thought it would be like a fairy tale.”
“Fairy tales often end badly.”
“And here we are, naked at a secret spring, the girl prince and the immortal knight.”
Dillon chuckled and laid an arm across his eyes. “I’m not immortal,” he said. “Just a tired man.”
“I’m almost done. We can go in a minute.”
I stood and looked toward Dodge. There was no traffic yet on the road in. Dillon’s horse had pulled free of his hitch and found the mare. He nuzzled her rump and she kicked at him half-heartedly.
“Your horse would follow you around like a dog if you let him,” I said.
“He’s pretty dumb,” said Dillon, his voice thick with sleep. His breath deepened and evened out.
I sat cross-legged next to him and began to tedious process of detangling my hair. I felt safe, protected, even while he slept.
I wondered what Lucien would say of this. He would think it through with a small frown, push his spectacles back into place with the side of his finger and come to the conclusion that I was indeed dreaming and frightfully insane. I smiled; and for the first time, no tears came with the thought of him.
I plaited my hair into the long braid that I would coil at the nape of my neck. Dillon lay next to me, snoring softly. I stretched out my legs and leaned back on my palms. The sun stung my bare skin and seemed to press me back against the rocks.
“Jimmy, wake up.”
My eyes flew open to Dillon’s face leaning over me.
“It’s almost ten o’clock. Your father will have the whole town looking for you.”
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry, Mr. Dillon. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” I sat up and let out a yelp.
“Uh huh. Me, too.” Dillon’s face was fiery with sunburn.
“Oh my lord. Mr. Dillon, your face!”
I struggled to my feet and walked gingerly to my pile of clothes.
“My father’s going to kill me.”
“Your father’s going to kill me.”
We slowly dressed with a few choice swear words from both of us. We walked stiffly to the horses and mounted with groans.
“I’m going to leave some skin in these pants when I take them off,” said Dillon.
We rode as quickly as we could, fully expecting to encounter a search party on the road. When we reached Dodge, people went about their business without giving us a second glance. Dillon shrugged with raised brows. We stopped outside of the office. The blinds were up and the flag was raised on the post. I saw my father moving around inside.
“I’ll take care of the horses,” said Dillon.
“Coward,” I said, dismounting carefully. “Oh, that hurts,” I said.
“I’m glad I was wearing my hat,” said Dillon.
The giggle in my chest sputtered into a nervous cough when my father stepped out of the office. His face was solemn.
“Matthew,” he said, hands on hips.
“Father, I can explain,” I said.
He walked over and laid a gentle hand on Dillon’s knee. Dillon’s fingers tightened on the reins.
“A terrible business, yes? Do not fault yourself, son. You did your duty. Everyone understands that -- and no one more than Pruitt Dover.”
I stared at my father with wide eyes.
“Please, have some breakfast with us, Marshal,” he said. “I must confess I overslept. This heat! Long awake and long asleep. No doubt you’ve been up for hours. I made some omelet. It is Jimmy’s favorite. There is plenty.”
“No thank you, Reverend. I need to put up my tired horse,” said Dillon.
“Another time, then,” said Father. He patted Dillon on his sunburned thigh.
Dillon expelled his breath slowly, nodding tightly. Father turned to me.
“Your face looks hot, child. You mustn’t tax yourself in this heat. Go get a cool compress. I’ll have Galen bring you a powder. I heard him stomping around upstairs.” He flapped his hands at me. “Go now, petit. Good day, Matthew. The door is always open.”
I sat on Doc’s examining table, stripped to my underwear.
“All skin burns, James Anna. Not just white skin,” he said. He gave me a steady look over the rim of his glasses. “This is the second case of sunburn I’ve treated today. Some people don’t know enough to come in out of the sun.”
I kept my mouth shut. He took a small pill out of a tin and handed it to me with a glass of water.
“This will help with the pain and maybe you’ll get some sleep, too,” he said.
He stood close, rubbing a pungent ointment on my chest and arms. I avoided his eyes.
“How are your monthlies? Are they coming regularly?” He smeared the ointment on my breasts.
“Ow! Yes, Doc. They are,” I said, my eyes watering.
“Good, then I won’t worry so much about these knobby knees and these xylophone ribs.”
He screwed the lid on the small jar of ointment and held it up. “Once in the morning, once in the afternoon and again before bedtime. You can have a boiled water bath in the morning. Don’t scratch. Stay out of the sun. Come back up tomorrow at bedtime if you need another painkiller.”
“Yes sir.” I reached for the jar. He moved it away.
“You have something you want to tell me?”
“No sir.” I dropped my eyes.
“Um hm. Seems like no one has anything to say to me lately.” He gave me the jar. “Need help getting dressed?”
He gazed at me for a long moment then stepped away from the examining table. He twitched his mustache and sniffed. He walked to his desk, pausing once to give me a long look. He sat and began making notes in his ledger.
I eased off the examining table and slowly dressed. The ointment cooled my skin and I was already starting to feel a bit floaty from the pill.
“Good night Doc,” I said.
He grunted but didn’t turn from his notes.
“Go to bed before you tumble down the stairs,” he said, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb.
Later that night, I surfaced twice from the bog of the painkiller -- once to the murmur of my father and Doc trading barbs over a game of chess and the other by a cool hand on my forehead and perhaps the tickle of a mustache against my temple.
I saw Dillon the next day -- or rather, the back of him – walking stiffly down the boardwalk. After that, he seemed to disappear. I loitered around the stables until almost dark and walked slowly past the jail on my way home. I didn’t have the courage to peek into the Long Branch; but from across the street, I could see Miss Kitty’s bright head as she sat alone at a table going over her books. I strained my ears at night for the sound of Dillon’s boots on the boardwalk. If he passed, it was long after I finally fell asleep.
On day five of this, I casually questioned Chester.
“Oh, he’s around,” said Chester. “Well, checking on them nesters way out yonder. Say, has your pa made any more of them twisty French biscuits?”
“No. You know the ones with all the butter and layers and they kind of flakey on the outside and soft on the inside?”
“I sure do like them. Especially with that sweet cheese that gets all soft and melty. They sure are good.”
“I’ll bring you and the marshal a basket.”
“Well, no. Don’t trouble your pa none. But that plum jelly. They sure are good warm with that plum jelly all smeared all on them. And some side meat. That how French people do it? Say, have I told you how to make the best coffee you ever want to drink? You see, you take---.”
“Good bye Chester.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah Jimmy. I’ll see you later?”
“Yes, Chester. I’ll bring you some tomorrow.”
“Only if you all are going to have some, so long as you’re making it. I’ll tell Mr. Dillon that your pa insisted.”
When I brought the croissants to the jail the following morning, Dillon was already gone. Six days passed since I last saw him. He was right to avoid me but my heart broke a little.
I could feel Doc’s eyes on me at supper that night. Father patted my hand and said, “Eat, cherie.” I speared a bit of rabbit and chewed it dutifully, swallowing past the lump of guilt in my throat because he thought I mourned Lucien.
On the seventh day, the Indian summer broke and the temperature dropped nearly forty degrees from one day to the next. The town chickens happily pecked a feast of frozen bottle flies out of the morning frost. The general stores were busy with homesteaders and ranchers stocking up with provisions. Dodge City began to batten down for the winter.
I was in the library wrapping ledgers in brown paper and laughing with a young Cajun cavalryman named Gilbert when Dillon walked in. I had stopped listening for the sound of his boots on the boardwalk and didn’t know he was there until Gilbert snapped to attention.
“Afternoon, Marshal,” he said.
“At ease, boy,” said Dillon. “I’m a civilian.” His eyes shifted between me and Gilbert, narrowing slightly.
I gave the wrapped ledgers to Gilbert. He clutched them to his chest and practically ran out the door.
Dillon and I stared at each other. The wind had roughened and the flag fluttered and snapped on the pole outside. Jeremy Bodkin came in to return Dickens and to borrow Swift. Loaded wagons creaked down the street and people passed by the windows, their shoulders hunched against the cold. Dillon didn’t move from his place by the door. I waited for him to speak because I certainly didn’t know what to say.
“Is your father here?” he asked quietly.
“He’s in the back.”
“Would you like me to get him?” I asked.
“No. I wanted to talk to you.”
I waited. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat and stared into the space between us.
“How is your sunburn?” I asked.
“I thought Doc was going to brain me with a piece of stove wood after he saw you,” he said.
“That ointment was awful.”
“I think he did that on purpose.”
“He was very unhappy with us.”
“No, he was unhappy with me. I--.”
“Mr. Dillon, please come in. We look very suspicious whispering across the room.”
“I can’t stay. I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Where have you been?”
“I needed to check in on a couple of homesteaders while the weather was good. Then some cattle went missing at Foy Station and I just got busy.”
“I shouldn’t have let things -- go as far as they did.”
“I’m not a child. I bear some of the responsibility, too.”
“I need explain something to you, Jimmy.”
“There’s no need.”
“I delivered an innocent man to die,” he said
“No one holds you responsible for that, Mr. Dillon,” I said. “You did everything you could.”
“I turned my back on that boy. In the end, I didn’t have the courage to stay and watch.”
“I do not think even God could watch that.”
“I let him go.”
“I knew you would.”
“He came back. I should’ve tried harder. Ridden with him to Mexico.”
I walked over and stood before him. “Please don’t. There was nothing you could do,” I said.
“Dover had a rough life and an unjust end. Through it all, he managed to stay…sweet.” He looked at me, his expression stricken.
“Marshal! Come in. Come in,” boomed my father. “Jimmy is rude to make you stand at the door.”
“Thank you, Reverend but I can’t stay,” said Dillon.
“Ah, well. You do look much better than the last time I saw you, Matthew. I was very concerned,” said Father. He pointed both index fingers at Dillon. “I have twisty biscuits for you and Chester. Wait here and I will bring them,” he said and bustled back to the kitchen.
I climbed the small ladder to return A Tale of Two Cities to its place on the shelf.
“My father told me something important this morning,” I said. “He said,"Young people today stand on too much ceremony. You don’t know the first thing about living. You act as if it starts in the future somewhere.”**
I leaned over and kissed Matt Dillon softly on the mouth.
“It sounds better in French,” I said.
The temperature dropped steadily in the following weeks, the frost stayed on the ground and the sheet ice that formed on the water in the horse troughs overnight became increasingly difficult to break each morning. There were only crows and hawks in the sky and the frozen buffalo grass rattled bitterly in the wind.
Winter was a reprieve of sorts for lawmen. The shops and the saloons closed early and everyone stayed indoors, including outlaws. The cold kept Dillon close to town but I saw even less of him than I did before the weather turned. The jail, the library, the telegraph office - it was as if he always slipped out the back as I came in the front. I fancied that I could smell him, that I could feel the empty space that he left, like I was chasing his ghost. When I did see Dillon, he seemed fold in on himself, breathing carefully, like a man holding himself in check. We shared a few lingering looks but that was all.
His behavior was irksome but I did not press the issue. I assumed that he understood that my kiss was not an invitation to chat over tea.
One dark morning, I sat at my father's desk making entries in a ledger when Dillon walked through the door. A child had died of the measles in the Mexican Quarter and my father and Doc went there to organize quarantine and do what they could to curtail an epidemic.
Dillon stood at the door with his hands in his pockets. His eyes traveled around the room before they finally settled on me. This was the first time we'd been alone in weeks. Even the streets outside were empty, except for a lone figure in a hooded cloak headed down the boardwalk.
"I have a telegraph for your father," said Dillon.
"He is not here."
A sneeze of sleet crackled against the windows. The clouds were full and dark as over-stuffed sacks of coal.
"Big storm coming," said Dillon.
I was losing patience with his standoffishness. I refused to talk about the weather
with him. I bent back to my ledger.
"I can take the telegraph," I said, not looking up. "Unless you must give it directly to my father."
"I guess I can give it to you."
"You can put it there, Marshal." I pointed to a wooden document box with my pencil. I could feel him frown even though I kept my eyes on my work.
"I have chores to do before the storm," he said.
"Try to stay warm," I said.
Across the street, Kitty Russell lowered the hood of her cape and peered into the windows of Dillon's office.
I stood in a cut-down pickle barrel and took a sponge bath, quickly soaping myself and rinsing with the tepid water, listening to the wind howl and batter the shutters on my bedroom window. Snowflakes the size of hen's eggs had fallen since the late afternoon and by supper, there was nearly a foot of snow on the ground. My room was snug and free of drafts but I had no stove for heat and the air was very cold. A brick heated on the kitchen stove and wrapped in a piece of flannel warmed my bed. I stepped out of the barrel and hastily rubbed scented olive oil into my wet skin to keep it from cracking from the cold. I toweled off, pulled on the heavy woolen jumper I used for a nightshirt and leapt into bed. I pulled the quilts over my head and tucked my toes under the heated brick. It took nearly twenty minutes for me to stop shivering.
I saw Dillon leave Chester at the jail that evening. He strode down the boardwalk and disappeared between two buildings. He kept a room among the maze of warehouses by the depot but the direction he headed could as easily lead him to the back stairs of the Long Branch - and to Kitty's rooms.
I did not expect a romance with Dillon. If he took a moment to stop being so mulish, he would know that. I was no doe-eyed shop girl who would tether him to a dirt farm. I was also not willing to squander my youth, waiting for him, burdening him with my hope. This time next year, I would be in university on the other side of the world. The only future I wanted with Dillon was the immediate. I wanted to make love to him, to press my fingers into his flesh as he moved on top of me and to hear the sounds he made when he came. I wanted to feel his mouth on me, to straddle his hips and slide his cock into my body.
I was punching my pillows into shape rather more vigorously than necessary when Dillon stepped into my bedroom and closed the door. I landed one last left hook.
"I wish I had something to throw at your head," I said.
"You can beat on me all you want but I'm not leaving," he said. "It's too damn cold."
He hung his hat and coat on the pegs by the door and undressed, layering his clothes neatly on my chair. He pulled my jumper over my head, dropped it to the floor and pushed me back under the quilts.
"Hey!" I said.
"Settle down," he said.
He curled himself around me and held me tightly to his chest, his body clenched from the cold. I could feel his heartbeat against my back. His huge hands cupped my breasts. He smelled of soap, cheroot smoke and grain alcohol - like a man who stopped at a saloon for one drink on his way to somewhere else.
He rubbed his palms across my nipples and kissed the back of my neck. He turned me so that I faced him. He bent his head and kissed my lips, my cheeks, the corners of my mouth. His breath was sweet and redolent of whiskey.
"I was beginning to think that you decided I was just a very pretty boy after all," I said.
"You're a girl," he said. "And a good thing, too. I might've come here anyway."
"Then you would very much enjoy Paris."
His eyes roamed my face. "James Anna, you are hard to leave be."
"You certainly did a good job of it, Mr. Dillon."
"Please. It's Matt. I already feel like a dirty old man."
I leaned back and looked him over with narrowed eyes. "You seemed terribly sure I would not scream for my father. He’s sleeping across the hall, you know."
"I took a gamble."
"I am glad you are here."
"I had some things to …deal with, first," he said, looking away.
"I would not wish to be a cause of regret for you."
"You're not." He kissed me and pressed me back against the mattress. "Not you," he said.
He kissed me, this time thrusting his tongue into my mouth and twining it slowly with mine. He ran his hands over my body, studying my skin with intense concentration, combing his fingertips through my pubic hair, holding my breasts in his palms, bending his head to suck first one nipple then the other into his mouth. He gripped my braid and gently tugged.
"Do you find me different?" I asked.
"Negro women are not new to me," he said quietly.
He drew my leg over his hip and rolled unto his back. I lay my cheek on his chest and lightly stroked my thumb over the wound where Pruit Dover dug the bullet out of his body.
"They keep taking pieces of you," I whispered.
"Doc puts me back together," he said.
I kissed each one of a cluster of scars on his shoulder, murmuring endearments in French. I followed a path of wounds, working my way down his body. The muscles in his abdomen flinched under my lips.
Dillon pulled me back up.
"I want to," I said.
"Just let me have the reins for now, cowboy," he said. He pulled the quilts around my shoulders. "There's one thing I do need to do before I go more out of my mind than I already have."
He hooked his hands behind my knees and spread my thighs. He lifted me and held me aloft like an offering. He gazed at cleft between my legs for a long moment. He dipped his head and licked my pussy, running his tongue between my labia and gently sucking my clitoris into his mouth. A low moan rumbled from his chest.
Pleasure shuddered through my body. It happened so quickly that it snatched the breath from my lungs and made me dizzy. Dillon didn't stop to let me up for air. He worked his tongue over and around my hard bud, and when he plunged his tongue inside me; my second orgasm hit me with a force that nearly snapped me in half. I arched against him, one hand gripping his hair and the other clamped over my mouth to stifle my cries.
Dillon lowered me until I lay splayed weakly across his body. He rested his hands on the small of my back.
"You are sweet as a peach," he whispered.
I woke when Dillon sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots. His shoulders were massive and his muscles curved and flexed like a marble sculpture come to life. Three flat, circular scars formed a perfect triangle on his lower back, just a fraction of an inch to the right of his spine. They reminded me of a constellation of stars, the name of which I could not remember. I reached out and stroked them with my fingers.
“What time is it?” I whispered.
“I don’t know. My pocket watch got shot,” he said, shrugging into his shirt.
I rose to my knees and leaned against his back, kissing his neck and nipping his earlobe. He elbowed me away with a frown and a grin. I lay back on the pillows. I pushed him in the ribs with my foot. He looked back at me with his head cocked.
“You snore like a man sleeping off a drunk,” said Dillon.
“I don’t recall sleeping that much, actually.”
He fussed with the quilt, tucking it under my chin.
“Are you blushing? After…that?” I asked with a laugh.
“I’m the one who should be embarrassed.”
“Lucky that storm was loud.”
My smile faded. “But you did not – I wanted to please you.”
“I got what I needed.”
He stood and put on his coat. He came back and sat on the edge of the bed again. He laid his hand on my cheek and stroked his thumb over my lips. His face was very serious.
“I better get out of here,” he said.
“Are you having second thoughts?”
“Not those kind.” He gave me a lingering kiss that might have gone further if the wind did not rattle the shutters once, as a reminder. Dillon pressed his lips to my ear. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said.
He stood and buttoned his coat. He paused at the door, listening. He glanced back at me then slipped out, closing the door softly.
There’s an old wives’ superstition that says you can gage a man’s esteem of you by whether he puts his hat on before or after he steps out the door. It is a ridiculous notion. I could not help but feel a thrill of happiness that Dillon’s hat was in his hand when he closed the door behind him.
I woke with a start when Father clattered a stove lid into place downstairs. I stretched my legs and winced. Dillon handled me carefully last night but he was a big man and very strong. He bent and stretched me every which way, my nipples were tender, my muscles ached and I was as tired as if I spent a day riding. My pussy buzzed pleasantly from the gentle friction of his fingers and I knew that next time, neither of us would be satisfied with only that.
Lust rippled warmly through my body. I could smell Dillon in my bed clothes.
The sun came out late in the morning and blazed all afternoon. The light breeze was frigid but the people of Dodge threw open their curtains and turned their faces to the feeble warmth of the sun like buttercups. I took advantage of the break in the storm to get some fresh air and to slip and slide my way to the depot to retrieve a shipment of Army ledgers.
White people paid little attention to the business of Negroes, especially in Indian country. Even so, I was cautious about where I went alone in Dodge. At first glance, my father could pass for white; and with his priest’s collar and French accent, he could move relatively freely about the town. I am his child but my skin is dark and I speak English gilded with the refined influence of Oxford tutors borrowed from wealthy cousins in Marseilles. I was out of place in a land where Negroes kept theirs. I already raised a few eyebrows at the post office so I learned to keep my mouth shut and I limited my travels to where people along the way were used to seeing me: Moss Grimmick’s, the telegraph office, Jonas General Store and the depot. Anywhere else, I went with my father, Doc or Chester.
I was fairly safe in Dodge but there was one man who served to remind me of my need to remain vigilant.
Kite Thibodaux was the stockman at the depot freight office. He was a Confederate deserter who crawled out of hiding to take advantage of Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation. He was jug-eared, walleyed and illiterate, disdainful of women and a virulent racist.
A few weeks after our arrival in Dodge, I went to the depot to pick up a shipment of bookkeeping supplies. Thibodaux stood in front of the pickup window hunched over a small flat bottle of cheap whiskey, a tattered feather duster tucked under his arm. His temples were deeply concave and his nose lumpy and pitted with rosacea. His hair was combed in greasy strings and cropped in a straight line high on his bulging forehead.
I waited a full minute for him to notice me.
“Pardon me. There is a shipment here for Emile Lemieux?” I said.
Thibodaux turned and stared at me with blank eyes the color of bad water. I assumed he had not heard me.
“There is a box from the War Department for Emile Lemieux,” I said.
His lips crinkled back like a dog about to bite. “What you talking, boy?” he said.
It had not yet occurred to me that I should be frightened. I took the folded manifest from my shirt pocket and held it out to him. He pinched a corner of the paper between two dirty fingers. He did not open it.
“Who you tink you is?” he hissed.
“The contents are listed on this manifest. It is that box,” I said, pointing behind him. “There, with the eagle seal on it.”
Thibodaux’s eyes widened and narrowed at the same time and his entire face turned down in a scowl. He shoved the manifest back at me and leveled a finger at my face.
“You marking me, boy?” he yelled.
Before I could react, a man stepped between us. “You want to get your finger out of that child’s face, mister,” he drawled.
The man’s clothes were threadbare but clean. He was freshly shaven and smelled of hair tonic. There was something of the wolf in his body -- rangy and loose, yet tightly coiled and lethal. His eyes were a kaleidoscope of hazel and grey and they were locked on Thibodaux. He leaned an elbow on the counter conversationally. He spoke to Thibodaux in a low voice. I could not hear what he said but I did catch, “You got that, boy?”
Thibodaux opened his mouth and closed it. He brought my box around the counter and placed it on the floor. I picked it up and backed quickly out of the office. The wolf man followed me out and gave me a smile that turned him utterly beautiful.
“My name is Jimmy,” I said breathlessly.
“Festus Haggen at your service, Mr. Jimmy,” he said. He took the box from me and hoisted it on his shoulder.
He kept up a colorful commentary as he walked me back to the library, laughing at his own jokes and singing snatches of a song he seemed to be making up as we went along.
“Mr. Haggen, what did you say to that man?” I asked when we got back to the office.
The merry light went out of his eyes. “Let’s just say us Haggens don’t take kindly to unpolitemis. Especially not from no unwashed piney woods cracker coward,” he said. “You feed that polecat with a long-handled spoon, Big Jim.” He gazed in the direction of the depot with a small frown. He spat in the dust.
I managed to avoid Thibodaux after that but I saw him from time to time, sweeping the same spot, watching Dillon and me from the corners of his eyes.
It was a bad idea to go to the depot alone but I didn’t want to make another hike out here later in the week when the weather turned bad again. Father had the beginnings of a chest cold and I did not want him out. The breeze worked icy fingers under my coat and up my sleeves.
I cautiously approached the depot, checking for Thibodaux on the loading dock. Snow drifted undisturbed against the bay door. I stood in the foyer of the freight office and looked carefully around the room. There was no one at the pickup window and I did not see Thibodaux’s bucket and broom.
“Mr. Hightower?” I called. I waited.
The door to the warehouse was open. I had been back there a few times. I thought I would find my package and leave a note for Hightower as I did before. I walked over to the warehouse door and stepped inside. It was dark but I could see a dimly lighted desk at the other end of the cavernous room, impossibly far away. The air was damp and smelled of rusting iron, sawdust, sweat and decaying buffalo hides. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I decided to cut my losses and get the hell out of there.
I stepped back out of the door and heard a flat, nasally voice behind me.
“Where you going, boy?” It was Thibodaux.
I did not answer. I began to walk into the office, but he caught me by the arm and swung me around. I tried to pull free but he had a good grip. He caught my other arm and pulled me against his body. He pushed his face close to mine.
“You tink you something, don’t you, you skinny black coon?”
The stench of chaw and rotting teeth roiled out of his mouth, gagging me. I made a disgusted sound. He narrowed his eyes.
“You too good for me?” He shook me and squeezed my elbows tighter.
I clamped my jaw against my cry of pain. I would not give him the satisfaction. I glanced behind me.
His grin was nasty. “Ain’t nobody here. It’s just me and you.” His eyes crawled over my face. “Now I got you close, I see you ain’t half ugly. I seent you with that nigger-loving marshal, me. You tink I don’t know? You walk around with your nose in the air but I bet cash money you bending over for him. Got his spunk all in your mout’ ain’t you, boy?”
His ruddy neck was ringed with dirt mixed with grease in the loose skin. Something shiny peeked above of the dirty collar of his frayed undershirt. He had punched a hole in a small silver coin and tied it around his neck with a double strand of red thread. He was North Louisiana backwoods Catholic and next to his crucifix, he wore the disme as protection against the gris-gris.
He gathered my wrists in one hand and reached around to knead my buttocks. He chuckled. “Oh, yeah. I see why Dillon be fucking you, sweetmeat.” He glanced toward the dark open doorway of the warehouse. “You take his, you can take mines, nigger.”
He turned back to me with another evil grin. I looked into his eyes and I knew that he would never leave me alone, that he would follow me home or lay in wait for me one day, rape me and probably kill me, secure in his knowledge that no one would come looking for the murderer of a black girl.
I pulled back as hard as I could then slumped forward, catching him off guard. His balanced faltered and in that instant, I brought my bony knee to his groin with all my strength. At the same time I whipped my hand forward and yanked at the red thread, raking his cheek and neck with my fingernails in the process.
He released me and crumpled to the ground with his hands cupped between his legs. I jumped back, ready to run, but he was not going anywhere soon. His face was almost purple and thick veins corded in his scrawny neck. He made little grunting sounds. A boil festered in the crease between his cheek and the side of his nose. His rosacea had worsened since I last saw him and his nose was an angry red, swollen and pitted, dotted with pustules. It had likely flared up due to the cold and his poor hygiene but he would not know that. I needed to make sure that he would stay away from me forever.
I squatted by his head and waited until I knew he could see me. I held his eyes.
“Who is the nigger now, you white trash piece of shit?” I asked softly.
I tapped his nose with my finger. He winced. “Hurts, n’est-ce pas?” I said. “It has been hurting a lot of late, has it not? Je vous connais, Thibodaux.” I dangled his disme from its piece of filthy red thread, letting it hit one side of his nose then the other. Fear broke in his eyes. “You turn your face from me,” I said. I flicked my eyes down to his crotch. “Or I will make it fall off.”
I dropped his charm in my coat pocket and straightened. His mouth opened and closed like a caught fish. White threads of spittle stretched between his lips. He coughed weakly. I casually searched through that week’s mail and retrieved my package. I stood with my back to Thibodaux when I wrote my note to Mr. Hightower. I stopped at the warehouse door and stared down at Thibodaux. His eyes flinched away from mine and he remained where he was curled on the floor. I walked away.
I let the wind blow the foul odor of Thibodaux from my skin. I hated having to resort to making that vermin believe that I was vaudou -- and I hated that fear was the only power I held over people like him. I felt slightly hysterical with anger and fright and I was nearly home when I had to stop and lean against a building until I could drag air back into my lungs. I saw Dillon step out of the jail and onto the boardwalk. Something inside me gave way a little and my eyes stung with tears. I wanted to fling myself into his arms. I walked slowly toward him, my jaw clenched and my shoulders stiff.
He stared me intently. “What happened?” he asked.
“Well, hello to you too, Mr. Dillon,” I said.
I swiped a tear off my cheek. “The cold wind makes my eyes water.”
He let it go but I could see in his eyes that he would pursue it later. “I’ve been looking for you today,” he said.
“I needed some fresh air.” I pointed to the box of ledgers I held under my arm.
“Are you free Sunday after supper?”
“I’ll come for you.”
I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling. I nodded and swallowed hard.
He gave me another long, assessing look then tilted his head toward the library. “Get out of the cold,” he said, glancing over my head in the direction of the depot.
I ran up to my room and scrubbed my face and neck with the harsh lye soap we used to wash the pots. I could never tell Dillon what happened. Kite Thibodaux was defective and possibly evil but I did not wish to be responsible for his death.
I spent all of Sunday trying to think of a legitimate reason why Dillon and I needed to be together that evening and how to tell my father without stumbling over a lie. I was shelving books when Dillon came to collect me Sunday evening.
Dillon leaned in the door. “I’m going to borrow Jimmy, Reverend,” he said. “Nothing dangerous but it will take all night.”
“Fine, fine,” said Father, waving a hand. He was transcribing a stack of land deeds from English to Spanish. He did not even look up when Dillon and I left.
We walked through alleys and side streets toward the blocks of warehouses near the depot. I slowed when I thought I saw the shade move in the freight office window. Dillon waited for me a few yards ahead.
“Am I moving too fast?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said.
His eyes swept swiftly over the depot. He took a step toward it. I placed a hand on his chest.
“We should go, Matt.” When he did not move I said, “I am cold, cherie.”
Another storm was blowing in and the wind shoved me, nearly knocking me over. Dillon put his arm around my shoulders. He glanced back at the depot as we walked away, his brow lowered dangerously.
We turned on a short street lined with wholesale businesses, a buffalo butcher, a wheelwright and a Chinese laundry. Very few people actually lived in this part of town but it was well-lit and clean. There were no saloons.
We entered a wide alley between the laundry and a huge warehouse. Snow that was shin-deep on Dillon sank me above my knees. Without a word, Dillon scooped me up in his arms. An elderly woman smoking a longpipe leaned out of a window and watched.
“Evening, Mrs. Yiu,” said Dillon, as we passed.
Mrs. Yiu blew a thin stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. She gazed at us blandly, as if the sight of the Marshal carrying a Negro boy down the alley was nothing unusual.
Dillon tramped through the snow until we got to a small stone building attached to the back of the warehouse. There was a two-trunk cottonwood in the dooryard and beyond that, the yawning dark of the prairie. Dillon climbed a short flight of stairs to the porch and unlocked the door. A small garden box on the porch rail held the dry remnants of tomato vines and the front door was solid and arched like the entry to a castle keep. Dillon stepped over the threshold like a man with a new bride, set me gently on my feet, closed the door and slid home the heavy iron bolt.
“Get out of those wet boots,” he said.
He struck a match and lit a lamp on a sconce. The room was long and narrow, the ceiling high and the walls whitewashed. It smelled of cedar and cold stone and ... Dillon.
I tugged off my damp woolen cap and worked my hair free of its coiled braid as I looked around. To my left were a woodstove, a tin sink and hand pump, and a small table with two straight-backed chairs. On a shelf above the sink were two bowls, two plates, three cups, a tin of coffee, a tin of sugar and a ceramic breadbox. At the other end of the room was a gigantic leather-padded rocking chair next to the window. The only decoration on the walls was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in a plain wood frame.
A shotgun gleamed blackly in a corner.
Dillon lit another lamp in a second room. I padded over and peered in. The room was bigger than the other, spacious really, with rows of narrow windows just below the roof like a clerestory. Shirts and a pair of pants hung from hooks in the wall and in a pewter frame on the bedside table was a miniature daguerreotype of a woman. The iron bed was large enough for Dillon to lie upon spread-eagled.
“That front door looks like it could withstand the Mongol hordes,” I said. I rapped my knuckles on the bedroom door. “This one, too.”
Dillon knelt to light the firewood laid in a full-sized fireplace. “This used to be the assayer’s office,” he said.
“I will worry less about you sleeping safely.”
“I don’t worry about dying.”
He took my coat and hung it with his then nudged me closer to the fire. There was one ornate silver candlestick on the mantle. I brushed it with my fingers.
“This looks like a gift from a woman,” I said.
Dillon leaned a shoulder against the wall by the door and hooked his thumbs on his gun belt. His eyes traveled over me – my thick socks, my baggy dungarees, and my over-sized jumper. I turned my toes inward to hide a tiny hole in my sock. I smoothed a hand over my hair, combing it back with my fingers.
“I can’t figure how you get all that hair into one queue,” he said.
“Are you imagining me in a dress?”
“Not at the moment.”
I pointed to the miniature on the bedside table.
“May I?” I asked.
Dillon’s breath seemed to stop for a beat. “Yes,” he said.
“Who is she?” I asked, picking it up and peering at it closely.
“My mother – I think.”
“I was raised on a farm with a bunch of other boys. I guess it was an orphanage. I was brought there when I was four years old. I learned how to fight and to read and I learned that I never, ever wanted to be a farmer. The picture was in the bottom of a cigar box that they said I had when I came. I took it with me when I left at thirteen.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“My father was a gunman and a drifter. I never knew him. I suppose he’s dead. My mother – .” He shrugged with a tilt of his head. “The only memory I have of my mother is watching her try to bathe in a tin tub with her clothes on.”
“I am sorry.”
I put the picture back in its place.
“What is this we are going to do that is not dangerous but will take all night?” I asked.
“I thought we’d read Shakespeare.”
“Then we should be up very late.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Dillon. “I’m an old man. I might have to take a nap at some point.”
“You did not need sleep the last time we were together.”
His eyes flicked over my body again. I cleared my throat and looked away, my face burning.
“Would you like some water?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“How about coffee?”
I laughed. “No.”
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“I guess I’ve got one of those,” he said.
He walked slowly to the bed, brushing softly against me as he passed. He smelled of coffee and musk and gun oil. He sat down and folded his arms across his chest.
The branches of the cottonwood in the yard clattered with a sound like dry, hollow bones. A log settled in the fireplace with a puff of warmth and sparks. I stood uncertainly before him.
“Come here, girl,” said Dillon.
I stepped between his knees and rested my hands on his thighs. He pulled my jumper over my head and pushed my pants down my hips. He smiled at the boy’s jonny I wore underneath, unfastening the flap in the back and rubbing his hand over my bare bottom. He peeled the jonny off my shoulders and pulled it down until it bunched around my waist with my wrists held captive by the fabric. He ran his hands slowly over me, squeezing my flesh, pulling my head back with his hand in my hair and kissing my neck.
“Seems all I’ve done for weeks is think about you,” he murmured.
He cupped my breasts and rubbed his lips and tongue across my nipples. He pushed the jonny down my hips and I stepped out of them. He gathered me into his arms, lay back on the bed and kissed me, long and slow and closed-mouthed. The elk horn grip of his gun pressed hard against my kneecap and the bullets in his gun belt dimpled the insides of my thighs. His badge poked my skin.
“Your badge,” I said.
Dillon rolled me to the side and stood. He took off his gun belt and hung it on the rail at the head of the bed. His belly flattened and lumped with muscle when his pulled his undershirt over his head. He layered his clothes on a chair, the way he did in my room.
“I enjoy watching you undress,” I said.
“You do seem to have a way of getting me naked.”
He placed another log on the fire and stood watching the flames. The fire lit his body -- his scars, the shiny waves of his hair, the breadth of his chest.
“You are the biggest man I have ever seen.”
Dillon raised his brows.
“Well, I mean. Yes. But--.”
“You better quit while you’re ahead, cowboy,” he said, kneeling by the bed. He lifted my foot and kissed my toes.
“I was only--.”
“Hush,” he said.
He grasped my hips, pulled me to the edge of the bed and spread my legs with his hands hooked behind my knees. He stroked his fingers between the folds of my pussy, feeling the wetness there. He licked his thumb and brushed it across my clitoris.
I sat up quickly. “Matt, I --.”
“We’ll go slow,” he whispered, easing me back onto the bed with the flat of his hand on my belly.
He bent and pressed his mouth where his thumb had been.
Dillon made love to me slowly, gently, watching my face for my reaction, murmuring, “Do you like that?” “Want me to stop?” until finally, he shifted me to my side and lay behind me, sliding his cock between my thighs, stroking his length between the lips of my pussy without entering me. He draped my leg over his hip. I could feel his heart pounding and his breath was ragged in my ear but he placed my hand on his cock and let me guide him to my opening.
He turned my face to him with his fingers on my chin. He stared into my eyes. I gasped when he pressed his cock against me. He retreated then pushed gently again. He slid in a little further and stopped.
“Okay?” he breathed.
I nodded, biting my lip. “Yes.”
I felt him swallow hard. His heart hammered against my back. I pushed against him and we both cried out when he slid all the way in. He began to stroke slowly in and out of me, his body trembling with the effort to hold off his orgasm.
“You are not hurting me,” I said. It did hurt but I did not want him to stop. I shifted my hips to encourage him.
His slow strokes became thrusts. His fingers dug painfully into the flesh at my hip. He inhaled sharply and pulled himself out of me. I reached back and grasped his cock and felt him pulse strongly in my hand. He moaned softly and semen spouted hotly over my wrist and fingers. He held me tightly with his lips pressed against the back of my neck until his breathing calmed.
He leaned down and kissed me, smoothing my hair from my forehead. He stared into my eyes, his face open and vulnerable, the way he looked when I first saw him at the spring.
“What would you say if I told you I love you?” I asked.
He stroked his fingers down my cheek and tightened his arms around me, his face buried in my hair. He was silent a long time.
“You make me worry about dying,” he said quietly.
Gunsmoke, "The Long, Long Trail
Copyright CBS Television