Chapter 6: Lust
Joshua split logs until the boys had both finished their chores and were heading in for the night, then helped carry in enough firewood to fill the woodbin.
To divert more questions from Mark as they loaded their arms up with the cut logs, Joshua asked the boy, "How’d you train that bull to take you as a rider? I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen anything like that before."
Mark swelled with pride as he launched into an explanation that sounded remarkably similar to the process of gentling a horse. The bull had already been halter trained and was remarkably docile, so getting the animal accustomed to carrying things like half full grain sacks on his back didn’t take long at all. Gradually the bull had finally reached a point where he just accepted the boy’s weight.
"He don’t weigh much more’n a bag of feed anyway, so it’s not like Castor can tell the difference," Will teased good naturedly as they walked through the door into the house.
Sticking out his tongue in response, Mark made a half-hearted and obvious attempt to trip his brother, who laughingly dodged the outstretched leg with ease despite the fact that he was holding an armful of firewood.
Alice was in the main room. She had finished the dishes and was sitting down in the rocking chair, relaxing for what Joshua suspected was the first time that day. As they walked through the room, she set the book she’d been reading aside (a Jules Verne novel, he noted with interest) and rose to her feet.
They dumped the firewood into the bin as she watched, Mark and Will bantering back and forth with each other as they headed back outside.
"Thank you," Alice quietly murmured as Joshua passed.
He turned his head toward her, and though his initial inclination had been to make a quip about working for his supper, as he observed the proud tilt of her chin and the wariness in her eyes, instead he merely replied, "Happy to help." And he was almost surprised to discover that he meant it. Knowing that even as simple a task as splitting logs made life just a little bit easier for this family was satisfying in a way that robbing trains had never been.
Joshua went out for a second trip, and now Mark and Will were chattering cheerfully about the next calving season and how good it had the potential to be with the addition of their new bulls. He listened in companionable silence as they finished filling up the woodbin. Alice was already putting their efforts to good use by restocking the fireplace, getting it set to burn through the night.
He was the last to put logs into the bin and the boys were waiting for him outside, both looking at him expectantly, as though waiting for him to do something.
"Somethin’ you need doin’?" he finally asked, quirking an eyebrow at them.
"Will says you got your horse trained to follow you," Mark challenged, looking from the tall man over to his black horse. It was well after sunset now and the lanterns on the front porch offered just enough illumination to see over to where Dawson was still lashed to the corral fence, dozing to gauge from his lowered head and three-legged stance, the fourth leg relaxed and half-cocked.
"Did he now?" Joshua inquired, shifting his gaze to the older Evans boy.
"He was standing with the other horses," Will began, "and all of a sudden, he kicked up his heels and chased after the train. A horse don’t do that, unless it’s been trained, is all I’m saying." He paused before asking, "Is that how you got away? They say you never even made it to Yuma Territorial Prison, that you was gone before the train even got there."
Mark was only interested in seeing the trick itself performed. "Can you make him come to you now? I dunno, by calling his name or something?"
Joshua squinted at Dawson, and reminded the boys, "Yeah but that was different. He was only ground-tied back then. This time he’s tied to a fence. He can’t untie himself, he’s just a horse."
Mark eagerly suggested, "Will could untie him, and then you could call him then?"
"Boys, I really need to be gettin’ back to the Bar-H," Joshua shook his head. "Not that I haven’t enjoyed myself or anything, but it’s pretty late and I’ll be expected to be ready to work first thing in the morning. Maybe they’ll have me clearin’ that dam from your stream." He ignored the boys’ crestfallen expressions and took off his hat, hitting it against his thigh to shake the dust off, before replacing it on his head. As he settled it into place, he trilled a simple three-toned whistle.
Dawson immediately jerked to wakefulness and began tugging his reins, trying to draw away from the fence. Failing in the initial attempt to pull free, the horse began bobbing its head up and down, and although they couldn’t see exactly what he was doing in the dim light, Will and Mark both watched in amazement as he gave a sudden quick flip of his head. The reins came free and the horse reared up for a brief moment before he ran full tilt toward them, kicking his feet up like a playful colt.
Skittering to a stop within inches of Joshua, the black horse danced around eagerly for a few moments before holding still enough for the man to collect the reins and mount up. "Yep, just a horse. Can’t expect too much from a dumb ol’ horse, can you?"
Joshua continued his previous line of thought. "Good night," he called to a bemused Will and Mark, wheeling Dawson around once before the gelding began trotting gaily away from the Evans’ home as though on a parade ground instead of a dirt road that was little more than a beaten path.
He chuckled to himself as the boys’ delighted laughter reached his ears as his horse carried him up the low rise that led him back toward Hollander’s large ranch. When the Evans homestead was out of sight, his black horse altered his gait to a steady, ground-covering walk.
Entertaining Mark and Will with Dawson’s calling trick had been unexpectedly enjoyable. Again, he found that rather surprising, as Joshua had never thought of himself as being someone who’d get along with, or even enjoy the presence of children. Granted, in his previous line of work, he had little, if any, exposure to youngsters, so it wasn’t like he had been around them enough to make a judgment one way or the other. Perhaps it was that Alice’s boys were both old enough that he was unconsciously regarding both of them as young adults rather than children.
Joshua abruptly felt an unpleasantly familiar tingling sensation between his shoulder blades, and his muscles tensed. Dawson sensed his unease and his even pace altered slightly, each hoof now striking the ground with a crispness and deliberation that hadn’t been present before.
"Easy," he murmured, allowing his voice to soothe the horse even as he casually looked around. He shifted back in his saddle, resting one hand on his thigh where it was closer to his gun, but if whoever was out there happened to be a sharpshooter, he’d likely have little opportunity to use the Colt pistol. The crescent moon provided the barest hint of light, but even so, he could not see anyone moving in the rocky terrain that encircled most of the Evans homestead. While it seemed unusually quiet, in all truth he wasn’t very far away from the ranch yet, so it was possible that the typical night time sounds of animals and insects were minimal as a result of that.
After a few minutes, the tingling faded, and with it, his sense of being in mortal danger. Joshua forced himself to relax. More than a year had passed since he had last had that feeling, and he’d been another man back then as well. Was he merely jumping at shadows? Or had the ghosts of his past finally come to haunt him? He wondered if he’d started to loose his touch, that survival instinct that had kept him alive when he’d been Wade. It’d been part of him so long, he almost couldn’t imagine being without it, or not being able to trust it.
I ain’t lettin’ go of it yet, Joshua grimly thought to himself. Just because he didn’t see anyone or anything out there, it didn’t mean there wasn’t anything there. He had to trust his instincts. They’d never done him wrong before. He briefly toyed with the idea of returning to the Evans’ home to make sure all was well there, but decided against it, as there was no reason to think they’d be in any danger.
He nudged Dawson into a canter, and although that itchy feeling still hadn’t returned by the time he had returned the Double Bar-H ranch, Joshua remained watchful during the entire ride. Hollander’s ranch was quiet as it usually was this time of night. Half the ranch hands were already sleeping in the bunkhouse, and the other half were out riding the range with the herd. He bedded his horse down for the night and even though the loud snoring of the other men didn’t usually disturb him, it was a long time before he settled into an uneasy and restless sleep.
The following morning, he awoke disoriented and irritable. His muscles ached, not just his arms and shoulders from spending the previous day chopping wood, but his entire body. The tingling between his shoulder blades had returned with a vengeance, and he suspected that the tension from that had kept his muscles taunt as he slept. His foul mood worsened as he went through his normal morning routine of washing and shaving, and he remained on edge all the way through breakfast. He just couldn’t seem to relax. Although he was always taciturn around the other cowhands, during breakfast they took one look at his stony face and avoided him completely.
When the men emerged from the cookshack after eating to get their daily work assignments, Tom Atkins was over by the main house, talking with Glen Hollander, who was already mounted up on his grey stallion. The landowner nodded his head at something Atkins said before he headed down the road, going south toward Bisbee.
Atkins walked toward them, hawking a gob of spit at the ground. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and ordered, "Scott, you and Pierce’ll be working the herd to the Northwest today. Perkins, Samuel, you two’ll be to the South. Johnson and Baker, you two take the West, and that leaves the Northeast for Carter and Jones."
Each pair of men ambled off toward their horses after receiving their orders until only Joshua and the foreman remained.
"Mason, you and I’ll be clearin’ out that dam before Widow Evans gets a chance to send her boys over here. We’ll get the stuff we need from the toolshed." Almost dismissively, Atkins turned away from him and walked toward the small building attached to the barn.
Joshua rolled his shoulders in yet another unsuccessful attempt to push that lingering sense of foreboding away and followed the foreman to the toolshed. A yawn escaped him as Atkins pulled the door open and went in, selecting both a pickaxe and a shovel from where they were resting against the wall and stepped aside to let him gather tools as well.
"Didn’t sleep so good last night, eh?" Atkins remarked as Joshua entered the shed.
The comment was a bit unusual, coming from the usually close-mouthed foreman, but given Joshua’s mood during breakfast, perhaps it wasn’t unwarranted. "Snoring was a little louder than normal in the bunkhouse," he replied as he grabbed a pickaxe.
"Huh. That right?" Atkins spat at the ground and shifted his weight. "Even with the snoring, I’da figured you’da slept like a baby after spending the afternoon ridin’ Widow Evans."
The comment registered almost instantly but Atkins was ready for his reaction. Before Joshua had a chance to turn, he felt the shovel slam against the back of his head.
He was surprised when he woke up, because honestly he didn’t expect to be waking up at all. That alone told him that he was being kept alive for a reason. He had a blinding headache, and gingerly felt the back of his head where he’d been hit. There was an open cut back there, but it was crusted with dried blood. He had his clothes on, but Atkins had taken pretty much everything else while he’d been unconscious, including his boots. So much for the knife that he kept stashed in there.
Slowly Joshua sat up, trying to get his bearings in the small dark room. Slivers of light filtered through a few of the wood slats and the strong earthy scent of grain permeated the air. He’d been shut in the grain room, which, unfortunately, was probably the most secure place outside of the root cellar that he could have been confined. Not to mention, outside the grain scoop, it was doubtful that he’d find anything to use as a weapon when Atkins, or Hollander, for that matter, returned.
His eyes adjusted to the light enough that he could now make out where the door was, from the light shining through the gap underneath it. A pair of dark amorphous shapes were right in front of the door. His boots, but no knife. He pulled them on and got to his feet, slowly, because his headache wasn’t getting any better.
Unfortunately, the small spaces between the slats weren’t big enough for him to be able to see much outside the room. It was still light outside, that much he could tell, but he must have been out for a few hours if the blood from the cut on the back of his head had time to dry. The tackroom had no door handle on the inside, and bolted shut from the outside. If he put his shoulder to it, there was a chance he could force it open. He gave it a few experimental shoves, testing the strength of the wood and hinges.
"Mason, I don’t want to have to shoot you before Mr. Hollander gets back, but I will if you keep that up," Atkins said from the other side of the door. The distinct sound of a gun cocking backed up his words.
Joshua took a quick step away from the door. The foreman had called him ‘Mason’, and not Wade, so apparently this wasn’t about his past, but the present. "Alright, I’ll stop," he called, then paused a moment before asking the obvious question, "What’s Hollander want with me?"
A low guffaw escaped Atkins, "What’s he want wit’ ya? Mr. Hollander dun take exception to the fact that you’ve had a go at his woman, that’s what he wants with ya. He wants to have a few words with ya before he shoots ya, I suspect."
"I ain’t touched his woman," he immediately replied. There was silence from the other side of the door, and Joshua deliberately allowed a slight hint of fearful desperation to touch his voice. "I swear to God, I didn’t touch her."
"Perkins and Scott said that you left ‘em yesterday afternoon and I saw you leavin’ the Evans homestead last night with my own two eyes," the foreman stated. "That means you were there half of the evenin’. And after seein’ that, I’m thinking maybe her line about how you just ‘look like someone she used to know’ ain’t the truth either, and Hollander’s of a like mind. You two knowed each other from when that bootlickin’ husband of hers was alive, didn’t ya? Was she tumblin’ you since Evans had about as much of a pecker as he had balls and two legs? You don’t expect me to believe you was just there chopping wood all day, do you?"
Ironically that’s exactly what he’d done almost the entire time he was there, but Joshua knew Atkins would never believe that. So the wrangler had been the one responsible for that danger itch he’d been having all last night by watching him ride home while hiding in the rocks along the ridgeline, and then again morning. Well, it was good to know that his instincts hadn’t failed him yet, he supposed. He forced himself to sound even more scared, so Atkins believed that he was utterly cowed, "Where’s Hollander? When’ll he be here?"
This time Atkins laugh had a cruel twist to it, "The Boss has been in Bisbee all mornin’, but I reckon just about now he’s probably headin’ o’er there to… pay Alice his respects." The insinuation was unmistakable. "He’d a gone earlier this mornin’ but didn’t want to chance getting’ interrupted by her boys. Hell, if I didn’t have to stay here’n watch you, I might’a taken a turn wit’ her my own self."
It was a good thing that the grain room’s door separated them, because Joshua had never before in life had such a strong urge to kill someone with his bare hands. He didn’t trust himself to speak, even though he truly was afraid now, though not for himself. Pursing his lips, he trilled the whistle that called Dawson to him. While he had no idea whether or not the horse had been tied or corralled, hopefully the horse running loose would provide enough of a distraction that Atkins would be drawn away from guarding the grain room door.
"Did you just whistle?" Atkins asked incredulously.
A horse whinnied and neighed loudly. A few moments later the sound of hooves banging loudly against the side of a stall rang through the barn. Dawson became more agitated as the stall blocked his path to his master and began make even more racket, squealing with displeasure and kicking his rear hooves against the stall. His antics had the added effect of setting off the other horses in the barn, and soon it was filled with a cacophony of pawing hooves, whinnies and squeals, and the thuds of horseshoes hitting wood.
Atkins exclaimed with disbelief, "What the hell? Shut up!" He strode up the barn aisle and away from Joshua, hollering and banging on the sides of the stalls in a poor attempt to calm the horses down, but all that did was get them even more worked up. "Settle down!"
Joshua began slamming his shoulder against the door and could only hope that the sound blended in with the noises in the barn. By the third good hit, he could feel the wood begin to give. He was just about to give it a final shove, when Atkins’ voice came from the other side of the door, "That’s enough, Mason!"
As he had done before, he backed away from the door. However, this time, he did so to use the small amount of space in the grain room to its maximum effectiveness, lowering his shoulder and using the extra space to run at it, hitting the door with as much speed and force as he could manage.
It flew open and had the incredible luck to slam into the barrel tip of Atkins’ outstretched pistol where he had pointed it at the door. The gun went off once as it was knocked out of the foreman’s hand, but he didn’t have time to react. Joshua’s forward momentum carried him into the tall rangy Atkins, hitting him square in the chest.
The impact knocked the wind right out of the rangy foreman and he gasped for air, even as Joshua straddled his chest to hold him down. The former outlaw’s face was grim and almost expressionless, but his eyes blazed with rage as he punched Atkins methodically and repeatedly, until the other man was barely breathing and his face was a ruined and bloody mess.
Even then, he had to force himself to stop. He rolled off of the other man’s chest and staggered to his feet, breathing heavily as he looked around. The horses in the barn had finally quieted for the most part, though Dawson was still whinnying now and again.
His gunbelt was hanging from one of the saddle hooks near the grain room, and he quickly belted it around his waist before walking down the broad aisle of the barn unlatching and opening stall doors as he went along to set the horses free. Dawson’s bridle was hanging from a hook on the stall door and Joshua slipped it onto the horse before climbing up to ride bareback. While he would have preferred to ride with a saddle, he felt like he had already taken too long as it was by freeing the horses, but he refused to resign the animals to the same fate Atkins would be facing.
Riding back up the aisle at a trot, Joshua leaned over to knock down the barely lit lantern that hung high off the ground near the grain room and tack rooms. It hit the ground a few feet away from Atkins and shattered, spraying oil around and setting light dusting of hay spread there on fire almost instantly. Dawson quivered with a horse’s natural and instinctive terror of fire, and Joshua quickly directed the horse outside at a near gallop.
The fire was burning out of control, a pillar of flame that stretched upward toward the dark, grey sky before Joshua had even topped the first rise that led away from Hollander’s ranch, but he didn’t even notice or care. He rode hard for the Evans homestead and prayed that he wasn’t too late.
Alice squinted up at the sky as she watched Mark ride off to meet his brother. Dark clouds were gathering in the West. Well, that was actually a relief. Although Hollander had promised to clear up the dam, the extra rain would be most welcome in terms of filling up the rain barrels and helping water the garden. Well water poured from watering can just didn’t seem to have nearly as nice an effect on the growth of the vegetables as a long soaking rain.
Not that soaking rains were all that common in this area of the country, no, far more likely were the sudden cloudbursts of torrential rain that led to dangerous flash floods.
She went back inside and stared critically at the floors. It was Friday, which meant she’d spent most of the day cleaning. Thankfully, she was on the last part of that, scrubbing the floors. The kitchen and main room had been scrubbed clean, but she still had the two small bedrooms left to do. She picked up the bucket of water and scrub brush and headed into Mark and Will’s room, starting there first.
A short time later, she was kneeling on the floor in her bedroom, rhythmically scrubbing the brush across the floor when she heard the sound of a single horse approaching. A faint quiver of excitement ran through her at the thought that perhaps Joshua had come to visit again, but she sternly quashed that frivolous emotion as she got to her feet.
Using a rag to wipe her hands dry, Alice walked toward the door, noting with some surprise that the lone horseman was Glen Hollander. That was unexpected, as the landowner never came to visit without at least one of his lackeys.
She watched him dismount and as he slowly ambled toward her, she said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Hollander," with exquisite politeness, though her eyes slid past him and up the road. She halfway expected to see the foreman Tom Atkins appear at any moment, riding over the hill.
"Expecting someone else?" Glen inquired coldly as he climbed the single step to the porch.
Alice blinked, not just at the question, but the tone. "Excuse me?"
He took off his Townsend hat and lazily ran his blue eyes over her slim figure, not even bothering to disguise his stare. "Looked like you were expectin’ someone else. He ain’t coming."
Deciding the best way to deal with his ogling was to ignore it completely, Alice shook her head. "I can assure you, Mr. Hollander, I’m not expecting anyone. Especially not with the weather changing like this," she added after glancing skyward, where it storm clouds were brewing.
Hollander studied her face and laughed shortly, "You know, you really had me fooled. I mean, for months now, I’ve been trying to give you time, seeing as how you’re a grieving widow and all, biding my time until the right moment, until you came to me, asking for help, and now I see I was goin’ about it all wrong. If I’d just come up to you and told you what I wanted, I think I’d have had a better chance of getting’ it from you, wouldn’t I?"
"Mr. Hollander, I think that it’s time for you to leave," she said very firmly and turned away from him to go back inside.
Before she could, Glen reached out and grabbed her arm, forcing her to face him as continued. "Now I see that if I’d just told you I wanted you, you’d have just smiled and spread your legs for me the way you did for Mason, instead of acting like an icy, uppity bitch."
Alice slapped him across the face almost before she even realized what she was doing. "Get out of my house," she hissed, trying to wretch her arm free.
His head jerked to the side as she hit him, but when he looked at her again, he was almost smiling. Almost negligently, he backhanded her in retaliation, and his smile broadened at her sharp gasp of pain. "No, actually I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere just yet. The land is mine, the house is mine, and I think it’s high time that I make you mine as well, don’t you?" he said conversationally as he forced her through the doorway into the house.
She began struggling in earnest as the implicit meaning behind his words sank in, first clawing at his hand that firmly gripped her forearm, and then at his face when that didn’t work. She didn’t bother screaming, because it wouldn’t have done any good. There was no one around to hear. Her fingernails were too blunt to do any real damage, but when she managed to gash the skin beside his left eye, he’d had enough and slammed her against the wall by the throat.
"Alice," Glen gritted through clenched teeth, mere inches away from her face, "I’m trying to be a loving suitor here, but you’re not making it very easy. This would go a whole lot easier if you just relaxed and enjoyed the ride, what do you say?"
Defiantly, she spat at him, hitting him right in the eye as she struggled against the hand that was tightening around her neck and lashed out with her feet, trying to kick him.
This time when Glen hit her back, he used his fist. Between that and the choking grip around her throat, Alice could remain conscious no longer.
A few minutes later, she came to again, aware enough to realize that at some point, he’d taken off her drawers and pushed up her skirt and he was over her and in her, grunting, with his hand still around her throat and his hot breath steaming against her cheek. He mashed a wet kiss to her lips and again she defied him, biting his lip as hard as she could, hard enough that the coppery taste of his blood filled her mouth. He jerked his head away from her right as she spit his blood back out of her mouth, aiming for his eyes again. She missed his face and hit his pristine white shirt instead.
"Bitch," he cursed and began to choke her again until she saw stars and when the world went black this time, she was relieved.
BACK HOME NEXT
Rape in pioneer days was rarely reported, and even then, perpetrators were rarely convicted. Invariably, the character of the woman was brought into question. The apt phrase, “In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial” originated in the 17th century courtesy of Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, and even now in modern criminal courts, this still tends to be the case, though now there has been a shift in perception that rape is about having power and control, not merely about sex.
This chapter is different from all the other chapters in that not once does Joshua quote a Bible verse. Just a little FYI. Did you catch that?