To no one’s surprise this is proving harder than I thought. My prose isn’t nearly as clean as I want it to be but really these are only first drafts. I also find myself unsure as to where to break the chapters. This one is a little longer than I would have liked but I felt it was important to keep it all together. Oh well. Hope you enjoy.
Mary was a strong woman – strong build, strong features, strong resolve. She had to be, and whether or not she had been when she first met West hardly mattered. She was strong when he needed her strength, even if he didn’t know it. But her strength was matched only by her pain, which she knew equally well, and most of the time it was West who caused it. Maybe because he knew she could take it, but probably not.
Mary sat as she always did on the front porch of their little ranch home and stood only when West’s silhouette came into view. He’d been to town to turn a profit on their crops, but waiting for him always gave her the same feeling in her gut that she felt when she’d wait for him to return home from a big score. That nagging thought at the back of her brain, the one that told her he might never come home at all, never really left her, even when he did hang up his guns for good. Hank Crowley the family man. They were living a lie in more ways than one.
West had dismounted and was walking beside his horse now and he was close enough that Mary could make out the details of his face. She ran to him, sprinted even, and threw her arms around West’s tired body. She kissed him with such violence that their teeth clashed against each other and they smiled and kissed again with the same force.
From inside the little ranch house burst Ellie, West’s and Mary’s eight year old daughter, her mouth and eyes smiling, and Chief, their stately yellow labrador. They ran to West, much like Mary had, and embraced him with similar enthusiasm. It had only been two weeks since West left the ranch, but to all it felt a lifetime. For the second time that evening West felt content.
That night the Steel family ate well. West loved a good rare steak where the red juices would pool on his plate and he could dip his potatoes into the pool and mop up the pool with fresh bread and lots of butter. Mary didn’t disappoint and she had prepared a large feast that she hoped would keep West home for a great long while.
After dinner they settled into their familiar roles around the bright fire with Chief curled up in front of it snoring. West sat with his eyes closed and his pipe lit, rocking back and forth in his rocker and listening as Mary played a sweet little melody on the piano. Ellie sat next to her mom on the bench and sang along as best she could, her voice like the soft chirp of a small bird. Their house was small and cluttered like a stuffy museum or a shrine for those unwilling to let go of the past. Still, the place had its charm, and the various items throughout – some bought, some stolen, all in some state of collecting dust – were as much a part of the family as those who lived there.
The knock on the door was unexpected, and even though it had been nearly ten years since West had left his old life behind his mind was never far from danger, like a sleeper agent suddenly awoken. He rose upon instinct and opened the door cautiously, ready to hit and be hit, and kill if need be. But when he opened the door he was at once both relieved and disappointed to find Bobby, the nine-year old who lived with his mother a ranch over. Out of a combination of fear and respect, Bobby removed his hat.
“Good evening, Mr. Crowley.”
“Bobby. You comin’ to work in the fields with us tomorrow?”
“Well, sir, I came by to let you know my mama needs me to go with her into town in the morning, but I’ll be by as soon as I get back.”
“That’s fine.” West began shutting the door before Bobby interrupted.
“Um, Mr. Crowley..?”
“Yes,” West asked, his annoyance only slightly evident. Bobby must have caught on because he fiddled with his cap – a nervous habit that West detested – and it took him a moment to speak again.
“If it’s all right with you, sir, I was wondering if I could maybe take Ellie for a walk?”
“I’d love to go!” Ellie’s voice cut through, annoying West further. He looked to his wife
who nodded her head in approval. Knowing boys, having been one himself, West was uncomfortable with the situation.
“What do you want to do on this walk, Bobby?”
“Oh, just walk, sir.”
By this time Ellie had made her way over to the door.
“Hi, Bobby.” Though it was just a greeting it made Bobby blush all the same.
“Hi… Hi, Ellie.”
“Alright. But you two have to stay on the ranch. Where I can see you.”
“Now go on, get.”
West settled back into his rocking chair and chewed on his pipe as Mary closed the lid of the piano.
“You let her go on walks with boys?”
“I let her go on walks with Bobby.” West responded with a grunt and Mary walked over and sat on his lap. He let out another grunt, this one playful. “He’s a good boy, Hank. And don’t forget, you hired him.”
“Well he should be happy with the work and leave our daughter alone.”
“Oh stop. Ellie’s a good girl, and Bobby’s a good boy. They’re fine. It’s young love.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Look.” Mary turned West’s attention to the window where they watched the young love blossom.
Bobby and Ellie walked along the ranch with Chief by their side. Both were nervous. Bobby fiddled with his cap as Ellie played with one of her little pigtails. The only thing greater than their nerves was their excitement.
“I was wonderin’ if you was goin’ to the county fair next weekend?”
“I reckon I might be.”
“My momma said there’s gonna be a giant there. A man so tall he can touch the tops of the trees.”
“Is not! My momma told me so. She also said they’re gon have the skull of West Steel on display.” Ellie wasn’t sure of the name, though she felt like she ought to. She crinkled her nose trying to think but still she could not remember.
“Who’s that again?”
“Only the greatest gunfighter that ever lived! They say he killed over a hundred people.” Ellie’s eyes narrowed.
“Doesn’t sound so great to me.” Bobby wasn’t anticipating Ellie’s rebuke, and he retracted his enthusiasm accordingly.
“Yeah, I… I guess not.” The nerves that had seemingly vanished were now back and Bobby found himself fiddling with his cap again. “Say, Ellie. Would you maybe wanna go to the fair with me?”
“Together?” Bobby nodded fast. “I reckon I might,” Ellie said with a smile that caused Bobby to blush a shade of red he’d never known until this moment.
Inside, Mary was still seated on West’s lap and stroking the back of his hair. “You’ve been quiet tonight. More quiet than usual. Somethin’ happen when you was in town?” West stared into the fire for a long moment before answering.
“There was a hanging yesterday. Three thieves.” West explained to Mary that he was passing through town when he got caught in the mass of spectators. He never liked hangings, probably because he’d only narrowly avoided so many in his time. He told her how two of the thieves begged for their lives like dogs and how it was pitiful to watch. He told her that the third thief cried out to his wife and boy who were in the crowd, and how he apologized to them. He told her how as this was all going on, West envisioned himself as the third thief, and the wife and the boy as Mary and Ellie, and how they were sobbing. The whole episode seemed to disturb West. “That third thief seemed really, truly sorry. And I couldn’t help but think… Maybe they shoulda given him a second chance.”
“You were given a second chance.” West grunted.
“But I had to die first.” Mary took West’s face in her hands and turned him towards her. She kissed him gently yet passionately on the mouth.
“Will you check on the children?”
Outside, Bobby and Ellie continued their stroll. The hard part was over now and Bobby felt relief. But he also felt like pushing his luck.
“Can I tell ya somethin’?” Smiling, Ellie nodded her head. Bobby leaned in and whispered into her ear. She shrieked, threw him to the ground and ran inside.
“What’s the matter? What did he do?” West was ready to go to war with the boy.
“He called me cute!”
That night West tucked his daughter into bed. He’d made a habit of telling her bedtime largely inappropriate bedtime stories. But he knew no other kind. He’d accompany his stories with pantomime, acting out the details for his appreciative little Ellie.
“And there they was, surrounded by twenty lawmen. All them boys were outta bullets. All ‘cept for Ol’ Joe. He pulled the covers up to the bottom of Ellie’s neck. “Well, Ol’ Joe told ’em, ‘Don’t you worry boys, when I say go, you boys take off runnin’!’” Mary stopped, as she always did, and listened to her husband’s tale, happily annoyed. “And like a crazy man, Ol’ Joe blitzed out that front door like a stallion, guns blazin’, while the rest of the boys made it out the back.”
“What happened to Ol’ Joe, daddy?” West bowed his head.
“Sometimes, a sacrifice is made for the greater good. And sometimes… good men fall, little darlin’.”
“Did they shoot Ol’ Joe?” West solemnly nodded his head.
“But because of his brave act, the rest of them cowboys lived to fight another day.” Ellie began to cry and West wanted to join her.
“Shh. Shhh. It’s all right, it’s just a story. Besides, more cowboys lived than died.”
“But why did anyone have to die?” West looked at her, startled and puzzled by her question. One he’d never thought to ask himself.
“World ain’t always a perfect place.”
“Daddy. Why you always tell me stories about cowboys?”
“Would you prefer stories about princesses?”
“No.” This made West smile and he kissed her on the forehead.
“Goodnight, little darlin’.”
Mary was already in bed when West came into their room and started changing out of his clothes. He knew he was in for a scolding.
“Jesus, Hank. You are going to give our poor daughter nightmares with those awful stories.”
“She seemed to like it.”
“Ain’t heard you talk about Joe in a long time.” West pretended not to hear her. He got into bed, wrapped his arms around his wife and kissed her. It had been a long time since he felt her body against his, and he looked down at her lovingly.
“Tell me somethin’.” Mary gazed up at her husband, returning the loving look and letting the tension between them peak before she spoke.
“You smell.” They broke into laughter. In all his time, it was only Mary who could genuinely make him laugh. And he wondered if that was why he married her. Once the laughter died down and the romantic tension resumed Mary placed her hand on his cheek.
“Seriously… I missed you so much these last two weeks you were gone. So much so that it hurt, Hank. I’m shamed to admit that my mind wandered to thoughts of you… finding someone younger… livelier…”
“Livelier than you?”
“A woman has a right to worry about such things.” And Mary certainly had the right. There had been other women in the past, she knew, but so was the price of being in love with a famous outlaw. West took both of Mary’s hands in his and kissed them.
“You don’t gotta worry about me sharin’ my affections with another woman. Except maybe your daughter.” Mary smiled.
“I can live with that.”
“Yeah. I don’t want you to leave ever again.”
West and Mary embraced each other as they had when they first fell in love. They were tender and sensual and before long West moved on top of her but before either could let out a moan light footsteps could be heard coming up behind them. Mary could see Ellie standing sheepishly in the doorway.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“I had a bad dream and I — I… I wet my bed.” Mary looked at West as if to say ‘I told you so.’ He took the hint with a great sigh, rolled off his wife and walked over to Ellie. He took her by the hand and led her to her room. Mary couldn’t help but laugh.
Later that night West and Mary made love. And while it was happening West meditated on Mary’s smooth skin and how soft every part of her felt. He was thankful to her for so many things, and admired even more. Especially her strength.