Red Valley – Chapter XII

Here we have Billy share his backstory. I really love Billy and I hope he comes across as a well-rounded character with his own arc. His and West’s arc mirror each other (I hope) and it’s something I’ve always been proud of in this script. Again, hope it translates to prose. Cheers.

 

XII

Billy stood knee deep in the freezing stream water. West had finally spoken to him, or more rather, had finally given him an order, and he jumped at the chance to do right. Standing and shivering in the ice water he only slightly regretted his eagerness. The sooner he caught a fish the sooner he’d be out of the water and in front of the fire. And soon after that they’d have a little something in their bellies. He thought he saw one wiggle its way through between his legs, but the fish was a slippery bastard and Billy slipped and fell backwards and the water felt like daggers penetrating his sides. He heard West and Charlie laugh and despite the pain he couldn’t help but smile.

Eventually Billy caught three fish and West decided that that was good enough. They sat around the fire and ate like cats, eating the fish whole and spitting out the bones. The fish were gone within minutes. Charlie was the only one to eat slowly and he savored every bite and closed his eyes and pretended Elizabeth had prepared it for him.

“Where’d you learn to fish like that?” West asked.

Billy couldn’t believe that West Steel – the West Steel – was asking him a question and not insulting him or threatening him or ordering him around.

“Taught myself.” He’d learned that West liked quick, short answers.

“No shit?” asked Charlie.

“Been on my own since I was maybe six or seven.”

“Your folks pass?” asked Charlie, and Billy nodded his head. “How’d they go?”

West shot Charlie a scolding look and Billy took a deep breath before answering.

“Y’know, the war really didn’t change too much in the South. Yeah, my folks was freed, but… my momma wound up having to go back to work in the fields for her previous master. Ain’t that some shit?”

Charlie bowed his head.

“I mean, you can imagine his attitude towards the former slaves. I mean, not only did he lose sons fighting to keep them in shackles, but now that he’s lost, they’re back, and he’s gotta start paying them. Not much, but still… more so than before.”

West listened intently, his opinion of young Bill changing and evolving with the story.

“I never knew my father, but my momma… she took good care of me. And even though she was paid close to nothing, once a month she’d go into town and buy me a dime novel. Usually starring the great West Steel.”

West and Billy’s eyes met and Billy let out a little chuckle. West bowed his head and didn’t know how to feel.

“One day I come in from the fields and she had a sack all packed up. And she tells me I gotta go. I told her I didn’t want to but she insisted, said I’d be better off if I found my way to the north.” Billy got a little choked up but carried on. “So I left… y’know, when you got no other choice, you learn to hunt and fish real good, real quick. More than anything else, though, it was those dime novels that got me through. Pretending to be you.”

West gave Billy a grim look.

“Figured, you’d faced it all and walked away laughin’. That’s how I wanted to be. Tough.”

West couldn’t help but grin.

“After a few years of workin’ on different ranches here and there, I decided to go back for my ma. But she was gone.” His eyes filled with water but only a little. “Her bones was weak and she was just a frail little thing… and she moved slower… that didn’t please our former master none too much. One day she was workin’ and she fell. They just started whippin’ her. Whippin’ her ’till you couldn’t tell what was skin and what was blood. Done whipped her to death.”

Billy took a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh.

“Didn’t matter that she was free. She was a negro woman, so no questions were asked. No courts were held. Not even a headstone for her.”

“What about revenge?” asked West.

Billy let out a sad chuckle.

“That son’bitch had a heart attack the next week.”

Billy bowed his head and shook it, as if trying to dispel the images he’d allowed to reenter his mind.

“Shit, I’m ramblin’. Let’s talk about you guys. Chuck, you’s a terrible shot.”

That broke the tension and the boys all had a good laugh.

“Well, I ain’t no West Steel, that’s for sure. I ain’t some punk kid with a gun no more, ’cause if I was, I’d still be that, y’see?” said Charlie.

Billy nodded his head.

“A man should know how to take a shot. How you expect to protect your family?” said West.

Charlie just looked out beyond the fire and didn’t respond.

“When you and Liz gonna start makin’ little ones, anyway?”

“I dunno, when… y’know… When we’re ready.”

“Ready? Christ, you’ve only been married six years.”

“It’s… complicated.”

West bowed his head in understanding and he was ashamed that he’d taken it as far as he did.

“Well… that’s a shame, Chuck, you woulda made a good dad. Better than me at least.”

“You’re… you’re an all right dad.”

“You ever known another dad to have his kid stoled from him?”

“You ever know of another dad to travel borders to get that kid back?”

West looked down,having never thought of it that way.

“You’re a good dad.”

West looked at Charlie in disbelief.

“You just got a shit way of showin’ it,” Charlie grinned.

West grinned, too, and nodded his head.

Billy smiled. It was the first time in all their weeks traveling that it felt how he’d always envisioned it would feel to be a part of West Steel’s gang. Then West stood up, dusted off his pants, told them they better start moving, and walked away.

Billy smiled again.

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