The Black Wolf
Until that night, he'd never seen her naked before. He wished the circumstances were different.
Because she tumbled down the hill most of the way, the damage was not as bad as he feared. However, skidding down the rock and gravel had torn her shirt and cacti needles ruined the rest of her clothing. Her undergarments were not in any better shape. That night they stayed at El Matadero in a small house that Jack owned a deed to, thanks to his father. The closest they could find to a doctor was a midwife who offered to help pluck the needles and tend to Summer's wounds. The woman spoke very little English, but her tone was soothing and that was enough to put Summer at ease between pulls.
Throughout the night, they took turns holding her down and plucking the spines by low lamplight. The larger needles were easy; it was the hair-like ones that were tiring. With each pluck, she yowled like a dying cat and screamed every cuss she knew. Some of the things she said amazed Jack, not realizing how many words there were.
Jack threw all his effort into pulling the tiny spines. Focusing on small areas and refusing to look at her entire body. Though, touching bare skin where he never had before caused his body to react and he hated himself for it. He mentally kicked himself as he worked on her lower back.
The midwife who volunteered to help, used different methods to remove the spines quickly, including a dry sponge and a fine comb. Jack ignored the cramping in his hands and the sting in his eyes as he continued plucking.
By the time they finished, it was close to four. They were not out of the woods yet, however. Summer's scrapes and cuts were littered with dirt and gravel. Because her ankle was swollen twice its size and couldn't place any weight on it, Jack carried her to the tub where she soaked. The cool water took away the sting the spines left behind. Mai and the midwife took over, giving Jack a break. He looked away as the women washed her.
He listened as she whimpered and whined with each touch from the rag. Listened as Mai scolded Summer for her recklessness and the scare she gave everyone. He closed his eyes, wishing it would end.
"You're no use to us now, Jack," Mai said. "Go on, get some sleep."
"I'm fine." How could he leave her at a time like this?
"This is women's work now. Go away, you got your peek of her."
Jack's face reddened. "Wh-what? I wasn't tryin'-"
He left, making sure he didn't look at Summer on his way out the door.
Outside, he found Raul speaking with the butcher in Spanish. Jack tried learning the language when he hid in Mexico, but it never stuck so he kept to himself. He thought about that rancher's daughter that he spent the night with four years earlier and wondered if she was still in this area. He barely understood her, but he didn't care with her on top of him.
Then he mentally punched himself for having such thoughts while Summer lied in agony.
Grabbing a wooden chair, he sat down and leaned back against the wall. Daylight peeked over the mountains. Seeing the pinks and oranges streaking the sky, reminded Jack of the little sleep he had. He shut his eyes, pulled down his hat, and allowed himself to drift off.
Summer Cloud's pain faded to a dull throb as the effects of the medicine took hold. Her left foot felt like a heavy stump wrapped in bandages. She tried lifting her leg, but the pain was too much. She poked the bandages around her right forearm and winced. Then she touched the sticky scrape across her forehead and gave a soft "ow".
"Stop that," Mai scolded from across the room.
By now the midwife who help tend to her had left, leaving Summer alone with her aunt once more. She wished she knew how to break this awkwardness between them.
"How's your head feeling?"
"I still have a headache and I feel lightheaded."
"With some rest, you should be okay by tomorrow."
Summer picked at a loose string on her blanket. She was tired and wanted sleep, but questions she had for Mai went around in her mind.
"Are you with Jack?" Mai asked.
Summer stopped picking at the string and looked up. "Since November."
Mai didn't bother masking the disapproval on her face. The way she looked at Summer Cloud made her want to squirm.
"I don't know why any self-respecting woman like yourself would bother with a white man. Especially after everything they've put us through. I've seen my brothers and sisters fall prey to the white devil's so-called charm and I'll never understand it."
"But Jack is good. He's not like the others."
Mai studied her for a moment before saying: "I know who Jack's parents were and while they were not perfect, they were better than any white I'd known. Aside from Arthur, of course. Did you know Jack once saw me as his aunt?" She smiled at that, as though she were remembering better days. It quickly faltered when she added. "I thought Dutch was different too, but he proved to be a snake. No better than the government he spoke out against. He's the reason my son died."
Summer's eyes widened. "He was?"
"Dutch knew all along where Nastas was but never told me. He recruited my son into his new gang, knowing the boy's background. When Nastas saw Dutch for what he was and left, it was too late. The government swooped in and sank their claws into him the moment he walked away from Dutch. They promised him that if he became an informant, they would absolve my bounties. It was Dutch's fault Nastas had to become an informant, it was his fault Nastas died." She had a far off look in her eyes.
"But Jack wouldn't do those things."
"I know he wouldn't but…" Mai rose from her chair and walked across the room. Looking out the window, she added. "But you have the heart of a warrior and I don't want your flame snuffed out. White men are good at that even when they don't mean to."
"But you said it yourself, you helped raise Jack. So you know him."
She turned to face Summer Cloud. "He was no higher than my knee then."
"But you can get to know him again."
Summer wanted this conversation to be over. Why couldn't Mai mind her own business? "You haven't been in my life and now you turn up and tell me what to do? What gives you the right? I get that you're concerned, but I love Jack."
"Love can be your downfall. Trust me on that."
If she were in better health, she could hold her own in the argument better. Dizziness overwhelmed her again. It felt as though her bed was tipping and she'd slide off at any moment. She waited for several moments for Mai to say something else, to keep arguing with her about it but as the clock ticked by, Mai stayed silent. As Summer drifted further off, she heard Mai give a tired sigh before giving her the peace she wanted.
She dreamt of an amber-eyed snake coiling around a pure white dove. Her beak opened in a silent scream as the snake tightened. Blood trickled from her beak, and her eyes bulged as the life was drained from her. Summer tried running towards the helpless creature, but her legs wouldn't move. She was frozen, watching as the dove took her last breath and slowly went limp.
The snake's eyes focused on Summer. She tried moving away from it, but her body froze in place. It slowly uncoiled its body and the dove fell like a rag-doll. Summer's heart hammered in her chest as it slithered towards her. She tried screaming again but could only manage a squeak. Its mouth opened, fangs gleaming in what little light there was. She closed her eyes and waited for the bite.
It was dark when she awoke cold and sweaty. Confused, she rolled her head to the right and looked to the window. There was a bit of light coming through the blanket covering it. She thought of getting up to peek outside but her sides and ankle reminded her that moving was a bad idea.
In the corner, an oil lamp sparked to life. The outline of a broad figure came into vision, startling her. The figure leaned back in their chair and folded their arms over their chest. Summer squinted at the shape, trying to force her eyes to adjust faster.
"Go to sleep." It was Jack.
She relaxed but didn't close her eyes. "I had a bad dream."
"You in pain?"
The chair creaked as Jack rose to his feet. He reached into his satchel and retrieved a small bottle. He was at her bedside with the tonic held under her nose. She took the bottle and downed the liquid. The effects worked immediately, numbing her wounds.
She nodded in the dark.
The back of his hand pressed her forehead. "You have a slight fever. I'll see if Mai has anything for it."
"But I want you here," she whimpered.
"It's not nighttime."
He laughed softly and gently stroked her cheek. "Get some sleep, okay? I'll come back later."
She pressed lightly against his hand and closed her eyes. She didn't want him to leave. Not after the messed up dream she had. She wanted to tell him about it but she didn't have the energy to do so.
Within seconds she was asleep again. The last thing she remembered was Jack's warmth. This time she dreamt she was making love to Mary-Beth. Suddenly, her friend transformed into a doll. Her head popped off and rolled under the bed. In another dream, she rode fast through Tall Trees. She dodged bullets as men shouted after her. Her horse was growing tired, and she felt strangely lightheaded. At her breast was a wailing infant. She had a series of dreams ranging from bizarre to terrifying. A few times they woke her, only for her to fall asleep immediately after. In her last dream, she encountered a man on a badly scarred horse with a bald face. Just as the snake, his eyes also glowed amber.
Jack attached the prairie chicken to his saddle. He looped an arm around the mare's neck, using her as support. The last two days left him exhausted. His back ached, his eyes burned, and it felt as though someone hammered nails into his head. He tried resting while Mai and Raul watched over Summer, but worry left him restless. Listening to her cry and talk in her sleep didn't help either.
He went hunting in hopes that the cold air would help keep him awake. His kill was puny and proof he was still too tired to focus. His bolt-action rifle was the wrong choice of weapon to use on the bird but his pa's varmint rifle was back at home. Now there was a chunk of meat missing. Well, Mai would have to find some way to stretch it out. If he had to, he'd skip a meal. He wasn't hungry anyway.
Climbing onto his paint, he spurred her sides and rode back to El Matadero. The gust of icy wind was enough to keep him awake during the ride.
"Ah, our hero returns!" Raul said as Jack hitched his horse.
Jack closed his eyes for a moment to soothe the burning. He wished Raul would be quiet long enough for his headache to dull.
"What did you catch?"
"A prairie chicken."
Mai approached the horse and unhooked the game from the saddle. She held it up, observing it with disapproval on her weathered face.
"It's winter," Jack said, trying to defend his poor game.
"It's old," she replied.
Not as old as you.
"I guess I can work with it."
"How's Summer feelin'?"
"She's awake for now. Claims it doesn't hurt as it did before. That valerian root really put her out of it though."
"In that case, I'm checkin' on her."
He slowly pushed open the door and poked his head inside the room. She was awake and staring up at the ceiling. Hearing the door creak open she turned her head in his direction and brightened.
Her hair was worn down, parted in the middle, a frizzy mess in the back and slightly damp. It was longer than Jack remembered, but he'd seen her in a braid for weeks now.
"Look who's return," she said, sitting up in bed. She winced as she adjusted her pillow but it didn't damper her happiness.
Seeing her awake and alert eased his worries. She wasn't out of the woods yet though.
"I went hunting."
"You look tired."
"I'm fine. How are you feelin'?"
"Better for the most part. My sides and ankle hurt when I move though."
"So don't move."
She rolled her eyes. "Wow, thanks. I'll have to give that a try."
He gave a slight chuckle. "You're welcome." He played with her hair until she smacked his hand away. She glared at him, pretending to be annoyed. He grabbed a chair and took his place by her bed.
"Are we going home now?"
"When you can put pressure on that foot."
She groaned and sunk into the bed. "I want to leave Mexico already. It was fun but I miss the Great Plains."
"We'll leave in a day or two, I promise."
"We better or else I'll crawl my way back to West Elizabeth."
"That I don't doubt." His hand rested against the scarred side of her face, his thumb gently caressing her cheek.
Outside, Raul and Mai were having a mild argument over the proper way to tame a horse. Mai was growing agitated while Raul continued to stay calm. If they continued, Jack would have to break them up.
"They sound like they're getting along well," she commented.
"Yeah, I figured those two would hit it off. Whatever keeps them out of here."
"Mai drove you crazy, too?"
"Yes! She kept badgering me to go hunting, fetch water, do this, do that. Anytime I even looked at your bedroom door, she had a chore for me. I finally got sick of it and went to you anyway."
"I'm glad you did," she said, taking his hand. "Did you know she's my aunt?"
Jack stared at her in disbelief. "What? She can't be. I thought you only had one?"
"My Aunt Elizabeth used to tell stories about a rebellious sister who fought against the government. Her name was Bright Flower which in Apache is Mai. They say she killed thousands of US soldiers but I think that's an exaggeration. Aunt Elizabeth never spoke of Mai in a positive light. She was more of a cautionary tale in our family. An example of what happens when you don't follow a path of good."
"Sounds to me like everything Mai did was justified. I'm surprised Elizabeth wasn't more understanding."
"Elizabeth is an apple to put it lightly."
Jack heard the term before and understood what it meant. It was surprising to hear Summer use it, though.
"If she's your family, then I'd like for her to hang around us more. I think it's important you get to know her, and I'd like to know more about the glory days of Dutch's gang."
"I wouldn't mind if Raul came with us, too."
"Jesus Christ, you can't collect people like they're rocks."
They both laughed, Summer's being cut short by pain. She sank back into the pillow, winching until her body settled. Jack moved to help her, but she waved him off.
"I'm fine," she said once the pain subsided.
"Do you need any tonics? I have some yarrow in my bag."
She cringed and shook her head. "If I have to drink one more bitter tonic, I'll barf. I'd rather feel everything."
He relaxed in his chair. "At least let me get you something to eat."
"I'm not hungry. All I want is your company."
He took her hand and said, "That I can do."
Red sat across from Archer Fordham, arms crossed and his face unreadable. The agent leaned back in his chair, puffing on his cigar. He waited for the aging bounty hunter to say something about the piece of information he'd given him. However, Red Harlow didn't speak a word. He only stared down Archer with his icy blue gaze.
Fordham was told about Red's silent and intimidating demeanor, but he didn't expect it to be this frustrating or disturbing. The governor had been right about Red though, he was the man for the job.
Red leaned forward in his chair, narrowed his eyes at the government agent, and said, "Why not arrest Jack if you know he did it?"
"For one, we don't have enough evidence against him and two, Jack's well liked in our community, same as his father was. You can imagine the public outcry we had over John Marston's death. We don't want to deal with that again."
"Why tell me?"
"I thought you should know who your daughter has been associating herself with. It's the least I could do for all the work you've done for this town," Fordham replied. When Red said nothing, he continued, "We could use more men like you on the force."
"I want my money," Red replied.
"Yes… of course."
Fordham slid a piece of paper across his mahogany desk to Red who took it and placed it in his breast pocket. Red stood from his chair and tipped his hat to the government agent. "Much obliged."
"Give what I've told you some thought, Mister Harlow. I know you'd want the best for your daughter and I think it's safe to say that the Marston boy isn't what's best."
Ignoring Fordham's words, Red turned and walked towards the door. As he placed his hand on the knob, Fordham spoke up again.
"You're the last of a dying breed, if you don't mind me saying, Mister Harlow. You're all that's left of the old West."
Red gave a nod, turned the handle, and left the office.
He was outside minutes later with two-hundred dollars in his satchel and his mind mulling over the information Fordham had given him. He found his buckskin, Franco, hitched behind the police station and climbed onto his horse.
As he rode away from town, he thought more about what Fordham said. Jack Marston was a suspect in an agent's murder. From the gossip Red heard in town, he didn't blame the boy one bit. He knew what it was like to carry that bitterness and hatred in his heart. Lying awake many nights, he thought about what he would do to the men who killed his folks all those years ago. When he finally got his revenge, he realized nothing had changed. His ma and pa were still dead, and they weren't back. All he had left of them were a revolver, a sketchbook, and a goldmine he gave back to the Indians.
That's why he never told Summer the truth about her mother. He wanted his daughter to grow up happy and carefree, not spend her entire life craving revenge until it made her cold and bitter. He knew his daughter well enough to know that she wasn't as level-headed as he was. She'd get killed the first time she'd attempt to avenge her mother.
In a strange way, Red was envious of Jack. He got his revenge sooner rather than carry the anger around for fifteen years. Maybe it helped Jack heal faster and to realize revenge wasn't always the best course of action. Red wasn't sure. He wasn't a head doctor; just a washed up old gunslinger whose skills would become useless in the new era that was rapidly approaching.
Beecher's Hope came into his sights. Spurring Franco, the gelding picked up speed, and they raced for the property. He came to the top of the hill and stopped. Surveying the area, he saw no signs of Jack and Summer Cloud. They were still gone, off on some adventure as she called it.
When they came back, he'd confront Jack then, if he should at all. Red softly scoffed at his own worries. He had spent little time with Jack, but he never got an unpleasant feeling from the boy. Although, it was hard to read someone who was withdrawn.
And so what if he killed a government agent? Red killed a governor for the same reason.
His eyes drifted to the wooden markers under a tree. He didn't need to read the names to know who was there. It was a damn shame. He wasn't ignorant to the tales of John Marston. There was no telling how true they were, but he'd save Summer Cloud's life and for that Red was forever grateful. He gave a silent thank you to Marston before reining his horse away from Beecher's Hope.
He made a silent promise that he'd keep Jack on a right path, not for Summer Cloud's sake, but he owed it to the man who saved her.