1. One Last Time

By Calico

I glance at my pocket watch, then up at the sun. My watch has had what you might call a hard life. It don’t always tell the truth. A bit like its owner, huh? On both counts. Today though, the watch and the sun seem to agree – so maybe the watch has decided to turn over a new leaf? Maybe. Maybe I will too.

Not because of Carrie’s nagging! Sheesh! Do I LOOK the kind of fella who’d let some girl pussy-whup him into going straight just because she’s got a winning smile and dishes out a bit of sweet-talk? Do I?

Oh.

Yeah, well! Maybe you’re right.

Is that so bad? It’s one thing the man being the boss. That’s the natural order after all! Stands to reason. But…

I guess I’ve never thought much of men who take that to mean they don’t even have to listen to their womenfolk. Seems to me – that’s just dumb.

Pa always listened to Ma. Before they…

No, I’m not gonna talk about my mother.

Anyhow, if I HAVE been listening to Carrie – I reckon it’s only because she’s been saying stuff I’ve been thinking already.

When I ran off from the home, stealing didn’t seem SO wrong. Sheesh! When you saw the kinda stuff so-called respectable folk pulled! If other folk are rich enough to be targets…and if YOU’RE hungry…

I guess I still think that.

Kinda…

I tell Carrie we – I mean the Devil’s Hole Gang – we don’t hurt ordinary folk. We target railroads and banks. They’re worse villains than outlaws! I don’t know if that’s exactly true. I’ve heard smart folk argue it. But the smart folk I listen to – well! They’re on the wrong side of the law, huh? They’re not what you’d call impartial. I reckon though – even if you take it with a pinch of salt – there’s a lot of truth in there.

Carrie says it’s not so much the stealing. It’s the guns. She hates guns. She says…

Well, she says – back in the schoolyard – there were two kinds of bullies. One kind hit you – then stole your lunch pail. He hit you because he enjoyed hitting. The other kind would threaten to hit you – so you handed over your lunch pail. He just wanted ‘the loot’. Carrie says – when you grow up – there’s a third kind of bully. He gives you a big smile and says – ‘hand it over and no one has to get hurt’. He likes to cover up the threat – but it’s still the same. She says all the talk about ‘not hurting passengers, not stealing from customers’ … is just the cover.

She’s right. I used to hate bullies. Prided myself on standing up to them – making sure the younger boys at the home didn’t get a real hard time. Now… Now I am one.

I pull a gun on some ordinary, innocent family man – an engine driver, or guard, or bank clerk, or train passenger – and I say – ‘No one needs to get hurt…”

If I do it with a big reassuring smile – who am I trying to fool into thinking I’m a pretty good guy?

Only myself. Not them.

They wouldn’t do as they were told unless they were frightened…

Frightened of the bully holding the gun.

And, I DID fool myself into thinking for a ‘bad guy’, I was a – a pretty good guy.

I AM a good guy. At least – I want to be.

Does that sound soft? I guess it does. I sure wouldn’t say nothing like that to the rest of the gang.

That’s another problem … You spend your whole life surrounded by fellas keen to prove how tough they are. You have to be hard to survive. And…you’re scared of seeming soft.

You lose sight of what is – a decent consistency.

Anyhow, even if it IS soft – I reckon I care more about Carrie’s opinion than about what the other fellas think.

At least…I take another look up at the sun …I DID!

She’s late! I’ve been hanging around for over an hour. Does she think I’ll sit here all afternoon? Pfffttt! Not after last time!

When she turns up – she had better be in a better mood than last time – or – or…

Well, I don’t know ‘or’ what…

Last time, something was worrying her – and she wouldn’t say! She ended up storming off. Just left me. Made me look a real fool!

If she thinks …

I stand up, unhitch my horse from the branch I’ve tethered him to. I’ve got better things to do than hang around for another dumb fight – all about nothing!

I loop the reins back around the branch, go and sit down. I’ll give it another five minutes. It’d be dumb to ride all this way and not wait, huh? Besides, it may not be Carrie’s fault. Sometimes her boss changes her shifts at real short notice.

Half an hour later she turns up. Full of apologies. She HAD been kept back… She is SO glad I waited… She was SURE I would have given up…She is SO sorry…She wasn’t even sure I’d come… Not after the way she behaved last time…

I had kinda made up my mind to be mad at her, but – it’s kinda hard to stay mad if someone says sorry, huh?

“Hey, you’re here now,” I say, folding my arms round her, “…let’s make the most of it, huh?”

But, instead of smiling up at me – that lop-sided smile that makes her nose crinkle so you just want to kiss it – she buries her head in my shirtfront and bursts into tears. I’ve never seen Carrie cry before.

“I’ve…I’m… Promise not to be mad. Please. Promise. I’ve something to tell you…Promise, though. Don’t be angry. Please. I wanted to tell you last time, but – I guess I was still hoping…”

—oooOOOooo—

“What am I gonna do? I’ll lose my job and…”

“…Hey, hush…” There is nothing left of Carrie’s handkerchief but a wet rag. I take off my bandana use it to mop her tears, as well as I can while still sitting with my arms round her. “…Don’t cry. Please. Here…” I push the bandana into her hand. “…Blow …” She does blow. She tries to pull herself together, as I cuddle her and make soothing sounds into her hair. “Don’t worry. Everything’ll be fine! You’ll see! We’ll get married and – I’ll find work. Sure, it might have to be something hard on the back – but – that won’t kill me, huh? Do me good! Don’t cry, Carrie…please…”

I reckon I guessed what Carrie’s news was before she managed to tell me.

“I don’t want it to be like this. You must know I’ve dreamed you might …might ask. One day. I love you! You know that. But, I don’t want to force you into…”

“You’re not forcing me,” I say. “…I’m volunteering. You don’t think I’d just leave you, do you?”

“But, you don’t WANT to get married! All that talk about a life free of responsibilities…not being tied down…”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake Carrie! That was when we first met! And, even then – I was only shooting my mouth off! You know me – ALL talk. Course I want to marry you. You know that, huh? This is just what you might call – an extra incentive to get on with it!”

“Really?” comes a shaky little voice.

“Really!” I say, firmly. I kiss her. Then again – properly. My hand under her chin, I make her eyes meet mine. “Really,” I repeat. “Really and truly.”

“In that case…” I get a smile, still a bit watery, but looking more like the usual Carrie. The voice sounds a bit more like her normal teasing, too, “…isn’t there usually some kind of proposal? Did I miss it?”

“Carrie Weaver,” I say, “…will you…”

“NOT sitting down!” she scathes. “I’m not listening to ANYTHING until you’re properly down on one knee.”

I grin, get myself positioned – properly. “Carrie Weaver. If I promise to go straight, settle down, get an honest job, be a model husband and father – will you marry me?”

“I’ll consider it – get back to you,” she smiles.

An idea strikes me. I tug the ring off my own finger, push it onto hers. She stretches out her hand to admire the glint of the gold. Despite holding her finger crooked, the ring falls off. She tries it on her thumb, still too big.

“I don’t think this will work,” she says. “Besides,” a frown, “…I thought you ALWAYS wore this for luck?”

“Well, I’ve got lucky now, haven’t I?” I tease. “It’s done its job! Leastways – assuming you eventually say ‘yes’. Wear it on a bit of ribbon round your neck.”

The freckled forehead is still puckered up. “Will the gang be mad – when you say you’re leaving.”

“Nah,” I dismiss. “Fellas DO leave. As long as I keep my mouth shut – and, I’d do that anyhow. And, as long as…”

I shut up in time. I was going to say “As long as I still do my bit tomorrow…” Wary grey eyes look up into mine. I give a big, reassuring smile.

“I think, you should keep your lucky ring until AFTER you’ve – y’know – properly left and gone straight,” she says.

“I thought you weren’t superstitious?”

“I’m not!” she declares, firmly. “Once you’ve really gone straight, THEN, I’ll say ‘yes’ and take it.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Yes,” she says. Very quietly, she adds, “I do.”

“Tell you what,” I say, “…wear this for now…” And I…

It sounds real sappy. I guess it IS real sappy. I pick three or four daisies and weave her a ring out of them. Told you it was sappy. I reckon it was because I was thinking about the – the baby. After the first ‘gulp’ – I started to feel kinda happy about it. No, not ‘kinda’ happy. Happy. In fact, I reckon by the time tomorrow comes and I’ve got used to the idea – I’m going to be walking on air.

I tell Carrie something too – something I haven’t told her before. Not because it isn’t true. It IS true. It’s been true for ages. I just never said it before because – y’know.

Aw, come on! You already KNOW what I told her. You KNOW! Sheesh! You women! I don’t have to repeat it!

Oh alright! I said, “I love you.”

Happy now?

—oooOOOooo—

I was right. Next morning I AM walking on air. I’ m gonna be a father. I’m gonna be a GOOD father. Like Pa was. Before…

I can hardly keep the smile off my face, as I help lever up that track.

I couldn’t duck out of this one last robbery. Not at twenty-four hours notice. I’m not conceited enough to think they exactly NEED me, but – the preparations are made and we all have some role to play. The gang – well, I’m not going to get sappy about THEM too and say ‘they’re like family’. They’re not. Still, I do feel a good dose of ‘loyalty amongst thieves’. I am going to put Carrie and the baby first from now on – but, I owe these guys a lot. And, there’s a lot less chance of anyone on that train getting hurt if we stick to the plan.

That is most of the truth. I am trying to be honest, but – it don’t come real natural yet.

I ALSO know, if I DID duck out now – I’d have the gang all riled up at me. Who needs that?

And, I think about the gold. I DO intend to get an honest job. But, my share from today will be a real stake to get me and Carrie started. Stealing from some mining company – it’s not like stealing from a – a PERSON. They won’t miss it! Well. I guess you’ve heard that kind of justification before, huh?

It’s the last time, anyhow. What can one last time hurt?

From our position in the bushes, we watch the engine screech to a halt in front of the ripped up tracks.

“Alright men,” says Wheat Carlson, “…Let’s get rich!”

Like always, I kiss my snake ring for luck. “Going to be passing you on soon,” I murmur. “… first to Carrie. Then, one day, to Henry Maxwell Jenkins Junior!”

“Let’s go!” calls Wheat.

I dig my heels into my horse and, with the rest of the gang, gallop down towards the Brimstone to Denver train.

One last time…

—oooOOOooo—

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