Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
Chapter Twenty Seven
J.J. silently poured more coffee into Luke's cup. It was a little before six in the morning and neither of them had slept much for the past two nights, not since Luke had come home and told J.J. he was bound to a duel. It had been a very tense and silent two days with each of them lost in his own thoughts and both of them knowing that there was not much to say anyway.
At first, of course, J.J. had tried to stop him but he quickly saw how pointless that was. There was something inside Luke that was like the something that had lived inside Rusty for so long, something that could not be denied. Once J.J. saw this, once he understood the power of the thing, he resigned himself that the duel would, indeed, occur.
His hardest job, other than keeping himself in control, was keeping others away from Luke. Word of the duel had spread through the town like a mid-winter blizzard and by breakfast time on Sunday every one knew something of what had happened the night before at the Devil's Heart.
Sheriff Cain came by early Sunday morning to offer the services of his office in running Hiram Rodale out of town but by that time J.J. knew the duel was inevitable and told the sheriff no. Several of the miners made the same offer but they, too, were turned away.
As for Luke, he left the house just before dawn and did not return until almost dusk. From the stains on his jeans J.J. knew he'd been down by the creek, probably sitting in the little glade they'd found last summer. He wished he'd been there too but he knew Luke had needed to be alone.
They spent Sunday night lying in bed alternately holding each other, each living out various scenarios of life in his head. Toward morning they made love, slowly, quietly but with a passion neither knew he had in him.
Now, at six in the morning, there was nothing to do but what they always did. J.J. made French toast with Sunday's left over bread while Ah Man fried sausages and potatoes; Catlan made trips back and forth to the dining room while Luke washed fruit and got platters and plates down from high shelves. No one said a word.
After breakfast Ah Man and J.J. prepared the food for the mid-day meals to be taken to the mine while Luke and Catlan washed up from Breakfast.
At nine Luke took a big kettle of simmering water off the stove and spoke. "I have to bathe." He went into the bath room and closed the door.
Twenty minutes later he walked back into the kitchen and stood for a long moment, naked as the day he was born. It was as though he had to show himself to them--and perhaps to God--as he was, a whole man, alive. "I have to dress." He went into the bedroom.
At a he came back into the kitchen. He was dressed in the tan doeskin trousers he had worn the day of Eliot's wedding, the day J.J. first realized he loved him. The trousers were tight on him now, giving more than a hint of his manhood. He also wore an embroidered silk shirt and dark brown leather vest that J.J. had never seen before along with his new boots and the flat crowned felt hat from last year. In his hand he held a small .22 caliber pistol. "I'm ready."
Luke stood straight and tall as they walked down Water Street towards the stables, Ah Man, Catlan, Rusty and the rest following a short distance behind. "J.J.," he said, not looking at him, "thank you."
J.J. felt the sting of tears in his eyes; he squeezed them shut to stop the flow, lest Luke should see it.
There were surprisingly few people at the stables. A couple of miners sat on the corral fence and there were several buggies of sightseers parked along the road, but there was not what could be called a crowd. Mr. Stilton hurried up to them as they came along the fence towards the gate.
"I don't know what in hell you people think you're doing but you're not doing it here. No, sir, not at my corral, scaring the horses with your silly duel."
Luke stopped and held his hand out to the man as though he hadn't heard him. "Good morning, Mr. Stilton. I'm to meet a Mr. Rodale. Is he here?"
"I will tell you what I told him: I will not have this piece of stupidity occur on my property. Now you can do whatever you want but you'll have to do it someplace else, off my property. You will not do it here."
Just then Hiram Rodale himself appeared, an angry look on his face. "This man has informed me that we cannot defend our," he hesitated a bare second, "honor here." He turned to Mr. Stilton. "Very well, we shall go there," he pointed to a small stand of trees a half mile distant. That, Sir, should put us well off your property."
They struck out across the field, Hiram and his attendant, a man they didn't recognize, and Luke with J.J., Ah Man and Catlan who had made it quite clear he would not stay behind.
When they got to a fairly level place beside the stand of trees, Hiram stopped and thrust a stick in the ground. "This is where we shall start. Twenty paces, then turn. Those are the rules. Mr. Plant, here, will count the paces for us.
While they stood, back to back, waiting for Mr. Plant to begin his count, J.J. had an almost uncontrollable urge to giggle. The whole thing seemed so ludicrous, like something out of a novel that his mother would characterize as dreadful. Then the count began and it turned into a nightmare.
"One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Mr. Plant droned on in a flat, emotionless voice. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. J.J. was not sure he could stand it. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen."
On nineteen Hiram made his turn and raised his hand to fire.
It was hard to tell exactly what happened next.
There was a loud scream and Hiram's shot went wild, barely missing Mr. Plant. Luke whirled around, fired once and Hiram went down. Then both Luke and Mr. Plant were running towards Hiram. J.J., Ah Man and Catlan followed as fast as they could.
At first, J.J. couldn't make out what was going on. Hiram was writhing on the ground and Luke was down beside him, apparently biting him on the leg. Luke raised up, spit blood, then went back to the leg. Mr. Plant was thrashing around in the grass, after something.
Ah Man was first to understand. "Catlan, quick, you go get whiskey." He looked across the field where he could see several people coming towards them. "Doctor coming. Now, you run. Get whiskey." Catlan took off at a dead run. Hiram moaned and thrashed in the grass.
Ah Man then went to Luke. "I have sent for whiskey. It will kill venom in mouth. Take care, do not swallow." Luke nodded, spitting out blood. Ah Man then went and slapped Hiram across the mouth and told him to lay still and act like a man.
Back at the stables, they sorted it all out for Mr. Byers so he could write his story for The Standard. It seemed that a very large rattle snake had been sunning itself in the grass right beside Hiram's path of march. Disturbed by Hiram's foot when he turned, the snake had struck, causing Hiram's shot to go wild. Hearing the noise, Luke had turned and seen the snake coiled and ready to strike again. He'd shot its head off. He had also had the presence of mind to cut open the punctures in Hiram's leg and suck the venom out, probably saving the man's life.
Mr. Plant, who had chased down the body of the snake, produced the rattles as support for the story. There were seven.
"Makes quite a story," Mr. Byers said, looking over his notes. "Mortal enemies in a duel of honor. One shows the level of his honor by turning to fire early and the other shows his by saving the life of the first. Yes, quite a story. But can you tell me, Luke, why you wanted to kill him in the first place?"
Luke thought for a moment before answering. "I didn't want to kill him; he wanted to kill me. All I ever wanted was never to set my eyes on him again. I still want that." He shook Mr. Byer's hand. "Come on, J.J. I need to go home."
When they got to the boarding house Luke rinsed his mouth with whiskey again and then they ate cold chicken and cold fried potatoes and washed it all down with beer. By the time they finished, Ah Man, Catlan and Dusty were back from delivering the mid-day meals to the miners. It had taken them much longer than usual because everyone had to know about the duel and how it had come out.
Luke, prowling the kitchen for something else to eat, opened the pie safe and found the cake for that night's supper. He suddenly realized what day it was.
"Oh, J.J. It's your birthday. I didn't even remember."
J.J. laughed. "I guess you were busy with other things. Besides, I got the best present in the world. You. Alive."
Luke brightened. "You got another one, too. Wait right here."
He hurried off to their bedroom and then reappeared with a box from Berber's Dry Goods Emporium. "Here. Open it."
Inside J.J. found the softest, smoothest doeskin shirt he had ever seen. Then, under it, he found three pair of blue and white stripped silk drawers. They even had blue dyed mother of pearl buttons.
"Oh, Luke. They're beautiful." He hugged him for a long moment. "But the best present is still you. Alive."
J.J. put his presents aside and he and Luke began clearing up their plates and beer glasses but Ah Man wouldn't let them, shooing them off to their room with an admonition to rest. "There is time to work," he said, "and time to rest. This is time to rest."
They crawled into their bed and it suddenly hit them how tired they were. Luke pulled J.J. up against him and spoke very quietly. "J.J.," he said, "Thank you."
It was dark when J.J. awoke and the house was silent. He lay still for a while, cradling Luke in his arms. The clock in the hallway struck half past something and he thought it was probably twelve or one. When the clock struck the three quarter hour, he sensed that Luke was awake. "Are you all right?" he asked into the dark.
"Yes, I think so." They lay in silence for a while, staring into the darkness. "What was it Rusty said? 'She's gone. I'll miss her but she's gone.' Well," he turned in J.J.'s arms so he was facing him, "for me, what's gone is hate. I don't have to hate him anymore." He took in a deep breath and then was silent for a long time. The clock struck the hour: Two.
"Hiram was just like him, you know. My father. And then when he... When he threatened you, I had to hate him, too. I guess I sort of got the two of them all twisted up and I thought he would kill me."
He lay silent again and J.J. felt the wetness of his tears on his shoulder.
"I thought he wanted to kill me for my father and then if I could kill him it would kill my father too." He paused for a moment. "But I couldn't, J.J. I couldn't because it was only hate and now I don't have to. It's gone and I don't have to." When the clock struck a quarter after J.J. realized that Luke was asleep again.
It was just four when J.J. woke once more, feeling Luke's eyes on him in the dark. He moved and found Luke's lips with his to let him know he was awake.
wasn't evil, J.J. Not like Hiram. He just didn't understand." For the next
hour or so Luke told J.J. about his life before he came to the Williams family.
He told him about Mrs. Wood's boarding house in
He told him of pain and fear and hatred and he told him of warmth and safety and love.
They made love then, and afterward they slept, connected, until long after breakfast.
The Old Adobe
Dear J.J. and Luke,
It has suddenly grown hot here, enough to be uncomfortable during the afternoon. Even the animals have grown lazy and I found, much to my surprise, that Dickens has taken to sleeping outside once more. I'm sure that will change as soon as the cool breezes come in from the ocean but, as you well know, that may not be for a week or more. In the meantime, he has abandoned the stove in the kitchen for the cool of the hay barn.
The heat is hard on Millicent, as well. She has grown large with her child, larger than with Portia which, of course, makes your brother certain that she is carrying a male child. I suppose that is true but I do not hold with any predictor of a child's sex. Too many get up false hopes and that can be bad for the child if it turns out to be the other sex. Eliot agrees with me to my face but I know in his heart that he is certain the child will be a boy.
I am struck by the tone of happiness I read into your letters lately. Even Millicent has commented on it. You must be enjoying your life in Devil's Shaft although it sounds a rather difficult place to me. At any event, I am glad for the tone of your letters.
Tom continues to enjoy his work at the bank. I am sure that he will own it one day--or one like it. Mr. Chase can never say enough about Tom and the fine job he has done in simplifying their procedures. I'm sure I don't really understand very much about it and what I do understand sounds to me simply like the application of good common sense but then I suppose it is all one of those things that only men in business understand.
The garden has been a great success this year and I have put up jar after jar of preserves and pickles. Millicent has learned her canning and preserving well and has filled her shelves with every fruit and vegetable Eliot or your father are able to grow.
It is time to finish supper preparation so I must end this. We do enjoy hearing from you whenever you have time to write.
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.