He awoke with a start, echoes of gunshots swarming eerily through his mind. A nightmare. He leaned against the maple headboard and inhaled deeply to calm his mind. Once. Twice. Three times. He felt the weariness of too little sleep in his eyes and the sweat of the hot night creep down his neck.
He looked at the girl sleeping beside him, curled up in the quilts and undisturbed by his own arousal. Little flecks of saliva caught in the corners of her pouty, sun chapped maw as she breathed noisily through her mouth. Her hair was a tangled mess of light brown, streaked with gold from the sun. Her limbs were lightly browned, freckled and roughed up from all her work outside. This sleeping creature was the closest thing Tom Chaney ever had to a constant woman.
He got up sloppily, scratching himself as he made his way over to the washbasin. He splashed his face with the lukewarm water letting it dribble down his face and through his beard. It hardly did a thing for the dirt across his face but rinsed the sweat well enough away. He massaged his slackened, square jaw allowing a few drops of water to fall into his mouth. It tasted salty after intermingling with his sweat.
Tom always dreamed of guns the night after he killed a man. 'There could be worse punishments' he always thought to himself. Being haunted by visions of weapons was a small price to pay compared with being apprehended. He walked over towards the chair in which his trousers were carelessly tossed the night before. He reached in the pockets and pulled out two gold pieces, he rattled them in his hand grinning.
"Serves that bastard fool right, for thinkin' me trash," Chaney grumbled aloud, stuffing Frank Ross's stolen pieces back into his trouser pockets. He got up and looked out the window, spying the fat mare watering herself at the trough.
"Who's callin' you trash Tom Chaney?" came the sleep drenched, somnolent voice of his bedded companion. She leaned up on her arms, his own shirt hanging off of her small frame. Her eyes were a golden brown with tired circles underneath.
Tom stomped back over to the bed and joined her. "Nobody worth nothing" he huffed angrily. He looked at her, frowning. "You wearing my shirt as bedclothes now?"
She shot him a defensive look. "I was cold!" she stated, a tinge of resentment in her voice. "You came in last night all out of the blue, covered in cuts and scrapes mumblin' 'bout some bar fight you had in Fort Smith. I tended your wounds, fed you my bread and you strip off all my clothes and have your way with me, rather roughly I might add! Then you fall asleep leaving me naked in the dark, not the slightest idea where you had strewn my clothes. I see your shirt and I put it on."
This had been his and Clara's relationship for some time now. She had been young when it began, maybe a little older than nineteen. They met on her father's farm. Chaney had been searching through her family's food stores in the dead of night. However instead of absconding with their stock he found himself face to barrel with a shotgun, its proprietor a nineteen-year-old Clara.
At the time, Chaney was unarmed, starving and a little bit yellow. While he refused to stoop to begging, he did his best to utilize his situation to tug at the young girl's heartstrings. Clara took pity on the careworn man and told him he could spend a few nights in the hayloft provided he stayed out of sight and helped her with a few of her chores. He begrudgingly obliged for the room and board.
His work was not too difficult, mostly cleaning and feeding jobs that Clara would otherwise have to wake up early to accomplish. He would sleep for most of the day and would be brought food by Clara often. Most of their conversations revolved around where he'd been and what he'd seen, which to Tom wasn't too much. But for an impoverished working girl stuck on her parents' farm, it was an entirely new world opening up. They got together every night to share a meal, a few stories and commit to the evening's work. The found enjoyment and humor in one another's company, making the work seem less daunting, and the time pass quicker.
A week or so had passed and Tom was getting ready to move on, but not before a final evening's work. While brushing down the horses a torrential downpour began outside. A soaking wet Tom found an equally damp Clara waiting for him in the hayloft with a satchel of food to take with him on his journey.
"Now you don't need to worry 'bout bringing that back" Clara said, indicating the satchel. "Momma won't miss it one bit."
"Did not even cross my mind" Tom said with a gruff laugh, reaching into the satchel and pulling out an apple. He bit into it, sending juice everywhere, decorating his beard with traces of the fruit. Clara laughed at him and he turned to her. "What?" he demanded, furrowing his brow.
"You are a terrible mess Tom Chaney," she declared, crawling towards him. She knelt at his side, pushing his damp, dark hair out of his eyes.
"I refuse to be called a mess by a girl who looks as if she has been tossed in a lake" he retorted, wiping his mouth and placing his face dangerously close to Clara's. There had been an unmistakable tension between the two the moment he was staring down the barrel of her shotgun. It was thick, almost tangible, like the humidity that hung in the air as the rain toppled down upon the hayloft. Tom looked at Clara who stared fixedly at his mouth, her own chapped lips slightly parted. "I mean" he began "look at your dress. You are a sopping wet mess yourself, like a half drowned cat." He reached for the buttons of her dark dress, heavy and clinging with the rain. Clara allowed his rough hands to linger at her dress for a moment, her mind clouded with the earthy scent of his hair. Coming to her senses she took a hold of his hand and moved it away. He was a criminal and a thief, not to mention a good many years her senior.
Not one to be denied Tom looked up at her. He took her face in his hands and kissed her aggressively. She defensively placed her palms at his chest in struggle, but he held her tighter, and kissed her harder. Between each rough embrace he stopped and looked at her. With every torrid stare Clara gave in a little bit more, eventually kissing him back. He invaded her young, hot mouth and hastily undid the buttons of her dress. She permitted his hands to explore her body, moist with rain, sweat and excitement. They succumbed to the tension between them, and consummated their knowing of each other in the rain drenched evening. When they were through they laid together amongst the sweet smelling hay and humid air.
They both began to dress themselves, not an ounce of shame between the two for what they had done. Clara turned to Tom "Now you will be back some time won't you?" Tom froze, questioning the worth of the tryst.
He stood and offered her his hand to help her up, she took it. "Now Clara you listen here…" he began.
She threw her head back and laughed. "You should see the look on your face!" she shouted, slapping her knee in a fit of laughter. "Do not worry, I do not believe you own me anything! Even if I were that kind of girl Tom Chaney I do not want nor believe I ever could make an honest man out of you. That bein' said I've grown rather fond of having you around, and you can not deny similar feelings. Go on, go about your life and I shall go about mine. But whenever you find yourself in the area with nowhere to board you can feel free to come back here, that's all."
Tom grinned, it was true he could not argue with his attraction towards the girl, while he would never go as far as to call it a fondness. "Well I thank you for your hospitality. And while I can not in any honesty say I will see you soon, I can now say I will see you." He grabbed the satchel and made his way towards that ladder. "Now I am off, and you best be back inside your house before your Daddy finds himself awake." He left, walking through the wet approaching morning.
Through the following three years Tom had made several visits to the farm of Clara's family. Returning for food, light work, board and the company of Clara. Her parents had since died, worn thin from the hard work that came with owning a farm, so the responsibility had fallen to Clara. His visits were not frequent, he came and went as he pleased, but they were enjoyed. Clara's farm made an excellent place to remain anonymous for a few days while lying low. She was aware of what he was and did not ask too many questions.
"Well it is now light" Tom said "and you can see exactly where your own bedclothes have fallen. So I want mine back." He began greedily unbuttoning the shirt Clara wore, exposing her naked body underneath. She laughed and allowed him to carry on. He laid his head in her breasts and looked up at her. "I do not like how your eyes are the same color as your hair", he reported, gruffly.
"Well I do not like how you turn up in my bed, drunk and smelling of the trail. But I have come to accept that there are some things we cannot change about ourselves, and I do wish you'd do the same" she said slyly with a smile. Tom smacked her thigh, light enough to not mean any real harm, but hard enough to leave a mark.
"I smell fine," he said. He closed his eyes and rested on her flesh. He smelled her skin, she always smelled like hay, biscuits, honey and musk. Something in her blood, he thought. He liked Clara very much. There were always other women he found in saloons or other dark places and they got him through well enough. But Clara was different; she was good company to keep. Nothing worth tying him down, but nothing small enough to lose either.
She stroked his hair. "You were hollerin' in your sleep again, having a nightmare I suppose."
Tom opened his eyes, a streak of anger coursing through him. He got up off the bed, leaving her. "Maybe" he said, back to her. "I never remember my dreams anymore" he lied, as he pulled up his trousers.
"I am guessing you want some breakfast," Clara said finding a dress and clothing herself. It had been months since Tom's last visit and the furthest thing from her mind was making him cross. Changing the subject to food typically helped.
"That is a safe bet to make" Tom said. "You get to it, I need to check on the horse." He left the house to attend to the mare, making sure not too much harm came to her while he had been unfit to ride her. Save for a few cuts on her flank and a mussed up fetlock she was in fine enough condition. He went back inside to bacon in a pan in the hearth and toast in the fireplace. He sat down at the table and Clara brought him a mug of coffee.
"You snag that mare off'a the man you were fighting in the bar?" Clara asked him, setting out the food and buttermilk. Tom grabbed a fistful of bacon and shook his head no.
"From the man who got between me and him" he said between mouthfuls. "He was a meddler and a nogoodnik. Thought me to be foolish an' unimportant."
"So you beat both of them then? You weren't scraped up too bad," Clara said munching away on toast.
"I knocked the first man out, and silenced the busybody. I did not enjoy working for him in any fashion. Being in his employment was likened to bein' in hell."
Clara stopped chewing and looked taken aback. "The man you killed was your employer?" Tom looked at her and nodded, taking a long swallow from his mug. Clara frowned, shaking her head. "I can not agree with that."
Tom stared at her, confused and cross. "You would sooner agree with the man who would hardly give me nothing for my work, and continue to think of me as without worth?"
"Of course not" Clara said, audible concern in her voice. "But Tom darlin' you come here every once in a while and tell me tales of the places you've been, the men you've killed there and the loot you've stolen off of em' and never once have I raised my voice. I know who you are and I know what you do."
"One of the reasons I like you Clara" Tom said. "You don't think little of me, do yah?"
"No Tom, I do not. And it is certainly one thing when you come here tellin' me a story of a man in bar you've killed or an Injun on the trail. But it is another thing killing a man of standing that you work for only because he had said something that did not sit well with you."
"I was under his employment out of pity, he did not think kindly of me at all. And Tom Chaney does not accept pity!" he shouted at Clara.
"Tom let us speak honestly in the idea that without a little pity you would have never lasted as long as you have!" Clara boldly stated. "What do you call what I presented you with three years ago?"
Tom stared at her as his anger rose. Clara remained perfectly still, meeting his cold gaze. He got up and advanced towards her grabbing her by the scruff of the neck. For the first time in the years they had know one another he brought his fist down upon Clara with the intention of hurting her. He beat her until her cheek bled, when she finally wriggled out of his grasp. For the first time Clara experienced who he really was. She had heard about it, she had seen it and she had known who he was; but she had never before felt it for herself. She had grown accustom to never being completely treated well by Tom in the gentleman's sense, nor had she been treated by any means poorly by him. Him striking her however, altered that standard completely.
She felt her wound and shook her head. "You are no longer welcome in my house, Tom Chaney" she stated. He gaped at her, slack jawed." "Get out of my house!" she shouted, pointing at the door with contempt. "I never wish to see you again."
Any feelings of goodwill he once had towards her were now completely overridden by his tremendous rage. Tom advanced on Clara once again, knocking over the table and chairs that stood in his path. She shrank up against the wall, he could feel her fear. He pinned her down on the dusty wood floor, his large dirty hands grasping her throat. She made her best efforts to fight him off, but even her farm worked body was no match for his brute strength. She writhed underneath him, kicking and flailing, tears welling up in her brown eyes. They never took their eyes off one another; she could squirm, stare and thrash all she wanted he would not let her go. He would make her pay for her words. Clara continued to kick and gurgle until her body finally fell still, and breath failed her.
Tom paused and listened closely for any signs of life within her. When none were heard he loosened his grip around her neck, inspecting the welts his fingers left. He frowned, his hulking, stupid face contorted with a kind of regret. "Oh Clara" he whined. "Why'd you make me do it? I did not want to do it!" He knelt beside her still body and closed her eyes with his fingertips. Without another glance at his young lover he cleared the house of supplies and provisions. He hitched whatever he could carry to his fat mare and rode off into Indian territory, where Lucky Ned Pepper would be waiting for him.