Every bit of this story is attributable to two things:
1.) A misheard lyric, and
2.) The new scenery on my commute to and from work (and everywhere else I go, too).
These days, I look out my windshield at rolling hills and prairie grasses, bluffs and outcroppings of stone. And I was cruising along one day, listening to a CD that I hadn't heard in years, when this slightly familiar song started with a harmonica riff. Already my head was spinning with images of lonesome trains and cowboys, tumbleweeds and old wood-frame buildings. Then the lyrics started and I heard, "They were dueling/ dueling Daltons..." and right away I thought - Dueling Dukes. Upon referencing the internet I (re)discovered that the song is Doolin-Dalton, so I did some research on the Doolin-Dalton gang.
This story came from that little experience, even though it has nothing to do with the Doolin-Dalton gang. I would say it's not quite wild west - more wild east with a hint of Hatfield-McCoy.
While it started with Doolin-Dalton, the story was ultimately developed around the lyrics to 47 different Eagles' songs. So the Eagles get a serious nod here for their awesome storytelling. Each section starts with an epigraph of the lyrics that influenced that particular portion of the story.
I understand that the site is misbehaving. Some people can't log in at all, others are finding that alerts and private messages are backlogged. For those that I communicate with regularly, hang in there. Whether your message is stuck on the way to me, or mine's stuck on the way to you, eventually they'll all get there. Site malfunctions or no site malfunctions, I had to post today.
(Because: happy birthday, M.L. Thanks for being such a fun sounding-board.)
NOTE: The lyric epigraphs have been removed from this posting of the tale in order to comply with ffdotnet's guidelines. The complete version, with lyrics, is on AO3. I'm sad to have two different postings but I do understand ffdotnet's concerns when it comes to copyrighted material. Link to the story on AO3 is on my profile page.
1. In the City
He jerked awake. It had been warm where he was, soft. Comfortable and he might have mistaken it for safe. Sometimes he did, in those rare sleepy moments where he had a bed under him and walls around. On the best nights he even dreamed, sometimes saw the greens of the fields and heard the lowing of a cow, felt the sprinkling of mist in the spring air and there were times he managed to convince himself he smelled pie. Then it would come to him slowly, how the pie was an impossibility, had been nothing more than a fantasy for going on five years now. From there the rest would start to disappear: the trees, the livestock, the bright red of a freshly painted barn, the soil and he would realize all over again that he had nothing. No pie, no mother to bake one, no cow and no farm.
"Baby," and a hand petting him might have been trying to make up for everything that he'd just given up by regaining consciousness, except it was all wrong. The scent of sweet powder that did nothing to hide the more rancid odors that ruled this place, the threadbare linens, the kiss that was anything but motherly.
Ruby. But it wasn't her that had woken him up.
"Yellow-eye," he whispered toward the door. Wide open against the wishes of the prostitute wrapped around his chest, but that was just something she had to deal with. He had more than himself to worry about, and it served her as well as any of them if he kept one ear cocked toward the hall. At least when he wasn't sleeping, and he shouldn't have been now, either. Ruby was just darn good at what she did (and nothing else).
"Duke," came back at him from the far side of the door frame. Then a face peeking in and blushing like only Yellow-eye would. A moan from Ruby because she didn't much care for the interruption and didn't know what to make of Yellow-eye, but then no one else did either. Too slight to be much of a fighter, but Luke figured that when you were the best scout in three cities and a damn good shot to boot, maybe you didn't need to be very strong. Yellow-eye was strategically important to him, to everyone in the Porter gang, and anyone who couldn't see that could just stuff it, as far as he was concerned. "Something's brewing."
He was on his feet then, no matter how Ruby clutched at him, trying to bring him back to her bed. She had only been at Miss Mabel's house here on Monroe Street for a year or so, but she must have been a good worker; seemed like she had managed to snag a third floor room with a fine view of the street below. (Then again, could be that her association with Luke brought her up in the ranks a bit. Being the consistent choice of Cap Porter's favorite lieutenant could do that for a lady of the evening.)
The girl's fingernail left a scratch on his arm from where she tried to hold onto him, little burning sting on the surface of his skin as he stepped away from her to plaster his back against the rough wall. Slid one careful step at a time toward the window with the best vantage point where he could see – and be seen from – the street below.
"The lantern," Yellow-eye hissed from back in the doorway, gesturing for Ruby to blow out the glowing bedside flame, but Luke waved them both off. Too late now, and the sudden darkness up here would draw as much attention as his shadow would anyway. Heard a clip-clopping hoof beat, took himself a glance out through the glass, sweating against the summer heat and just about laughed. Bit it back because he did want to live through the night and it wouldn't do any of them in here a bit of good for his guffaws to go announcing where they all were, but the urge was there to clutch at his ribs, tip his head back and let the laughter come roaring from his mouth.
"The fool," was all he said, shaking his head as he moved carefully away from the window and back toward Yellow-eye. Grabbed the shirt he'd hastily shucked an hour or so back and stuffed his arms into it.
"Duke," Ruby complained, a hand reaching for him in protest of this dressing he insisted on doing. She wanted him back on the bed with her, wanted an uninterrupted night with him but neither of them lived the kind of life that would allow for that.
"What?" Yellow-eye asked, because the scout knew that any thoughts of spending a peaceful night at the brothel were pointless. They were fighters, maybe not the noble kind, but they were good at what they did. If they weren't they'd be dead, and while Luke couldn't swear he was afraid of death, he didn't reckon he was ready for it, either. Not yet.
"Only that yellow-haired fool," he answered back. "Babe Sheridan sitting pretty in the middle of the street, no hat or nothing. Just begging for trouble."
"Luke," came back at him, Yellow-eye forgetting that they were not in private where such informalities made sense. The scout's eyes wide, and this was why the other guys got all squeamish. Because Yellow-eye would lose track of the fact that they were fearless warriors from time to time. "He's a—"
"I know what he is." They both did. He was a fast-riding playboy, an improbably tall and ridiculously crazy kid pretending to be a man and managing to fool them all, half the time. He was also on the other side of this thing that had torn the northwestern corner of Georgia in half, disseminating the remnant parts to this camp or that. Babe Sheridan was a Hickory. "Hush now. Real quiet-like," and without leaving shadows that the enemy could spot (but Yellow-eye was good at that, better than any of other men around them, and that was why the scout was an asset to the Porter gang), "go get everyone else gathered down in the kitchen. Women too." Something bad was fixing to happen, and Luke had obligations to keep his own men safe. But he reckoned it wouldn't hurt anything if the whores that called this building home got protected as well. "Come on, girl," he said to Ruby, who pouted, but got herself up and made herself reasonably decent before following him down the creaking stairs to the ground floor.
Found most of the gang already down there, counted heads and knew who his stragglers were. Sought out Mabel and shook a clinging Ruby off his arm so he could go and talk to the madam in private while Yellow-eye herded those idiot, giggling Harper boys down the stairs, then nodded to him over the heads of the rest of the gang, a signal that everyone was as accounted for as they could be.
Luke nudged Mabel back over to organize her girls in the cramped old kitchen while he glowered at the men who were pouting over what they'd been interrupted from. Twice his age, some of them, and they acted like they had no more control over themselves than rutting goats half the time. All except Emery Potter huddling in a corner with eyes closed in prayer, leaving his face nothing more than a pale blob in the dim glow of the lantern.
"All right," he started to instruct, and then there was a crash, tinkling glass from the front of the house. Hiss and sizzle, and he knew those sounds. Could count time by those sounds, had been doing so for exactly twenty-six months and eighteen days, it was how he knew today's date to be June ninth, eighteen hundred ninety-four. It was not a good sound, not attached to any happy memories, but his familiarity with it would save him tonight. Forgot all the instructions he intended to give and hollered, "Go! Move now!"
Seconds of silence, everyone afraid to breathe in the heavily hanging heat, the door at the back of the house narrow enough that only one or two at a time could fit through, six out and thirty-two to go. Pop and crackle was all it took before the yelling began, before whatever manner of order they'd maintained broke, and all Luke could do was to tell them to go, go, go and hope like hell they listened.
He was the last man out, could feel the heat sear against his back, but in front of him was the freshness of breathable air.
It was easy then, to move. Would have been easier to flee, to declare every man for himself and leave the women to work out their own solutions, and there were those who considered it.
"Calvin," Luke hollered to the greatest flight risk amongst his charges. "Down toward the church," was just the best place to let the fool lead the pack. "Women in the middle," he ordered, pulling his revolver out of its holster. Felt the weight of it in his hand, saw how it gleamed orange in the suddenly leaping flames from the structure they'd just abandoned, liked the way his finger notched into the trigger, as if the gun had been built just for him. Which it hadn't; it belonged to a dead man who had taken it from a dead man before that. A gun with a legacy all its own and it didn't care how many other dead men it left behind either.
Horses whinnied somewhere, screaming set up from the other side of Monroe Street where the mercantile was. Not much, hardly enough of a reaction for the way the brothel had been torched by some manner of alcohol-fueled explosion, probably starting with a whiskey bottle.
"The horses," came from a nervous Yellow-eye, sticking close to his side, but the whinny came from the stable down toward the courthouse.
"They're gone," he answered with certainty, because one way or another, they were. Most likely rustled, but if not, there was a fireball between man and beast and not a one of them could cross it. Not now. "Get in there," he told his scout with a sharp nudge. In the center of the clump of outlaws, closer to the women, better protected there. Meanwhile the rest of Luke's men took to the periphery and the whole bunch of them hustled down toward the church at the end of the street, guns poised in itchy fingers and just looking for any excuse to start roaring into the night.
But there was none. Nothing but citizens, clinging to safety at the edges of the street, hiding in doorways and behind thin lace curtains in the rooms over the store. Then there was the urgency of some of the more reputable men gathering to start a bucket brigade, and finally old Pastor Jesse opening the church doors to admit his flock for the night, sullied as they were: twenty-four fallen women, one madam, and a ragtag band of thirteen fighters who had chosen the side of Cap Porter in a feud that was older than most of them.
"Come in, come in," the pastor offered magnanimously, full of blessings for all, no matter how unlikely it was that they'd ever set foot in his church again, that they'd ever kneel or fold their hands in prayer. "Come where it's safe. Won't nothing ever hurt you here, not in this house," the old man promised.
Rumor had it that Jesse had been a Confederate soldier in his younger days, had seen more men die and buildings burn than any of them could count. Luke couldn't swear to the truth of any of that part, but he knew the man had a tumultuous past. One that intersected with Luke's own at the least likely points, but the pastor was reformed now. Had earned every white hair in that long beard of his the hard way and now it was his aim to teach others what he'd learned.
Luke, at the end of the line of escapees from the fire that raged on the next block, got a shaken head and the click of a tongue against teeth from the old pastor. A hand out to take his gun from him and, "Get in here, boy," came the command when Luke was the only one who hadn't passed through the church doors to the relative safety of the sanctuary.
"Can't," he answered back, and there was scolding in his head about how you didn't talk to a man of the cloth that way. You did what he said and you thanked him for any reproach you got, because it meant he cared enough to try to save your pitiful soul. Except Luke was pretty sure there was nothing left of his soul to be saved anyway. "Got to keep watch."
A snort, so unbecoming a man meant to minister to the needs of others. "Watch what?"
Watch the wood frame of an old house, which had housed women who had little alternative to the life they lived, burn. Watch the haven that had been one of his few escapes from his own miserable existence crumble into embers. Watch the night pass while men better than him kept the rest of the block from succumbing to the flames. Watch each spark fly and remember another night like this.
"Luke," the pastor said, and he was maybe the only man in these parts who would dare to call him by his given name. "Your father wouldn't want you out here like this."
Well that was just too damn bad, wasn't it? Because his father wasn't here to stop him.
"You go on in there with the rest of them," Luke counseled. "Maybe there's one or two that'll even let you save them." Like silly Emery who would get all pale and prayerful when there was danger lurking, but forget whatever piousness he might have attained the minute he entered Miss Mabel's house of ill-repute to find himself in the arms of that black-haired, heavy chested and utterly misnamed little darling, Chastity. "Me, I got work to do."
"You're a fool," he got informed, but he heard the heavy wooden doors of the church creak closed, tucking the old man inside with the rest of them. Leaving him out here to scan the street for any sign, but there was none. No blonde-headed simpleton just begging to be shot, no shadows that didn't belong. Not a single man that wasn't an upstanding member of the community, not a trace of the bandits who had tried to kill him and his men tonight, demolishing the home of women whose fathers and brothers had already fallen to the nonsense that had gripped this corner of Georgia since before he was born. He stayed out all night and never once saw a member of the Hickory gang anywhere near the church.