45. Best of My Love
Luke loved her. His eyebrows told the tale that his mouth never would, knitted together in the middle, leaving creases across his forehead. Hands tearing up sheets and eyes staring out at nothing.
At least, Bo decided, his arm seemed to be working just fine after the past couple of months he'd spent healing at the church. No wincing when he yanked it this way or that to get the sheets into narrow enough strips for Doc Cooter's liking.
"Ah, ooh," echoed throughout the doctor's old house and there went those eyebrows again, all twitch and worry.
"She'll be fine, Luke," he consoled without any genuine knowledge that he was speaking the truth. But he also had no reason to believe he was wrong. "Women have babies every day." At least he figured they did and most of them survived it, too. Give or take the fact that his own mother might have perished giving birth to him.
"They do not," Luke answered back, but he was only being contrary. Letting his apprehension pop right out of his mouth as dissent.
Daisy had warned Bo about this. Or at least planted the kernel of a notion into his brain. Be careful when it comes to saying anything at all about Mary Kaye Porter, she'd advised. Luke gets… sensitive about her.
Sensitive. Funny word to describe the man who still had a reputation for ruthlessness in these parts. And now most folks thought of him as immortal, too, what with him having been presumed deceased for at least a few weeks before the town learned that he was still around and in remarkably good condition for a dead man.
But yeah, Luke was sensitive about Mary Kaye. The kind of sensitive that could get a man punched for saying the wrong thing. It was all there in the tension of those eyebrows.
Rain splattered on the east windows; it was a soggy, gray fall day with wind sweeping down the mountains to make it feel twice as miserable. His skin prickled up against the chill and half of him wanted to wrap himself up in one of the sheets and go off to find a spare bed in this place. He'd been keeping Luke company all night.
"She's alone now," Luke had given as his reason for not only being the one to transport Mary Kaye here to Cooter's place, but staying until her baby got born. And maybe Bo could understand that well enough. He knew what alone felt like, and he reckoned not being alone was unarguably superior. Especially when the pain was as awful as Mary Kaye's sounded. (Then again, when Luke had been alone and in that kind of pain, he'd asked Bo to kill him rather than keep him company. Maybe it wasn't so much the fact that the girl needed a companion to stay with her as the one volunteering to be that companion that was so surprising.)
But whatever Luke seemed to lack in consistency, there was no faulting his logic. The girl had no one else to turn to, which had been the subject of discussion during the overnight hours, early in Mary Kaye's labor. Before she got to making those unending terrible noises, when they'd sat quietly in Cooter's kitchen over cups of dishwater-colored coffee, leaving Cletus to tend to the mother-to-be until she was ready to get down to business.
"Cap," Luke had grumbled as their doctor friend had poked around at his shoulder a bit, testing for tenderness or swelling or whatever it was that doctors checked for. "Bought himself a trial in Atlanta." Hard to guess whether that annoyed tone he'd been taking had more to do with Cap Porter getting himself a change of venue, or the way Doc Cooter had been shoving his shirt around to do a visual inspection of the wound. It had only been a few months now that Bo had really known Luke, but already he'd gotten a pretty good idea that the man did not like to be doctored, no matter how badly he hurt.
"Lukas," Cooter had groused, his eyes making clear that he was equally frustrated. "If you don't take this shirt off yourself, I'm going to get the shears and cut it off you."
Well, that might have been interesting to watch. Someone would have ended up with a black eye, and it probably wouldn't have been Luke. But it hadn't turned out that way, just some glowering back and forth, and then the shirt got unbuttoned and rolled off that shoulder.
"He also confessed to a bunch of stuff," Bo had interjected as a distraction. "Cap did. So he ain't going to get off scot-free or nothing."
"Oh yeah?" Cooter had prompted, but he had only been halfway paying attention. Mostly he had been grinning and silently congratulating himself for a genius. Sure, Luke was going to bear an ugly scar for the rest of his life, and on cold, dank days he might be prone to aching. But otherwise, that was one fine bit of doctoring that had healed a gunshot wound so well. "Like what?"
"Like how it was him that bought a lot of the artillery that the Porter gang used to fight, the theft of some of Ol' Nut's livestock, consorting with known criminals," Bo had elaborated. "Some other stuff, too."
Luke's laugh had gotten barked out hard, had been filled with an utter lack of amusement. "What Babe there is afraid to tell you," and that hadn't been fair. He wasn't afraid and he wasn't a baby. He was just thoughtful. Kind. Not one to rub salt into already painful wounds. "Is that Cap Porter confessed to the arson of my Pa's farm." Cold look, and there he'd suddenly been, spontaneously appearing in Doc Cooter's kitchen. The notorious Duke, angry and mean and ready to shoot a man dead with the slightest provocation. "And it don't make no sense. All them other things ain't gonna get him no more than a year's time, tops. But he goes confessing to a pair of murders that ain't nobody but me tried to solve in over two years."
"Maybe he's afraid of you," Cooter had suggested. "I reckon I would be if it was me that killed your folks." A nervous little smile had come from the doc. No offense, it tried to say. "I'd rather be in jail than waiting for you to hunt me down."
Luke was, he had learned somewhere over the period when the heat of summer had given over to fall rains, the master of making faces. Without bothering to open his mouth, the man could call you stupid or crazy, could express displeasure and impatience. He hadn't ever quite gotten the hang of smiling, though, and someday maybe Bo would teach him that. After Luke got done making all those sour faces that silently accused Doc Cooter as being about as intelligent as a turnip.
"Cap wasn't never scared of me," he'd explained. "Even if he was the one who had killed my Pa and I knew it and swore revenge on him, he wouldn't have been worried. He just would have sent his boys out to kill me." It had been delivered in such a matter-of-fact tone, almost a verbal shrug even if the notion gave Bo a chill. Luke must've noticed – he hadn't so much as looked in Bo's direction, but his hand had come over anyway to pat him on the shoulder. Don't worry, it's all theoretical, the gesture had said. "The way I got it figured, he was already caught with some charges against him. So he confessed to some more to protect someone else. Like Ephraim, Andrew or Tobias." Or maybe all three at once. Porter's sons, who were gone now. Rumored to be in the Carolinas, if not Virginia. Some folks even had them running west to the Indian Territory, where no marshal had the jurisdiction to follow them. "Jud must've tangled with one of them, or seen them doing something illegal. They probably chased him down but they didn't never get him with a good enough shot to kill him, so they had to come back and finish the job."
"Luke," Bo had mumbled. Wanted to say more, to do something to take away the hollowed-out tone of the words, the emptiness in those eyes that were staring out at nothing at all.
Then it had been gone; Luke had just looked at him. "I ain't going out in search of them, Bo." So Luke wasn't planning on chasing them over state lines to get his revenge, and that was progress over what he'd been doing for two years in the feud. Bo wasn't sure that his cousin's restraint would hold firm were any of the Porter boys to show their faces back here in Dade. Then again, Luke might just have to fight Bo for the privilege of getting revenge them if they did show up again. Because now that Bo had a family, he reckoned it was his job to protect them. To keep them from ever sounding the way Luke did when he talked about losing his pa and brother.
Somewhere in there, Mary Kaye had come out with the sort of holler that had made Bo want to ask Luke if he really was dead set on sitting here listening to the woman give birth, and Cooter had excused himself to see to her.
And now, if it was possible (and three hours ago Bo would have sworn it wasn't), the noises coming from that room were even worse. Bo flinched at every scream; Luke just sat there tearing more sheets than it would take to wrap everyone in Doc Cooter's house in them from head to toe and back again. Strong hands, muscles in his arms flexing and Luke wasn't enjoying the waiting or the sounds any more than Bo was.
There were nicer things he could have done, gentler ways he could have figured out what he wanted to know. Then again, such approaches relied on straightforwardness, and this was, when all was said and done, the notorious Duke sitting across from him. The sort of man who had a reputation for ruthlessness and immortality both.
Which left him with only one choice, really. "Catch," he said, tossing the glass mug that he'd just drained of its nearly undrinkable contents. Mostly in Luke's direction, but then again, just slightly right of comfortable catching distance.
Which had no bearing on the fact that it was safely caught before it could shatter onto the gritty floorboards. Enveloped in Luke's meaty hand, but Bo wasn't terribly worried about that part. Not the catching itself; Cooter wouldn't have minded or even noticed if one of his cups had gone missing, or even if there were tiny shards of glass that got left behind by such a foolish act. It was Luke's face that he watched instead, looking for a wince of pain or a bitten lip at the sudden movement of his right arm, but all he got was a mean glare that asked him exactly what he thought he was doing.
"Bo," chastised him, but he just shrugged and grinned.
"Looks like you're ready." Ready to smack him, maybe. All friendly-like, just a swat on the back of his head and it wouldn't be Luke's fault if it hurt him. But the smack never came, just a headshake and lips pressing against each other so hard that they were flat and almost white. "I reckon," and some more of Mary Kaye's moaning interrupted the thought. They both sat there in silence listening for more or for worse, maybe full-out screams, but they didn't come and the girl quieted back into herself. "It's time we moved out of the church," Bo finished. "Now that you ain't favoring that arm anymore."
And it was, it was past time for that. Living en masse had started out very peaceful and pleasant. A sense of family where there'd hardly been one before. Luke and Daisy had been something to one another all along; playmates as kids, estranged for a few years, and then an arrangement that resembled being business partners. Jesse had known most of the Duke kids all along, but Bo – Bo had been nothing more than a boy with a made-up last name and no one to claim him as blood relative for his whole life. Those first days of being surrounded by kin, night and day, had been like heaven to him.
But as Luke's pain had diminished and his mobility improved, he became notably restless. Impatient and frustrated, easily angered. Not to the point of violence, but he'd definitely been bucking against Pastor Jesse. Sassing or downright discourteous half the time, and Bo hated it. Jesse tolerated some of it. More than Bo would have figured he ought to, but then there'd been that late night conversation out on the church steps while Luke slept fitfully inside under Enos' watch and Daisy was cloistered in the rectory.
That boy's head has always been hard as a rock, Jesse had explained. He ain't never listened to no one but his pa, and that was only because they was two feathers of the same color. They pretty much shared one opinion, most days.
But that don't mean you got to take his lip, Bo had answered back. If I'd talked that way to Miss Lavinia—
She would have paddled your behind? Jesse had laughed out. She wouldn't never hurt you for nothing. Besides, the old man had added, his finger ticking in the air like it was waving away the days and years gone by. You ain't one to tolerate scolding. You don't like it when someone's unhappy with you, but Luke, he don't mind that kind of thing. The harder you try to tell him something, the more he's going to fight back against it. Sometimes it's best just to hold your tongue and let him do all that fighting against himself. He gets tired, eventually.
But he ain't got no right to talk to you like that, Bo had insisted. Still, Jesse had tutted that away.
He's got a right to be angry at me, the pastor corrected. I let him down more ways than you can guess. I figure I owe him a little patience and a lot of love, and in time he'll come around. The old man's eyes, what of them Bo could see in the gaslight over the courthouse door at the end of the street, had gotten distant then. A little clouded over, like a fog-choked morning in the valley. Back when he was little, he used to call me Unca' Jesse, came out sounding just as misty as those eyes. But I wasn't much of an Uncle to him for a lot of years. Just a crazy old—
Moonshiner, Bo had finished for him. Lavinia used to call you a moonshining fool.
Jesse nodded a bit about that. She was right, he'd admitted. And she had high hopes for me to be something better. I disappointed her, but I don't figure I hurt her none. I wasn't always what she wanted me to be, but I didn't abandon her. Not like I did with Luke.
You didn't abandon him, Bo had protested. You was always nearby.
Nearby and so tangled up in my own miseries that I didn't never offer to help him handle his, Jesse explained. He was just a boy, and he didn't know no better. I was a full-grown man. A snort of a laugh. He's still just a boy, but he's a good boy. Under all that sass and those mean looks, he's just a fool trying to figure out how to love without getting hurt. But you and me, we're smarter than that, the pastor had counseled. We know there ain't no way to protect against the pain that sometimes comes with loving. We just figure all the good parts are worth whatever hurt might come along with them. Luke, he'll figure that out eventually. With patience, and there went that finger, ticking through the air again, and time. He's got the best teacher in the world right there by his side, and Jesse's finger had come to a halt from its motion, pointing right at Bo. You know how to love with your whole heart.
Bo took to calling the pastor Uncle Jesse after that, and Luke had glowered over it, though he never said anything. Daisy picked it up and started saying it too. But Luke, he was stubborn. And insistent in his coldness to the old man, enough so that Bo figured separating them for a bit might be smart. Keeping them apart so Jesse would stop trying so hard and Luke would stop resisting with everything in him. To give the relationship the space it needed to heal itself.
"I want to go rebuild the farm," Bo announced, here, now in Cooter's kitchen while he tried to ignore all the sounds that came from a baby trying to make its way out of the swollen belly of an otherwise willowy woman. "Your farm." Our farm, but it wasn't that, yet. Wouldn't be until he put in his portion of the labor, not until Luke invited him to share it.
But the objections had to be waded through first. Because Bo had first lobbed the idea of returning to the land out on what had once been called Gray Voice Lane in this very same building, in those days when Luke was still flat on his back and barely able to wiggle a few fingers. And he'd been told, in no uncertain terms, that the notion was foolish. Luke had every intention of dying and Bo knew nothing about farming and a hundred other reasons.
"We ain't got no money for no rebuilding." That one was easy in comparison. "There ain't no house, and it's going to be winter." As if they hadn't both done plenty of sleeping in strange places on cold nights, like they couldn't piece together some sort of a shelter or work to earn enough money to buy the boards. "And you still don't know nothing about farming."
He could argue, he could explain how Luke's objections were ridiculous really, he could make a very solid case for his own point of view. But he didn't, he just smiled. Beamed for all he was worth, and watched Luke's eyes roll in answer. Kept right on with the grinning through the shaking head and the echo of a smirk across Luke's face.
"Just don't say I didn't warn you," his cousin acquiesced, and that just went to prove that of all the weapons Bo had ever mastered in his life, the smile was his best.
A cry, sharp and high. Sounded furious and agitated and the voice making it couldn't have been more than a minute old. Obviously the newborn had inherited the Porter temper.
Luke stopped tearing at the sheets, quit glaring at Bo's victory over the farm on Gray Voice Lane and his eyes took on a soft cast. Distant but tender, that was the look on his face when Cletus opened the door between the two of them and the new mother, gentle was the way his hands curled around the baby when he was offered the opportunity to hold it. Bo kept his distance, lingering in the doorway because he didn't need to get any closer to all that blood and sweat, even if both baby and mother both appeared to have survived the struggle. But he watched and he figured that Luke ought to have babies of his own some day. If he could ever manage to calm all the way down, if he could find himself the right girl. Which wasn't going to be Mary Kaye; he loved her sure, but the way he patted her shoulder when he took his leave made clear that he understood he'd never have her. Not like he wanted, not in a way that he could really trust, so he let her go.
"I hope he grows up like you, Luke," the girl said to him about her baby, and it didn't help. But it didn't hurt, either, Luke seemed content to be admired anyway.
And satisfied, now that he'd seen Mary Kaye through her ordeal, so Bo slung an arm across his shoulders. Tolerated the way those bright eyes rolled and his lips curled into a smirk, and guided Luke to the front door. Out onto the porch where he unhitched Traveler, waited until Luke mounted before climbing up himself, then nudged the horse in a slow amble toward the church, where they could get a few hours of sleep before heading off to begin their lives on Gray Voice Lane.