Author's Note: Another one comes to a close (with - fair warning here - a particularly long chapter). Always sad to let a story go, but eventually they all have to come to an end. Thanks again to Mirthless Laughter who responded favorably to and encouraged the story when it was nothing more than the tiny germ of an idea.
Looks like I may be taking a bit of a break since I'm not working on anything to post for Dukes. But, you know, the series was about fun and community and I've found both here in this fandom. So thank you all for your kindness and friendliness over the years. (This is not, despite any appearances to the contrary, a farewell speech. Because those never seem to stick.)
Just a reminder, this story was original developed thanks in great part to the Eagles' song, Doolin-Dalton. Each of the sections is named for a song, and in the original version of the story, there are lyric epigraphs at the top of each section. Those epigraphs highlight the part of the song that helped me develop that part of the story, and are sometimes pretty important to understanding why the story went as it did. This story is posted in its entirety, including those epigraphs, on AO3. There is a link at the bottom of my profile page to get you there.
One last time to say that I don't own Dukes or earn any money for what I write about them, and then I leave you to the tale.
47. Seven Bridges Road
Bo was, quite simply, looking to get hit. A year ago he could have put it down to the yellow-haired fool not knowing any better (just over a year ago he had been laughing at Babe Sheridan's brazenness in riding down Monroe Street without a hat, and then found himself running for his life from a fire bomb) and six months ago he might have dismissed it as a slow learning process, but by now there was no other excuse to give it. The boy must like having hand-shaped red splotches on his face. Made by skinny fingers.
Enos knew it, too. Just look at how he recoiled even as Bo smiled over his little bit of cleverness. Smart man. Daisy was dangerous enough on an average day. Today, well—
"Bo," Luke announced, a little too loudly and letting his hand smack heavily onto the fool's shoulder. "Maybe you ought to go out and chop some wood."
"And maybe he'd better just stay right here," Daisy interjected, eyes squinted down and one hand firmly on her hip while the other came to a point leveled at Bo's chest. Every bit Yellow-eye except for the fact that she had skirts down to her shins. Well, that and a notably protruding belly, and she hadn't been halfway sane since it first started rounding out back in the spring. Bo hadn't managed to get himself killed in the feud, but he was definitely trying to make up for that with all due speed. "And tell me exactly what he's trying to say."
"Now, Daisy," and wasn't it cute how Enos was trying to throw himself into the line of fire. A good man, fair and brave and to be honest, the Dukes couldn't afford to lose him. "I'm sure he wasn't saying nothing at all."
Well. No one could argue with that. Bo talked – oh, he could talk all day and into the night. Luke knew that because although they had finished out the walls and roof of this place enough that it could be called a cabin, it was still tiny. A common room where they cooked, ate and did just about everything else, and then a small loft above where they both slept. As much as anyone could sleep when one of them talked all the time.
So yeah, Bo's lips formed word after word. But rarely was he actually saying anything that needed to be listened to.
"Now wait just a minute," but the boy had everyone's rapt attention now. Lighting could strike the farmyard just outside where they were all standing around in a lopsided circle, and it wouldn't make a one of them turn away from the spectacle that was right here in front of them. "I was too saying something; I was asking Enos exactly when he got so good at cooking." Which could have been a perfectly normal question, harmless and even reasonably interesting to get the answer to. If only that last word wasn't said with such vehemence and distaste, complete with the implied why are you doing women's work in the tone. "And fetching." Or if it hadn't been followed by that.
Or if Daisy hadn't been great with child and just looking to take offense with only the tiniest of provocations.
"Bo Duke, you just come over here," she commanded.
Enos, who had been lugging in a large pot of – something, Luke had no idea what was inside it, only that it was clearly heavy and round and it was going to take up the entire width of the fireplace that he and Bo had built into their little cabin – put down his burden and wiped an arm across his forehead. All for the best, now he had both hands free in case this thing got ugly.
Bo's face was red. It hadn't been only seconds ago, but there it was. Embarrassment wrapped up in defiance and he turned to Luke. Who just shrugged back at him. He'd tried to save his young cousin from what was coming next. Sure, chopping wood left him with a sore back and calloused hands, but that was better than what Daisy was about to do to him.
"Go over there," Luke offered by way of advice. "Maybe she'll let you live."
Which wasn't wise at all; those fiery eyes got turned on him, next. "You want to join him?" Daisy asked, like she was his pa, threatening a whipping. Luke had taken plenty of licks for things Jud had started. He'd take twice as many and then some for Bo, too. He'd take another bullet if he had to, in order to save the boy who had rescued him out of those very fields out there, who had dragged him out of the feud and given him a reason to bother living. He would let himself get beaten or killed – if, and this was an important if – it would do any good. Which in this case it wouldn't; it would only get them both sentenced to whatever punishment Daisy had in mind.
"No ma'am," he answered, all innocence. Bo doled out a hateful glower for abandoning him during his time of need. Luke raised an eyebrow back, and gestured with nothing more than a look for Bo to take the three steps to go stand in front of their temperamental cousin. Added a little shrug of encouragement – what's the worst that could happen? silently contained in the gesture. She didn't, after all, carry guns on a daily basis anymore.
Blond head dropped with the realization that he was on his own and Bo stepped forward to take his punishment. Which consisted of an apron getting pulled off Daisy's rounded belly and tied onto Bo's flat one.
"It's about time one of you got good at cooking anyway," the girl said, slapping a ladle into Bo's hand, and gesturing for Enos to get the pot situated over the hot coals in the fireplace. "You boys are too skinny and there ain't no excuse for it."
"Luke," Bo tried, wagging the ladle in the air in an oversized gesture of misery at this turn of events, plea in his voice to be released from this terrible fate.
"I reckon she's right, Bo," he answered back. "You ain't been doing too good a job of feeding me." And, of course, no one would expect Luke to be the one having to do the cooking and feeding. Though it had been a solid year since he took a bullet to his shoulder, the older Duke boy was still recuperating. At least that was what his kin kept saying. He wasn't supposed to work into the evening or do too much heavy lifting, and he certainly wasn't supposed to tax himself. Which made it only logical that if he had to limit his activity, he couldn't go using his right arm to stir whatever was brewing over there.
There was some fussing and fighting over the need to wear the apron, but Daisy settled that one by reminding him that stains on his clothing would only mean that she'd have to teach him how to properly do the washing next. He sighed and gave in, letting her tell him when to stir and how much of which tin of powder to add until Mary Kaye Porter showed up with her toddling Paul in tow, and took over the food-tending duties. In return, she asked that he and Bo take her little boy, now nine months old and just active enough to get into absolutely every sort of trouble he could find, outside to wear him out. In his haste to take advantage of this reprieve, Bo almost made it out the door with the apron still wrapped around him. Luke was fully willing to let it happen, but Mary Kaye caught the blonde by the elbow just in time. Untied and took it for herself then wished them luck with her baby that was identically blue-eyed to his mama, but might otherwise have been Luke's for his dark hair and mischievous smile.
"Bo," Enos scolded as he followed the two Duke boys out. "You shouldn't ought to rile Daisy like that."
"Enos," the boy complained.
"Now Bo, I know you didn't mean nothing by it," Enos went on with a wave of his hand. Silly smile that indicated that marriage hadn't changed everything; he was still a man, and if all things were equal, he'd be on Bo's side of this thing. But all things were not equal. "But she's with child now and she ain't entirely," sane. Nowhere near sane, neither half of the married couple were sane, not if they thought having a baby was a good idea. Here they were not two minutes away from Mary Kaye having turned Paul's well-being over to Luke, and the babe was already pulling himself up by the porch railing that they'd only erected last week, and giving serious consideration to toppling down the steps head first. Luke caught the boy with one arm around the ribcage and carried him down into the hardpan dirt in front of the house. "Herself right now. You got to be careful."
And then there was that other thing that none of them were talking about, though it had wedged itself under the skin of each and every one of them. Like a splinter that you couldn't pull out, but you couldn't ignore it either, no matter how hard you tried – Daisy's parents were making their careful way down the winding trail from Lookout Ridge right at this moment. Due to arrive for the afternoon meal at Bo and Luke's cabin, and it would be a first for all of them. The first time Bo and Enos met John and Elizabeth at all, the first time Luke saw them since he was knee high to a grasshopper, and the first time Daisy was seeing them since she'd gone off and gotten hitched up to a boy that they didn't choose for her. And then there was that dust trail out on the lane, the clip-clop of hooves and the gentle word of a man convincing his team to pull the wagon slowly around the turn that would bring him up to the house. Jesse, and it would be the first time he'd seen these particular kinfolk since Daisy was no bigger than Paul.
Who was sitting in the farmyard dirt and trying to stuff something in his mouth. Might have been a worm or a flower stem. Luke couldn't tell, all he knew for sure was the Bo was over there not three steps away from the toddler and he did nothing about it other than to point. Any boy that had grown up in an orphanage full of babies ought to be better at handling little ones. But Bo didn't have the first clue and he wasn't afraid to admit it. Luke went to retrieve Paul a second time and got slobbered on for his efforts. "A-la-la-la-la," Paul explained.
But it all worked out just fine and Daisy would have agreed about that. Because Jesse coaxed the pair of horses – one of them Traveler, lent to him by Luke for the day and the other Miz Tisdale's Horace, borrowed for the price of a kiss on her cheek – to a halt in front of the cabin, then enlisted Bo's help to lift something out of the wagon. Another round pot, clearly full of something heavy and Bo was already licking his lips at the prospect.
"Ain't gonna be no room for that in the fireplace," Luke warned. "Daisy's in there cooking something—"
"Rabbit stew," Bo supplied, because he'd gotten up close and personal with her concoction already.
"—And she ain't about to make room for you in there." Not without a fight and that kind of thing could get ugly. Daisy had herself a temper, but Jesse wasn't exactly known for keeping his calm, either.
"Sorry I'm late," Jesse said, but it wouldn't have mattered. Even if he'd gotten here first, Daisy would still have chased him out of the cabin by now. "That danged Dobro Doolin showed up just as I was getting ready to come out here. Said he needed to set his wedding date back by a month." Yeah, the fool had been doing that like clockwork. He'd gone and proposed to the girl who'd been known to all of them as Lily from the brothel (but turned out to be a Tillingham once she put on decent clothes and teased her hair up into a bun – Maybelle, her name was) and set a date to be wed. Then set that date back, and then back again until it would be surprising if what was supposed to be a March wedding happened before September. "Wouldn't go away until he saw me scratch the old date out of the ledger book and write in a new one. But it don't make no never mind. Since when do Dukes need a fireplace to do our cooking? Boy," he commanded at Bo, because Luke's hands were still full of a wriggling baby, "fetch me some firewood."
It was the kind of thing that could have taken all day if the blonde was left to do it alone, so Luke handed Paul over to Enos with the admonishment that he should not, under any circumstances, let the baby get the better of him. Then he joined his cousin in bringing the oldster some tinder and kindling, then splitting a couple of logs to burn when the fire got big enough. By the time he finished that, Jesse had his pot settled over a small flame and was humming as he stirred its contents.
Bo never was one for patience or manners, so he stuck his pinky right down into Jesse's pot. Got swatted for his efforts, but brought his coated finger right up to his mouth for a taste anyway. A little pout and, "It ain't rattlesnake chili," he complained.
"I never said it was," the old man informed him with a wink. "Now you just take this," and for the second time in the same morning, Bo got handed a ladle, "and give it a stir every couple of minutes." Funny how Bo didn't sass him like he had Daisy. Maybe he'd learned something, or maybe stirring a pot over an open fire in the great outdoors didn't constitute cooking in that blonde brain of his. "Well, hello there, little feller," Jesse said, and then he took Paul from the arms of a decidedly nervous-looking Enos.
Luke patted the sexton's back. "Just a couple more months before you get to do that for real," he said, and his tone was just about anything but sympathetic. "Don't worry," he added when that shiny pink face, slick with nervous sweat, turned toward him. "She ain't never gonna let you hold him anyways." No doubt that Daisy would protect her baby with twice the ferocity that she had always protected Luke. And that was a downright terrifying prospect. "Unless he needs a diaper change. Then he'll be all yours." Which, oddly, didn't make Enos stop looking flushed and downright sickly with nerves.
"Don't you listen to him, boy," Jesse said and plopped himself down on a log that was too wide to bother splitting. "That one there," wide finger of the hand that wasn't full of squirming baby pointing in Luke's general direction, "don't know the first thing about settling down and raising babies. Why, if I was to wait for him to give me grandchildren," which was a technical impossibility, what with Jesse being his great-uncle and all. Hard for childless man to wind up with grandbabies. "I'd be bent over a cane and sightless by the time he got around to it."
"Luke's got a lady friend," Bo tattled from his post over the pot. "What is this Uncle Jesse?" he all but whined, because not knowing which food was being prepared was much more important than spouting Luke's secrets to the public. Or to their family, which was even worse.
"Does he, now?" the old man asked, taking his eyes off the babbling baby on his broad knee to wink. At Luke, at Bo, at Enos or maybe at the sky above. It was an important thing to wink about, the notion that Luke could find a woman that would put up with him. "Anyone I know?"
Luke shrugged, would have been perfectly content to leave it at that. I don't know whether you know her, and I got nothing else to say on the matter. But, of course, Bo was having way too much fun watching him squirm to let such things lie.
"That red-headed spit-fire that's living down at Miz Tisdale's. She reckons she's the next Annie Oakley."
"No she don't," Luke cut in. Because if his private life was going to be talked about at this here gathering, there needed to be at least a few facts dispersed with all the tall tales. "She—"
Got interrupted right there by yet another dusty wagon pulling into the yard.
"Howdy, Marshal," Jesse greeted. "Come right on down here and join us. The ladyfolk got the house claimed as their own."
"Just a minute there, Jesse," Rosco called back. "Got me some cargo to unload. You reckon one of you boys could help me?"
Luke was perfectly willing to step right away from this conversation to be of assistance to Rosco, but the good-hearted Enos beat him to it. Luke followed around the back of the wagon anyway and dang it all if they weren't unloading a Hogg. Not the edible kind either. The one-time pillar of the community had his hands chained in front of him and, "I couldn't leave the prisoner," Rosco explained.
Which wasn't strictly true; the marshal had left more threatening prisoners alone in his jail for longer periods than an afternoon. But by now it was pretty much known that Rosco had refused to surrender Hogg to the Morganville jail to which Judge Petticord had remanded him. Seemed to keep the marshal happy to have himself a pet. Soon enough he'd have to let Hogg go, though. It was only an eighteen month sentence, at the end of which the former justice and current jailbird had sworn that he'd run for governor. After all, he'd declared, it was in the blood. Just look at Big Jim Hogg, the current governor of Texas. Who was not, as far anyone could tell, related to Jefferson Hogg at all. But the man never had been particularly concerned with honesty, and it would be foolish to assume that nearly a year spent in the Dade jailhouse would change that in any way.
"Well," Jesse said. "I reckon it's a good thing I made an extra big pot." Because Hogg, already plenty heavy, had put on quite a bit of weight in the pokey. He blamed it on Rosco's refusal to let him smoke his pipe, but Bo had confided that he figured it was thanks to Lulu Coltrane's hearty cooking. Everyone knew that Rosco's sister was sweet on the prisoner.
"Rosco," the man in question scolded, as though he was the one in charge of the situation. "Next time you take me somewhere, you got to provide me with a cushion." And just maybe he was the boss of this little twosome. The marshal's face was serious, his head tipped in concentration. Just waiting to be told what he'd done wrong now. "You can't go causing grave injury to a prisoner by making him ride in a hard wagon on a bumpy road."
"Oo-oo," Rosco answered back as he let his brain catch up with the words. "I reckon your fat little body is cushion enough." A silly little giggle, and he took one of Hogg's elbows to guide him to the log Jesse was sitting on. Got a doleful look out of brown eyes about how logs were just as hard as wagon beds, but in the end Jesse shifted to make room and the prisoner sat.
"Well," he groused. "I reckon the food better be good."
Jesse's eyes rolled before he caught himself. He was the respected pastor of the church, after all, supposed to be kind and patient, even if the man next to him had not exactly been invited to this little gathering of family and friends and ought to consider himself lucky for getting to eat anything at all. "Best you ever had," was a promise from one old man to another. Both rather big in the belly and they knew good food when they tasted it. "And you'll be saying grace before you get any, too." Dubious look on Hogg's face about that one. "Don't worry, it'll be tasty enough to take away that bitterness in your throat from the pride you'll be swallowing."
"What is it?" the former justice demanded, as if a prisoner had a right to be picky about his food. About all that the law obligated for his meals was bread and water.
"Luke can tell you." Which was an interesting assertion for the oldster to make, considering Luke hadn't been anywhere near the preparation process. "Go taste it, boy."
And that got him a dirty look from Bo, who had gotten smacked for sampling the brew before it was ready. But the blonde's efforts at presenting a mean visage always came out looking cute anyway, so Luke didn't worry about it a whole lot. He just walked right up to the pot, took the ladle from Bo and dipped himself out a small amount. Didn't even have to put it to his lips to know, but he did it anyway. Closed his eyes and he could almost hear his pa's laugh, feel the coolness of a creek running over his feet with the slick stones underneath, smell the mist coming off the waterfall. "Crawdad bisque," he mumbled. The flavor of the best days of his childhood. Opened his eyes then to see Jesse's twinkling back at him. "Where did you get crawdads?"
"Boy, you ain't the only one in these parts that can fish a few ornery critters from a creek."
"Well," Luke concluded, letting water-color images of a younger Jesse teaching him how to catch crawdads flash behind his eyes. "That's good stuff, Mr. Hogg. And if'n you want some, you're going to have to eat quick, because I reckon I might eat it all."
"No you ain't," Bo jumped in before Jesse could get around to scolding Luke about his manners and how a gentleman ought to treat guests. "Not unless you're willing to fight me for it."
"You really think you're man enough?"
"You boys knock it off or ain't neither of you eating one bite," Jesse intervened. "Mr. Hogg, you're welcome to have as much as you like, once it's done cooking. Which I'm going to see to, since I can't trust you boys not to go sneaking tastes." Jesse stood and a wriggling Paul tried to take advantage of how the old-timer was distracted. Luke took a couple of quick steps to help out, but Rosco beat him there.
"Ooh, look here," the marshal said, scooping the babe up to hold him in his arms. "We got ourselves a wanted criminal here. Paul Porter, public enemy number one." The boy offered Rosco the devil's smile while Jesse waddled over to Luke and took the ladle back from him. Bo shrugged and stepped away from the pot to give the pastor room to do his cooking. "Wanted for having the bluest eyes and being the cutest dickens in town," got followed up by a giggle that would have made perfect sense coming from a schoolgirl. Or a drunk man. "Not to mention them dimples. Well, I'll just, I'll just have to lock you up, jit!"
"A-la-la-la-la-la," Paul answered back in complete agreement, which set the two of them off into rollicking babble that only they could understand.
"He's a blundering fool," Hogg groused.
"He caught you, didn't he?" Bo reminded him. "He's a good lawman and you'd be sitting on an iron cot in the Morganville jail without a friend in the world right now if it wasn't for him. So you just hush."
"Dat," Hogg answered back.
"Seems to me," Jesse intervened before anyone could get around to doing or saying anything that might be regrettable later. Like if the man Bo was trying to shame ever did get himself elected to office. "That Luke was telling us about some sort of red-headed spit-fire." And what a lousy way to go about avoiding a scene. Prying into a man's personal business like that. "Who wants to be Annie Oakley."
"She ain't nothing like that," Luke defended, realizing just a second late that in so doing, he was all but confessing his interest in the girl. "What Bo there ain't willing to tell you is that she's a better horseman than he is. She can break the wildest ones," including him, really. He'd been a tough stallion, pretty sure he didn't want anything to do with a pretty filly like her when she showed up in bloomers with her sassy, bragging mouth spouting off about what she was capable of. And he'd resisted her, too, for all of about an hour. Bo hadn't been thrilled about a girl who could ride quite so beautifully and effortlessly, but he'd relented quick enough when it became clear that Luke had serious intentions toward her. Amy Creavy, her name was, and she could handle her own. "Like no one else can."
"She ain't better than me," Bo objected.
Which, Luke had to admit, was true. "As good, then," was more accurate. "And old Bo there, he ain't exactly lonely neither. He done took up with one of them ladies at the orphanage."
"Ijit!" Rosco hiccuped out. "One of them old ladies? I told you," he started, had to pause for a second when Paul decided to stick a fat finger right into his wide open mouth. The boy got put down right quick then, leaving Luke to take a couple of trotting steps to grab that tiny hand before the boy waddled off for the hills. "I told you to let them adopt you, Bo. Not to let them marry you."
"I ain't marrying no one," Bo insisted. He meant it, too. They'd talked about this, he and Luke had. And they'd decided Duke boys had bigger priorities than getting married any time soon. Like planting some crops and getting themselves some horses to breed and train. "But Miss Jill ain't no old lady, neither."
"I can't believe you ain't seen her yet, Rosco," Luke added helpfully. "Blonde girl with green eyes and the rest of her skinny as a beanpole."
"She ain't skinny, she's just slender," Bo corrected, but Rosco wasn't listening anymore.
"You got that girl? She's a looker," an awed marshal said, just this side of drooling.
"And she's taken," Bo reminded them all, just in case anyone got the notion to flirt or otherwise express interest in Jill. Which was not a problem as far as Luke was concerned. The girl was far too skinny, no matter what his young cousin had to say on the subject.
Just about then Mary Kaye saved them all from further embarrassment by showing up at Luke's side to retrieve Paul. "He don't need to learn about getting with girls, not from you lot," she teased as she scooped her little boy up and settled him into her arms. Funny how he could look so innocent sitting up there when it was already clear that he was going to grow up to be a scoundrel. "Oh, and Enos, Daisy wants you to come back inside. If I was you, I'd hustle," were her parting words as she turned back toward the cabin herself.
"Uh, oh. Guess I'd better go then," Enos realized. "It sure was nice talking to y'all." Which might have just been pure politeness, but Luke figured there was some truth hidden in there as well. It probably was quite pleasant to talk to sane people after dealing with an expecting Daisy.
Before the discussion could get itself turned back around to courting and the Duke boys' conquests, there came the rattle and clatter of another wagon arriving: Doc Cooter with Cletus in tow. "I can't cook," the doc admitted when he climbed down from his seat behind the horses and marched around to the back of his wagon. Hand digging around until he found what he wanted, "But I brought you this." Which appeared to be a live turkey in a cage made from sticks and wire. Looked like something Luke might have built when he was knee high to a boll weevil, and it was big, bulky and out of place in the doctor's hands. "Got it from Miz Tisdale in exchange for treating her rheumatism. All I ask is that you don't go killing it in front of me. I ain't a big fan of nothing dying." Which made a certain sort of sense, what with him being a doctor and spending most of his days trying to outsmart death.
"Every farm needs a turkey," Luke decided, right then and there. "To keep the chickens company." Because they had plenty of food to get through this afternoon, and poor Doc didn't have the first idea what to do with a turkey. So the unfortunately scrawny thing could stay here and get fat. Come November they would reconsider its fate.
Bo liked the idea. "Hello, Tom," he greeted the bird with a smile. "Hi Cletus," got added almost as an afterthought. Which went to show the boy's priorities.
"How's Miss Daisy doing?" Cletus asked, being a right proper gentleman and a fine doctor's assistant to boot. "She having any complications?"
"Depends what you mean by complications," Bo answered back.
"She's fine," Luke countered but if there was one thing he'd learned in the past year, it was that there was no hushing Bo when he figured he had something to say.
"I reckon if you don't consider the fact that she's like as not to take a switch to Luke and me just for breathing wrong, or that she's probably in there hassling poor old Enos half to death a complication, then she's just fine. Although," Bo added with a tired little sigh. "If'n you can figure out how to get that baby out of her soon, I sure wouldn't mind."
"Bo," Jesse scolded.
"Jesse, you ain't been the one who's had to—"
"—Boy, just you mind your manners and remember that the only thing that's important is that both Daisy and the baby are healthy."
Big huff and Bo's head dropped. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.
"Hey Bo," Luke jumped in, slinging an arm across those broad shoulders, because the boy should never look miserable like that. "Why don't you take him," indicating the turkey, who he wasn't quite willing to call Tom. Not when he figured they probably would get around to eating him some day. "Over by the coop." Saw a flicker of distaste in his cousin's eyes – at being told what to do, at being sent away like a naughty little child, at anything at all. "Then stop by the shed on your way back," Luke added with a wink and like the sun breaking out from dense clouds, Bo's smile returned.
"You got it," the blonde answered, and it was amazing how quickly he could move when he was properly motivated. Taking the cage out from the Doc's awkward grasp and he was gone, then back in a flash. Sans turkey, but with a flask in his hand; funny how Cooter's eyebrows raised at the sight.
"Bo's first batch," Luke explained for those who couldn't figure out for themselves that the vessel contained Duke whiskey, meted out from a jug in the shed. (Which was probably only Cletus. The rest of them knew what Dukes did best and some of them had intimate acquaintance with the stuff.) "For the sampling."
Cooter all but snatched it out of Bo's hand. Slight apologetic look after the fact but that didn't stop him from unscrewing the top and taking a deep sniff at the mouth of the flask. Tipped it up for a swallow, then brought it back down in time to holler, "Hoo-ey!" which was something like approval. He started to hand it back to Bo, but the boy made a gesture with his right hand – go ahead and pass it around.
Cletus figured it was as fine as Cooter had, but his judgment wasn't to be trusted. He hadn't been raised on liquor like most of them. Somehow the flask got handed to Rosco, who just stood there and stared at the container in his hand like it was a snake about to bite him.
"It's a mite stronger than water," Luke warned. "You might want to be careful how much you drink."
"Dat!" Hogg interrupted. "You ain't got to taste it to know it's whiskey, Rosco. Them boys already confessed to cooking it up and Doc Cooter over there can attest to what it is. You just arrest them boys."
Which would be interesting if the marshal did. Dade had itself a new Justice now, one Emery Potter. Who walked with a kind of listing motion, all crooked and slow from the bullet fragments still embedded in his knee. But he was honest and fair and hadn't taken a bribe in all his life. And would probably want to sample the evidence before telling Rosco that he had no case, because what the Duke boys chose to cook on their own land – whether it was crawdads or corn whiskey – was no one else's concern. This wasn't a dry county.
"You just hush your little fat self," Rosco scolded back, full of bravery and pluck before he let loose a string of nervous giggles. Considered the vessel in his hand, but the former justice snagged it away from him before he had to make a decision. Unscrewed the cap with his chained hands and sampled himself a little taste. Offered up a raised eyebrow before Rosco snatched the whiskey back from him. "No liquor for the prisoner," he declared, then went back to staring at the flask with a certain amount of fascination.
"There ain't nothing prohibiting a marshal from having a sip of whiskey every now and then," Bo advised. "Heck, you know that Jude Emery," who had stepped out of the feud sometime when Luke wasn't looking. Probably when he was laid up in old Doc's office a year ago, his arm all but immobilized. Old Jude had disappeared only to resurface as the newly appointed marshal of Walker County on far side of the ridge. "You got to figure he still enjoys himself a good drink." Because being on the side of the law wouldn't necessarily tame a man. Luke spared a thought to whether Jude had gotten himself a working gun to go along with the job.
"And that there is good stuff," Cooter added, his fingers just itching to take the flask back from Rosco if the marshal wasn't going to give in and take a swig.
"You all just leave him alone," Jesse scolded. "He comes from temperance people and he ain't never had a drop in his life. Oh hush," he rushed to add because the marshal's stammering had started up. Somewhere between denial and defending his mama. "It's true and you know it. Besides," the pastor said, snatching the liquor out of Rosco's hand, got the cap away from Hogg and screwed it back on, "Whiskey ain't good for everyone. There's some of us that oughtn't drink it."
"You included?" Cooter asked, and he was just this side of salivating. In a minute he was going to grab that whiskey right out of Jesse's hands and he was either going to get smacked for his bad manners or blessed for taking away the temptation.
"Usually," Jesse answered, keeping one meaty fist tight around the flask. "But you see, there are some traditions in this here family. My pa taught me everything from how to build a fire with ash wood to how to grow the corn, how to ferment it and ratios of water to sugar. He showed me how to drain off the backings," and poor Cooter's shoulders sagged somewhere around there when he realized that this was one of those epic tales that the pastor was known to tell. There wasn't a soul getting a drink of anything at all, not even if they desiccated and turned to dust, until the oldster was done. "And how to set the worm. He showed me how to let the whiskey settle and how to get it to bead up proper, and then I taught that same thing to Luke's pa." The hand that wasn't holding the whiskey came over to pat him on the shoulder. Quiet consolation about the family that Luke had spent years missing in just about every way that a man could.
All that time spent looking for peace in revenge and it was just a fool's quest. Never did settle back into himself until the past winter when he took Bo up to where the crosses were, and introduced the boy to the kin he'd never even known he had. Luke said his goodbyes to his ma and brother, stood there a second with his hand resting on the cross he'd made for his pa. Closed his eyes and when he opened them again, Bo was there with an arm around his shoulders and a silent offer of solidarity. It wasn't much, wasn't more than the warmth of another body so close to his that they were sharing sweat, but it was enough. Luke took in a breath like it was his first, turned around to face the land that he pa had left him, and moved forward from there. These days he couldn't even get wound up when word hit town that old Ernst Ledbetter hadn't gotten but a six month sentence for shooting him and was now settled into Atlanta as if he had never tried to murder a man in cold blood. Life right here was too good to go off chasing after trouble in the capital. (Had to be Bo's influence that made him think anything at all of it. Within context of the feud, Ledbetter's effort to kill him made sense and he'd always considered it a perfectly reasonable action until his younger cousin started needling him about how it was never okay to try to kill someone that way.)
"And Luke's pa taught it to him, and Luke taught it to Bo. This here is Bo's first batch and I'm duty-bound to have a taste," Jesse finished up.
So he did, opened the flask and drank himself a deep swallow. Let the container drop away from his mouth, held it low against his hip and licked his lips. "Whoo," he announced. "Welcome to the family, boy." Slung one arm around Luke and the other around Bo. Pulled them both close and whispered. "You boys have done real good for yourselves. I'm right proud of you." Which was all very touching, but Luke hadn't gotten his taste yet and there went Cooter, snatching the flask out of Jesse's hand while the man was busy praising his boys.
And then the liquor had to be put away, because that dust trail to the south meant that Uncle John and Aunt Elizabeth were almost here, and the last thing they'd want to see would be Duke whiskey anywhere in proximity to their pregnant daughter.
— — —
It had, Luke reflected with a yawn, been a nearly endless day. Starting at dawn with chopping wood for the fireplace and ending now at dusk with Dukes sprawled out around the cabin's porch, hands resting on overstuffed bellies. Their friends had excused themselves just as the fireflies started to flicker around the farmyard, and Enos was kind enough to take Daisy's parents into town where they would stay at the hotel. Daisy and Enos had no space for guests in their own room at the boarding house, and Luke and Bo lived a fairly primitive experience here on the farm. The beds were straw and the outhouse had been known to leave a man with splinters in unfortunate places, so Uncle John and Aunt Elizabeth had to be safely ensconced in town. That was, if they were ever expected to visit here again, and Daisy, sitting primly on the top step, was all aglow at the prospect. She'd even stopped barking orders at the menfolk long enough to come sit out here in the cool evening air with the rest of her kin.
"Agh," she said now, making them all turn to see whether Bo's wish had come true and she was having the baby early. Way too early and if she did, their poor youngest cousin would be wracked with guilt for wishing it upon her. But it wasn't a baby coming out of her, just her heeled shoes coming off. "That's better."
She was calm now; they all were. Maybe exhausted was a better word, he thought as he watched her lean her head back then rock it from side to side in hopes of a satisfying crack that never came. Sometimes it was hard, seeing her with child and the way she took to married life, to imagine that she'd spent three years as Yellow-eye, the last two as infamous scout and faithful companion to the notorious Duke. But in her unguarded moments, when she forgot all over again that she was supposed to be a lady and sat with her legs sprawled at awkward angles, tipping her head back and groaning like she'd just spent the day on the back of a horse and was only now taking a few minutes to stretch, he could see it in her.
As to the infamous Duke himself, Luke figured he was about halfway recovered from being that man. Enough to wish Ruby well and tell her to quit worrying when he ran into her in town a couple of months back and she'd apologized for her part in getting him shot. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, he'd told her and she probably decided right then and there that she was much better off shed of him. He couldn't argue that point, so he'd kissed her on the cheek and told her to find a nice man that would settle down with her.
But mostly all that energy that he had put into bossing feuders around and planning strategy got used up mighty quick these days. The farm wasn't the half of what Bo dreamed it to be. The boy wanted to breed and train horses and if it took everything in him, Luke was going to see to it that those wishes came true. Which kept him plenty busy and he didn't have a lot of time to think about the past.
"You all right?" Bo asked Daisy, who was still rolling her shoulders back and cranking her head around. "Here," he added, all the quarrels of the day forgotten. "Hold still." He scooted up behind her to rub at her back and shoulders, and got rewarded with happy little moans.
Jesse, who had brought one of the hard backed chairs out onto the porch, sat behind the two of them while Luke took to leaning on the post.
"Y'all have done a fine job," the old man said, staring out into the near-darkness around them. "I'm mighty proud of you."
"We still got to build ourselves a barn," Bo answered.
"And a real bedroom. Maybe two," Luke put in. Sure, Luke was known for nightmares and once a month or so his thrashing would awaken Bo. But that was nothing. Bo's snores drowned out the sound of passing trains, of violent thunderstorms, and if a grizzly bear came in and decided to eat them at night, Luke figured he'd never hear it over the sound of those snores. He'd only figure out what had happened when Bo was completely devoured and the snoring stopped.
"I ain't talking about the farm. I mean the way you all have been looking out for each other. I reckon my generation and your parents' generation didn't do a good job of teaching you about taking care of kin, so you all must have figured it out on your own. It does a body good," got halfway caught in Jesse's throat. "To know that his kids are turning out better than he did."
"Oh, Uncle Jesse," Daisy said, slipping out from where Bo had been kneading at her shoulders so she could stand and throw her arms around the old man's neck. "We ain't never going to be the half of what you are."
"Don't argue with me girl," he scolded back, but he slipped an arm around her shoulders and held her as close as their awkward positions and her protruding belly would allow.
Bo, who never could get enough affection, stood with intention to join in the hug, but he was too tall, or a sitting Jesse was too short. He bent at the waist and tried to fit in anyway, but Jesse took pity on him and stood up, now having his niece held by one arm, and his younger nephew tight in the other.
"Get over here, Luke," he demanded. "Mind me now," came next when Luke considered demurring.
Somehow or other, he wound up in the clump with arms around him, not sure whose they were.
"I love you kids, each and every one of you," Jesse said.
"Love you more," Bo answered back.
"To the moon and back," Daisy agreed.
"You too, Uncle Jesse," Luke said, and felt old, rheumatic fingers in his hair.
A bird twittered in a tree as it settled in for the night and in the distance they could hear wagon wheels churning over rutted roads, marking Enos' slow return to retrieve his wife. The air smelled of a rain that would wash over the land before the dawn gave way to clear skies. He and Bo, who still hadn't figured out the benefits of wearing a hat even to ward off the hot sun, would set to work on this fine Duke land. In the coming years they'd fend off locusts and droughts, they'd lose crops and replant, they'd add onto the cabin until it was a full-fledged house and fight over who got to use the outhouse first, they'd raise horses and brew whiskey. Life would be good.