Usual disclaimer. And thanks to Hank Williams III for kicking ass.
She heard the coach drive into the yard, its wheels scrambling on the cobbles. It halted with a squeak in front of the entrance door. Why was her father back so soon? Usually, he stayed in his town office until the evening dinner, sometimes even overnight, although she knew that it was hardly his office he spent his nights in.
Isabel put down her book and peered out of the window, but the men had already moved out of sight. There were two of them, one being her father. She could hear them talking in low voices while they knocked the dirt off their boots, but she couldn't make out the words that were spoken. As the front door opened, she straightened the folds of her dress quickly and took up her book once more.
"…by William Jenkins, eh?" she heard her father ask as he closed the door, "What the bloody hell does he want with you?"
"I could turn you in, you know, and become a rich man," her father continued.
"You are already a rich man, Matt, remember?" the other man said in a low rasping voice, "but if you want to be a dead man too, then be my guest."
Isabel sucked in her breath. He had come.
It had almost seemed like a fleeting dream the day she had met her long-lost uncle Butch Cavendish and his gang of outlaws in the fields. He had gone the way he had come – unannounced and unceremoniously like a summer storm. The news about his brother's return had set her father squirming in his broad leather-padded chair, but he had done his best to conceal his anxiousness. That had been two weeks ago, but she had heard no more from her uncle. By now, she had lost all hope to see him again within the next decade.
"Isabel! Where are you, child?" Matthew Cavendish shouted, bursting into the living room, followed by his brother, "Make your uncle and me a cup of coffee, will you?"
"I ain't drinkin' no coffee, Matt, but a glass o' whiskey will go down well," Butch said, greeting Isabel by lifting two fingers to the broad brim of his black hat, "Niece."
She sent him a curt nod and rose to fill two glasses with whiskey. Although they were brothers, the two middle-aged men couldn't have been more different. While the outlaw was lean and stooped with a face ravaged by fights and desert winds, the tradesman was big-bellied with a broad chest and a smooth round face. Unlike his brother's, Matt Cavendish's short-cropped hair and thick moustache had gone all grey, and the back of his head had started to get bald.
Isabel's father stepped to the door, his deep dark eyes sending his baby brother an uneasy look.
"Let's go into the study," he said, leading the way in his fine grey suit and shiny boots, the thick golden chain of his watch hitting against his belly with each step.
Her uncle followed in his faded black clothes and dusty riding boots. He turned his head and winked at her as they crossed the entrance hall to her father's study. She seated herself again on the sofa with her book, determined not to listen in on their conversation. The sound of stroked matches and a deal of puffing carried into the living room. Her father had offered her uncle one of his cherished Cuban cigars, she knew. Those cigars were the future, he used to say.
"The sheriff will be back in town in three weeks," she heard him say, "How will Jenkins cope with that?"
"It's not my problem," her uncle answered dryly.
"It may be if you end up with a noose around your neck."
"This business is worth the risk o' ten small-town sheriffs," Butch said.
"As you say," Matt answered brusquely, "You just keep me and mine out of it."
"You afraid of losin' somethin', brother?" the outlaw grinned.
Matthew Cavendish started to pace back and forth in the study like a caged animal, lecturing about the worth of honour and a good reputation. He was, after all, the older brother. Isabel could feel a growing discomfort about the situation.
"They say you're murdering children and have a lust for human flesh, for God's sake!" Matt finished, almost shouting.
Isabel looked up just to catch the gaze of her uncle. The door of the study stood ajar. Butch was sitting in one of the comfortable leather-padded chairs, his glass of whiskey in one hand, the cigar in the other. Both his feet were on the top of the heavy oak desk, pushing him onto the hind legs of the chair. When he leaned back, he had a full view of his niece sitting on the sofa in the living room. The outlaw was staring at her with a greedy light in his cold eyes as if mesmerized by the sight. All of a sudden, her white blouse with its high lace collar and her black-striped dress seemed to grow hot and tight, and Isabel wished that she could hide inside the loose and cool men's clothes she used to wear in the fields. For how long had he been undressing her like this?
"Are you even listening to what I'm saying, Butch?!" Matt thundered, pacing up and down.
She knitted her brows, closed the book with an audible smack, went to the door of the living room and closed it demonstratively, never for a moment flinching from the unusual lustre in her uncle's look. She didn't have to put up with all of his mischiefs.
Half an hour later, the muttered conversation of the two men came to an end, and Isabel heard the front door open. Then, the door of the living room was opened, but instead of her father, her uncle entered the room. After sending him a short reproving glance, she returned to the pages of her book.
"What're you readin', sweet Niece?" he asked, seating himself on the sofa beside her without waiting for her invitation.
"'The Life and Deeds of Hank Williams, Rebel and Outlaw'," she said airily without looking up, "Do you read books, Uncle? You should. They contain a lot of wisdom. This Hank Williams, for instance, ended his days on a scaffold in Memphis."
"I can write my name and spell out the word 'wanted'," her uncle answered, "That's enough wisdom for me."
"I could read aloud for you," she volunteered.
He laid his arm on the back of the sofa behind her and crossed his legs, his knee brushing softly against hers as he did so.
"I've been thinking about you ever since we met…" he whispered, leaning closer to her.
She could feel his breath on her ear, and a smell of whiskey, cigar smoke, horse and sweat filled her nostrils. She turned her head and looked him straight in the eyes.
"Oh, really?" she interrupted him sharply, heaving an eyebrow inquisitively, "Then why didn't you come sooner?"
The front door opened once more, and Matthew Cavendish stomped ponderously into the living room, his round face flustered from the walk. Her uncle pulled away from her instinctively.
"I've had Martha kill a goose," Isabel's father breathed, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief, "I presume you're staying for dinner, Butch."