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The House with Many Rooms

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    When his wife died, Jesse didn't cry. Not at her service at least. His upper lip was stiff, his gaze hard as Nancy was lowered into the dirt, and his shoulders were stubbornly squared when the hands of his family gave those consoling pats and rubs to his back and good arm, careful of his sling and the stitches just below his shoulder blades.

    Their shared grief didn't do much to help in terms of easing the heartbreak, and they all knew, even the little ones, that Jesse was a stubborn guy. They knew he was holding back, and while they all weren't not welcome to try and ease him through the grief with their consoling words and hopeful promises, nothing seemed to smooth out the insistent wrinkle at his brow, nor the tightness at the corners of his lips.

    It was only when the service was over, when he drove home and entered the house he had shared with Nancy for twenty years, only to be met with silence, that he let that obstinance slip, and he collapsed into the hardwood of the foyer.

    His breaking point hadn't actually been the quiet of the house. It was the faint presence of the perfume she had sprayed on herself almost excessively before they left the house. The day of the accident. The day Jesse woke up late and nearly forgot his socks when Nancy pushed him out of the bedroom door. He had rolled his eyes at her insistence that they hurry, though their flight to Denver was only hours away, and Nancy loved to be early to everything, especially her niece's wedding.

    It was the heels and running shoes piled haphazardly over the shoe rack, because Nancy didn't keep her shoes in their bedroom. Her on-the-go attitude extended to preparing her own shoes to be at the door at all times no matter what.

    It was the scarf hanging on the coat rack. The one she forgot and only remembered when they were already halfway to the airport. She slapped at Jesse's arm and exclaimed, "How could you let me forget my best scarf?!" Because it was cold in Colorado, colder than they both were used to, and they had packed all their warmest clothing, but Nancy loved that scarf so... Adored it so much she wanted to arrive in it.

    Of course Jesse pulled a U-turn so they could go and get it. Anything for the love of his life. Anything for the woman who kept him afloat for all those years. Her brown hair was so nicely curled that day...

    The sound and smell of burning rubber stayed stuck in his memory for days—weeks. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't simply close his eyes without thinking of how Nancy just... Flew through the windshield. When the truck flipped, how she lay crumpled on the asphalt, not yet dead, but obviously broken, and the image was burned into Jesse's mind. He couldn't move to help her, half pinned by his seatbelt and half in agony in his shoulder, he couldn't have moved if he wanted to.

    Even when he got back to driving around the country after giving his niece and her groom their wedding present, deliberately not attending the ceremony after the fact of his wife's passing, as it had been postponed upon the news being spread, he still couldn't sink himself deep enough in work to deal with the loss.

    It was too quiet. The road was there, he was driving, in his semi, and all he could think about what the truck that had hit them.

    He didn't answer calls, he didn't want pity. That's the only reason cousins, aunts, and parents he hadn't spoken to for years were trying to contact him, to give him their condolences. Jesse was chagrined to think that they only wished to make calls when he was at his lowest.

    But he wasn't the dead one. So who was he to say he was the lowest of the low?


 

    Jesse's right hand finds the cool metal of his lighter. His phone starts ringing when he pulls the thing from his pocket and flicks it open, igniting the flame. The phone continues to ring, sounding off an annoying vibration against the hard material of the dash, and he lights the cigarette between his lips with a careful scoff when he glances over to see who's calling.

    The dull, cracked screen reads MELANIE CELL. His niece, who he hasn't seen in a couple months. Not since he decided to cut everyone off and work on mourning for Nancy in his own way, by pushing all reminders except for his truck and that goddamn scarf out of his life.

    Yeah, he had the scarf, wrapped and dangling from the rearview mirror in the truck his company gave him. He finds that even though it was partially to blame for the accident, touching it while he's on the road eases his thoughts and makes him less inclined to want to veer sharp and hard so that the semi tumbles, to keep his seatbelt on, to not want to drive off a damn cliff.

    Though, while it's a soothing balm on his mind, it only lasts long enough for him to get through those last few miles till the next stop for loading or unloading. It doesn't erase any of the memories still vividly etched behind his eyelids. It doesn't get rid of the dreams. The smell of Nancy might even enhance them. Besides, he's in his Tacoma now, where nothing of value but his own life sits within it.

    He decides that just this once, because of the special occasion, he'll answer the phone. So he does what he hasn't done since Nancy died, he swipes right on the answer button and lifts the phone to his ear.

    "Uncle Jesse! Oh thank God!" Melanie's relieved drawl is surprisingly pleasant to Jesse's ears, and a flood of emotion surges from his chest up to his perpetually ruddy cheeks at the sound of her voice.

    "What?" He says, masking the tremor that wants to come out in his voice with some sorry excuse for a teasing lilt, "Thought I was dead or somethin'?"

    Guilty silence greets him, and it says more than words can possibly express. For a few seconds he wishes he hadn't parked directly on the tracks so soon. But it's a good spot, he thinks, and he wouldn't want to miss the train, even if he was in the middle of talking to family right then.

    Jesse takes a drag of his cigarette, then sticks it out the window to tap the ashes away. He doesn't pull his hand back in, so it just rests there for the cigarette to burn itself away. He speaks up again.

    "What're you calling me up for? You need somethin'?"

     The silence on the other end lasts a few more tense seconds before Melanie responds with an "Are you fucking kidding? I don't hear from you for two months and you think I'm calling to ask for money or something?"

    Jesse has the decency to feel chastised. That isn't what he meant. When he thought about it, he wasn't sure what he meant anyway. It was just a greeting, it was easy to fall into the old habit of casualty because that's all he's been doing since he was able to speak. No one actually gave two shits if he was alright, maybe not until the end. But that didn't mean he had to make sure the end didn't come if he wanted it as badly as he did right then. He loves Melanie, but he loves Nancy even more.

    "Sorry, honey," he mutters, and in the distance he can finally hear the screeching of the train's engine. "I know why you called, anyway."

    He smiles contentedly.

    The receiver picks up some shuffling on Melanie's end. Oh, Melanie, such a good woman. A fantastic daughter. He wishes every day that he could've had children with Nancy at some point. If only to have someone like Melanie give him a reason not to do this.

    "Well, then... why'd I call, sir?" Comes her hesitant reply, almost as if she suspects that something is going on on the other end of the line. The suspicion isn't misplaced, but that doesn't keep Jesse's smile from faltering just slightly.

    "To check on me," the train is getting closer. "That's all anyone wants to do when they call anyway."

    He doesn't try to sound pitiful, or that he's calling her out on it, but it sounds like he managed to do just that with the way she says her next words.

    "Well, yeah. I... We're—All of us are worried about you, Jesse—"

    "You don't gotta be," his lips pull up into an even brighter smile, and though Melanie can't see it, he's sure she can hear it in his voice, "I'll be fine," he chuckles, actually believing it this time. Finally. "In fact, I'm... Well, I've been feeling a whole lot better for the past few days."

    More silence, more shuffling.

    "Oh, really? That's so good to hear!"

    "Yeah, so... You don't have to worry anymore."

    By now the train sounds close enough that Jesse thinks that it would probably be best to hang up the phone sooner rather than later.

    Melanie starts to say something, but Jesse doesn't want her to hear the impact, doesn't want to have to face the silence when he's killed, because while Tacoma trucks are strong, the force of a train would destroy it.

     That's exactly what he wants.

    Before Melanie can get out the rest of her sentence, which he had stopped listening to as soon as the shrieking became louder and louder, he interrupts her with a quiet, "I've gotta go, sweetie."

    "Wait! But you just—"

    "I'm in the middle of something," he presses, "I'll get back to you when I can." It hurts to lie to her like that, but if it gets her off the phone...

    There's one last bout of indecisive quiet before she sighs, "Okay. I'll call you tomorrow."

    "Bye bye, sweetie."

    He hangs up. He drops the cigarette. He lowers the phone to his lap and tilts his head back to press against the seat's head rest.

    When he closes his eyes, he lets himself see.

    He sees Nancy. He sees her smiling, in that way where her eyes are crinkled and tilted with the force of it. The rosiness of her cheeks when she's embarrassed. The bright glint of her teeth when she grins. He sees the slope of her slender back, remembers the soft down of her long, brown hair. He recalls the feel of her hands, gentle, smooth. He honestly misses that the most out of everything.

    She was one of those people that communicated better with her own actions. She wasn't one for a hundred I love you's every day, in words at least. She mostly showed it through her hands. When she cupped his face to gaze into his eyes, when she caressed her thumb over his knuckles to remind him of her presence at his side. When she tickled her fingers over the back of his neck, where he was most sensitive.

    He lets himself feel the ache he's been ignoring the past few months. The anguish grows into a throb, then into a gnawing soreness when the image of her limp form amongst the broken glass and stray sheet metal pierces through the pleasant images. Her bloodied and mutilated face. The wrongness of it during the Wake.

    Recently, he was thinking about retiring early. He's worked long enough in the delivery business to settle comfortably with a decent penchant. Through the tears that had begun to trickle down his cheeks, now going pale at the prospect of death, he thinks maybe it wouldn't have been a good idea in the grand scheme of things. There was no reason to settle down, the only living family he had was distant, physically or estranged, either way, he was alone. What better a solution than to attempt at reuniting with the one person who loved him more than anything?

    His smile widens a bit, just as the crossing gates lower. At a different point in time, the intense lights and screaming of the train scraping across the tracks as it got ever closer would've terrified him even if he wasn't sitting directly in its line of sight. Now, however, he feels like he's one step closer to freedom, satisfied with what he's managed to do in life.

    The locomotive's headlights envelope him in light. It's the last thing he registers before the train collides full speed with his truck.


 

    There's a second where Jesse notices that his brain is still conscious, and he's confused.

    His surroundings are pitch black, and his entire body is warm, like he's wrapped all snug in a cacoon. And there's pressure all around his head from the center of his forehead, like a vice is gripping him. Funny, he wasn't expecting the afterlife to feel like he's being pulled up like some prize in the claw machine.

    It's a while that he sits there—lies more like. Jesse's limbs feel like they've been stuck in the same position for millennia. He wants to stretch them out, but for some reason the walls enveloping him are constricting. Yet he doesn't feel suffocated. There's a pressure at his ears that lets him know that he's able to hear, but he just can't, and he fears the deliberate quiet will become maddening. And he's stuck lying there for what seems like a while.

    See, during this while that he lies in his little cacoon, sightless, soundless, arms and legs folded over each other awkwardly, but not uncomfortably—the last thing he expected was that pressure at the top of his head to grow.

    He's suddenly assaulted with his little cacoon pressing hard against him at all sides, and the tight ring around his head expands just slightly. Just enough that he starts to slide through. If he could be anymore out of the loop he would be surprised.

    Instead, there's a surge of panic when the ring passes over his eyes, envelopes his ears, and then all of a sudden his head is on the other side of the ring, which has loosened significantly to accomodate his neck.

    However, he isn't particularly worried about that.

    He's more concerned over the rush of muffled noise that gets increasingly louder the longer his head is exposed. There's a string of cursing, groaning, and panicked voices making desperate attempts at being consoling but by now even Jesse is nervous. Soon, he's being cradled by the neck and his shoulders are being pushed from his temporary home. The rest of his torso, and then his legs and feet are pulled free. Finally, he is exposed to the open air, and the noises halt with jarring abruptness. Another hand joins the one at his neck, then smoothes down his back and he vaguely registers the sensation of being lifted, the hands are oddly large considering the size he had been before passing through whatever void he just came from.

    There's pressure at his chest after a few seconds, and he can't breathe. Jesse panics, because he doesn't know why this is happening, what's obstructing his breath. He opens his eyes, his vision isn't perfect, so he cannot differentiate between the blobs surrounding himself and the arms that hold him, but when the blobs start talking, his hearing has definitely adjusted.

    "Is it alive?" Comes the high pitch of a little girl.

    "He ain't no 'it' Caroline, that's your baby brother!" Says a man.

    "Well baby brother's not breathin', pa." That's the voice of a younger man.

    His vision has yet to properly clear, but things are a little less blurry now. And Jesse can just barely make out four worried faces staring down at him.

    The realization hits him hard, and if he were able to, he probably would've collapsed.

    It wasn't God or some other deity pulling him out of the mortal coil and into paradise.

    He wouldn't be greeted by any of the dearly departed he had hoped to see after succumbing to death.

      Nancy.

    He wouldn't be seeing Nancy again any time soon.

    There's a feeling that's been nagging at the back of his mind since his head popped out from that "cacoon." Something deep inside him is telling him that it would help him breathe again and let him get out his feelings about this whole ordeal at the same time. It's an instinct. A strong one at that. So Jesse gives into it.

    He cries.

    The entire room sags with relief.

 

Chapter Text

    After that mess that Jesse would call a breakdown, he is promptly wiped off and is quickly placed into another pair of arms. These arms are gentler, a little unsure of how to hold him at first, but then his neck is placed into the crook of a warm elbow, and the position is as confident as if this person had held a hundred babies before him.

    His tear-swollen eyes blink open groggily when his cheek meets the skin of the person's chest. There's an unexpected flood of warmth and something else he can't name at the contact. Out of curiosity, he looks up, and finds the eyes of a woman. His vision is adjusted now, so he's able to get a good look at her. She looks exhausted; there's sweat on her upper lip and forehead, which seeps into the dull color of her hay-blonde hair and brightens her patchy freckles. Her round face is flushed a deep pink that almost looks comical—but somehow she manages to maintain her gaze with him, mustering all the love and affection she can into her blue eyes. He knows this simply because he can feel it—all around him in fact, and he nearly breaks down into tears again at how overwhelming the feeling is.

    This must be his mother.

    It seems that they are both in tune, for when he thinks of crying, she begins to do exactly that. But there's no trace of any grief, of any sorrow as she looks down at him and weeps, as an ecstatic smile remains on her face.

    It is then that another face makes an appearance. A man, who as soon as he comes into view, Jesse recognizes as "father." It's jarring, to have never seen these people but immediately know them as family and somehow care for them as he was. It must have been all the pheromones floating all over the place, because there was no way that a conscious and aware Jesse Phillips would be experiencing these things with his first pair of parents—not willingly.

    His father—this one—the one staring at him with this smug curl to his lips in an attempt to veil the redness and beginnings of tears in his eyes, is heavily bearded, and his forehead is lined with wrinkles and indents brought from many hours, days, possibly even years of work and stress. His eyes are an intense shade of green, maybe even hazel in the right lighting. To Jesse, they compliment the orange of his hair and beard. They make the jolly pink of his cheeks glow. This man is silly-looking—almost like Santa Clause—and Jesse laughs at the fact.

    It's contagious apparently, because Dad laughs, Mom is not far behind him.

    "You hear that? Boy's laughing at me!" Dad's mock-offense is overshadowed by hiccuping laughter when two more voices join in. The little girl and the young man.

    His siblings?

    Jesse doesn't have the strength to turn his head and look, but Dad waves them over to come look at the baby—which saves Jesse the trouble— and still plagued with insistent chuckles, he returns his eyes to Jesse. The laughter dies down, replaced with a comfortable silence as the moment is taken in by everyone.

    He decides this is a good enough opportunity to test his motor skills, which Jesse immediately finds out are absolute garbage. He takes an arm and reaches up toward's Mom's face. He's able to make a jerky attempt at closing his hand around her nose before she lifts her soft, thick fingers to enclose around Jesse's own. He makes an unintelligible gurgle that pulls another huff of amusement from her.

    "Out of all my years and the two children we had before now, I've never seen such a smart-looking babe." Mom mutters with a slight bounce of her arm.

    "It's those eyes," says his brother, "Clear as day." He leans over on his elbows to stick his face in as close as possible. So close, in fact, that Jesse can feel his breath puffing at the little hair he has on his head.

    "Smell of a newborn never gets old, eh boy?" Dad says, pushing forward to also take a whiff.

    Jesse still has it in him to find this strange. Affection inducing pheromones be damned. He wriggles and mewls as babies do, kicking his feet in the half assed swaddling wrapped around his body for good measure. Surprisingly, the message is taken, and taken well.

    "Guess the little one don't like folks smellin' him." Dad muses.

    The words cause Mom to shoot him a rosy-cheeked, half serious glare. She isn't taken seriously if Dad's smile is anything to go by.

    "How would you feel if you just walked off the porch and people started comin' from all over and sniffing at you?"

    "Fair point, darlin'."

    It's like that for a few more minutes, maybe about ten, twenty. Jesse isn't sure. More words are exchanged between father and mother about what to name Jesse. Names like James, or Charles, or William, because Mom thinks that William's an educated name. Then, Caroline, the only one who Jesse actually knows by name, suggests his name be Harry. Harry Bailey. Everyone is surprised at the sound of her voice, due to her persistent silence since after calling Jesse an "it."

    "Harry don't sound too bad," agrees Jesse's brother, but he's got this rueful smile on his face, "As long as you don't say it with the last name, that is."

    Mom frowns.

    Dad chuckles.

    "I'll sleep on it," she says, poorly concealing her exhaustion with the way her eyes begin to sag, "Sleep sounds wonderful right now."

    "A whole day's a long time to stay up for baby delivering, sweetheart—" Dad places a kiss upon Mom's temple, and proceeds to fully climb into bed with her.

    Caroline and Big Brother do the same, settling quietly at the foot of the massive structure of a bed. Jesse notices that there's no objection from either of their parents, and he chooses not to think too hard about it.

    It must be some time in the evening, for goodnights are exchanged. Out of habit, Jesse attempts to do the same, but all that comes out is a jarbled mess only a toothless newborn can manage. Again, the family is amused by his antics, but Jesse is left frustrated that even with his ability to think cohesively, he won't be able to talk until the universe decides he can. Damn it.

    He's asleep before he even realizes he's just as worn out as Mom probably is. It's a comfortable sleep, surrounded by a new family, experiencing new feelings he hasn't felt for anyone before Nancy.

   Oh Nancy... 

   He's warm, loved, and he's comforted with the feeling that maybe he can do even better this time around— despite his previous grievances.

    Thus begins his new life.


 

    Jesse immediately finds that being a baby who can think and understand everything that's going on around him is one of the most boring things he's ever done in his entire existence.

    He knows that the only way he can communicate with anyone in the first stage of babyhood is to cry.

    He can't walk.

    He can't talk.

    And he damn sure can't use the bathroom on his own.

    It's humiliating. And he's kept up the entire family on multiple occassions just because he couldn't stop agonizing over the fact that this will continue until he's old enough to step out of that itchy slab of linen Mom uses as a diaper for him.

    He cries and cries and cries.

     It annoys Mom, but she's always there to hold him. To rock and bounce him into silence. To press him to her bosom and give him that huge dose of whatever it is to keep him comforted until the next bout of crying. Her patience and unconditional care has him sinking into guilt more oftem than not for being the main reason for sleepless nights on multiple occasions.

    Sometimes Mom isn't the one to quiet Jesse, or pick him up, or place lips upon his forehead in that manner that is oddly so comfortable among their little family. Sometimes it's Dad. More often it is his older brother. Less often is it Caroline, who is too small and clumsy to carry him anyway.

    He learns that his brother's name is Perry. That Mom's name is Lucille. That Dad's name is Harvey. To them Jesse's name is Harry. They fit for the most part, and he finds that he loves his new family, very much.

    Then comes the time for him to get changed, or to get cleaned when he spits up, or to be fed on his mother's breast. He broods—as much as a baby can, anyway. Harvey sometimes jabs that the solemness of his youngest son is a tell that he may be some cold, heartless politician some day. Jesse broods more then, because honestly he just might if only to be spiteful.

    At some point, Jesse starts to develop.

    Eventually, he starts to grow fat. The fat then turns into more functioning muscle. He learns to sit up, and to scooch about on his rear to get across the floor since his legs lack the strength for the time being— and it's truly a historic day when he manages to master saying 'Mama' and 'Dad' and is near to perfect when pronouncing Perry, but he struggles with Caroline.

    Caroline joins in his brooding, and the pair of them make an amusing sight, both glaring at the floorboards in the sitting room whenever Lucille leaves them alone. But Caroline is a little more active in trying to solve her problem, to teach him how to move his mouth around the letters in her name and bring them together cohesively.

    "Care—oh—lyne. C'mon, say it, Little Harry. Care—oh—lyne."

    "C-Care—ly." He tries, and knows immediatly that he's saying it wrong. It can't be helped, though. His voice is tender and small, he can feel it in his under-developed muscles and voice box. The voice he has as a baby is too weak to speak the perfect English that he wants to. Despite that, it still angers him, so when he fails, he scrunches up his round features in frustration. Lucky for him, Caroline is a patient little girl.

    "No, no," she coos, thinking him to be starting up a fit, "It's okay. We can try again later."

    That doesn't do much to make Jesse feel better, but when Caroline holds out her hands to embrace him, he crawls into her lap anyway and allows her to think that Baby Harry is nice and soothed.


 

    Jesse learns to walk on a hot Sunday afternoon when Harvey is gone off to work and Lucille is patching up a pair of old jeans on the porch steps. He's taken to calling his parents Mama and Pa now, mostly because that's Perry's habit.

    Jesse's long discovered the novelty of the porch. He particularly likes it in the nightime. Their little farm is nice and cool when the sun goes down, and he gets a good view of the mountains all rich and colored a dark purple under the moonlight.

    However, the sun is still hanging high, and the waves of heat wiggling up from the dirt just beyond the house and onward are visible so much so that Jesse doesn't have to force his eyes to unfocus in order to see them. The house is too stuffy to wait out the heatwave, so everyone is outside under the shade of the porch roof.

    Boredom has consumed both Perry and Caroline, who have either finished or foregone their chores. So their next source of entertainment is, of course, the baby.

    At the present moment, Jesse is being held up by the hands to stand on his two feet by Perry's steady grip. Caroline is a couple steps away, bent over and excitedly holding her arms out, as if to catch him if he falls.

   The pair of them are basically forcing him to stand up and walk. He can't fault them for trying, but it's hot. When it gets warmer than 70 degrees, it leaves a lot of room for lethargy on Jesse's part. So excuse him for being a bit difficult.

    "Move those legs, Harry." Perry encourages, "You can do it!"

    No, he cannot. If Perry lets go, Jesse won't be able to hold himself up. So he gives Perry a curt "No" in that tiny voice of his. This doesn't produce the reaction he wanted, which was for his brother and sister to let him go and leave him to wallow in the heat in peace. What they actually do is become even more determined.

    "Yes!" Prods Caroline, who now has an annoyed set to her brow. It's no problem though, Jesse does it right back at her.

    "You either walk or we can practice your talkin' some more."

    Screw it.

    He'll take the walking for five-hundred, Alex.

   Just as the words come out of Caroline's mouth, Mama turns over from her spot on the steps, her sewing limp in her lap as she gives her children a look—you know the one.

    "Stop bullyin' your brother." She chides with a little more heat than the reluctant upturn of her lips imply. "He'll walk when he's ready. Don't gotta force it."

    "But Mama—"

    Her expression falls to it's fullest at that. "No buts, boy. Set him down."

   "But he's talking! Why shouldn't we be helpin' him walk!" Perry presses.

    Jesse can't help but feel a little bad. Though the logic wasn't sound enough to hold water, he could see where his brother was coming from. As far as he could tell, he was most likely more than five months old (he stopped counting long ago); he could kick pretty hard; he could leverage his legs to assist in his scooting. From their perspective, walking definitely should have come before the talking.

    He might as well try...

    Perry's hold starts to flag— to let Jesse sit again no doubt—once Mama tells him once more with an expectant quirk of her brow to leave Jesse alone. Caroline sags in defeat, and she's on her knees now, face crumpled and arms crossed like she's gearing up for a tantrum. But she doesn't, because Caroline is a patient little girl.

    Jesse takes his first step and nearly bowls over since Perry's hands are attempting to lower him back onto the wood flooring. But he quickly corrects his hold—not without a surprised squawk— which allows Jesse to get his foot flat on the floorboards. Then the next step, and the next one.

    By the time Jesse's legs get tired, he's managed to walk all the way to the first step, and Perry allows his baby brother to settle down at Mama's hip. Jesse looks up at her to pull her reaction, and finds that her river-blues are gleaming with pride. Nearly as emotional as the day he first met her.

    There's an enthusiastic clapping coming from behind them. Craning his neck, Jesse sees Caroline is the source, and Perry grinning like the schoolboy he is. Mama allows her mending to be abandoned atop her apron and starts to clap along with Caroline.

    Jesse never thought that accomplishing something as simple as walking would have made himself and the people around him so happy. He should feel patronized, honestly. A grown man in a baby's body should feel like he's being toyed with, that his time is being wasted. Shamed for being reduced to this kind of useless position at all. He may have felt that way before, but now, in this moment, he swells with pride and basks in the support he has just for literally putting one foot in front of the other.

   Later that day, when the sun begins to fall, and the land begins to cool, Pa comes home.

    He nearly has a conniption when Mama regales the story of Harry's first steps.

    "How could I have missed my boy's first try at walking!?" He's distraught, has reduced to collapsing in a hysterical heap upon his armchair. Jesse has never seen a grown man so upset about such a triviality.

    While everyone is laughing at Pa's melodrama, Jesse for some reason can't find it in himself to think it funny.

     Actually, he feels genuinely sad for Pa. It's that empathy that has him attempting to stand up. He can probably do it again. He walked for an entire lifetime before this, building the muscle must not have been that hard. He manages to get himself up and standing for a brief moment, just long enough for him to gather the attention of the room. Most importantly, Pa is looking at him with an expression similar to Mama's earlier. Jesse feels that pride from before flushing his cheeks despite the strain on his knees.

   Everyone holds their breath.

   But then his legs give out, and he falls back onto his ass.

   The breath is released.

   Frustrated that he couldn't stand for long enough, Jesse glares at the rug. He can feel the eyes on him. Disappointed probably that he wasn't able to display the spectacle from earlier in the day.

    Not like it could be helped, anyway. Perry was the one doing most of the work that time.

    Before his thoughts can spiral further and further downwards, and he feels the need to crawl off into a secluded space and brood some more, there are hands hoisting him up by his armpits, and a jolly face invading his view.

    "Was that just for me, son?" Pa asks him, though he knows Jesse can't properly answer. Pa doesn't wait for any, besides.

    "Such a fine boy you've given me, Lucille!" Jesse is pulled in to embrace the man at his shoulder. There's a moment where those strong arms encase him and Jesse feels accomplished that he managed to make this man smile.

  He's never been happier. 

 

Chapter Text

    Jesse turns one in the midpoint of winter in 1892.

    It's a terribly large pill to swallow. Even when he gets it down his gullet, it still sits heavy in the pit of his stomach.

    To tell the truth, he isn't all that surprised—after the confusion and panic wear off. Before, he brushed off his suspicions with the thought that maybe the Bailey's weren't as inclined with technology as the rest of the world. Some people were like that, it turned out, so he contented himself with thinking that were the case for his family.

    His family was just stationed in some far corner that didn't take too kindly to the wonders of advanced tech.

    Right?

    Apparently not.

    For as the months passed, he started paying attention to things.

    He travelled back in time.

    He was born in 1891. As it clued him in on one of the newspapers Jesse never cared to look at until he accidentally stumbled across a fresh one that had fallen on the floor. Pa never kept full newspapers lying around. He had clippings lying about, yes, but Jesse was too short to read them on their places around the kitchen walls. The newspaper was dated 1892, when Ellis Island opened to immigrants; Coca Cola was becoming established; his family celebrated his first year of life.

    1892; It's near the end of a century where people don't wash their hands or shower as often as he's used to. Where owning a horse isn't a novelty, more like a necessity— and refrigeration is a new thing that only large-scale companies had reason to use. The only reason Jesse knows that little tidbit is because Pa is as itinerant as a homesteader can get, and absolutely loves sharing stories about where he works. He works wherever work is available close to home. So if there's fences to be mended in town, he gets a job there; if there's lumber that needs to be chopped and prepared for building, he gets a job; if a meatpacking company or cannery slides into the developing city nearby, Pa gets a job there.

    That's one of the best things about 1892 that Jesse can glean from his little knowlege of the period: it's shamefully easy to get a job if you really need one.

    Despite Pa's need for an extra income, besides selling the products their cows and pigs produce, he is home more often than Jesse's father had been in his first life. In many ways, his first shot at childhood was completely different than this one.

    Firstly, he's more likely to store these memories away and actually remember them. Secondly, his parents are happy. He is happy. Mama and Pa are always cuddled up in some place, like they actually care to be around one another. He remembers once, in his previous life, that his mother warned him to be careful who he marries. Namely because you marry their bullshit too, that she somehow innately came to hate his father and his extension of the family, and carried that hate until she was flatlining in the ICU. But Jesse had never felt that way about... Nancy.

    Nancy. Sweet Nancy. Despite the circumstances, he thinks of her more often. It's a firm reminder of who he was in case he accidentally loses himself in all this baby business. But the memories aren't accompanied by pain. He no longer cringes when he remembers the feel of her skin or the taste of her kisses. It's similar to the euphoria he felt when he was on those train tracks, when he felt that the decision to die ensured an eternity of peace, away from the pain of tangible existence. In a way, this may be what he was hoping for when that train hit him. His parents are in love, in a home, with more than one child. Not sad, resentful, and angry children, either. Not children who wish with all their hearts to be let go from their parents to seek a life that will be good, calm, and peaceful far, far away. Caroline and Perry are far from that.

    On a few bountiful acres they have chickens. It's Caroline's responsibility to feed them. Then there's the other animals they've aquired over the months and of course some time before Jesse was born. They've got a couple of horses, but only Pa and the Hands are allowed to handle them, since Mama doesn't like horses much, and Perry gets skittish around them. He says they're too big and unpredictable for his liking.

    Perry prefers the dozen cows that sit around and don't do much other then graze and produce milk—which Mama knows these old fashioned ways to make cheese with—but the bulls he seems afraid of, so he usually stays away from the herd unless he really needs to get close.

    No one likes the pigs. They're messy, and the sows always give birth when the weather isn't preferable to Mama's standards, sometimes they accidentally kill a few of the babies—Jesse questions more often than not why they even have pigs when that happens—no one actually likes cleaning up after those things. The family seems to enjoy them when they're being sold off or sizzling on a pan though, but that's the only turnout that Jesse himself can see that justifies keeping the amount they have.

    He takes all this in during the closing vestiges of one sleepless night after sneaking out of the bed he shares with Mama and Pa. In terms of getting a good view outside, the best he can do right now is the large window overlooking the grazing animals from the living room, on account of his horrifically short and slightly unsteady arms and legs. Pa's armchair rests beside that window, next to it is an end table sat just underneath the window sill. It's the perfect setup for him to climb upon and watch the sun sluggishly rise from the mountains.

    When the morning comes, the house is gently lit by the benign azure of dawn. Pa is up before the sun begins to peek out, and ignores Jesse standing on the end table in favor of tending to the fireplace at the opposite side of the room to warm the house up for the day. Next comes Mama, who walks into the living room shortly after, and hastily plucks Jesse off the table.

    "Harry!" is her alarmed gasp when she places him on her hip. Mama doesn't have to say anything else. She's so good at telling them all off with a single look, it's absolutely absurd.

    When Jesse doesn't meet her eye, she turns the look on Pa.

    "What's the baby doing on the side table, Harvey!?"

    Pa is left standing by the fireplace, blinking, like he doesn't have any words to fling in his defense. He has a log in hand, arm positioned to toss it into the gathering of logs and flint that have already begun to catch flame. He doesn't move.

    "Honestly," Mama scoffs, adjusting Jesse more comfortably against her side, "He could've fallen and cracked his head open!"

    "Didn't even know he'd gotten outta bed." Pa explains, but Mama isn't having any of it.

    "Don't assume a man is dead just 'cause you shot him."

    "Oh, don't start now with them novel quotes, Lucille." Pa groans and tosses the log into the growing fire, a bit more aggressively than necessary.

    Jesse was never one to intervene when two people got to arguing, namely his parental figures. As fate had it, he isn't gonna start now, mainly because there's no reasonable way a toddler can defuse an argument between two bullheaded adults. Well, he wouldn't describe them as 'bullheaded' but they sure could yell each other down.

    He pushes at Mama's shoulder and swings his legs to show that he wants to be let down. He doesn't want to be stuck in the middle of this. Even lets out a quiet 'Mama' to get the ball rolling. She doesn't budge, in fact, she holds him tighter.

    "Take a little responsibility, the boy's so little!"

    "I didn't see him, Lucille!"

    "Yeah? You don't seem to notice a lot, you big fool!"

    The only thing Jesse can do is bury his face into Mama's neck and wait it out, then.

    He hears the shuffling of boots stomping across the throw rug placed just before the kitchen entrance, and they grow distant once they come back into contact with the floorboards.

    "Where do you think yer goin'?" Mama shifts her weight, fingers digging slightly into the meat of Jesse's leg. Pa must be headed towards the back door because Jesse can hear the echo from another room when Pa answers her.

    "It's too early in the morning! I'm not listening to this!"

    A door is thrown open and then slams shut.

    Some distant part of Jesse hopes that Perry and Caroline are still asleep, but the larger, more logical part knows that they aren't.

    He hopes they're okay.


 

    Mama and Pa don't argue often. Mom and Dad from his life before didn't do much fighting either. When they did, though, it got loud, messy. Mom threw dishes. Dad left for long periods of time, then came home drunk. Mom would yell some more. And Jesse would be so stressed out thinking it would be the end of his safe and secure place in his town, his house, his bedroom, that he couldn't sleep through the muffled conversation that his parents were considerate enough to try and hide behind a thin wall.

    Mama and Pa's spat this morning is considered tame compared to that and the small amount of instances they got into it before then. All that happened was Pa getting grilled for not paying proper attention to his surroundings. Like all men, Pa doesn't appreciate being nagged. That's the way of things. The argument wasn't anything extreme.That doesn't stop Jesse from being upset about it.

    Pavlov's Theory is a bitch.

    Jesse isn't sad, per se. The way he sinks into a mode of just being 'fine' and going with the motions isn't as extreme as bursting out into tears and wailing about it like any normal child would.

    But he's not a normal child.

    Because that's what it is. Fine. He's fine. He understands.

    He doesn't wish to cause Mama anymore stress than she's already feeling. She's mad at Pa, Pa's mad at her. Jesse knows he did wrong, caused this by standing on the end table. He understands.

    If it were his baby he's pretty sure he would've reacted similarly.

    Mama dresses him in warm enough clothes to last through the cloudy morning and undoubtedly chilly rest of the day, appearing just as 'fine' as Jesse feels. Then she takes him outside, to the porch, and everything is okay. Neither of them exploded. No one assaulted each other.

    Everything is alright.

    One of the hands is up and about. Jesse doesn't remember his name, nor does he really care to learn it when Mama exchanges greetings with him as she descends the steps. But as the bystander that Jesse can't help but be, he listens in anyway.

    "Morning, Joseph!"

    "Mornin', Mrs. Bailey."

    He's a few yards away, tending to the horses in the paddock. Joseph is a tall man, but not one who looks like he's suited for work on account of his skinny frame. Nevertheless, he hauls the hay like it's almost nothing and Jesse finds himself impressed.

    Mama apparently has no reason to be outside other than to chat with Joseph, who doesn't seem too bothered when she gets closer with her baby, but Jesse can practically feel that he would rather be left alone. It's usually like that with boys just trying to do their job. Way back when, Jesse was the type to engage in conversation with strangers—more out of habit since it was an easy way of securing connections—he knows the type. But they usually come around and start returning the friendliness after a while. Turns out loading trailers was more of an opportunity to make friends than signing papers in some stuffy office.

    He misses it, dearly.

    "You need something, Ma'am?" Jesse notices that Joseph has halted in going to fetch another hay bale, so he's left standing there with a stiff set to his shoulders, and he's not making proper eye contact with Mama.

    "Not much," Mama says, as unnatural as Joseph's disposition. She tilts her head to cough into her shoulder.

    "I just wanted to say thank you to you and your family."

    Joseph stance relaxes a little at that, "What for?"

    "For helpin' us. For allowing you to help us. Lord knows where this place would be if it was just me and Harvey workin' it."

    Joseph isn't expecting the compliment, for his shoulders tighten again, his eyebrows shoot up, and his mouth puckers like he wants to say something but can't find any words. Eventually, after a pause, he does.

    "It ain't just me, Ma'am." He says. Joseph's so shifty Jesse has a right to be a little suspicious of what's going on in his head right now. "Toby's been workin' just as hard. Maybe more than me, probably. You know he's a handy man."

    There's a little laughter in Mama's voice when she says "I'm thankful for his work, too. But I'm talkin' to you right now ain't I?"

    "W-well, yes, Ma'am."

    "So take the compliment and get back to work."

   "Yes Ma'am."

    Joseph gets back to his chores immediately and Mama walks off. Jesse watches the man's shrinking back and narrows his big eyes in suspicion, though he's sure the expression doesn't look proper on his face.




    The clucking of hens is nearly as annoying as the yapping of a chihuahua. Just about.

    Caroline hasn't come out of the house yet, and Mama is lenient when it comes to her children sleeping in... sometimes. So she's decided to do the chore for her daughter. Likely not because she's taking pity on Caroline but more like it's one of the only things she can do to keep her mind off things without stewing back in the house.

    She could also make breakfast but that was just Jesse's opinion.

    Instead of focusing on her task, or doing anything else for that matter, she talks to herself.

    "Honestly," Mama growls, shoving her hand into the bag of feed and tossing the ground meal more than spreading it out, "He just so awful sometimes. Can't complain about nothin' without him getting all... all—"

    Jesse is sat on a crate to the right of her, so he gets a clear view when Mama clenches her teeth and makes a sound similar to a baying coonhound.

    "Men. Goddamn men, I swear. Don't notice a goddamn thing," she tosses another handful that slams more into the dirt away from the coop than anything and glances at Jesse, which causes something in her eyes to change. "Not even when their sons are wobblin' on a flimsy nighstand. How in God's name you get up there anyway, sweetheart?"

    She turns fully to look at her son, who merely stares at her, then he mumbles "Chair." like it'll somehow provide some closure.

    Mama sighs, "Of course it was the chair." Then goes back to feeding the chickens, calmly now, like all the growling and snarling left her a little winded.

    Jesse is reeling with confusion at how quickly her mood sways to despondence.

    "He didn't know I was pregnant with you until I told him." Her loosely tied hair is swept around when a breeze picks up from the east. Her blue eyes are droopy and the downward curl of her mouth gives Jesse the impression she's still angry but...

    "I was going on five months," she continues, "Mama's tummy was big. Real big with you inside, baby. I was bloated, thowing up my dinner every night. He just treated me like I was sick or somethin'. You know what he said when I finally confronted him about it?"

    Jesse makes an agreeing noise so Mama, in a froggy attempt at imitating Pa's rough baritone, shouts:

   "'I thought you was sufferin' from indegestion, darling!'" And she bursts into a fit of unrestrained peals laughter. "The idiot!"

    Jesse can't help but join in with his own giggling, since yeah, that was pretty stupid.

    When the laughing dies down, Mama finishes up feeding the chickens and gathers Jesse up into her arms once more.

    "You're such a smart baby, you know that? You definitely don't get it from that father of yours." She hums, starts walking back over to the porch. By now it's light outside and who Jesse presumes is Toby is emerging from the barn with a couple of buckets in his hands. Joseph has moved on from the horses and is wading in the mud over in the pig pen.

    "We would always make the other two laugh by ripping up all the old letters from my mother. Made me chuckle a little, too."

    When Jesse looks up at her, Mama is smiling again. Her large, straight teeth make up a gorgeous smile that's contagious.

    He's glad that she managed to work herself out. For a moment, he was afraid that the entire morning was gonna be tense. That he was gonna get lugged around with a sour-faced Mama; Perry and Caroline dragging their feet not far at their heels, because no sibling is left behind.

    When they get back to the porch and enter the house, Mama lets Jesse down to move on his own.

    Caroline is in the living room, sweeping up a pile of nothing into the center of the room. There's a stiffness in her arms, and she's clenching the broom with a white-knuckle grip. When Caroline sees Mama, she pauses in her sweeping, and regards her with a desperate look.

    "You and Daddy still fighting?" Her voice is always so small when Mama gets particularly pissed off. This time is no different.

    As Mama gives her a tender look that may or may not be laced with a pinch of guilt, Jesse gets up onto his feet and wobbles over to his sister. The display alone is enough to distract Caroline from her anxiety. She sets the broom aside to pick him up when he lifts his arms for her.

    "We weren't in the first place." Mama clarifies, "Where's Perry?"

    "Still in bed," Caroline says, settling Jesse onto her front. She's still small, still clumsy, but she's trusted to hold her brother now since he's a bit bigger. "I weren't worried he was dead or nothing, because I checked on 'im and he threw a pillow at me."

    Mama's smile drops at that, but it doesn't look like she's gearing up for a fight, so Jesse isn't too concerned.

    The day goes on. After Perry gets out of bed looking shaken and a bit scraggly, Mama makes breakfast and they all sit at the table. Ma and Pa hardly look at each other.

    For the rest of the day, Jesse sees no hide nor hair of either of his parents. So Perry and Caroline end up spending the day with their baby brother on the porch.

    To Jesse's chagrin, Caroline insists on practicing his talking. There isn't much progress made, because while Jesse has teeth, he's still unable to stress, unstress, and speak clearly enough that one word responses wouldn't be the necessity that he's come to terms with for the time being. The one thing about Caroline, though, is that she has a keen mind for knowing when to quit. When she does just that, she lets Perry rub it in her face that Jesse's walking lessons are far superior to the talking—until she finds it in her that wrestling her older brother is a better option than accepting defeat.

    The day wasn't anything Jesse couldn't have handled. It was merely a brief thing that lasted until midmorning that eventually faded out and turned the rest of it into any other day. Caroline and Perry weren't worried anymore. So why should Jesse be?

    Not to mention that come evening, Mama and Pa seemed to be made up. If them being cuddled up in Pa's armchair and showing off gag-inducing affection towards each other in front of the rest of the house were anything to go by.

    But that was just Jesse's opinion, wasn't it?

 

Chapter Text

    Jesse's at his usual place on the porch, standing vigil over the front end of the farm when Pa calls him over from the barn.

    "Harry, my boy!"

    "Yeah, Pa?"

    "Come on over here, son!"

    He's quick to abandon his self-appointed post and see what the matter is.

    It's 1896, Jesse has made it to five years old, and he's happy to make use of his legs to jog over to the barn and greet Pa.

    He makes quick work of the distance, and as a reward, Pa ruffles his already chaotic mass of copper hair, proudly inherited from the man himself.

    "Ma ain't give you trouble over this?" Pa asks, in reference to how windswept and dusty Jesse's hair appears.

    Truth is, the whole process of taking a bath and washing with only water and scented oil was cumbersome and useless. Jesse didn't find it as convenient as ducking his head under a showerhead and rubbing in some dual wash. Nancy used to give him so much lip about the damage that stuff did to one's hair, but Jesse obviously didn't care too much if he went bald or not.

    "No," he utters, actually having been avoiding Mama until she eventually gave up on her quest to get her boy's head clean that afternoon. He'd rather take the hose than the bath any day.

    But there weren't any hoses. Not on their property, anyway.

    Pa lifts a scraggly eyebrow. He clearly knows that Jesse is lying right to his face. For a moment, Jesse thinks that he's about to be reprimanded.

    Instead, Pa pushes the barn doors open.

    "If you say so."

    Then he steps inside with a gruff "Come on," and Jesse doesn't hesitate to follow.

    The barn is a larger structure than Jesse would think is normal. To him it seems a mile long, and there are ladders going up to the higher couple of stories and he isn't completely sure what goes on up there, but he isn't as curious about it to want to find out. On the ground floor, there's two rows of stalls, all of those that he can see are empty. He follows Pa to one of them, and they find Toby sat on a stool, confident hands squeezing milk from the cow into the bucket underneath her.

    Tobias Waterson is the polar opposite of Joseph Hall. Toby is of average height, which means Pa towers over him with his hulking six feet and five inches. But Toby's as stocky as they come. His wide arms and broad shoulders show he's not unfamiliar with hard labor. He's got legs like tree trunks, and a fine bulge of muscle protruding through the front of his shirt that gives Jesse the impression this guy does (or did) more than just work as a farm hand for his living. Oh, and don't forget about the face, either. He looks mean with all those hard lines and that perpetual frown. In Jesse's own opinion, the guy's got a serious case of Resting Bitch Face™.

    Toby seems disagreeable, especially in the way that he doesn't particularly like to talk. One would think him to be the disagreeable sort, but, on the contrary. Toby has been working with the Bailey's for years, and by now, it's easy to tell the guy doesn't have an unpleasant bone in his body.

    "Tobias?" Pa calls, causing Toby to jerk in surprise like he didn't hear the creaking of the doors opening, nor the crunching of their boots against the straws of hay lying about.

    "Mr. Bailey?" Another thing about Toby is that he's got a growling whisper of a voice. Soothing to some, but Jesse isn't among that number. "Young... Mr. Bailey?" Toby says when he notices Jesse hanging back at his father's hip.

    "You got the things I asked for, right?"

    "O'course. S'over by the workbench." He brings up a meaty finger to point in the same direction they came. Off to the side, at the end of a set of stalls on the other side of the barn is a sizeable work station, cluttered with tools; rope, horseshoes and the like.

    Pa shuffles over to the cluttered space, Jesse at his heels after Toby offers him a nod and returns to milking the cow.

    From the corner behind the workbench, Pa procures what looks to be three folded fishing rods, all inside a bucket. It's easy enough to pick up on what Pa is planning then.

    "You're taking me fishing?" Jesse asks, and Pa breaks out into a grin.

    "Thought you might enjoy getting away from home for a bit." As he says this, he passes the bucket off to Jesse, who peers inside, notices the bait and tackle stuffed at the bottom of the bucket, and acknowledges the third rod with mild curiosity.

    "Who's that one for?"

   Pa snorts. "Why who else but your good-for-nothing brother? Fool went off to the river without his pole."

    The pair exit the barn, wishing a one-sided goodbye to Toby, who's again deeply immersed in his work.

    One of their horses is saddled and hitched over by the house, courtesy of Joseph, Jesse deduces, as the man is still there, adjusting the straps and making sure everything is in place. Pa mutters something about rebalancing that man's pay as they make their way toward it. Joseph stops in his scrutiny when he sees them approaching.

    "Hey there, Mr. Bailey." Joseph says, his hands going to rest against his belt as he moves around the horse's rump to meet them. Well, Pa, more like, as Joseph doesn't seem to notice Jesse standing there at all.

    They clasp hands and Pa says, "I oughta thank you, young man. But I'm sure I've said this before, I don't think I've found myself in silk stockings tight enough for my workers to saddle up for me." But he doesn't seem too contrite about the display and neither does Joseph, who preens at the praise.

    "Well, if it keeps my pay steady—" Joseph cuts himself off with a laugh.

    "Makes me more comfortable with raising your wages for your servitude, Mr. Hall," Pa steps away from the both of them to examine the horse—and maybe to check on Joseph's handiwork— but that's his business.

    "A fine horse," Pa pats its neck, fingers carefully winding into the dark mane like the hair was something to admire. Jesse startles when the horse lowers its head and snorts.

    Jesse doesn't know much about horses—definitely not enough to note any breeds or builds with only a glance. What he does know, nonetheless, is that this thing is big—it could count as its own form of muscle car. That it's a new addition to their roster that may or may not have Perry tiptoeing around the stables moreso than he already is.

   Joseph lifts a hand to rest against the horse's rump, pats her once, then shoots her flank a pitying look, "Considering where she came from—"

    "Well she ain't gotta worry 'bout any of that no more," Pa interrupts.

    Jesse isn't sure what exactly those words mean, but they can't come from anything good. Not at all. He chances a look over, from the mare's rear to her muzzle, but when he gets to her head, Jesse finds that she's looking directly at him, her neck angled to peer at him from around Pa's back. It's almost as if she's just as curious about him as Jesse is about her.

    Where in God's name did she come from?

    Pa and Joseph exchange a few more words, but it's hard for Jesse to pay any more attention to the conversation when he's making eye contact with as beastly a horse as this one.

    Her coat is just this side of a too-bright shade of gray, speckled with scar tissue from probably too many lopes in the dense wilderness—and what looks like soot until Jesse pays a bit more attention. The word roan comes to mind, but he isn't quite sure where it sprouted from. The mare's got this massive head, which from her neck fades into that sooty color all the way to her nose. Her neck is thick, the muscle visible underneath that shiny coat, and the strength of her Jesse can see all throughout her body. She's so tall, around 18 hands he can only guess from his own vertically challenged frame. Like Toby, she's got those tree trunk legs—hooves draped in long, black curtains of hair, almost like a canopy, or tassles. They're so powerful-looking that Jesse is wary of approaching and getting kicked; even though her dark eyes are calm, aware— intelligent. It could be their difference in size, or the spirit of Perry Bailey infesting him, either way, Jesse can't help but fear this horse.

    They blink at each other for a few more moments while Joseph makes an excuse to remove himself and get back to work. The mare decides then, just as Pa goes back to checking her tack, that she's had her fill and doesn't care much about Jesse's presence anymore. She allows Pa to tug a bit at the cinches and adjust her bridle with only a few hard strikes at the dirt. When he's satisfied, Pa catches Jesse staring.

    "When did we get that one?" Jesse asks.

    Pa chuckles and gestures towards the bucket, "You wanna hold on to it while we ride?" It's really not a good question, because Jesse would have to keep it in place regardless. He lets the handle drop after deciding it would be safer to hold the entire thing against his body. When Jesse's arms are wrapped securely around the bucket, large hands are lifting him by his armpits up into the saddle. He settles behind the saddlehorn, stiff, eyes trained on the horse's broad neck, further inspection has him noting that her ears are turned back, like she's listening to every shuffle and movement he makes.

    Pa wordlessly mounts up after throwing the reins back over the horse's tall head and adjusts himself and the boy more comfortably atop the saddle. An arm is thrown around Jesse's front, jostling the bucket and its contents, but he holds firm as he's snugly pulled against the hard wall of Pa's stomach. Jesse suspects that it won't be a fast ride with him acting passenger, nor will it be smooth despite that fact.

   Again, he asks, "Where'd it come from, Pa?"

   "I was getting to that part, son." Pa chides as he urges the horse to turn and continue forward into a walk, finally, they're officially leaving the farm.

    Jesse waits a few moments for Pa to answer, and just before he goes to try again—annoying adults with questions usually works in the end—the look that Pa gives him has the boy deciding against it.

    "You know how me, or your Momma, or the workers go out to run errands sometimes?"

    "Yeah?"

    "Well it was one such time," as he goes on he sounds more and more lukewarm and that somehow is a bit unnerving. "when I was out with the hands, borrowin' off some supplies to these old money folks from up North, y'know? Well, they weren't so much as old money—see, son, they abandoned their fortune—" he cuts himself off, thinking Jesse too young of mind to properly understand as if he weren't already reading bible verses, not to mention Mama's small collection of novels, and sometimes following Mama and Pa's political talk like he was born knowing how to read and understand the world. Which he was, but Mama and Pa don't know that.

    "Anyway," Pa clears his thoat, "They were lookin' for some assistance to get started with their new lives as ranchers—Ma's got a bleeding heart for that stuff, so of course I drag my ass out across the river to help 'em. God, it's hard, no one can say no to that woman—" He sighs and trails off into thoughtful silence.

     A few seconds pass. 

    "The story, Pa."

    "Oh. Yes, yea. Sorry, son."

    By now, they're off the property and the mare is kicked into a brisk trot down the road, it's easy to ignore the chafing of the saddle when Pa gets back on track.

    "—So the ride there is fairly calm up until we catch sight of some poor sod strapped to his horse on the side of the road. And he's..." There's a pause, Jesse looks up to see what stopped him, ends up catching his father eyeing him carefully, like his next words hold the fate of the world in them—his son's at least.

   Jesse gets the gist, the guy was dead on his horse, maybe with a couple holes in his back or an arrow in his neck. He pokes at that notion just as warily as Pa is looking at him.

    "He wasn't alive, was he?" Jesse doesn't leave room for Pa to question whether that inquiry holds any doubt that the man was in fact dead. Since there isn't, and there's no point in beating around the bush with someone who's seen enough death already.

   This catches Pa by surprise. His face loosens to a  terrified gape like the implication coming out of his child's mouth was blasphemy, or something near to that. He lifts his head and stares straight ahead, the very picture of a man having a crisis.

    Jesse counts those tense seconds leading up to Pa finally saying, "No, son."

    "You said he was on a horse." Jesse points out. Pa doesn't react, just keeps staring ahead with those heavy brows low over his eyes.

    "Since he was on a horse, then you're saying that that horse is the one we're sitting on right now. You took her home."

    "Couldn't just leave her there, Harry."

   Jesse wants to ask what they did to the dead guy's body, but Pa already seems rattled. He'll save it for another day that probably won't come.

    "You could have, Pa. We already have a lot of horses."

    "Maybe. But you don't find too many good-lookin' horses like this one," Jesse is relieved to see him smile just the tiniest bit at that, "Figure she could help Colonel pull the wagon. Or she could be my new riding horse."

    But Pa doesn't ride that often. He usually just takes the wagon nowadays. Always picking something up or dropping something off. He has no real need for a permanent steed to get from point a to point b.

    "Did you name her yet?"

    "Hadn't thought about it."

    Jesse has nothing else to say. Neither does Pa, aside from pointing out a deer or rabbit sniffing about in the grass, or a lopsided tree, or a herd of horses that likes to hang by close to the river.

    Oh yeah, Pa was taking him fishing.


 

    When the water comes into view, Pa eases the mare's gait into a slower, more gentle trot, then walks her off the road and down the slope that can just hardly be called a hill. Jesse is thankful for the respite, as his body was barely getting used to the bumpy stride.

    The river is calm, flowing so gently one would think it a perfect opportunity for a little swim. Though when Jesse expresses the idea aloud, Pa snorts and shakes his head.

    "Water's too deep around this side," he says, "And it gets real violent during the rainy seasons, don't wanna get caught swimming in that."

    It didn't make much sense to Jesse. The river was so smooth flowing down into the east, probably connecting to a network of other bodies of water; gentle streams, a delta—maybe contributing to a quiet lake far off into the horizon.

    There's a smattering of small trees around the general area. One in particular has grown just along the bank. It is against the trunk of that tree that Perry leans, enjoying the shade of the tree's delicate leaves and stacking a bunch of pebbles into the vague shape of a pyramid at his side. He's being kept company by one of the farm's smaller horses, it's such a short thing; bay color, tied to the tree, head low, leg cocked. Seems like the only equine his brother could tolerate, a pony. They both look about as lethargic as a pair of well-fed lizards on a hot day.

    The mare comes to a stop a couple yards down the slope, just far enough for Perry's horse to flick its ears and raise its head to get a good look at the newcomers. When it finds no threat in them, it lowers his head once more, goes back to dozing.

   Soon enough, Pa is sliding off their horse and easing Jesse from the saddle. The bucket is still secure in Jesse's arms when his feet touch the ground, which earns him another round of hair ruffling.

    After Jesse's hair is somehow reorganized after its rough treatment, Pa pulls the mare's reins into a lead. "Go wake your brother, I'll be with both of you in a bit." He says, pulling the horse along to be tied beside Perry's.

   No need to wake anyone. Perry himself is wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at the sight—or sound— of his little brother ambling over. Perry stands to meet him. Jesse sets the bucket down beside the pile of pebbles and grins up at his brother.

    Upon turning 19, Perry's shoulders have filled out and he's grown a little into his lanky build. He's been letting his hair grow out passed his ears—which, like Caroline, he's got Mama's blonde, a hint of red tinting it to a subtle strawberry, but it's obvious Perry's mostly got Mama's genes in that regard. Pa's side is starting to show in his height and his lopsided yet handsome grin, which he gives Jesse in response to his own toothy smile.

    "I thought you were afraid of horses," Jesse remarks, causing that grin to morph into something arguably more strained— it's a smile that Perry always employed when he was uncomfortable.

    "Terrified," confirms Perry, the glance he casts over to the mare doesn't go unnoticed. He bends over to pick up the bucket when he sees Pa finishing up with her.

    "You boys ready to catch some big ones?"


 

    When the three of them unfold their rods and attach their bait, Jesse is optimistic about hooking something. If not a fifteen-pounder, then the equivalent of a bluegill or something like a shrimp at his least confident. He wasn't a big fisherman in his old life, but he was decent due to a tireless perfectionism when it came to the activity. When he realized he didn't have the patience to be skilled enough to make it a sport, he never touched a fishing pole again. Stuck to paperwork and driving trucks instead, things he could excel at. Now, with Pa and Perry, it was a good opportunity to oil off some of the rust.

   He skewers his bread onto the hook and casts his line with an efficiency brought upon him by some vague muscle memory. Pa eyes him closely when he does this without waiting for instruction from him.

    Oh. Right.

   Jesse was supposed to be a five-year old who hasn't properly gone fishing before.

    To Jesse's relief, Pa narrows his eyes at Perry, who's too busy casting his own line to notice the accusation in Pa's face. 

    Pa doesn't wish to talk about it now with Jesse's innocence within earshot, the boy assumes, as he drops it and focuses on the activity at hand.

    "So," Perry starts when all of them have a hook in the water, "Harry, how're those lessons with Mama, going?"

    Mama's lessons. The ones where he has to pretend he can't read or understand what's being read. Lessons where Jesse is given simple math problems that he can solve in his sleep, but in order to maintain the illusion that he *belongs* there, he asks Mama to demonstrate them over and over in order for him to understand.

    He honestly could just come out and read those sentences and add those numbers as effortlessly as he breathes, but part of him is silently terrified of the possible consequences. He's afraid of being carted off to some gifted school or institution. He's afraid of becoming a statistic. He's afraid of being forced to utilize the knowledge that's been passed over through the cosmos just for the sake of it.

    Jesse doesn't know why he thinks those things. Isn't sure if his family would actually do what his subconscious warns him of. They're good like that. While they have money and resources, they wouldn't force him to do anything, he's sure.

    But he's still scared.

    He shrugs at the question like he isn't having an ethical crisis. "They're okay."

    "Just okay?" Perry prods with a disbelieving furrow of his eyebrows. He casts a sidelong glance Jesse's way when the boy stays quiet.

    Pa chuckles, "Leave the boy alone. Child learned his letters faster than you, anyhow. You ain't got no room for teasin', Perry."

    "Says the man who didn't learn to read until he was full grown!" Perry shoots back.

    "The gift of having a patient teacher—"

    Jesse shrieks embarrassingly loud when the tip of his rod bends, the entire thing nearly shooting from his loose grip before he corrects his hold.

    But it isn't enough.

   He isn't sure whether to blame his weak little arms, or the overwhelming strength of the fish when the rod does slip from his fingers. For a moment, there's this heavy quiet settled over the three of them. The only sound is the flow of the river and the splashing of the fish that made off with Jesse's fishing rod. It would have been more dignifying to have just snapped the line, but no, right in front of the two he was trying to impress, a fish stole his rod.

   He stares, frozen, into the water; his mouth gaping, and his ears and cheeks running hot. Jesse is sure he's an undignified crimson, and his childish instincts are causing his eyes to sting—or maybe he is just that embarrassed. Rightly so, God knows if these rods were Toby's or Pa's. Either way, someone's gonna have to buy a new one.

    He doesn't dare look in Pa's direction.

    Perry collapses into a fit of wheezing laughter.


 

    "Don't feel too bad about it, Harry," Perry tries to console, but the words are insincere when paired with the fact that he was still splotched red from laughing so hard. "Happens to the best of us."

    Jesse doesn't answer him.

    Pa notices the upset in Jesse's shoulders as he peeks down at him. Sees the dangerously loose grip on the bucket, now heavy with tonight's dinner, that the mare's swaying will undoubtedly knock over.

    "The bucket, son."

    There's a slight jerk of the boy's shoulders at the sound of his voice. "Oh. Sorry."

    Jesse pulls the bucket against his front more confidently, then resumes his brooding.

    "Don't think too hard on it. We can buy a new pole. It ain't nothin' to make that face over."

    Jesse lifts his head, gives Pa a bug-eyed stare. "You couldn't see what face I was making."

    "Didn't have to," Pa says, "It's written all over that slouch o' yours. Yer Mama would be ashamed."

    The smile Pa's own words give himself drops slightly when Jesse doesn't react. It sends a little pang of guilt through Jesse, but he wasn't in the right mood for any proper contrition.

    Jesse drums his fingers against the bucket. "I wasn't thinking about the rod anyway."

    "What are you thinking about then?"

    "What to name the horse."

    Pa's confused silence welcomes Jesse to continue, which he does with an uncertain "Lametta." He thinks on it a moment, then remembers the tassles, but they aren't exactly tassles, are they?

    "Yeah, Lametta."

    "Lametta?" Perry chirps, incredulous, he gestures wildly to the mare. "That thing?"

    Jesse smiles at him, it curves too sharply to be anything but complacent. "Because 'Tinsel' is too obvious."

    He looks to the mare's head—Lametta's head. An ear is angled towards him, and he knows she's paying attention, that she knows exactly what they're talking about.

    "Where'd you learn that word?" Pa asks, Jesse's heart skips—he definitely messed up again.

    "Uh... Mama." He lies, "In one of her books, people drape lametta on a Christmas tree."

    "'Drape'." Pa parrots, his voice distant.

    Oops.

    "Baby brother's getting friendly with that dictionary, eh, Pa?"


 

    The tranquil road leads the three of them trotting back onto the farm. It's oddly vacant. Quiet. No one yells or approaches to welcome them back. Instead, they are greeted with the sight of a trail blood in the dirt. Droplets. From the front gate they drip to the porch, end at the last step. Then, a smear, like the source fell over in it's haste to get to the front door

    Pa and Perry practically throw themselves off their horses and race to the house. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

    Jesse is left atop Lametta to pother over the idea that his family has just been irreversably damaged, having been forgotten in Pa and Perry's terror of that exact notion.

    Lametta's ears pin and she snorts her discomfort. The potential danger has Jesse's breath shortening, panic clogs his ears and his eyes aren't able to stray from that smear by the door. Someone's hurt. With so much blood someone could be dying, or dead, or—

    If he could just slide off—

    No. Lametta is far too large to even think of trying to dismount on his own, so he chooses not to risk it to join his family. Part of him acknowledges that it would cause a bone to snap, or a concussion— none of them need an additional person to worry about.

    With the way Lametta senses his unease and begins to shuffle backwards as if gearing up to turn and run, his opinion quickly shifts to thinking it would be better to have broken a bone rather than to be stuck on top of a bolting horse.

    To Jesse's great relief, Mama shoots through the door, short of breath. She notices the horse and her disquiet, then proceeds to inch cautiously down the steps—hands out to placate the animal that will undoubtedly hurt Jesse if any of them make the wrong move.

   It's like his soul leaves his body when he sees the front of her shirt and hands are smeared with blood. Upon closer inspection, he realizes it isn't hers. He silently hopes that conclusion will stay that way.

    Jesse continues to dutifully hug the bucket as Mama calms Lametta. When the horse is still, Mama pulls his tiny body from the saddle and gets his feet back on the ground.

    "You okay, baby?" Mama gently grips his face and lifts a hand to stroke his cheek with her thumb, the action tracks some of the blood onto his neck and cheekbone. "You get home alright?"

   He resists the urge to reel back in disgust, "Yeah, the ride was fine." His eyes scan her from her neck to her waist, nose flaring at the strong coppery scent. "Whose blood is this?"

    Mama doesn't answer, she simply puts on a wooden smile, peeling the bucket from his arms.

    "How many of these fish did you catch?"

    "Mama—"

    The corners of her eyes crinkle as she attempts to make the smile more convincing, "Everything's okay. You want to come take a bath? I'll put this away for you and then I'll draw the water, alright?"

    "But—" Then it clicks into place.

    She's trying to distract him.

   In a moment of attentiveness, he observes that her eyes are dilated. That her forehead is wrinkled with agitation, even though she's trying her best to appear calm and in control. There's a split second of anger at her treating him like a baby where something was obviously wrong.

    But he remembers that his mother is a good one.

    He calms that nagging irritation that desperately wishes to rear its head, but that doesn't undermine his curiosity.

    "Why are you covered in blood?" He murmurs the question like any louder a tone would have her crumbling.

    But she doesn't. Mama takes his shoulder and spins him around to start up the steps. His eyes sink down to the smear again. "Come on, let's go inside and get the both of us cleaned."

   He lets her have her way until they get through the door. He scans the living room, and immediately notices Caroline on her hands and knees, scrubbing at the blood with a brush. The blood that continues to drip over towards the hallway.

    Mama tries to steel her grip on his shoulder but he manages to wriggle from her grasp before she can pin him and move him to her will. It's foolish, one of the few times this kind of impulsiveness is allowed to take hold of him. His innocence be damned.

    Caroline lifts her head, goes to stand, but Jesse is zooming passed her before she can get a word in.

   Mama shouts. Jesse vaguely registers the metallic thud of her dropping the bucket. He sees one of the bedroom doors open. Out steps Joseph, crisp and clean, unlike his Mama, but he was never truly worried about his safety. By the time Joseph understands what's going on, Jesse has already slipped passed and into the door. The sensation brushes knuckles with whiplash when Jesse's legs falter, then pause just before the bed.

    He pays no mind when he hears the harsh footsteps of his sister and mother crashing into Joseph in their haste to get to him. The sight of the figure sat on his parents' bed has his fingers and toes going numb.The only feeling left is a fervent buzzing under his skin. Electricity.

   The figure is a thin, swarthy guy, around 15 or 16, naked from the waist up, and one arm draped over Pa's shoulder, the other over Toby's. The former is carefully wrapping a bandage around the boy's middle. The boy is unconscious, the hanging of his head and overall limpness a dead giveaway. The conscious pair appear to be clean for some reason, if not a little sweaty. It's like Mama performed a surgery, and now they're just wrapping the wound.

    Did Mama stop working to come get him?

He can't help but ask, "What happened?" Which has Pa lifting his head. Despite his disposition today, he doesn't look surprised to see Jesse standing there.

   Pa shifts his eyes back to his hands and tightens the bandaging once he determines it's not snug enough— it's not like the injured guy can really clue him in on any discomfort though. "Get him outta here."

    On cue, both Mama and Caroline have a hold on him. Jesse allows them to drag him away.


 

    "Who was that?"

    Mama, now changed and washed of the blood on her skin, wets her hand in the sudsy tub to wash away the offensive smears on Jesse's face and neck.

    "A boy." She answers, face blank.

    "What happened to him?"

    "Nothing you need to worry about, baby."

    The water his warm, warm enough that Jesse wouldn't have needed Mama to wash away the grime. He could just sweat it away and be perfectly clean coming out. But Mama insists on washing him herself.

    The aggravation from earlier tickles at the back of his mind. Sizzles in his tailbone and crawls up into his spine.

    "I'm not stupid!" he snaps, the words he wants to say are yanked back and held firm where they should be, in the filter. That doesn't mean he isn't permitted to be annoyed. "Stop pretending it's okay, Mama. There was a lot of blood. I know what blood is. You got it on my face, which was disgusting, but you just kept on smiling at me like you weren't covered in it." Mama has the audacity to look surprised, she halts her attempts at cleaning his face when he wrenches his head away. "And that boy," he doesn't realize he's inching away until he flinches when her arm catches his shoulder. He stops himself, but doesn't relax.

    "In your bed. I saw the bandages, and the sheets, and the look on Pa's face when—"

    "Harry." Mama says in a tone that has Jesse's words cutting off into a hiccup. Her narrowed eyes, beady, full of disappointment, fill him with apprehension.

    "It's gonna be alright," She says, voice stern. She adjusts herself so she's leaning over the lip of the tub. It's easier to pull his stiff body closer that way so she can finish washing the blood off him.

    "The boy ain't dead, so you don't have to speak to me that way. I didn't raise you to snap at folks." Her voice is level now, casual, like there wasn't anything to worry about. There wasn't, Jesse supposes, in her eyes at least.

    Jesse opens his mouth to inquire further, but Mama gives him that look again. He shuts it with a click of his teeth.

    She goes on to say "Since you're so curious, you can fetch him some supper when he wakes. But don't go on asking him what happened. That kid's been through enough, it seems like."

   That is enough to mollify Jesse into silence. He allows Mama to finish washing him with only a little grumbling in defense of his dignity.


 

    The fish had been forgotten on the living room floor to be soiled by the soap and blood still decorating the floorboards. Mama and Pa fought briefly over it, but eventually came to the consensus of ditching the soiled fish and replacing them with something fresher. Dinner for the healthy lot is a giant slab of beef, vegetables, and a small pan of cornbread exclusively for Pa. You could call it Roast Beef—or Cow Ass, but to Jesse it was nothing but a giant hunk of beef topped off with a mixed assortment of veggies and a crumbly "dessert" that no one but Pa enjoyed. It wasn't like he qualified to be the local food critic or anything, it was just the simple fact that food was food, though some food wasn't worth his time.

    Before Jesse was allowed to eat, Mama was true to her intentions of having the boy serve their unexpected houseguest his own portions. For the injured, it was a light dinner: a thin stew that Mama put together from parts of their own food. She even cut out a piece of Pa's cornbread, much to the man's distress, but she takes his complaints with a grace only a patient wife could have.

    Or perhaps she's just a sadist.

    "A piece that big ain't gonna stay down for long. So why give it to 'im?" Pa grouses.

   Mama pins him with a low-lidded stare and a knowing smile when she hands Jesse the stew bowl. The slab of cornbread between her fingers is plopped into the stew deliberately, like she relishes in Pa's anguished groan. The display produces laughter from their other children, but Jesse is left feeling mildly disgusted, maybe even a little violated. It's lascivious, the way Mama' takes visible pleasure in having Pa glare at her the way he is.

    When Mama hands Jesse a spoon, he's quick to leave the room and carry out his duty, ignoring Pa's plea for him to return the square before it was too late.

   The injured boy has long been moved to the extra bedroom they reserved for storage—though much wasn't stored there except for a couple of paintings and knick knacks, and a bed for when guests actually did come. Before he helped replace the sheets on his parents' bed, Jesse watched as Pa and Toby carried the boy into his new room, so it wasn't hard to locate the door at the end of the hall, just before the washroom.

    He knocks, once. He receives no answer, which is his cue to either leave or insist. He chooses to insist, because their guest is most likely still unconscious, and he's not sure he's ready to go back to that situation at the dinner table.

   When Jesse pushes the door open, the last thing he expects to see is the boy, hurt as he was, to be haphazardly dressed in clothes that definitely weren't his, with his torso halfway out the window.

    Hearing the squeak of the door as Jesse pushes it fully open and steps inside, the boy begins to rush the process of throwing himself out the window. However, Jesse can easily guess that the bandaging was barely holding him together. Too quickly does the boy give up on escape, letting out a pained noise as he lowers himself back to the floor.

    "You done?" Jesse moves to the nightstand beside the bed, sets the bowl by the lamp and turns to look at the boy, whose bug-eyed gawp in the filtered darkness is almost comical.

   Tiny fingers move to switch on the lamp. The boy doesn't even twitch.

    The lamplight confirms Jesse's assumption of the boy being younger than 17. The smooth, dark face is stiff and alert, eyes never leaving Jesse as he approaches him. The shirt and coat pilfered from the wardrobe are moth-eaten, terribly worn and faded like they haven't been considered for a few decades.

    "I brought you food. My mama made it," Jesse holds a hand out, a consoling gesture, as he logically can't lift effectively enough to help him stand.

    Seconds pass where the boy just sits there and hyperventalates, but eventually he calms enough that he can sit up just slightly, the obvious agony in his abdomen is being thinly concealed with a foolishly brave face. He takes Jesse's hand.

    Jesse can't help but smile, "My name's Harry. Sorry to cut the introduction short, but it would be nice if you got back in bed. If you can't get up though," he notes the way the boy's eyes widen a fraction, "I can go get my Pa—"

    "No, no," there's a hiss where the boy struggles to use the meagre leverage Jesse offers to get himself on his knees. "I got it."

    "Doesn't look like you do." Jesse simpers, despite the threat of being pulled over to the floor with the boy, his smile holds its place, eager to be pleasant towards this person who is obviously scared to shit about where he is.

    Jesse helps him the best he can back to the bed once he gets on his feet. The wood frame complains when the boy falls heavy into it. It's painful, it seems, because teeth are clenched and there's a bit of blood seeping into the bandages. He'll tell Mama about that later.

    Jesse fetches the stew from the nightstand and offers it for the boy to take. Tentatively, the bowl is pulled from Jesse's fingers. The boy stares down at the food with a strange look on his face.

    "What's this?" The boy asks.

    "What's your name?" Jesse counters.

    He stands there patiently while the question registers. The avoidance is passed off as childish curiosity, so he isn't surprised when the boy doesn't protest or jeer at him for derailing. But the pause is a long one, like he's thinking too hard about something.

    Like he's trying to make something up.

    "My name is, uh... Leonard." The boy decides, as skittish and awkward as a newborn fawn. His tone sounds more defeated than final, which leaves Jesse to believe he's more than likely telling the truth.

   ... But why would he want to lie in the first place?

    "It's nice to meet you, Leonard," smile, stay pleasant, he doesn't want this poor deer to bolt.

    "I—" Leonard starts, peers at Jesse, nervous, like he's some anomaly, or some kind of danger that he can't quite place.

    "What is this?"

    "Dinner." Jesse presses, "Mama made it just for you."

    Leonard's eyes move back to the stew, linger on the now soggy slab of cornbread. He takes hold of the spoon lodged in the stew, lifts it to his face, but doesn't take a bite. He stares at it for a few moments. Long enough for Jesse to think this kid is unnaturally cautious. On one hand, if he finds it necessary to be, Leonard's probably been through more than Jesse initially thought.

    The revelation has Jesse offering an apprehensive, "Should I leave?" To which Leonard knits his eyebrows and casts his eyes over to him again. He nods, curt, but Jesse can't find it in him to be offended.

    "You're not going to try to run away again?"

    Leonard shakes his head.

    Jesse hums in acknowledgement, satisfied but not entirely believing. He regards Leonard for a couple seconds, watches as he finally lifts the spoon to his mouth, then turns to leave the room.

    When he goes to shut the door behind him, he hears Leonard call out to him with a soft, "Harry?"

    Jesse pushes the door open again, harboring a bit of anxiety of his own, "Yep?"

    Leonard is looking at him, no more caution or distrust. Maybe a little confusion, but there's a soft edge around his eyes that has Jesse's shoulders relaxing.

    Leonard shovels more of the stew into his mouth, and before he can finish cchewing, he says low, in a small voice, "Tell your mother that... that I said 'thank you'."

 

Chapter Text

   

    "I don't mind you calling me Lenny," he says to Perry one day, who's checking in on the boy's bandages under Mama's orders, but Lenny's looking at Jesse when the words come out of his mouth.

    "Alright, Lenny," Perry says, attracting the other boy's gaze. Perry pats him on the shoulder, reminds him to continue his streak of being careful, "Now that we know it ain't gonna get infected if you keep on, it'd be good to avoid doing whatever you did when it started bleeding again that first time."

    Lenny winces at that, but Perry is too focused on giving him another once over to notice Lenny's embarrassment.

    It's not like Perry could decipher the look on his face, since Jesse was the only one who knew what Lenny was up to anyway.

    "If you decide to stay by the time Pa considers you fit enough to work, you can help around—as a bit of... payment of sorts."

    "I didn't doubt there'd be conditions for keepin' me alive." Lenny doesn't hesitate, the words are let out tasting sour, a little unfair in Jesse's opinion. Perry notices the tone immediately.

    He pats Lenny's shoulder again, urgent to amend the unintentional offense, because Perry isn't the type to take the words of an angry young man to heart. "I guess I said that wrong. Don't think of it as a debt, cause it isn't much of one," that earns Perry a doubtful quirk of a brow, to which he sighs.

    "It ain't," he insists, "sorry for makin' it sound that way. I just mean that— it's fair to say that... the help would be appreciated. The situation lines up nicely, and what more of an incentive to help us?"

    It doesn't help none, but Lenny's silence speaks volumes. Jesse doesn't know him well enough to be sure, but he thinks that Lenny is more inclined to have said something to shut down that sad excuse of a save, rather than respond with quiet.

    A few more seconds pass where Perry is staring imploringly into Lenny's face, Lenny giving him a dubious look, then, Lenny nods, and Perry's shoulders sag. "Alright."

    Perry lets out a breath, his spine curling like a balloon being unceramoniously stabbed with a push pin.

    "Hurry up and heal then," Jesse's brother says, getting up from the chair set beside the bed and heading for the door. Both Jesse and Lenny watch him go, but then Perry remembers the presence of his little brother.

    "You coming with, Harry?"

    Jesse moves from the window and pulls himself into the chair, on his knees, facing the back end to look at Perry, no room for the older to argue when he says, "I was gonna stay and talk to Lenny."

    The determined look on his face is enough for Perry to acquiesce, it seems.

    "Well since you like him so much, you're fetching him the rest of his meals today." It isn't a question to him if Lenny even wants Jesse to stay. But Lenny doesn't object or anything, that's good enough.

    It takes Jesse groaning and reluctantly accepting the threat with a nod before Perry closes the door.

    Jesse waits for Perry's footsteps to fade out before he settles in the chair proper, "Like that's actually a chore." He mutters to himself.

    He looks up to find Lenny fixing him with that same skeptisim he was giving Perry. Right now, Lenny is propped up on a set of lovingly fluffed pillows, thin sheets covering the bandaging of his midsection, and he's still as lanky as he was the first time Jesse saw him, so the look isn't particularly effective.

    "How old are you?" Is the question Jesse was expecting the least but is prepared the most for.

    "Five," the truth, but not. Jesse is expecting an interrogation, he's got his own questions, too.

    "You don't talk like you're five."

    "Mama makes me read," the lie comes out easy enough, though it isn't much of a lie, since he wasn't a huge book guy. Mama's forced lessons ensured he was now, "... and since it's easy to get bored in this house, I like to read now."

    "How good can you read?" The eyebrow raises further, so much so that the other one starts to come up as well.

    "Mama has a lot of Jane Austen. She's even got that Clara Bell rendition of War and Peace."

    That's when Lenny lets both eyebrows rise. "No dragons and knights?"

    "Nope."

    "No princesses, or castles, or adventure?" To each one Jesse shakes his head. "So, just politics. And melodrama."

    "She's got Shakespeare, too."

    "Politics and melodrama." Lenny deadpans.


 

    Over the coming days, Lenny refuses to answer the questions of 'How did you get here,' and, 'Why were you bleeding all over the place?'

    It's exceedingly simple, why Lenny is hesitant to oblige Jesse, it's the one thing that holds him back in this life. Everyone around him cares too much about his age. At least, it's the easiest thing to blame it on.

    Mama knows what happened with Lenny, Jesse is about 98 percent sure, because she reproached Jesse once about sticking his nose where it didn't belong, chided him for prying for stories Lenny didn't wanna tell. It normally wasn't something someone did unless they knew about something they didn't want anyone else to know, more specifically, their children.

    Jesse wasn't the only one who had to have been curious. And Mama was there to bring Lenny into the house and patch him up. It was likely they got the information out of him before he passed out, simply to sate their own curiosity straight from the mouth of a boy delirious with pain.

    Don't even get him started on the fact that no one had sent for a doctor, either!

    She has to know, and so has Pa. He's on the fence with Perry and Caroline.

    There comes a point where, despite the stacking evidence that Lenny being dropped into their lives is just a touch suspicious, Jesse stops inquiring. It's fruitless, wastes energy on a pointless topic when Jesse could be enjoying the last few days Lenny is prescribed to lie in bed.

    The truth is, he likes Lenny. Lenny is patient, well-read, and has a certain taste for philosophy by guys Jesse didn't even know existed. That was his thing, philosophy. Idealist ideas Lenny firmly believed in with a passion, Jesse had never seen that in a teenage boy before.

    It's Tuesday, he remembers, and the sky is riddled with light, puffy clouds that occasionally block out the sun and leave the dirt a bit cooler. It's comfortable in Lenny's room with a sleepy zephyr drafting from the window, the boy himself is again propped up on his glut of pillows. A book, the title mattering little to Jesse, is held in Lenny's skinny fingers.

     Oh, and Caroline is there, too. In fact, she's the one who provided the book upon Lenny's request, since Little Women and Hamlet weren't much for his tastes.

    With the way she sits in the Visiting Chair, paying rapt attention as Lenny reads aloud the story of a zealous young man and his journey through the Civil War, Jesse thinks—from his place in Caroline's lap—that his sister could at the very least try to hide her fancy for Lenny if she wasn't gonna go for it. By now, the dreamy looks and the obvious but failing attempts at getting his attention were riding on Jesse's nerves.

    "It's dreadful, don't you think?" Caroline's voice seeps sardonically through Lenny's intense narration, and the boy pauses. Jesse notices the twitch of his fingers, a tell, but not sure of what.

     Lenny asks, "What is?" Which is a mistake, because Caroline, bless her heart, shoots off at the mouth at any sort prompting.

    "The boy," she says, all earnest like she's confused why he doesn't pick up on it, "Tragic how he just runs away from the fight, right? And it's funny, ain't it, that he had good reason to. But he goes back to fighting."

    Lenny squints at her. Curiously, Jesse looks up to see that his sister has resignation written on her face, and her mouth is pursed in that way when she's thinking really hard.

    Lenny opens his mouth to speak, but Caroline holds up her hand, curls her fingers and rolls her wrist like she's enunciating. His confusion shuts him up.

    "I read some of it," she continues, her wrist pauses, and she lowers her eyes to burn holes in hers and Jesse's legs, "He's cowardly. I couldn't find it in myself to like him at all."

    "So you was expecting some war hero right off the bat, were you?" The derision hidden in Lenny's tone is easy enough to pick up, considering the book is now being slammed shut and set aside. So much for patience.

    Caroline picks up on this. She too gears up for a verbal skirmish. "If he was to be the leading act of this story, then why ain't he?"

    "Because this isn't some fantastic retelling about any old war. And with all respect, I wouldn't think you could be someone who understands that sort of thing."

     "And what's that supposed to mean, Mr. Summers?"

    "The book is about the individual, one of the majority that the light don't get shone on in war stories. You can't tell me you read it and then say that you don't like it because the main character isn't some decorated hero of the North."

    "That ain't the issue," Caroline's voice is a little weaker when she says this. Lenny's snagged her, but she isn't done, it seems. "Why would he be so sure? Those he loved begged him to stay home, where it was safe from all that bloodshed. You could argue that he did it out of some sense of duty, or patriotism. How I see it, he was bored and restless. His head's all filled with the idea that he can't be killed. You should know those kinds of thoughts, Lenny; he's young, he'll come back from the war covered in medals all the way to the ends of his coattails if he shoots enough people, hauls a few fellows away from the line of fire. It lasts until he looks into the eyes of a dead man after fleeing from his duty. Then all that crumbles to the dirt. It's a sure sign that he had no proper intention of doing anything like servin' his country."

    It'd be easy for Lenny to say, 'But what about the rest of the book?' Or something about how the youth's conscience got the best of him; or the lessons he learns and the bond he develops with his fellow soldiers; that the main character's psyche was the focus of the story. It would be so easy to at least try and refute Caroline's argument. But there's something obviously holding Lenny's tongue. Perhaps the indignity of arguing with a brick wall. He's retracted his squint, but his eyebrows are still low in his forehead, and his mouth hangs open to retort. Nothing comes out of it.

    "You know what I think?" Jesse says, more to cut through the tension than anything, both Lenny and Caroline snap their attention to him.

    Caroline bounces him on her knee, barely holding on to her frustration, "What, darlin'?"

    "That's what makes it a nice book for some people," Jesse smiles when Lenny fixes him with a dubious glare, "Some people like the way it goes into detail about how the character feels about everything. Maybe some people can put themselves in his shoes, 'cus we all wouldn't be able to go to war, huh? I don't think I could go into a battle and watch a bunch of my friends, uh, you know, die." Jesse's voice takes a lower, more sullen pitch when he realizes what he's saying. It's nearly a whisper when he adds, "Yeah, I would run away from that." There's a feeling he knows all too well that settles heavy in his chest. When it fixes itself inside, it causes him to think terrible thoughts.

    He's just like the youth. 

    He ran away. From his life, from his problems.

    From his grief.

    He doesn't even have time to consider the nonplussed expressions the pair are aiming his way, because the flood of melancholy has Jesse sliding off Caroline's lap, where she flimsily tries to keep him there.

    "Harry? Where're you goin'?" Caroline softly calls as he makes his way to the door.

     He ignores her, leaving the bedroom with the full intention of returning to bed. No one jumps to stop him.

    The next time Jesse goes back to Lenny's room to listen to him read, Caroline is there again, and the pair of them are all toothy smiles and patronizing compassion, excited to share with Jesse a tale of a prince, a princess, and a family of dragons.


 

    Lenny decides to stay with them.

    The boy finds it in him to take up Perry's offer and help around the ranch for as long as he's planning on staying. Though, when the exchange Perry and Lenny shared that brought about this proposition is put in front of Pa, the cuff Perry recieves to the back of the head stays with him for the rest of the week.

    It turns out that Pa never planned on making Mr. Summers stick around longer than he wanted to. But Lenny is an effective hand when it comes to shoveling shit and feeding the animals. He takes to the horses like the animals do to walking. Put passed the plain old thoroughbreds, Lenny's interest is thoroughly reserved for Lametta, which Pa is proud to claim ownership over.

    "Found her on the road a while back. She's a fine animal," Pa boasts. "Smart, too. If she could talk, I'm sure it'd be a dangerous venture to air your dirty laundry while she's around."

    Lenny only laughs at that and runs a hand across her neck.


    Jesse finds himself seeking solace on the porch more often than not. On the mornings and afternoons he isn't helping Mama in the house or watching Toby milk the cows, he sits on the old rickety rocking chair, as cliche as it is, and he thinks—and sulks, and broods, until all that thinking and brooding is close to bringing him to tears.

    See, it's plain as day when you think about it. He had been fine ignoring everything that had happened—passed it all off as a distant memory in a time he no longer existed in. Yes, Nancy's death got a bit easier to deal with when he was unceramoniously dumped into the simplistic lifestyle of a rancher's child. There wasn't anyone else to pity him, to grieve with him. He took that as a bonus when instead he got a loving family who wanted nothing but to live and work in peace. They knew nothing about his past, nothing about his mistakes. While he doesn't see his life as an absolute failure, he'd rather not have it latched heavy onto his back for all eternity.

    But does that make him a coward? For ending his own life? For wanting to be rid of his troubles? He was coming on in age anyway by the time he decisively parked his truck over those train tracks, if grief didn't weaken his heart to the point where his body could succumb any sooner he was bound to—

    "Harry."

   Jesse doesn't need to look up to know it's Lenny. Within the past few weeks Jesse has only seen the boy a handful of times. He's always so busy helping out, taking Joseph's lip if he so much as spreads hay at the wrong angle with an enviable stride. He spends the days puttering about like a bee, insisting he shouldn't be paid because Jesse's family saved his life. Of course Pa pays him under the table anyway.

    Their reading sessions are practically nonexistent now, so Jesse is a bit surprised that Lenny managed to find the time to approach him.

    Right now, Jesse has abandoned the rocking chair in favor of sitting at the top of the porch steps, legs pulled up and held against his chest as he ponders the morality of his most exciting decisions as of late. He doesn't bother looking up at what is most certainly a stare of reproval.

    Lenny sighs through a long exhale and lifts his foot to rest at the bottom step. He leans forward and waves a hand in front of Jesse's face, the intent obvious, and his plan works. Jesse lifts his head simply to glare up at the older boy for bothering him.

    "What?" he spits. He's bitter, angry at himself, and he immediately regrets taking it out on Lenny, but Lenny doesn't seem too bothered by Jesse's temper.

    "It ain't healthy for you to be sitting out here looking all sad like that."

    "I'm okay." Jesse clenches his jaw, his fingers starting to dig into the rough denim around his legs with the restraint it takes not to pour his heart out. There's something about how open Lenny's face appears as he stares down at Jesse. Maybe it's how gentle and understanding his big, dark eyes are, like he knows the sadness Jesse feels. Yet, without knowing the context, with the risk of being labelled as an absolute crazy person or just a child whose head is brimming with fantasy, Jesse can't tell Lenny anything he wants to.

    "For a kid so smart, you're real bad at lying." Lenny's face remains concerned despite the potential for the words to be mocking.

    "You don't have to worry about me."

    There's a pause, one that Jesse deems suitable enough for him to go back to staring at the dirt. With Lenny in the way though, he settles on glaring at the boy's boot instead.

    "You're right," Lenny says after a beat, "I don't. But I'm gonna, if that's alright with you."

    The boot settles firm on the step, and before Jesse can protest, Lenny is lowering himself beside Jesse on the top step. They sit close together, in spite of the steps boasting more than enough width for them to have a few feet between them if necessary.

    "You're real cagey, you know that?" Lenny remarks. There's a smirk on his face that makes Jesse's left eyebrow twitch.

    "I haven't even said anything."

    "That proves my point, don't it?"

    Whatever Lenny's game is, he's failing, Jesse is sure of it because he still doesn't plan on opening up.

    "Well be like that, then. I just wanted to let you know that Caroline's worried that we both scared you after we argued over that book a while back. But it's not really about that, is it?"

    "No," Jesse admits, the guilt of continuously telling half truths has him curling further in on himself.

    "It's alright to be upset," Lenny murmurs. The words somehow ease a bit of the tension in Jesse's shoulders. That, on top of the lack of judgement he's receiving, is actually a relief.

    "Lemme just say one thing, alright? Then I'll leave you alone." Lenny waits for Jesse's nearly indiscernable nod, and suddenly there's the pressure of a hand gently set upon Jesse's shoulder. The touch is almost hesitant, it reminds Jesse of time when the roles were reversed. When Lenny was nothing but a young boy to him. Funnily enough, it wasn't that long ago either.

    "Whatever it is you're upset about," Lenny says with a gentle squeeze at Jesse's shoulder, "Well, it's behind you. And if it ain't, then it will be. You're alive, and you've got your family—" Lenny's voice drops into something strange when he utters the word 'family' but Jesse doesn't say anything about it. "Whatever happened before ain't gotta be your present, because you've gotta learn from your mistakes. Look at you, you're still little. Very little. You've got time to learn, and that means you'll be alright."

    Jesse takes those words and stores them somewhere safe.


 

    It's one of those days where you wake up and feel that wrongness that's just about as surreal as driving through a thick fog in the mountains. It's tangible to the point where it weighs heavy in Jesse's chest and sizzles down into his fingertips the second his brain registers wakefulness.

    For the past month or so, Mama has been going just about insane over her inability to keep track of things. Like the canned provisions, the cheese, even some of the kitchenware. The most worrying was a stack of twenties Pa was going to put into savings. Every morning has Jesse waking to the sound of pots clanging, drawers opening, and irritable stomping on the floorboards.

    "The beans. My beans—I can't—my goddamn beans..." He heard Mama saying that to herself one day like she'd genuinely lost her marbles. It was like she was perpetually on repeat, looping, like a broken record. Or an NPC who only had one line of glitchy dialogue.

    Honestly it was getting weirder than he was willing to give her credit for.

    Though, this morning, there was nothing but silence. Not a calm silence that indicates that a day full of serenity was ahead of him. That never happened in a household filled with as many people as this one. It was a silence brimming with a tension that only has him worrying. So the first thing he does after dressing himself is head over to Lenny's room.

    It's not as early as it would be for Jesse to expect Lenny to still be in bed. But something is telling him to go there, that this tension may in fact be sourced there specifically.

    He knocks, and there is no answer. So he lets himself in like he usually does. Only to find that the room is empty.

   But something is off.

   He can't quite put his finger on it.

   Not until the wardrobe groans suspiciously, and Jesse being Jesse obviously has to investigate.

    "Lenny?" he calls when there's a small bump that sounds from the doors. "Are you in the wardrobe?'

    There's a smack of lips from inside not long before one of the doors squeaks open. Just a sliver. Part of Lenny's face is revealed through the opening, looking particularly irritated at being interrupted in... whatever he's doing.

    "What are you doing in the wardro—"

    "I'm in trouble, Harry. Real big trouble, okay?" The words are like a slap in the face, and the wrongness in Jesse's chest blooms into full blown anxiety.

    "What kind of trouble?"

    "The kind of trouble where I can get killed—or go to prison." Is Lenny's hushed whisper. He shuts the wardrobe back so his urgency is muffled. "There are some men outside," he says. The anxiety sprouts thorns, "If they know I'm here, I'm as good as dead, you hear me? I know you're smart enough to understand that."

    Jesse nods even though Lenny can't see it. "Yeah. I understand just fine." And if his sqeaking tone is obvious to both of them, neither find the heart to say anything.

    Jesse leaves the room after that, and goes straight for the front door. It wasn't just quiet, the house was completely void of people besides Lenny and himself. The closer he gets to the door the more he can hear the confrontation going on outside.

    He pulls the door open and pokes his little head out.

    The heated overlap of Mama and Pa's voices cease when they hear the creaking of the door, and multiple pairs of eyes shift over to Jesse's innocent face peering from the gap.

    There are three finely dressed men stacked evenly on the porch steps. Mama, Pa, Perry, and Caroline are all gathered closer towards the front door, huddled like the brave soldiers they are against these grinning goliaths with their pompous authority and greased facial hair. The three men are armed to the teeth, and the one who appears to be leading them is giving off a strange vibe.

    Jesse has seen his fair share of vermin in his 61 years of existence. He doesn't look much like a cottonmouth or a cobra, but when Jesse first sees this guy, he can't help but think...

    Snake.

    He opens the door the rest of the way and that's when he notices Mama gesturing for him to take her hand and tuck away in the cover behind her skirt. He does so, accidentally piquing the interest of the three reptiles.

    The leader's overlarge moustache twitches. One of his hands rests idly on his gunbelt as he kneels down to Jesse's height. Out of the corner of his eye, Jesse notices Perry take a step closer to him, tensed and poised to pounce at any sign of his little brother potentially getting hurt.

    Then comes the greasy man's smile, patronizing, because Jesse already knows that the flash of yellowed teeth is nothing but a guise to try and get the child more comfortable. Which, so far, isn't working in the slightest.

    "Hey, young man," Jesse has to hand it to Hognose, he was trying wasn't he? "Can you answer me somethin'? I'm sure yer momma don't mind you helpin' an officer of the law catch the bad men, right?'

   Mama squeezes his hand in warning. Don't say anything is what he gleans from her insistent touch.

    He could try and listen to her, he really could. And he does, really, but then Pa is inching closer, and Pa isn't sound of mind when he sneers at Hognose.

    "You ain't gotta go interrogatin' young boys—"

    "—Excuse me, Mr. Bailey." Jesse flinches when Hognose's voice goes from coaxing to booming in only a matter of seconds, but that irritating upturn of his moustache remains the same. "We all know that the most honest among us are drunks and children. If you ain't got nothing to hide, then let me speak to the boy, if you please!"

    Unlucky for Hognose, Jesse's been sober for five years.

   The two men behind Hognose already have their longarms at the ready, but that doesn't scare Pa into submitting completely to the man's will. Pa doesn't break eye contact as he spits an offensive glob dangerously close to Hognose's boots.

    The snake, in all his smug glory, simply breaks out into a grin, and turns back to Jesse.

    "So, how 'bout it, young man? Will you help?"

    "I'll try," Jesse answers, trying to sound small and just a tad nervous—you know, selling it and all that.

   Mama squeezes his hand again. Jesse ignores it.

    "So," Hognose begins, standing, "And you tell me the truth now. Have you seen a black feller, a little shorter than me, real skinny like? About his age?" Hognose makes a vague gesture towards Perry.

    Jesse shakes his head, slow, like he's confused. Which he is, why would lawmen be looking for Lenny?

    "Are you sure, boy?" The façade disappears when Jesse shakes his head again.

    "I've never seen anyone like that, Mister." Jesse insists, mildly amused at the twitching moustache and the indignant outrage plain on his face.

   His family visibly relaxes. Ha! As if he'd sell them out like that. Jesse is almost offended by their lack of faith.

    For a moment longer, Hognose stands there, flushing redder and wrinklier with each passing second. But then, like the flip of a switch, his features smooth over. He reaches into his coat for something, and pulls out a thick billfold. From it he slides a dollar, and hands it over to Jesse.

    "Thank you for your time, son."

    "Get off our property, Mr. Davidson." Mama growls after Jesse snatches the money.

     "I'm only doing my job, ma'am. That boy is a goddamn murderer—"

     "You heard my mama," Caroline steps forward and shoves Hognose by the arm, "Go harass some other folks! Get on. Now!"

   Hognose throws his hands up in surrender, then gestures for his men to fall back. They all descend the steps, mount their horses, and leave the farm without another word.

    It's then that Jesse notices Lametta in the paddock, idly watching them go. Then she turns her attention to the sagging family on the porch. Her gaze seems to be fixed on Jesse in that uncanny way she likes to stare.

    Jesse acknowledges the dollar in his hand. It feels just as oily as Hognose looked, and it makes his nose wrinkle. It's an unwelcome memento that he just about regrets accepting. So, without a second thought, he rips the bill into a hundred tiny pieces.

    "That's my boy." Pa praises, scooping his youngest son into his arms and allowing his wife to herd him and their other children into the house. 

Chapter Text

    It's sometime in the night, after everyone should've gone to bed, that, through his foggy bedroom window, Jesse sees the flash of a patterned skirt, and the paleness of his sister's arms desperately curled around Lenny's broader frame.

    Jesse wouldn't have been worried if Lenny wasn't dressed like he was ready for a cross-country leap. Like Caroline's embrace wasn't just some bittersweet farewell. The saddled horse was an additional red flag. It wasn't common for Lenny to go on and partake in any nighttime rides as far as Jesse knew. So he doesn't stop himself from feeling that classic ache in his chest. He can't lie to himself, Lenny is a guy who's on the run. And Jesse knows that if Lenny stays any longer, Sheriff Davidson won't be kind to any of them when he finally decides to raid their home in search for the criminal they were obviously harboring. A fact which leaves room for a promotion from Hognose to Rattler.

    Jesse leaves his room to maybe catch Lenny before he takes off. But when his feet carry him out the back door, Caroline is already sobbing in the wake of Lenny's retreating back, as he trots out of their little home forever.


 

    Months go by until a new year begins. Whatever Caroline had gotten up to with Lenny obviously affects her even to the very moment Joseph finds it in him to court her through her fancy. As a result of Caroline's heartbreak, she rejects him. Over and over. Until Perry discovers Joseph pilfering provisions from the cellar and Pa's stash of liquor. Not only has Joseph been taking their money, but he's also responsible for the consistent disappearances of Mama's favorite brand of beans.

    Jesse is glad to see him go. Joseph's parting gift is a few satisfying choice words from both Pa and Tobias as he's chased off the property. It's like a breath of fresh air when the man doesn't clock in for work the next morning.

    Another few months go by. To pick up the slack left by the absence of Joseph, Caroline throws on a pair of trousers and boots one size too big for her and starts helping Pa, Tobias, and Perry with the outside work. It seems like things get done faster around the place now that Caroline has something to take a load off, though Jesse would argue that burying yourself in work never really solves the problem. It's like popping a painkiller to take your mind off your broken leg. Eventually, the ache is gonna come back, and you can take as many pills as you want, but the pain is gonna stick with you.

    Another year. Lametta proves to be a gentle giant when it comes to Jesse. Perry is still too scared to care for her himself. After all, she's the biggest horse they have. The beefiest, too. So it's a surprise that the mare takes to Jesse like she would her own foal.

    She doesn't bother with any of the other horses. You'd think a herd animal would throb for the chance to be with others of their own kind. However, she ignores her fellow equines, Jesse is all she seems to need. He feeds her by hand, cleans her tack as a little chore from Pa; and, once he aquires a tall enough stool, Jesse brushes her—of course, all under the supervision of whoever happens to be around at the time. At some point he wonders if one day he'll be able to ride her.




    No one had been holding their breath, though at some point, the Baileys receive a letter from one who marked themselves as L.

    It isn't hard to figure who it is. There isn't much of recognizing the handwriting or anything, Lenny didn't write much during his time on their farm. It's more like Lenny writes exactly how he talks, if not a bit more refined from having his words move through the filter of his mind.

    They're all happy to hear from him. The letter profusely thanks them for their hospitatlity. It details how he's moved all across the Midwest. How he'd come close to a couple of arrests, scraped with death, and how he's currently living rough somewhere he doesn't wish to disclose, in case the letter never made it to them. He asks them not to write him back, for he may not be in the same place for more than a week or so. He wishes them a fruitful, happy life, and closes the letter with a post script about sneaking Lametta a few extra carrots for him.

    Mama has Jesse read the letter aloud more times than necessary to practice his reading. By now he knows the words by heart, he can hear them in Lenny's voice when he focuses hard enough. Sometimes he plays the voice in his head when he starts to miss the engaging way Lenny read to him all that time ago.

    It's entering 1899 by the time they receive another letter. After a dry spell and the only communication they received being that first letter, a Tacitus Kilgore is writing to them in a more skilled hand and diction, but it's Lenny nonetheless.

   To my friends,

    It's been a while. It's been a terribly long time since I have seen the lot of you. To this day I still thank whoever doused me with the luck I had to find all of you. Or was it the other way around? Either way, you saved my life all those years ago. Without you all I wouldn't be in the fine hands of another family I just so happened to stumble upon in my travels. With them, I feel safer than I have in a long time. They're a group of ne'er-do-wells just like me, and I mean that in the friendliest way possible. They have big hearts, some of them, others I'd call drunks and layabouts, but most of us do our share for the group, and it's a good chance to prove myself useful to someone once again. It's nice, finally being with people again, knowing that even though I've got lawmen after me, the group will always be there for me to fall back on.

    Anyhow, I'm writing this to let all of you know that I'm doing well. It's been a long time, as I've said, and I did not want good old Caroline worrying too much about me anymore than she needs to. I miss her. I miss all of you, naturally. I'll never forget what you did for me in the wake of that slimy sheriff that came knocking. You could have just turned me in, you didn't have to bother or continue to bother with the likes of me. But I'm grateful you did. I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for your bravery, and your prowess with lying in the face of that many gunbarrels being pointed at you.

    Yours, Tacitus Kilgore

    A few days later after the letter is tucked away and nearly forgotten about, Jesse is out in the stables scratching at Lametta's offered nose when he sees a figure out in the distance.

    They're on horseback, and they're so far way Jesse unfortunately can't make out who it is.

    What's odd is that the figure doesn't do anything, just sits there on their horse... Staring, watching, waiting perhaps. For a second Jesse thinks that he's made eye contact with the stranger, he isn't sure, it's hard to tell. The waning afternoon casts an eerie glow around the stranger's sillouhette, and the fact that this person may or may not be there to confront or harm his family should have him running back into the house screaming warnings to Pa about the stranger. The thought that his presence though— his insistent staring—is keeping the figure in place holds Jesse's feet there.

    Eventually, after about an eon, the stranger does turn and trot off back to wherever they came from. Jesse isn't sure how to feel about that. Nothing good of course, so he parts with Pa's beloved horse and makes his way to the house.

    Pa is draped lazily in his armchair. When Jesse tells him about the figure watching the farm, the man holds him down with a a shocked sort of stare before he shoots up from his seat and makes a beeline for the front door without a single word. Jesse follows, and stares after Pa as he stands at the porch a moment, looking all around, then off into the distance, the vague direction in which Jesse had seen the stranger. Then Pa stomps back into the house, brushing off a concerned Mama as she exits the kitchen.

    "Darling?"

    Jesse watches as he goes to their bedroom, and swaggers back into the living room with a rifle cradled in both hands.

    "Harvey—" Mama tries again, her voice lilting with concern, she steps in front of Pa even as he makes to go back outside. She lays a fingertip on the gun and Pa wrenches it back like she was trying to snatch his firstborn.

    "The boy said he saw someone." Pa slips back out to the porch, leaving his explanation to stew in the living room. Mama's eyes find Jesse's own confused pair, hers gradually get wider and wider with realization before she storms after Pa in a terrified stupor. Jesse follows.

    "Saw who?" She questions, gripping at her husband's shoulder insistently.

    "Don't know." he attempts to shake her hand off but it isn't any use. "No one just comes to stare at the property! Can't be nothin' good I don't think."

    "Could be Davidson again." Provides Mama.

    "Now that's talking nonsense! Lenny's long gone from here. What more business would that bastard have with us?"

    It's silent between them for a moment, then Mama whispers something into Pa's ear that has his breath hitching. It makes him grip the gun tighter, gaze more intently in the offending distance. Like his sheer willpower alone qwill be enough to bring the stranger back so he could shoot them right in the face.

    "That's not gonna happen," Jesse hears Pa say, but his wavering conviction isn't quite convincing. "I'm gonna stay out here all night if I have to."

    Mama doesn't say anymore. Resigned to her husband's hard head, she just gathers her skirt when Pa resolutely stays put and guides Jesse back into the house to get them both ready for bed.


 

    Surprisingly, Jesse falls asleep quickly despite Pa's fussing. Mama makes Jesse sleep in hers and Pa's bed with her. He isn't sure why, perhaps just to have some company. Or, a more likely reason, to keep her son close in case something terrible does happen.

    And happen it does.

    Jesse wakes to the smell of smoke and the disruption of his stillness when someone yanks him from the bed and over their shoulder.

    In his half asleep state, he's aware that his cheek is pressed against the shoulder strap of Mama's nightgown. He knows this because he remembers snuggling up to her sometime in the night, and his nose was pressed in that exact spot.

    He lifts a hand to wipe away the bleariness, raising his head. What he notices the very second his eyes come into focus is that the living room is on fire as Mama carries him out the front door and into the cool night air that is ten times more refreshing than the house— which is apparently laden with smoke.

    On that note. Why is the living room on fire?

    He gets his answer in the form of the sound of a bottle being smashed, and now the side of the house is gradually being swallowed by flames. He cranes his neck, spots a man stuffing a rag in another bottle and his blood chills.

    Mama hollers, her arms squeezing Jesse like a lifeline. "What the hell do you all think you're doing!?"

    Jesse turns back to the house, and it's like the air refuses to enter his lungs because suddenly he can't breathe properly. He wonders if he and Mama are the only ones who made it outside.

    "Makin' an example outta all'a you!" The man shouts back, and since Mama is just standing there, he tosses the bottle and it smashes dead center into the porch. It's consumed within the inferno in seconds. Jesse can't look away.

    His home. His new home is going to be destroyed.

    "Stop this madness, you bastard!"

    "What are you gonna do, woman? The house 's already comin' down!"

    As if on cue, a section of roof crumbles. The flames persist in their bright, taunting dance. It's only a matter of time before the entire structure collapses in on itself.

    The man whoops in victory. What he is victorious of, Jesse is completely clueless.

    Jesse is jerked from his trance by Mama turning, getting her own view of the damage, and falling to her knees with Jesse still in her arms. It doesn't take long for her to be wracked with sobs. Her grip turns crushing, and now Jesse truly can't breathe.

    It's like a blur. He isn't allowed to process any of this before another strange man joins the fray. The pair exchange words, then hands are grabbing at Jesse's arms and Mama's hair, all too quickly is he wrenched from her vice grip. Panic stills Jesse into a malleable dough, the fear of getting rough with these men leading towards death is too much of a risk for him to take. This doesn't concern Mama, however. She starts to scream as Jesse is dragged into another's arms. The sound is piercing, her cries make Jesse's eyes sting with silent tears and his heart with an overwhelming dread. He watches as she fights the man holding her back. She claws, roars and kicks to get to her boy. She almost succeeds. But she is no match for the rough end of a revolver to the back of her head.

    She goes limp and collapses into the dirt. That's what triggers Jesse's fight response. He thrashes, but the man's thick arms don't budge. So he resorts to using his teeth when a wrist gets close enough to his face. He makes sure to draw blood.

    The man lets out a cry and a "You little shit!" And suddenly Jesse's world is tipped sideways.

    He hits the ground with a thud. Something rams into his stomach. With the wind knocked out of him, Jesse's consciousness is narrowed down to trying to catch his breath and not vomit all over himself.

    But it doesn't stop there. He shouts as his scalp is seized with a wide, sharp sting as his hair is grabbed. The hands that were attempting to rub the pain away in his gut shoot up to the arm connected to that damned hand in his hair.

    "I'll guide you this way then. How's that?" Taunts his assailant. Jesse grunts in response, hisses as he's carelessly towed across the dirt. At least the guy keeps his promises.

    "Go to hell!" Jesse spits. He thrashes some more despite the pain. His insubordinance earns him a rough yank. Strands pop loose and he can swear that his scalp is bleeding.

    He lobs more curses the man's way. His bare feet are raw and irritated what with him being dragged, the kicking of his legs isn't helping either.

    Without warning, he's tossed forward. Jesse raises his head to see that the man had taken him over to the chicken coop, which is the furthest from the house and ultimately, the fire. That doesn't stop the orange glow from reaching them, it all but envelopes the man that appears to be leading this whole shindig. He doesn't look any worse or any better than any of the other men surrounding them, he's simply dressed in a pair of worn pants, a faded shirt, and a well used duster. It's the way that he stands tall and collected, how all his subordinates gather around, impatient, waiting for orders it seems.

    By his side is Pa. He has a handful of Pa's ponytail bunched up in a tight fist, it's the closest to scruff he's gonna get, as Pa isn't the flabbiest of guys. Though for some reason the fingers pulling taut at his hair is enough to reel in the beast. Jesse sees his father's eyes widen in horror when Mama is dropped like a sack right next to Jesse. She's still unconscious, a red smear decorating her forehead and seeping into her blonde hair.

    "Mama!" Jesse doesn't notice Caroline until she's shouting and floundering in the arms of one of these highwaymen.

    The leader tugs at Pa's hair, wrenching his head back to look him on the eye.

    "Where's the other one?" He growls. When Pa doesn't answer, the man gestures to Jesse. Without a second to spare, cool metal is pressed firm against Jesse's temple. It doesn't take a genius to know that someone is definitely gonna die tonight. For it to be him again, Jesse's blood freezes, his heart rate pounds in his ears.

    He shoots a desperate look up at his father. But there's nothing Pa can do for him. There's nothing any of them can do. But Perry...

    He prays to whatever's up there that Perry stays hidden.

    "There's no one else, I'm telling you—!" Pa's ponytail is released, and in place he is given a fist.

    "Don't lie to me, you sad sack of shit!" The man spits at Pa's boots and throws another punch, this time at Pa's gut. Jesse's father doubles over in a breathless heap. "My employer said five. And we're gonna get five, aren't we boys?"

    Three of the seedy underlings leave as if that were a direct order. To tell the truth, Jesse isn't even sure if Perry was still on the property. He hasn't seen him at all since after dinner.

    Caroline doubles her efforts in flailing and screaming. However, the next house is miles from theirs, the town even further. No one is coming to their rescue. Their attackers know that. But still, the man restraining her barks at her to shut her mouth and cuffs her square on the side of the head. Her shouts turn into sobs.

    "You son of a bitch!" Pa cries as he gets is feet back under him, "You're all gonna suffer dearly for this!"

    "Maybe some day, Mr.Bailey," the leader croons, "But tonight I'm lookin' to get paid for destroying the livelihood of a lying, cheating family of degenerates such as yerselves."

    "We ain't... We ain't done nothing wrong." Grunts Pa. The leader's face scrunches up in disgust.

    "The lying never stops. Does it, Mr. Bailey?"

    Before Pa can spit anything back at the bastard, a shot rings out, and a bullet lodges itself into the man holding Jesse at gunpoint.

    It's absolute chaos from there.

    Pa takes this distraction as his chance to tackle the leader to the ground. The shock of the situation has the man holding Caroline fumbling for his gun. Consequently, it leaves her able to elbow him straight in the solar plexus and send him down for the count.

    When the leader is beaten to a pulp, and the rest are either dead or scattered to the wind, Caroline makes her way over to Jesse and promptly wraps her body around him.

    "Are you okay? They hurt you?" She asks, already checking for wounds around his face and torso.

    "I'm okay," Jesse huffs out, he pushes Caroline away and wobbles over to Mama, prostrate and still. Oh so still.

    "Dear God..." He hears Caroline mutter as she too stumbles over.

    Jesse checks her pulse. There's heartbeat, but her head is bleeding sluggishly and that isn't much of a good sign now is it?

    Pa joins them at Mama's side. He shares a morose look with both of his children before he scoops her up in his arms and holds her to his chest. Jesse allows himself a moment to wonder what exactly his family had done to deserve this. He looks back over at the house—it's still burning. The barn, too.

    "You both need to get outta here, alright?" Pa's broken voice has Jesse tearing his eyes away from the falling structures. "Some of these bastards are still skulkin' around."

    "What about you?" Caroline protests, already standing and pulling Jesse along with her. "And where's Perry?"

    "Who do you think was shootin'?" Pa snorts. Jesse has the sneaking suspicion he knew where Perry was all along. Well, it's somewhat of a relief to know that Jesse's brother isn't too afraid of guns as much as he is of horses.

    Caroline lets out a relieved chuckle.

    "Go on now, sweetheart," Pa urges, "Your big brother's got you covered."

    Nodding, Caroline hoists Jesse up into her arms. His scratched up calves and feet don't mind the manhandling too much.

    There's the deafening bang of another gunshot. But this time the sound is closer.

    As Caroline makes to run for the far edge of the property, Jesse sees it all: The leader of this misguided and ruinous bunch pulls his gun from its holster and aims it directly at Pa's back. Jesse doesn't realize he shrieks when the bullet pushes through Pa, causing him to unceramoniously drop Mama back onto the dirt.

    Caroline spins around. Bellows out "Daddy!" in this cracking tone that breaks Jesse's heart. She pushes Jesse's head down into the juncture of her neck, a transparent shield but at least she's trying.

    "Go on now!" He hears Pa howl. The leader shoots again. The crack that pierces through the air. The resulting cry of agony as Pa is hit again. Jesse forces his head up when Caroline breaks into a sprint in the opposite direction. His tunnel vision is too narrow, his ears too clogged to hear it when Perry fires from his unknown perch, and ends the assault with a hole in that fucker's head. Even though the leader is now dead, Pa is still shot. He's collapsed over Mama's unconscious body.

    Oh Mama...

    She probably has a concussion, and that's just wishful thinking.

    The house is collapsing in a blaze of fire.

    The life he has become accustomed to is gone now. He and Caroline are fleeing from the wreckage of it.

    He barely acknowledges Caroline setting him atop something. His feet come in contact with a silken coat, he looks. A horse. Grey and black. Oh.

    Lametta.

    The mare has lowered herself to the ground to accommodate her shorter counterparts. Caroline easily gets a leg over before the Hulk of a horse hurries back to her hooves, sensing their urgency.

    They're outside the stables. Jesse has no idea where Lametta came from, why she was still here in the wake of all this fire and violence and guns. Regardless, he's thankful beyond words.

    His heart is heavy when Caroline urges Lametta forward. He doesn't wish to leave both his parents and Perry to the mercy of whatever awaited them here. But that's the thing. He can't do anything. He is physically unable to.

    He's tiny, he's weak.

    He's nothing but a—

    Caroline yelps from behind him as she falls from Lametta's back.

    No. She doesn't fall. She's pulled down by the slimy hands of one of those stray hounds the boss man had sent off. Jesse reaches for her, she for him, but to no avail. His sister hits the ground with a painful thud.

    "C'mere you little bitch—"

    "—NO! HARRY, NO!"

    "Shut your mouth!" The man gets an arm around her neck. Caroline flounders and thrashes with all she has.

    Once again Jesse finds himself helpless to Lametta's immense height. He may have grown over the past three years but it isn't enough for him to be helpful in this situation. He'll simply end up breaking something in his effort.

    Lametta lifts her front hooves off the ground, stomps and neighs her agitation. It's now time to admit to himself that Jesse is absolutely terrified. Especially when he makes eye contact with Caroline. She continues to fight and scream through clenched teeth. But then her face fills with realization. Her eyes gloss over with resignation. Jesse bellows his opposition because he knows exactly what she's thinking.

    She clamps her teeth down on the assailant's arm as it inches a little to close to her chin. Somehow her intention falls through and he releases her with a howl.

    She doesn't hesitate to rush over. It's a long shot, but it has to work.

    "Please don't, Caroline." Jesse begs, his eyes wide with desperation.

    Caroline however, is completely calm. "I have to. I gotta keep you safe."

    Already the man has recovered, and now he's pulled out a pistol. So Jesse doesn't blame Caroline when she smacks Lametta's backside. All he can do is grab two fistfuls of mane and press himself as low against her as possible when she neighs high and breaks off into a gallop.

    The last gunshot of the night, in spite of the distance, rings through Jesse's ears. His heart aches as he presses his face into Lametta's neck. The blood and fire are behind him now, and he should be thankful. But he isn't, because now his family is gone, too.

    Lametta carries him all the way to a river he vaguely remembers. A river he hasn't been to in a while as Pa got increasingly busier trying to come up with any sort of turnout from the farm. By now it is rushing hard and aggressive against the bank. Lametta doesn't expect it to be so deep when she begins to run through. The abruptness at which she stops in the midst of this water sends Jesse flying from her back and into the raging current.

    His world tips and spins and turns into a burning cold when he submerges.

    Then his head collides with something hard.

    Everything goes black.