Charlie pulled onto the pavement from the gravel road. She had to swing wide to avoid a large group of children who were walking on the shoulder. They waved at her, and she waved back. Her world was so absent of children. As it should be. It was a hard ass adult world. But a world without children was missing something.
The drive home took more than an hour and Charlie was thankful for it. She was in no hurry to step back into the mess she had left back at Jacob’s. It was edging up on noon when she walked into the house. It looked empty and Jacob’s truck was gone, but she could hear the faint melancholy sound of an acoustic guitar from behind his door. She took a beer from the fridge and downed it quickly, then tapped lightly on his door. No answer. She could imagine him in there, self-medicated out of his mind, the tape recorder running, capturing hour after hour of his sad music. When the tape ran out, it would be carefully catalogued and placed in its proper place on a floor to ceiling shelf, for no audience to ever hear again. Then if he wasn’t ready to come out yet, he’d pop in a fresh tape and fill it with the sound of ghosts, too. The quiet cataloguing moments were tense for Charlie, the not knowing if the tape had run out or he’d finally taken too many diazepam. But, for now at least, there was music, so she slipped her boots on again and went to take care of the chores.
The hens had no water and they were out of feed. The eggs hadn’t been collected in a couple of days. God forbid that Stella pitch in, or that Jacob thought of anything like the animals when she came to visit. It was just one more thing that irked her about Stella. Spoiled bitch probably never did a day’s hard work in her life. Born with a silver spoon.
She saw that the pack horses had been moved to the upper corral, but hadn’t yet been shod, and she made a mental note to have Bonney done when Jacob got around to it. There were a few thistles poking out between the carrots in the garden, but Charlie couldn’t care less. It could wait another day.
She didn’t bother to shower when she finished up the chores, because she wasn’t ready to let go of the smoky smell of the bonfire and the way it mixed with Riley’s scent. Each inhalation sustained a moment that had long since passed. She flopped on her mattress and felt the ground beneath the bed shift and sway. She closed her eyes and replayed the night in her head over and over again, feeling the butterflies rising once more. Patches were sketchy and missing. But that song and the way Riley had looked at her as he sang along. She wished it was something tangible that she could hold in her hand. Outside, a loose board banged out a rhythm against a fence post, and the wind whistled through the window sill. Laying there with her eyes closed she could hear the music in it now.
After a long time, she realized that the distant guitar had long since faded. Her heart held its beat. She sat up on the edge of her bed and strained her ears for any hint of sound. What if this was it? She put her head in her hands and tried to summon the courage to go back to his room. And then she heard a creak in the floor. Her bedroom door opened and Jacob peeked his head around it.
“You OK?” he asked her.
“Fine,” she said.
“Stella back yet?”
Relief turned to anger. “Nope.” She stared at the red numbers on her alarm clock.
Jacob shook his head, as if it would clear his mind, and bit down on his thumbnail. “We should probably talk, I guess. I mean about the other night”
Her eyes bored into the alarm clock until the numbers went fuzzy and blurred together. “No. It’s fine.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. Look, everything’s complicated. I’m an old man. And you have a whole life ahead of you. I can’t give you any of the things you need. I want you to stay here, but you and I… well, that just can’t go anywhere.”
If she hadn’t been numb with beer and exhausted from a night of hard drinking, she might have fallen apart. Then again, she had Riley now and maybe Jacob was just plain full of himself to think that he meant anything to her.
“Gypsy, can you look at me?”
“So I know you’re OK.”
“Are you sure?”
“It was nothing. A mistake.
He turned from her and his footsteps disappeared down the hall and into the porch. The front door closed behind him.
“And, my fuckin name is Charlie!” she screamed, ripping the clock from the wall and throwing it across the room.
Every time she came to this bar or any one like it for that matter, she seemed to meet exactly this type of asshole. Charlie took a sip of her Crown. Yup, carbon copy of the last bozo: on the down side of middle age, cocky as fuck, higher than a kite on who knew what, and full of shit.
“Yeah schnookums, I rode in the PBR for a few years. Missed the finals by one ride. Bull didn’t buck for nothing. Should’ve been a reride.”
Was this guy for real? He’d never been on a bull in his life, and definitely not in the Professional Bull Rider’s Association. She rolled her eyes and scanned the crowd for a familiar face.
“Hey, aren’t you that peeler?” the guy asked sniffing and wiping his nose.
“Um, yeah,” she smiled like she was looking at a dead mouse going down a toilet bowl. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t just tell him to fuck right off. Maybe she’d bit a tolerance to entitled assholes. Maybe she knew if she did he’d create a scene and then the whole bar would have to know a stripper was in their presence. But probably she just forgot how to leave work at work and forgot too often when she wasn’t being paid to be nice.
“Wanna come out to my truck for a bump?” He patted his hip pocket.
“No thanks. I don’t do coke.”
“I got some killer weed.”
“I don’t smoke weed.”
“Yeah, whatever. I never met a peeler who didn’t indulge in something. What’s your game? Meth? Huh?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m a redneck.”
“Yeah, so am I, but-” He sniffed again then reached out and pushed her hat back off of her forehead.
Charlie’d had enough. She stepped backward, and tugged her hat down over her eyes.
“I’d treat you better than the guy who did that.”
“It was a horse.”
“Sure, it was. Yeah sure. So, how much would it cost me to, you know?”
“I’m not a hooker.”
“I’ve got money. I just got out of camp. We could have a pretty good party.”
“I’m not for sale, thanks.” She spoke through gritted teeth.
“C’mon. What’s up your twat? Think you’re too good for me.” He reached out and grabbed her left breast hard.
She plowed back through the dense crowd, fighting to get space, and free of him.
And then, she saw the jerk being sucked away from her by an invisible force. The sea of people parted leaving him plenty of room to land on his ass.
Riley pounced on top of him, looking down, a fist cocked back by his ear. “You should learn some manners,” he said.
A hulky bouncer came down on Riley with a strangle hold. The strung out jerk scrambled back to his feet. “Yeah, that’s right,” he shouted. “You get that fuckin chug out of here. Attacked me out of nowhere. Shouldn’t have let him in here near the firewater”
“Stop! Stop!” screamed Charlie. “He was protecting me.” The bouncer quit moving backward, but kept Riley trapped under his mammoth tattooed hairy arm. “He’s my friend. That asshole,” she pointed, “grabbed my tit. Riley was protecting me.”
The bouncer loosened his grip and eyed the man Charlie was pointing to. It was obvious that he was aggressively high.
“It’s true,” said a young cowboy. “I was just about to step in myself, but he beat me to it.”
Circling the action was a ring of Natives who materialized from every reach of the crowded bar. The bouncer let go of Riley without so much as a half-smile in the way of an apology. His meat hook hands fished out the instigator and yarded him toward the door. The circle broke and the guys who had come to Riley’s defence made for the door after the guy getting bounced. Riley grabbed one of the guys Charlie recognized from the night before. “Hey man,” Riley said, “just let it go. I don’t want you guys doing anything on my account.”
“No way man. That’s bullshit. He assaulted your girlfriend and called you a chug.”
“Let it go,” Riley repeated.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “You coming?” He pulled free of Riley and went to join his buddies.
“You’re not thinking about joining them I hope?” Charlie asked.
Riley shook his head. “No way. I’ve had enough of that life. It’s their fight now.”
“Do you think they’ll hurt him?”
“Not likely. The cops were camped out in the parking lot when I came in. But they might scare him.”
The bouncer stopped briefly as he passed by Riley. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s just that it’s usually your people starting it. You know how it is.”
Riley’s eyes turned to steel, but the bouncer didn’t pause long enough to see it.
Charlie stepped in closer and smoothed out his crumpled shirt. “Doesn’t that piss you off?”
“Yeah, but you can’t get too far as an Indian in this town if you carry a chip.”
“Well, you’re my hero,” she told him. Cody would have never done that for her. He would have stood back and let her fend for herself, and when she finally lost her cool and punched the jerk, he’d have given her hell for acting like a man and making him look like less of one. She gave Riley a peck on the cheek.
“What’d I miss? You fighting again, Charlene?”
The voice bull dozed through her like a freight train. It made her weak with nostalgia, and sent her back in time to a place when she had still believed she was going to have a life just like other girls. It nearly brought her to the floor with a flood of cold, hard realization.
She turned to face Cody.