The Old and the New
She was beautiful, just like the wildflowers covering the hills of a country side or a cloudless, Texas blue sky back home; just as he remembered her. In seven years he'd been away, Dodge City had retained the same old rustic charm and so had she. He had recently turned twenty-three at the time and very much still wild and untamed, settling into what he thought his place in life was. He was a cowboy through and through, and while he knew everything there was to a cattle drive, he had absolutely no experience with women and family.
It was midday by the time Jack Barton got into town, and, even with the protection of his hat, the sun was still hot on his head. The dust curled under the hooves of his horse, Poppy, and the landscape shimmered in the heat. Jack's stomach growled loudly, reminding him that his meager breakfast, hard biscuits and beans left over from the night before, had not been enough. It was definitely time to take a rest.
Jack chewed on the end of his cigarette and smiled as the drive rode into the city. At thirty, he had not accomplished much with his life. He had run away from home when he was fifteen and promptly joined with a group of cowboys, where he learned how to work a cattle trail, among other things. Those nights under the stars, after a hard day's work, were breathtaking. While the earth cooled down, the stars twinkled as bright as lanterns, threatening the moon's place as the brightest thing in the night sky. It was not something you could experience in any big city, that was for certain.
Jack reined in his horse as the cattle boss held up a hand. They had reached the end of the trail. The cattle they had driven up from Wichita would now be boarded onto trains and shipped off to various places throughout the country. Jack's journey, however, was over. Underneath him, Poppy gave a long sigh, stretching the leather saddle girth around his stomach. The cowboy reached over and patted the horse's neck. "Good job, boy," he murmured.
About five feet away, two cowboys were talking softly to themselves, but Jack could still overhear them. Their conversation was one that had been on the mind of every cow hand as of late; the threat of the railroads. With locomotions making their way west, soon the cattle drives wouldn't be needed anymore and many cowboys would go out of work, a thought that had been unnerving many men lately. He would never admit it, but this looming threat had helped pushed the recent idea of leaving the cattle trail for good. Perhaps he'd be able to manage settling down and raising a family this time.
Each man was paid his share and each went off in their own directions. Jack smiled as he was handed his money and put some of it away, a habit he had recently picked up, along with those thoughts of a possible new future. For now though, part of this money would be spent on the local saloon. As far as he was concerned, he deserved a treat.
The smell of stale beer and smoke hung over the room like a cloud. Secretly, he hoped to find her again; a singing showgirl from years ago. His eyes gave a quick scan of the room, and although he expected as much, Jack's heart fell slightly when he couldn't spot her. It had been years since they had seen each, he reasoned. She might have moved out of town, or may even be married and taking care of some man's children by now.
With a sigh, Jack sat down at the bar, ordered his drink, and looked at nothing in particular. The band played softly in the background, barely audible through the loud voices around him. Unconsciously, his mind wandered back to his first cattle drive. It had been a year of friendship and coming of age, and he knew he owed much of who he was to that group of cowboys, and he often looked back fondly on that time.
Billy Haley had been the man to teach him how to shoot a gun. At first Jack had not been able to handle the kick of the gun and had almost given up. Billy, however, kept him at it, forcing him to keep at it, but complimenting him on his aim. The older man had become something along the lines of a father to him, encouraging him, but refusing to let him quit. Nowadays, Jack Barton was known as one of the best shots around.
His memories were interrupted when the bartender place a mug of golden ale in front of him. Jack smiled and thanked the man before taking a long draught. Good drinks like this weren't all that common when you were on the move every day. He yawned and leaned back lowered his eyes a bit, relaxing in the coolness of the tavern. The band changed songs then and brought in a singer. At the sound of her voice, Jack was instantly wide awake. He sat up and looked in the direction of the band, and there she was.
Jack Barton had come visiting Dodge City seven years ago on his fourth cattle drive, not expecting too much from the town. He only needed to waste three days while the other cowhands refreshed, and Jack was restless to continue the adventure. In his mind, fighting a bull was more exciting than waiting three days to move, and he had the scars to prove it. Their first night here, he had visited the tavern, the same one he was sitting in now. From the moment he first saw her singing on stage, he was captivated, just as he was now.
Her hair, shining black and with an odd bit of red that gave it an unusual purple hue, was tied back into a loose bun allowing a few strands to fall, framing her face. Subconsciously, he wondered if it still smelled like violets. A bright red flower entwined in the side of her hair, matching the scarlet dress she wore, accented her pale, cream colored skin. She wasn't the young girl he'd known her as, and soft wrinkles were forming at the corners of her eyes, but still she took his breath away. She was beautiful.
When she looked his way, Jack's heart skipped a beat. Would she remember him? It would be foolish to hope she did. He was taller now than he had been, and bearded. His time spent braving the wilderness hadn't exactly been kind to his now weathered-looking face. His unruly brown hair had tinges of gray in it, but his lively, baby blue eyes were as bright as ever, taking in every detail of her. He gave her a small smile, which grew into a large grin as recognition faded into her eyes.
She motioned for him to stay where he was until she finished the number. Jack nodded, and sat back, sighing. Caroline was her name. She was nineteen back then, an orphan, and an extremely talented singer. Caroline was the girl most of the men around town wanted, but none of them could reach up to her standards.
"Jack Barton!" He heard his name being and snapped out of his train of thought. Caroline strode over to his barstool and stood there with her hands on her hips. He smiled at her and he thought he saw the corners of her mouth turn up, but through the dim light and smoke, he couldn't be sure.
"Howdy, Miss Caroline. It's been awhile, hasn't it?" he asked, offering her a seat. Carolinesimply stood there with her hands still on her hips, looking him squarely in the eyes.
"Do you know just how long it's been since you left me here?"
Jack smiled. Of course he remembered. Every city he had passed through, and every bar he had visited remind him of her. He couldn't help but marvel at her, and for a moment he couldn't remember why he had ever left her.
He'd never had another experience like the one he had with her. The way she wrinkled her nose when she laughed, the odd freckles he would find on her shoulders and back, how she would lightly punch his arm when she was annoyed, and how she enjoyed it when he kissed the back of her neck all appealed to him. She was amazing. And after three short, but amazing days he had forgot about the cattle drive that had brought him there, and for the next month he lived with her in her small house, about five minutes away from the bar. He loved her, and he knew she loved him back, but he also loved the sense of adventure that came on the trail, as the weeks went by, he grew antsy and pent up. At the end of the month he was faced with a choice, where he decided that he wasn't ready to settle down. Not yet. Though, in the years to come, he had been plagued with a sense of guilt and doubt, wondering if he had made the right decision in the end. He'd avoided Dodge City since the day he'd left, hoping that eventually he'd be able to get over her.
When he didn't respond right away she rolled her eyes. "I wondered if you'd come slinking back here," Caroline said, not really relaxing her stance. "Seems I was right."
Jack scratched his cheek uncomfortably. "I've… been a coward, Cara," he said, using the nickname he had given her. "I decided to come back and face you though, to apologize. For leaving I mean." She said nothing, but he saw her relax a bit, and felt momentary relief. "I reckon you settled down, got a couple kids back home, working husband."
He meant to ask more, but Caroline was shaking her head. "I never married. Couldn't find anyone who was like… No. I never found another man." She sighed. "You know… I thought you were different, though, Jack. I thought maybe you cared a bit more than the others."
There were times he'd been able to forget the old Kansas town, but not for long and not completely. A recent visit to his younger brother and his new wife had changed his mind. Seeing how they enjoyed their meals and took care of the house together had placed an aching hole in his heart, one that he desperately wanted to fill. A few days later he finally signed up for a cattle drive that ended in Dodge City. After months of travelling, Jack was once again in that same bar, staring at her, face to face.
She looked at him calculatingly, as if deciding he was worth anything anymore. Jack opened his mouth to explain and apologize again, but she held up her hand to stop him. "I'm sure you have a perfectly logical excuse for yourself, but before you say anything more to me, I have something I need to show you."
Behind him, the bartender looked after the woman as she disappeared into the crowd, absent mildly wiping out one of the mugs. "Been awhile since Miss Caroline took a shine to anyone." The man chuckled and patted Jack's arm.
Caroline had been the one to start the friendship. She'd caught his gaze while up on stage and, once the act was over, sat down next to him, ordering a drink for herself. A conversation was struck up and a friendship was quickly made. As the lamp oil burned, many of the bar's inhabitants filtered out, off to bed; some their own, some to others'. Still Jack and Caroline sat there, enjoying each other's company. They talked for ages on family and the lack thereof that they had grown up with. She was interested to know more about his experience on the different trails he'd been on, and he was intrigued by her dream to be a famous singer someday, one that they showed pictures of in cigarette cards. He'd never been as happy in his life as he'd been then.
"Jack, I'd like to introduce you to someone," Caroline said, bringing him back to the future, again. She had returned and this time with a young girl peeking out at him shyly from behind her skirts. "Jack this is Annie… my daughter."
Jack paused momentarily, running the possibilities through his mind, but he gave the girl a big smile. "Nice to meet you, little miss. I can definitely see the resemblance to your ma; beautiful as all get out." There was something about her that unsettled him. While she had her mother's strangely colored dark hair, her eyes were different. They were a brilliant, bright baby blue.
Caroline kept a firm hand on the girl's shoulder. "I'm hesitant to show her to you, Jack, but I think you both deserve to know." She paused, as if gaining the courage to say it, but looking down at her daughter, took a deep breath and look back at him. "She's your daughter."
Jack completely froze, staring at the two females before him and set his hat down on the counter top, rubbing his neck. "Caroline… if I had known about Annie I would never have-..." Caroline stopped him.
"I wasn't sure if I should trust you at first. I never really forgave you for leaving me like you did, and I've done alright for myself. Now, however, I can see that you're genuine. You've still got half of your life to live and I would like you to spend it with our daughter… and me." She smiled softly at him.
Jack smiled nervously. What was this child like? Would she accept him? … Would he even be a good father? Unconsciously he began to think of his own father. The old man had lost his job and turned to liquor to keep him happy. When it came to his family, however, Jack's father had been abusive and mean, not at all appreciative of what he had. A silent fear crossed his mind. Would he become a similar father? Jack shook his head. He had resolved long ago that he would never become a man like that and he planned to keep that vow now.
Hesitantly, he opened his arms up, just a little. There was a pause, and the air went still, as if the room were holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Annie hesitated, not used to seeing a man opening his arms to her. She stared at his extended embrace then back to his face. Slowly, she loosened her grip on her mother's skirt and moved towards her father. Softly she put her small arms around his broad chest.
Jack Barton put his large, rough hands around her shoulders gingerly, scared that she would disappear in his embrace. She didn't, and just squeezed him all the harder, burying her face into his vest. In that one minute embrace, Jack and Annie wordlessly accepted each other. She was a part of him and the hole in heart filled up in that moment.
Jack looked up at Caroline, beaming. He held out his hand and included her in the embrace, completing them as a family. 'Family'. It had been a long time since he'd heard that word applied to his personal life, and, he'd be honest, the thought of having one of his own sounded like a grand adventure in itself. Jack looked at Caroline and smiled.
"I'm staying this time."
Thank you all for taking the time to read this. I do appreciate it. :)
This was a project for my recent Creative Writing class, and I do consider it to be my best work so far. My professor enjoyed this, and told me it was probably one of her favorite stories in the class, which, of course, made me feel great.
Jack Barton has been itching to have his own story since I created him a year and a half ago. This is my first shot at giving him that privilege. He's honestly one of my favorite ocs, and I loved writing for him.
The idea of Caroline and Annie are not completely mine, but a collaboration between two different friends. Caroline has become something of a descendant of one of my close friend's own character Karoline. We adapted her together on a whim, and it has just stuck since then.
Annie, on the other hand, is something of a crack baby (randomly created by one of my best friends when she paired up Jack and Karoline (before Jack's own Caroline was created)) and she made her way into Jack's canon story.
This short story, however, is probably going to end up being the end of Jack's adventures. I have his own novel planned out, about his starting years on the cattle trails. When I'll get around to finishing that... well that's anyone's guess really.