Whiskey. Thick. Biting. The stench of it would roll off of his father's skin. It never matched the scent that his mother had. The soft scent of lemon verbena water that she applied sparingly, yet always seemed to tickle his nose when she held him close.
His father he could smell from across the room. It filled his lungs and turned his stomach.
That night he'd sat between his sisters at the table, forcing bites of his meal down just like them. His father had been out drinking behind the house, coming in only when Celinda had called that supper was ready. He'd given the meal a sparing glance before sinking into his chair and starting in.
Lydia hadn't dared to ask about grace, they'd learned the hard way that Papa didn't like to hear it said in front of him. She looked at her plate, her expression glum as they'd hurried to finish their food.
Like the good little girls their father insisted they'd be, they cleared the plates and washed the dishes with little more than a whisper, but all the silence in the room had only soured the taste of the food that James had managed to swallow.
His mother was little more than a shadow sweeping about the room, afraid of making a sound… afraid of waking her husband. His sleep was barely that… sputtering awake every few minutes or so, frightening everyone within hearing.
Young James watched his father rather than concentrating on his studies, his reader forgotten beneath his clenched hands. He watched the rattling rise and fall of the man's chest and somewhere deep down in the darkest part of his heart he wished that it would stop.
Wished that his mother would smile more than a few times a week.
Wished that his sisters could play in the yard and sing.
Wished that his father would just-
A clatter gave him a start and his mother cried out in dismay. Father's pipe had fallen due to a careless sweep of a sleeping hand and the ash was hot enough to catch the rug on fire.
Polly nearly threw herself on the floor, her hands the only things handy to put out the flames, her tears running silently down her cheeks. It didn't matter, though, that she'd seen to the problem quickly. Alonso woke from his liquor-aided sleep and roared his disapproval.
His hand rose up above his head, eyes wild with ire and his mouth curled in disgust.
On her knees she cringed, body stiffened in anticipation of the blow. Polly Hickok cowered at her husband's feet.
There was only a second before the hand would descend. His father's reflexes were only slowed by the liquor when it was time for work. Punishment flew fast and on target.
"No!" The word had startled them all. The girls beside him at the table stared in shock, worry and sorrow mixed equally in their eyes. His mother turned, her eyes pleading and full of love. His father's look sneered at him as he lowered his hand.
For a moment, hope sparked in the darkness of the moment. James took one breath. "Don't, Papa… it wasn't her fault, you kno-"
"Don't you lie to me, boy!" The words rumbled against the walls as Alonso drew himself up, swaying at the effort. "She knows better'n to let it lay when I'm sleeping." His eyes blinked as if the lights were a little too bright. "You know better, too."
With no warning his boot disappeared into the folds of Polly's skirt, knocking her nearly to the floor.
The table had never seemed so long as it did that night, slowing the boy down, feet tripping on the legs of chairs that seemed to reach out toward him. It seemed like a lifetime before James could put himself between his mother's pain-wracked body and his father's temper.
"No!" The boy grabbed handfuls of shirt and pushed as hard as he could. "Stop it!"
His father's hand rocked his head back on his neck; the crack of flesh against flesh rang in his ears. The floor should have been hard beneath him, but instead he was pillowed amongst volumes of cloth and lemon verbena.
The instant he realized what had happened, James flailed against his mother's arms desperately trying to get loose.
It was the hiss of pain from her lips that stilled his movements that had tears coursing down his face that unknowingly mirrored hers. "Please… please, Jimmy," she sobbed, "hold still… let it pass… let it pass."
And pass it did.
With her mother's voice silent, her teeth biting into her lips to keep silent. With his own anger boiling beneath the surface, his father gave up.
The sport was gone. The anger ebbed along with the man's sudden strength and he stumbled off toward his bedroom.
It was only when the heavy shuffle of his father's feet disappeared that he dared to peek out from the cocoon his mother had woven around him.
His father was looking down on him from the doorway.
"It's your fault, you know…" the words slurred from his father's tongue, but sliced through to his heart, "your fault she got hurt. Keep that in mind, boy… you just keep that in mind."
Jimmy awoke with a start his heart beating as though it was caged in his chest and needed so desperately to get out. Blinking away the shroud of shadows around him he fought to remember where he was.
The bed shifted slightly beneath him and he turned his fearful gaze to the figure lying beside him. Under the covers Louise was barely recognizable amongst the blankets but it was her voice that reached him through his pain.
"Jimmy? What's wrong?" She peeled back the blanket and rose up on her elbow to see his face. "Did you hear something?"
He didn't know what to tell her? How do you say you're afraid of a ghost… afraid of a man who made you question every move you made?
How do you tell her that you worry that his words were right, that she was hurt because of him? Because of what he'd done?
That morning she'd been waiting for him, her neck wrapped in a noose, a madman with a mind not to kill just him, but her as well. He'd saved her with his skill, killed the man so that he'd never hurt someone again. Killed the man because he'd touched her… ruined the gift that Jimmy had wanted to give her.
The touch of her hand on his arm pained him, as did the look in her eyes. The trust she gave him so easily made her an easy target. Made him that much more likely to be the death of her.
"Jimmy? What are you thinking?"
He squeezed his eyes shut, his lips pressing together until he went numb. "Get some sleep, Lou… we've got a long ride tomorrow."
She lifted her hand, slowly, and laid her head on the pillow so she could look at him. "Then you better get some sleep too." She looked at his clothes, rumpled from the bed. "I worry you'll catch cold."
"I can take care of myself." He turned, knowing he'd hurt her with his words, his tone. He knew she'd withdraw, leave him alone. It was for her own good, he reasoned; keep her safe enough if she was smart. Squeezing his eyes shut he willed the night to fill the room so that she wouldn't see the pain that threatened to overtake him. He nearly held his breath so that she would go back to sleep as soon as humanly possible. He waited… hoping… dreading and then it happened.
The flutter-soft touch of a hand on his back, the trail of sensation as her fingers rose to his shoulder. "Jimmy… it's all right… I'm all right. He didn't hurt me."
His lungs were fit to burst and he gasped in a breath that seared through his throat, cutting off any words that he could have said. He couldn't find the words to tell her how much he wanted to hear that… and still how much he wanted… needed to believe it.
But that little boy still lived somewhere deep inside him and he wouldn't let go...
The bed shifted again and he felt Lou's body press up against his back, her arm circling around him, tucking itself beneath his arm to lie on his chest.
His hand closed over hers, his fingers tangling with hers as he held on as if he was afraid she'd disappear into the shadows. He couldn't help the tears that fell or the way his body shook as relief took hold of him, but through it all, she held him.