Joe leaned comfortably against a log. Perhaps a tree fallen over, he imagined, in some terrible storm that passed through before he had. He hunched over his knees and scribbled furiously onto one of the few scraps of paper that he always managed to keep stuffed in his pockets.
There was, after some amount of time, a faint rustling of material and metal. Only having eyes for the task at hand, he barely glanced up to see Ned on his feet and staring down at him. Maybe trying, ineffectually, to read what was scrawled and spread all over his lap.
It wasn’t long before Ned was talking. “You spend all your free time writin those lasses.” Matter of fact.
“All we’ve got is free time,” Joe answered, his pencil never stopping it’s scramble across flimsy parchment.
Ned smiled, hands now in his coat pockets and whole body leaning toward Joe. “Is all how you look at it...”
“Joe’s got one in every town!” Dan said, suddenly there as if he’d materialized from the sun and the air to join the conversation.
The declaration stilled Joe’s hand and blurred his words as he almost unthinkingly called to mind scattered details of the small towns sprinkled throughout the countryside he’d come through. Where the coppers were scarce and they was treated not unlike heroes. He and his mates, The Kelly Gang the papers called them, would stay long enough to get some proper rest, food and drink.
While Ned, Dan and Steve all moved together, Joe always found himself breaking away to chat up some lovely little miss. He loved his mates, of course. Would ride to the ends of the earth for em. But, he’d preferred the company of women as long as he cared to remember.
He’d lie with some, their curves and breathless yearning satisfying him. He’d kiss and cuddle with the less audacious, all soft lips and smooth skin. He talked with others. Lose himself in well tested words, laughs and choked back tears, enjoying their presence all the same.
It wasn’t the physical that lured him to the women he became familiar with, though he didn’t mind that at all. He liked their lulling voices, soft skin, long hair and big eyes. But, what pulled him to anyone in particular was the interest mixed with equal parts trepidation radiating from them. The ones with a bit of adventurousness in those big eyes, undermining whatever apprehension or even disdain they regarded him with.
What stayed with him when he inevitably left them behind, for one reason or another, was the delicate strength they all possessed. Even those who flew into his arms and sobbed on his shoulder always remained standing. He’d known, since he was a lad, that women were all brass and the toughest material under the gentleness and indulgence. That’s why he wrote to those who asked him to and some who didn’t. That’s why he loved the next just as passionately as the last.
“I’ve not got them,” he answered at last, “They’ve got me.”
Sometimes he prayed. When the sky was still grey and Ned was busy with the horses. Dan and Steve were kicking around ashes of a dead fire. He’d excuse himself to take a leak and stumble into the woods, gingerly pulling rosary beads out of his pocket. Stopping at the first break of light through the trees, he’d close his eyes and whisper to himself. About his loved ones, redemption, and bright holidays to come. Then, he’d press the cold metal of the small crucifix to his lips before slipping the beads back into his pocket and strolling back into the makeshift camp. He’d walk up to the horses, lift his weightiest pistol with a faint smile and say to Ned, “I told you I’d be right back.”