The sound of horses’ hooves settle against the flimsy wood panelling, a dull echo that travels only a stones throw across the barn. Lighter and longer feet push dust and outside debris into the ground, claiming the earth before the horse leaves its lasting impression. A hand affectionately slaps the horse's shoulder, a small price to pay for his hard work, but the gesture is well received and the horse nudges his owner’s neck.
“Alright, alright,” he whispers to the chestnut beauty. He takes a ripening apple from a basket situated on the barn floor. Pushing his fingers into the dimple beneath the stem, he breaks the fruit in half and pushes a part into the horse's welcoming mouth. As the horse loudly crunches, he takes a bite of the other half himself.
“What are you doing tonight?” he asks, pushing the apple to the side of his mouth as he talks. The horse replies by lifting his head, chewing the small remnants of the apple. “Come on now Scamp, it’s rude to talk with your mouthful.” He pushes the half eaten other half into Scamp’s mouth, stroking up his nose and face and brushes away a fly.
“You’ll be fuckin’ that horse one of these days,” a voice breaks the gentle hum of silence, accompanied by a tall man walking through the door of the barn.
He needn’t look up from his horse, instead he rolls his eyes at the creature and continues to pet him. “Light a shuck, Pete.”
“I was jokin’, but you are acting frustrated, Champ. This horse is getting ridden all day,” Pete says, smacking Scamp’s hind and he walks over, the horse kicks his back leg in frustration. “But who’s riding you?”
He walks away from Pete, regretfully pulling himself away from Scamp too. He begins distributing hay to the barn floor, the armful sparse across the ground, he reaches for another pile. “No time brother,” Pete commands. “We have plans tonight.” Pete begins tracing the rim of Scamp’s ear with his finger, causing Scamp to twist and flick his ears in protest.
“I didn’t make plans.”
Pete chuckles, “I know that, James. But mother’s practically paying me to get you out the house.” James lets out a sigh, almost synchronised with Scamp’s frustrated exhale.
“Get your fingers from his ear,” James warns without turning his back from the hay spreading, Pete hesitates in his compliance. “I’m not leaving Mom alone.” He throws the last of the hay from his arms, letting his anger scatter amongst the ground too.
“Say goodbye to your misses or,” Pete checks below the horse, “mister. I don’t know what it is. But come on cowboy.”
“Jimbo,” an older man slaps James on the back as he walks up to the table. Greying stubble peppers his face, checkered flannel coats his arms, and strong blue denim flows around his legs. “How are you?”
“Michael,” James tries to match the enthusiasm, he really does, but he barely covers just a fraction. “I’m,” he stalls for just a second, attempting to find the right word to cover it, instead he lies. “I’m good. How are you?”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s been the worst few weeks, you wouldn’t even imagine.”
“I wouldn’t?” James replies in a sardonic mumble, thankfully his rudeness goes unheard as his brothers, Tom and Pete, return to the bench. Michael says something about spotting somebody and walks away.
Amber liquor splashes over the rim of the glass as Tom thrusts the drink in front of James. He moves his elbows off the table to avoid the pooling substance.
“You know I hate wasted money?” Tom directs his question to James but briefly looks at Pete for support.
James points at the alcohol that is currently sinking into the oak slowly, but before he can quip back Pete intervenes. “And we hate seeing you so down.”
“In the most literal sense,” Tom adds, he nods towards the table, but more so what lies beneath - James’ crotch.
“I’m sorry, what?” James spits out. Tom and Pete laugh, Tom motioning somebody over from behind James’ shoulder.
James turns to look in the direction of the person, quickly turning back to the table as he sees a woman walking through the saloon and over to their bench. “Goddammit,” he mutters to himself, his head down, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
“Hey sweet, what's your name again?” Tom addresses her as she stands before them.
“Pamela,” she replies, her voice loud in competition with Tom, full of confidence.
“Well, Pamela this is James,” he motions with his head to his brother. James looks up to be polite, nodding his head to register her presence, but quickly ducking his head before he can note anything more about this woman.
“He’s shy around women,” Pete adds. To which James snaps his head to meet Pete’s gaze in a warning. “Go easy on him sweetheart.”
James follows the conversation around the table, the back and forth of his brothers, trying to one up each other in their effort to embarrass him. He chances a glance at Pamela as Tom discusses positions and pleasure, he’s zoned out to protect himself. He finds her looking at him, not shying away with his challenging gaze. She sends a small smile, he knows she’s taking pity on him for having to put up with his brothers. He shrugs in reply, what can you do, he attempts to tell her with the gesture. They both snap out of it when Tom drags the glass away from James’ loose grip.
“You know I hate wasted money, James,” Tom reminds him. “Make every second of it count, okay?” He sips the stolen drink, licking the burning liquid from his lips and sending a wink to Pamela.
Strangely, James finds himself complying. He has no plan, but he follows the woman through the saloon and up the old wooden staircase. He watches the ground as he walks, hiding his face from the whoops and hollers, mainly coming from the table he just vacated.
He stands before her now, in a darkened bedroom on the top floor of the saloon. Its dull light creates soft shadows against the walls. Damp swims in the stagnant air, creating a chill deep within his bones as he inhales. He allows himself to study her. Now that he is out of his brothers’ watchful eye, he notes her beauty and lingers on the thought. He can admire her assets that warrant her profession; that’s just the symmetry of her face. He hasn’t, and won't, let himself venture any further south than the tip of her chin.
He mutters the truth when he whispers, “I respect you.”
“Well, Mr Halpert. Thank you, that’s certainly not the way this has ever begun.”
“That is what I am trying to say,” his brow knits together in frustration, with his brothers. “I understand this would be a strange request, but could we not do anything?”
“Of course. Anything you want.”
James swallows deeply, his gulp cuts through the silence of the room. He bows his head, looking at his feet.
“What do you suppose we do? You know Tom hates wasted money,” Pamela jokes.
“I wouldn’t believe everything he tells you, he’s a gambler. A bad one at that.”
“So am I not to believe that I was supposed to be,” she smiles mischievously, “educating you?”
He understands what she is alluding to, or maybe knows the depths of his brother's attempts to embarrass him. “No. No, you are not to believe that.”
“I didn’t. As soon as I saw how handsome you were, I knew there was no way.”
He blushes, but it goes unnoticed under the orange glow of candle light. “So, um, what do we do?” he asks.
“Talk,” she states simply. He nods his head but makes no effort to do just that. “What did you do?”
“Um, I'm a cowboy.”
“I know that,” she touches the rim of his hat. “I mean, what did you do to deserve this,” she hunts for the word, “situation.”
He thinks for a moment, this time the orange glow catches the way his eyes glaze over. “I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve any,” he mimics her pause, “situations.” He takes a few steps across the creaking floorboards to the bed. A thick mattress with white ruffled sheets spread across it with short wooden pillars for bed posts. He sits on the edge of the bed. She watches him for a second, watching the way he studies his calloused thumb. She follows him, standing before his legs.
He notes her movement, notes the shadow that presses itself against him as she blocks the flickering candle that sways wildly in her movement. He looks up, his eyes drifting up her body. He promised himself he wouldn’t do that. That he would look at her in a way nobody inside this saloon would ever think to, but he wants to view her in her entirety, just for a second. As if sizing her up before he spills himself out. Calculating just how much of him she can take. Because he needs it.
At the moment, he doesn’t need nor want pleasure. He doesn’t care for the brief feeling of overwhelming ecstasy. He wants to feel his pain. To sit in it and to have it reflected back to him. To be seen, to be heard, to be held. He needs to feel alcohol flooding his deepest of cuts. The sting making his wound real, like a pinch in a dreamlike state.
He looks up at her face, slightly parting his legs and letting her in, if she wishes. “My father died,” he admits in a whisper.
She walks into his webb, getting caught between his knees as she stands closer to him. She takes his hat off, placing it over the bedknob just an arms length away. She combs her fingers through his hair, flattening the unruly strands that stand up in protest of the hats removal.
“When did he pass?”
“Um,” he gets lost in her touch for a second, his eyes close of their own accord. He doesn’t have to think, he’s been counting the days, minutes and seconds ever since. “Five weeks ago.”
With his hair flattened, she pulls her fingertips down either side of his face, along his temples and stopping at his cheeks. He opens his eyes to find her face, a tear spills as his eyelid can no longer hold it back. She dampens his cheeks as she pulls the teardrop from the dark shadow beneath his eye. “I’m sorry, James.”
He nods. He understands when people apologise for the passing that was completely out of their hands. He sees it as an apology for just that, it’s out of their hands, and it’s out of his. There’s nothing they can do, and they are sorry about that. “Can you call me Jim?”
She nods without hesitation. “I don’t have a nickname. My family call me Pammy but,” she scrunches her nose up in disgust.
“What’s your last name?”
“Beesly,” he repeats.
“Now I sound like one of the men downstairs,” she giggles. “Beesly, good to see you. Does the misses know that you’re here,” she speaks in a mocking male voice.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No, I’ve always wanted to be like one of them.” He raises his eyebrows, waiting for her to elaborate. “I’d much prefer to be sat downstairs drinking than,” tears tempt her own eyes. She sighs and shakes her head. “You wouldn’t believe how those men act.” He swallows, unfortunately he does know what they are capable of and the respect they lack. He places his own hands over the top of hers that are still resting on his cheeks. “I don’t like it.”
His hands leave hers, they hover skin and fabric until they pull her in by her shoulders. She wraps her arms around his head, his hands grip the fabric of her dress at her back. His forehead resting on her collarbone, shallow breaths ghosting her breasts. An amicable vulnerability.
He looks up when she sniffs, and then she laughs amongst the tears as she's been resting her wet cheeks on his hair. His hands hold her waist, holding her at a bended arms length. “Why don’t you leave?”
She shakes her head, it’s not that easy. “Jim, I can’t. it’s not that simple.”
He furrows his brow, he knows if she could not be doing this then she wouldn’t. “I’m sorry,” he says delicately. There’s nothing she can do, there's nothing he can say, he apologises. She offers a light smile, she knows. “I’ll be your every customer. I’ll spend my nights paying for your company. I’ll be your bodyguard. Anything I can do,” he pushes a loose curl behind her ear. “I’ll do it Beesly.” She smiles a real smile this time, one that pushes her cheeks into hilltops and turns her eyes into hazel valleys.
“There is one thing you can do.” He nods. “You can let me sit down, my legs are starting to hurt.”
He loosens his grip, reluctantly. He sighs so she knows of his disapproval. She sits beside him, their bodies turning into each other. They each focus on the other's face, eyes wildly chasing features.
“Can you, um,” he laughs at his sudden anxiety, after being so vulnerable. “Can you hold me?”
She crawls across the bed, pulling the sheets into a creased mess as she does so. She lies down with her head against a pillow. He takes a moment to take her in. Her skin washed orange. She nudges his leg with her barefoot, catching her ankle as she taps at his thigh, impatiently waiting for him to join her. He sees her innocence in a place, in a bed, and in a time where it’s usually anything but innocent and pure.
He toes off his ankle boots, they hit the floor with a thud. Crawling over to her, he rests his head on her chest and closes his eyes. She strokes his hair softly as he weeps. He feels the pain, he lets his heart sit heavy in his chest. She allows it. She allows him to be weak and vulnerable. He lets it out, lets himself go.