The Softer side



I’ve always loved to write “what ifs.” What if things had happened differently from the way that they had in the series. This is one such story.



            Colleen raced into the jail to demand that Belle Starr tell her what her gang was likely to do to the kidnapped Brian. She stopped short. Belle was not alone in the cell. She was stretched out on the bunk; Jake was pinning her arms above her head; Hank was just straightening up from a kneeling position on the bunk; and Belle’s bare legs were spread wide with a pool of blood between them.

            Colleen shrieked. Hank was on her in a moment; she never would have guessed that anyone could move that fast. His hands gripped her arms painfully, as he glared intently into her face.

            “No! Oh no, please!” she begged him.

            Hank squeezed harder. “Shut up and listen. Now, you’re not gonna tell Michaela or Sully or anyone else what you saw here today. Understand?”

            By this time, Jake had joined them, and he watched Colleen’s face in evident concern. He certainly knew the possible penalties for what they’d done, and he obviously realized that he had to go along with any threat that Hank made, if he were to save his own skin.

            Numb with fear, Colleen only stared back at Hank.

            He shook her. “Do you understand what we did to her? Well, if you tell anybody what we did, we’ll do it to you! And don’t be fool enough to gamble that we can’t get to you, faster than they can get to us; hear me??”

            She nodded then, almost frantically.

            “Good.” Hank let go, managing to do even that roughly. “Now get outta here.”

            Colleen fled.

            “Think she’ll keep quiet?” Jake asked in consternation.

            “She’d better,” said Hank. “I meant what I said. And you’d better be with me on this.”

            “I am.” Jake’s expression was regretful, but determined.


            Back in her own home, and still shaking, Colleen was in emotional agony. How could she risk telling? But how could she not tell? In a way, she could understand why Hank and Jake were furious with Belle Starr; the girl and her gang had robbed their saloon, and the gang still had a lot of their money. But on the other hand, the girl was young: she was Colleen’s own age. To think that those big, grown-up men would do something so…so adult…to a little girl her age! And Belle had obviously been a virgin. In a way, it was hard to believe, what with her being a criminal, but she clearly had been. She was hardly innocent, and yet, she was. There had been all of that blood! Colleen knew enough about the facts of life to know what all of that blood meant. And that reminded her of her own fears. She was terrified of sex, just as Michaela had been. Had Belle been just as fearful? Colleen wondered morosely. And those cold mean men had put that girl through it, heedless of what her fears might’ve been. How could Colleen not rise to her defense? But then her own blood ran cold when she imagined the two of them coming after her, doing it to her. And she had no doubt that they would; Hank at least, in fact, would enjoy it. Colleen sat, numb with fear, and did nothing.


            As the days went by, Michaela and Sully noticed Colleen’s depression and nervousness, but when they questioned her about it, she remained tight-lipped and unresponsive. When they tried to get her to go along with them to town on routine business – Brian was now safely back in the fold – she resisted, but could give no valid reason, so she finally gave in and reluctantly accompanied them, worrying them further. Colleen feared encountering Hank or Jake, looking into their eyes, and having them see the terror and guilt in her own: guilt at not having reported them as a good citizen should, and terror at what they might do to her.

            What actually did happen in town made Colleen’s worst fears seem mild.

            Michaela had been dropped off at the clinic, and Colleen was walking along with Sully, when suddenly, prisoner Belle Starr was being transferred from the jail to the courthouse for the first day of her trial. She caught sight of Colleen.

            She shouted at her, “Did you tell them what they did to me?? You saw! Did you tell them???”

            In dismay, Colleen’s eyes went automatically to the nearby saloon, and sure enough, Hank and Jake were out front, sullenly watching the exchange. When Colleen’s eyes met theirs, she almost visibly melted from fright, her eyes pleading with them not to hurt her. Sully was studiously watching the entire thing: his daughter’s reactions, as well as those of the two men. Colleen blushed hotly, overcome by guilt and terror. And then Sully, Hank, and Jake watched that, too.

            Realizing that something truly ominous must be afoot, and that too much of it had been made public already, Sully gently pulled Colleen away from the scene by her arms. She gladly cooperated, but couldn’t resist a terrified glance at Hank and Jake over her shoulder, thus making Sully even more suspicious of them, and making them in turn even more unsure of Colleen.

            Sully led her to the clinic, and to Michaela, where Colleen at last burst into unrestrained tears.

            “It’s not my fault! I didn’t do anything!” she sobbed.

            “Colleen! What on earth???” asked an alarmed Michaela.

            “I think that it’s time you tell us what’s going on here,” urged Sully sternly.

            “Did they follow us?? Are they listening???” Colleen was near hysteria.

            “Who?” Michaela was bewildered.

            “I can guess,” Sully said shortly. “Hank and Jake, right?”

            “Oh please don’t say their names too loudly!” Colleen’s folded hands begged along with her words.

            “Did they hurt you?” Michaela asked worriedly.

            “Not yet.” There was doom in her tone and in her words.

            “Yet???” Michaela paled dramatically.

            “They hurt Belle Starr, didn’t they?” Sully prompted.

            Silently, Colleen nodded.

            Truly alarmed now, and definitely not liking what she was suspecting, Michaela demanded, “Colleen? Did they…rape her???”

            The girl winced, and tears chased each other down her cheeks.

            Sully was appalled. “And you…saw??”

            Barely able to get out the words, Colleen stammered, “I…saw…Hank get up…and Jake…holding her down…and all the blood….”

            “Oh my lord!” Michaela was clearly horrified that her little girl had had to see such a scene.

            “Well, why didn’t you tell us??!” demanded Sully.

            Sounding like a child even younger than she was, Colleen wailed, “Because they threatened to do it to me!!!”

            Michaela gasped and enfolded her. Sully looked angry and determined.

            “Colleen, you’ve got to testify against them!”

            “I can’t, I can’t!!”

            “Sully, wait a minute….”

            “You can’t just let them get away with this!”

            “They’ll get me! They’ll do it to me!!”

            “No, they won’t; we’ll keep you with us every minute.”


            “Until they’re in jail.”

            “They’ll get out; what if they get out somehow?!”

            “Sully, are you sure that we can protect her?”

            “Tell you what,” he suggested. “Once you’ve testified, how would you like to go visit your grandmother in Boston?”


            The testimony was, for Colleen, a living nightmare. Before a multitude of the townsfolk, she had to sit there and tell the lurid details of an event that she found both horrifying and embarrassing. She also had to do so while looking into the cold, smoldering eyes of the two men who’d done it. And when at last the prosecutor demanded to know why she hadn’t come forward sooner, she had to blubber in front of those same two men, “Because they threatened to do it to me!!!” Even as she said it, she saw, especially in Hank’s eyes, the determination to ultimately do exactly that, because it would punish her most thoroughly. Colleen broke down and begged him right in front of the entire court, “Oh please don’t, Hank!!! I didn’t mean to; they made me tell! I had no choice! Please don’t hurt me!!!”

            Not unsympathetically, the judge instructed her to restrain her outbursts, and to stick strictly to her testimony.


            When Colleen thought that the nightmare was over, she found that it had only begun. She hovered just outside of her room, and heard her parents talking downstairs.

            “What??!! What do you mean, the judge let them out of jail???”

            “Now calm down, Michaela. They’re out on bail. Apparently, the judge had a few qualms about jailing ‘upright citizens’ for crimes committed against a criminal.”

            “‘Upright citizens?!’”

            “Well, Jake is the mayor. And both run local major businesses.”

            “Hank runs a brothel!”

            “A saloon.”

            She made a rude noise. Then she bellowed, “Out on bail?! Who put up the bail?!”

            “Preston Lodge.”

            “Oh my god!”

            “He’s a banker; he can afford it. And he is their friend, and fellow businessman.”

            “But Colleen…!”

            “Now, now, we’ll protect her. We’ll put her on the stage to Boston, first thing in the morning.”

            “But what about tonight?!” Colleen cried from the landing.

            Michaela and Sully turned in surprise.

            She charged down the stairs to them. “Please, Pa! Don’t let me out of your sight! Don’t let them do it! I don’t want to; I’m just as scared as Ma was!”

            The adults exchanged looks of dismay. Colleen seldom called him “Pa,” and with that plus the delicate references to Michaela’s former sexual fears, the girl must indeed be distraught.

            “Please! Protect me! Let me sleep with you two tonight!”

            Michaela said carefully, “Colleen, has it occurred to you that maybe this is all that they intend to do: frighten you?”

            “They’ve done it! Please, Ma! We can’t take that chance!”

            The parents exchanged a look.

            “All right,” said Sully. “You’ll sleep between us tonight.”


            The next morning, Sully, Michaela, Colleen, and Brian went to town to meet the stage. Matthew met them to wait with them, suspicion and worry evident in his eyes.

            Sure enough, a smirking Hank and a mildly amused Jake stood watching them wait. Completely unnerved at the sight of them, Colleen turned and buried her face in Michaela’s embrace.

            Sully glared at them. “Wait here,” he instructed his family, and stalked over to the two troublemakers.

            But before he could say a word, Hank said, “So. Colleen didn’t sleep in her own bed last night. With you and Michaela, eh?”

            Sully couldn’t hide his shock.

            Hank grinned. “We went over and cased the joint. She never lit the lamp in her bedroom. If she’d slept in there where she belonged, she’d’ve gotten it last night.”

            Sully recovered his wits and his anger. In a low, tense voice, he said, “I’m only gonna say this once: you stick it in my little girl, and I’ll cut it off; understand?”

            Hank snorted laughter. Also unruffled, Jake said, “You know, Sully, stages can be followed. And stopped.”

            Hank inquired in mock innocence, “Are you sending her to Boston, alone??”

            Now even more rattled, Sully backed off and returned to the others for an intense conference.


            Meanwhile, Dorothy Jennings, watching the whole thing, approached the smug Jake and Hank where they lounged against a railing in front of the saloon.

            “Jake Slicker, when I was dating you, I had no idea that you’d sink this low! You aren’t seriously considering hurting that dear little girl, are you??”

            “Dorothy, this doesn’t concern you,” he answered coolly.

            Just then, Michaela’s voice rose, and they heard, “I refuse to go into exile! And indefinitely??? What about all of my patients?? There has to be another way!”

            Hank chuckled in enjoyment. “Trouble in paradise.”

            Dorothy looked at him. “You…! Pig!!”

            Hank just smirked at her, and she stormed away from the two of them in helpless fury.

            Apparently, the family thought better of putting Colleen on the stage alone, and they adjourned to the clinic to discuss it more privately.

            “This is rich!” chortled Hank in delight.


            But it was Hank’s and Jake’s turn to be stunned an hour later when Michaela marched into the saloon alone to confront them.

            “I need to speak with you two privately.”

            Hank responded with his perennial smirk, Jake’s brows rose, and they ushered her into a back bedroom: the only type of private location that they had. Michaela did her best not to look unnerved at the sleazy environment. She drew herself up and faced them.

            “I’ll get right to the point. I’m offering myself in place of Colleen. You’ve both made it clear at times in the past that you’ve wanted me.”

            They stared, slack-jawed.

            “Take me instead. Unlike Colleen, I won’t fight you, and I won’t report you. We made her testify. Spare my daughter.”

            Now they stared at each other.

            Impatiently, she said, “Whatever you want, just…get it over with now.” She was obviously tense, but determined.

            Hank reached out and fingered her hair. Michaela willed herself not to flinch and stood still for it.

            “You might be more fun than Colleen,” he observed.

            Jake looked intrigued, too, but he said, “Sully won’t like it.”

            She steeled herself. “He’s agreed to put up with it, just this once, for our daughter’s sake. But we must have your word: leave her alone!”

            “Where is she right now?” Hank was making a very sensual affair just out of fondling Michaela’s luxurious hair, and she endured it.

            She answered emphatically, “With Sully, Matthew, and Brian. And all three are going to stay right with her, until…until this whole thing is over and done.”

            Hank grinned, and reached a hand toward her breast.

            Michaela deftly caught it and held onto it. “After I have your word.”

            But instead, with a slight look of regret, Hank withdrew his hand and stepped back from her.

            “You’re tempting. Believe me; I’m tempted! But you’re not the one that we need to punish.”

            Michaela managed to appear dismayed and relieved all at the same time.

            “Tell you what, though.” Hank looked almost wistful. “If you were still a virgin, we might just take you up on it.”

            Jake chuckled and nodded.

            Michaela lost her temper. She stepped toward Hank.

            “You slimy, sadistic…! You just want someone you can hurt!”

            Hank laughed and didn’t deny it.

            She stormed out of the room.


            Colleen lived with her fear all day every day for two full months. And the various members of her family took turns body-guarding her. On the various normal occasions when circumstances caused her actually to see Hank, or Jake, or both, albeit never alone, she felt her heart stop at the smug smile with which he or they always greeted her. On the one hand, after a time she began to wonder if the fear might be worse than the event, if it ever happened. After all, they weren’t going to kill her. But on the other hand, feeling how terribly her heart seized just at the sight of their grins, made her wonder how much more horribly it might lurch if she saw them closer at hand…if she were alone with them…if they spoke to her…if they touched her…if they did worse than touch. Colleen only vaguely knew what sex was all about, but she knew that, every time that she even imagined standing in front of Hank with her clothes off – let alone having him do things to her – she began to tremble completely out of control. Jake was scary, too; there was something coldly impersonal and uncaring about him. But the fear of Hank froze her heart. Michaela had referred to him as sadistic. And Colleen sensed that he might be. She was sure that he would laugh all the way through whatever screaming, crying, pain, or terror that she suffered, and that he would remain unmoved by any begging, pleading, and tears that she offered.

            But she was getting very tired of being “baby-sat.” She felt as though her entire life was on hold until this crisis passed, one way or another. Her desire to “get on with her life” strengthened day by day. She hadn’t even slept in her own bed throughout the two months, due to the ominous unsubtle hints that Hank had given Sully. She could also tell that this wasn’t helping her parents’ romance. She wanted to put a stop to this, but how?

            Gradually, very gradually, Colleen began to realize that what she and her family were going through was far worse than anything that Hank and Jake were likely to do to her.


            One afternoon, Colleen slipped away from her “baby-sitter.” She did something that she had never done before in her life: she walked through the swinging doors into the saloon.

            Hank and Jake were both behind the bar, talking quietly. When Jake chanced to look up and see her, he touched Hank’s shoulder, and then they both stared. Colleen glanced quickly, only long enough to recognize them, and then fixed her eyes to the floor. One or two of the rough-looking customers quizzically eyed the out-of-place little innocent, and one guffawed, doubtlessly at the thought of how Hank would have his hands full if he were going to try to turn this one into a tough, world-wise, flashy “entertainer.” Why else would she be there, in his clearly narrow, uninformed view.

            Slowly, not wanting to spook her, Jake came around the bar and approached her. Colleen glanced up and quickly away again.

            “Come in.” Jake gestured with a flourish, to usher her toward the back rooms.

            Glancing up only as much as she absolutely had to, to avoid colliding with or falling over things or people, she obeyed.

            Hank, still behind the bar, put out his cigarette, and followed.

            The two men escorted her into one of the “bedrooms,” and closed the door.

            “To what do we owe the honor?” asked Jake.

            Colleen squirmed and tried to look up into their eyes, but she couldn’t. Of their own accord, her eyes almost reflexively kept dropping back to the floor. Her failed attempts to face the men were almost painful to watch.


            “You surrender,” Jake repeated in amazement. He glanced at Hank, and then, consumed with curiosity, said, “May I ask why?”

            “This….” She gestured futilely. “This…is…too…hard…on my family. And…on me.”

            “So you came to us.”

            “The…fear is…worse.” Then, with a haunted expression, she amended, “Maybe.”

            “You…want to…get it over with.”

            She nodded jerkily.

            “Hey. Come’ere. Look up.” Jake was trying, without success, to get her to face him. She shied from his hand like a wild filly.

            Hank spoke for the first time. “I’m stunned. We thought we’d have to catch you.”


            “How did you get away? They guarded you well.” Hank clearly knew that there was no way that Colleen had gotten Sully’s or Michaela’s permission to do this.

            “I…slipped out.”

            “Who was watching you?”

            “Matthew,” she whispered. She felt guilty. She knew that her brother would never be able to forgive himself.

            Jake whistled. Evidently, he knew it, too.

            Then, as if she suddenly just remembered something that she’d planned to do, Colleen formally dropped to her knees, bowed her head even more than she already had, and clasped her hands in front of her.

            “Please…sirs…,” she said in a small voice. “Please be as gentle with me as you can. I…won’t struggle. You don’t have to get rough. I’m so afraid! And I only half-understand what you even mean to do.”

            Jake looked at Hank, and Hank could certainly see that Jake felt like a heel. Unlike Jake, Hank had routinely broken in virgins, though none as skittish as this. He obviously knew from Jake’s stark expression that he, Hank, would have to take the initiative here.

            Hank moved forward, confidently reached down, and smoothly drew Colleen up from the floor. With a hand beneath her chin, he compelled her to face him…and then clearly instantly wished that he hadn’t. Upon looking at him, her young face immediately crumpled and her blue eyes blurred. Small, delicate sobs came forth that would have been just as at-home in a four-year-old throat, as in a fourteen-year-old throat.

            “I’m…so…afraid of you!!!”

            Somehow, in that moment, Hank evidently realized that Colleen meant that she feared him far more than she feared Jake, and he even seemed to make the intuitive leap that she feared him more than anyone else alive. He apparently supposed that he could guess why: there was undoubtedly something in the very nature of his profession, as well as something in his swaggering, smirking demeanor, that thoroughly intimidated vulnerable young girls. Hank clearly fought down an impulse to hold her in the way that Sully would hold her.

            “Hank.” Jake tugged at his sleeve.

            Hank ignored him. But his smugness was slipping.

            Colleen begged tearfully, “Will you please do it gently??”

            “No,” Hank said gruffly.

            Panic stole into her helpless eyes.

            Then Hank heard himself say, “We won’t do it at all.”

            Colleen’s face and body collapsed with relief, and then Hank did hold her the way that Sully would.

            And that was when Sully barreled in, fists up and ready.

            “Pa!” Colleen cried in relief and delight.

            Hank handed her over without a fuss. “We didn’t hurt her.”

            Sully hesitated, doubting him, his fists evidently trying to decide whether to punch Hank or to flatten against his daughter’s back.

            Jake agreed. “We didn’t do it.”

            Beginning to openhandedly pat the crying child, but confused, having steeled himself for the jarring sight of his own little girl’s nude body, hopefully not yet too violated, Sully fumbled and rather foolishly asked, “Why???”

            Understanding his befuddlement, and faintly smiling at it, Jake said, “I can’t do it to someone that innocent.”

            Sully’s bewilderment switched to Hank.

            “And I never have done it to someone quite that innocent. I guess I don’t want to.”

            Still trying to catch up to the sudden shift, Sully stammered, “Then…. In the future…. She’s…safe with you two???”

            Hank reluctantly admitted, “As safe as she is with you.”

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