Southern Comfort

Part 4

 

When the dogs came after him, Jons calmly shot them.  Then, he unlocked the gate and made his way back to his truck.  With the vixen lying quietly beside him, her head resting against his thigh, he drove quickly, almost recklessly back to his bar.

Not wanting to cause a scene, he went in the backdoor instead of through the front.  Though her eyes were open, she lay as limply in his arms as if she were unconscious.

“Come on, kid,” he murmured, shifting her slightly so that her head was nestled against his shoulder.  “You’re safe now.  Snap out of it.”

But she didn’t.  She didn’t even react when he nearly dropped her as he unlocked and opened the back door.

He carried her to the bathroom and gently seated her on the closed toilet.  She slumped, staring blankly at the far wall and he was concerned that this last little episode with the fox might have been all it took to push her over the edge so far that there would be no getting her back.

Worry about that later, he told himself sternly.

He filled the sink with warm water, got a washcloth from the hall closet, and began to gently wash the blood from her face and neck so that he could see her injuries better.  Aside from the gash on her forehead, she had assorted other minor cuts and bruises, but nothing seemed broken.  He was so intent on checking her for injuries that he didn’t think twice as he removed his jacket from her and started to pull off her blouse as well.  Eyes sparking back to life, she frantically pushed him away and clutched his jacket around her, knees clenched tightly together.

One look at her expression convinced him to back off.  After a moment’s anxious hesitation, he went into the bar and looked the room over searchingly.  Tony saw him, did a double take at the blood staining the front of his white shirt, and hurried over.

“You okay?  Where’s Cody?  Is she okay?”

“Trixie around tonight?” Jons asked tersely.

“On the dance floor.”

“Get her.”

With another questioning glance, the bulldog hurried off.

Jim slowly approached him, and the bartender glared at him.  He knew that the bear had done what he’d thought was best, but that didn’t make him feel any better about it, not when Cody was lying back there, beaten and in shock.

“What do you want?” the bartender asked with uncharacteristic rudeness.

Jim had the grace to look abashed.  “How—how is she?”

“Not good,” Jons snapped.  He held out his shirt.  “You see this blood?  It’s hers!” 

“I’m sorry.  Really, I am.  I didn’t know… I never meant… that is…” The young bear shifted, unable to meet his boss’s eye.  “Am I fired?”

Jons looked at him in disbelief.  Part of him wanted to tell the bear to just get out and never come back, but another, more logical part pointed out that they didn’t need to be shorthanded tonight. “Talk to me about it later, when I’m not so mad.”

Jim bit his lip, but nodded and backed away.  Somehow, Jons knew he’d quit.  Things would be too awkward for him to stay, and the bartender would never forget this night.  Tony returned with a tall, slim feline who wore a tight, low-cut red dress designed to keep the masculine attention on her.

“What’s doing, Jons?  I was looking good out there.”  Her white tail lashed from side to side and her green eyes were accusing.

“Baby, you look good every night,” Tony said fervently, regarding her curvaceous figure appreciatively.

Rolling her eyes, Trixie slapped his hand away as he tried to pinch her rear.  “Look all you want, but keep your dirty mitts off.”

Jons beckoned for the woman to follow him, which she did reluctantly.  They stood in the hallway for a moment.  Trixie had her hands on her hips, glaring at him.

“I’ve got a little girl back here who was beat up pretty bad,” he said without a hint of apology for interrupting her evening.  “Can you take care of her?”

Trixie relaxed.  “For a minute, there, I thought you were demanding services I’d rather not give. Sure, I’ll do it.  Where is she?”

Jons gestured towards his bathroom.  “And she’s got clothes in my bedroom.  The bottom two dresser drawers are hers.  She’s got a nightgown in there, I think.”

With a nod, Trixie disappeared inside.

Almost immediately, she came right back out, went straight to the bar, and returned with a bottle of brandy.  Pushing past the astonished ferret, she went back to the vixen and firmly shut the door behind her.

The little girl’s eyes were wild, not quite sane.  Well, Trixie could fix that. This wouldn’t be the first beating she’d dealt with.

“Drink this,” she said gently, putting the bottle to the child’s lips.

With a whimper, Cody turned her head.

“Come on, kid.  Help me out here.”

This time, the girl took a sip and coughed as the fiery liquid burned a path down her throat.

“Good!” Trixie said approvingly.  “Now another.”

Cody complied, though she winced as she coughed.

“That should do it.”  Trixie set the bottle on the floor.  “Are you going to calm down?  I’m Trixie.  Jons asked me to help you.”

“Where’s he?”  the vixen croaked.

“In the hall.”  Trixie soothingly brushed the girl’s tangled hair from her face.  “Now are you going to calm down?”

Hesitantly, Cody nodded and allowed Trixie to help her out of her ruined clothing, silent tears spilling down her cheeks as her sides throbbed with every move. The woman winced at the livid bruises forming on her torso and at the older wounds—the white scars that laced her inner thighs.  Trixie had been beaten a time or two herself, but never badly enough to leave scars.

And then there was all the blood.  It had been hard to tell while she was wrapped up in what Trixie assumed was Jons’s jacket, but as soon as she’d taken it off, the feline’s jaw had dropped.  From neck to knee, the girl looked as if she’d bathed in the stuff.

She gently wiped away the girl’s tears and asked quietly, “Who did this, honey?”

Cody shook her head and closed her eyes as Trixie gingerly prodded her sides.  Her ribs hurt badly and her head was starting to pound as well.  She just wanted to go to sleep and forget about everything. 

“I think you’re going to need a bath.  Where did all this blood come from?”
“Not mine,” Cody mumbled.

“Good.  I’ll just clean you up and help you to bed, okay?”  Trixie turned on the shower, adjusted the water temperature, and half-carried the girl to it.  “What’s your name?”

“C-cody.”

The little girl slumped unmoving under the hot shower as Trixie rinsed her off and wrapped her in a thick towel.  She was limp as a rag doll as the woman toweled her off, bandaged her ribs, and dressed her in clean underwear and a flannel nightgown.  Every time her mind wandered towards the horrifying encounter with Fletcher, she tried to stop the thought.  Unfortunately, other memories of things he had done to her—memories she’d managed to repress—came to mind until she felt as if she were going to go mad.

“Cody!”  Trixie tapped her shoulder and she forced her eyes open.  “Did you hit your head?”

The vixen nodded as the woman looked intently into her eyes.  “Follow my finger.”

She tried her best, but her gaze was unfocused.

“Uh-oh.  Looks like you’ve got a concussion.  It’s going to hurt like hell in the morning.”

“Already does.”

Trixie patted her on the back sympathetically.  “C’mon.  I’ll put you to bed.”

The girl allowed herself to be led to Jons’s bed and tucked in.  Impulsively, Trixie leaned over and kissed the girl on the forehead.  “You just rest, okay?  Everything’s going to be fine.”

The feline stood for a moment, looking at her.  Then, she went to confront Jons.  She found the bartender pacing the hallway in front of the bedroom.

“Jons, what….?  How…?  Where did you…?”

He sighed wearily and she noticed that his normally pristine shirt was as bloody as Cody had been. “Yeah, I know.  It’s all a mess.  That’s why I came to get you.  Did she… I mean, were you able to look at her?  Get her calmed down?”

The feline nodded.  “The brandy calmed her down.  She wouldn’t talk to me, though.”

“She’s been through a lot.”

“Yeah.  I’ve seen girls like her before.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “Who did this to her?”

“Can’t say, Trix.  It’ll bring a lot of trouble.  Let’s just say I rescued her and, with any luck, he won’t be bothering her again.”

The cat made a noise of disgust.  “I can’t stand a man who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  Like your pervert of a waiter, Tony.”

“Ol’ Tony’s a talker.  This man’s a doer.”

“Well, she’s taken care of.  Whoever he was, he cracked a couple of ribs.  I bandaged them up, but she’s going to be sore for a few days and she’s got a concussion.  I put her in your bed, so you’ll have to sleep somewhere else.  You’re going to need to wake her up every few hours and ask her simple questions, like her name and stuff like that.  I would tell you that you need to be very careful of what you say and do around her, but…” She glanced at him.  “I think you know that.”

Jons nodded.  “Do you… do you think she’ll be okay?”

“It’ll take some time, but yeah, I do.  Whose is she?”

“She’s an orphan.  I found her about three weeks ago… she was really sick.”  He paused.  “The man who did that… I didn’t know he… well, if I had known, I’d never have…” His voice trailed off and he scowled at the floor.

“What are you going to do with her?” she asked curiously.

With a sigh, he distractedly ran a hand through his dark hair.  “I don’t know.  Nobody seems to want her.” An idea came to him and he looked at the feline hopefully.  “Unless…”

Immediately, she shook her head.  “No.  Oh, no.  I can’t take her, Jons.  You know me.  I have a very busy social life and my apartment’s no place for a little girl.”

“But she needs a woman to look after her.”

“If you don’t want her around, that’s one thing, but don’t push her off on me.”  She bit her lip and glanced at the closed door, thinking of the scars on the girl’s thighs.  “Just… just find someone who’ll be good to her, will you?”

“That’s a pretty tall order.”

 She gave him a meaningful look.  “Not really.  Now, do you need anything else?”

“No.  Thanks, Trix.”

She shrugged and returned to the dance floor.  Jons thoughtfully went back to Cody’s bedside.  It wasn’t that he didn’t like the girl, but… 

Buckteeth’s words from nearly a month ago—had it really been a month since he’d found her?--came back to him.  She needs a friend and, like it or not, pal, you’re it!

Great. What am I going to do with her?  I can’t… well, I could move my office into the living room and let her turn that into a bedroom…

Cody was lying flat on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“Hey,” he said softly.

Nothing moved except her eyes.  She didn’t speak or so much as twitch as he shuffled over and awkwardly sat on the edge of the bed, fumbling for something to say.  Asking how are you was… stupid.

Just look at her.  You know she’s not okay.

He finally settled on asking, “Do you need anything?”

“No,” she mumbled.  She wanted to thank him for saving her, but more than that, she wanted to scream at him for letting Fletcher take her in the first place.  Screaming would, however, make her headache worse, so she contented herself with ignoring him.  Her stomach was rolling, thanks to the concussion, and she preferred to focus her energy on not throwing up.

“Cody, I…” He looked at her helplessly.  “Look, you know I…”

She closed her eyes, wishing he would stop talking.  She heard him sigh and felt him move from the bed.  When she heard his retreating footsteps, however, she felt a perverse wave of panic.  Was he leaving her alone?  What if Fletcher came for her again?

However, he returned.  She didn’t open her eyes, but nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt his shadow fall over her.  Before she could gasp, he carefully placed a compress on her forehead.  As the ice numbed the throbbing pain, she relaxed and half-opened her eyes until the light hurt too much and she had to close them again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.  “I didn’t know.”

“Why’d y’think I ran away?”

Though spoken softly, her words were like a slap in the face and he flushed and looked away.  “I didn’t turn you in.”

“No, you just let ‘im take me.”

“I didn’t know what else to do, Cody!  He’s your legal guardian.  What did you want me to do?”

She didn’t answer.  For one thing, she didn’t know exactly what she’d hoped had happened.

Yes I do.  I wish he’d never found me.  As soon as I can, I’m outta here.

But if Jons had defended her and insisted she stay with him, Fletcher would have simply had him arrested and taken her back, anyway.

Then, nobody could have saved me.  If Jons hadn’t come in, he would have…

She shuddered.

“Cold?” Jons asked.

She didn’t respond, but he pulled the covers up to her chin and with a sigh, she tried to go to sleep.  He dragged the armchair close and rested his chin on his arms, watching her as he wondered what Hank was doing to the fox.  Whatever it was, he hoped it would be enough.  He didn’t intend for anyone to hurt her like that again.

Much later, he heard the door to the bar open and he looked up as Hank entered the room.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

The bear shrugged.  “Woulda been better if I coulda killed him.  But I don’t think he’ll be bothering you.”

Cody started and jerked awake, making odd moaning noises at the sound of Hank’s deep voice.

Shhh… It’s okay, honey,” Jons murmured.  When she settled down, the bear started to speak, but the bartender held up a hand and gave him a warning look, so he waited until Cody dropped off to sleep.  Then, Jons motioned to the assassin and the two men went into the hall. “Okay.  You’re sure he won’t bother her?  What convinced him?”

Hank chuckled.  “Coulda been when I cut off a couple of his fingers.  Or maybe it was his toes.  Or when I cut off half of that fluffy tail of his.  ‘Course, it coulda been when I took a good-sized chunk out of an ear, too.  Oh—and I dislocated his jaw, just to make sure he won’t be talkin’ for a while.” 

The ferret couldn’t help but feeling a little cheered at the thought, and he was surprised at his bloodthirstiness.  Usually, he left that up to his patrons.  “You didn’t leave him to die, did you?”

Hank snorted.  “As much as I would have liked to, no.  I stayed just in case somebody needed to drop him at the hospital, but one of his butlers found him.”  He chuckled and reached into his jacket’s inside pocket.  “While I was waiting, I looked around and found these.”

Puzzled, Jons took the papers and smoothed out the wrinkles as he skimmed them.  “Adoption papers?”

The assassin nodded.  “Thought I should be thorough.  He had a whole bunch of ‘em filed, so I just grabbed the lot.  I’m tempted to let it leak to the press.”

“Why don’t you?”  He came to a paper-clipped stack with Cody’s name on it and stopped.

“Too much trouble.  No money in it.”  He paused.  “Free drinks, right?  That was the price?”

Jons nodded reluctantly.  This is gonna cost me. 

After the bear had left to redeem the promise, Jons returned to the girl’s bedside slowly and stood for a moment, staring at her.  Then, with a sigh, he sank back onto his chair.  “Sweetheart, I hope you’re worth it.”

He’d forgotten how much she hated to be called that, but that was the last time he ever forgot. With a shriek, Cody sat bolt upright in bed and backhanded him.  She hadn’t hit him that hard, but he sat, stunned for a moment as the papers settled on the floor.  Then, he grabbed her hands to stop her flailing.

“Easy!  It’s okay!”

Breathing heavily, she jerked away and looked at him blindly for a moment.  Then, she seemed to recognize him.  “J-j-jons?”

“Yeah, it’s me.  Can you tell me your name?”

She gave him a strange look, but replied, “Cody Hawkins.”

“Good,” he said.  “You need to relax before you hurt yourself.  Trixie said you’ve cracked a couple of ribs.  No one’s going to bother you here.  You know that.”

She stared at him, eyes wide and lower lip quivering, as if she wanted to break down and cry, but didn’t dare do it in his presence.  Her eyes had that same tense, hunted look he’d noticed when she’d awakened from the fever.  A wave of compassion hit him, and he gingerly sat beside her, trying desperately to think of something to say to help her.  He raised a hand as if to put it on her shoulder but drew back, unsure of whether to touch her or not.

Despite her best efforts, tears welled up and spilled over.  That did it.  He put an arm around her, but she pulled away with a choked cry.

“It’s okay.” He reached for her again and she collapsed, exhausted, against him and buried her face in his shoulder.

“I’m so s-scared!” she sobbed, clinging to him desperately.

He held her carefully, mindful of her cracked ribs, and soothingly stroked her hair as he whispered, “You’re going to be okay.  It’s going to be all right.”

He heard the faint squeak of his bedroom door and glanced up to see two silhouettes—a tall, gangly one with long ears and a short, round one—discreetly retreating.  He hadn’t even heard the door open and wondered briefly how long they’d been listening.  Then, he turned his attention back to Cody.    

When she finally cried herself out, she hung on to him for a long time, shivering.  She was still frightened, wondering what would happen to her and whether Fletcher would take her again.  She had no doubts in her mind that anything he’d done to her before would be nothing compared to what he would do now.

Still, she felt almost safe in Jons’s arms and didn’t want to let that feeling go.

Unfortunately, the ferret couldn’t say the same. 

Great.  What if she won’t let go?  He had a sudden vision of himself prying her off with a crowbar and he shook his head.

Eventually, she stopped shaking and released the very relieved bartender.  He gave her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes and sat back in his chair to regard her.  She seemed calmer now, though the madness that had lurked in her eyes was still there.  Jons hoped that all she needed was time. 

“Talk to me, girl.  How long has this been going on?”

“Ever since he adopted me.  He acted nice enough when we met, and I was glad to get out of that orphanage.  Then he started… beating me.”  She carefully blew her nose.

Jons noticed she didn’t mention the other things he had obviously been doing to her, but decided not to ask.  Those weren’t the type of things people talked about, not even the hard-bitten crowd to which he was accustomed.  If she wanted him to know, she’d tell him.  He considered telling her about his enlisted help, but chose not to.  He wanted that kept quiet.

“Well, I had a little… chat with him.  He saw things my way and you don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

“The girls at the orphanage told me he was bad news, but I didn’t believe them.  I was stupid. They said he took girls about my age and kept them for a while.  Then, he turned them out into the streets. I didn’t understand what they meant,” she said.

Jons was aghast.  “Didn’t the orphanage object?”

“He donates a lot of money there.  Money made people look the other way,” she said bitterly.

“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?”

Cody sniffed disdainfully.  “And what would you have done?  He’s got the law on his side.  He plays golf with the chief magistrate, for goodness’ sake!”

They were silent.  Cody looked at the covers and twisted a loose thread around one finger.  Jons stared thoughtfully at the wall over her head.

“I need some help in the bar,” he said suddenly.  She met his gaze, then glanced down again. “Not bartending.  Just cleaning, dishwashing, that sort of thing.”

Her brow furrowed.  “You’re not offering me the job, are you?”

“For the moment.  We’ll see how it works out.” He hesitated, still not sure that he was doing the right thing.  “And… you’re staying here.”

One corner of her mouth quirked into a rueful smile as she remembered what he had said the previous night.  “Thought you said I wasn’t.”

He rubbed a hand over his forehead.  “Look, I’m just giving you an option.  If you think you can do better on the streets, then you’re welcome to try it.”

“I can’t stay here,” she said.  “I just… I can’t.  He’ll find me.  I don’t care what you say.  I have to get out of here.  I can’t go back.  I won’t go back.”

“And you don’t have to.” Jons looked at her soberly.  “Nobody’s going to hurt you.  Nobody’s going to make you go back there.”

“You’re right,” she said firmly.  “I’m leaving and I’ll go so far away he won’t be able to find me.”

“Do you really think I’d let somebody hurt you if you stayed here?”

“You did before.”

“I didn’t know then!”  he protested.  “And you’re just a kid.  You need someone to look out for you.”

“I’m not just a kid.” She looked as if she’d swallowed something bitter.  “And he’ll find me!  He’ll find me and take me and…!”

“No, Cody.  No, he won’t.”

There was a grim determination and certainty about the bartender that made her bite back her protests and rising panic, though she couldn’t help muttering, “You don’t know.  You don’t know him at all.  He won’t give up.”

“Oh, I think he will.”  Jons studied her mutinous expression.  Finally, he said, “There’s no point in arguing now.  You won’t be going anywhere for awhile.  But think about it, okay?  If you want to leave, I won’t stop you.  If you stay here, I won’t let anyone hurt you, either.  Ever.

She blinked at his vehemence.  They stared at each other, then she smiled tentatively, though it hurt.  “Thanks, Jons.”

Yawning, he stood and stretched stiffly.  The muscles in his back and arms were already warning him that he was going to pay for scaling that fence.  “Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.  I’m going to bed.” 

He turned to go.

“Wait!” He glanced over his shoulder at her questioningly.  “Would you… would you stay with me?” She bit her lip and added a whispered, “Please?”

Jons blinked.  That was the last thing he thought he’d hear, and he certainly didn’t want to spend the night in a chair.  But he took one look at her battered, frightened face and nodded.  Realizing that he still wore the blood-smeared clothes, he found a clean pair of pants and a shirt and changed in the bathroom.  Then, he grabbed a blanket and pillow from the hall closet and returned to the bedroom where Cody relaxed visibly when she saw him.  Switching off the light, he reluctantly settled himself back on the chair.

“Thank you,” she whispered in the darkness.

He yawned.  “Don’t mention it.”

Cody lay beneath the covers, but found herself unable to sleep.  She hadn’t told Jons the whole story, and there were parts of it that she would have rather died than tell a soul.  There had been a haze of pain after Fletcher had kicked her in the ribs.  She had very little recollection of Jons and some other man breaking down the door and she was never able to recall how she’d come to be back at the bar.

Her head had cleared slightly after Trixie had given her some brandy, and she’d even been able to fall into an uneasy sleep that had been broken by the nightmare.  She’d heard a deep voice and thought that Fletcher had found her, but had settled slightly when she heard Jons’s soothing baritone.  Then, a masculine voice quite close to her had called her sweetheart and the nightmare had returned.  Again, she’d acted out of panicked desperation and lashed out.  She guessed she must have hit Jons, but she didn’t really remember.  She’d apologize to him later.  And she’d remind him not to call her sweetheart.

She listened to Jons’s gentle snoring and was grateful to him for staying with her—and even more grateful that he had come to her rescue.  He had an easy, open way about him that made her feel almost safe and his light Southern accent reminded her of home.  She still couldn’t quite bring herself to trust him completely, but it was enough that he didn’t ask any awkward questions and had offered her a job and place to stay.  As soon as she’d repaid him and saved up some money, she’d go back east and maybe find a ranch that needed help.  She had been around horses from the time she was born up until the plane crash, and she missed that.

Shivering, she glanced around the room.  Fletcher’s hands on her body had made her feel dirty in a way that she knew no amount of water could cleanse and every little noise made her jump.  It was so dark that she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and she had a paranoid vision of Fletcher sneaking in and snatching her.  She knew the fox wouldn’t take kindly to having his toy taken away from him before he was finished “playing” with her.

Well, I had a little… chat with him.  He saw things my way and you don’t have to worry about him anymore.

What had Jons meant by that?  Had he talked to Fletcher and somehow persuaded him to give her up?  She hoped so.  The girl wanted to believe Jons, yet… somehow she couldn’t. 

She nodded off after a while, but it was an uneasy sleep.  She dreamed that she was submerged in icy cold water.  Desperately, she clawed her way to the surface, but it was too far away.  She was never going to make it, and it felt as if there were a weight on her legs, dragging her into the salty depths.  Just as she was about to give up, someone grabbed her arm and hauled her to the surface.  Fletcher stood there, grinning at her.

“I saved you.  You owe me.”  He reached for her, and she screamed.

Cody!

With a choking gasp, she bolted upright.

Noooo!”

“Cody!  Wake up!”

Hands grabbed her and she lashed out desperately.

“Hey, take it easy!  Ow!”  The hands holding her shoulders let go abruptly.  A light snapped on, and Cody found herself looking blankly at Jons, who was rubbing his cheek.

“That’s some right hook you got there,” he said.  “You okay?”

“Y-yeah.”  Her voice was shaky.

“Sure?”

She swallowed hard and nodded.  He wasn’t convinced, but simply asked her to tell him her name—again.

“Cody,” she said, baffled.  “Why do you keep asking?”

“Trixie said you’ve got a concussion.  I just want to make sure you’re all right.”

“Oh.” She was oddly touched. 

He reached out to turn off the light.  The thought of returning to the darkness, where it seemed as if Fletcher were just waiting to snatch her, overwhelmed her, and she stopped him.

“Leave it on.  Please.”

He stared at her for a moment.  Her eyes were so wide they looked ready to pop out of her head and he noticed that she kept looking nervously around the room.  Finally, he said, “Only if you’ll lay back down.  Do you want anything?”

Her head and ribs were throbbing, but she shook her head and stiffly laid down.  She tried to curl into a ball, but that sent waves of pain through her body so she returned to laying uncomfortably on her back, staring at the ceiling.  She wanted to go to sleep and forget everything, but was too frightened to fall back to sleep easily.

With a sigh, Jons settled himself with his head on the mattress, hoping she wouldn’t make a habit of this.  His back and face were going to kill him in the morning.

 

End Part Four

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