Jimmy laid his head against the side wall of the stage and tried to shut out the insistent banter of the other passengers. How could they be so happy… how could they taunt him with their simple conversations… when inside he was dying…
Dying, like Lorilei.
The telegraph had looked innocent enough, printed on a piece of paper like any other letter or message, but the words had nearly felled him right there in the marshal’s office. It was from Teaspoon. It told him… warned him… that he better get home… that Lorilei was ill… and had taken a turn for the worst.
The telegrapher stood by, wringing his hands. “The operator in Rock Creek… he said your friend, Marshal Hunter, he was real upset… near tears. Word around town is your wife,” he cleared his throat, “she ain’t got more than a few days and-“
That’s all it had taken. His job forgotten, the waiting prisoner left waiting, Jimmy’d taken his coat from the hook beside the door and pulled his hat brim down to shade his face. Marshal Tucson called after him, demanding to know what he should do about the prisoner, asking him why he’d just given up the money for transporting the man.
The brim of his hat hid the tears gathering in his eyes, but it didn’t hide the waver in his voice. “Find someone else to do it. I’ve got to go home.”
To: James Hickok
From: Teaspoon Hunter
Come home. Wife ill. Hurry.
He’d nearly run his horse into foundering less than a day later and taken the stage when the only way he’d get a horse would have been by stealing one. Jimmy had been lucky to find one with no more than a few stops between Titus and Rock Creek and had left his saddle behind when it meant traveling faster.
Titus was a small town with nothin’ more than a store and a whorehouse, but it managed to have a telegraph in the whorehouse. Some folks want the best of everything.
The madam was a comely woman, but not one given to sentimentality. Still she managed to rustle up a few words of sympathy when she handed him the telegraph she’d copied down herself.
To: James Hickok
From: Teaspoon Hunter
When the stage had finally left Titus, Jimmy was at the breaking point. Sending telegrams ahead of their stage, he wanted to make sure that nothing was missed… that everything would be ready when he arrived. ‘Once I’m home,’ Jimmy thought, ‘I only want to do one thing, spend time with the woman I love before…’ his thoughts drifted off into the worry and pain he’d been drowning in since the telegram had arrived and he’d tried to get some rest.
But that wasn’t going to happen. The constant chatter of the other passengers was keeping him awake. Pulling the paper from his coat pocket he held it to the twilight rays of the sun outside his window.
Pain gripped his heart as he turned the paper over and reached into his coat for his pencil. Gnawing on his lower lip he struggled to gather his thoughts and pen a fitting tribute to the woman that had turned his life upside down with her sassy wit and love of life. By the time he’d fallen into a fitful sleep, James Hickok had worn down the point of his pencil and had written and re-written her eulogy nearly four times.
The driver shook him awake with care. While ‘Wild Bill’ no longer followed him around like a prized bull-mastiff, Jimmy’s reputation for his dead-on aim kept some folks at a distance. Sliding down from the stage, Jimmy started off in the direction of home.
Passing by the other passengers stretching their legs, he worked out his sore muscles with the long strides that ate up the distance between the stage office and home. He didn’t bother going to any of the businesses that he’d telegraphed. He’d trusted the operator to do his job; now he had to do his…
He hoped that he’d arrived with enough time to… say goodbye.
He half expected Teaspoon or perhaps even Polly to meet him in the entry, but the front room was quiet… almost too still. The air inside was sweet, with a faint… onion smell that had Jimmy quickening his steps. The path to the bedroom was familiar and yet his feet hesitated when he thought of what he might find inside. Steeling his nerves he set his hand on the knob of the door and turned. His head hung low in reverence he strode into the room. “Am I too late? Have I-”
A shrill reproachful yell had his head spinning with information.
The empty unmade bed.
The plate on the nightstand piled with sliced onions.
His wife standing in her chemise with a robe clutched to her chest.
Jimmy reached out to brace himself against the doorway as his brain began to spin in his head.
“Goodness, Jimmy! You nearly scared me to death…”
“What?” He was still trying to wrap his mind around the surreal scene before him.
“Just barging in here,” she waved her hand at the door as though it might push him out and into the hall, “you nearly had me jumping right out of my skin!”
He leaned back with the force of her words and tried to recover his balance. “Me? What about you!” He took a step forward and banged his knee into the bed frame, a choice string of words escaping his lips. “I come home, expecting to find you…” his hand swept over the bed, “and nearly,” the other waved impotently in the air, “and here you are…” he pressed his lips together as he struggled to find the right word, “dressing!”
She gaped at him. “Well, of course I’m dressing!” She yelled back. “Do you expect me to walk around the room in my underpinnings? What kind of a woman do you think I am?”
“I… I… “ His mouth gaped open before he waved off her question. “It’s not what I expected… oh never mind.” Jimmy turned and stepped out the door. “I’ll let you get dressed…”
Just before he shut the door her voice reached his ears. “It’s not like you’ve never seen me like this… silly ornery man…“
Jimmy paced from one wall of the main room to the other, trying to come up with something to say that didn’t sound like he was a horrible idiotic lout. It wasn’t going to be easy. He covered his face with his hands and let out an impatient breath.
When the last bit of air was gone from his lungs he heard the sound of wagon wheels coming up toward the house. His first thought as he turned to the door was that it was Teaspoon, but something told him his luck wasn’t going to be that good.
Craning his neck an inch or two and felt a groan fall into his middle. Damn Thom Johnson and the horses pulling his wagon. If there was ever a worse bit of timing-
Lorilei poked her head into the room and gave him a haughty glare before starting for the door.
Jimmy stepped in front of her and fought off a moan as she stopped short, eyes blazing in his direction. “Let me pass, Jimmy.”
He fiddled with a button on his shirt and shook his head. “Nope.” He gave her a little sheepish smile. “I don’t think we… ah, had a chance to talk.”
She gave him a suspicious look. “Talk?”
“Hickok?” A craggy old voice found its way through the window glass. “You in there?”
Lorilei craned her neck to see around him. “Who is that, Jimmy?”
“Who?” Suddenly his shirt collar felt a bit… tight. “What do you mean who?”
“You in there, Hickok?”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips together. “Don’t hear a thing, Honey.” He reached out and took a hold of her shoulders. “Why don’t you head on back into the kitchen and make me one of your roasts. I’m real hungry.”
“You don’t hear that voice?” She let Jimmy move her a few inches while her mind sought the thread in the jumble. “You want… a roast?”
Jimmy leaned in and brushed his lips over her cheek. “Sure… you make a-“
She whirled around and poked a finger in his chest. “Just a minute, Mr. Hickok.”
Lorilei heard the utterance and pressed her advantage. “Since when do you like my roasts?”
His grin should have coaxed one from her in answer. “Sweetheart, I’ve always liked your roasts-“
“Liar!” She jabbed her finger back into his chest. “You big ol’ liar!” Her lips curled into a frown. “You never liked my roast or my chicken pot pie.”
He reached out for her. “It’s growin’ on me.”
“Hickok? You want this or not… I got to be gettin’ back to the shop.”
Jimmy opened his mouth but Lorilei pressed her finger against his lips. “Why are you tryin’ to keep me from goin’ outside?” She stepped to move around him, but Jimmy dodged into her way. With a gleeful smile Lorilei brought the heel of her boot down on Jimmy’s instep.
Ignoring the howl of pain in her wake, Lorilei swept out the door and onto the porch. “Mr. Johnson?”
The elderly man swept the hat off his head and gave her a little nod. “Missus Hickok. You’re lookin’ mighty spry for a-.”
“A what, Mr. Johnson??” She swung around when she saw the old man’s gaze slid ‘over’ her shoulder. “What?”
Jimmy stopped his frantic hand motions and went to work dusting off his coat. “Not now, Johnson.”
Lorilei gave her husband a cross look for his sharp tone. “Jimmy!” Stepping back she swept her hands over the stairs to invite the older man to step up and join them. “Mr. Johnson came all the way to tell you something. I think you owe it to him to-”
“Oh no, Ma’am.” Thom balled his hat brim up in his hands and nodded over at Jimmy. “I come to deliver the box that your mister ordered.”
“Box?” Lorilei rose on the balls of her feet to peer into the back of his wagon. “I don’t see a box in there… there’s only that co-cof-coffin!”
She took a step back, her gaze flying to Jimmy in alarm. “You bought a coffin for me?”
Reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out the paper that the message was printed on and a little gust of air gave it wing, just out of the reach of his fingertips. He watched as it fluttered to the ground.
Lorilei crouched down and picked up the paper. Jimmy hissed out a breath from between his teeth and knew that any reaction she was going to have was going to be bad.
She reread his handwritten words over again and her fingers shook with silent rage. Problem was, with Lorilei, the rage only stayed silent so long. “James Butler Hickok!”
‘Here we go.’
Thom. He was still there.
Without takin’ his eyes off of his wife, Jimmy gave Thom a pointed look. “You’d best get out of here, Thom.”
“But, Hickok,” he looked at the bed of the wagon, “the box-“
Jimmy pointed a finger at the aging man. “Git, Thom… or you just may be a witness to a murder.”
The old man gave a stuttering step and looked up worried. “You gonna hurt that wife of yours, Hickok?”
Lorilei took a step forward, stretching her spine as straight as an arrow and Thom shifted his gaze as well as his thoughts. “Then again, looks like you might end up in this box come mornin’.”
Holding up his hand the undertaker gave a petulant sigh. “Yeah… yeah… Git, Thom… like I’m some kind of slave… ain’t got any feelin’s… not Thom… jus-“
His mumbled tirade didn’t end there, but the squeaks from the wagon covered over much of his rant.
Jimmy looked back at Lorilei prepared to see her standing there with a gun pointed at his head. He expected it.
He was wrong.
Lorilei looked as though she was on the verge of tears; the line of her lips was quivering with the effort she took ‘not’ to fall apart.
He wanted to make it better. He wanted to hold her and tell her he was sorry, but he wasn’t sure she’d take the opportunity to make herself a widow while she had the chance. “Lorilei… sweetie, I’m sor-“
“You had me dead and buried, Jimmy.” She held the paper out to him, her eyes filled with pain. “You wrote a whole list of things to do for the funeral.” She looked down at the paper again. “Did you write my eulogy?”
Jimmy covered his neck with his hand and rubbed at the invisible noose he was sure he felt closing in. “I thought you were dead!”
“Maybe it was just… wishful thinking on your part, Mister Hickok. Was that it?” She crumpled up the paper and threw it against the hard wall of his chest before she ran upstairs leaving a heartbroken trail of tears behind her.
Jimmy busied himself in the kitchen a few hours later, deciding that his wife was bound and determined to make him pay for his honest mistake; he wasn’t going to starve waiting for her to exact her revenge. So far he’d managed to burn the steak and eggs he’d tried cooking, but then again, he wasn’t too particular about it as long as it filled his belly.
He barely noticed the hesitant knocking on the kitchen door.
Pushing the half eaten plate aside Jimmy answered the door and growled at Teaspoon. “What do you want?”
The surprise on the older man’s face was plain as day. “What’s wrong, Son?”
“What’s wrong?” Jimmy stomped back to the table and lifted up the crumpled piece of paper and held it up in front of the aging marshal. “This is what’s wrong, Teaspoon.”
Taking the paper in his hands he lifted it up to the light and squinted at it. “Why… it’s that tely-graphy thing I sent you when Lorilei was feelin’ poorly.”
“Poorly?” Jimmy came up behind the man and jabbed a finger at the words.
The look on Teaspoon’s face was one of injured reproach. “Son? I’ll have you know that I’m not a man used to folks talkin’ to me like that. Especially when I done you a favor. Especially since I wired you the instant her fever broke.”
“A favor,” Jimmy scoffed, “what you’ve done is got me sentenced to sleepin’ in the barn for the rest of the century.”
Teaspoon flipped the paper over and took in the mess of scribbles on the backside. “Son? Is this what I think it is?”
Jimmy flopped down into his chair at the table and stabbed his steak with his fork. “You can read what it says for yourself.”
“You thought…” Teaspoon’s voice was filled with worry, “but Jimmy… that’s not what-” scratching at his hairline, the older man suddenly slapped the paper against his leg. “Ah hell, … I thought the message was clear. Her fever broke and I didn’t want you to worry, but I didn’t have more than a few coins in my pockets that day. Had to make do with a few words less than I should have sent.”
“What?” He snatched the paper back and read and reread the lines again. “You mean this is your doin’?”
Recognizing the sharp reproach in Jimmy’s eyes Teaspoon tried to ward off the younger man’s anger. “I can see that I’m not wanted here. Humph. I guess I’ll be headin’ back and-”
Jimmy stood in the doorway, blocking Teaspoon’s escape. “Uh uh.” His eyes were dark with anger. “You’re gonna march right up them stairs and tell my darlin’ wife that this whole thing was your fault.”
Teaspoon balked at the idea until Jimmy reached for the doorknob. “I guess I’ll head over to your place and let Polly know that-“
“Aw heck!” Teaspoon threw his hands up in the air in surrender. “If it’ll help you sleep at night, I’ll do it.”
Jimmy watched as the old man hobbled to the stairs. “At least now I’ll be in my own bed.”
Lorilei’s outraged scream shot through the floorboards. “What?”
A crash followed and Jimmy leaned back in his chair as Teaspoon’s voice rose in volume.
Jimmy speared a piece of steak with his fork and stared at the grey colored meat. “Then again, maybe not.”
*Dedicated to Lori, who requested this story, albeit in a slightly different form. She asked for a story where Jimmy takes care of his sick wife, but alas... I couldn't do it. So she agreed to a different kind of story... loves ya!