The room was still his for the night. Then again the owner certainly wouldn’t mind if he vacated the room early. There was always someone that needed a room.
Always someone who would pay even though the room had already been paid for.
Space was unlimited in the west, even now… but, a good room with a roof, walls and windows that were whole enough to keep the wind out? That was gold anywhere you went.
Quickly folding up his clothes, Buck tucked them away into his packs with practiced ease. This wasn’t the first time he’d leave a room… a town… before his time. It was just easier that way sometimes. It was just easier to leave before folks knew about it. That way you didn’t have to run for your life. You didn’t have to sneak away. You could ride out with your head held high.
That’s why he was going.
There were only two rooms on either side of the hallway and so he didn’t worry about disturbing his neighbor with packing. He was quiet enough, but the room was empty and so he had nothing to worry about. Jennifer had left in the early morning hours, deciding that an early departure was better for her as well.
She was on her way to see her father and still, after all these years
it was unsettling for her.
The stage driver was ready to go and he made no excuses for his terse tone of voice. “You got two minutes and then I’m back on the road. I ain’t got time for no tears or weepy women!”
Buck handed her last bag up to the shotgun driver and he tied them down with the others on the back of the stage. Buck didn’t know what to say and he knew it was the same for Jennifer. She was a quiet woman and while he admired that about her, it only meant that they rarely had much to talk about. They could sit over a meal and manage not to say a thing until the dessert arrived.
It was strangely comforting in one moment and disturbing in the next. She tried to give him a smile and yet it didn’t reach all the way up to her eyes and so they knew… that it was time. Time to move on. Time to move on… alone.
She put out her hand and he took it, lacking the knowledge of what else would
be acceptable. “Thank you, Buck. It has been a nice time, seeing you again.”
He nodded, unable to trust his voice.
“I’d offer to send your greetings to my… my father, but-”
“I doubt he’d be happy to hear that you’ve seen me.”
Nodding, she withdrew her hand from his and put it down at her side. “I don’t think he’ll ever change.”
“Some don’t. You have though,” he paused, looking for the right words, “you found a way to make peace with yourself, the way you feel about your life, that is the strength that you carry with you.”
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and turned a cautious gaze his way.
“I’m not so sure, Buck, I still feel from time to time as though everyone can see how different I am. When I’m not thinking about each and every behavior, gesture, it can be embarrassing.” She looked over at the stage and caught the shotgun driver giving them a curious look. “I can see that they’re wondering what it is that seems so strange. They never come out and ask, but I know that’s what they’re thinking. I can feel it.”
He nodded, even though he didn’t understand.
Pausing just outside his room, Buck nodded to a passing woman, his hat held in his hands. Wondering where to head… what to do. There wasn’t much to recommend any town over another to him. Nothing called to him… no where he-
“Hey you...” a young boy stood doubled up at the top of the stairs, one hand grasping at the wooden rail as if his life depended on it, his other hand clutched a paper squashed against his knee, “you Mister Cross?”
“Humph, figures I’d run all this way and you’d be an Indian.” He held out the hand with the paper and moved forward, steps carefully picked across the hall as though he were avoiding a rattler. “Here, take it.”
Buck held out his hand for the paper and was reaching into his pocket when the boy recoiled with real fear mixed into his eyes. Under the boy’s watchful gaze he pulled a coin from his pocket and lightly tossed it at him. The boy’s hand grasped at the coin, fingers extended in claws and dropped the paper as he careened down the stairs, leaving Buck to pick up the paper on his own.
He slung his bag over his shoulder and set his hat on his head as he emerged into the sunlight outside the hotel, still mottled with early morning clouds.
The handwriting was stiff and barely schooled, but the message came across clear enough.
Now he knew where he had to go, he had a funeral to attend.
One Week Earlier
That was the first thought that flew through her head when she saw the ripples in the tin cup on the counter. The water rolled from one side of the cup to the other and her heart froze in fear. For a moment she forced her mind to quiet and went back to snapping green beans in half, absent mindedly tossing them into the pot heating on the stove.
Looking out the window, Lou spent a moment judging the hour. It was twilight and Kid and Jeremiah would be home soon. *snap* again and again she kept her mind on supper, *snap* using every ounce of energy to keep from worrying.
Her hands braced against the edge of the counter, Lou gasped in surprise as nausea rolled down her spine and back up through the center of her body. She pressed a hand to her middle and staggered to the door. “Kid… ‘Miah… no!”
A moment later the door to their cabin gaped open as Lou ran for the mine, a little more than a mile away.
When the walls began to twist and sway, he knew the signs. He’d heard it described numerous times by other men, the survivors of mine collapses.
Grabbing Jeremiah’s collar he propelled the boy forward. “Let’s go… hurry.”
Tools fell by the wayside as other men pushed and shoved their way past them.
The passageway suddenly leaned to the left, rock slipping with a silent rush of darkness. Somewhere to the left a man cried out and the crackle of glass and metal heralded the expansion of darkness in the cave. A lantern had fallen nearby.
Jeremiah’s steps faltered and Kid pushed the younger man ahead. Rocks and dirt rained down on their heads as the faint purple of twilight winked at them from the end of the shaft. “Keep moving.”
“It hurts, Kid… it burns…”
He could feel it in his lungs, dust and quartzite, it covered everything and it was inside their bodies… made it hard to breathe at best, seared their lungs at worst.
“I know, Jere, but I promised Lou… I promised-” the rest of his words were cut off by a cough, a violent seizing of his lungs that left him weak, knowing that he’d never make it out through the torrent of stone and heat. He saw her in his mind, her eyes framed with worry-lines as she tried to be brave. He’d promised her like he did every day that he’d bring Jeremiah home safely. Well, he wouldn’t be bringing the boy anywhere, but he’d give him a fighting chance.
“Dammit, Jeremiah, run!”
His hands pushed on the slim shoulders of his young brother-in-law and he gave him every ounce of energy he had to propel him toward the soft purple light ahead. As soon as the soft wool of Jeremiah’s shirt was no longer beneath his fingers he sank to his knees and pulled his hands into his lap… and prayed.
“Please… please… I need to know about my husband… my brother!” Lou shouldered her way through the gathering crowd, her hands flexing against her skirts as she sought a face that she knew could provide information.
Tom Wexel, the elder of the Mine Owner’s sons emerged from the tree line just to the east of the mine, covered in dirt and something darker, like oil against his skin. Lou’s breath seized in her chest. “Blood.”
Darting away from the crowd at the gate she hiked up her skirts to climb through the opening in the fence and ran after him, her fears racing through her head and nearly tripping up her feet. “Tom… Tom, wait.”
He stopped, his shoulders lifting with strain. “I can only give you some good news, Louise.”
She circled around in front of him, her eyes already searching for the information in his features. “Then I’ll take that for now, Tom… I’ll take anything at this point.”
Reaching out, he took her arm and started leaded her to a group of tents off behind some trees, trees that offered enough shade to keep prying eyes away.
“Jeremiah’s out of the mine. He was near the entrance when it caved. He was
knocked out by the blast, most were, but he’s alive…”
His words drifted off, but her mind picked up on the tone. He said he’s alive… but the rest of the sentence that he couldn’t bring himself to say was ‘for now.’
She broke away from Tom’s grasp when she saw her brother’s curls lying dark across his forehead and his eyes glazed in pain. Louise heard Tom calling her name, trying to get her to stay with him… to not see the blood, but he didn’t know… how could he know that a little blood wasn’t going to deter her from seeing Jeremiah and make sure he was going to live.
Because he was.
“’Miah, you’ve got to lay still,” she knelt beside him, her hands firmly anchoring his shoulders to the ground as fellow miners prodded at his leg with simple tools, “we’re going to get you well, but first… you have to tell me… where’s Kid?”
“Kid,” the name fell from his lips a question, but his words following were
in a rush of pain, “Oh, God, Louise… he got me out… he got me to the entrance… and then… that’s all I remember, all I heard. The rush of noise and his voice telling me to get out.” His hand clamped down on hers, his torn nails nearly pulling flesh from the backs of her hands. “He’s gone, Louise… gone.”
“NO.” The denial was instinctive and brought a trio of curious stairs. She turned to the men at the foot of Jeremiah’s pallet and she fixed her stare on their faces. “Don’t do anything else to him.”
“His leg’s got to come off, ma’am.”
“The hell it does.” She looked around and found Tom standing at the edge of the group. “Tom, tell them to back off right now, or I’m heading home for my gun and I’ll make them.”
His look was resigned. “You can try to save his leg, Louise, but in all likelihood, he’s gonna-“
She whirled on him, a smear of Jeremiah’s blood already darkening the front of her skirt. “Don’t, Tom… this isn’t up for discussion. I’m going to stay here and try to save my brother’s leg… and you and your men are going to go back in there and find my husband.”
“Louise, I’m sorry-“
Turning back to her brother her voice was still clear as a bell as it fell on the ears of the gathered miners. “Find my husband, Tom… that’s all I’m asking. Whatever it is that happened to him, this mine company, your father’s company owes him that much.”
Hours later, Teresa sat at Jeremiah’s bedside, her skin pale from exhaustion and the lack of food. She had found, like many others that day, that she lacked the stomach to see the raw insides of a man’s body, and now, with Jeremiah’s leg bandaged up and elevated on the bed, she could finally take her turn to watch over her brother.
“He’s goin’ to be all right, isn’t he Louise?”
Her head lifted up from the thick cushion of her arm and she looked at her sister with eyes red from strain and a determined absence of tears.
“They’ll both be fine, Teresa… you’ll see. They’ll both be fine and heading off to work again… someday soon.”
Teresa twisted the fancy kerchief in her hands and looked from her sister’s determined expression back to her brother’s pale skin. “But we haven’t had any word about Kid, and-”
“They’ll find him.” Louise leaned heavily against the wall, staying on her feet through sheer determination alone. “They’ll find him and we’ll be fine. I promise you, Teresa. We’ll be fine.”
She bobbed her head, her loosely bound curls tumbling over her shoulders. “Bran said they’ll have the mine back to work in a day or so.”
‘The Mine.’ The words grated her on her nerves like nails clawing through wood, shattering and tearing as they went. “That should make their father very happy.” She couldn’t bear to look and see if she’d hurt Teresa with her tone, she couldn’t look and find out, because at that moment, she had the ability to apologize, but not to mean it.
“He said that his father would make sure that the families of the… injured are cared for.”
Louise nodded as she went back to staring out the window. “Sounds more like Tom, than Branford.”
“Well,” Teresa answered, “they were both saying it, I heard them.”
“Good.” Louise gathered the ends of her shawl closer to her body and moved to the door. “I need to walk a bit. Call me if ‘Miah needs me.”
Sometime early the next morning, Louise awoke to the gentle shaking hands of Mrs. Wexel. “Louise… they found Kid-”
That was all it took to get her on her feet. Louise barely registered the sympathetic looks thrown her way, she clung to Mrs. Wexel’s arm and allowed herself to be led through the tents. Tom stood outside, but she didn’t give him more than a passing glance as she stepped inside. The dawn had yet to break the horizon so the inside was lit with a couple of oil lamps.
It wasn’t enough to read by, but it was certainly enough to break her heart.
“I told them to wait… until you’d seen him.” Mrs. Wexel was holding her up at this point, that was the only reason she could still be on her feet. “They wanted to get him down to the undertaker’s but-”
Louise sank down on the grassy floor beside the makeshift cot they’d laid Kid out on and she gently stroked the side of his face. “You got him out in time, Kid. You saved Jeremiah and now they brought you back to me. They brought you back to me.”
The tears came from hours before, building up behind the wall of hope that she’d cobbled together when she’d felt the first quakes in the ground, and set free when she knew he was gone. Gone from her life. Gone from her future.
What would she do now?
'tis a song… a sigh of the weary
hard times... hard times come again no more
many days you have lingered around my cabin door
oh, hard times come again no more
'tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
'tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
oh, hard times come again no more
|Saying Hello, Saying Goodbye
The knock was firm and insistent, "Oh fine! I'll be right there!"
"I'll get it, Louise…" Jeremiah reached for his crutch and recoiled as his sister gently tapped his hand.
"You just sit down and let me get it."
He sank back into the cushions and grumbled beneath his breath. "I'll never get back on my feet again if you won't let me get on my feet."
Louise turned and gave him a saucy wink. "Keep it up, 'Miah and I'll make you do the laundry."
She reached the door and swung it open before taking a glance out the window. The hulking frame outside rumbled with sound. "You should have asked who it was first. You never know what kind of wild man might be out here… ready to rip you limb from limb… or have his way with you." He swept off his hat a moment before Louise threw herself into his arms.
"That's right, little girl, and you're lucky it's me and not some foul tempered woman-hungry mountain man."
Louise cuffed him on the shoulder and corrected him. "If that's not what you are, then I better wait for the real mountain man to show up and-"
"Just come over here and give me another hug before I take you seriously and turn you over my knee."
Her mouth popped open and her eyes shone wide with outrage for a moment before she dissolved in giggles and sobs all at the same time. "Oh, Jimmy… I'm so glad you came."
He gathered her tight into his arms and brushed his lips against her cheek. "I'm glad I came, Lou… I'm just sorry it took so long."
"Better late than never, Jimmy…"
He nodded and brushed the hair back from her face. "Let's go see the Kid."
Buck stopped at the Livery first off and tried not to laugh at the look of shock on the stable boy's face when a 'red man' slid off a 'real' saddle. Once the boy stopped gaping at him he was able to get directions to the cemetery at the far end of town.
The journey to Wexelville had taken longer than he'd anticipated, coming in nearly a week after the services had been held. He wasn't sure what to expect but coming through the painted white gate he was shaken by how many of the graves looked new. The paper he'd picked up at the train station a few days back had listed the number of dead and missing. It seemed, by a quick count of 'new' graves that some of the missing had been found… and their number added to the dead.
Louise rode in on her own mount, pacing Jimmy's bay stallion length for length. The ride was freeing… fun… more fun than she'd had in… the smile on her face sobered as reality set in. Their destination, the reason for Jimmy's visit. She fought off the reminders, fought to keep her smile, knowing that once they reached the cemetery she'd fall to pieces again.
Mr. Robertson, the livery owner, stumbled outside when he saw her and frantically waved his arms to get her attention. "Louise!"
She slowed her mount and leaned down. "What's wrong?"
"There's an Indian up at the cemetery. Should I get the sheriff?"
She blinked at him, disbelieving. "Get the Sheriff? What has he done?"
The man scrubbed at his chin with his fingers, digging into his scrub of a beard. "Good Lord knows what he's doin' up there… he could be stealin' from the graves for all we know." He caught sight of the man on the other horse. "Who's that with you?"
"An old friend, Mr. Robertson, don't you worry. We'll check in at the cemetery, I'm goin' to see the Kid anyway."
He waved them off. "Good… you go and see him and make sure that 'stranger' ain't doin' nothin' bad up there."
Louise gave Jimmy a nod and they were gone.
Louise was off and running before her mount stopped beside the cemetery gate. She flew into Buck's arms and for the second time that day, dissolved into laughing tears that threatened to erode any progress she'd made in the last week. It was one thing to go through the funeral with the town standing around watching, but to have two of her oldest friends standing with her… it was nearly her undoing.
"I was hoping you'd come!"
He wrapped his arms around her and wondered if she'd been this slight during their time with the Express or if the years had whittled her down into her current form. "I came as soon as I got the letter, Louise. I only wish I'd been here to-"
She stood back, holding up a hand in protest. "You're here now… and I think Kid would've wanted it to be like this. Something quiet. Private. Not just one in the midst of twenty with everything a mess of sound and anger."
Buck gave Jimmy a nod, knowing they'd speak later…
He tucked Lou against his side and felt her head press against his shoulder. Closing his eyes against the sudden onslaught of tears, Buck began to pray.
Louise brushed past Teresa in the doorway and hung her coat up on a peg near the windows. "You've been gone most of the day, honey… 'Miah and I were worried."
She shrugged and pulled her hair up atop her head as she looked in the tin mirror beside the door. "You know I was in town visitin' with Bran's mother. She and I have become fast friends."
"Wonderful, did you bring the groceries from the mercantile that I asked for?"
The younger woman froze for a quick moment before whirling around. "Louise!"
Louise leaned on Buck's shoulder and gave him a look that said it wasn't totally unexpected. "You forgot."
Dropping her hair and settling her fists on her hips she searched her mind for an excuse. "I wanted to come home and look after Jeremiah… you told me that we should change his bandage. I wanted to help."
"Lovely." Louise gave her younger sister a smile. "Why don't you take Buck in with you… he'll recognize the poultice and he'll tell us if we need to do something different."
"You want me to go too?" Jimmy leaned against the wall, watching as Louise moved around the kitchen with practiced ease. "I can check on the boy."
"Boy?" Louise paused near the counter, her hands occupied with a rectangular tray. "I forget how long it's been since you've visited!"
Buck and Teresa disappeared into the back part of the cabin, leaving the two old friends.
Jimmy crossed over to her side, leaning against the counter a few feet away. "I've been busy… you know how it goes. Make money, spend money-"
"Poker or Faro?"
Shaking his head, Jimmy reached over and lifted the lid of a jar only to have his hand smacked by a spoon. "Ow… you know me better 'n' that Lou. " He laughed at her dubious look and help up his hands in surrender. "Fine… poker. I can't catch a break with you, can I?"
She leaned on the counter and smiled at him. "It's not that I disapprove…" she lifted loaf of bread from the food safe and set it on the block, "I just wish you did something that didn't usually end up with someone pulling a gun on you."
He picked the top slice right off the blade and ripped it in two. "I don't know what you've heard, Lou… but gamblin' ain't about folks gunnin' to kill you... that's the law. You'd have more cause to worry 'bout me if I was wearin' a badge." He gave her a winning smile and popped a piece of the bread into his mouth. "It's good," he mumbled by way of a compliment.
Resisting the urge to fling the next piece at his head she went back to cutting the loaf of bread, they hadn't had company in awhile.
Buck entered the room on silent feet, but it didn't matter, Teresa moved ahead of him and threw open the window shade. "Are you up?"
Jeremiah rubbed at his eyes and squinted up at his sister. "You're lucky I'm stuck in this bed."
She ignored his gruff words and reached behind him, yanking a pillow from underneath his head.
Flopping back against the mattress Jeremiah's left hand reached down to grip onto his leg, fingers digging into his thigh. "Teresa!"
Taking the moment to push the pillow under his leg. "Buck came to see how you were doing. So be nice and let him look."
Jeremiah lifted himself up on an elbow and smiled. "When Jimmy showed up I thought you might be comin' too."
Buck looked away for a moment as Teresa milled around the room, straightening everything that was already in place. "I should have come sooner. I wanted to, but-"
"Louise said the first two telegraphs didn't reach you. I told her you would find out when you found out. She was supposed to be helping me with the wedding plans."
Teresa gave Buck a dazzling smile. "I'm marryin' Bran Wexel in a week. His Papa owns six mines in this part of the country."
"You sound happy." Buck turned and leaned over Jeremiah's leg, lifting the edge of the bandage around his wound. He carefully schooled his features to make sure that he didn't scare Jeremiah… no matter what. "I'm sure Lou thought it was important to let us know."
Plucking at a speck on her skirt she sighed. "I guess, but really… all she had to do was tell that old marshal friend of yours… that's how she ended up knowin' how to find you."
Jeremiah caught the slight confusion in Buck's expression and translated for his sister. "Teaspoon."
Buck gave a slight nod as he continued to study the wound, unwrapping the bandage slowly as he went. "It's healing."
"Thanks to Louise."
His gaze lifting slightly, Buck waited.
"She said you showed her a poultice once, when Ike's leg was cut falling off his horse."
"The wedding will be the social event of the year." Teresa added as she looked through the things on Jeremiah's chest of drawers.
"It's a good dressing. How often do you change it?"
"Do we have to talk about this-"
Jeremiah rolled right over his sister's words. "Not often enough for Louise… too many times according to Teresa."
She wrinkled her nose. "It's horrifying… no one should have to face such a nasty job."
Buck began to rewrap the wound. "It's done well. You should heal up soon."
Jeremiah nodded slowly. "The doctor told me I'd live out the rest of my life in a wheelchair."
Teresa, bothered by the news, left the room with a swish of skirts.
Sitting down in the chair beside the bed, Buck tilted his head to the side and watched Jeremiah's expression. "What did he say after Lou gave you the poultice?"
Jeremiah shrugged. "He hasn't been back to see me since."
The Kiowa felt the tension line the planes of his face. "Why not?"
"It's expensive and," he swept a hand over his leg, "I'm out of work."
"'Miah…" Louise's voice was filled with pain and turned Buck's head. "Buck doesn't need to know that. He doesn't need to know."
Buck was on his feet before she left the room but he didn't go after her. Didn't tell her that he was going to take care of it… that he was going to stay.
May your soul be blest
|Before Our Eyes|
All the stars that fill the sky
They burn out before our eyes
All the sadness you carried inside
You never showed it, it was easy to hide
You'd tell your stories in all their sorrow
You'd take the stage like there was no tomorrow
Buck knocked on the side of the door frame and Lou nodded a greeting as she caught sight of him out of the corner of her eyes. "Can I help with anything?"
Her hands stilled in the middle of a pool of white satin and she gave him a weary smile. "Not right now, but thanks… Teresa's gone off with Mrs. Wexel and to be honest? I'm glad. It's been hectic enough around here with the ceremony only a few days away. I can use a few moments to myself." She laughed when Buck turned to the door. "Don't get any ideas of runnin' for the hills; I can probably remember a few things about tracking."
He stepped closer instead and took a good look at the fabric nestled in the box between layers of tissue. "That's your dress. The one you wore to-"
"Marry Kid. I brought it out of my trunk and asked Teresa if she wanted to use it. It's the closest thing we have to an heirloom in our family."
"You're putting it away. Maybe she doesn't realize-"
She reached over and picked the lid of the box up by one of the edges and lifted it over the bottom. "No… no, she has a different idea for what she wants her day to be. That's how it should be. She's a young woman now and can make up her own mind."
Buck saw the shadow that crossed Lou's expression and reach out to help her settle the top on the box. "She's so wrapped up in the excitement, Lou."
Lou sucked in a breath as she lifted the box into the air. "There's so much to consider and it's not just our family. Bran's family is the…" she looked up at Buck with a wry smile, "well, they own the mine… might as well own the town. Teresa's gonna have a responsibility that I'll never be able to understand or even begin to help her with." She deposited the box into the bottom corner of her trunk and stood, dusting off her hands. "I offered her my dress. I offered to give her a little bit of the happiness that Kid and I had… and she wanted her own dress. That's how it should be." She gave him a sideways look. "I'm probably bein' silly tryin' to keep this thing around. I should have left it behind, should have tossed it out."
Buck started to move closer, thinking to offer her his support, but he froze when she continued.
"She wanted something 'modern… elegant.'" Her voice had a tremor in it one that he couldn't see reflected in her face. All he could see was the years that had settled so easily on her face. The wisdom and maturity that had graced her life even as sorrow had darkened the light in her eyes. "Mrs. Wexel was kind enough to have a dress ordered in from New York. The height of fashion according to Godey's."
There were only a few feet between them and suddenly the space was too much for Buck. He moved forward closing the gap by half. "It still hurt."
Her eyes turned up to him and he could see the shimmering of tears clinging to her lashes. "It hurt, but it's just the part of me that's still a silly little girl wanting to bring up her siblings and keep a family together without any real idea of what it takes."
He reached out and took her hand. "It's not that… you did what you could. You and Kid both. You took them both into your home even though it should have been just the two of you making a life together. You gave them your love and wanted to be with them."
"But then… they had to grow up and leave me alone again."
There it was the one gap in the clouds, the one hole where rain could leak through. He didn't want her to hurt. Didn't want her to feel like she was alone. "Lou, I-"
She heard Jeremiah's voice and quickly swiped at her tears with the back of her hand before she turned around, her hand still in Buck's. "What is it, 'Miah?"
He gave her a lopsided grin and shrugged, as much as one could with crutches under your arms. "I wanted to take a walk outside… it's not that cold."
Buck felt the tremor in her hand where they were touching and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
"I know…" she looked out the window, her eyes measuring the chill of the air by the frost on the glass and the light dusting of snow on the trees.
"I can go with him." Buck let loose of her hand and stepped up beside her. "I've been meaning to go and gather some evergreens for decoration. Jeremiah told me that he's been doing it for the last few years." He looked down into her face and gently stroked the side of her arm. "I'd hate for a tradition to go overlooked this year."
She nodded slowly and watched Buck skirt around Jeremiah to get the door open before he reached it. With Buck helping her this last week, it almost seemed… possible. It almost seemed like the world was going to keep turning. She moved over to the window and watched the two men make a slow circle about the yard; Jeremiah's slighter frame cast a little shadow on the snowy ground beside the broad-shouldered image beside it.
Jimmy rode up just in time to turn around and head back into town. The fact left him in a sour mood and he let them all know it… right before he let out a gut-busting laugh and galloped a wide circle around the buckboard.
Jeremiah's laughter soon joined his and Buck was happy to see the lines etched around her eyes smooth away as Jimmy's voice rose up in song, a bawdy song full of all sorts of scandalous words and soon Jeremiah had one hand over his face as he shook with laughter. Buck just raised an eloquent brow and made Lou smile. It was something he wanted to see more often.
"Mrs. Wexel, I'd like to thank you again for all you've done these last few weeks." Louise smiled as the older woman settled her hand over hers.
"There's not a single thing for you to thank me for, Louise. Teresa is a beautiful young girl and we're so happy to have her marry Bran."
"She's fair to burstin' with happiness, I don't think she even realizes that the day's almost over." Louise saw her sister in the center of a group of young ladies, only a few that she knew well enough to call by their first name. "She's very happy."
"And we're happy to have her as a part of our family." Mrs. Wexel brightened when she recognized another in the crowd over her shoulder. "Oh excuse me, Louise." She was gone moments later and Lou struggled to find her way out of the tangle of dancers. It all reminded her of Sweetwater so many years ago when she was an outcast because she couldn't admit who she was… and now, the recent widow at the wedding, it was-
She whirled around and nearly bumped into a friendly face. "Buck, oh thank goodness, someone I can talk to without worrying."
"Worrying?" His infectious smile helped to ease the strain from her shoulders. "What's there to worry about? The wedding was beautiful and the party… it's put to shame anything I've ever seen."
Louise nodded and cleared her throat. "True. It's just the wedding Teresa dreamed of and now I need a few minutes of quiet." She looked up into his happy face. "I'm gonna head outside and take a few breaths of the cool night air."
"I think I might try to get a dance." He looked down into her questioning gaze. "I am an old friend of the bride."
Louise gave her friend's arm a gentle squeeze and pointed him in the direction of her sister.
The quartet at the front of the room struck up the first few chords of a Schottische and Buck fell into step with the others. He knew the steps, he'd been to a few dances… danced at a few, but the simple repetitive steps were easy to learn and memorize. The young woman facing him across the line was shy and barely met his gaze but it didn't matter.
He made his way through the patterns and finally ended up with a delightful young partner with a willing smile. Her comely blush slipped into the hairline just above her ears. "Teresa?"
"That's Mrs. Wexel, now."
He saw the twinkle in her eyes as he took her hand to change lines with her. "Never imagined you'd grow up to be as pretty as you are."
"Really?" Her look was haughty, but her eyes shone with laughter. "Did you think I'd be plain for the rest of my life?"
"Not plain…" they shifted positions again, each of them circling around a dancer to their right, "I just never thought you'd grow out of those braids you liked so much."
"You remembered!" She reached out for his hand to complete the next figure, but the hand that took hers wasn't Buck. "Bran?"
He yanked her a step closer so she was nearly flush against "What do you think you're doin'?"
"Bran… you're hurtin' my arm."
He pulled her closer and gave Buck a hard look. "You ain't welcome."
"He was invited, Bran… he's an old friend."
"I don't care… folks like him don't need to be around you… around any of my family."
"Bran!" Teresa's expression was torn, but Buck's pain suffered next to Bran's ire. "Don't do this… not here… not now."
Bran stepped back and pulled her along with him, the crowd pulling apart, the rows from the dance making a natural path but he pushed through their lines. Teresa moved along behind him, her gaze resigned and downturned.
The night was inky and oddly still even just a few feet from the door. There was an odd peace in the moment, knowing that she'd soon have to return inside if only to satisfy folks that she was still holding up. That she wasn't going to crumple into weeping sobs and prove that she'd been wrong. Wrong to go on with the wedding so soon after the accident… wrong that she could go it on her own… wrong that she'd be able to find an identity other than wife and 'mother'.
Then again, there was still Jeremiah. He would still need her during his recovery. There was still some reason to go on besides sheer stubbornness on her part.
"You've got that look."
She froze mid-thought, her mind whirling around in a frustrated mess. "What look?" She couldn't quite keep the hard edge from her voice as she struggled to paste on the happy smile she'd practiced.
Buck eased in beside her, his arm pressed against the rail as he looked around the darkened street. "The look that says you're going to do exactly what you set out to do… even though you'd rather run for the hills. Kid called it your 'stubborn' look."
The answering laugh caught her by surprise and a hand reflexively pressed against her chest where the pain still held court. "Really… that's nice to know."
"That he knew you so well?"
She slid a glance at him and studied his profile in the moonlight. "Yes… no, maybe that he had a name for it. I must have used it enough."
The silence was enough of an answer and Louise darted her elbow into his ribs, laughing the whole time.
"Hey! Don't kill the messenger."
She leaned against the rail on folded arms and ducked her gaze as her laughter floated away. "You think that's bad? Then wait until I put my casserole on the table tomorrow… Jeremiah's expression will set you straight. He's the one I love to torture the most."
He wanted to say something silly, something to bring the laughter back, but a quick glance was all it took to still the idea. The soft smile on her lips was enough to satisfy him. It was enough to remind him of years ago… and yet still appreciate the subtle changes that made her one of the women he would always… admire.
"It's good to see you smile." He paused and then continued on to make his point. "Really smile."
He worried for a moment when she remained silent, her teasing mood gone in that moment. "I'd almost forgotten what it felt like." Drawing her hands up to her face she explored the planes of her face beneath her eyes. "Hmmm. I guess I didn't break into a thousand pieces like a china cup… maybe I'll make it through this, huh?"
"Of course you will." He looked at her again and wondered how she'd react to his decision. How she'd take the announcement that he was going to stay. He knew the reaction he hoped for… knew what he needed to hear… but knew that Lou had never liked anyone making decisions for her. "Lou, I-"
He followed her gaze and outstretched hand and saw the explosion of stars in the sky. The night seemed to blossom with shimmering light filled with the tails of shooting stars as the fell through the inky darkness toward the Earth.
She shifted closer, her voice hushed with wonder, he found himself leaning down to catch each sound… each nuance of the wonder in her voice. "It was just like this the first winter we moved to Wexelville," she remembered, "we had just arrived and the ground was too hard to break for a garden, but I'd spend nights outside staring back at Rock Creek… wondering if we'd gone and jumped in over our heads. Jeremiah was having a hard time settling in and Teresa, she was so quiet all the time. I thought with all my intentions… maybe I'd done the same thing my father did… yanked them away from the world that meant everything to them."
"Moving is always hard." Buck spoke from experience and hoped that the lonely hollow in his chest couldn't be heard in his voice.
She reached out a hand and it settled on his forearm with a gentle squeeze. "Listen to me goin' on and on like-" She gasped as a new explosion of lights appeared in the heavens, "Oh, Buck…" her fingers tightened on his arm and he leaned into her warmth, "…it's beautiful."
And from where Buck stood it was.
Lifting an arm that had suddenly become lead, Buck brushed the tips of his fingers over the soft skin along the back of her hand. "Lou, -"
"So this is where the two of you ran off to!" Jimmy's voice boomed out from the doorway and Buck felt the soft shudder of laughter break through her body where it touched his.
"I'm sorry, Mister Hickok." She looked back over her shoulder and gave him a grin. "Didn't I tell you where to find me?"
He looked like he was considering the statement. "No… I don't think you did. A true hardship and insult if the truth be told."
"Insult?" She swung around, her hands pulling away to smooth her skirts where they'd wrinkled. "Heavens… can't have that, can we?"
Jimmy shook his head. "Not unless you'd like me to the shoot up the town in a fit of rage." He folded his arms in an imperious gesture that warred with the wide grin on his face. "There's only one thing for you to do… if you want to save the town from destruction."
She cocked her head to the side and then swiveled around to look at Buck. "What do you think, Buck? Should I save the town… or let it wither under the wrath of Wild Bull?"
"That's Wild BILL!"
A hand quickly covered her mouth. "Oh dear…"
"That's it," Jimmy held out his hand, "dance with me or the town is history."
Lou looked at Buck one last time and he saw the merriment in her eyes and the way her face seemed to shine even in the darkness. He nodded, not in permission… perhaps just, acceptance. He wouldn't begrudge her a dance… or twenty… if it meant that she'd smile like that again… and he'd be there to see it.
Jimmy tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and tipped his hat to Buck. "I'll try to save you a reel or somethin' like it…" he gave Lou a sweeping glance from head to toe and whistled low under his breath, "on second thought… I'll be keepin' this beauty all to myself for the rest of the night."
They disappeared into the party beyond the doors and Buck settled in to watch the stars.
|In the Long Run|
now one more winter
has passed so silently
and I'm tired of longing
winter made a sound
maybe next time
if you need me… I'll be around
Buck stepped into the doorway of the small barn and watched his friend pack. "Going into town?"
Jimmy turned from the saddle and glared, "Does it look like I'm just going to town?"
"Then where are you going?"
Cinching up his saddle he took a moment before he turned back around. "I don't recall who died and made you my mama." He didn't wait for a reaction. "Look, I've been here-"
"We've been here," Buck corrected.
"A little over two months now… and I don't know about you but that's a few weeks too long. It's been fun and now-"
"Where are you going?"
Jimmy shook off the question with a smile and a grouse. "Seriously Buck, you keep talkin' like that and folks'll think you're my woman."
"What about Lou-"
That was like a wall and Jimmy ran into it. "Lou."
"Yes… Lou." Buck stepped into the barn and watched some of the nervous energy bleed out of Jimmy's body.
"Yeah, well… I think it's better if I just get goin'. At least for awhile." He shot a look over at the house and Buck's eyes narrowed at his friend.
"What happened, Jimmy?"
Snapping out of his reverie he gave Buck a smile. "Nothing."
"I got an echo in here? I said nothing, Buck. I just need my space is all."
Jimmy grabbed his mount's halter and led the gelding forward. "There goes my echo again." He knew Buck was following him even though he didn't hear a thing. That was Buck's specialty sneaking around. "Don't think about makin' this into a bigger thing than it is. I just need to get back on the road, make some money." He led the horse to the far side of the barn away from the house and mounted up. "You'll leave too. You'll leave like I am… doesn't mean I won't be coming back."
Buck didn't say anything then, he could hear the waver in Jimmy's voice and knew he wasn't sure. So he tried a different tact. "What did she say when you told her-"
Up in the saddle, Jimmy leaned on the pommel and looked out over the horizon.
"She doesn't know… does she?"
"She'll figure it out. Probably be happy to have one less person at the table at night. One less person to worry over."
"One less? If you think she cares about that, Jimmy… you don't know-"
"Do you have any idea?" Buck felt sudden anger boil up inside him and he took one of the lead reins in his hand. "If you think that's what she worries about-"
"And when did you become the one who knows what's in her head, Buck? When did you become the one she goes to when she's upset?" He let out a rush of breath and felt the ire blow away with the wind. "I can't stay cooped up here, Buck. It's not my nature. I can't just sit around and wait for-" the rays of the sun peered over the top of the mountain and started their slow descent toward the ground.
Buck let go of Jimmy's reins and let his hand drop down as the horse tossed his head away eager to turn to the trail. "You should have told her good-bye… she shouldn't be in the dark about this and I'm not a messenger for you."
Jimmy sighed and looked down at his friend. "I never asked you to be… we're all friends here. She'll understand why I had to go." He turned his mount toward town and rode away.
Watching the dust settle over the trail, Buck turned back toward the house just as Lou opened the door to peer outside. "Where's Jimmy?"
Jeremiah handed his crutches off to Buck and reached for the cane that lay on the table. "This one certainly looks stronger than the last one."
Louise gave her old friend a knowing look behind her brother's head. "Well, hopefully you won't try to climb up the side of a mountain with this one."
Buck's laughter was silent but no less genuine. "I don't know what you were more afraid of, falling off that ledge or your sister."
Pushing himself up onto his legs he gave Buck and easy smile. "My sister of course."
A kitchen towel sailed past his head and he picked up a napkin from the table and launched it at Louise. "Hey, I thought you weren't going outside for a bit."
Jeremiah moved toward the door, trying his best to keep his weight off of the cane. "Have to," he smiled as he made a turn to look straight at his sister, "have that appointment with the doctor tomorrow."
She tried not to sound nervous. Tried. "Are you sure you don't want me to go with you. I could hitch up the buckboard and-" She noticed the rolled eyes from her brother and the sympathetic glance from Buck and felt her hackles rise. "What?"
Opening the door, Jeremiah looked down at his cane. "I love you… and everything you've done for me-"
"But you have to do this on your own." She worried her lower lip and stacked the plated before turning her back on her brother to place them up on their shelf. The slight tremor of her hands was lost to her brother, his smile genuine and free. Buck saw the tense draw of her shoulders and moved to her side to place the remaining utensils in order. She looked up and smiled her thanks as the door closed behind Jeremiah. "I'm being a silly goose, aren't I?"
"You care about him… and he knows it." His hand reached up to tuck a stray wisp of hair behind her ear, but she beat him to the gesture, her laughter soft even when the smile in her eyes was bright. "I think you should call yourself lucky and know that you've done a wonderful job raising him."
"Oh, I can't really take the credit," she turned to hang up her apron, "the nuns did their level best putting him on the right path… I'd like to think I helped keep him going in the right direction. Our father," she wrung her hands together, but Buck would give odds that she didn't know she was doing it. "I need to keep everything going in the right direction. It's what's right, Buck… it's the way that I can honor Kid. Do justice to his memory."
He took her into his arms and rocked her back and forth. "You honor his memory with the love you carry around inside of you. He'd want you to continue on and like Jeremiah, sometimes you need to do that on your own. The best you can do is get up in the morning and keep going until you get up and your first thought of the morning isn't what you're missing... but what you have."
She paused, leaning back in his embrace to look up into his face. "When did you grow up and become a philosopher, Buck Cross?" She took his face into her hands and quickly darted a kiss on his lips before she disappeared into her room leaving him behind with a bewildered look on his face.
Mr. Robertson showed up earlier than they expected, setting the brake and sliding down from the bench before Louise could make it to the door. She called to him through the window and he returned the greeting. "Nice to see you, Louise!"
She hastily wiped her hands on her apron as she descended the stairs, the chill in the air added a rosy flush to her cheeks. "We weren't expecting you for another hour or two, or did I forget?"
He gave her a hug and brushed a kiss over her temple. "I could say it was just to spend some time with you-"
"Or have a few of my biscuits?"
His smile was instantaneous and had her laughing right along with him. "Oh yes, biscuits!"
"But that's not why you're here."
Looking about the yard, Mr. Robertson nodded his head. "Is your brother ready?" Louise followed his gaze as he looked up into the sky. For the first time she noticed the deep grayish-purple underbellies of the clouds coming in from the West. "We should get on the road as soon as we can."
"Right." She squeezed her old friend's hand. "I'll light a fire under my brother and we'll see if we can't get you on the road in a few minutes."
She turned away but stopped when he squeezed her hand. Turning back she met his hopeful gaze. "Any chance I can get a few of them biscuits to take with me?"
Louise noticed the instant his smile faltered, the quiet that settled over the older man. She turned and saw what Mr. Robertson was looking at. "He still here in the house with you?"
The odd feeling in her stomach was unsettling. "He's an old friend, Mr. Robertson. We used to work together and yes, he's staying here with me and Jeremiah until we can figure out what we're going to do with the house and land."
Nodding he didn't look away from Buck until he finished his warning to her. "Friend or no, his kind ain't too welcome in town. The Wexels made sure of that since-"
"Since?" She waited for him to continue but Jeremiah appeared in the doorway.
Mr. Robertson seemed happy for the interruption. He gave her a smile and a gentle pat on her shoulder. "Don't matter really, just know that folks like him ain't welcome no matter whose friend they are."
As he walked away to help her brother into the wagon, Louise couldn't help the way his words twisted in her gut. The warning was unexpected but only confirmed something she'd suspected for awhile. The edge that she'd heard in Mr. Roberston's voice only outlined the fact that he felt the same way.
She moved to the house, her feet leaden as a new facet of Mr. Robertson's character bothered her. As her hands packed away a few biscuits for the men to take with them, her mind was filled with worry. So far, during his visit Buck didn't have much cause to go into town or spend much time away from the house and Lou suddenly realized how lucky that was. If folks in town were truly that afraid of Indians, Buck would have a hard time there on his own… not that she could offer him any protection if public sentiment truly ran in that direction.
The wagon clattered away with a shout to the team and a wave from her brother. She returned the wave, rising up to her toes to give him a final farewell as the wagon bounced around the bend. She worried for her brother… for the news that he'd receive from the doctor and for the new perspective she'd been given of her neighbors. Had it really been all that different from what she believed in?
Buck leaned in over her shoulder and peered out the window. "Still waiting?"
She gave a start and covered her heart with her hand as she gave his shoulder a playful swat. "Don't scare me like that." A moment later she was back peering through the window.
"Do you expect him home so soon?"
Darting a glance his way she shook her head. "Mr. Robertson picked him up early today because of the storm. I guess I was hoping they'd make it back before."
Grabbing his coat from the hook, Buck reached for the door. "I'll see to the animals."
Louise reached out before she thought better of it, her hand closing over his forearm with a gentle squeeze. "Buck, I-" the words froze like a sudden frost, her throat closed tightly when she tried to breathe, "thank you."
He gave her a little half smile and covered her hand with his. "The animals have to eat. You told me how much the cow loves to wait." They'd laughed heartily over the story of Kid's standoff with their milk cow the first time they'd neglected to feed her during a stormy day. "I'll just be a few minutes… the storm-"
"The storm… yes."
He stepped away instantly ducking behind the collar of his coat and with his head down stepped out into the yard heading toward the barn.
She watched him for a long moment, seeing the way his body leaned into the wind and forged ahead without a backwards glance. That was something she'd always tried to do… forge on ahead and leave the past behind. The problem was the older she became, the more she wanted to look back… to hold onto the old memories that made her feel like she could take on the world.
She still rode, but it had been years since she'd bent low over the neck of a horse and raced across the trail. Then again there weren't many trails around a town like Wexelville. Built into the side of a mountain, the terrain was rocky in most places, roads hewn into rock that doubled back time and time again. A rock sliding out of place could close roads down for days. For that very reason when they'd moved into the town they'd spent a good amount of their money making sure they could survive days… even weeks without going to town. Emma'd had chickens at the Express station, but they'd been merely a distraction for them. They had never been held accountable for their care or protection, same for the cow unless Emma, or Rachel for that matter, was gone from the station.
Times had changed. The composition of her family had changed, but things like the chickens and the milk cow didn't change. The coop needed cleaning, the stalls needed mucking, and when the wind blows cold even if the only thing you want to do is crawl back under the covers in sleep, but even as a young child caring for her mother and her siblings 'til now, she knew that there are things you just have to do…
Buck disappeared into the barn, the door swinging closed behind him and a chilly point touched her cheek, bringing up her hand to sweep it from her cheek. A snowflake glistened against her skin, instantly warming to her touch… melting with her warmth. Louise looked to the skies and felt the weight of the clouds closing in overhead.
She knew Jeremiah would be smart and stay in town. She knew he'd find his way over to his sister and Teresa would look after him until the morning. So there was no sense in worrying over it... no sense in mulling over it for now… not when things had to be done.
Louise shut the door and moved through the room securing the windows, the shutters locked from the inside, determined to get things started and get things going because the world wasn't going to wait for her to get over her melancholy moments… wait for her to realize that the snow was going to fall whether or not she was ready for it.
She recognized the winds of change… they had been frequent visitors in the past and if the howling wind outside was any indication they were coming for a visit.
|Sweet and Clear|
as the years, they come and go
she will find her soul
in quiet life. she will hear
those voices sound so sweet and clear
The winter wind could play tricks. Over the last few weeks she realized how true it was… heard the stories from Buck as they'd sat around the fire. Heard so many things she'd never known.
"How is Jenny?" She pulled her knees up against her chest and cuddled into the warmth.
Buck's face was shadowed with a smile for just a moment. "Her own woman." His glance fell into the fire as a log snapped from the heat. "It's been a long journey for them both. Now, she sees her father a few times a year and they do their best to talk about their common ground… and ignore the rest."
Louise grimaced at the collective discomfort. "Doesn't sound like it's easy on either of them." She nodded at her own statement and continued on with her thought. "Then again… they're all that's left of their family."
"They make the effort." His words sounded hollow in the chill of the room.
A groan of wind echoed outside and Louise stood, wrapping her gown tightly around her small frame as she made her way to a window checking the locks and then the glass for cracks. "Nothing is easy, is it Buck?"
She turned and found him on his feet at the opposite end of the room tightening the lock on a window on the South wall. He looked over his shoulder and gave her a smile. "Nothing worth it ever is."
A moment later he was on to the next window but Louise hadn't yet moved. She stood at the window adjusting her shawl about her shoulders, acutely aware of the fabric dragging against the calluses on her hands.
The sun slid across the snow and she marveled at the pristine shimmer of it before her eyes. Snow was beautiful… but it could kill. The mere temperature of the air, the snow leeching warmth from the skin… covering over plants and animals, a suffocating blanket.
"I need to check the barn and-"
"I did that already, enjoy the fire, Lou… keep warm."
Warmth wasn't the issue. Perhaps it was just the slow loss of her sanity. 'Older and wiser…' the thought crept in before she could quiet it down. Older? Yes. Wiser?
Louise curled up on a cushion before the fireplace and watched as Buck secured the last of the windows, his hands sure and steady. She only wished she was.
"What are you thinking about?"
Louise smiled up at him, her toes wiggling unseen beneath her gown and shift. "Silly things... you'd laugh."
He poured them both mugs of coffee and sat down beside her on the ground. "Ready to get out of here, see Jeremiah in town…" he turned to look at her and laughed at the near blank look on her face. "That wrong, huh?"
She breathed in the scent of the coffee and set it out of the way. "I just feel like I'm just beginning to see who you are."
The laugh was too quick, too sudden. "You've known me… for years and years, Lou, I-"
"There's so much I've missed of your life. So much I don't know."
He shrugged and took a sip of the coffee. "I don't know much about you either… not in the last few years."
"And still you came… a piece of paper comes out of the blue and here you are."
"Jimmy came too."
She pushed the thought aside; there was enough to worry over without adding Jimmy Hickok into the mix. "I took you away from your business… a family?"
"You're family." The words were nearly blown over the top of his mug and his eyes lowered to look into the dark liquid. "I'd always come for you."
The words bothered her in some little way. "I don't want to be an obligation, Buck."
He gave her a smile and she saw a hint of the old twinkle in his eyes. "You're… don't take it that way, Lou… you know when we saw you in that dress for the first time… it was a real eye opener for us.
"Ike and I both had the same reaction… well, nearly the same reaction; later that morning when we were working with the horses out in the corral he stopped for a moment and got this faraway look on his face." Buck set the mug down by his feet and gave her a smile. "He told me 'if word gets out about how pretty you were in a dress we'd be fighting off men for days.'"
She blushed, giving her cheeks a little warmth as well as color.
"You know… I must have stood there… 'cause inside my head I was thinking…" Buck's face changed before her eyes, his face alight with the memory, "I'd just had my eyes opened... but it wasn't to how pretty you are in a dress." He looked down for a moment, moving his stocking-clad feet to the tune of silent song, "it was how pretty you are."
Smoothing her palms over the soft flannel of her gown she fought down the growing flush that warmed her all the way to her toes. "It's nice for an old maid to hear, Buck… a woman can't help but be happy with a few pretty words and-"
She felt a gentle pressure on her hand and paused to look down. His fingers wrapped around hers and his thumb slid over the back of her hand in soft sweeping circles. "You're so good at that."
"Good?" She could hear the confusion in his voice and she looked up to see the way his eyes searched her expression, but tried so hard not to look like he was. "At what?"
She lifted their joined hands an inch or two. "Making someone else feel calm… cared for."
Her laugh help dispel the sudden tension in the room. "I'm not just returning a favor, Buck. That's not what I'm saying." She tilted her head to the side and watched him with the firelight licking at the side of his face. "I was always amazed by you. You had such grace at times and - no wait," she saw the self effacing look and tugged on his hand to get his attention back on her face, "I ain't sayin' that to make you blush, Buck… I'm telling this to you because it's true and I don't think you hear it enough… or at all."
A log cracked and popped somewhere in the fireplace and Louise smiled at the sound, a faraway look softening the line of her lips. "I remember you tellin' me about Camille, when she came to town. I remember the way you got all tied up in knots telling me how you'd failed her… or more like, how you 'thought' you'd failed her."
She turned her head to try to meet his downturned expression. She could have brought his eyes back up with an insistent tug on his hand, but it was more important for him just to listen. To see through her eyes.
"And I know she never thought that. Knew she didn't think you had anything to apologize or make up for." She breathed in and felt her middle warm with the fire. "What you don't know… and I'm only guessing… is all this responsibility that you take on your shoulders… everything that you demand from yourself just because you think you're only half a man… it ain't necessary, Buck. It ain't because you're not like that… you don't have anything to prove to anyone… especially not me."
He looked at her then. Lifted his chin to meet her soft brown eyes with his darker ones and a whole lot of questions. "You don't have to, Lou. I didn't come here so you would… so you would tell me… I'm not here to-"
"And I'm not sayin' any of this because you're here, Buck." She tightened her hold on his hand and slipped her legs beneath her body so that she could raise up 'taller' then him for once. The ends of her robe caught beneath her knees, but it didn't matter. He'd seen her in less before… many times. "I'm sayin' this to you because I think it's time you finally believed it. Finally saw what I see in you." She touched the side of his face with her free hand and set her finger tips against his temple one at a time.
She saw him lift his free hand, lift it toward her hip and then set it back down on his thigh. She gave him a bittersweet smile.
"It's okay if you don't want… to touch me, Buck. I'm not tryin' to be cruel or demand anything of you that you ain't wantin' to give… I just-"
He gave their joined hands a tug and she fell flush against him her hand sliding into his unbound hair searching for balance.
He didn't let her fall. He didn't. He held her tight and brushed a kiss along the curve of her jaw and whispered silent words against her neck.
The fire crackled beside them, but neither needed it for warmth any longer.
This story is posted on TYREXpressions *wink*
Click on the title to go to the site
|Stepping In, Stepping Out|
the ghost of you
Louise set the brake of her wagon and stepped down to the ground avoiding the puddles around her feet. The rain was a constant since the snows melted and the ground was nearly saturated with the moisture.
This wasn't helping the town at all, there was little farming here and the mines didn't react well to water. At least not this much.
When she made it to the edge of the boardwalk she dropped the hood of her cloak and peered into the window of the Assay Office. The window was still dotted with condensation but she could still see the lone figure at the desk. Tall and lanky with a thatch of unruly brown hair, it could only be one person.
Louise walked quickly to the door, eager to make her visit as short as possible. The old wood creaked loudly and she felt the need to apologize. "Sorry 'Miah…"
Her brother smiled and set down the pencil in his hand to move around toward her. She met him more than halfway silently trying to minimize the distance he had to walk. He gave her a bright smile as he took her hands and kissed both of her cheeks. "You don't have to do that anymore, lil sister."
She gave him a sharp look that quickly dissolved into a laugh. "You know I hate it when you call me that."
He looked down at her from his superior height and shrugged. "And I still can't get you to stop treating me like I'm broken."
The shadow that crossed her face was fleeting, but still hurt her through to the core. "You're not broken, Jeremiah, but I can't help trying to make it easy for you. I just want you… to…" She moved away and opened her reticule. "I just came into town to get some supplies… but I'm glad you're happy here."
Louise turned to the door and stopped when it opened when she was still a foot away from it.
"Louise." Buck ground his teeth together when he heard the distinctive crack in his voice. "It's good to see you."
He saw the effort it took for her to smile at him and he wished with every inch of himself that he would have taken just a few more minutes at the restaurant and spared her from seeing him.
"It's good to see you, too, Buck." She looked away for a moment, her throat working to swallow. "Are you settled in at the Hotel?"
He nodded before he realized she wasn't looking up at him. "I was there for a few days, but now I'm over at the boarding house with Jeremiah."
She turned around and he couldn't see her face but he could see Jeremiah's. The slight tightening of the younger man's face spoke volumes to him. "Jeremiah didn't tell me you were staying there."
Jeremiah turned and walked into the backroom leaving them alone. The situation didn't improve for Buck when she turned back around. "Well, I won't keep you from your work, I just stopped in to see 'Miah, and-"
He couldn't help the reaction. Couldn't help reaching out to her as she tried to move around him. His hand touched her arm and they both flinched. He wasn't sure how it felt for her but the simple brush of his fingers against her arm had sent a warm current through his body and down to his toes. "Louise… don't, please."
Buck felt the tremors in her body, knew the struggles she was going through to keep from running away.
"Don't what, Buck?" She looked up then, her eyes nailing him to the floor with such pain he began to truly wonder how much damaged he'd done to their friendship. "Run away? I'm trying not to think of what I did to our rela- friendship. I can't believe I… that we…" She drew in a deep breath. "I'm glad you've found work here, Buck. I hope they're treating you well."
She didn't really give him a chance to answer. Didn't wait for it in any case and somehow Buck felt as though it was a blessing in disguise.
Louise moved past him, only stopping when she opened the door. Only stopping when she had that wooden and glass barricade between them. "Take care of yourself, Buck. Good bye."
He turned on his heel as she headed down the walk, her figure shrouded in the navy cape that held tight on her shoulders, her hair in a large bun at the nape of her neck. It didn't take much for his fingers to itch with the want to touch her hair, pull it down around her shoulders the way it was meant to be.
He heard the distinctive sound of someone's throat clearing behind him, but he didn't turn away, not as long as he could see her. "How much did you hear?"
"More than enough to leave me wondering, but not enough to know if I need to get a gun and shoot you dead."
Buck heard the anger in Jeremiah's voice and didn't blame the young man. The pain in his sister's voice was enough to tell him that Buck had crossed a line that wasn't reserved for men like him.
"She's a widow, not a whore, Buck."
Swearing under his breath, Buck turned toward the younger man, pain and anger flaring in his eyes. "Don't you think I know that?"
He saw more than he wanted to. He saw a young boy's love shining from Jeremiah's eyes and it warred with the anger of a man.
"I wouldn't do that, Jeremiah… I wouldn't. Not to any woman… but especially not Louise. She's my friend."
Jeremiah nodded, his gaze never leaving Buck's face. "We're friends, too, Buck. Have been for as long as I've known you and in the last few weeks I've come to respect you even more, but I'll tell you this: if for some reason I think you've gone and hurt my sister, I'll shoot you myself."
Buck looked back at him. "I wouldn't expect anything else from you…"
"So you want to tell me what happened between you two and-" Jeremiah stopped when he saw the hard look on Buck's face. "How can I help you, if I don't know what happened?"
"It's between the two of us. No one else has anything to say about it."
"Tell that to everyone that was wondering here in town while the snows had you two stuck up there."
"We didn't plan on it-"
"No," agreed Jeremiah, "but that doesn't stop them from thinking what they like about the two of you… alone… for weeks."
Buck let go of a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Has anyone said anything?"
Jeremiah closed his ledger book and picked up another sample from the sideboard. "Not to me, but who would?
"The problem is that everyone respected Kid… and they feel the same way about Lou… but that won't last forever." Setting the sample on the scale Jeremiah gave Buck a look that spoke volumes. "She came in here after making sure I was alone. She didn't want to see you… but that only tells me half the story. Do us both a favor, Buck. Talk to her… get it all out in the open… before you both ruin it for yourselves."
Louise gave the older man a little kiss on his cheek as her arms encircled his neck. He tried to fend her off… a bit too weakly to be considered any kind of real effort. "Oh you stop it now young lady."
She stepped back and gave him a sly look. "Really, Mister Morgan, you have just made me a very happy woman."
He wiped at his brow with the kerchief he pulled from his pocket and gave her a wink. "Now, don't be tellin' all the other ladies or they'll be comin' by wanting me to make them happy too. It's just easy with you… you like them animals more than I do."
Louise looked around the barn and nodded. "It's been too long and I need to find work. Might as well do something that makes me happy, right?"
Mister Morgan held out his hand and gave hers a firm shake. "That's what I've always believed, Missus. I'll send my brother a letter and let him know to expect you." The older man gave a moment of pause. "How long do you think you'll be?"
Louise tilted her head to the side, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Shouldn't take me more than a week or two to get there. I'll come and see you again before I go."
He tugged on the brim of his hat in a salute. "I'd be put out if you didn't, Missus. 'sides, when you go, this place'll go back to the same old dreary spot it was 'fore you got here."
Nodding once, Lou couldn't find the words to answer the man, but she could thank him. "I owe you a great deal for this, John."
His eyes softened as he scrubbed his face with a wrinkled hand. "Nonsense… you're the one to make a go of it and that's all there is to it."
Louise tugged on the strings of her reticule to make sure that it was closed before she stepped out into the sunlight. There was still an aching pain carving a hole out of her middle, but at least there was still a light ahead. That made it better, almost livable.
Buck shut the mercantile door and looked up and down the street. The mud puddles dotting the street made it a little harder to see around without the constant interruption of little mirrors along the way. He was looking for a navy cloak and so it took him a moment to realize she was dressed in grey from neck to skirt. The simple Garibaldi styled blouse belied the delicate frame beneath but once she turned in his direction he started forward.
All the way down the street he'd practiced his words in his head, determined that he wouldn't sound like the schoolboy with a stutter. Jeremiah had been right. Things hadn't gone the way he'd expected.
It had been a stroke of fate that Jeremiah's journey into town had trapped them together and left Jeremiah in town. It had given him time to see how much he'd been missed in Lou's life and how much she added to his life… to his heart when she was around.
He'd taken a chance that day, taken the opportunity when it had presented itself and touched her, kissed her… showed her what she meant to him and when it was over… he'd thought that everything had changed. He'd hoped that everything had changed between them, but the trouble was as soon as the snows melted and the sheriff had come out to let them know the pass had cleared enough for them to come to town and since that moment, when the sheriff stepped down off his mount there had been a wall between them. And Buck knew it was time for that wall to come down, that is, if they both wanted to see where it could go between them.
Closer now, he could see her talking to Mr. Morgan, the owner of the livery. She mentioned the old man when they'd been alone. She liked to spend time with the horses and Mr. Morgan was long past his prime when it came to working the stock. Louise didn't mind the time it took to help out… he knew what it meant to her to help out.
Buck saw her smile. Heard the soft melodic laughter carried on the soft breeze and instinctively knew this was the perfect time to talk to her.
Someone lifted her right off her feet and swung her around in a few circles before setting her down onto a dry spot of land. She had to work to focus her eyes on the man standing before her. "What?"
He wrapped his arms around her again and hauled her up against his body before placing a hard kiss right on her mouth. She was breathless when he let her come up for air.
"I've been waitin' to do that forever!"
Louise grabbed onto his coat to keep from falling over as he set her back down again. "Jimmy? What are you doin' here?"
He swept off his hat and gave her a wink. "I came back for my best girl. I couldn't stand the thought of you here havin' to work through things alone with the kids."
Buck stood there on the edge of the boardwalk feeling as though Jimmy'd walked up and punched him in his gut. Or maybe, if he was honest it was Louise. She stood there, holding onto Jimmy's coat as if it was a lifeline. Had she been waiting for him to come back all along?
His skin chilled, prickles of sensation slid over his skin, nearly electrifying as it burned along his nerves. It was all falling apart before it even began.
He turned and walked back toward the Assay Office as quickly as he could. He didn't want either of them to see how much pain he was in.
Jimmy leaned in for another kiss and Louise blocked his advance with her hands on his chest. "Oh no you don't."
He changed his tactics and tilted his head to the side with a soft smile. "Honey… what's wrong?"
Hoping he'd stay still for a moment, Louise poked a finger in his chest. "You're drunk!"
Jimmy reared back as if she'd smacked him. "I had a few drinks… since when has that been a problem?"
"You kissed me… right here in the middle of the street, Jimmy… do you have any idea what that would look like?"
He leaned closer, bending her finger up slightly with his weight. "Well you are the handsomest woman in the land, so I think it would look damn good."
She whirled and walked away from him, her chin high in the air.
Jimmy stared after her for a moment before the old Livery owner cleared his throat and caught the gunfighter's attention.
"You watch yourself, young'n. You make her upset and I'll call you out myself."
His eyes widening a bit, Jimmy gave the older man a mock salute. "Well, I'll certainly keep that in mind."
He slapped his hat back on his head and took off after Louise.
Jeremiah looked up as the door slammed closed. Buck stripped off his coat and barely got it on the hook beside the door.
"Buck? What happened with-"
"Nothing… absolutely nothing."
"What did she say to-"
The Kiowa looked at his young friend and Jeremiah could read the pain on his face. He didn't know what to say about it, so he just looked away and went back to his sampling.
Buck stared down at the forms that he was filling out and couldn't quite see the lines to write on, his mind was filled with images of what he'd just seen. Jimmy and Louise… were kissing as if they were dying without it.
When the door flung open a few moments later both men looked up to see Louise red-cheeked and flustered. "I wanted to come and tell both of you something."
Buck waited for it… wondered how he'd keep the pain from showing across his face.
She took a moment, her feet shuffling until she was nearly pacing back and forth across the floor. Buck looked over at Jeremiah and the younger man was leaning back against the wall, watching his sister with a bemused expression on his face. If her frustrated state wasn't worrying Jeremiah so much… maybe it wasn't all bad.
The door opened again and they turned to see James 'Wild Bill' Hickok fill the doorway with his grin and swagger. "Looks like a family gatherin' and me the friend long gone from the hearth." Jimmy turned to the counter. "Jeremiah." He gave the boy a quick nod. "Buck! It's been a bit and a… a bit, eh?"
"Not long enough." He wondered if Jimmy heard his muttered words, but gauging by the other man's smile, he hadn't.
"You were sayin', Louise?"
They all turned to look at Jeremiah before the men in the room turned to look at Louise. She turned her back to the men for a minute, watching a few folks walking through the dreary light in Wexelville. "I've been talkin' to Mr. Morgan. His brother's gettin' on in years and he's been lookin' to retire and move back here to help out."
Louise turned back around and looked studiously between her brother and Buck at some imaginary spot on the wall. "That leaves the reason for this little talk." Her eyes closed for a moment. "He needs someone to take over for him. And that's gonna be me."
Jimmy couldn't seem to help the laugh. "Don't you think it's a little sudden… movin' on?"
She shrugged. "'Been a lot of things changin' around here since you left, Jimmy." She swept her gaze past Buck, leaving him wondering. "But I just feel like it's time. Jeremiah's here in town, livin' at the boardin' house and Teresa's got her own home to organize and socials to give. It's best that I find something for myself and I want to feel useful again."
Buck's fingers dug into the counter top but he couldn't think of anything to say and not sound as silly as he felt.
Leaning against the wall, Jimmy raised a questioning brow at the woman in the center of the room and their attention. "Then do tell, Missy… exactly where are you runnin' off to?"
"Me?" Her chin raised a fraction of an inch, a challenge in her gaze. "I'm headed to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. I'm gonna run the livery there."
"You don't say…" Jimmy breathed.
"I just did, Jimmy Hickok, I-"
He stretched his arm out and snaked it around her waist, hauling her up against his side to plant a kiss on her mouth. "Then that's where we're goin'."
|In My Head, In My Heart|
Let me carry you away
'Cause you dance in my head In my heart In my everything 'cause you belong
The men that she'd hired to unpack the wagon had done their job well; they'd also managed to track half the dirt around the wagon into the back room as well. Attacking the shifting layers of dust became a vocation by the end of the day.
She barely noticed the knock at the door.
The knocking finally took on the painful thud of wood on wood. "Come in!" She didn't stop for the door, choosing instead to holler over her shoulder.
"You do realize how dangerous that was, right?"
The dust rolled in the air on its way towards the open back door. "I doubted it was a customer, 'Miah… looks like everyone's down at the Saloons-"
"That's what I'm talkin' about Louise." Jeremiah set down a basket and then his cane before he lowered himself into the chair.
"You hurt yourself, 'Miah… you should see the doctor."
"Don't distract me, Louise. You can't think this is goin' to be like Wexelville or… or Rock Creek. Folks 'round here don't know you… they don't know you and if you're not careful-"
"Who is the older one in this relationship?" She turned on him, dropping her broom to the side and wiping her hands on her apron. "I don't seem to recall Mama tellin' you to take care of me."
"Maybe 'cause you had your thumbs in your ears." He gave her a hard look. "You don't seem to be doin' much better these days, either."
Louise lifted the corner of the napkin on the basket. "What do you mean by that, Jeremiah?"
He lifted out a biscuit and took a big bite out of the side. "'Nuthin'."
With a narrowed look Louise smacked him on the back of his hand. "Manners…"
She shook her head and set the plate of fried chicken on the table and then the beans. "Then let's eat, 'Miah… but don't chide me like some child. The label doesn't fit either one of us, not anymore."
He looked at her and shrugged. "Fine by me."
Buck looked over at Jimmy and shook his head. "We ate lunch less than an hour ago."
The larger man shrugged. "I'm still hungry."
Shifting in his saddle Buck stared out at the trail ahead. "We're a day out from Deadwood and you want to stop again?"
"Can't help it if I feel a hunger pang or two, Buck. It's not like we're used to spendin' the day in the saddle like we used to."
"I don't like all these delays. We should have been there by now."
Jimmy lifted the brim of his hat and squinted into the sun. "You in such a rush, Buck?"
"I don't like bein' late. That's all."
Nodding, Jimmy flicked his reins and moved on a head of Buck, forcing his friend to catch up. The two rode on for a few minutes in relative silence before Jimmy turned and gave him a grin. "You never told me about what happened after I left."
Buck rode on a few lengths ahead, forcing Jimmy to catch up and hear his answer. "You never asked."
Jimmy pulled his mount up onto the other side of Buck's horse. He shook his head to bitter laughter. "Then I'm askin'."
"It was cold. It snowed. What more do you want to know, Jimmy, it's-"
"Did she cry a lot?"
Buck's anger floundered a bit as though it were unsure of its footing. "Some." He felt more than heard the scrape of his voice against his throat. "She didn't let anyone see it, but at night you could-"
"She shouldn't have to cry, Buck. She's got us to take care of her."
"I know, Jimmy, I-"
"Now that I'm here, we're gonna make sure that she has more… only reasons to smile. Right?"
Buck couldn't give him an answer. He didn't have one. How do you tell one of your oldest friends that she was doing just fine until he rode his high horse back into town?
He watched Jimmy ride on ahead; his bay's tail swishing in the wind as they went and Buck felt an unseen hand twist in his gut. He couldn't say that to Jimmy, because somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered it if was true.
Could he be enough to make Louise happy? Would she ever care for him more than she cared for Jimmy?
Flustered by the questions he lifted a fraction of an inch from the saddle and let the horse have its lead and he left Jimmy behind as he rode toward Deadwood.
"Where do ya want we put these boxes, Miss?"
She fought down the urge to scream. Neither Kent nor George could seem to stop themselves from calling her Miss. She'd tried to get them to say Mrs. McCloud, but they couldn't seem to keep it in their heads.
"Just leave them there, Buck and Jimmy will come by and pick them up when they arrive."
George, or at least she thought he was George tilted his head to look at her. "Is one of them your mister?"
Louise gripped the handle of her pitchfork and even through the thick leather of her gloves she felt the bite of friction. "None of your business, boys. Now carry on." They shared a look before they moved away from the boxes.
She considered explaining something to them, but thought better of it a moment later when two gentlemen pulled their mounts to a stop at the entrance of the livery.
"Where's the owner?"
"Right here, gentlemen… can I help you?"
The man on the left pushed his hat back on his forehead and gave her a look that said exactly what he thought of her. It wasn't entirely flattering. "I've need of a couple of horses." Immediately he turned away from her and started a conversation with the other man.
He stopped in the middle of a word and turned back to her. "What did you say?"
She set her pitchfork aside and walked a step closer, her hands slowly drawing up to her hips. "I asked you what you wanted them for."
He gave a single chuckle and leaned forward on the pommel of the saddle. "I know you're new here, Miss," he shared a little look with his friend, "so let me explain how this works. I pay and you-"
"I'm sorry, sir…" she let her tone sink in where her size couldn't, "but if you're wantin' to take my horses out of this stable, you'll be tellin' me what you'll be doin' with them or they won't leave at all."
His companion's expression went dark as his right arm pulled back behind him.
A single click of sound had both men freezing in the moment.
"Let me take a guess and say that we have a failure to understand a few pieces of information." The man lounging against the wall nodded to her as she turned. "Sheriff Woodson, Ma'am."
Louise nodded in return, "Louise McCloud."
The sheriff looked back at the two men. "She bought the livery, Junior."
Louise saw how the man reacted to the name… or was it the tone of his voice.
"And, Missus McCloud, this is Junior." He only gave it a moment to sink in before he continued. "Still, most folks round here-"
"Folks that know how to show respect," the man added in.
"Call him Taylor."
Louise narrowed her eyes at him, concerned. "Taylor Wexel?"
A slow smile spread over his face. "You know me."
"My sister is related to you," she didn't draw out the reference. She didn't want to keep him any longer than necessary. "My sister married Brandon."
It was moment of consideration before he spoke again. "I need some horses to take out to the mine. I've a few investors coming to see the property."
She looked at him, her eyes guarded. "I'll have George saddle them for you." The boy answered her call and ran off to get the horses as Taylor Wexel got down of his horse. "I didn't know you'd come to town, Louise. Brandon didn't send me word."
Her smile was barely cordial. "It's Mrs. McCloud and why would he? Brandon may be married to my sister, but he's not my keeper."
Taylor smile only widened. "I see not." He held out his hand and she took it, struggling a bit as he turned her hand and pressed a kiss on the back of her hand.
She was about to give the elder Wexel brother a word or two about his manners when Jeremiah's voice cut through her thoughts.
She saw the measuring look that Taylor gave her brother. "Jeremiah, this is Mr. Taylor Wexel, Bran's brother." Louise slipped her hand out of Taylor's and moved to her brother's side. "This is my brother Jeremiah." She naturally moved to stand on the side opposite Jeremiah's cane. "He worked in the Wexelville Assay office."
Taylor's expression lightened with effort. "Then he'll come to work for us here in Deadwood. Does that sound amenable, Jeremiah?"
Jeremiah looked at the right hand that Taylor offered and when the older man didn't make a move, Jeremiah raised his left hand to shake, albeit a little awkwardly.
At least Taylor had the presence of mind to seem a little chagrined. "Well, then… come by the Assay tomorrow and tell them I hired you on."
Nodding, Jeremiah dropped the man's hand and adjusted his light hold on his cane. "Thanks, Mister Wexel."
Taylor turned his gaze toward Louise as he grinned. "Call me Taylor… both of you. After all we're family."
"Oh good," drawled a new voice from the doorway, "another family member… what will I do with them all?"
The three turned to the door, squinting into the sunlight as the harsh backlit entry produced not one, but two figures that walked into the barn.
Taylor Wexel didn't like the tone of voice and certainly didn't like being interrupted. "You certainly aren't my family, Mister…"
Stepping into the darker interior Jimmy swept off his hat and smiled at the recognition on the man's face. "Hickok, James Butler Hickok. Louise here is a *real* good friend of mine, we're like family… so's Buck here." Jimmy nodded back toward his friend.
Taylor wasn't recovering well from his shock and certainly didn't like how close Jimmy was when he stopped. Moving off to the side, Taylor turned to Louise and gave a nod to her. "I'll be back in fifteen minutes for those horses."
"They'll be ready," she answered, but he was already gone, surrounded by the morning light.
Jimmy stretched and dropped an arm over Louise's shoulders. "Well I took out the trash."
"That was my brother in law, Jimmy." Louise poked him in the ribs artfully avoiding Buck's presence.
Half turning toward the entrance Jimmy huffed. "Well I'd say that the family tree needs a little pruning if that's what you've gone and married into."
"I didn't marry into anything except a lot of ruffians when I married the Kid."
Jimmy shrugged and looked around the barn, giving it a good look for the first time. "Doesn't look like much."
Moving away so his arm slid off her back, Louise moved to the center of the room, taking in the whole thing in a slow circle. "No, it isn't… but it's got promise. Isn't that what Teaspoon said about the lot of us when we started."
Pulling at his collar Jimmy didn't seem to take notice of the soft smile on her face at the mention of their old mentor. "Sure…sure, but we never leaked when it rained."
"It needs work, but most things do."
The softly spoken words behind her startled and confused Louise. She turned to answer, or maybe just to see him, but she hadn't realized how close he was. She had to look up to see into his face, and the sudden move had her off balance and Louise had to grab his shirt to keep upright. His hand at the small of her back helped to steady her balance, but the heat pulled at her, draining her energy to fight the way she felt when he was touching her.
She opened her mouth, intending to say something, anything to prove she could string together two words, but it didn't work. Inside she cursed. Silly schoolgirls didn't even act like this.
"Louise… It's been-"
"It's been nearly thirty miles since we had anything that resembled real food. You got somethin' waitin' in the kitchen, Lou? Or do I have to take all of us out on the town?"
Buck stepped back, his hands dropping to his sides, his heart dropping even lower and if Lou's expression was anything to go by she was having much of the same problem. "I…" she turned to see her brother's concerned look and gave him a nod, "I hadn't planned on supper yet, but I could-"
"Nonsense!" Jimmy waved off her concerns, "I'll take care of it, you'll see. Jeremiah? Lead on, son. Take us to the best establishment in town." He offered her the crook of his arm and a wide grin. "My lady?"
Louise paused for the slightest of moments, glancing over her shoulder at Buck as if expecting… waiting for him to say something. Anything. He stood quietly as she took Jimmy's arm and walked outside into the street.
Jeremiah's soft glare didn't do much to help the pain that Buck was swallowing as he made his feet move across the hay strewn floor. He felt her warmth on his skin, felt the curve of her back in his palm and the softness of her breath against his throat.
It was torture to know she'd been so close… so real. Her touch wasn't as foreign as he'd wished; no… he lived with her in every waking moment, sometimes bleeding into his dreams to twist his heart into a knot. He'd thought of staying behind in Wexelville, or moving on somewhere new, but he knew he couldn't do that… couldn't walk away again… because without Louise… there was no home for him. And even if he'd have to live life at arm's length it was better than nothing. It was better than being haunted by her ghost dancing in his memory.
I could walk another road
'Cause you dance in my head
|Sins of Our Fathers|
a man I call father, well, he's almost real…
The hinges on the front door creaked open and Jeremiah looked up with a warning ready on his lips. "We're closed, uh-"
Taylor Wexel held up his hands in mock surrender. "Not here for business… at least not that kind."
Jeremiah straightened behind the counter and leaned back against the back wall of his booth. "That's alright, Mr. Wexel. I'm just headin' home. Louise likes to have supper early when we can."
"Louise, your sister?"
"Yes," Jeremiah stepped free from the booth and walked around to the front of the assay office. "Yes, my elder sister."
He nodded. "The widow. Father told me about that, sorry to hear."
Jeremiah would never have said it but there was something about the tone of his voice the look in his eyes. "Yes, well, if you'll excuse me, I-"
Taylor blocked the way and gave him another smile. "I've got a business matter to talk to you about. A," he looked away for a moment as if he was searching for the right word. "A proposition."
Jeremiah laid his coat over his arm instead of putting it on. "Go ahead… let's talk."
Jeremiah counted the plates as Louise set them on the table and raised an eloquent brow. "Four?"
She turned to gather the silverware and the napkins fresh from the drawer. "MmmHmm."
"I guess Jimmy's comin' again."
Louise's hands stilled as set down the first napkin on the table. "Yes… yes, he is." The next napkin went down beside it, but her fingers fumbled with the fork when she tried to place it.
She didn't see her brother shrug his shoulders. "Just wonderin', Lou…" Jeremiah picked an invisible speck from the table cloth and leaned on one of the chair backs, "he comes by pretty much every night."
"He's a friend." The knife in her hand jumped and nearly clattered to the floor. In her haste she grabbed for it and felt the pain of her folly. "Oh..." She pressed her finger to her lips for a moment before clamping the corner of her pinner apron. "Why the questions, Jeremiah?"
He moved around the table and picked up the discarded items and set the last place. "I'm just surprised he's still here."
The painful ache in her finger subsided when the pain in her middle flared to life. It was a question she'd been thinking on for weeks… one that she wanted an answer to, but hadn't the courage or the gall to ask.
"I hope you're not plannin' to bring that up during dinner."
Again a shrug. "I think I have a right to ask him, it sure looks like he's got a reason to stay, but I'm not sure I like it."
Heat flared up in her cheeks and she turned toward the kitchen tossing a request over her shoulder to distract him. "Jeremiah, bring in the ham from the larder. We'll have that with our beans tonight."
He watched her go and let out a puff of breath held too long in his lungs. "Get the ham, Jeremiah. Get out of my hair, Jeremiah. I'm not twelve anymore. Hell, even when I was twelve I had eyes in my head." He marched toward the door in time to draw it open on the first knock. The subtle surprise that crossed Buck's features wasn't lost on Jeremiah, nor was the questioning glance that allowed Jeremiah to speak his mind. "I'm glad you got here first."
"First?" Buck followed Jeremiah out toward the entrance of the root cellar at the back of the house.
"You heard me the first time Buck." He swung the door open and stepped down into shadows with only the soft twilight to guide him. "I guess you weren't expecting the great 'Wild Bill' for supper, hmmm?"
Buck gave the young man a smile. "No, I thought Jimmy'd be at the Saloon again. Told me he had a game of poker planned."
"Hmm." Jeremiah was only in the dark for a moment or two before he came out, the cured ham dangling from his fingers. "Well, maybe we'll be lucky and he just forgot to tell Louise that-"
"Well, boys… looks like we've got a full house tonight."
Jeremiah moved off toward the house, leaving Buck and Jimmy alone on the back porch.
Jimmy shrugged and turned to Buck, his upper lip itching a little from his mustache. "Something wrong with him? He never said nuthin' to me last night either."
Buck gave Jimmy a crooked look. "You just noticed that, did ya?"
"So what did I do to make him not like me? I used be his favorite?"
The laughter that nearly snorted out of Buck tangled up with his words so he just settled for being quiet. Jimmy didn't seem to notice.
"'Sides," Jimmy continued, "I brought a pie from the Saloon kitchen. Louise should like that."
"Sure." Buck agreed and leaned in to smell the pie. He stood back, his nose wrinkling. "What is it?"
Jimmy took a sniff himself. "'Supposed to be pumpkin." He took another sniff. "Doesn't smell like it, huh?"
"No," Buck laughed, "it doesn't."
"Buck?" The back door opened up and Louise stepped into the doorway, her skirts filling the space at the bottom, her Garibaldi blouse and Medici belt only served in accentuating her womanly figure. "Jimmy? Jeremiah told me you were out here, come on in!"
Buck looked down at the pie and then shook his head. "I'll see you inside."
Jimmy looked down at the pie and took one more whiff before he gave a grievous sigh and then tossed it in the pig pen.
Louise laughed at another one of Jimmy's bawdy jokes as she got to her feet. Buck was quick to follow, with Jeremiah standing up as he wiped at his mouth. "I'll get the dishes."
"Why thank you, Jeremiah. That's very kind of you." She smiled at Buck. "It's a nice night out, Buck, would you like to walk with me to the-"
"I promised Jeremiah that I'd help with the dishes tonight."
"Well…" Louise's expression showed her confusion, "that would be wonderful, I'll just go alone."
"Alone?" Jimmy scoffed at the idea. "If they've got the dishes, I'll take that walk with you." Jimmy pushed his chair back. "It's not every day I get to walk the prettiest woman down the street by myself." He shrugged and settled his coat on his shoulders and offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
Jeremiah watched him go and turned with hands full of plates. "What did you do that for?"
"Do what?" Buck scraped Jimmy's plate into the bucket and started on the next.
"Let him walk with her?" Jeremiah scraped off Louise's plate and set it down. "I know you wanted to go with her."
Buck slid a surprised glance in his direction. "What makes you say that?"
Jeremiah shrugged. "It's not hard to see… the way you look at her."
Buck turned his back and placed his plate in the wash basin. "I stayed because of you."
"Me?" Jeremiah laughed and swung the scrap bucket from the table heading out to the waterspout outside. "Why would you do that?"
"You're worried." Buck hefted the wash basin and followed after Jeremiah, setting the basin down under the spout. "You were quiet tonight. Quiet like you were thinkin' on something that had you upset." He pumped the basin full of water and lifted the towel from the side. "I thought you'd like to talk about it."
Jeremiah set the bucket on the top rung of the pig pen and sighed. "I can't work the mines anymore. Bum leg won't let me."
"You're good in the assay office."
"You helped me until I could do it." He tipped the bucket but thought better of it when the boar tried to take a nip out of his leg. Jeremiah kicked the wood with the side of his foot and winced. "Why aren't you working with me now?"
Buck swept the towel over one of the plates and set it on the flat beneath the pump. "The man hiring didn't seem to think a 'red man' could count high enough to do a job."
Jeremiah shook his head. "Can't say that I'm surprised, but when are folks gonna realize that you can be stupid no matter what color you are?"
"I'm fine working for the smithy. He don't seem to care much that my mother was Kiowa. So we get along just fine."
"Your mother," Jeremiah began, "I wasn't sure if it was your mother or your father that was Kiowa."
Buck turned a bit to look at Jeremiah as the younger man dumped the scraps into the pen. "Didn't Louise… or Kid tell you about me?"
"Guess they figured it wasn't my business… or maybe they didn't think it matters." Jeremiah tapped the bucket on the rail to get the last scrap to slide off the edge of the bucket. "I don't think it matters what a person is… it's about what they do."
The second and third plates were done. "Sounds like you've been thinkin' about this, Jeremiah."
"Louise keeps tellin' me, 'our Father was as good man,' I stopped believing those lies over a decade ago, Buck." Jeremiah stretched his leg out and rubbed at his calf. "Folks got this notion that I read about in some books awhile back… that says you get your personality from your parents. You're a combination of both your parents." He looked over the fence at the pigs rooting around in the mud, gnawing on the scraps of food. "What do you think? If a man's father is a criminal, is that what the child will end up becoming?"
Buck resisted the urge to bolt. He knew in his mind that this wasn't about him. Wasn't about the evil that his own father had done, but it didn't help the way his stomach turned over at the very thought of repeating his father's 'mistakes.' Jeremiah didn't know where he'd come from and Buck saw no need to educate the younger man. He turned instead to the obvious. "You're talking about Boggs?"
Jeremiah smiled. "You knew. I bet you all knew." He held up a hand. "I know you didn't keep anything from me. Or if you did, you did it for my sister and I'm fine with that. I just want to know if you think I'll end up like him."
Buck set aside the last plate and dumped the water over the small herb patch that had survived from the previous livery manager. "Something happened to bring this up?"
"Taylor came to see me before I left the assay office today. He had an offer…" Jeremiah paused, unsure of how much to tell him, "The point is, he offered me money to help him and Bran make money off the business. Money they say their father won't give them."
When Buck didn't immediately respond, Jeremiah offered up a little more information. "In the assay office we have access to the ore, we have the ability to value it at less than it's real worth and pay the miners for it… then Bran or Taylor would sell it for its real value." There was real temptation written on Jeremiah's face and Buck couldn't half blame him, life was tough in the West and to make easy money… to build a future with little or no work seemed a blessing, but to a man who would spend the rest of his life walking with a limp the money was web of safety he could barely comprehend on his own.
"What do you think?" Buck could see Jeremiah was conflicted. "Do you think that you have to do this because your father ran guns?"
"Sounds silly doesn't it?" Jeremiah stepped closer and pumped water into the slop bucket to rinse it out. "But then I remember what the nuns used to say about Eve and original sin, how we were doomed to repeat her sins because we were human."
Buck nodded; he'd heard the same thing at the mission school. Part of him had believed it too. "Are you going to do it?"
Jeremiah looked at him in the darkness, only the moon and the soft castoff light from the kitchens lit their faces enough for them to see. "It would be good for me… for Louise. She wouldn't have to work so hard and I… wouldn't have to worry what was going to happen to either of us. Put some money in the bank and maybe buy a house." He sighed and helped Buck pump water into the basin to rinse off the plates. "Then I think of how I'm gonna look Louise in the eye and I just can't do it."
Nodding, Buck rinsed off the plates and handed them to Jeremiah, ready with the drying cloth. "Sounds like you made up your mind."
Smiling Jeremiah nodded. "Yeah… it was good to talk to you." The younger man nodded again. "Kid made it easy for me. He solved problems for me when I let him. I guess it worked when I was a kid myself, but now I'm older and if you'd told me what to do-"
"You don't give yourself enough credit." Buck stretched his legs as he stood, emptying out the rinse water on the rest of the herbs. "You're a man, Jeremiah… you do what you think is right… you're the one you have to look in the mirror. You wouldn't have helped Taylor just to spite me."
"I know… but still it helped to talk about it." Something caught his eye in the pig pen and he leaned over to look.
Jeremiah looked hard into the near darkness and wondered aloud at pile of mush and crust left alone by the pigs. "Is that pie?"
They went back inside to put the basin, bucket and dishes away. Buck could see that Jeremiah's leg was paining him so he went to bed before Louise returned from her walk.
She stepped inside and drew the shawl down away from her face, her cheeks flushed and lips warm with blood. "Buck!"
He looked up from the table and rose to greet her. She stepped into his embrace and he felt he warmth of her breath through his shirt. It was no small amount of self control that had him set her apart from him. "How was your walk?"
"Surprisingly quiet," she gave him a smile and a little laugh. "I had the feeling that he had a lot on his mind," she began, "he walked quickly enough, but when I asked him what was on his mind he didn't say much. I left him at the hotel. 'Said he needed to get some sleep." Unbuttoning her coat she gave Buck a curious look. "How was your talk with Jeremiah?"
His smile was a surprise to both of them. "You knew?"
"I hoped," she corrected. "There are things he won't talk to me about. I don't know if it's the fact that I'm his older sister. Sometimes I think I've never been what he needed. He didn't remember much of our mother… he was so young and Teresa was a baby."
"You are a good sister to him, he knows that. He just needed to answer a few questions for himself."
Louise looked up at him, her expression a mixture of thoughts he couldn't read. "You're good at that, you know." He couldn't seem to look away from her. "Helping people."
"Most folks wouldn't say that." He tried to make sense of the words and feelings that were whirling around inside him. He wanted to say something… say what it was inside his head, but he knew it wouldn't make any sense. Not tonight.
"You're family to us, Buck. What most folks think or don't think really doesn't matter to us… to me."
She looked up into his eyes, her own dancing with the moonlight and her own secret thoughts. His palms itched with wanting to touch her and pull her against him, but there were so many things that could go wrong. If the look in her eyes turned to shock, or revulsion…or pity. He couldn't bear it. Not now… not when she'd come to mean so much to him… so very nearly everything.
"You're my family, too." He leaned in closer, his lips parting gently as she moved toward him. He heard her startled gasp as his lips brushed the sensitive skin at her temple, his nose sliding along the gentle waves of her hair. "Goodnight."
Before she opened her eyes he was gone.
It was a long, long day and dinner wasn't any picnic either. Buck's chair sat empty on her right and try as she could, Louise couldn't seem to muster up any enthusiasm… even with Jimmy doing a great job at keeping up both of their ends of the conversation.
Jeremiah dropped his fork to the plate with a clatter. "I'm sorry, I'm full… may I be excused?"
Louise looked at him. Even though his words were polite the tone was bordering on smug. "Sure… if you'll take your plate to the-"
He was already gone from the room when Louise turned to Jimmy on her left. "I'm sorry… I don't know what's gotten into him lately… he's been… distracted."
Jimmy shrugged and wiped at his lips with the cloth napkin. "I can see that." He set his napkin down on the plate. "How're things with you?"
"Work's hard, but good. I've been meaning to go over and see Buck. He's working at the smithy and-"
"Heard that the law 'round here isn't much to speak of, thought I'd see if they needed a hand." He gave her a big grin, the one that had the ladies at the saloon giggling with delight. She only looked at him in concern.
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?" Her hands fluttered over her plate, her fingers shaking visibly. "I heard they've had a few shootings in town the last couple of weeks."
A few wasn't really the way to describe it. There had been a rash of arguments and shootings in the last week and it was only getting worse. "Aw, Lou… don't you trust me? I'm faster than I used to be… ain't nothin' to worry over."
She answered too quickly for his ego and his tone was sharp in return. "I ain't some boy like we were back at the beginning Lou. I've seen my share of fightin'… and my share of blood."
Her eyes were wide with worry. "Me too, Jimmy. I've seen blood and don't you go shoving that in my face." Her skin was hot, radiating heat and anger… fear. "Don't brush it off because you think 'I've' gone soft. I married… I didn't die or become a nun, but I get to be scared for you… "She stood up, her hands trembling more than she'd care to admit so she smoothed them over her skirt. "I'm going… I'm going outside for some air…" she paced toward the door and then looked back at him. "If you'd be so kind as to put your dishes in the basin-" she fled into the darkness outside the house and fought back the tears.
Buck stood up and gave the waitress a smile. It took a moment and the fearful look on the waitress's face slid down into a stare. "Thanks for the meal."
She opened her lips to say something and then just nodded, near dumbfounded.
Dropping a few coin onto the table top he walked away from her and out the door, pausing a second to look back. She was still standing where he'd left her, blank stare on her face, coin on the table. He felt a wry smile tug at his lips. She was still waiting, he guessed, for him to come back and scalp her… or worse.
"Oh well," he whispered, "sorry to disappoint…" he looked down the dark street, "I seem to be doing that a lot lately."
Louise closed her eyes and waited for the wind to bathe her skin and give her relief from the burning in her cheeks. It never came. The stillness never really used to bother her. When they'd lived in Wexelville there had always been noise. Teresa and Jeremiah had always provided more than their share of chatter and clamoring noises and even though Kid had been a quiet man for the most part, but when they would get a few minutes at night they'd head outside to talk.
Talk. She looked back over her shoulder and sighed. Jimmy could talk. All his stories and all the places he'd been. The money he could make at the Saloon… she couldn't compete with that… not that he was expecting her to. He wasn't like that. He didn't expect it of her, but that didn't make it any easier.
She looked across the wide street and sighed. The smithy was dark. The single room dwelling behind the forge stared back at her with pitch dark eyes and Louise was saddened by it all. Buck had become just as much a fixture at her table as Jimmy had, but the last day or so… since he'd kissed her, Buck had disappeared. Alright, she admitted, he didn't 'kiss' her… not like a man kisses a woman he wanted by him. It had been more like a brother to a sister and yet, she'd shivered at his touch, leaned into his embrace with more want than she really had a right to.
The heat bathed her skin and still it was only too easy to remember the chill in the air when they'd been locked away in her cabin… when the snows had come… when they'd let each other in.
Louise swiped at the tears with a frustrated hand and sighed. He'd walked away easy enough when the snows had gone. She touched a weary hand to her cheek. Had the years been so hard on her? Had the wrinkles she'd seen marked her that badly after years of hard labor? Her laughter was loud in the darkness, giddy almost. She was being silly and she knew it. Buck wasn't a man too quickly stirred by simple looks, there would need to be more about a woman to keep his interest.
"Then what did I do wrong?"
Jimmy dropped the plates in the basin and sighed. He looked around the tiny room and shrugged. It wasn't what he'd imagined over a decade ago. He'd had ideas about what Lou's future would be… and this wasn't it. Not by a long shot.
He reached out and pulled a towel down from the rack and slid it over his hand, the soft cloth dragging over his callused palm. He remembered the smiles she'd had the day she'd married up with the Kid and he'd known her future was bright. She would do it all on her own if need be. She'd blaze a trail through life, he'd bet his life on it.
Now, here they were.
He tossed the towel on the counter and stretched his neck from side to side, thinking. She was a widow… a business woman… and still he got the feeling she was alone.
Alone, more than just being outside on her own, but he got the feeling she didn't know he'd be there for her… that he'd come all the way-
Gritting his teeth he moved for the door.
He reached for his coat and thought better of it, there wasn't a need not with the heat in the air. Not when he meant to fill his arms instead of cover them.
She was out in the night, moonlight shining down over her soft skin, her hair darker for the highlights. "Lou?"
She tensed. He saw it in the tight line of her shoulders, the ramrod length of her backbone.
"I'm sorry," he began, "if I said something in there that… that you didn't think I should've then-"
"No," she turned, her eyes hidden by the shadows and the moon behind her, "it's not you… nothing really. I had some things to think about… some thoughts that I had to…"
"You don't have to explain it to me, Lou." He folded his arms over his chest and looked down at her, knowing he couldn't see her eyes, but it didn't really matter. Not right now. "I have a few things I need to explain." He lowered his arms slowly, a fraction of an inch as he thought through his words. "I haven't been entirely honest with you 'bout the reason I came back to Wex- Willams… that town." She was looking up at him, he couldn't see her expression, but he knew she was looking up. "I came back because of you."
There was a light on in the baker's window and he paused for a just a moment to look. Sam Carter was leaning against the table while his wife kneaded dough for the morning bread. His hand snaked out to poke at the dough and was rewarded with a playful slap of his wife's hand. They looked at each other, love in their eyes and Buck moved on, conscious that he was most likely intruding on a private moment. The night was warm and he knew it was better outside in the dark, but he'd have made a go of it indoors if he had someone looking at him like that. If he had a woman at his side… if he had Louise.
"I've been alone too long, Lou. Walkin' around bein' the life of the party… a man to reckon with, but every night I go back to my rooms and I'm alone." He shook his head. "I'm not gonna lie to you, honey… I've had my share of women willin' to keep me warm on cold nights, but I think they look at me as something of a prize. Something you want because it's new and you can brag on it, but there wasn't anything real in what it was."
He took a few breaths listening for something to stop him… something to tell him this wasn't the time. It never came.
"I think Jeremiah's been wonderin' why I keep comin' by all the time and maybe you have been too. I'd say it's fair enough to tell you that comin' by for meals is a pleasure, not just cause the food is the best I've had in a long time, because it is… but it means more to me that I get to spend time with you. Time that I'm tired of wastin'."
Jimmy took her by the shoulders and turned her into the light, finally needing to see her face. Finally needing to know how she was taking it all. His admission… his fear. "So many times I faced down exactly what I thought I was gonna become. A gunfighter bent on the thrill of it all instead of a man fightin' for survival. I worried that I was gonna have so many deaths on my hands that I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror without seein' them in the reflection.
"I wanted to get out of it all while I could still feel… while I still felt like a man instead of the legend."
"What does that have to do with me, Jimmy? I'm just Lou. I'm just an old friend that tells you to get your elbows off my table, wipe your boots before you set foot in my house."
"That's right… you are my old friend… and a delightful nag when you need to be," he grinned at her sudden outrage, "but you're something more than that, Lou… you always have been. You're the one I knew would always be there for us… for me and I was happy when you had the Kid. When you were happy with him. I could hold you and step away 'cause I knew you had each other, but now… I know you're here and I want to be here for you… I want to make you happy. If you want me to be here… then I'll be here."
He could see that his words had confused her… stunned her into silence and if he wasn't so afraid she'd run away from him he would have laughed at her expression. Instead, he just wrapped his arms around her body and drew her tightly against him. He felt her shivers and held her tighter… and when he felt the tears on her cheek he kissed them away.
I've been a traveler of faraway lands
show me the river that leads to my home
since we were parted I know I have changed
Buck waited, his back pressed to the wall to keep as silent as he could. There wasn't anything in the world beyond death that would have made him move at that very moment. He should have lifted his hands to his ears and stopped up the sound… given himself peace, but it couldn't… he couldn't do it. Couldn't even run across the street and hide inside the cabin. That wasn't the man he was raised to be.
He didn't run, not anymore. Even if it killed him to hear his friend tell Louise how much he needed her, he would let it happen.
Let them be together. Let them hold each other tight.
Someone should make her happy.
I come to you through fire and snow
|The Ugly Truth|
There was a pounding that she heard in her sleep and Lou struggled to wake up just to silence that horrible pounding. When that didn't work she pulled her blankets high over her head and pressed it down to her ears. "Make it stop… please."
The quiet tone of Jeremiah's voice pulled her from her dreams and had her sitting up in bed, her blankets fallen around her waist, her hair down around her shoulders. "What is it, Jeremiah… what's wrong?"
He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, leaning heavily against the doorway. "I think its Teresa, looks like her outside, but I ain't been able to make much sense or anything."
Louise threw back the blanket and set her feet down on the cold wood floor she hissed out a breath, but didn't stop to put on her slippers, she sailed right out of the room, passing Jeremiah in the door. "If it was Teresa, why didn't you let her in?"
He swung around to watch her go past and called after her. "She wouldn't let me. Said she had to talk to you first." He sighed and shuffled back toward his room at the back of the home. "That much I understood."
Louise wrenched open the door and Teresa nearly fell into her arms, sobbing loudly. Busying herself with soothing her sister, Louise pulled the young woman further into the home so that she could close the door behind her. "Teresa? How did you get here?" Louise swung a glance at the clock on the mantel. "And at this hour of the night? There's no stage at this time of night."
Sobbing into her damp handkerchief Teresa clung to her sister and shook with fright. "It was horrible! Just horrible, Louise!" Louise gave up trying to understand and held onto her sister as she stumbled through her explanations and cried out her story through the night.
When the knock on her front door came, Louise didn't have the energy to give a start. Instead she slowly turned and made her way to the door. It was a rare thing indeed that she didn't stop to check who it was when she opened it and nearly stumbled back into the house. A hand at her shoulder steadied her and she looked up to thank them. "Buck."
He gave her a quiet smile. "I came by," he looked around the dark interior of the entry and then back at her, "to see if you were alright." He held his hat in his hands and worried the brim, "the livery wasn't open this morning."
Louise looked at the darkened windows of the office and sighed. "Sorry about that. Did someone need a mount?"
Buck gave her a strange smile. "I wasn't coming here on business, Louise, I-" he clamped his lips down on the rest of his words and just looked at her.
She presented a right pretty picture even with the shadows under her eyes and her hair pulled back in a loose braid that hung over her shoulder.
"I know… or rather I should have known, Buck. I'm sorry…" he half lifted his hand to touch her, but stopped when Teresa came into view.
"Hey there, Buck."
He nodded and gave her a smile. "Teresa. Here for a visit?"
The waterworks started before she could help herself and Teresa disappeared into the living room.
Buck watched her go fascinated and fearful at the same time. When she was hiccupping in the next room Buck turned to Louise again. "What did I say?"
Louise took his hand and pulled him with her outside and into the back of the livery where the horses nickered in greeting. "I thought Thomas would have been in today, he comes in every other day to open up." She passed amongst the horses, offering her hand to them. They snuffed at her hand and leaned their heads in for a touch it was certainly something to watch. "Don't worry about her, Buck... it wasn't really you that made her cry." Louise sighed. "It's Bran's family."
Leaning up against one of the livery posts he settled in for as long as it took. Louise rattled through the list of family ills that her sister had come to report, her face drawn… her voice strained. "Then the baby…" her arms wrapped tight around herself and she sagged against the wall, "the youngest of the boys, Tyler… his wife…" Louise barely met her eyes for a moment before she looked away, "they had a homestead in the West. Tyler was the only one to break with the family business until the raid. Their homestead was attacked-" Louise gasped in a few straggling breaths before she could look at him again if but for a second, "Sally was pregnant, but they had no way of knowing…" Louise trailed off, her thoughts distant.
The minutes seemed to tick away as Louise fought to frame her words. "The baby was born still… there was nothing anyone could do." She nodded her head. "Teresa couldn't understand… didn't understand how Sally could celebrate the way she did.
"I don't agree with it… with the way she…" Louise paused, her hand covering her middle as though she was about to be physically ill. "I never told you about why I was so 'unhappy' to see Charlotte in Rock Creek."
"Charlotte." It took Buck a long moment to remember the woman that had died by her own hand rather than be murdered. "She was your friend, from before the Express."
There was a simple smile that spread over Louise's lips, a bittersweet and wistful smile. "She was the one that had me cut my hair and put on those silly glasses I used to wear," gasping in a breath she grasped her bodice with shaking fingers, "and put on pants like a boy after Wicks had me in the storeroom beneath the whorehouse."
She didn't wait for his reaction. "I was doin' the laundry for the ladies when I was thirteen and sewing up their things when they had a need for it. It didn't take long for me to figure out what it was they actually did there… and it didn't take long for Wicks to take a fancy to me and decide that I wasn't doin' enough to earn my keep.
"Charlotte got me out after… after he beat me up bad enough to make me look like a patchwork quilt with all the colors I was turnin' and it wasn't for the better part of the month before I figured out I wasn't gonna bear him a child.
"I didn't cry for a month or two after that, it all seemed so odd, like I wasn't even part of my body, but when reality finally crashed down right on top of me I shook with fear… with laughter… I was half-crazy with it. Relief and grief it was all the same to me. If I wasn't so sure Teresa would go crazy after hearing it, I'd tell her all of this, but there are some things that I've kept from my sister." She finally found the courage to look up at her old friend. "I hope you won't run away from me now that you've heard the truth."
He almost didn't trust himself to speak, but there she was looking up at him, waiting. There was a mixture of hope and worry bleeding through her eyes. "What if you had been… what if there had been a baby?" It was painful to ask it of her, but he had to ask, had to know. "What would you have done?"
Her mouth worked opening and closing as she swallowed air and struggled for an answer. "I dunno, Buck… I never had to figure that out. I never had to think 'bout it after… well, after I knew I wasn't carryin'."
Buck turned away, only a few inches to the side, but it was enough. Lou felt it as sure as if she'd seen a door close between them. He started to move again and only succeed in staggering an inch away from her.
Louise stepped forward, instinctively reaching for him but she saw the tension in his shoulders and stopped her hands falling uselessly to her sides. "Buck?"
He flinched at the sound of her voice and looked up at her through the long lengths of his hair. "What would have done if you'd carried one? Carried his child? Would you hate it?" He swallowed his next words as his gaze bored into hers. How could he ask her, 'Do you hate me?'
Her eyes were filled with pain and worry. Her eyes told him that much but left him guessing for the most part. "Buck, please." She stepped closer, her hands open, her approach hesitant. "What's wrong?"
His lips were set in a tight line, the right side of his mouth nearly twisted up in pain. He had a wealth of words in his eyes, burning with fire as he gazed at her.
She couldn't think of anything more to say… anything she could think of wouldn't do much more than prolong the pain, twist the knife in her middle. She wanted to touch him, smooth her hands over his hardened shoulders, brush the hair back from his face with searching fingers, smooth the lines on his forehead with her lips… and hold him tight until he told her it didn't matter. That he didn't think any less of her… that he didn't think she was soiled goods.
A moment later she wanted to throw herself against him, throttle him until he said something… anything to end the silence, but it wasn't going to happen. He turned away as though invisible hands pushed him into action, repelled him. Buck gave her one more spare glance before he turned and walked away.
the sun had gone down o'er the hills in the west
the campfires were kindled each warrior was there and Amandy was bound
|The Rain Comes Down|
see the lightnin' flashin'
"I want to know why you're ignoring me."
Buck paused, hammer raised high over his shoulder, a waiting horseshoe glowing red against the anvil. It wasn't easy… he felt a quiver in his arm and wasn't quite sure if it was from the weight of the heavy hammer or the pressure of his heart against his ribs. "I'm not ignoring you."
"Then why won't you even look at me?"
What little breath he had in his lungs escaped him. "I'd rather not pound my fingers with this-"
"Then I'll wait until you're done... but I'm not leaving. Not until we talk."
He didn't have to look at her to know that she was serious. He'd known her long enough that the sound of her voice was more than enough to tell him what she was thinking. He brought the hammer down on the malleable metal and winced as the resounding ring of metal against metal vibrated through his body.
Setting the hammer down on his work table he lifted the horseshoe and set it into the water bucket ready at his side. The water sizzled and steam surrounded his face. He closed his eyes and waited for the sound to pass. Waited for his stomach to calm. Waited for his feelings to make sense.
When the surface of the water turned black with calm he lifted the horseshoe for final inspection.
"You do some fine work, Buck."
He couldn't move. Her voice was all too close and in the heat of the smithy he could still smell the lilac water she used sometimes when she washed her hair. It was all he could do not to drop the horseshoe at his feet and take her in his arms.
But that was a dream for another man. A dream that was never his, and that's what made it so much harder to let go. He'd had a taste and become addicted to it. If he was selfish, if his happiness meant more than hers it would be all too simple to claim her.
"Buck?" The gentle pressure of her hand on his shoulder set fire to his skin. He turned suddenly and found himself so close that she had to take a step back to put some distance between them. His hand held there for a moment, as if she was weightless and liable to float away if not for his anchor.
His eyes searched her face, and knew too well what he'd find. Even though they'd only been together once it would only be too easy to fall back into her arms and beg her to forgive him.
Forgive him for the horror of his life. Forgive him for the violence that created him. Forgive him for how much he wanted to stay when he knew she'd be happier with another man.
Slowly, almost as if they were carved in stone and only gravity was able to work its magic he lowered her back to the ground. She stepped up as he removed her hand from his back… or had he moved first? He couldn't seem to remember.
He wanted to shake himself. Did it really matter? Did anything matter beyond making her happy?
Louise reached out a hand to touch him but thought better of it at the pained look in his eyes. "We need to talk."
"I have work to do." His eyes were cold, glittering with light from the forge. "You should go."
She couldn't move, her feet bound to the ground beneath her. "I'm staying, until you tell me why you won't come to supper anymore. Why you take the long way to work in the mornings so you won't pass the livery. Why, even now, you're close enough to touch and you're miles away. What happened, Buck? What did I do to make you so angry?"
He wasn't going to tell her. That much was evident in his eyes. She knew enough about Buck Cross to know that she had hurt him deeply, but with his pride... his stubbornness, he'd never tell her. If she wanted to know, she couldn't take no for an answer.
"I have so few friends left in the world," Louise knew her words would hurt him yet again, but she needed an answer. "You have to at least give me a chance to tell you how sorry I am for what I've done."
"And what have you done?"
Her mouth opened automatically, her mind searching for a clue... a shred of information... anything that could tell her how to fix this. How to give her back her friend. "I made you sad, isn't that enough?"
He didn't answer, just looked away as though some speck of dust had all of his attention.
"For a while I thought it was that I hadn't told you about Wicks, but that's not like you. You, probably more than anyone, would believe in a person's right to privacy." She took a step forward, her feet moving soundlessly through the hay and dirt. She moved close enough to touch him but she didn't, keeping her hands at her sides. "So it must be you. I'm not asking you to tell me all your deep dark secrets, Buck. I'm not even asking you for details, but if you could give me some hint about what I said that hurt you so badly, I promise to never do it again." She looked up at him, her eyes brimming with tears. "I can't lose you too."
It would be so easy to believe it was that simple. That he could tell her about his father and that she would just smile and tell him that was all right. How much effort would it take for her to lie to him like that? How much would it hurt to hear the tremor in her voice? He couldn't take that chance.
"It's better if you just go." Buck picked up the water bucket and dowsed the fire in the forge, ignoring sparks that leapt onto his arms, burning him. "I better head back to my room, get something to eat."
He saw her eyes shift to the workbench and he knew she'd seen the meal he'd brought with him. He saw the hurt in her eyes because she knew he was just trying to escape. A soft brush of sound told him that humidity so long trapped in the air had finally become rain.
Rain didn't bother him. A simple fall of rain brought bounty from the earth and washed away sorrows. He left his heavy apron behind, he'd have no need of it and its weight was more of a hindrance than a help. He left his coat behind as he strode into the mist. He hoped she wouldn't follow.
He knew he was wrong.
She watched him leave and wondered if she still had the ability to breathe. It certainly didn't feel like it. A large yawning ache opened in her middle and she nearly fell to her knees with the weight of her sorrow, but she wasn't a woman who gave up that easily. When Wicks had hurt her, ripped away her innocence and left her bleeding, she got up on her feet and ran just like Charlotte told her to. She could have taken the derringer that Charlotte had pressed into her hands and turned it on herself. She could have, but she didn't. She chose to run, to live, and dream of a life where a man could love her no matter what.
Why did it matter so much that this man was walking away? It wasn't a question she was willing to answer at that moment. Steeling herself against the cold she ran out into the rain.
"Buck? I'm sorry." He paused just beyond a cottonwood tree, his head down... his shoulders dripping rain. Her own feet slowed, the water moving down the street a testament to the downpour.
She knew her hair must be plastered to the sides of her face, but she didn't try to fix it. She didn't try to dash away the tears that flowed like rain. Louise reached out a hand and gently palmed his medicine pouch, a connection to his… to their shared past. "You know how much you mean to me, don't you?" She let out a soft sigh. "I hope so, so when I tell you how much it hurts me to have you walk away, you know how much I mean it… how much I need you to know that I mean it."
The backs of her closed fingers brushed against his chest and it branded him with the simple gesture. He reached up before he could stop himself and closed his hand over hers. "Don't… please, Louise, don't do this…"
"I don't have another choice, Buck." He could hear her words tumbling around in her mouth and he wondered if she could taste the rain on her tongue. "I have to know what I've done."
He lifted her hand to his mouth, tracing the edge of his bottom lip with her knuckle and he felt the shudder go through both of them, wondering if it began in him… or in her. "Nothing… you told me the truth and there's no shame in that… only in who I am."
He saw her mouth open to protest and he shook his head. "Let me finish… or this will remain a secret… I'm still not sure which is better so let me talk."
She considered it for a moment before she nodded.
"You told me… what that man did to you… and I am honored by your trust… humbled by it, but I don't think you know how much it was wasted on me…" He could see the confusion in her eyes and he nearly ran like a cur, his tail tucked between his legs. "You know that I am only half Kiowa." He silenced her protest with a gentle squeeze of their joined hands. "My mother was taken by a white man… taken against her will while her husband was away hunting. The man left her near dead from a beating, but she lived and had the bad judgment to bear me into the world."
The words sunk in quickly and Louise's thoughts fought past her tears. "She didn't know… you could have been…"
"I was a child of violence and hate… I was a child that brought her constant shame and pain."
"You brought her love… you were her chi-"
"The same child that you couldn't bear… couldn't love."
Realization knifed through her heart and her knees nearly buckling beneath her. "No… not you… not you, Buck…"
"Yes, me," his words hissed through the air, sizzling against her ear, "I'm what you couldn't face, Louise… so how can you tell me it doesn't matter what my father did? How can you tell me that you'd be able to look at me and not remember that man's hands on you? That you'd be able to look past the pain he caused you… the shame… now that you know my truth?
"I would have offered you love, Louise… I would have offered you my body and my soul and spent every day honoring you with that truth… but you need a life with a man that doesn't make you look away with shame… that you can hold close to your body and love without wondering when the past will pour over you like the rain and drown us both." He started to pull away and she grabbed at his arms to hold him there. "Let me go, Louise… let me go so that you can love again… that you can love a man worthy of you… a man without my shame."
He peeled her fingers from his arms and stepped close enough to press a kiss to her temple before whispering one last thought into her ear. "Please, let me go… I've got nothing to give you anymore, Louise… let me go."
He felt the fight go out of her. Felt the way her arms hung at her sides like weights and saw the flat black of her eyes where they had been warm brown. She'd gone numb before him and he knew that was the best he could expect. He knew she'd heal… sooner than he would. She had a man to love her… had a man to warm her on the cold nights… she would have a heart again.
She would… but he would never be whole… not as long as she held his heart within her body. He'd given it to her and left her with a lie… left her believing that she'd lost his love. It was a lie he could live with.
She felt the rain bathe her face and felt it slip beneath the layers of clothing to coat her in tears. It was true, but the world around her was grey and white with rain and it felt as though nature itself was mourning along with her.
Louise watched as Buck disappeared into the rain, watched it close behind him like a curtain and she fell to her knees in the muddy street, her fingers disappeared, splayed amongst the drops of rain that added to the mess. She couldn't stand... couldn't move when her heart had gone still within her breast.
She cried on in the rain, hidden from prying eyes… and the world cried with her.
|On Your Way|
I hope he never hurts you like I know I hurt you
He knew something was wrong the moment he walked into her kitchen. The table wasn't set and the stove was cold. The single oil lamp hung next to the window and bled its yellow light over the tangle of curtains covering the glass.
"Lou?" He hung his coat on the hook beside the door and stepped further into the room. "Honey? Where are you?"
A floor board creaked beneath his foot and he stilled his movements as another sound caught his attention. A soft sniffle and then a hiccup of sound drew him toward the bedroom in the back. "Lou?"
He was over the threshold before she answered him. "Go away, Jimmy..." her voice was nearly muffled in the pillows, "I want to be alone."
Jimmy sat down on the edge of the bed. "Sounds to me like you need someone to talk to… I've always been good for that, right?"
She didn't answer back immediately and he set his hands down on the tops of his thighs for a moment, wondering what to do next. Lou wasn't a woman who cried much, so if she was crying there was a reason. Something painful and it bothered him that he didn't quite know what it was. "Something to do with the livery?"
"Go away…" she turned her head further into the shadows, but Jimmy didn't leave. "Just go."
"I can't leave you like this, honey." For a moment he turned back time to a campfire somewhere outside of Sweetwater when Lou was heartbroken over the Kid. "I can't call myself much of a friend if I turn and leave you like this."
The words hung in the air and Louise struggled to lift herself from the bed and turn ever so slightly toward him. Her hair hung before her face, pulled from her bun as she'd burrowed into her bedding. "I just need some time, Jimmy… I need to let this go in my own time."
"Well," he cleared his throat and twisted a bit so he could almost see the shadows of her eyes, "that's what I wanted to come and talk to you about, Lou."
He could see her give in, could see the way she straightened to listen to him, even when all she wanted was to kick him out so she could go on crying.
"I want to be here for you, Lou." He could see her confusion, the way she opened her mouth to ask him a question, but instead she closed her lips and waited. "I want to be here for you every night."
"You have been, Jimmy… pretty much every-"
"I ain't just talkin' 'bout comin' to meals and sittin' out on the porch with a cigar until it's time for bed." He straightened a bit and fished his fingers into his vest pocket for a minute before he lifted out the simple gold circlet. "I'm talkin' about stayin'… all night long." He held it out. "I guess I'd get down on the floor right about now and ask you right 'n proper, but my knee ain't been the same since that gunfighter down Abilene way nearly put a hole through it… so I'm gonna have to ask you right here, Lou… honey." He reached out and took her left hand in his; turning her palm up into the light from the moon he set the small gold band in her palm. "I want to give you my name, Lou… give you my protection… my love. Marry me and you won't be lonely, not ever again."
She stared down at the ring he'd given her and her hand flexed as if weighing the offer, trying to see if it was real and not just some cruel trick of her mind… her heart. "Jimmy, I-"
"You don't have to answer right now, Lou… I know it's kinda sudden, but it's not… I mean… not to me." He stood up from the bed and shoved his hand into his hair, knocking his hat onto his back. "I've been thinkin' about this for awhile now… that's why I came back. I wanted to do right by you."
"Do right?" Lou could barely make the words push past her lips. She'd never been with Jimmy, never once in all the time they'd known each other had they done more than kiss. Kid had been her first loving experience with a man and what happened with Buck had been both unexpected and wondrous, but she'd never come close with Jimmy in all the time they'd known each other. "I don't understand, Jimmy, you don't owe me-"
He turned back around to her. "That's it, Lou… I do!"
Her hand closed over the ring as she waited for him to explain.
"It was hell, watchin' the two of you durin' the Express, wonderin' if I'd done the right thing backin' off after I kissed you. I sure wanted that… and more, but I kept wonderin' if I stood a chance when you and the Kid kept circlin' around each other like two boxers waitin' for the next punch to land. It got real crowded in the bunkhouse, all of us waitin' to see if one of you would really just give up on the other… and I didn't want to get in the way and have you tell me a couple of years down the road that you'd wanted him instead of me."
She blinked at him, her eyes opening again to a new facet of their history. "You wanted… you and me, back then?"
"More than breathin'… but I wanted you to be happy and that seemed like what you had with the Kid." He fiddled with his watch chain and looked over at her with a questioning glance. "So I let it go… I thought I'd be fine with it… but then, when I heard… when the Kid… anyway, it all came back… like a flood through the old wash by the Rock Creek station and suddenly I was drownin' in it… that's why I left so quick… left you so I could think if I was doin' the right thing by askin' you to marry up with me."
He stopped talkin' for a moment, giving her a curious look and then a smile. "I ain't done so much talkin' in… forever."
It was right then that his smile died and he gave her a worried look. "Unless you don't want me to… unless you don't want me."
She didn't know what else to say. Had no idea what words were the right ones and what words said exactly how she felt. She slid down off the bed, her feet taking in the chill of the wooden floor through her woolen stockings and her hands nervously fussing with her hair, trying to pull it back from her face so that she could both take time and look up at the man that had so curiously turned her life upside down.
"We were different people back then, Jimmy-" she knew by the wince of his expression that she'd said the wrong words, but they were all she had, "and back then if you'd said somethin'… it might have turned out different… but that's all water under the bridge, Jimmy…what matters is now.
"And I look at you 'Wild Bill' and wonder where Jimmy has gone." She continued on before he could stop her. "It ain't gone more than a day before you come stumblin' in here, fresh from some brawl at one of the saloons and I've got to patch you up like Teresa's old dolls when she'd let the dog get a hold of it. "You aren't the same boy I idolized and wished on… you're hard and cold in places that I can't touch."
She wanted to reach out and touch him but was afraid he'd push her away, trying to protect them both.
"I'm still me, Lou… I still got them feelin's for ya… I still love you."
"And I love you, Jimmy… but there's so very little left of you… and too much of the legend for me to have you as my own. How long until you're achin' to head off and look for glory and the next big show with Cody… what can I give you here, but a weight around your neck?"
"You could give me a child… I could give you someone to hold onto when I ain't here… you could give me a home, a place to come back to."
She bit the corner of her lower lip and shook her head. "That's not enough for me, Jimmy… I've had a flesh and blood man in my life for too long to be happy with shadows… I love you, Jimmy… I always will, but I can't marry you knowin' you'd… we'd be doin' it for the wrong reasons."
The No. 10 Saloon was filled with the usual characters at this time of night. 'This time'… Jimmy growled at the serving girl and tossed her a Golden Eagle with the order of, "keep 'em comin' til my credit runs out."
"What's got you in such good spirits, Hickok?"
Jimmy didn't waste a glance at the voice, he knew who it was. "Ain't none of yer damn business, Wexel."
The cold slap of glass on wood was unmistakable. "You listen here, Hickok… this is my damn town and when I ask a question it's cause I know it's my business! So tell me, you drinkin' cause of gamblin'… or you drinkin' cause of a woman?"
"I told you, Taylor-" he lifted the glass that the girl set before him, tilting it back until the whiskey was just about to spill over the edge, "it ain't none of-"
"I bet it's 'cause of Louise… my pretty little bit of a sister-in-law."
A dash of whiskey splashed on Jimmy's shirt. "Shut up, Wexel…"
"Pretty little thing when she tries, ain't -"
The supply of air to Taylor's brain was suddenly cut off. "I ain't askin' you to stop Taylor, I'm tellin' you."
"Oh.. kay… fine,… let me go." Taylor sank back onto his stool and gave Jimmy a dark look. "Seems like you're pretty possessive over her, even if you are 'friends' with her." He pressed his advantage when Jimmy signaled for another drink. "Somethin' tells me she's got you wrapped around her little finger like that Indian who works in the smithy."
Jimmy heard the bitter edge to Taylor's words and recognized it for what it was, hate. It had been hard for him to trust Buck in the beginning of the Express, but he'd come to respect and then befriend the young Kiowa, but he'd never had occasion to feel the kind of ill-tempered hate that seemed so easy for Taylor Wexel. "I'd consider it a favor if you'd keep quiet on Buck, too."
Taylor swiveled around to look at Jimmy, "Why do I get the feelin' I can't say much at'all round you tonight, Hickok… somethin' got a bee in yer bonnet?"
"Just keep quiet, Taylor… it's for your own good."
The laughter was bitter and Jimmy couldn't rightly tell if it was coming from Taylor or himself. "So you say, Hickok... but before you bite my head off for sayin' the truth as I see it you may want'a hear what I have to say."
Jimmy tossed back another couple of fingers of whiskey and gratefully took another glass from the girl passing by him. "Better talk quick, men in my family don't hold their tempers well."
Taylor swallowed the rest of his beer with noisy gulps and set the mug down on the table with a satisfied sigh. "When it was rainin' earlier," he sidled up close to Jimmy, lowering his voice so that only the two of them could hear, "looked like your two 'friends' was havin' a little… 'discussion' right there in the center of the street… and it looked to me like they was… 'close.'"
"We've been friends for a long time, Taylor, don't-"
"I dunno, Hickok… I've been close friends with women before, that ain't it…"
"You're drunk, Wexel. Sleep it off."
"You're blind, Hickok… I think I got the better deal."
It said something, at least to Buck, that he could pack all of his belongings into two saddle bags with room to spare. He'd been in one place for months and this was all he had to show for it? As he looked up into the tin mirror over his basin and pitcher he sighed… that, and a broken heart.
The early morning light came through the window and gave the room a frosted look as if he was looking at daguerreotype with a faded image. In his mind, Deadwood was already behind him. Already a memory.
He'd been to the office of the boarding house earlier, woken old Mr. Halifax from his sleep and paid up what he owed on the room and had his instructions to leave the keys on the bed for Missus Halifax to pick up later.
It was all too easy, he reasoned, to walk away. Someone else would take the room before the night was out and some down on their luck miner would take the job in the smithy when he needed money. And Jimmy, Buck bit back a sigh, Jimmy would marry Louise and they'd be happy. Finally happy after all of these years.
Jimmy held his head together with his hands. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that if he let go, his head would hold together on its own, but it still felt better this way. He stirred a bit when the man in the next room stumbled over the chamber pot instead of using it and his head had been screaming since. "I'm gettin' too old to drink this much…"
He turned on his side and caught a glimpse of the wedding ring sitting alone on the table beside his bed. "I'm gettin' too old for a lot of things."
As she struggled to sit upright Jimmy waved away the voices buzzing around his head like flies. "They was… close"
"Shut it Taylor…" Jimmy groaned as his teeth snapped together, the vibrations echoing through his head like a dynamite explosion.
"And I look at you 'Wild Bill' and wonder where Jimmy has gone."
"I'm right here, dammit." Jimmy splashed water on his face from the basin and winced at the pain he felt from the fresh cut on his cheek. Someone had punched him last night and he wondered if he'd ended up on the winning side of the fight, he had certainly ended up on the floor.
He managed to lift his head by some desperate exercise of willpower and through the window he saw a lone figure exit the livery, leading a horse with packed saddle bags. "Buck?"
Jimmy snatched a towel from the rack and used it to scrub at his face, willing his eyes to start working through the pain and fog of the morning sun. "Certainly looks like him."
He reached for his shirt and realized that the rag in his hand had been his last clean shirt. "Dammit all to-" Pulling the shirt down over his head he flopped down on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots. It was a supreme effort considering the pain that knifed through his head at the change in altitude. It was an effort, but somewhere deep in his chest something told him it was worth it.
Buck knew it was the coward's way out. He'd gone to the livery too early for Louise to be awake and at the desk. He went there when he knew he could claim his horse and walk away without seeing the pain in her eyes. He couldn't hurt her again… never again.
Then why didn't he just swing up into the saddle and ride for the trail? The realist in his head said he was gettin' too old to swing up into anything and the pessimist said he wanted to pick the scab as long as he could. He was truly his own worst enemy.
Buck looked up at the sky and wondered if it was too much to ask that he be struck down by lightning and save himself the aggravation of Jimmy Hickok this early in the morning. "I'm leaving, sorry I won't be here for the wedding."
"Wedding?" It took a minute for the pieces to start falling into place and as they clicked in his mind Jimmy grinned at him and Buck resisted the urge to knock Jimmy to the ground. By the look of his face, someone had already beat him to the punch. "What are you talkin' about, Buck?"
"Don't." Buck stopped dead in his tracks, his mount moving past him in the sudden confusion, putting the mare between the old friends. "Don't stand there and make light of this Jimmy. We're old friends and nearly brothers, but if you insist on playin' around like this is nothin' I'm liable to kill you and save Lou the trouble of putting together the… the…"
"Wedding?" Jimmy was nearly shaking with laughter. "I ain't never seen you so red, Buck. It's truly a sight to-"
"She's yours damn it…"
Jimmy was struck by the wave of anger that rolled over him, burning his skin as it went past. "Buck, hey… I-" then there were no words. No possible way to communicate the mind-numbing rush of realization that flooded through him. "You're in love with her!"
When Buck didn't answer back, choosing instead to lean heavily against the side of his horse, Jimmy knew he'd hit it on the nose.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you?" Buck stared at him across his saddle. "What makes you think it's any of your business?"
Jimmy stared back with an incredulous look on his face. "The fact that you're a hairsbreadth from killing me and I don't know why… what's gotten into you?"
"You bought a ring, dammit." Buck barreled on when he got a breath. "I heard about it… everyone heard about it… Wild Bill Hickok buys a wedding ring in Deadwood and suddenly everyone knows that he's about to marry the livery owner. And I'm happy for you," he looked up into Jimmy's face, gasping for air, "happy for both of you, but don't ask me to stand around and watch it happen."
"Don't ask me," Buck continued, "to smile and dance with the bride when-"
"When you're the one who should be marryin' her."
That took the air out of Buck's sails. The Kiowa brave looked anything but as he seemed poised to ride out of town at any minute. "I've made peace with that."
"The hell you have!" Jimmy shook his head and then groaned from the sudden movement. "I dunno if you've had occasion to look into a mirror this morning, but you look like death old friend."
"Great, thanks… forgive me if I tell you to-"
"Turn around and tell her."
"Excuse me?" Buck blinked in the early morning light as though he was struggling to see beyond his nose. "Tell her what?"
"Tell her what you told me, but I'd add in something about how you're no better than a horse's backside for makin' her suffer."
Buck's shoulders sagged. "She needs someone like you."
"She needs someone like me, like she needs a hole in the head, but really, what she 'needs' comes secondary to what she wants… and while I admit I'm the last one to see it, I'm not goin' to stand here denying what's right in front of my face."
The belligerent look on Buck's face said that he wasn't yet convinced.
"Somewhere, somehow when I wasn't lookin' the two of you fell in deep and haven't been able to crawl out of it… and I don't think it's even possible. You've got it bad for her and while I'm jealous as all hell, I ain't gonna stand in the way. So, you take that horse right back to the livery and get down on your knees in front of that woman and ask her to marry you."
It took several tries for Buck to actually generate sound from between his lips. "Why?"
"Why what?" Jimmy's good nature was slipping.
"Why are you helping me?" The instant the question was out of his mouth, Buck wanted to take it back. He didn't think he really wanted to know the answer.
"'Cause I love her as much as you do, and if I get credit for time served, more… but I'm not a man so blind with love that I can't see that what I… what we could have had is long gone. You're the man that can make her happy… and you will."
A slow half smile lifted the corner of Buck's lips. "I will… or die trying."
Jimmy nodded. "I can guarantee the dyin' part…"
"It ain't like you to get up late, Louise."
"No," she conceded, sparing a glance over her shoulder at her brother, "it's not." She set about clearing the plates from the table and ignoring the curious looks her brother was giving her. "I'm not a painting or some etching of a curiosity, Jeremiah. So either say what you want to say or go to work and leave me alone."
He sidestepped around the table and leaned against the wall, just within eyesight. "I'm not a little boy anymore, Louise."
She straightened up, clutching the plates in her hands. "I know that…" but for a moment she looked at him, really looked at the lines of his face and they were there. For the first time she realized there was age on his face and a sadness she hadn't seen before. "I see."
"That's why I wanted to talk to you, before I go to work today."
"Really," Louise began, the agitation building up inside her like a spring coiling in her middle, "I've a lot to do this morning… can't it wait until supper and-"
"No, Louise… it can't wait." He waited until she turned to him, her eyes begging for time that he couldn't give her. "I'm leaving Deadwood, got word of a job back in Saint Jo and I'm takin' it. It's time I found somethin' to do… make a life of my own."
Her eyes darted to his leg, taking in the length of his cane before looking away, her eyes blinking as if it would go away. "Are you sure?" Jeremiah felt the laugh bubbling up his chest. "I'm as sure as I'll ever be of anything... but I know I'm done here."
She wanted to argue, wanted to hold tight to him like she'd once clung to him the first time they'd gone to the orphanage and the nuns had tried to separate them. It was an irrational fear, something she couldn't attribute to much beyond the fear of change. "You'll let me know when you've settled?"
A small smile brought some light to his face and he bent forward to brush a kiss on her cheek. "You know I will." He moved to the door, pausing in the threshold to look back with a broader grin. "You know I will."
Moving on. Louise barely made it to the basin before she dropped the plates into it, the edge of one plate chipping on the side of the tub. Moving on. Her hands gripped the basin, the chill of the metal burning into her palms, her tears, another rush, wetting her cheeks. He was moving on. Moving on.
Mr. Garner's supply wagon clattered through the street outside and she turned, her attention moving past his wagon and on to the livery. Buck. Her heart ached as though all her blood had drained out of it… left it dying. She wanted to scream… wanted to raise hell and ask what it was that she had done to mess everything up so completely.
For the first time in her life she wished she had Jimmy's ability to drink himself to the point that being lonely didn't matter. Louise bit down hard on her tongue and tasted the metallic tang of blood. She'd been uncharitable with her thoughts… she'd been mean to Jimmy when really it was her own fault that she was standing here alone.
The morning was still young and many were still abed as she made her way across the street, ignoring the way the wet mud pulled at her shoes and attached to the hem of her skirts. The only thing drawing her attention and bringing fear to the surface was the yawning darkness of the smithy windows.
Worry quickened her steps and there was only the space of a breath before she knocked on the door at the back of the smithy. "Buck?" Her lower lip quivered and she tried to blame it on the chill in the air. "Buck? I… We need to talk."
When the only answer was silence she leaned into the door and pressed her ear against the wood, rapping against the solid door, listening as the sounds echoed and fell into the darkness.
Peering into the small window beside the door, she looked for a part of the glass that was smooth enough to see through. Rising up to the tips of her toes she was able to find a vantage point. A bare mattress leaned against the wall, shelves once graced with Buck's meager possessions were clean and empty, and the small wardrobe where he kept his clothes was open and bare.
There was emptiness in the room that she was familiar with. She'd lived with it from time to time in her life, but seeing it visited on someone she loved… Loved. Oh Lord how she loved him and now he'd never know.
She turned back toward the livery and made her way through the street and over toward the stable. Reaching for her apron hanging on the wall she stopped, a shadow blocking the light from the door. She couldn't seem to move, not even breathe as the man removed his hat and stood waiting behind her.
She whirled around, a hand pressed to her heart, willing the ache and throb of hope to subside long enough for her to say… something.
Buck stepped inside the livery, his horse moving slowly behind him and his hat at his side. "I wanted to come and see you."
She could only nod.
She watched him purse his lips slightly as if bottling up something he was about to say and still when she parted her own lips she couldn't seem to push a sound past them. It was silly. She knew it… hated it. She was a grown woman and not a silly child so she should be able to say something. To say what she wanted to… what she had to before he walked away. "Don't go."
The words surprised them both. She could feel the rise of her own eyebrows in the way it pulled her skin taught at the sides of her eyes and above. Buck's surprise brought a corner of his mouth up in a smile.
She moved closer to him watching his features for any hint… any idea of where he was going… if there was any hope of convincing him to stay. She looked up into his eyes from a few inches away and as she took in a breath she was swamped with memories of their lives together… of the many years they'd shared.
She nearly cried at the thoughts themselves. She'd expected, face to face with him that she'd first draw on the memories of their one night together… the heat and love they'd come to find in each other's arms, but she was blinded by so many other moments. A simple look, a simple word… a simple touch… her mind was filled with the beauty of each moment and when she reached out her hand she didn't take his hand in hers, she drew the reins from his hand.
"Let me take care of your horse, we should talk before you leave… and I can't-"
"Standing here," his voice surprised her as she led the mount away and turned to look back, "anyone could come in… interrupt what we have to say."
She nodded and led his horse inside the livery near an empty stall, but not quite into it. Looping the reins lightly around a bar she turned to find Buck standing behind her and close enough to touch if she reached out her hand.
Where to begin was her problem. There was so much she had to say and so much she felt he needed to hear, but where in the huge sea of words was the one that needed to go first. Trusting in fortune more than she'd ever done before she looked up into his eyes lit by the morning sunlight coming in from the street and said what she'd only confessed to one other man in her life. "I love you."
She watched the effect it had on Buck. The immediate blink of his eyes, the way they'd been startled and opened round, the slight part of his lips and the shimmer of tension that flowed through his body into the ground at their feet. "Louise, I-"
"No-" she touched his lips with her fingers and found with a smile that they weren't shaking. "I want you to listen to it all… and then if you still want to walk away, I won't stop you." She didn't drop her hand until she felt the fleeting caress of his lower lip as it relaxed beneath her touch. "Good."
Lowering her hand she watched it fall to his chest, saw the way her hand, tanned by sun and hard work still shown light against the purple of his shirt and felt the tremor of his heart deep within his body.
"I miss you… when you're not with me." The words sounded silly to her ears, but there it was… the truth. "I miss the simple things, the way you smile when I open the door to you, the way you always draw the edge of the napkin against the pad of your thumb before you set it in your lap, the way you lean your head to the side when you're reading something you enjoy… the way I feel happy from top to bottom just having you in the same room with me."
She drew her fingers down the front placket of his shirt and smiled again. "I'd love to see you button your shirts in the morning, watch you comb your hair after a bath…" she took one of his hands in hers and lifted it between them so they could both see the way their fingers laced together, a slight difference in color of skin and size of their fingers, but there was strength that held them together that was beautiful to her. "I want to hold your hand during grace, sit beside you on the porch in the warm summer nights and have you know how much I'll love you for the rest of my life."
She swiped at a traitorous tear with her free hand and forced herself to look up at him again. "When I told you about… what happened to me… about how I couldn't… about how I didn't want…" she gasped and bit into her lip. "That was the little girl in me, Buck… that was the little girl so scared of life she didn't know what to think. I didn't know when I'd have a roof over my head… or food to eat and the thought of bringing a child into the midst of all that fear of all that hate-"
"I wouldn't blame you for hating that man… I'd have killed him for you if -"
"I hated myself, Buck… hated how weak I was… hated the way I couldn't defend myself against the fear that took years for me to set aside… but I never would have hated the baby. I was just afraid that I didn't have the love inside me to be worthy of child who would have to depend on me. When I couldn't even take care of myself."
"I wanted… needed you to know that when I look at you I don't see what that man did to your mother, Buck… I see a man who is gentle when the world has shown him so little kindness and a man who loves when he has had so little from others… and if you… could love me… then please, stay."
If it wasn't for the way she held his hand, Buck was afraid he'd have fallen over into the hay. He'd had dreams and wondered what it would be like to hear her tell him those very words, but the reality of it was humbling and had him struggling to speak.
"I don't have the words to tell you… to make you understand." He saw the glistening trail of a tears on her cheek and he swept it away with a gentle touch. "We were always a little in love with you, the boys… you were both sister and woman to us in different ways and while we knew your heart belonged to Kid we knew if it wasn't him… Jimmy was the man you'd turn to. He was the one you'd love you." He smiled a little as if finally realizing the punch-line to a joke and he was it. "I never expected… never knew that when I came to see you after the accident… when I came to comfort you, that I'd find love in your arms and that…" he drew in a deep breath and blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. "That I'd give anything to see you happy. That's why I packed up my things last night. I wanted you happy… wanted Jimmy to bring that smile back to your face… to love you the way you should be."
"Then why-" her words choked on a gasp of air and she swallowed hard trying to keep her heart from breaking.
"Because I'm selfish, Louise… because if there's a chance that you'd be happy in my arms… happy with my name on your lips, sharing my life…then I was going to take my chance and tell you… I love you." Louise let go of his hand and slid her fingers through the length of hair at his temple, feeling the heavy silk caress her skin and sighed as Buck brushed a soft kiss over her lips. Another followed as he wrapped his arms around her body and embraced her tightly. As she leaned into his embrace and slid her hands over his back she heard his last words of the day. "Marry me."
Blinking back the tears she leaned back to see the hope and love alight in his eyes and answered, "Yes."
as the music at the banquet
as the ruby in the setting
|Author's note: Thanks a ton to the three ladies that have been so very important in this series finally reaching it's completion... thanks thanks thanks to Dede, Liz and Cindy... you know how much you mean to me