The town had grown, sprawled in the snow like the limbs of a slumbering drunk, and it took him a few minutes to get his bearings. The marshal's office had been painted, probably more than once since he'd been there the last time, but the door still moaned on its hinges when the wind blew hard down Main Street.
A snow storm had blown through unexpectedly; leaving a few piled drifts were the mud hadn't sucked it down beneath the heels of his boots. Tompkins' store had a new sign: Perkins Dry Goods. It wasn't hard to imagine that the man had passed in the time that he'd been gone, but the reality of a new name above the door still hurt somewhere deep down inside. How many other things had changed?
The old Express Station was barely recognizable. The barn was gone, replaced by a smaller building, barely a story high with a new sign out front. It declared itself a Post and Telegraph office and the wires strung high above its roof cut across the sky. It was as good a place as any to start and so, taking his hat in his hands, he stepped up onto the walk and into the office.
The young man inside looked up at him from the tiny desk and gave him a smile. "Morning, Sir. Have a message to send back East?"
Shaking his head he took another step closer to the counter. "No. I, uh… I was wonderin' if you could tell me if someone was still in town."
"Oh?" The clerk got to his feet and rounded the desk. "Been awhile since you've been in Rock Creek?"
Looking down at the hemmed brim of his hat he nodded. "About fifteen years." Saying it only helped to make the missing years yawn before him like an even grander gap of time.
The clerk blew out a breath, one hand rising to scratch absently at his temple. "I hope I can help you, sir. I've only been in Rock Creek for the better part of five myself. Who are you lookin' for?"
He opened his mouth and the words froze on his tongue. What name would he ask for? He had no idea what name she'd used after the wedding. Pressing his lips together he considered his choices. "Her name was Louise, Louise McCloud, but I-"
"Oh!" The clerk's eyes widened in recognition. "I know that name. Let me give you directions…"
'Directions,' he felt like turning back around and stuffing the clerk's visor down his scrawny neck, 'what the hell kind of directions did he give me?' Standing at the gate of Rock Creek cemetery was enough to put him in a rotten mood. There were too many memories here to make it somewhere he wanted to be… ever.
Still, while he'd already made the walk, he might as well say hello to some old friends.
Ike. While they'd held their own funeral for him in the way of Buck's people, they'd later erected a marker for Ike beside another of their friends. Noah. His plain stone had been cared for as well and a smattering of wildflowers had grown at the base of each. It was fitting, he thought, that they would continue to have flowers even when the town of Rock Creek forgot who they were.
Beyond Noah, a stone caught his eye, newer than the two by a few years, it hadn't started to discolor with age and the letters were still pristine against their background. Aloysius Hunter. The date didn't matter to him, not when he realized that the man he considered to his father had passed on and he hadn't been there.
It was a physical blow, one that nearly doubled him over in the corner of that cemetery. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs… trying to understand when it had all gone wrong.
He turned to leave and head back to town, but he stopped short. A man, face hidden by long strands of dark hair and hat pulled low over his eyes, blocked the exit. Jimmy came heeled, so all he had to do was drop his hand down and palm one of his guns. His momentary shock wasn't enough to get him killed.
"Saw you ride by the smithy." The voice was dark and rumbled across the ground. "Recognized the way you ride."
"Ain't been this way in over ten years, mister… don't think you've seen me ride before."
The man lifted his face up, letting the late afternoon sun slant across his features. "I saw you ride for nearly two years, Hickok. Not likely to forget way you sit a saddle, not now… probably not ever."
"Buck." The name came easily to his lips but the stab of emotions in his middle kept him in place when he should have reached out a hand to greet his old friend. The moment was odd, odder still when Jimmy began to wonder why Buck hadn't stepped inside the graveyard. "The simpleton over at the telegraph gave me directions to get to Lou's place." He couldn't help the bark of laughter that pushed past his lips. "I must've got all turned around, they've added a few streets since I left. I'm guessin' you could show me the way." He started toward the exit but his steps faltered when Buck swept his hat off his head.
The hair beneath had strands of silver shot through the dark, but that wasn't what had him nearly tripping over his own boots. Buck nodded back the way Jimmy had come, his gaze arching over Teaspoon's stone in the plot.
Jimmy wouldn't turn back around. Couldn't. Not when he was sure Buck was going to point him down another maze of streets.
Buck stopped at his shoulder, clamping his hand down when they were nearly face to face. "It was just a few months ago," the Kiowa's voice was gruff with emotion, "sudden, really… even the doctor had no idea she was sick. One morning she just didn't wake up."
Jimmy looked at Buck for a moment before he realized the words had come from his own lips.
If the news that Teaspoon had passed on had dealt him a blow, this added shock literally drove him to his knees. His hat, jostled from its place fell off and rolled around in the sparsely grown grass near some of the headstones. Rocks bit into his palms where he'd fell on them in the dirt. The reality of everything he'd lost came crashing down on him in one terrible moment that took his breath away.
"Here, drink this." Buck shoved a cup in his hands and Jimmy lifted it to his lips more because it was expected than because he wanted to.
The hot liquid burned down his throat and burned him straight through to his middle.
"You tryin' to kill me, Buck?" Jimmy's cup dropped from his hands into the dirt at his feet. The heat of the small room was oppressive and Jimmy had to look twice to make sure they weren't in Teaspoon's old sweatlodge. "How did we get here?"
Buck picked up the cup and set it on a nearby shelf. "You're starting to remember…" he wiped his hand of on the thick canvas apron he wore over his clothes, "I guess that's good." He picked up metal tongs and clamped down on a bent piece of metal. "I got you on your feet and walked you over here." With his free hand he pulled on the cord attached to a bellows and the fire in the pit flared red. "You've put on a few pounds."
"Your manners haven't improved much." The tone was gruff, but there was a hitch in his voice and a falling off at the end that belied his biting words. "It's been a long time, Buck."
The rhythmic pounding of Buck's hammer was relentless. "Yeah… a long time."
"Part of me wants to ask why you didn't send word," Jimmy shook his head and brushed at a stray spark that touched on his cheek, searing his skin, "then I remind myself that I rode out of Rock Creek and did everything I could to fall off the face of the earth."
Buck could only nod. There was no arguing with the truth.
"I'd appreciate something a little stronger, Buck," Jimmy groused over the top of the cup. "At least for old time's sake."
Buck poured himself a cup and avoided Jimmy's eyes. "For old time's sake I haven't given you a black eye. Take the victories as they come, Jimmy."
"Well," Jimmy huffed, "can't say that the years have improved your personality any."
Buck nodded toward a bucket of water in the corner. "Go ahead and freshen up, there's somewhere I need to take you before I let you have a drink."
Jimmy's expression hardened for a moment. He wasn't the kind of man that liked to be told what to do by anyone. This was no exception.
Unfortunately, Buck knew that and more about his old friend and his expression didn't allow for any argument. There was too much history between them. Finally, Jimmy stood and made his way over to the wash bucket.
Buck stood there at the edge of the property with Jimmy standing beside him and wondered what his old friend saw in the scene before him. Did he notice the new color of the house, selected a few years ago and brushed on with his own hands? Did he notice the floor boards of a different color that had been added after the original ones had warped in that hard rain last year? Did he notice how many years had gone by since they'd stood in this same place?
"By god," Jimmy vowed, "I never thought I'd see this place again." He turned slowly to his friend. "I'm glad I was wrong." He seemed to gaze at the house as though he was sure it was about to fade into the plains before he could commit it to memory. "I'm glad you brought me here, Buck, but with Lou gone…" he swallowed hard on the taste of her name, "I got no business here."
A few choice words sat on Buck's tongue, but Jimmy was saved from them by the swinging slam of a door against a wall, by a young woman balancing a wash basket on her hip, by the soft song hummed beneath her breath.
She was willow thin, with the beginnings of womanly curves beneath her worn calico dress. She set the basket down in the grass and lifted a shirt to the line. The way she moved, a simple economy of motion, tugged at Jimmy's memories so vividly he could barely form the question. "Wh-who is that?"
He could hear the smile in Buck's voice. "That's Lou's daughter, Polly." He sighed a little, an affectionate sound that spoke volumes about their history. "She was named after her grandmother."
Mary. The name crossed him mind. Mary was Louise's mother's last name, but then again, "I can see that," he admitted, "Teaspoon always was more father to us than boss, so I can see how she named her after-"
"Your mother, Jimmy." Buck softened his tone. "She named her after your mother."
The reality of the moment staggered him. If the coffee Buck had poured into him hadn't already done its job he'd be sober now.
"My… my mother?"
Buck smirked at the dumbfounded look on Jimmy's face. Over the last few years he'd had many unkind thoughts about Jimmy and as eager as he was to give Jimmy a little payback for his disappearing act. "We should get back to the smithy and I'll get you that drink." Buck nodded. "I think you need one about now."
"Yeah." Jimmy nodded, slowly, as the information sank in. "I think we should-"
"Uncle Buck!" Just the sound of her voice anchored him to the spot. It was at once the sweetest sounds that he'd ever heard and still, there was just a hint of a memory tugging at his hardened heart… the ghost of another voice in hers.
Wiping her hands off on her apron, she moved across the yard. "I wasn't expectin' you to come by for supper until tomorrow." She looked at Jimmy and tilted her head slightly to the side. "Do I know you?"
Jimmy couldn't say a word, couldn't make a sound beyond the strangled twist of the heart in his chest.
She turned to Buck, her eyes asking for answers. "Who…"
Buck's expression softened even more as he searched for the words to explain. He had wanted to hurt Jimmy… wanted his old friend to feel the keen loss that Buck faced every day and so he'd brought him here. But Polly didn't deserve the odd introduction. No, this young woman deserved so much more than this. "He's an old friend of mine," he swallowed, "of your mother's too." He leaned a little closer, watching her expression carefully. "Polly, honey, this is Jimmy. He-"
"No." The word was harsh and rasped over her lips. "NO."
Instinctively, Jimmy reached out to touch her arm in a comforting gesture. It didn't work.
"No." She recoiled, wiping her hands off on her skirts. "What are you… why…" She couldn't seem to utter one complete question and neither man could blame her for the confusion. They were dealing with it themselves.
"I didn't know." The words were honest and humbling to him. "I had no idea." He stepped closer, reaching out a hand for her to take. "But, I'm here now, honey, I'm here now."
She was staggered by the surprise of it, her mind reeling from the idea that her father was finally standing before her: standing here, where her mother had wanted him to be for so many years. She looked him straight in the eye. "I don't want you here."
Even Buck's heart melted a little bit for Jimmy, watching the painful blow of rejection hit him.
Turning away from them both, Polly walked back into her house and shut the door.
Author's Note: Thanks to TN Dee for throwin' down this challenge... I had to show Jimmy as the Stupid Boy from Keith Urban's song of the same name... and really, it's not that hard! I've done it before and will most likely do it a score or more times after this...