Dara paused where she knelt beside the stove. “Jeremy.. can you hand me another piece of wood?”
The dried branch, chopped to size months ago, was laid into her hand and she fed it into the red puffing metal belly of the stove. “You want me to get you another one Momma?”
“Thanks sweetie,” She reached out and ruffled his hair, “I think we’ll be okay for the night.”
Dara sat back against the wall and pulled Jeremy down beside her.
Jeremy knelt beside his mother and looked into her face. She shivered and he shook his head, “Momma, put some more wood on.”
She gave him a little look, “We’ve got to make the wood last darlin’.. why don’t you lean up against me and -”
He smiled, that same rakish grin that melted her heart every time, “I’ve got a better idea Momma. Close your eyes.”
Shivering, Dara closed her eyes and waited. By the shift in light and heat, Jeremy knelt before her and she could hear him rubbing something together. “Jeremy what are you-”
His hands, warmed by friction, settled on her cheeks and she squeezed her eyes tight as tears sprang up from the unexpected gesture. She covered over his hands with her own, “Jeremy? Jeremy?” Her eyes flew open and stared at her precious son, “Why... why did you do that?”
He seemed confused, “Do what?”
“Put your hands on my face.”
Jeremy shrugged, “Dunno.. just seemed like the right thing to do.”
She shook her head, “It’s all too.. too...” she brought his hands down between them and turned his hands over and over looking at them, “and here it is.. staring me in the face-”
“Momma? What is it?”
Dara’s eyes shown with glittering tears, “Your hands... you’ve got my Daddy’s hands.”
Jeremy tried to meet his mothers’ eyes. She wasn’t the type of woman who got teary all that much, so when her voice got all soft and trembly.. it scared him.
“Momma? What’s wrong.. you gonna cry?”
Dara wiped at her cheeks, “No Sweetie, it just... it’s just - sometimes you remind me of him.”
She smoothed his bangs away from his face “Yes, Grandpa.”
“You don’t talk about him a lot.”
Her eyes widened in surprise, “I don’t?” Jeremy shook his head, “Well, I guess that’s because he’s always around.”
Jeremy looked around the room quickly as he gripped her arm, “Momma?”
Dara smothered a laugh, “It’s a figure of speech Jere. Why don’t you sit down and let me tell you about Grandpa James.”
He settled in against her side, feeling her warmth against him. She circled her right arm around his shoulders and pulled him snug against her.
He had grown quiet, his dark brown eyes staring at his hands, “He was Wild Bill, right Mama?”
“Wild Bill,” she laughed and kept her tone light, “That what some called him. Those that didn’t know him, ‘cept for his reputation. His friends and his family, they called him Jimmy.” Jeremy sat quietly beside her, “It’s around family that people show who they truly are, lettin’ their guard down-”
“So people know what’s in your heart?”
Dara leaned her cheek against his head, “That’s right Jeremy. Your Grandpa had a big heart-”
“and my hands,” he said with pride.
Dara leaned her head back against the wall, “Now the first story, well I don’t ‘remember’ any of it-” With a single far off look Dara settled in to tell the story:
“Were you a baby Mama?”
"Yes. A baby. Your Uncle Louis was a few years older than I was but he remembers this one time when my mother was away, helping my Aunt Theresa with the birth of her first child. I wasn’t more than a year old and Mama left Daddy with me and Louis.” Dara chuckled, “To hear your uncle tell it, the house was fallin’ apart when Mama got back, but I don’t believe it. Daddy was a bit nervous, sure... who wouldn’t be?”
“Grandpa took care of the house?”
“And two small children. Louis turned the house upside down, he was a stubborn little boy, but what caused your Grandpa the most concern was when I needed to be changed.”
Jeremy’s face squished up like he’d eaten a lemon or two, “Ewwww he changed your diapers?”
Dara’s laughter, golden and warm fell around his ears, “He couldn’t very well leave it until Mama got back.”
"Louis used to say that he watched Daddy fret and fume over the whole affair. He was so worried that he’d poke me with the pins that he broke into a sweat just thinking about it.” Dara smiled, turning her eyes inward, searching for a memory she knew wasn’t there.
I used to fuss an awful lot too. I would cry like a banshee when I was wet. Louis said people from three houses away would come around to offer help, I was so loud. Daddy though, Daddy was as stubborn as I was loud. He told them to go on home, cause he’d take care of me like he told my Mama he would. Louis said he’d put his hands over his ears and wait. There was one time, on the third day that we were alone, Daddy made magic.
“Magic? Like a makin’ a rabbit come out of his hat?”
Nope, something better. You see, I was kicking around, waving my arms, angry as can be. ‘Wet and Wild’ he called me. Well, Daddy picked me up and let me kick and scream, all the while he just held me there and stared at me. Finally, I got all quiet and started to stare back.
“Alright now little miss. We can do this the hard way or we can do this the easy way. Now the way I figure it, you’ve got a wet bottom and I’ve got a clean cloth to put on it. Now providing you don’t scream my ears off, we can get this over and done with in a minute.”
Louis said I just flashed a big toothless grin at Daddy and laid there while he cleaned me up and pinned the diaper on. Dara laughed, your uncle said that even though I laid there real quiet like, Daddy still had rivers of sweat pouring down his face.
Can you imagine... those big strong hands and those little tiny pins?
Jeremy shook his head, his thick dark hair swung around his face, “I can’t imagine a gunfighter pinin’ a diaper on a baby.”
“Then you’d be surprised to find out that James Hickok had an extremely large soft spot for those he loved.”
She gathered her son close and feathered a kiss on his forehead. “It wasn’t something you could see Sweetie, it was right here,“ placing a hand over Jeremy’s heart and smiled down at him, “it was in his heart.”
“How did you know?”
“Well,“ she shifted positions on the floor, relieving pressure on her back, “It wasn’t in large gestures.. or anything you put in the papers... but, the earliest memories I have of my daddy were Sundays.”
“Yes sir, from the time I was old enough, I walked to church with Daddy. We’d start off at the door, my hand in his, and we’d take it one step at a time.” The secret smile was back on her face, “Of course it was about three or four of my steps to one of his, but he never lost patience. He’d hold my hand and walk beside me, talking the whole way.”
“Other people from town would pass us, in wagon or on horseback, and offer to give me a ride, but daddy would always thank them and say no. This was ‘our time’ he’d say and tip his hat. They’d go on down the street, Daddy would squeeze my hand and off we’d go. “
“What else Mama?” It was over an hour later and Dara stood at the stove, stirring a thick pot of stew.
She set her spoon down on a wooden trivet near the stove and turned, “More?”
Dara smiled, “Hmmm... let me think.” She pulled her shawl closer, securing it around her thickening middle, “Now, you may not believe this, but I was always getting hurt when I was your age, skinning my knee, coming home scratched and bleeding from falling into a bush or two.”
Blushing a deep red, Dara settled into a chair at the kitchen table, “Well, to be honest, it was Mrs. Nolte’s rosebushes.” Dara set a hand over her mouth, “she had some temper.”
Dara set a hand on Jeremy’s arm, “Well, I had myself so scared... I thought Daddy would tan my hide for a month of Sundays. I hid myself up in a tree in our front yard and I heard Mrs. Nolte yellin’ at Daddy for what seemed like hours.”
Smiling, Dara nodded at her son, “I hid.. and hid... and hid..”
“Did he find you?”
“Oh yes... it wasn’t very hard.”
“I was wearing a dress, you could see the hem dippin’ below the branches of the tree and my legs dangling down from the leaves.”
Jeremy‘s voice was quiet, “Did he spank you?”
“Well, after he ‘helped’ me down out of the tree, he sat me down at the kitchen table.” Dara smoothed her hands over the wood of her own table, the memories so tangible even after twenty years. “He took one of Mama’s kitchen towels, wet it and cleaned off my face
“Why the tears little girl?”
“I’m sorry daddy.”
“I expect you are.”
“I hurt too.” I started crying again. I remember crying so hard I couldn’t see him, but I felt his lips as he kissed me on my forehead. “You gonna spank me now?”
He laughed and started to clean off my knees.
I didn’t know what happened. Why he was laughing or why I felt so happy to have him around. His hands were so gentle that even the rough cloth felt like the softest silk. “Would it do any good?”
I shrugged, “Dunno.”
He tried to hide his smile, “Would it keep you out of Mrs. Nolte’s rosebushes?”
“No?” I think he was tryin’ to decide whether to laugh or scold me more.
A bit frightened of the answer I said the first thing that came to mind. Swinging my feet out I answered him, “It’s my feet Daddy.”
“Your feet?” Daddy looked a bit confused.
I was honest in my belief, even though I must have sounded absolutely foolish, “They’re much too big Daddy, I keep trippin’ over ‘em.”
When the words sunk in Daddy laughed in earnest.
Jeremy‘s brows knitted together, “He laughed?”
He ruffled my hair and told me to watch my ‘feet’ and he walked away whistling. I looked down at my knees and I couldn’t believe it, except for a few scratches they looked fine. Daddy’s magic hands had not only healed my scratched up knees, they’d chased away my fear.
The next morning Jeremy watched as his mother padded outside to feed the horses. Quickly he pulled on his coat and scarf, heading out after her. The scarf had been added as an unconscious afterthought and he quite literally dragged his scarf behind him in the snow. He found her in the middle of the barn. He dug his hands in his pockets to warm them, “Mama?”
“Morning sleepy head.”
“You have any more stories about Grampa?”
Dara smiled at the hopeful sound of his voice. “I’m sure I could remember something...that is after you’ve fed the chickens.”
Jeremy trudged of to the chicken coop, grumbling as he went.
Later, when he slumped in through the door. Dara stripped off his coat as she clucked, “Look at your hands!”
Turning them over before his eyes Jeremy shrugged his shoulders, “They’re scratched up...and cold.”
Dara was back in a moment with a warm wet cloth, “Where are your gloves?”
Jeremy nodded at the table, “I left ‘em in here.”
Kneeling down before him Dara looked straight into his face, “Why would you do that?”
She sighed, “Yes well, don’t do it again.” He stood stock still and watched her with hungry eyes, “I did promise you another story, didn’t I?”
He smiled, “You did.”
Dara nodded and moved over to the stove. Pouring two cups of cocoa she set them on the table and watched as Jeremy winced as the hot liquid splashed on his tongue.
“Don’t forget to cool it first honey.” Dara pulled back her chair and eased herself into it. “Now let me see...” her voice faded as she searched for the memory she wanted to share. “The day I left home.”
“When was that?”
Smiling down at her own hands Dara laughed, “I was fifteen and goin’ away to a fancy eastern school.”
“Your Mama and Daddy sent you away?” He looked stricken.
Dara shook her head, “Don’t get me wrong young man. It was my decision. I wanted to go to the school and it took an awful lot of convincing to get Mama and Daddy to let me go.”
“Oh.” Jeremy sipped at his cocoa as he pondered the information.
It wasn’t until the day I left town that it really hit me. I was leaving. The stage stood waiting at the station and Daddy pulled the wagon to a stop at the hitching post down the street. Louis grumbled left and right ‘cause Daddy made him carry one of my bags. Mama walked quietly at my side, her hands clutched around her kerchief, tears perched on her lashes, but she held quiet.
Daddy, he too walked beside me, quiet and almost brooding. The stage driver took my bags and lashed them to the top of the coach and told me to say my goodbyes. I tried to give Louis a hug, but a nineteen year old brother doesn’t care much for hugging. Instead he held out his hand and shook mine.
Mama, well Mama broke down crying and it started my tears too. She gathered me in her arms and we squeezed the breath out of each other. She told me again and again how much she’d miss me and I told her I’d write and tell them all about school. Then she let me go and stepped back, her hands trembling at her side. “Ride Safe Darlin’.”
The driver called for everyone to board but Daddy asked him to wait. Tippin’ his hat, the driver nodded, “Sure thing Marshal Hickok, you have a moment with your girl, but keep it short. I’ve still got a schedule to keep.”
Daddy nodded and held out his hand.
Staring down at that hand I put one of mine in his, “I love you Daddy.”
The next moment Daddy pulled me into his arms as he knelt on the boardwalk. I could feel his hands on my hair, “You take care little girl.”
I gasped and started to tell him that I was no little girl, but he pulled back and stared at me, his hands lightly on my cheeks, “You’re not my little girl anymore, I know that. You’re goin’ like a bad weed... and somehow I can’t bear to think that the next time I see you you’ll be a young woman.”
I smiled at his words.
He pressed a finger to my lips, “I’m gonna miss you Dara, more than you can imagine. I ... I ..”
“I know Daddy. I know.”
He stood and took my hand, helping me into the coach. There was only a single second that our hands let go, just until the door closed. I crouched near the door, my fingers locked with his. Even when the coach started to move he held on, jogging alongside the stage until the speed made it too hard to keep up. Slowly, so slowly, my fingers slipped out of his, the well worn hand still stretched out towards me as the stage rumbled along.
I leaned out the window waving and waving until the town was just a speck on the horizon then I sat down against the seat and held my hand to my cheek almost as if I could still feel his warmth.
“Could you Mama?”
Setting her hand against her cheek in the toasty warmth of the little kitchen Dara smiled, “I still can.”
Jeremy set some plates in the wash basin after dinner, “Mama?”
Leaning against the table Dara looked back over her shoulder, “Yes sweetie?”
“Can I hear another story?”
She walked over to his side and ruffled his hair, “Sure can sweetie, how can I tell you no?”
Dara picked up a dish and began to scrub while Jeremy waited with a towel, ready to dry.
“The day I got married-”
She hid her laughter, “Yes, to Daddy.”
Grandpa hired a phaeton to take me to the church and he was beside me every moment. I had to pick up my skirt goin’ into the church, even though trains were in fashion, they weren’t very practical. He kept a steady hand under my elbow all the way up the steps of the church but I doubt I noticed it, my heart was hammering a jig in my chest.
We stopped inside the doorway as I smoothed my bodice and fussed over invisible dirt on my hem.
“You ready for this?”
“No,” he laughed at my hasty answer, “Yes, I dunno.”
He reached out and set my bouquet in my hands, “Well, you’ve kept him waiting for years, you can keep him waiting.”
I laughed at Daddy’s mildly hopeful look, “No, now.”
He gave a little sigh as he held out his arm for me to take and together, we rounded the corner and walked down the aisle.
Daddy matched me step for step all the way to the front of the room. I kept my eyes on the man standing at the front-”
“Yes, your Daddy.”
We paused just a step away from the front and I took my place next to your father.
My mind was a blur until I heard the words, “Who gives this woman for marriage to this man?”
“Her mother and I do.”
I turned to look at my father and I nearly started crying. His eyes, they ... they shone with pride. He reached out with one of his hands and I put mine in his.
He lowered his voice, “You take care baby girl, you stay strong and tall. Remember, we’ll always be here for you... no matter what.” Daddy took my hand, kissed the back of it and touched it to his cheek. “You be happy Dara, you be happy.”
He lowered my hand down but didn’t let go for a long moment. His long tanned fingers held my hand with such a gentle grasp I almost didn’t feel it, but through his hand I felt his love.
Grandpa Jimmy took your father’s hand and turned it over. He put my hand in it and held them together, “You be good to each other, love each other... and together, you’ll have the world.”
“What does that mean Mama?”
Dara set a dish in Jeremy’s little hands and watched as he carefully wiped the water off of it. “Having the world?”
Jeremy nodded and set the dish on the shelf.
Sighing a wistful little sigh, Dara handed him another plate, “We loved each other, something powerful and deep. We took care of each other and God gave us you. I’d say that it was like bein’ given the world.”
It was one night that Jeremy didn’t argue about going to sleep. Dara sat on the bed and smoothed her son’s hair back.
“Let me guess... you want another story?”
His smile was wide and guileless. “Please?”
Dara slipped off her shoes and smiled, “Well, there’s really only one more to tell. The day you were born.“
Lost in the thought for a moment, Dara grew quiet and stroked her son’s arm through the thick fabric. Your Daddy was away, stuck in another town with miles and miles of snow between us. I knew there was no way that he’d come back in time, but still I had hope. I must have spent almost an entire day pacing in front of the window, waiting to see your Daddy and his horse ride in.”
She laughed softly, “No, but it was later that day that the pains started.”
“Did you go and get help?”
Dara smiled, “I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t change my own clothes, let alone hitch up the wagon.”
“So how did you get help?”
“Just before supper time, Daddy came.”
Dara’s face lit up as she recalled those wonderful moments.
He arrived with a plate from Mama, just to check up on me, and he ended up stayin’. Sure, he called for the doctor and Mama, but he never left my side.
Through an entire day of labor, he held my hand and bit his lip whenever I would cry out. Mama tried to get him to go outside, but he reminded her that he’d been there through both times with her and there was no way he was leaving me.
I don’t remember much about the pain, that all fades with time, but I remember when you were born. Mama started laughing and crying all at the same time. I just laid there, too tired to move and yet so very thankful.
The doctor, he cut the cord while Mama wrapped you up, and then he held you out to me.
My Daddy, he looked down at me and I swear I could see a tear in his eye, “Can I?”
I nodded and watched as he took you in his arms, holding you like you were made of the finest spun glass.
One arm got loose and you, my sweet little boy, you bopped your grandfather on his nose... but good!
“Did he get angry?”
Dara smoothed Jeremy’s fears with her hands and her words, “No, not angry. He laughed and took your little hand in his.”
“I bet they were small.”
“Hey now little man, I thought you were supposed to be goin’ to sleep.”
Jeremy tried to close his eyes, but popped one open, “Finish the story Mama.”
“Alright, you settle down and I’ll finish.”
He took your little hand in his and he opened it up, looking at every little finger and all the tiny lines in your skin. He didn’t say a thing for a long while, but he touched your hand to his face and he sighed. I never did forget that look on his face.
He couldn’t resist unwrapping the whole blanket and he touched your face, your arms, hands, legs and feet. Finally, he put his hand over your heart. “Strong heart,” he said. “Just like my little girl.”
I nodded and touched his arm, “Just like my Daddy.”
Dara closed the door and moved across the hall to her own room. Jeremy was tuckered out and fast asleep and now it was her turn. As she readied herself for bed her mind continued to replay moments of her life, sweeping through her heart as well.
Kneeling down beside her bed she said her evening prayer. The words pasted soundlessly through her lips as her mind reached back to a few years in the past.
Jeremy had been nearly a year old when her father had taken ill. She’d wanted to tend to him, but with Jeremy so young, her mother told her to stay at home to care for the baby. It was only when they knew that there was no hope that Louise had sent for her children.
Dara had left Jeremy with his father and rushed to the house, moving faster than she thought her feet were capable of moving. The air in the house was still and cold and chilled her to the bones as she weaved a path around the furniture and up the stairs.
Louis met her outside the room. He’d caught her by the arms and hugged her close. “Don’t cry... not now. Not in front of him, or mama.”
She’d nodded, unable to say a word.
Louise sat beside him on the bed, her hand on her father’s shoulder. Dara knelt beside him and looked up into his eyes, “Daddy?”
“Oh little darlin’ don’t you go and cry on me.”
“I won’t Daddy.”
“Good, cause that’s not what I want to see. What about one of those Dara smiles that I live for?”
Dara did her best even at that moment, because it was for him. Always Daddy.
She’d stayed there for the better part of an hour, but when he started to look tired, she’d stood up to leave. Dara knew her mother would like sometime alone with him.
One more time Dara looked down at her father, a smile fluttering on her lips, “I love you Daddy.”
He took her hand in his, threading his fingers between hers. His strong fingers held hers close even as the strength started to ebb from his hands, “I love you too Lil’ Girl... I love you too.”
Now, back in her own bedroom, Dara climbed in beside her husband and curled up beside him under the warm blankets. He stirred a bit, “Sweetheart? What took you so long? Is Jeremy sleepin’ alright?”
“Fine, he’s fine. Just curious.”
He brushed his lips against her ear, “Hmmm... about what?”
Dara smiled as he curled his hand around her stomach. She reached down and placed her hand over his, “My Daddy’s Hands.”