Three days, 36 hours, 4 circuits, 12 relay stations, 321 letters safely delivered and still the simple act of sleeping eluded Jimmy Hickok.
As he lay awake in his bunk, more restless than he can admit, he’d tossed and turned for hours, incurring Cody’s half asleep wrath. As the Jimmy finally let the tension leave his shoulders he had to admit what it was causing his sleepless nights.
Elias. Poor dead Elias. It still didn’t seem real.
“Maybe,” he breathed and continued his thoughts silently, ‘Maybe if we’d stayed for the burial.’
Maybe... maybe... a million maybes dodged around in his mind, lulling him to sleep by the sheer volume they created in his head.
The piano in the corner of the room belted out a tune.. one that is almost recognizable, but for some reason it pounced around in his skull like the leftovers of that awful fruit drink they’d consumed a fortnight ago, the drink Cody swore was wine.
In his hands, the papery slide of playing cards shuffled back and forth. The wavelike motion of the cards soothes the raucous noise that has replaced his brain.
Someone interrupted his desperate musings, “You gonna deal ’em or just stare at ’em?”
“Look, I’ll deal the cards when I’m -” Jimmy raised his eyes and lost his thoughts completely.
Twinkling eyes danced in the soft lantern light that pooled in the over the table. “Close your mouth, boy, this ain’t no time to behave like a trout on a line.”
Still, even though there was no mistaking the voice, Jimmy was hard pressed to believe that he was still sane. “Elias?”
“One and the same, boy. Glad to know you haven’t forgotten me yet.”
Memories clouded over his eyes, “Forgettin’ is what I’ve been tryin’ to do for three days.”
“Ah..” Elias pushed the heels of his hands against the edge of the table, stretching out his back, “Still runnin’, Hickok?”
“That’s enough from you, Elias.” He banged the cards on the table and shoved the deck across the table, “Cut ‘em.”
“Well now,” Elias drawled as he reached out and cut the deck in half, taking his sweet time in the process, “The last three days haven’t done anything to fix the sullen set of your eyes.”
Jimmy restacked the deck and pulled it closer as a wry half smile tickled his lips, “When did you become a poet?”
Elias shrugged as if he ignored the peevish tone in Hickok’s voice. “I attribute it to moments of brilliance in a rough-hewn world.”
Regarding his companion with a cautious eye, Jimmy set the cards down and took a breath. “You’re different.”
Elias leaned against the table until he was eye to eye with Jimmy. “You’re not.”
The contest had started days ago and now it continued in earnest. Jimmy’s glowering eyes challenged Elias’s unwavering appraisal.
Leaning closer, Jimmy set his teeth together in concentration and was unnerved when Elias seemed to match his effort without a bit of concern. Just when the message in Elias’s eyes would have become too bright to ignore, Jimmy broke off and took the cards back into his hands. Deftly dealing out five for each of them, but at the end he seemed to ... waver.
Elias set a bottle on the table and nodded to Jimmy, “No dealin’ yourself extra cards, boy.”
“Callin’ me a cheat, Elias?”
Elias didn’t answer. He merely poured them both a drink and took up his cards.
Reaching into the silence, Jimmy tipped the glass to his lips and swallowed, “What!?”
Elias didn’t look up, but his smile was unmistakable. “Good, isn’t it?”
“It’s tea! Cold tea!”
Nodding, Elias moved a few cards and regarded his hand again before his lifted an eyebrow and answered back. “That‘s what it is, son... you drink enough of it...’sides, it‘s better to keep your mind clear for this game.”
Jimmy wasn‘t going to let the thought go, “I was expecting whiskey.”
Elias sent him a knowing look and tossed a chip onto the meager pile in the center, “Upin’ the stakes.”
Jimmy tossed an answering chip onto the pile. “I’m in if you’re in.”
A distinctive glint appeared in Elias’s smile, “Don’t make bets your body can’t cash.”
“How many cards?” Came Jimmy’s sarcastic question.
“Touched a nerve did I?” Elias set two cards down on the table, and waited.
Jimmy slid two off the top and tossed it across the table. “Play the game, Elias.”
The two stared in silence as Jimmy set down a single card and took another to replace it.
“What now, Elias?”
“One card,” he scoffed, “Doesn’t sound like you’re takin’ much of a chance, boy.”
“You keep your mind on your cards and I’ll be keepin’ my mind on mine.”
Elias refilled his glass and with a glance indicated the half empty glass beside Hickok, “More?”
“Why bother?” The tone was surly, but not born of anger.
“Because,” Elias started the answer as he filled both glasses, “you might as well drink it while you can.” He smiled as the delicate gurgling of the liquid trickled toward the glass, “Savor it.” Taking a sip of the cold tea, he smacked his lips together and released them in a satisfied sigh, “You never know when the next good batch of tea-“
“Will you just cut to the chase, Elias? We both know this ain’t about tea.”
The glass came to rest on the tattered felt of the tabletop with little more than an echo of sound. “I just don’t know how to get through to you, Hickok.”
“I can hear just fine.”
A veil seemed to pass between them, “No,” Elias began sadly, “I don’t think you can.”
“Then spit it out,” Jimmy’s voice was gruff, but the tone didn’t upset Elias one bit, he could see far more than he’d care to admit.
“You think you’re protecting your friends and in a way you are.” He took a look at Jimmy over the fan of his cards, “but what you’re really tryin’ to do is protect yourself.”
“I ain’t gonna let anyone get hurt-“
“Hmmm, so you say. I see your bet.” Again, Elias tossed another few coins onto the pile. “And I raise, but what choice do they have?”
“Leave it alone, Elias.”
“It’s out of my hands, boy.”
Jimmy stared at the table, fighting off the words that hounded his thoughts. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
His fist bounced off the table and nearly knocked both glasses over, “What do you want from me? I .. I.. push them away.. for their own good. What more.. what more do you want from me? I’m doing it for them. I get.. nothing but that satisfaction.”
Elias regarded him with a sage look and an raised brow. The look wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, Teaspoon had turned it on him before, but somehow seeing it on the face of man, dead for the last three days, bit harder into his defenses than he cared for. Then, Elias crooked a finger at the pile of chips, “I’m waiting for your bet.”
Jimmy’s steely-eyed glance bored into Elias, almost cutting right through him. With a seemingly careless hand, his toss doubled Elias’s bet.
They played on in silence, Elias staring right through his so much that Jimmy began to wonder if he wasn’t the ghost at the table.
Hand after hand, the chips were won and lost, dancing from one side of the table to the other, falling with the tide of lady luck. Jimmy’s own heart warred with his mind, the two grappling together while Elias kept a close watch and filled his pockets with his winnings.
When nearly every chip was in front of him on the table, Elias raised his glass, “She was a woman for the ages,” that said, he took another long drink.
The demand was in his voice and his eyes, "Who are you talkin' about?"
“Obviously no one that matters.” Elias picked up a card and replaced it in his hand. Smiling he reached over to his stack of chips, and tossed it into the middle of the table, "I see and raise."
Unwilling to ignore the evasive move, Jimmy stared at his cards, "You're gonna rob me blind, Elias."
The chuckle was irony in its very sound, "I can't take what you don't have."
The table shook as Jimmy kicked the single leg beneath it. "Dang it, Elias... you sound like Teaspoon. Hell, you even look like him half the time. Always talking around the problem... makin' it more complicated than it should be."
“Don’t play games with me.”
Elias indicated the pile of cards on the table, “That’s what I thought we were-”
“Get out of my head, Elias!”
“I mean it.” Jimmy’s chair tipped back and bounced off the floor. He paced a step away and turned back, his eyes dark and red-rimmed with long sleepless days.
“Come, sit down and finish the hand.” Elias’s tone was softer and the look in his eyes was full of concern.
“You can’t push me to do what you want.”
“Who else are you haunting?”
“Really...why me? What about your daughter...what about.”
Elias didn’t rise from his seat, but his tone cut through the air and silenced the protest, “She doesn’t need me, not anymore.”
“Who said I-”
“You’re the only one who’s not happy.”
Once said, the words hung in the air between them. Jimmy’s anger fell away as he seemed to stop moving all together.
Then his eyes, tired and resigned, slid closed. A trapped breath slid free from between his lips and his fingers fell open, releasing the cards he had held onto so tightly.
One by one, they arched through the air, catching on unseen wings, floating and falling all at the same time until they each touched the scarred floor beneath the table. Elias made note of each card and felt the doors begin to slam shut between they’re worlds, “Don’t... don’t shut me out.”
“Go... away.” The voice was ragged and hoarse, seeming to come from his gut instead of his own throat.
“I meant what I said before-” Elias’s voice was stronger even as his image began to fade, “Enjoy it while you can-”
“Enough.” Pain lanced through his middle.
“Give her a choice.”
“Leave me alone.” A picture flashed before his mind before he could block it.
“Don’t live my life-”
Jimmy’s eyes flew open, pain and agony plain as day. He tried to deny it, but it was written on his face. He turned away as the light began to burn at his eyes.
“Live your own...or die like me, with only a wasted life to show for it.”
“Elias-” Jimmy looked up but he was gone, vanished into the air around him. The cards hung in midair for a moment and then collapsed onto the felt top as if the puppeteer had cut the strings, only two landed face up.
Less than a moment later, Jimmy was standing beside the table. The room around him was silent as were the doubts in his head. He reached out, moving aside the King of Spades to see the card hidden below, he smiled as he picked it up off the table and held it in his hand. The queen of..
He startled awake and sat bolt upright on his bunk. “What?”
“Are you in?”
“What?” He blinked his eyes as the clear light of day bored in through the uncovered window.
“The game?” Cody chuckled as he indicated the empty chair at the table.
Jimmy started to shake his head and refuse when the door flew open and Lou trundled in, covered in dirt and dust from her ride. Wordlessly, she grumped over to her bunk and tossed back the lid of her trunk.
As she turned to leave for the shower, Jimmy caught her eye. She paused for a moment, the sleepless waver in her glance was visible for only a moment before she pushed back out the door.
The three at the table shrugged as Cody called again, “Hickok?”
Jimmy looked up and ignored the mock irritation written in the twitch of Cody’s lips. He swung the blanket of his legs and set his feet firmly on the ground. “I’m in.”