|The barmaid deposited two full mugs of beer down on the
table and added a pitcher as well, tilting the antique flat top to a
dangerous angle. She took the bill that Cody offered her and slid it
into the shadow between her breasts, leaning over to give him the best
"Careful, Cody," Jimmy warned, "or you'll spend all your money here and have nothing left when we get back to Rock Creek."
Cody lifted his mug in a crude salute to the disappearing figure of the barmaid, her lacy skirts swishing in a short arc beneath her bottom. "It would be worth every dollar."
"Hmph." They barely registered the sound of derision from the next table; after all they were just minding their own business.
"'Sides... it's just money, Hickok. We're pullin' in twenty five dollars a week right now, and once the Express is over, I aim to go work for the army."
"Soldierin'?" Jimmy slapped his mug down on the table top and some of his beer slid down the back of his hand into his cuff. "What for? To get yourself killed?
"Hell no," scoffed Cody, "There's plenty money to be made that doesn't involve dyin'." He gave a nod and a smile to a hurdy gurdy girl and turned back to Jimmy. "Army's hirin' scouts... givin' em a ton of money to poke around and see what's what out there... Hell, Jimmy, we've been doin' that for free, workin' for Teaspoon. We know how to do it, why not get paid for it."
Jimmy nodded, "True enough, but tell me somethin', Cody... why do we always have to risk our necks for money?" He finished his second mug and gave the empty pitcher a baleful look. A passing barmaid deposited a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him and took his money in payment, brushing his cheek with her painted lips and then she gave Cody a wink before sashaying away to another customer. "Why can't we find a way to make money without gettin' shot at or nearly hung?"
"Some folks just don't have it easy, Jimmy."
"Look at the Judge... or Mr. Devlin... why can't we make money like them?"
"I guess we could, but who'd want to own a bank like Mr. Devlin? Folks hate bankers... they get shot at too."
"I guessssss." Jimmy set his empty glass down and poured another full measure of whiskey and put that safely away in his middle. "There has to be an easier way to make a living, Cody ... just has to be."
"We just need a... a... magic charm, like in them books... the ... the Arabian Nights kind of thing. Sorcerers and magicians..."
"Now I know you're drunk. When do you talk about hooey like that?"
"Shut up, Hickok." Cody took a defensive drink and poured another. "One man's hooey is another man's Magic Lamp."
Jimmy nearly did a spit take at the moony look in Cody’s eyes. "Riiight. Magic Lamp... boy, you've had enough to drink, Cody. I don't think you should ride home tonight, after all. I think you should find someplace to sleep it off."
"You say that now, Hickok... but ... but...what if there was such a thing?"
"Yes," interrupted the man at the next table. "What if there was such a thing?"
"Mind your own business... and we'll mind ours." Hickok slapped the half empty bottle of whiskey down on the table.
Cody was a little more circumspect. "Now, hold on, Hickok." He gave the man a look see and nodded his head, "what is it you were sayin'?"
The man gave them an appraising look before he opened his mouth again. "I was saying what if there was such a 'magic charm' that allowed men, like yourselves, to make money with only a wish?"
"I'd say you're crazy."
"Shut up, Jimmy."
Grabbing a fist full of Cody's shirt, Jimmy menaced him with a clenched fist. "Or what..."
Disentangling his shirt from Jimmy's fingers, Cody looked over at the man. "What is it? The charm?"
The man looked about the room, making sure there was no unwanted attention coming in their direction before he reached into the interior breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a red silk handkerchief wrapped in cocoon fashion. He laid it in his open palm. With careful precision he picked up one corner of the kerchief and peeled back the first part, then another and another, finally he pulled back the last corner of silk and Jimmy leaned forward to see it up close.
It looked like it had baked to a crisp beneath the desert sun, and pieces of dark colored flesh along the little 'fingers' seemed to fall off like paint chipping off wood.
Cody gave it a long look before he lifted his eyes to the man's face, questions written in the lines of his forehead. "What is it?"
"This is the Monkey's Paw. An antiquity from the Far East... passed down through the ages from one man to another, each in search of their fortune. The holder of the Paw has the chance to ask three wishes of the Paw. Three wishes for anything he wants."
"Well?" demanded Cody. "Did they get their fortune?"
"They got what they asked for." The stranger left it at that and leaned forward, putting the Paw right between Jimmy and Cody and held it level with their curious gazes. "The question is, do YOU want it?"
Both boys had had their share of liquor. Both had had their share of close scrapes and worries... both wanted an easy way out of a hard life.
"Well, boys? Do you, want it?"
"Yes!" Cody swiped it out of the man's hand and lifted it into the dirty lamp light, watching as it swayed around in a little circle. "Strange."
"Hey!" Jimmy glared at Cody and tried to swipe it from his hand. "Give it to me."
Cody pulled it tight to his chest like a child with a prized possession. "You said it was stupid, and I want it."
"You'll just mess up the wishes, Cody. Give it."
Jimmy reached across the table and put his hand over Cody's trying to pry his fingers from the little charm. "Give."
"NO-” Cody stood up from his chair and Jimmy, stubbornly holding onto Cody, fell into the table, knocking them both to the floor.
Seized with an uncontrollable need to possess the silly little thing, Cody and Jimmy tumbled about on the floor, each trying to pry the other off of the creature's hand. It was anyone's guess who was going to win the struggle, those around them seemed too drunk to care, they were just cheering them both on. Finally, Cody got the upper hand, literally and pushed his palm into the underside of Jimmy's chin and knocked him off balance. Thrashing out his arm to steady himself, Jimmy popped Cody upside his temple and the blond rider's head hit the single table leg behind him.
A moment later he lay motionless on the ground and Jimmy, still riding the rush of energy coursing through his body gave a savage grunt of satisfaction and pried the little antiquity from Cody's grasping hand and held it up. "Hey mister," he looked around through the crowd that was thinning around them. Without the excitement of the fight there wasn't much to look at, and while Jimmy searched the crowed for the owner of the paw he felt the euphoria of 'winning' leave him and he sank down beside his unconscious friend, "how much do I pay for it?"
Funny, no one had any clue.
* * *
"It's not fair, Hickok."
He'd heard the same words nearly a hundred times and it had only been a few miles from town. He sent Cody a withering gaze and the blond rider shut his mouth on another protest and turned his head so that he stared straight down the path.
The silence only lasted a few minutes, shadows of doubt peeping up through the haze of last night’s over indulgence. This time it was Jimmy who shattered the silence. “Don’t get so sullen over it, Cody. You’ll get it back. I just don’t think we should trust you with it first. Lord knows what kind of trouble you’d be gettin’ us into.”
When he didn’t get any kind of answer at all he slanted a glance over at Cody hunched over in his saddle. The set of his shoulders didn’t bode well for the rest of the ride home. Jimmy let out a long sigh and felt for the lump in his coat pocket.
Doubts surfaced again and he wondered at how easy it would be to hand the odd little thing over to Cody.
“I had it first.” Cody’s sharp rebuke pushed him over the rational edge of thought and he dropped his hand back to the reins. For a moment, a very tempting little moment he nearly wished that Cody would just shut up for a few minutes, but he stopped himself. Really, wouldn’t that have been a waste of a wish. There were so many other wonderful things he could ask for. Something as simple as ‘sewin’ the boy’s mouth shut’ seemed like a horrible waste. It continued on for a few minutes, Cody’s near incoherent rantings, until something in the back of his mind reminded him of just how easy it would be if he’d give Cody the charm. Then it was over, strange thoughts banished to the back of his head. “I’ll give it to you…” he bit out the rest through his teeth, “when I’m damn good and ready.”
“Huh? What did you say, Jimmy?”
* * *
It was a welcome sight to see the edge of town come into view. All Jimmy wanted was for his head to stop buzzing like a whole hive of bees so he could put more than a few words together in his head.
“All I can say is,” started Cody, as if he hadn’t just talked Jimmy’s ear off for the last few miles, “you better hurry up and make those wishes so I can git goin’ with mine!”
Jimmy shook his head. “Yeah, Cody, whatever. You just let me get good and ready to use my wishes or I just may ‘lose’ this thing before you can get your grubby paws on it.”
He didn’t have to look over to know the expression on Cody’s face bordered on horrified. “You wouldn’t.”
Jimmy caught site of Kid and Lou over by the Marshal’s office and turned his mount in that direction. He tossed a look over his shoulder, “Jus’ keep it up Cody, and I might be doin’ a lot of things you don’t like.”
He heard Cody’s muttered curse and knew the rider was following him. ‘Serves him right,’ he thought, ‘for puttin’ my ears through hell all the way home.’
Slowing to a stop, he slipped off his horse and laid the reins over the hitching post and stepped up on the walk a few feet away from Kid and Lou.
“You promised me that we were going to talk about the wedding, Lou.”
“I know, Kid, and I will… just not right now. I got something I gotta do first.”
He saw the way she stared at the floor, the way her feet were shifting beneath her on the wooden walk. She couldn’t meet Kid’s eyes and he was wrapped up in whatever it was that was really gnawing at him. Jimmy stepped closer.
“I got some shoppin’ to do and-”
“Shoppin’? We’ve got a weddin’ to plan and you just want to run off and buy… whatever? Lord, Lou… do you hear yourself?”
“That’s enough, Kid.”
He thought that there was a dark quality to Kid’s voice and from what Jimmy could see reflected in the window, he knew he’d stepped in it.
“Lou and I were talkin’.”
“You mean, you and Lou were arguin’… over nothin’ it seems. A woman can go shoppin’ when she needs to and you don’t need to make an issue out of it.”
“That’s not all this is about and you have no call to stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong.”
“Kid, let’s-” Lou was touching his arm, trying to draw his attention away from Jimmy.
It didn’t work.
“She’s a friend, Kid, you both are and I wouldn’t let anyone else treat you like you’re doin’ to Lou. Let’s go inside and-”
“You don’t tell me what to do, Jimmy. Don’t think you get to make me do anything I don’t want to do. What happens between me and Lou and is just that. Between the two of us. It ain’t none of your business.”
Maybe it was that stubborn set of Kid’s chin, or the hard as ice look of his eyes, but something struck a discordant tone deep down inside of Jimmy and he wouldn’t… couldn’t back down from it. Not ever. “I got news for you, Kid… as long as it’s Lou... it will always be my business.” He knew as soon as it was out of his mouth, he knew how Kid would take it. It didn’t come out the way he meant it, at least not totally, but he was about to face the consequences.
He saw it coming, hell, everyone did. If it hadn’t been for the hangover he was suffering from, he might have even made more of an effort to step back or lean to one side to avoid Kid’s fist, but the masochistic side of him was eager for the pain just to sober up.
Kid’s fist went straight for his chin and Jimmy managed to turn to the side just a shade of an inch so that the knuckles connected firmly on the side of his jaw. The pain was immediate and sent purple and white sparks flying through his vision and snapped his head back an inch or two.
He vaguely heard Lou’s cry of outrage, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out if she was mad at him or Kid. ‘Really,’ he pondered as the world rushed up to meet him, ‘did it matter?’
The moment his backside hit the dirt he gave a grunt of surprise. It didn’t matter how you prepared yourself, it was always that jolt of pain going from the tailbone up your spine that set your teeth snapping together.
A moment later the sunlight was nearly blocked from his vision and Kid stood over him a finger imperiously wagging in his vision. “She’s not your business, Jimmy… not now, not ever again. You better keep that straight in your head or we’re gonna keep replaying this scene again and again until you learn it right.”
It wouldn’t do much good to tell Kid that the sharp pain he’d felt had left his legs nearly worthless, tingling with sensation. Not that his friend would give him a break because of it… and really, he didn’t want one. He did take exception to the finger in his face. “I care about who I want Kid, you can’t control that. Just like you can’t control Lou as much as you’d like… and if we replay this little ‘scene’ it’s not gonna be my rear in the dust. So I’d watch yourself makin’ a threat you can’t keep, Kid. I’d watch what you ‘think’ you can hold onto.”
“Shut up, Jimmy-” Kid pulled his fist back again, set on adding a second act to the scene they’d been playing, but Cody got in the middle, nearly knocking Kid onto his own backend.
“Now, Kid… let’s just take a minute here...”
“Like you’re the peacemaker, Cody…” Kid gave a quick look to Lou and Jimmy gave a look himself. She seemed out of sorts with the whole situation. A quick look around and he knew why. There was a quite a crowd that had gathered around them, all eager to see what they were fighting over.
“Aw Hell…” Apparently, Kid had noticed the crowd too and turned on his heel. “I’m headin’ back to the station. Go if you have to Lou, I’ll be around when you get back. That is if you want to talk.”
Jimmy felt Lou’s reaction; he didn’t have to see it. The hangover that had clouded his thoughts did nothing to mask the waves of conflicting emotions rolling off her shoulders.
With a groan he turned toward her and forced his legs to bend and swivel beneath his body, giving him some hope of standing up. Cody ran after Kid, his own disgusted expression was no surprise to Jimmy. Not at this point.
He was almost back on his feet when the next blow hit.
“You didn’t have to do that.” Her tone nearly floored him. With Lou, she didn’t have to touch him to hurt him. All she had to do was be disappointed. This was no exception. “I was just explaining to him-”
He took off his hat and dusted at the spotless brim. “You’re always explainin’ stuff to him, Lou. I wanna know when he’ll finally get it without you havin’ to spoon feed him.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Jimmy, I-" she grabbed his arm and pulled him into an alley away from the crowds. He didn’t blame her; these days there was precious little that was private about her life. “I think you and I need to have a talk.”
He rubbed at his temples, straining to focus on the problem at hand. He’d walked into the middle of another one of Kid and Lou’s ‘discussions’ and as much as he tried to blame it all on the haze in his brain left behind by the whiskey and beer, he had waded into the fray and never looked back. “I just couldn’t sit back and let it happen, Lou. How many times have you let him push you into somethin’ you’d rather not?”
Lou slanted him a look that would’ve put out a barn ablaze with flames. “I was takin’ care of it myself.”
The ache in his head was reaching mammoth proportions. “Sure, Lou … anything you say. My head is killin’ me.” He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the overwhelming glare of the sun and managed to reach out and grab her shoulders in his hands. He opened his eyes to her waiting stare. “I ain’t tryin’ to cause you grief, Lou, I know you know that.”
She nodded and a little smile seemed to shine through the worry.
“I just want him to remember that he needs to treat you with respect. What had him all twisted up inside anyhow?”
“We’ve got things that need doin’ for the wedding and he doesn’t think… I agree with him, that I haven’t been doin’ enough to help with the planning, it’s just that I’ve got things on my mind that I have to work out and I need some time away.”
“You want me to go with you, Lou?”
She paused for a moment, considering his words. “No… no, this is something I have to do on my own.”
Jimmy thought about it and nodded. “Fair enough, Lou… you just be careful and when you get back we’ll talk to the Kid and get him to understand.”
“Thanks… but, it’s a real sore subject between the two of us right now… and it’s probably better if you just stay out of it.”
“I don’t like to hear a man talk to a woman like that, any woman.”
She nodded, silently taking in his words. Her lips pressed together with a slight tension.
He closed his eyes tight against the blazing afternoon sun and took a breath, trying to clear his thoughts. He opened them again when he thought he’d finally won control over his headache. “And I meant it; Lou… anything to do with you… that is my business. You’re too close to me… too much a part of my life for me to let him treat you that way. I won’t stand for it.”
Lou blinked and he could have sworn he saw tears in her eyes.
Jimmy closed the gap and gathered her into a hug, holding her tight against his body; silently rocking her gently from side to side. “I’m sorry if I got him mad, Lou. I really am, but don’t ask me not to step in and help. Not when I’m right there to see it. I’ll do anything but that.”
She pulled away, reluctantly stepping back from the circle of his embrace. “No, I have to, Jimmy. If the Kid and I are going to have any chance at bein’ partners in this life, I’m gonna have to stand up on my own two feet when things are happenin’ between us. I can’t count on you to step in and help and you have to stop trying.”
“I don’t think I can…”
“You will, Jimmy.” She gave him a doleful look. “You have to, or it will end ‘our’ friendship. He’ll be my husband, Jimmy…” Lou took his hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze, “and you’ll be my friend. There’s an order of what’s going to be important in my life and he will come first. Always.” Her smile was gentle and somewhat melancholy and he recognized it deep down past all the whiskey haze and gave her a nod.
She took another step back and slowly let go of his hand, inch by inch until only their fingertips were touching. He took one last look into her soft brown eyes and said. “Alright Lou, whatever you want… you’ll have it. Be happy, that’s all I ask.”
Her smile brightened as she dropped her hand to her side. “Good… I love you, Jimmy Hickok, remember that.”
He didn’t have a chance to answer or give her a reply. She didn’t need one. She knew his heart even if he’d never said it. Most importantly, it would never be said out loud, never by him. Never to hurt her or what she wanted.
Jimmy watched her walk away through the crowded street, her confident strides eating up the ground even with skirts curtailing her movement. She was a wonder to watch. A true woman. A true friend.
He reached into his pocket for a couple of bills. Cody would be coming back soon, probably with Kid in tow and Jimmy felt like taking his two friends out for lunch; mend a few fences over steaks at the Hotel. It seemed like a good plan, but it wasn’t his billfold that his fingers found in his pocket.
The tips brushed up against a curious texture, rough and smooth at the same time. It took a moment for his mind to clear before he realized what it was. “Cody…” he shook his head, exasperated again. He’d taken that stupid little charm last night just to show Cody up.
Jimmy withdrew it from his pocket and looked at it in the light of day. It was a crude little thing. “It probably ain’t even a ‘real’ monkey paw.” The five little fingers of it looked like a doll’s hand made of clay, but the artist didn’t quite get the fingers right. The thumb looked like it had fallen off and been pasted on an inch too low. The back of the ‘hand’ was covered in hair that was soft and seemed to catch at his skin.
He pulled his finger away from the odd looking item and tried to catch sight of Lou on the street. He didn’t see her anymore. The mass of townsfolk littering the street had closed in around her and she was gone.
“Hey, Jimmy!” He could hear Cody’s voice and Kid’s muffled tones coming from the same direction. He let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in. Kid and Lou were going to be married next week Saturday and he was going to make sure that he didn’t get in the way anymore. That’s what Lou wanted and she was going to get it.
He wrapped his fingers around the little paw and closed his eyes, deciding at that very moment to throw caution to the wind and make a wish on the grubby little thing. "I wish that I could fix it so that Kid and I never have to argue about Lou anymore."
“Hey, Jimmy, did you hear me?” Cody’s insistent tone brought him out of his reverie. Jimmy quickly shoved the paw back into his jacket pocket and turned to greet his friends. His eyes warily turning to read Kid’s expression.
“I heard you.” He gave Cody a look to silence him and then held out his hand to Kid. “Look, Kid, I…”
A loud commotion at the end of the street caught their attention. Tompkins appeared at the edge of the crowd, waving his arms at them.
* * *
The funeral had been nearly a week before and still he had the images of the day burned in his mind. They wouldn’t leave him alone and he was more than willing to wallow in them. It hadn’t taken long to make the arrangements as everyone in town had heard the sad news through the frenzied grapevine of Rock Creek. It was the kind of story that made women tear up and men hang their heads in honest sorrow.
Kid had stayed beside the coffin, his hands laid flat on the lid, his forehead pressed against the fresh pine unwilling to move. Rachel had taken up her position at his shoulder, serving as a guard and angel of comfort at the same time. She hadn’t left him alone since they’d heard the news, none of them had, really.
The tight-knit family at the Station had closed ranks around their own and when they weren't offering Kid their condolences they were giving Jimmy silent but pointed looks. There was no recrimination in their eyes; they didn't know what he had done. How could they?
He'd loved her as much as anybody, more than most... but that was cold comfort when she was dead and buried. There was nothing he could do about it. Folks told him that Kid would need his support... need his friendship, but Jimmy knew that would never work.
It was there in Kid's eyes, the way they shifted from blue to near black whenever he looked at Jimmy. The blame that he saw in Kid's eyes was easy to read. He saw it every time he looked in the mirror. He knew that the Kid would never again be able to see Jimmy without remembering.
Without wanting revenge.
It wasn’t going to be forgive and forget… how could it when a man kills his friend’s wife.
It had been Jimmy that had stepped in between the two, Jimmy that caused the fight, Jimmy that let Lou walk away. It didn't matter that the stray bullet had nothing to do with Jimmy, just a couple of no good drunken cowboys taking a fight out of the Saloon and into the street. None of it mattered now that Lou was dead.
* * * *
The guilt was gnawing at him. Eating through his sanity bite by bite as he slept. Tearing through his thoughts during the day. If it didn't stop soon, he'd have to find a way to get some peace...
He'd taken every run they would give him, the more danger the better the ride. Anything to tire himself to the point where he didn't have the energy to dream.
Jimmy came back from Cedar Creek to a somber reception of downcast eyes and solemn expressions. "Teaspoon, I-"
"Kid's gone, Jimmy." The station master didn't wait for his young friend to slid out of the saddle. "He left two days ago-"
"Don't know," hedged Buck, "we woke up one morning and everything he owned was gone." The Kiowa shook his head. "We didn't know he was planning to leave."
Rachel set a hand on Buck's shoulder. "None of us did. He's family even without Lou, he should've known that."
"I'm sure he did." Noah stepped forward and reached for Sundancer's reins. "I'll take care of her Jimmy, you head on inside."
He'd no sooner touched his feet to the ground then Teaspoon draped his arm over Jimmy's shoulders. "I know how hard this has been on you, son."
"Yeah, Jimmy... we're real sorry about Lou... we know how much she meant to you."
"To everyone." Jimmy ground out the words, throwing up any kind of barrier to keep the thoughts out of his head. "She was family."
"Sure, sure," Cody walked alongside him toward the bunkhouse, "but you and Lou had something special, Jimmy... everyone knew that. That's why it was so hard on Kid all the time."
Jimmy pulled away from Teaspoon's comforting arm and shook his head. "What's goin' on here? What the hell are you doing?"
Rachel touched his cheek with her hand and gave him a sympathetic smile. "We all loved her, Jimmy. You know that, but she really relied on you when she had a problem. You were someone she could really count on."
He held up his hands to ward off her words, "I don't... this isn't... y'all need to stop talkin' like this." He put his head in his hands and tried to shut them out, but their words followed him around like a dark cloud.
Dinner had passed by without his presence, Rachel appearing more than once to offer him food. “You need to eat Jimmy; Lou wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.” He’d pulled the pillow over his ears and stuffed it up alongside his head with his fists and her voice still carried through. “She loved you, too, Jimmy.”
She’d shut the door, but he’d heard her crying outside the door and inside he’d died a little more.
Later, when the others had come back to the bunkhouse there was a silence that pervaded the room and had everyone whispering under their breaths and avoiding Jimmy’s bunk.
In his head, every little whisper was the hiss of a snake, tickling his ears with epithets of guilt… anguish… all centering in the darkest part of his soul.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“What are we gonna do?”
“This has to stop…”
He knew they were right… it had to stop… it had to stop… if only to keep him from going insane.
Flopping over onto his stomach he pulled the covers over his head and bit into the mattress with his teeth to keep from screaming at them all. Jimmy shoved his hand under his pillow and froze the instant his hand came into contact with the monkey paw under his pillow.
With a single flex of a finger he could have knocked it off the mattress and back into the darkest corner of the room where no one, not even Rachel ever ventured to go. He could have pushed it out of the reach of his fingers… he could have, but the noise in his head wasn’t going away.
“I wish,” he ground out between his teeth moments before his conscious mind slipped away, “I could get some peace and quiet.”
* * *
Someone had left the window open.
Someone had taken down the curtains.
Jimmy threw his hand up to block the light threatening to blind him through his closed eyelids.
Someone was going to die.
“What the-” Jimmy sat up, ready to throttle the nearest person and stopped short of the curse as he took in his surrounds. Lurching to his feet he stumbled about, his mind still wondering if the dirt and dust was real. “All right… what is this?” His voice sputtered as it was cast out into the air, his throat closing painfully over each syllable. “What’s the joke here?”
As his hands balled into fists he felt a sharp prick on his palm. Jimmy held up his hand and unfolded his fingers one at a time. The monkey’s paw lay on his palm, its little bent fingers biting into his skin.
He shoved the little thing into his pocket and… pocket? Shaking his head to clear the fog he remembered barely falling into bed wearing his shirt, pants and stockings… sadly the only thing he was still wearing. He saw red, anger coloring his vision. “Cody.” The name was venom on his lips. “When I get a hold of him… I’m gonna…” he took a few steps in one direction and stopped short. The hills looked familiar. Something nearby to Rock Creek? No.
Not that familiar. He lifted his face into the sun and took in a deep breath. “Water.” It was nearby and walking anywhere in stocking feet was going to get hot. He moved quickly, seeking shade and something to quench his thirst.
It was over the next rise that he finally remembered where he’d seen this landscape before. “Impossible.”
The mixed up feelings inside of him were impossible. The pain lancing through his chest was impossible. Waking up a stone’s throw from Fort Reunion? Impossible. This wasn’t just some horrible joke to pay him back for Lou’s death. No. That wasn’t possible.
“That charm… that damn…” a hawk cried out as it swooped overhead, diving into the brush after some invisible prey. It all started when he got the cursed little thing. Jimmy couldn’t believe that he’d actually wrestled it away from Cody.
Cody was supposed to be the foolish one that believed in all of those kinds of things, not Jimmy. Now, look where his foolishness had gotten him. Out in the middle of nowhere, burning up in the heat.
He was days away from Rock Creek by horse. On foot? He didn’t want to think about it at all. It was impossible to think with the sun beating down on his head.
Part of him wanted to lie down in the sun and never get up again. It was that same part of him that didn’t want to go back and see anyone… hear what they had to say, but he couldn’t do it.
It was the coward’s way out to lay yourself down and let the buzzards have you and he may be a killer, but Jimmy Hickok was no coward. So, he knew he really didn’t have a choice. He had to go back. If only to confess his sins to the rest of his ‘family’ he’d go back and face their judgment, it couldn’t be any worse than his own.
The heat of the day seared his feet as he stood still. He pulled his shirt fronts together and made quick work of buttoning them. He had quite a walk ahead of him and while his feet were going to blister something awful and he’d end up with the worst sunburn of his life he had one thing in his favor.
No one talked to him. No one said a thing. He heard nothing but the sound of his own guilt echoing in his head.
* * *
The soldiers didn’t take him at his word. At least not at first site… at least not until Lt. Cassidy ventured out of the walls of Ft. Reunion to check for himself. Jimmy could barely lift his hand in greeting, his fingers curved like talons he reached out to take the other man’s hand.
“Good God, Mr. Hickok… what have you done to yourself?” A moment later there was a flurry of activity and Jimmy felt himself moved onto a litter of some sort and he grabbed for Cassidy’s hand. “Rest,” the Lieutenants blue eyes were almost the color of the sky and Jimmy could find precious little energy to argue, “There will be time for you to explain this later.”
* * *
Cody stomped into the Saloon, enjoying the sharp pain in his ears when the bat-wing doors slammed up against the wall. He was beyond worrying about anything but getting a drink and forgetting everything that had happened in the last two weeks.
Losing Lou had nearly killed them all. They’d all loved her, but it had never crossed their minds that she would be taken from them… not a mistake like this. They lived dangerous lives riding for the Express, but they’d been trained to stay alive… trained to run and not fight… but being killed by a stray bullet in a saloon fight? That made no sense.
“What’ll ya have, son?”
“Anything, just make it strong.”
The bartender didn’t argue. He didn’t tell him that alcohol wasn’t going to solve his problems. All he did was set down a glass that was almost clean and pour about two fingers of whiskey into it.
Without a thought, Cody lifted the glass up to his lips and drained it. He slammed the glass back down on the counter, not so much in a show of anger, but in reaction to the burn that raked the back of his throat. “Give me another.”
“Sure, son… just put your money on the table.”
Cody reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins. “Here, you can have it all, just keep them coming.”
The bartender walked up and gathered all the coins, mentally adding up the total. “Look, boy… you just tell me when your glass is empty. You’ve got my full attention tonight.”
“Good.” Cody downed the next drink and held the glass out for another. Kid was gone… he’d left and hadn’t sent them even something as simple as a telegram to let them know he was safe. He’d cut them off without a word or explanation.
Another shot and Cody could admit that really, it hadn’t hurt him as much as the leaving had hurt Rachel. She thought of him as a little brother and had been by his side nearly every moment since Lou’s death. She was left with a gaping hole where her heart had been and when Cody had left that morning he’d talked to Buck about watching her closely.
They worried about her. They worried about Jimmy.
When the bartender came back around Cody took the bottle right out of his hand and poured his own drink.
Jimmy had just disappeared.
Into thin air.
The Express home office didn’t really care one way or the other. Jimmy was a pain in the rear to them. A gunfighter didn’t really keep to their idea of a rider that they wanted for their company and they’d refused Teaspoon’s request for a leave of absence. Not since they’d lost Lou and Kid too… all in quick succession. So, no matter how much Teaspoon tried to keep hope alive that Jimmy was going to return to a job, they’d all figured out the truth of it all.
Sure, he’d left his stuff behind, but what did that mean?
Cody shoved the glass away and lifted the mouth of the bottle to his lips. “Damn it, Jimmy… where did you go?”
* * * *
“Lou…” Jimmy clawed at the blankets wrapped around his body, fingers digging into anything he could get a hold of, “God, Lou… I’m so sorry… forgive me.”
“Hey there, son… stop that.”
Jimmy fought for daylight. His dreams blinded him in the darkness and the more that he tried to find his way out of the darkness the more it seemed to settle in on top of him.
She smiled at him and walked away. “Good… I love you, Jimmy Hickok, remember that.”
“What did I do? Please… make it a dream… please.”
He was standing over her body, the tip of his boot marred with her blood as it spilled into the dirt in an ever-widening circle around her body. He couldn’t do anything but stare as her life flowed out of her veins… couldn’t do anything but hear the screaming in his ears.
“Stop it, son.”
Jimmy’s hand fisted against the side of his head, trying to block out that horrible wailing that just wouldn’t go away.
“Stop it!” He was pulled upright by unseen hands and suddenly he felt the heat of the desert sun on his face.
Blinking, he struggled to understand the world around him. Struggled to make sense of the shapes that the light revealed. “Make it stop,” he pleaded with his hands fisting in his hair at his temples, “its sooo loud.”
Hands closed over his own and he shook himself from his stupor. He stopped breathing for a long moment while the days of loneliness and dehydration cleared from his thoughts. He blinked out at the world and caught site of a face that looked vaguely familiar.
“You sure gave us a fright there, Hickok.”
“You…” he could barely recognize his own voice, “you recognize me?”
“Oh boy, you’re really lucky you got to us when you did.”
Jimmy leaned in closer, giving the sun darkened face a close perusal. “You’re the doctor that patched me up before.”
“That’s right.” He let out a long sigh of relief. “I was worried that you’d done gone and lost your mind out there.”
Reality flooded back through his mind and Jimmy doubled over in pain. “I wish I had… I wish I’d died out there…”
“Don’t say that.” The doctor flinched at his own words, as if the scolding tone that he’d achieved had made him all the more uncomfortable with the subject. “Don’t ever wish that, son. It’s not like you.”
“How the hell would you know what’s like me, huh? You ever get out of this damn Fort, Doctor? You ever set foot outside and see what’s really going on? Well, it’s hell out there, Doc... It’s hell and I’m in the middle of it.” Jimmy tried to slide off the bed, but the Doctor tried to hold him there, and to a man like Jimmy Hickok that was just an excuse to try harder.
“Hickok, sit still.”
“Get your hands off of me… now!”
What happened next caught him off guard. The doctor let go and Jimmy slid to the floor and collapsed in pain. “My feet.”
The doctor knelt down beside him. “That’s right, son. If you’d have listened to me I would have reminded you that your valiant walk here to our gates had blistered up the bottoms of your feet something awful. I’ve lanced the worst of them, but the rest of them will just have to heal on their own.”
Jimmy the doctor and another man help him back onto the bed and Jimmy pulled one foot up onto the bed to get a good look at it.
“Believe me now?”
“That my feet are wrecked? Yeah, I believe you… that I walked here on my own seems impossible.”
The doctor whistled, low and long. “Well, ya did, Hickok. If the Lieutenant hadn’t seen it himself I wouldn’t have believed it either. Now, I can understand that you want to get out of here and back to your friends, but until I’ve cleared you to ride, you’re not.”
“I can sit on a horse.” The denial was compelling and the doctor held up his finger and watched Jimmy’s muscle reaction by dragging the finger from one end of Jimmy’s vision to the other.
“You may be able to get up in the saddle, Hickok, but I doubt you’d make it out of town still in the saddle.” He noted the angry look on Jimmy’s features. “So, until I say so, you’re going to be a guest here at Fort Reunion.”
“Well the last visit was such a peach of a shindig, why wouldn’t I want to stay?”
The doctor shook his head and stood up. “You sure know how to cut to the heart of a situation, Hickok. Just make sure you don’t cut yourself with that wit of yours and bleed to death.” He closed the door behind him and Jimmy got the distinct impression that the action was supposed to hurt him somehow.
‘The problem is’, thought Jimmy, ‘I’d be more than happy to bleed to death, if someone would just give me the chance.”
* * * *
Cody was barely aware of the edge of the wooden bar as it pressed itself into his cheek, forming a ridge that would last even after he woke up. The only thing he was really concerned with was how to wrap his fingers around a new bottle of whiskey. The effects of the first were starting to wear off and he didn’t want to think about how much it was going to hurt to come down off of the pleasant buzz going through his veins.
Blindly, he started to grope around on the flat part of the counter, looking for something to drink… hopefully something with a bite to it.
“Well there, son… looks like you’re a bit… indisposed, eh?”
Cody managed to crack open a single eye, raising the lid with sheer willpower. If only to glare at the man yelling into his ear. “Go away.”
A hand grabbed the neck of his jacket and pulled upward until Cody’s face peeled away from the bar and the sunlight pouring into the bar from a window hit him square between the eyes. “Hey!” Cody swung out wildly, trying to make his tormentor let go. “What did I do to you?”
Someone shoved a glass in his hand and Cody eagerly downed it; then regretted it. It burned his throat and turned his insides into brimstone simmering within his stomach. While he felt like dying on the spot his vision was suddenly back and the pain in his head was fading away faster than morning fog out on the trail.
It took an effort, but he turned this head to the right to look at his benefactor and he stopped short. “You!”
The other man looked a bit ill-at-ease after having been recognized. “Yes, me.”
“You… low-down piece of dog spit.” Cody swung around in his chair, but he missed the mark and had to be saved from falling onto his face in the middle of the sawdust. Instead of thanking him, Cody whirled around on his savior. “What are you doing here? Following me? Wanna gloat?”
“Gloat?” If Cody didn’t know better he’d have thought that the man looked confused. “What are you talking about? Did something happen?”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you?” He shrugged off the hand that held up by the elbow and struggled to stand up straight. “You want to know all the details?” His voice was overly loud and rang mercilessly in his ears. “My friend is dead and two others missing.”
“And?” The man looked eager, but worried as well.
“What?” Cody challenged him, “What are you worried about?”
A dark look passed between the two men and Cody took a good look at the man. If he didn’t know that he was talking to the same man that gave them the charm he would think it was a fluke. The man looked about ten years younger. The lines that had carved a map through his face were now barely visible. “What happened to you? Your face.” Cody grabbed one of the man’s hands and held it up in the light. “No… not possible. Your hands were like… skin and bone!”
The man put his hand over Cody’s mouth and hissed at him. “Careful what you say, young man, or you’ll end up its prisoner.”
The man dragged him out the front door and into the alley. “The claw.”
Cody shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “That little thing that Hickok stole from me?”
“Yes… yes… do you still have it? Is it here with you?”
“Why do you care so much, you didn’t want it before?”
“Unless you drink yourself into a stupor only when you’re happy, I’m guessin’ that bad things are happenin’ to you and you don’t know why.”
It might have been the alcohol, but a pit opened up in Cody's middle and he was a moment away from blacking out. "If you mean people dyin' and disappearin'... then yeah, I'd say you're right."
A plethora of mixed emotions traveled across the man's face. "I should... I should have warned you when you took it, but I was so glad it was gone... I was so thankful that it wasn't my responsibility anymore."
"You knew?" Cody's anger roared through his body. "You knew things were gonna happen and you didn't tell us!" The tables were turned and Cody twisted and turned until the man was up against a wall, his shirt twisted in Cody's hands. "My friend DIED because of you! She died.... in the street!" His voice was barely coming out of his throat, ripping past his vocal chords with unleashed anger. "She was going to be married...What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I've lost everything I held dear because of that evil little thing... it seduced me with its simplicity. It led me astray with the promise of riches untold, and it wasn't until I realized that no matter how carefully I phrased my wish... it always ended up going bad. It ended up with someone getting hurt."
"Then why ask me if we still have it? Do you want it back?"
"No... no!" There was real horror in his voice; it crawled up Cody's spine. "I want to help you fix it."
"Fix?" Cody spat the word out, anger eating at him. "How the hell are we going to fix it when our friend is dead?"
Cody had every intention of telling the man to leave him alone... to crawl into the hole he crawled out from. Still, there was a little bit of hope. A tiny ray of light that Jimmy was somewhere out there... alive. That Lou could be... there wasn't any way that Cody could put that one thought into words. "Tell me. Make me believe."
* * * *
If it was possible to die of boredom, Jimmy would have found a way. He wanted to. He wanted to put a gun to his head and end it... but where was a gun when he needed it? The great Wild Bill Hickok had been stripped to the bone. He had nothing left but his pain and that was enough to live on, he wanted to get back to his family... and explain. Throw himself on their mercy and hope that they would be able to finish it for him.
The door to the infirmary opened up but Jimmy continued to stare out the window watching the soldiers drill in the dust.
"You haven't been eating."
"I'm not letting you out of here until I know you're not going to fall over in the desert and die before you get home."
"Home? Just tell me where that is and I'll be out of your hair."
"I'm sure I just heard an old friend of mine." Cassiday walked in behind the doctor. "I don't like seeing you this way, Hickok. It hurts to see you in such pain, as you were a big help to us during our hour of need."
The doctor echoed the sentiment. "We'd like to do you a favor."
"Then put me out of my misery or let me go. I can't just sit here and watch the grass grow. I want to see my... my family."
"That's what I thought you'd say," agreed Cassiday, "that's why I'm going to do you a favor." He gave the Express Rider a sympathetic look. "I've got a supply wagon heading into town. From there you can catch a stage home... it won't be on horseback, but you'll be able to start traveling immediately."
Jimmy's head hung from his neck as if it lacked the muscles to look them in the eye. "Thank... thank you."
He felt a hand touch his shoulder, but it wasn't until someone spoke that Jimmy knew it was the doctor. "It's hard to see you like this, son. I want to see some of that flash and fire in your eyes again."
He could only nod his head and cry.
* * * *
Cody was heading back to the station when Tompkins flagged him down. "I don't have time to stop and chat, Tompkins."
"Well, you'll make time, Cody, or I swear I'm heading straight for the Territorial Marshal and he'll do something about your friend."
Shaking his head, Cody tried to get to the point. He was in no mood to play around. "You'll have to be a bit more specific, Mr. Tompkins, I'm heading back to find Jimmy."
"Then you'll have to come along with me, since Hickok didn't see a need to head back to the station, not when he can shoot up the Saloon."
"Well, where's Teaspoon?"
"Do I look like I have the time to keep track of your band of idiots, Cody? I've got a business to run... or at least I will until Hickok finds a way to burn the town to the ground." He heaved a sigh. "I'm telling this to you once, Cody. You get yourself into town and get Hickok under control, or we'll hire someone to do it for you."
* * * *
Cody made it to the Saloon in time to see Hickok fly head first out of the bat-wing doors and down towards the ground. Jimmy rolled with the impact; they'd been thrown around in fights enough to know how to land so you don't hurt too bad in morning. Even with practice, it doesn't always work if you're drunk. Jimmy's shoulder clipped the hard edge of one of the stairs and he went down in a heap.
Rushing forward to help his friend, Cody almost ended up on the ground as Hickok fell against his legs.
It was late in the afternoon and Cody's shadow fell across Hickok's body, a long cool shade confusing enough to have the seasoned gunfighter blink and squint into the sunlight to see what he'd hit. "Cody?"
"Jimmy, Thank God, do you have it?"
Cody knelt down beside him, his voice lowered for privacy. "The paw... do you have it?"
His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You want it?"
'Yeah... yes, I want it-"
It was a gut reaction. Jimmy shoved Cody away with one hand and drew with the other. "You ain't gonna get it, Cody." His thumb pulled back on the hammer and Cody's eyes widened at the sudden 'click'. "Not while I'm alive."
Cody held up his hands to show he was unarmed. "This ain't about the-"
You jus' want it for yourself, but I ain't gonna let you have it... I ain't gonna let it get you, Cody." His hand dipped an inch, the muzzle of the Navy Colt tilting down as thought the end had suddenly become heavier with time.
"No, Jimmy. I saw him... the man that gave us the paw. He... he told me what happened to him." Cody's complexion turned an odd shade of green with the memory, "and he told me... we can fix it."
Hickok lashed out, pulling Cody to him until the muzzle of his pistol was pushed painfully into Cody's chest. Cody was nearly drunk on Hickok's breath, the stench turned his stomach, but it was the terrible pain reflected in his face that kept Cody focused enough to hear his words. "How can you fix dead?"
"I dunno, Hickok, but it's better 'n' nothin'... it's something to think about, ain't it?"
The fight went out of him. Hickok fell back into the dirt, the Colt slipping from his fingers into the dust. "Go to hell, Cody... go to hell."
It was frightening. He was barely aware of the folks in the street that had stopped to stare. It was enough to drive a sane man to drink... Hickok was evidence of that. "Sorry, Hickok, not today, buddy." He picked up the Colt and shoved it back in Jimmy's holster and managed to grab enough of his coat to haul him up into a sitting position with a little bit of sweat. "That's one place I don't want to see... not anytime soon."
Jimmy allowed Cody to sling his arm over the blonde rider's shoulders. "That's good... cause one of us here is enough."
* * * *
Hickok was walking on his own by the time their reached the end of the block and turned to the East to get back to the station. Cody had already been outlining the solution to him.
While he was sobering, Hickok didn't seem to be buying into the idea. "So, if he's right and every wish goes wrong then what makes you think just by wishing for it to be fixed it would?"
Cody walked along for a few steps, gaze focused on the one straggling cloud in the sky. "I don't rightly know, Hickok, but it's better'n'nothing."
Hickok reached into his breast pocket and drew out the paw. He held it aloft as he dragged his feet through the dust, the scraggly little charm looked less threatening in the harsh light of the sun. "You wanted this thing after me, didn't you, Cody?"
"Yeah... I did." Cody's voice seemed thin and breathy. "But not anymore. Not after I've seen what it can do."
"No one would want it if they knew what was going to happen to them. If they knew what trouble it was going to bring."
Cody shrugged, "I wouldn't say that, Hickok. Some folks are just too head-strong to care. They figure they can beat it. Find a way around it."
Jimmy stopped dead in his tracks. Wasn't that exactly what they were trying to do? Weren't they trying to do the exact same thing? How many others would try the same thing, lured by the idea of getting exactly what they wanted, only to find out there was no way to win?
He caught sight of Cody walking back toward him. "What's wrong, Hickok?"
Cody should know, he thought, he should try to explain it to his friend, how this plan wouldn't work. He should tell him...
No, argued the other side, he's got this idea in his teeth and he won't let it go... won't understand, because he wanted to believe that this cockamamie scheme would work. So, what was the harm in playing along?
"Nothin' Cody. It's just hard to imagine that there would be a way to make this nightmare disappear."
"Yeah, but if there's a chance... we should take it."
He followed along while Cody kept up both sides of the chatter on his own. Inside his head, his thoughts rivaled Cody's mouth for their speed, but while Cody's words were full of hope, Hickok's thoughts were on a downward spiral of fear and worry.
You're taking a chance doing this here. What will happen to the others if you don't get this right? Will you be able to forgive yourself if this thing costs you another friend... costs them their lives for your pride?
It was true... it was all true. He could be as careful as he wanted... he could take years constructing the wish, but there was something inside him, some dark shadow that said he'd never be able to fix it... he'd mess it up somehow and everyone else would suffer because of it. "As long as this thing exists..." the words fell from his tongue before he could stop them, but once it was out there he couldn't ignore them. It was the truth... the horrible truth
He knew from Cody's hopeful expression that he'd never accept what Hickok saw as the only possible solution, he knew he'd never be able to do what needed to be done with Cody around. Hickok needed a plan. Once the bunkhouse came in sight he knew what he had to do. "Cody?"
"Can you go back and get the horses?" Sure enough, they'd left their mounts back at the Saloon and while Cody didn't feel particularly interested in walking back across town...
"I'll get 'em... then we'll figure this out, Hickok. We'll make it better."
He watched his friend trudge back up the street, figuring out inside his head exactly how much time he had before Cody came back and tried to stop him.
* * * *
The fireplace was cold, but he knew that. Teaspoon never allowed them to leave unless they'd made sure that the ashes were out cold. It was a good safety measure, but hell if you had to start the fire. It took him a bit to strike a spark from his flint, his hands were shaking so, but he made quick work of it, his hand constantly straying to pat the pocket with the paw. He'd come this far, there was no going back, he couldn't fail.
There was a ruckus coming down the road, Cody's voice reaching him through the thin glass windows. Jimmy looked over his little blaze and sighed. It wasn't hot enough, wasn't nearly hot enough. The lamp oil tin was kept in the far corner of the room in the cool recess of the wall. Jimmy wasted no time in retrieving it. He unscrewed the cap and quickly lifted the bottle until the oil slid from the lip of the opening and onto the fire. It flared, the fire burning blue where the oil fell, flames licking in every direction.
"Hickok, I put 'em in the b-" the door slammed open on its hinges, "What are you doing?"
"Just go back outside, Cody. I'll finish this and we won't have to worry about it ever again."
Cody put up his hands. "You're talkin' crazy, Hickok. You better give that thing to me before you make a mistake and waste your wish."
Jimmy tipped the container again and the fire climbed up the oil toward the open mouth of the tin. Wide-eyed, Jimmy pulled the tin away, leaving a thin trail along the stone floor behind him. A tongue of flame licked along the oil, hissing to a stop at the edge of the stone fireplace. There wasn't enough fuel or fire to burn past the stone onto the wooden floor, but it was now hungrily devouring the wood he'd placed in the heart of the hearth. "I'm going to end this, Cody. I'm going to do what needs to be done,"
He reached into his pocket with his free hand and pulled out the paw. Hickok held it by the thin ribbon loop extending from the top. Cody watched as Jimmy dangled it from his fingers, saw it twisting around and around, saw the look in his eyes. “Jimmy, now hold on there, don’t do nuthin’ rash.”
“Rash, Cody?” He didn’t even turn to look at his friend; his gaze was solely focused on the little dried paw dangling before him. “You mean like takin’ this grubby little thing? Thinkin’ that it would make everything better with a few stinkin’ wishes?”
Jimmy leaned heavy against the mantle and let his shoulders sag. Such a teeny little thing. So many big problems it had caused. Jimmy knew it was right… right to destroy it.
Cody watched Jimmy lift it up and hold it over the fire, his fingers flexing with the strain. “Give it here, Jimmy. Give it to me… we’ll go through with our plan. We’ll make it right.”
“You mean go through with ‘your’ plan, Cody. Not mine. This is on my head. Lou’s gone… Lou’s gone and Kid, too. I can’t fix that… not with any kind of wish. I have to do what it takes to make it right.” He gave it one more long haunted look and started to lower it toward the fire.
Spurred into action, Cody made a grab for it, his fingers nearly knocking it from Jimmy’s grasp as the two tumbled toward the window.
Recovering from the momentary shock of the impact, Jimmy battled back and pushed Cody away from him. Cody wouldn’t let go, wouldn’t give in and pulled Jimmy down by the front of his jacket.
They landed on the table. They landed on it and went right through it, the table splintering into broken boards beneath the force of their combined weight and anger.
Cody was out cold and Jimmy lay on his back staring up at the ceiling, his back screaming in pain as his limbs lay lifeless beside him. “Cody?”
“Cody? You awake?”
Struggling to move, Jimmy let his head flop to the side and he saw Cody, mouth slack and unconscious. “Cody… damn it, wake up.”
A puff of smoke blew between them and Jimmy found that he could barely turn to the side, his elbow wedging beneath him. The smoke grew thicker, boiling up from behind his back.
“Cody!” Jimmy reached out until he managed to nudge Cody’s shoulder. His strength was coming back and few seconds later he was able to jog Cody enough to drag a groan out of his friend. “Get up… “looking over his shoulder he saw red flames licking up the drapes, feathering smoke across the window glass, “there’s a fire.”
Turning over, Cody got up on his knees and hung his head down to the ground. “Of course there is, Hickok, you built it.”
Hickok grabbed the back of Cody’s collar and lifted it until Cody was facing the wall. “Holy -“
“That’s what I said, Cody… now git.” He nearly threw Cody at the door as he lumbered to his feet, staggering with the sudden effort to get upright.
As soon as he stepped over the broken boards of the table, flames sprung up between them, building in height as if fed from an unseen river of oil beneath the ground.
Cody threw his arm over his eyes and blinked through the smoke. “Jimmy? Jimmy? What are you doin’?”
His hands pulled on the drapes and threw them on the ground before the flames could burn his skin and stomped on them, trying to stamp out the fire. “Go get help Cody. Go find someone to help.”
Reeling from a coughing fit, Cody shook his head. “I ain’t gonna leave you, Hickok.”
Jimmy turned and Cody could barely see the wry grin on his face. “I love you, too, Cody, but this ain’t about savin’ me. It’s about gettin’ rid of this thing before it can hurt anyone else...” The fire rose in height and Jimmy waved Cody to the door. “You need to get help and make damn sure this fire don’t spread to the rest of the buildings.”
“Jimmy, I-” Cody winced back as the flames shot up, nearly reaching the ceiling. The rafters popped with the heat of the fire and Cody was nearly pushed back out through the door with the smoke and heat. “I’m gonna get some help, you try the back window… you get the hell out of there, Jimmy.”
“Hell,” Jimmy murmured the word and smiled. It was true. He’d finally arrived where so many had warned him he’d end up. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere until I make sure this thing is good and gone.”
* * * *
The townsfolk came running. The saw the smoke before Cody even got further than the edge of Rachel’s house. They came with buckets and willing hands and they made the line from the barrel to the bunkhouse, Cody leading the group with sooty streaks across his face. Noah came riding up with Buck and Teaspoon by his side.
“What’s goin’ on there, Cody?” Teaspoon took in the situation quickly, “What happened to the bunkhouse?”
“No time, Teaspoon, Jimmy’s inside.”
“Inside,” Noah paused for a second as he was rollin’ up his sleeves, “what the hell is he doin’ in there?”
Going back in the line to organize the effort he talked along the way. “He’s bein’ a damned fool is what he’s doin’.” Cody shook his head. “He blames himself for everything goin’ bad and he thinks he can fix it.”
Cody passed on a bucket to another man and turned to explain more when a few men at the front of the line called for everyone to back up. Cody rushed forward to rally the troops.
* * * *
Jimmy searched the floor and found the paw shielded from the flames by an empty plate balanced on a broken piece of board. “There you are.” He pulled the plate aside and winced at the burn that sizzled across his fingertips. Plucking the paw up by its ribbon he reached his arm over the heart of the fire and gave it one last look.
The flames licked up around it, but didn’t seem to touch the little charm. “Come on,” he grumped, “everything made of flesh burns.”
His heart seized in his chest. “Lou?”
She smiled back at him in the pane of glass, darkened by the smoke. “What are you tryin’ to do? Get yourself killed?”
“I’m tryin’ to fix this, Lou.. I’m tryin’ to do right by you.”
Smiling, she shook her head and gave a little sigh. “You can’t do that if you’re dead.”
“Like you.” The words were like sandpaper against his tongue. “Like I killed you.”
“Where you get these silly notions… I jus’ don’t know, Jimmy.”
“I’m gonna…” he stared back at the paw, “I need to make it right.”
“Leave, Jimmy… get out of here.”
“Not until I finish this and-”
“Jimmy, look up!”
He did. He listened to her and stared up at the ceiling, just as the center beam broke in two and collapsed on his head.
* * * *
The assembled group sent up a gasp and a yell. Teaspoon and the boys scrambled into action, heading for the bunkhouse, circling it around, calling Jimmy’s name. Cody made a second circuit before collapsing to his knees. “I told him,” he gasped out, “I told him to get out…” the windows in the back of the bunkhouse blew out and Cody pounded his fists into the ground. “Dammit, Hickok, I told you to get the hell out.”
* * * *
The blaze cooled down in record time. The embers burned out, but the tears didn’t. Cody sat there, less than 20 feet from the bunkhouse and wept, prayed and begged. He wouldn’t leave until he knew… knew that Jimmy was good and truly gone.
Teaspoon sat there with him for a good time, sat there until the evening stars twinkled in through the darkness. It wasn’t enough to know that Jimmy was gone, gone doing something he believed in. It was painful, knowing that they’d have to go on with out him.
* * * *
The next day, folks from the town came over to help them clear the land. The riders had been up before the dawn looking through the rubble. They’d seen no evidence that Jimmy had even been in the room and even though Cody knew there was no hope that Jimmy had escaped the fire, it did him good to hold onto that little glimmer of hope.
Teaspoon though, Teaspoon was right despondent that they didn’t have a body to bury and Noah, he had spent the night reading scripture by candlelight. Buck brought out a wheelbarrow as the first of the townsfolk began to appear. They made quick work of the larger timbers, taking their time with the glass. The glass was dangerous… the glass was ragged and broken… the glass… Cody blinked once… twice… and it was still there. The paw, darkened with soot, hung from its ribbon behind glass. He surged forward, ready to grasp it, but a couple of men passed before his vision and when he looked again, he let out a heady sigh of relief. It was gone… it was truly gone.
It was over.
* * * *
Little Tommy Daly dusted off his find. It sure was strange. It was curled and hard as rock, but it certainly had its appeal. ‘I bet,’ he whispered inside his head, ‘I bet if I show it to Clark and Dennis I could get one of them to pay me a bit, maybe even two.
He paused as his palm started to itch and his mouth went dry. He looked at the strange little item again until a shadow fell over him. “What you got there, son?”
Tommy looked up at the large man before him. “Dunno… I found it in the fire. Didn’t think they wanted it none. So I took it.”
The man laughed and set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Well, I guess it’s right that someone as adventurous as you would have it. Would you like to know what it does?”
He nodded down at Tommy and crouched down beside him. “It’s very special, you know.” Tommy shook his head. “It’s called the Monkey’s Paw… and let me tell you what it does…”
*Dedication: To Tracy… all the way across the ocean… Possum, I’m honored that you thought of me for this idea… at first, I was worried... it was such a dark dark place that it was calling me to… but I’m honored to have been on the journey.
Thanks also to Cindy and Tracy for beta reading… mahalo!