...is that I’m dyin’ here inside.. and I miss you more each day
“Excuse me-” “Sorry ma’am-”
She laughed, he stared... and the years melted away.
They stood there like stone statues coming to life, straining at their bonds tying them in their places. The world, bustling by, seemed to creep to a stand still, moving around these two, immobile on the boardwalk
He found his voice first, “How are you?”
Unable to do more than form the single word, Louise answered with, “Fine.”
It was a lie, but it was all she could say.
They stared, unable to do much more, locked in the memories and dreams of the last five years. Without meaning to, her hand reached out, slowly traveling through the air, coming to rest on his forearm. The dam nearly broke the instant she touched his arm. He felt like he was falling, his mind a maelstrom of unspoken, uncontrolled emotion.
For her, the world around them grinded to a halt and all the walls she’d built up over the last five years crumbled like the walls of Jericho. All it took was the feel of his arm under her hand and the soft look in his eyes.
The sound of his voice was the final nail, her mouth opened to speak and her breath left her. The gaping hole inside of her stood open and bare, for the first time, she realized how much she needed him. “I thought I’d never see you again-”
His words rolled over hers, “I’m sorry so I never showed up at the church-” He felt every muscle in his body tense, the bands in his stomach turned to knots, ‘Could she forgive me?’ “It wasn’t because of you... in fact, you were the only reason I thought to go back..”
The pained look in her eye should have stopped him, instead it spurred him on. “I knew you were waiting, but after that fight the Kid and I had... well, I didn’t think he wanted me there and that was his day too.”
She looked down and he fell over his own thoughts, trying to draw her out, “So, I stayed away... I don’t know if it was for the best, but I thought you’d both like some peace and quiet. Lord knows, we never really say a lot of quiet around the station, between the shootists and Indian raids, well, it’s a wonder anyone had anytime to breathe with everything falling down around our ears.”
The emptiness inside of Lou was quickly filling up with the strain of holding her tongue. If she could get a word in edgewise... well then maybe, but all the words she’d dreamt of telling him died on her lips.
“James Hickok, I’ve been lookin’ for you everywhere! Where have you been?”
Jimmy froze, his thoughts jogged from his mind.
A woman linked her arm through his, “Who is this?”
Louise just blinked in reaction, her words now bottled inside of her.
Her lashes flickered over her cheeks before they lifted to reveal stunning blue eyes, “What’s the matter dear? Cat got your-”
“Lou.. this is Corrie.” There, he’d said it.
Jimmy looked down, and wished that he knew of a way to get Corrie to let go of his arm, that is a way to do it and not shame either of them. “We,... Lou and I are old.. friends.”
“Really?” Lou thought Corrie’s voice was too sweet for her comfort. “Now isn‘t that lovely, the two of you ‘bumping‘ into each other.” Corrie leveled a look at the other woman, “How sweet.”
The look on her face was one Lou couldn’t bear. Triumph. It was plain to see... and cut as deep as a knife almost as deep as her own fear. Louise looked at Jimmy, trying to see his reaction, but she couldn’t see through the veil of tears sliding over her eyes. He‘d moved on. “Excuse me.” Lou shouldered past Corrie and disappeared into the crowd.
She didn’t stop, merely moved through the crowd oblivious to the stares and startled comments. Her feet stumbled a few times, jolting her thoughts, making them skip like an unbalanced top.
“What was I thinking?” The man beside her, turned a concerned expression to her, “What was I thinking? We were standing in the middle of the street for goodness-”
She dropped into an alley, barely noticing as her body jolted with the harsh contact of foot to ground.
Leaning against the wall, the rough wood poked into her back, scratching through the fabric of her cotton dress. ‘Would I have told him... how I missed him, how much I needed to see him again.. how I’ve needed word ... the lengths I’ve gone through to avoid any memory of him.”
She laughed and shook her head, the ends brushing against her cheek, “Maybe, that I still care, that I’ve never found anyone like him.” A couple, young and in love passed by her alley, their eyes, so intent, almost feasting on each other. They didn’t see her, but their looks were not lost on Louise. It was their connection to each other that strangled the breath from her throat. “,,,that I know who I am now...and I know what I want. What was I thinking?”
She stepped back into the light of day, blending in with the other town folk moving through their days. Her troubles, never far behind, living in the shadow of her life.
Jimmy sat across from Corrie in the crowded restaurant, watching her mouth move. What she said, he couldn’t tell, he’d stopped caring the moment he’d seen Lou again. He gave a self conscious laugh and shook his head. ‘What was I thinking? I don’t think I let her get in a word.... that’s a first in and of itself. Cody was always the one with a gift for running off at the mouth.’
He grit his teeth together, ‘I made a mess of the whole thing, just rolled right over her like a runaway train.’
He looked up into Corrie’s eyes and couldn’t remember what she’d been talking about. “Yeah?”
“Are you listening?” She never waited for an answer, “Honestly, I take the time to look for the perfect curtains, and it’s like you’re not even there...”
‘She doesn’t want to know where my mind was,’ Jimmy looked up at the waiter, lifting his cup as the quaking young man filled his cup. ‘Fear, everyone’s afraid of me.’ He took a sip and drew in a breath as the lukewarm water slipped over his parched throat. From the first day in town, Corrie had made it known that ‘Wild Bill’ was in town, and people had treated them with deference.
But Lou, Lou looked at him and only saw Jimmy. It was almost like he’d stepped back into time, those eyes.. warm and golden brown, drawing him close...
“Yes?” He sat up as she leveled a look at him. She didn’t like his tone, ‘Lord, I’ll never hear the end of this one‘, “Sorry.”
“Honestly, I’ll never understand how you can drift off sometimes...”
This time, she kept staring straight at him, watching his eyes, but try as he might, he couldn’t help but look away. Her eyes, once haunting and alone, now stared at him, sharp and unfeeling. She’d seen death, no more than him, but it had colored her soul, sharpening her by the loss. It had done something to her eyes as well, they had a glint, like metal, coal maybe? In the last few years he’d lost the ability to look in her eyes for more than a glance. The looks she gave him cut into his soul, carving it up for herself. It had been a long time since he’s reached the point that he wanted some of it back. She stared at him, ‘Yes.. so different...so cold.’
“Can you believe he had the nerve to tell me-”
‘I wish I’d had the nerve to tell her,.... tell her what I should have... What the hell was I thinking.. she doesn’t want to hear that! Five years.. she’s probably got a whole passel of kids at home... where was home?’
Jimmy smacked his cup down on the table, he’d been so busy planting his foot in his mouth, he’d never asked her... anything!
Late that night, Jimmy slipped out of bed and paused outside of Corrie’s room, careful not to wake her. They’d stayed overly long in the Saloon tonight. Corrie had attempted again and again to pry information out of Jimmy. It smarted like a burr that in the years they’d traveled together, he’d never told her about Louise and Corrie didn’t like playin’ a fool.
She accused him of hiding it from her and she’d been right. Deep in her cups as she was, there was no reasoning with her, so Jimmy sat back and let her hurl insults as he downed cup after cup of cold tea. Corrie hated drinking alone and the bartender was quietly given instructions to fill his glass with tea.
Now, with a clear mind and dressed in the first things he could find, he stumbled down the stairs, his boots threatening to come off as he tried to button his shirt. His mind, turning with confusion made any task a frustrating event.
The town was quiet with only the sporadic interruption of a drunken man on his way home, or a ‘lady’ looking for company.
He barely even noticed where his feet had led him, until he almost walked into the door itself. He stared at the wood, freshly painted with white wash, closed and asleep. ‘I’ll come back,’ he turned his back and set one foot on a step.
Jimmy turned at smiled, the man that could possibly make sense out of this, well, there he stood. Dressed in a button-down shirt thrown over his union suit, his whitening hair grown long past his shoulders, Teaspoon Hunter rubbed his eyes as he tried to make sense of the vision before him. “Jimmy? That you, son?”
Laughter, the first real laugh of the day, came tumbling out. “Yeah it’s me old man. You’re supposed to have glasses by now!”
Teaspoon squinted down with one eye, “Don’t need em... I can see right fine without them.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“I saw that, “ Teaspoon pointed a finger at his head, “You see? I ‘saw’ that! I don’t need no lousy spectacles.”
“You still got a sharp tongue, that’s for sure.”
His cutting statement was met by a loud guffaw, “That ain’t the only thing I still got... keep talking like that, and I’ll show you.” The gruff voice warred with the twinkle that swept back into his eyes. Teaspoon held out an arm, “Well, don’t just stand there, come on inside, ‘afore Polly tans my hide.”
“Polly?” Jimmy smiled through the question.
A bright knowing smile was part of the answer, “Yep, married my own Apple Pie gal a second time.. she made an honest man of me.”
Jimmy smiled down at his shoes, “Bet you keep her on her feet Teaspoon-”
Teaspoon gave a nod to the stairs, “Feet? Boy? What are you thinking?”
Waving his hands in surrender, Jimmy laughed, “I’ll never understand how you do it...”
Closing the door behind them, Teaspoon led Jimmy into the kitchen, “Well, knowing you, this ain’t much of a social call... that is until you’ve worked out the problem knocking around in your head.” Setting a coffee pot onto the stove, Teaspoon lit a piece of tinder and flicked it into the belly of the cast iron dragon. “So...you gonna make me drag it out of you... or you gonna come peaceful like and spill the die-lemma?”
Jimmy cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair. “I .. ah was coming to see you earlier.. but I bumped into someone else... lost track.”
Teaspoon nodded sagely, “hmm.. really?”
Continuing on, Jimmy just let the day’s frustration ramble out to his mentor.. the man he considered to be his father. Teaspoon for his part merely sat back and let Jimmy relieve himself of the burden that had been boilin’ up inside all day. The pot on the stove heated up and Teaspoon grabbed a towel off the counter. Gripping it carefully he poured out two steaming cups and set one before Jimmy.
“So you see, here I am, shootin’ my mouth off and Lou’s just standing there staring at me like I grew another head-”
“The two of you had a chance to talk?”
Jimmy missed the pointed arch of Teaspoon’s brow, “No... just when I thought she was gonna stop me from making a fool of myself, Corrie came back from her shopping.”
‘That’ hint, he heard, “Yeah Corrie-”
Clearing his throat, Teaspoon looked off into the darkened hall, “The two of you here in town together .. or ?”
Jimmy sighed into the pregnant pause, “What if I said she was?”
“Ah” Teaspoon swallowed and released the sigh he’d been holding, “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ son, this here is your story.”
“I think that’s the problem, I’ve been stuck in the same story for five years... let Corrie have her way. It ain‘t like we‘re not happy. I mean, we‘ve been through a lot.. even stood by each other through some tough times... but-“ Jimmy stared at the table.
Setting his cup on the table, Teaspoon nodded pensively, “Seems to me like you got a lot of answers to find.”
Jimmy smacked his hand on the table, “Dang it Teaspoon, that’s why I’m here!”
Teaspoon turned in his chair, “You keep your voice down,” he pointed up the stairs and mouthed the word ‘Polly’.
A sweet laugh echoed in from the hall, “My my.. it certainly is busier than a hive ‘round Spring in this house... all these guests after dark.. I wonder if there’s a storm a brewin’.”
Jimmy stood like the chair was on fire, “Sorry I woke you Polly.”
Polly breezed past Jimmy, patting his cheek as she went, “No dear, that’s fine with me, that is as long as you boys saved me some coffee.”
Teaspoon pulled Polly into his lap, “Of course we did, my sweet.”
Polly unwound herself from his arms and took down a cup from the cupboard, “Well,... out with it.”
Jimmy stared at the table, “Nothing much really... just that I saw someone in town-”
“Oh?” Teaspoon could tell by the glint in her eyes, she was enjoying this.
“Just an old friend-”
“Funny how friends are people you’re supposed to keep in touch with.”
Jimmy looked up at Polly, wondering what she was talking about. “Well, sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.” He drifted off in thought, “I wonder where the Kid is.”
“The Kid? What would he be doin’ ‘round here?” Teaspoon shot Polly a warning glance, “Don’t get your feathers mussed hon... I’m just askin’ a question.” She set her cup down on the counter, “Well, you two boys stay up and talk if you want... but I have to be at the Saloon at the crack of dawn.” She kissed Teaspoon on the cheek and set a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder as she passed.
Jimmy called out to her as she reached the hall, “Polly? What did you mean... about the Kid-”
“Oh, that.... well, all’s I’m sayin’ is why would he be around here?”
Jimmy rolled his eyes heavenward, “Because Lou’s here and with the two of them married-”
Teaspoon sucked in a breath as Polly peaked her head back around the corner, “See what happens when you disappear.. you miss the most important events...”
“Polly!” Jimmy and Teaspoon were both at their wits end.
“Darlin’, you and Teaspoon really ought to talk. Lou and Kid never married.”
With that .. she was gone.
Jimmy sat back in his chair, the bones in his body refusing to hold him up. “Teaspoon?”
He ignored the warning tone and pressed on, “I know I once told you that you ‘run like hell’, but blazes son,... I was talkin’ about Indians.. not your life.”
Tossing back the last of his coffee, Jimmy set the cup back down on the table, “It’s all the same thing Teaspoon....”
Teaspoon leaned on his elbows, bracing them on the table, “No it ain’t, son .. not by a long shot.” Jimmy looked away from his piercing gaze, “problem is... you need to figure out the difference.”
Louise dragged herself out of bed the next morning. She moved her way through the morning ritual with a larger than normal cloud hanging over her head.
Jeremiah seemed not to notice much else as he wolfed down his eggs and potatoes. He gathered his books under his arm and called into the next room, “Teres! Get a move on.. we’re gonna be late.. and I ain’t standing in the corner cause you can’t decide what dress to wear!”
“I’m comin’.. I’m coming!”
Louise stood at the door, “You both ready?”
They nodded and breezed passed her, “Bye Louise!”
Shaking out of her stupor, she called after them, “I’ll meet you at the school after three!”
Teresa whirled around and stopped dead in her tracks, “Three? Louise... it’s only a half day today.. remember the dance?” She turned and headed off to school, not bothering to see if Louise had understood her.
“The dance.. the dance...” Lou whispered it over and over again as she shut the door. “How could I forget the dance?” It was only thing Teresa’d been talking about for the last month. As Louise gathered her things for work she mulled over the thought, “The dance.. the dance.” Pictures flooded into her mind. The dances in Sweetwater, when she’d stand outside. Then Willow Springs - with an ache weighing heavy in her heart, she’d been swept off her feet by the wings of friendship.
She didn’t have to hide who she was that night. She was free to be a woman, free to be... ‘with him.’ Louise froze with her hand on the door, “Whatever made me say that to Jimmy anyhow?”
“The same thing that made you stop the wedding.”
Louise cringed, “Morning Polly.”
“Good Morning Louise.”
She stepped out onto the porch and locked the door to the house behind her, “What brings you here this morning?”
Polly didn’t react to the tone or the phrasing of the question. “I just came to walk my favorite partner to work.”
“Favorite?” Was Lou’s wry answer, “I’m your ONLY partner.”
“Than what better reason to walk you to work? I can’t lose my only investor.. that would be-”
“Hedging around the question.”
Laughing, Polly squeezed Lou in a hug, “Guilty.”
They walked along side by side, silent for the next two streets. That was about all Polly could take, “Louise?”
Lou groaned, “Yes Polly?”
“After you left last night-” Louise thought back to the extremely uncomfortable dinner she had at their house, “Well, Sugar-lips and I had planned on goin’ straight to sleep.”
“and-” Louise dutifully prompted her.
“Well, it’s hard to get any sleep when you’ve got visitors callin’ at all hours-”
“Visitors?” The question came out before Louise could stop herself. Mentally she beat her head against every post they passed.
“Well one, really. I don’t suppose you’re interested in knowing who?” Polly trailed off as they reached the door to the Saloon.
Louise took advantage of the respite and brushed in through the open doorway.
“Louise!” Polly followed her inside.
Heads popped up and everyone said their greetings, “Mornin’ Louise.”
“Mornin’ all.” She set her things down behind the bar and started to wipe the dust off of the already spotless bar.
Polly came up behind her with a song in her voice, “Louise?”
Louise dropped the dust rag on the counter, “Polly... I .. I.. “
“Please, there’s nothing I can do... just let it be.”
“Nothing? Not from what-”
“Polly, please.” The others in the room tried hard not to listen, but the pain in Louise’s voice drew all of their attention to her.
“Louise, let me-”
“Sometimes, you’ve got to let a body work through their own problems.”
Polly opened her mouth to argue, but Louise’s look stopped her. Setting her hands on her hips, Polly heaved out an elaborate sigh, “You know what the problem is?”
Smilin’ like a cat with a feather hangin’ out of it’s mouth, Louise look over at Polly, “What?”
Polly set her hand on Lou’s cheek, cupping it in a loving gesture, “You’re too much like that old coot I married, he must’ve taught you all how to really .. really aggravate me.” Polly leaned closer and kissed Lou’s cheek. “Fine, I’ll let you alone.. for now... but-” she warned, “if I don’t think you’re gettin’ things done, I’ll just have to step in a give you some help.” She waltzed away as Louise leaned over the bar, groaning with a chagrined smile on her face.
Louise was late.
The two younger McClouds stood on the steps of the school, books and lunch pails in hand.
“Jeremi-ah! Let’s go!”
Teresa stomped up the stairs to stand next to her brother, “She ain’t comin’!”
“Isn’t,” he corrected her, “She’ll be here. She’s just working late is all.”
Stamping her foot against the hard wood landing, Teresa set her hands on her hips. “She forgot.”
Jeremiah brushed her off, “She’s got a lot on her mind.”
“Well so do I. The dance is tonight, she’s supposed to help me get ready!”
Counting to ten, Jeremiah did his best to still his tongue. Somewhere around eight he decided that today he must have the patience of a saint. Then at nine, he realized he wasn’t gonna make it.
Jeremiah would have turned toward the voice if it wasn’t for Teresa’s shriek. “Oh Lord.. it’s him!”
“Silly goose,” Jeremiah stared down his sister, “You better shut your mouth before the flies-” He turned back and stopped, “You.”
Jimmy tipped his hat, “Jeremiah, Teresa.. how are you?”
Teresa leaned so far over the railing Jeremiah thought she’d fall over if she wasn’t careful, “Wild Bill Hickok!”
Jimmy tried not to grimace at the name but he thought that the children wouldn’t notice his discomfort. “You can call me Jimmy.”
“Jimmy?“ Agog over his presence Teresa was oblivious, but it was Jeremiah that caught the flicker in his eyes. Louise did the same every time his name was mentioned.
“Mister Hickok,” he corrected, “It’s been awhile.”
Laughing, Jimmy shook his head, “Sure sounds like it’s been awhile. You’re growin’ up real fast Jeremiah, real fast.”
The younger boy eyed the Shootist standing at the bottom of the steps, “I’m the man of the house. Can’t fool around when you’ve got responsibilities.” He grabbed Teresa by the elbow, “Well, we’d best be gettin’ home, Teresa’s got her heart set on goin’ to the dance tonight.”
Teresa nearly tripped down the stairs, her eyes were glued on the dark haired rider, “That’s alright Jer-”
“You ought to go with your brother.”
Jeremiah looked up in gratitude for a moment, before he remembered to school his gaze back into the self appointed scowl he’d been practicing over the years.
“Fine,” Teresa’s lips set into a pout, “I’ll go...if you come too!”
The two men squared off. “I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”
Jeremiah was surprised he agreed, “Exactly, we’ve got to get home.”
Teresa swatted his shoulder, “Please Jeremiah.. please.. it ain’t like he’s a stranger or nothin’ he knows Louise.”
Looking up at the sun sliding behind the trees, Jeremiah knew they had to get home. “Suit yourself. If you can get him to come, fine.”
Shaking off Jeremiah’s hand Teresa flounced over to Jimmy. Lacing her hand through his arm she smiled up at him, “You’ll come won’t you? Please Bill?”
Jimmy smiled, “It’s Jimmy Teresa and yes I will.”
Jeremiah grit his teeth together, “Let’s go.” He trudged on ahead through the thinnin’ grass. All the way back to the house, Jeremiah considered everyway possible to get him to leave before Louise got home.
“And you have to see my room too.”
“Teresa are you done yet?”
Her cheerful tone set Jeremiah’s nerves on edge, “Not yet, he still hasn’t seen Louise’s room.”
Jimmy felt his feet grow roots at that moment. Teresa climbed onto her bed and reached up to grab her doll of the shelf. She flopped down on her bottom, “See?”
“What is that?”
“Annabelle... Annabelle Mumblepuss. She’s my doll.”
“I think I remember her.”
“Really?” Teresa’s voice had a dreamlike quality as she rocked her doll against her chest. “She’s beautiful ain’t she?” She didn’t wait for his answer, “She belonged to my sister first, but she really loves me.”
Jimmy nodded, “Bet she does.”
“Someday,” Teresa stopped rocking and looked up at Jimmy through her sandy colored lashes, “someday, I’ll have a little girl and she’ll get Annabelle.”
“Well, it’ll be a few years before-”
“Or, if Louise ever has a baby, I could give it back to her. What do you think?”
Jimmy froze, unable to do much more than nod his head. Leave it to a guileless child to cut right through to the heart.
In a moment, the doll was forgotten and Teresa grabbed a hold of Jimmy’s hand and pulled him into the hall. “The last room is Louise’s... come on.”
He felt his blood go cold, “I really shouldn’t-”
“Aw, come on. You two used to sleep in the same room before. It’s not like you ain’t-”
“Haven’t,” he corrected.
“- seen her things before.” She turned her face up to his and smiled.
It wasn’t the sugary sweet smile on her lips that egged his feet on, but her eyes. She had Lou’s eyes.
The bedroom was only a few steps away, but it felt like the longest walk of his life. Once he walked in through the open door, he stopped again.
It took a moment before he realized Teresa was pullin’ on his arm. “Teresa?”
She looked up at him, impatience written all over her face, “I gotta go get dressed for the dance, but you can stay around as long as you like. Louise should be home any minute now.”
He nodded and watched her go.
Taking a deep breath, Jimmy turned back to the room. Teresa was half right, they’d slept in the same room before, but he’d never seen her things.. her women’s things kept so out in the open.
Jimmy took a step forward and then another, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had no place bein’ there.
Laid across the quilted bedcover was a robe of soft cotton, thinning with use, but still well cared for. He took a step back and bumped up against the wall, knocking something loose. Jimmy turned and grabbed it before it hit the floor. Turning it over and over in his hands he chuckled under his breath. Lou’s soft grey stetson. “Some things never change.” He traced the edge of the felt brim with his fingers as he focused his thoughts,
“Louise!” Jeremiah’s tenor voice slipped in through the door.
“Jeremiah... I am so sorry. Did the two of you wait a long time?”
“It was so busy at the Saloon... I completely forgot about the time. Teaspoon stopped by and .. well, I’m so sorry hon. Did Teresa get dressed?”
Inside, Jimmy could hear her talking a mile a minute and smiled. She was so wrapped up in these children.
“She’s in her room, I don’t know what she’s doin’.”
“Louise!” He echoed her tone perfectly.
There was a pause as Jimmy pictured the two staring into each others faces waiting for the other to move or flinch. Jeremiah certainly had her stubborn streak.
“Well you better get dressed.”
“I ain’t goin’.”
“Jeremiah, we discussed this, you can’t stay home by yourself.”
Jimmy set the hat back on its peg and stepped into the hall.
“I can go to Johnny’s house, he’s stayin’ at home with his uncle.”
Jimmy waited for a moment. What was he going to say? Louise was rushing around, getting the kids ready. What was he going to do?
“Louise? Is that you?”
“Teresa? What’s wrong sugar bear?”
“These buttons... I can’t do them by myself!” Teresa turned back to smile at Jimmy, “See? She’s here.”
Her smile beamed, “You gonna stay and visit?”
Jimmy shook his head and swallowed, “I don’t think this is the right time.”
Teresa flexed her stocking feet, “Alright. Why don’t you come and see her at the dance.”
“The dance.” The words fell flat against his tongue.
“It’ll be a surprise! Why don’t you go out the side door before she sees you.”
Jimmy felt a cowardly relief surge through his lungs, “Side door?”
She giggled and Jimmy had to smile, “Yes silly. Right over there.” She leaned her head toward the hallway.
The door started to open, “Jeremiah, if that’s what you want, we’ll drop you off on the way to the dance,”
Jimmy nodded and held his finger over his lips. Teresa nodded and pointed to the hall, “Hurry.”
Louise continued, “but I’ll talk to his Uncle before I make my final decision.”
Pulling the door closed behind him, Jimmy reached the relative safety of the outdoors. He straightened out his hat and started back toward town.
“You leavin’ again?”
At first, Jimmy couldn’t turn around. The sound of accusation in Jeremiah’s voice was enough, the look in his eyes might break him.
“Again?” Jimmy cursed himself for askin’ the question.
Jeremiah moved closer, his steps slow and steady. The closer he got, the older he looked. It was that steady gaze fixed on Jimmy, making the older man feel about as big as a prairie dog half way below the ground. “Yeah again. Just like five years ago.” He took another step. “The wedding.”
Jimmy took a breath as he considered his next move. “Teaspoon told me some of the story.”
From inside the house, Louise called out, “Jeremiah!’
Jeremiah turned and ran back toward the house, “I’m comin’.”
“Wait!” Jimmy took a few steps after the boy, “What were you goin’ to say?”
Jeremiah looked from Jimmy to the house and then back to Jimmy, “You’ll just have to ask her.” He disappeared into the house a moment later, leaving Jimmy to walk back into town alone and more confused than ever.
Louise leaned against the back wall of the dance and observed the scene before her. With a cup of punch grasped tightly in her hand she was able to fend off any potential partners.
“Hello Marcus.” Marcus Henley bought the livery just a few months before and had been to the Saloon to see her, again... and again.
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets this close to Louise, he could never think of anything to say, well...nothing smart. “New dress?”
“Uh... no, it’s the same one I wore to the last dance.”
“Thank you all the same.”
They settled into silence as the dancers whirled by. Teresa danced with the young Carlson boy, all under Louise’s watchful eyes.
Jimmy walked in the open doors of the dance. He paused for a moment, his eyes falling where his heart was. He started to walk into the room, but stopped when he felt a hand on his arm, “Sir?”
“Get your hands off me.”
“I said get your hands off me.”
Looking down, Jimmy noticed the young man with the deputy star pinned to his coat, “Sir... I don’t mean no offense, but your rig-”
“Jimmy, how nice to see you here tonight.” Jimmy didn’t see Teaspoon’s face but his could hear the cautioning tone. “Glad you could join us.”
Looking at his old mentor, Jimmy nodded toward the Deputy, “I ain’t givin’ up my guns.”
Teaspoon was close enough to lean into his ear, “Jimmy, there ain’t no threat here.”
Whiskey never did improve anyone’s judgment. “There’s always a threat Teaspoon. I aim to be ready.”
Slipping his arm loosely around Hickok’s shoulders, Teaspoon walked him back through the entrance. “Jimmy, I think you ought to head on back to the hotel. Sleep it off, clear your head. Tomorrow will be another day.”
“I got business here, tonight.”
“Really now, the way you’re acting- you might wanna take some time to cool off, think things through.”
“I’m gonna see Lou.”
“Teaspoon, what I got to say can’t wait. It’s waited too long.” Jimmy shrugged the hand off his shoulder and walked back toward the door. “Five years.... but it felt like a lifetime.“ In one easy movement, he’d unbuckled his gun belt and dropped it into the outstretched arms of the Deputy.
Teaspoon caught Polly’s eye and shook his head.
Teresa skipped over her partner’s foot when she caught sight of Jimmy at the door. She pulled Jon Carlson halfway across the floor, “Louise...he’s here.”
It dawned on her in an instant. ‘He’ could only be one person, Teresa had busied herself talkin’ about Jimmy Hickok the whole ride to the dance. Louise felt her heart pulse against her resolve to ignore her sister’s comment. She doubted there was a woman alive that could ignore James Hickok. Besides, ’How could you ignore the man you still-’
“You gonna dance tonight?”
Marcus’s quiet statement broke into her thoughts, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“You gonna dance tonight?”
“I’ll think on it.”
From across the room, Louise could see Jimmy pushing his way through the throng on the edge of the dance floor. Her hands turned cold even as her palms went damp. “Marcus?”
He looked up in hope, “Yeah Louise?”
Louise smothered a laugh as Marcus led her out onto the floor. It wasn’t because of his shocked expression or the look of sheer adoration on his face, it was because of her own cowardice.
The fiddle player skipped his bow across the strings and played a gay little tune matched by his friends on the guitar and mouth harp. Louise found her feet dancing on their own as she tried to force her mind to slow it’s pace. As much as she tried to concentrate on the steps to the reel they were less complex than the verbal dance in her mind, ‘Why couldn’t he just leave?’
‘Leave town? He just got here-’
‘The dance, leave the dance.’
‘He’s here to visit Teaspoon.”
‘Don’t be so disappointed, he didn’t know you were here.’
‘That’s part of the problem.’
“Did I step on your toes?”
Louise realized the last thought had actually be spoken out loud, “No.. no.. Marcus.. no, you’re fine. Really.”
She silently cursed herself at the sad look in his eyes. Instantly, Louise felt extremely sorry for the man. He was so very nice, but so... so... ‘not Jimmy’ piped in the irritating little voice.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘When you come to your senses.’
‘I am in perfect control.’
‘Liar,‘ the pesky little inside voice had fangs.
“Ahem.” Marcus cleared his throat and Louise looked up with a guilty blush on her cheeks.
“Louise? The dance is over.”
“Oh? Really? I guess we‘ll be heading home-”
He looked flummoxed, “No, just the one we were dancin’ to. You alright? You’re.. a...a little-” They started to walk off the floor, Louise followed Marcus as he headed for the refreshments. “I dunno, kind of like you’re not really here.”
Guilt was an shameful thing, “Oh Marcus, it’s really not you. I’ve just got an awful lot on my mind.”
“Oh.. well, maybe next-”
“Let go of her hand.” The flat tone of his voice belied the tense tremor shivering through Jimmy’s body.
Marcus almost couldn’t stop his feet in time. “Excuse me?”
Jimmy pointed at their hands, “Put it down.”
Marcus turned bright red, like one of his mother’s prize winning cherry pies, “Oh Good Lord, I’m sorry Louise. I didn’t realize-” He dropped her hand in a heartbeat, “Really .. I-”
She touched his arm to soothe his fears, “Marcus, it’s alright.”
“No it ain’t.” The anger boiling up inside of Jimmy didn’t help his control, “You had your dance now get.”
Louise’s temper was almost a match for his, “You leave him alone.”
Jimmy’s anger faltered as he looked into her eyes. He saw anger mixed with hurt and still he couldn’t stop his whiskey drunk mind from diggin’ himself a deeper hole, “We gotta talk.”
“No, we don’t ‘gotta’ do anything. I’m not here with you Jimmy.”
He felt it like a punch to his middle and his whiskey soaked brain wasn‘t much help. Corrie had made sure that they were both well into their cups before she‘d laid into him earlier. Now, when he needed to think clearly, it was a near impossibility. “You here with him?”
“It‘s none of your business.”
Jimmy‘s voice rose a bit, this wasn‘t goin‘ the way he wanted. “Well, are you?”
Marcus stood at her side, his hands firmly shoved in his pockets, “Don’t raise your voice to her.”
His mouth nearly gaping open, Jimmy turned back toward Lou’s quiet companion, “This ain’t about you.”
“No.” Marcus moved closer, slipping a shoulder between them as he faced Jimmy. “It ain’t, but you got no call to talk to her like that.”
He was right, but Jimmy needed to say his peace, “Stay out of this.”
Louise tried to move around Marcus, “Jimmy, leave him out of this-”
Continuing to stand his ground, Marcus leaned an inch closer, “Lower your voice, or I’ll see you outside.”
Jimmy laughed and Marcus pulled his hands from his pockets and balled them into fists.
“Right here’s as good a place as any, you milquetoast son-of-a-” Jimmy staggered a step back as his body followed his head. Marcus had landed a wallop of a punch on his jaw and Jimmy still had stars shooting in front of his eyes.
“Stop, both of you.”
Jimmy landed an answering punch on Marcus’s jaw and the two went down in a heap. They were locking horns right in the middle of the town’s dance, and neither of them seemed to care what Louise was sayin’. “Stop.”
“Is that the best you can do Fancy Boy?” Jimmy’s frock coat had a large rend in the shoulder and Marcus couldn’t resist the barb.
Louise had to take a step back as the two barreled past her and knocked over the table piled with trays of cookies and cakes of all colors. Marcus rocked into a scrumptious carrot cake, reducing it to an iced pancake with his weight.
They rolled over and Jimmy came up on top, drawing his fist back to hit Marcus again. Louise decided to take matters into her own hands. Reaching through the rubble of cookies littering the floor she drew out a heavy platter and smacked it down over Jimmy’s head.
He collapsed on the floor next to Marcus and Louise felt her shoulders droop as she stood there. It was only the movement to her side that drew her attention. Teresa was pressed up against Polly, her face half hidden in Polly’s shoulder. Tears were streaming down Teresa’s face. Teaspoon ambled up on her other side, “Hmmm.. looks like tempers were runnin’ a bit high tonight, eh Louise?”
Louise nodded. “Looks like.” Turning around, Louise walked over to Polly and Teresa. She stroked her sister‘s hair while she asked a favor of Polly in a soft voice, “Can you take Teresa home with you?”
Polly nodded and reached out to touch Louise’s arm, “Sure thing sweetie. We‘ll see she gets to sleep.. especially after all this excitement.” The room was nearly empty. Hardly any of the townsfolk wanted to dance and most had gone home.
“Don’t mention it. You just go with Teaspoon and get to the bottom of this.”
Louise’s eyes flashed with frustration, “Believe me, I will.” She started to walk back to the ruined table, but her sister’s tiny voice stopped her.
“Give him a chance to explain. He really... wants to talk to you.”
Louise felt her face soften at the hopeful tone of voice, “I’ll give him a chance sweetie, you just go home with Polly. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Once they were gone Louise turned to Teaspoon who stood in the midst of the ruined sweets. “Lou? What do we do now?”
It took only a moment before Teaspoon heard Lou’s stoic answer, “Give him a chance.”
Teaspoon walked out onto the boardwalk outside the Marshal’s office. The cool night air did little to stifle his frustration.
“Did he wake up?”
Setting a booted foot up on the bench seat Teaspoon shook his head, “You clocked him but good Lou.”
“I wasn’t tryin’ to…”
He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, “I know Sweetheart, but sometimes the only way to stop a ragin’ bull is to knock some sense into his thick skull, even if it is with Polly’s best cookie platter.”
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, “I’m sorry –“
Teaspoon set his cheek on the top of her head, “No need to be sorry, I’m sure Polly was cheerin’ you on. She never did like overbearin’ men.”
Lou’s smile was a bit brighter, “I guess that’s why we get along so well.”
There was a moment of silence before Louise pulled away from Teaspoon, “Well, no time like the present-“
“You sure you don’t wanna wait until tomorrow to try and talk some sense into the boy?”
Louise shook her head, “Wait until he’s hung over? No thank you.”
He sighed, a long weathered affair that had both shoulders rising and falling like ocean swells, “Well, can’t says I blame you, you’ve waited five years.”
Touching his arm she gave him a wry smile, “Then I’d say it’s about time.”
She’d reached the door way before he offered, “You want me to stay?”
“No, I’ll be alright.”
He set his foot down on the boardwalk and took a step into the night, “I wasn’t worried about you Lou.”
She paused in the doorway until Teaspoon’s footfalls were almost soft enough to be a memory.
The Marshal’s office was softly lit by the lone lantern on the desk, but the majority of the office was shrouded in shadows. ‘First rule of a fair fight,’ came Teaspoon’s sage words in her head, ‘Get the lay of the land. Know what’s around you and who you’re fightin’.’
She reached the desk and turned up the flame of the oil lamp. The shadows jumped and skittered away into the corners of the room and Louise turned to the cell in the corner.
There, sprawled over the tiny cot lay James Butler Hickok, sometimes law-man, sometimes gambler, and a constant figure in Louise’s dreams over the years.
Her gut instinct was to allow him some sleep, it looked like he needed it. Then, Teaspoon’s advice wormed it’s way into her reverie, ‘Second rule of a fair fight: Make sure you’ve got the upper hand-“
Louise picked up the bucket of drinkin’ water by the desk and tossed it through the bars and onto Jimmy. He sprang from the cot, sputterin’ and swearin’ something awful.
“What the hell? Who the he-“
‘and keep it.’
“You’re lucky that’s all I did.”
“Yes Lou. Oh good, you can see.”
“Of course I can see!” He was spittin’ mad and rushed the bars, “Why wouldn’t I?’
She took a step closer, her eyes flashing in the lamp light. “Hmph, you were blind drunk just an hour ago.”
The words sobered him more than the bucket of water had, “That ain’t true.”
“The hell it isn’t.”
“I wasn’t all drunk.”
She almost smiled at his words, “And that’s supposed to be some kind of excuse?”
“Nope, just the truth.” The candid remark rolled over her.
‘Third Rule: Press your advantage.’
“What did you think was goin’ to happen when you rough up my … my… “
“My dance partner.”
He leveled her a look that had her seein’ red.
“Jimmy Hickok, don’t you look at me like that, we ain’t doin’ that kind of dancing.”
“Not like it matters to me.”
She froze with her mouth open, her next words forgotten as his words hit her like a slap. Her arms dropped to her sides and the anger that had given her the nerve for this confrontation fizzled like a watered-down campfire.
Jimmy felt like he’d been sucker-punched, “Lou, that’s not what I meant to say.”
“I’ve got to go.” Louise swung around on her heel and headed for the door.
Sharp retorts died on her tongue.
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Funny how that works.” She turned back around to face him. “Five years,” she suddenly felt a chill in her hands, “Where were you all this time?” Jimmy hung his head and water dripped off the ends onto the dusty floor at his feet. “Never mind.”
“No,” his eyes searched for hers, “now, let’s talk about it now.”
Lookin’ out into the dark night Louise gathered her courage, “If you want-”
“Don’t you?” She stood silent by the window, while he pressed on, “I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have come to the dance tonight... not after-”
Her anger flared again. “You scared Teresa, made her cry... what were you thinkin’?” Immediately Lou felt guilty. It wasn’t so much that she was angry about Teresa, she couldn’t believe that here they were, finally in the same room with no interruptions and all she could think about was...
“I wasn’t,” Jimmy paced back toward the soaked cot, “Not really, not after the drinks.” Louise said nothing and Jimmy continued. “Corrie’s gone. We talked, she knew...” he looked up, but her gaze was fixed on the sleeping street. “she knew that I.. that it wasn’t working between the two of us.”
“And you? What do you think?”
He waited, hoping she’d look his way. “Lou, let me out.”
“I walked away.” It was almost like it slipped out before she knew what she was doing. Louise stood stock still for a long moment as if she was willing herself to pull the words back in. Jimmy sagged against the bars, waiting for her to continue. “I walked away from the wedding.” Louise reached out and set a hand on the glass of the window. The pane felt cool to the touch and distracted her long enough to let her heart push her mind out of the way, “I had the dress, the flowers, the ring... and enough doubts to fill a rain barrel. I stayed up all night watching out the window, wondering when you’d come home. I need to talk to you.. to ask... all the questions I was avoiding.
“Everyone told me that it was natural to doubt. Doubts I could understand, but I felt fear.”
“Louise swallowed hard and fought down the tears she felt gathering in her eyes, “I was losing myself... losing who I was and there weren’t any guarantees that I’d like the woman I’d become.”
“I found Kid that morning, waited for him outside the bunkhouse. I made him sit down and listen and for the first time in over a year I think he actually heard what I was telling him. I wanted to be me, no matter what the cost. I needed to find out who I was before I could try to be what he wanted.
“He was angry, so angry he knocked over the bench beside the door. He wanted to know what kind of game I was playing and I saw something in his eyes, something I’d never seen before... never let myself see.”
Louise looked into the glass and stared at the reflection. “He didn’t know who I was.”
A violent chill shuddered through her and Jimmy shook the bars, “Lou, let me out.”
She shook her head, “You stay right where you are.”
“In a way I’m almost glad you weren’t there.”
Lou held up her hand, “I finally decided that it didn’t matter who I talked to, the answer was still goin’ to be the same. I wanted... no, I needed, something different. Kid saddled up Katy and took off while the others went into town to offer my apologies. I sat on Rachel‘s steps watching for Sundance.”
The bars shook again, but Lou made no move to open the cell.
Louise finally looked up, her eyes sliced through the haze clouding his mind, “It wasn’t until sunset that I started moving again. I went to Rachel’s, packed up my things and left. I went to St. Jo and took Teresa and Jeremiah away from the orphanage and somehow, after bouncing around from city to city, I found Teaspoon and Polly. Now, we‘re partners.
“I’m standing on my own two feet, making it work.”
Jimmy stood silent, his knuckles white between the bars.
Walking closer to the cell wall, Louise kept her eyes from his. “I’m glad you came. I needed to tell you... tell you what happened.”
She couldn’t look him in the eye, not yet.
“I couldn’t come back. Not with you.. and the Kid ...married.”
Her eyes shut on the tears she refused to shed.
“If I had known... well, I guess I should’ve found out ... Lou, what I want to say-”
“You don’t have to, you did what you wanted.”
“Where did Corrie go?”
Jimmy shook his head and a few drops of water sprayed through the bars and landed on the dusty floor, “I don’t know and don’t care.”
Lou froze in place.
“It ain’t what you’re thinkin’... Corrie and I... well, -”
“I don’t want details.”
The bars shook, “Lou, will you let me talk!?”
Her eyes went wide in shock and she took a step back, “Fine! Talk yourself into the ground for all I care!”
“It’s all been empty. The last five years... every single day. Sun up to sun down I’ve been walking around with a piece of myself missin’. It’s only, until I saw you again, I didn’t know what it was.”
‘So close,’ Lou’s mind flooded with thoughts and her heart seemed to stop beating. ‘If he doesn’t say... what I’m hoping...’
“At first I needed to say it to myself. Once I did that, I needed to tell you.”
A headache, the grandfather of all headaches, blossomed behind her eyes and she blinked in the lamplight so near the bars. ‘Please...It has to be...’
“Lou - “ he paused, and after a long moment, “Louise.”
It was the way he said it. It was the feeling in his voice that had Lou nearly in pieces.
“What?” Jimmy shook his head to clear his thoughts, “Lou-”
Her breaths came in short gasps, “No.. don’t say it.” She backed up, one step after another and her eyes glued to the floor.
“No-” her voice shook. A few more steps and Lou bumped into the Marshal’s desk. She steadied herself and ran towards the door, “Don’t...”
“Stop right there!”
Lou froze again, it was almost as if she felt the bars of the cell shaking the very floor beneath her feet. She turned around and looked into his eyes, “Jimmy.. I-”
“I love you, Lou.”
She sucked in a breath of air and nearly let her legs slip out from under her. All the dreams she’d had about this moment, none of them could compare to the real thing. Instead of the overwhelming relief she thought she’d feel, there was only fear.
“Lou? Did you hear me?”
“Yes.. I ... heard-”
“And...” His eyes were so warm and in them.. in them she saw-, “and...” she did the one thing she never thought she’d do. She ran.
Lou woke up in an empty house and the bed seemed to stretch out beside her. She rolled onto her back and groaned, “When did I go to sleep last night?”
Throwing back her covers Louise sighed. She still wore her dress from the night before and now the material was crumpled with deep set in wrinkles and wrapped around her body.
The curtains fluttered away from the window and sunlight streamed in across the bed. Lou brought her hands up, tryin’ to block the light, and instantly the flickering light of a lantern came to mind, ‘I love you Lou.’
Lou choked out a breath, “Jimmy.” In a moment’s hesitation her heart pushed her to finally voice what she’d been holding in for years, “I love you too.” A wagon rumbled by a street away and startled Lou, sending her to her feet. “Jimmy! Oh my - he’s still - I left him in the jail!”
Louise threw open the front doors to her wardrobe and yanked out the first dress she touched. Hastily, she stripped out of her dress from the night before and washed her face in the basin under the window. The chilled water brought about more than a refreshing wash, it also brought voices singing in her mind.
‘I’m standing on my own two feet, making it work’
“Yes,” she said aloud, “I’m making it work, but ...” she thought to Teaspoon on Polly and the wonderful relationship they shared, “I want more...” Another splash of water and Lou looked up into the little mirror on the wall, “I want him.”
Louise pulled the dress over her head and ran out the door. As she stumbled along the tree lined street, she continued to fasten the dress, finishing the last hook as she mounted the steps into the Marshal’s office. With a quick pat to her skirts, Louise marched in through the door, “Marshal, I need to speak-”
“Good Morning Louise.”
“Where?” Louise looked across the room at the empty cells. “Where is he?”
The Marshal looked down at Louise with a kind eye, “Gone, left this morning.”
“You let him go?” Even as she said it, she knew how irrational she sounded.
“You know I couldn’t keep him Louise. When he woke up this morning he seemed alright, so I let him out and sent him on his way.”
“Where did he go?”
The Marshal pointed down the street, “The hotel I think, but he didn’t-” He turned back to Louise, but the office was already empty.
Louise headed back home, the hotel clerk could have cut out her heart and let her bleed to death and it would have hurt less. By the time Louise had arrived at the hotel, Jimmy’s room was already occupied and there was no trace of him anywhere on the street and there was no one at the livery to ask.
Twice on her way home, Louise wanted to crumble to the ground and cry but there was no way that she’d give in to her feelings at least not until she was safely behind her own door.
Still, even her best intentions could not keep tears from falling onto her cheeks. As she turned the corner onto her own street she quickly swiped at her eyes. As if he could hear her, Louise spoke his name, “Jimmy-”
She flinched as his voice reached her ear, and she stopped less than a foot away. Unable to lift her head and force the illusion to disappear, she stared at the tops of his boots. “You stayed.”
He stood and a cool shade fell over her, staving off the blinding sunlight. “Yes, I stayed.”
Louise swallowed, hard, “Why?” Instantly, she regretted the harsh tone in her voice, “That’ not.. I mean... what I really meant to..”
“Louise?” He bent his finger under her chin and gently tilted her face so that he could look into her eyes.
“What I mean...”
“Lou,” his voice was little more than a whisper and the warmth of his hand against her skin was driving her to distraction.
“I need to tell you.”
She looked up at him, her eyes focusing on the curve of his lips as he formed the words, “Tell me... what?”
Her hand, almost as if it was detached from her mind, slowly inch by inch crept up to his face, tracing a delicate searching line from the strong edge of his jaw to the firm press of his lips. “Tell you, what I’ve been trying to say for the last five years, but never had the chance.”
His jaw tightened as the gentle rub of her finger tip slid across the corner of his mouth.
“Lou-” he urged.
She smiled, a secret smile that they’d share for years to come. The same smile that would be shielded in the shadows of night and the fluttering curtains of day, the smile of love, “I love you, Jimmy.” He brushed his lips over her temple and felt the swell of blood beneath her skin. “You,” she sighed, “I love you.”
He leaned back, his hands gently cradling her face and stared into her wide almond eyes, “I love you back.”