Author's Note: This one came as result of rewatching "The Gunfighter"
Emma stood over the sink snapping beans that would be part of the boys' dinner that night and taking perhaps a bit too much satisfaction in being able to break something. So intent on her task was she that she did not feel the presence of another right behind her. But she saw in her peripheral vision her father's watch.
"This belongs to you."
The voice was soft and unmistakable; Jimmy. Emma felt a swirl of emotions the likes of which she hadn't ever known before. She couldn't have been more mixed up if a twister had swept in off the plains and took her for a ride. There was a part of her so relieved that he was home safe that she just wanted to whirl around and hug him tight. And there was her heart that broke when she knew it was Jimmy who had the watch. The day before he'd been at the edge of a place from which he could never completely return, now he was in that no man's land and wasn't even aware of it. She knew the things that would come for him now and she knew that there was no way a boy, any boy, was truly prepared for it. He wasn't a child anymore and never would be again and she wanted to sink to the floor where she stood and weep for him but she knew if she did that, if she wept for the child Jimmy would never be again, she'd never stop for there were so many tears to be shed in this place.
Surely she'd weep for the child he was never truly allowed to be, God knew she had tried to make something in his life right but perhaps it was too late. And if it was too late for Jimmy Hickok to be redeemed by a mother's love, even a surrogate mother, then could she really hope to save any of "her boys"? Kid was so elusive that she knew there was pain there that ran deeper than any canyon and Cody's bravado was surely a protective wall to shield him from something. Buck had never truly known a mother's love and she could understand both sides to that one. Sure she would hope she'd never punish an innocent babe for the sins of his father, but how could one look with love upon the miniaturized face of a rapist? And poor, dear Ike, so wounded was he by the loss of his mother and the way the world had treated him since that he almost dared not trust her affection but when he did, how he filled her heart. And then there was Lou. Though Emma knew that must not be her real name or at least not all of it. How the rest of them hadn't seen past that ruse was a mystery for the ages. And what could drive a pretty girl like that to hide in such a way, well, Emma wasn't even sure she wanted to know.
But here was Jimmy who had just left his very childhood on the street in Sweetwater and here she was, wanting to all at once weep, embrace him and hit him. There was no way, of course, that she would have done the latter. These boys had no doubt been subjected to enough of that and no sense reinforcing violence as a viable way to get one's point across but she was angry with him and, if she was being honest, frightened by him. She knew gunfighters, knew what they were about and knew what always came with them part and parcel. A grown man might have known better than to bring that to his home, where his people were, the people who loved him. But a boy didn't think of such things. Especially not a boy who believed he had no people and no one who cared.
She wasn't fair to him when she spoke. She knew she judged him harshly and she could tell he was hurt by it. He asked if she wanted him to leave and she hadn't been able to give him an answer. He walked out and she knew he was on his way to gone from her for good. These boys knew rejection as a newborn foal knows the scent of its mother. They wouldn't stick around to be abused. They were accustomed to being unwanted and accepted it without a fight. It broke her heart once more to be the cause of the hurt that came to one of these boys.
She fancied herself mother to this mismatched bunch of outcasts and what mother turns a child out when he needs her the most? She looked out the window to see Jimmy walking across the yard, head down and trying not to look as wounded as he was. She knew the injury to his arm was nothing compared to what she had just done to his heart, his soul. It wasn't his fault he had become what he had. He'd raised himself and done the best he could and lessons could be confusing without someone to guide a person. She'd promised that none of them were orphans anymore, not as long as she was there. And she was still there, so why was one of her children walking away newly orphaned once more? Emma walked to the door and looked out at the solitary and despondent figure walking away from her. It took everything she had to keep her voice from cracking, there'd be time enough for her emotions when she was alone in the night, those times reserved for her tears for the young men and woman entrusted to her care.
He turned with only the faintest glimmer of hope behind the quiet resignation of what he believed, no, what he knew would be her verdict.
"Breakfast'll be ready in half an hour."
The look of relief on his face was almost enough to heal her heart, almost; for the grief would not soon dissipate for the wounded little boy forever left in the street in the dark of night over the body of a gunfighter.