The acrid aroma of coffee filled the nostrils of one James Butler Hickok and worked its way to forcing his eyes open. Having come from a deep slumber, disorientation was to be expected but he found himself thoroughly bewildered by his surroundings. He figured immediately that he was not in the bunkhouse but just as clear to him was that he was not in any hotel he had ever stayed at along his routes. Really the only differences between the bunkhouse and the hotels were the privacy and the beds were just a little bit softer. Where he found himself presently, was smack dab in the softest featherbed he had ever known and under a quilt lovingly crafted in an interlocking ring pattern usually reserved for wedding gifts. This was similar to when he would visit Celinda but this was no guest room. The other thing that quickly struck Jimmy was his own nudity. Now he always slept in his long johns and it was entirely outside his character to sleep naked but he was becoming more and more certain that his current lack of clothing was directly connected to the humming feminine voice from the next room. He scanned the room and located his clothes on a chair in the corner and his long johns on the floor and became even more puzzled that his guns were not close by.

Jimmy took a deep breath and started trying to put things together. He didn't seem to be in any danger and he was uninjured and not bound. He didn't have a headache but figured he must have been drinking the night before though what could have caused him to do that, he wasn't sure. At last he came to the conclusion that he'd just have to get up and get dressed so that he could ask that woman in the next room where he was and how he got there. Judging from his state and her contented humming, that might be an awkward conversation. Jimmy threw off the quilt and leaned down to grab his long johns.

"It's about time you were up and around. You're breakfast is getting cold and that's just not like you. I was starting to worry."

Startled and suddenly shy about being unclothed, Jimmy quickly snatched the blanket closer to himself in an attempt to hide his nakedness from her. While he did, he got his first good look at this woman he was pretty sure he had gotten acquainted with in a biblical way the night before. If he believed in such things he would have thought an angel to be standing in the doorway. She had tried to pin her blonde hair into a bun but it seemed a good amount of it was dead set on escaping into a mass of tiny curls around her face and the morning sun catching those curls certainly solidified the idea of angel. He remembered a book once that Teaspoon had shown him of art and there were cherubs with faces and hair like hers. He wished he could remember the name of the artist but at this moment in his current state, he wasn't sure he could come up with his own name. Though the thought of what most likely had gone on in this bedroom the night before had him embarrassingly coming up with something else.

The woman for her part began to giggle at him.

"What has gotten into you this morning, Jimmy? You sleep late and now you're looking at me like, well, I don't know what. And I thought we dispensed with the need for the shyness a while ago."

Jimmy's brow furrowed and his bewilderment must have shown because her expression changed immediately.

"Jimmy, are you alright?"

Dammit! Now it was obvious he ought to know her, but he just didn't and there was no delicate way to put that.

"I'm not really sure ma'am. I think I feel fine enough but I guess I must not be since you have me at the disadvantage."

"Ma'am? Did you really just call me, of all people, ma'am? You'd better just lie back down there James Hickok. You must not be well if you don't remember the woman you've been married to for the last six months."

Looking down, Jimmy noticed for the first time the ring on his left hand and the matching one on hers. He felt horrible and wanted to run but suddenly didn't feel quite well enough to stand. He fell back into the pillow just as she, his wife, hurried over to feel his forehead.

"Well, you don't feel warm but then you were acting a little funny when you got home for dinner last night. I'll send for the doctor and get word to young Mr. Hawkins that he'll have to take care of things on his own. The town can just survive without you for one day."

She made to leave with tears standing in her perfect blue eyes and Jimmy felt like the worst person that could have lived for causing anyone such pain, especially someone he must love, someone who so obviously had those feelings for him. He caught her hand and pulled enough for her to turn and face him again.

"I don't know how I could have forgotten anyone like you, but somehow I did. Could you at least remind me of your name so I don't have to keep calling you ma'am?"

"Melody. I really need to fetch the doctor for you now."

With that she bustled out of the room.

"Melody," he repeated as he fell into a fitful and dream-filled sleep.

Following a shootout that had taken place in the street in Rock Creek, Jimmy found himself helping to clean up the carnage that had so sadly taken the lives of far too many innocent bystanders. Kneeling next to the body of a middle aged, suit clad man was a young blonde woman and his heart nearly broke in his chest when she looked up at him with tears streaking her rosy cheeks, cheeks that were at the heart of a lovely face, one that should never know such sorrow. It made him want to go over and shoot the man who had attempted escape from the jail and caused this whole mess a few more times. Though Jimmy was pretty sure he was the one who had killed Hank Caldwell in the first place, he still felt the man needed punishing for making such a beautiful creature cry.

"Miss, is there something I can do for you? Someone I can fetch for you?"

She shook her head and continued to rock back and forth crying in the middle of the street. Jimmy squatted down to get to her level.

"Miss, we need to get him out of the street, please, come with me and we'll find your family."

"He's my family. All I've got, anyway. I can't leave him, I just can't."

"You won't be leaving him. Look, their ready to take him to the undertaker now. He'll be fine, let me see to you."

Reluctantly the girl allowed herself to be pulled to standing and led to Rachel's porch where she had only the strength to make it as far as the rocking chair. Rachel had seen the fight and then Jimmy walking this girl toward her and ran to get some cold water for the young lady. She handed the glass to Jimmy for him to give to the visitor.

"Thank you. You're very kind," the girl said and then broke down in tears once again. Jimmy fished a handkerchief from his pocket to give to her. He gave an imploring look to Rachel who just sent a sad smile back in his direction. Once the girl's tears had quieted a bit again and she was sipping the water, Jimmy walked to the other end of the porch where Rachel stood.

"Can't you help her, Rachel?"

"I don't think I could help her nearly as much as you could."

"How would I do that?"

"Sit down and talk to her, I think she needs a friend right now."

"What can I even say to her?"

"You might try introducing yourself. She might be inclined to introduce herself and then at least you'd know her name."

Rachel patted Jimmy on the shoulder as she walked into the house and he walked back over to where his guest was sitting staring straight ahead as if she had ceased to see or hear anything of the world around her. Jimmy pulled up a chair and sat down near her.

"Miss, um, my name's Hickok, James Hickok," though a statement, it came out sounding much more like a question, "I'm afraid we haven't met."

"We just got into town yesterday. Papa was taking over the newspaper," her tears renewed at mentioning her father but she continued, "His name is--was Erik Lingren. I'm Melody."

"That's an awful pretty name." He immediately felt stupid to be talking about her name like he was trying to ask her to the dance, "I'm real sorry about your father. You don't have any other family anywhere?"

"No, Mama and Papa came from Sweden before I was born. Mama got sick right after she had me and never got better. It was always just Papa and me…"

Her voice trailed off and her eyes became distant, perhaps with memories and perhaps with the realization that she was truly on her own now.

Jimmy continued to toss and turn as flashbacks of his own life played out as dreams. He and Melody were inseparable in the weeks following her father's untimely passing. He helped her arrange burial for him, stood by her side at the funeral and then set to work bringing joy and hope back to her life. He wasn't trying to win her affections, he had no delusions of such a thing being possible, but Rachel had said she needed a friend and that was what he would try to be to her. He tried so hard to deny the "Wild Bill" image but he had in fact taken quite a few lives and many would say more than his share. He never took joy in the taking of a life but he had become resigned to what he believed was his fate. Now, however he had a purpose that seemed far greater than anything he could have conceived. He never thought he could be a good thing in anyone's life, never thought there was a real possibility of, dare he even think the word, love; because, for all of Jimmy Hickok's attempts to push people away from any meaningful interaction with himself, he suddenly saw an opportunity to be someone different. Jimmy knew that thoughts of love were ridiculous but at least he could be the man to heal her hurt for now.

In these images flashing through his unconscious mind, he saw the walks he took with Melody; felt his chest swell with pride from the admiring looks of every passing man who clearly envied him the woman on his arm. He recalled the dinners with his fellow riders, his family, as they all got to know Melody and she got to know him through the embarrassing stories the others told her. He remembered how Cody would playfully try to woo Melody away from him and how, even though he knew Cody to be kidding, he wanted to punch him anyway. Jimmy recalled the evening when they stood watching the sunset and he first mustered the courage to kiss her and the picnic when the kissing became deeper and clothes were shed and they first made love with each other.

Jimmy looked down at the blanket beneath Melody and realized he had been her first. The weight of that realization nearly crushed him.

"Are you okay?"

She didn't answer except to nuzzle closer to him and nod her head; she was shaking as a new leaf in a storm. Jimmy placed a finger under her chin and tilted her head upward where he could see the tears hanging on her eyelashes.

"Mel, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I thought, I don't know…"

Melody took a deep hitching breath.

"Jimmy, you are a perfect gentleman. You would have stopped if I said to and I knew that all along. I didn't know I could be happy again. I don't think you're what Papa envisioned for me but I think he would have liked you."

Jimmy felt very uncomfortable speaking of a woman's father while naked under a tree with her. And he was entirely sure that she was incorrect, that Erik Lingren would not have liked him at all. The guilt was enough to turn his stomach over; she had given him something, entrusted something to him of which he was wholly unworthy.

"You're sure you're alright?" he asked solemnly.

"More than alright, I think I'm in love with you James Hickok."

"I love you too Melody, more than I can tell you."

Looking back over the memories, Jimmy saw himself trying to make a plan because the Pony Express was in its death throes and a lady like Melody needed to have security, she deserved a man who could provide a good life. And that left him wondering what an uneducated, barely literate man whose main skill seemed to be killing people could actually offer any woman, let alone a woman of Melody's breeding. She was well read, learned. And she was right, her father would never have imagined that she would end up with a gunslinger with no real prospects and he was entirely certain that if Erik Lingren were still alive that he would never have given his blessing to this courtship. This led Jimmy to go seeking advice from the closest thing to parents he had.

"Rachel, I need to ask you something."

"Does this something have anything to do with a certain lovely young lady?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"It's obvious you're in love, Jimmy Hickok. Now, what's the problem?"

"I feel guilty. She shouldn't be in love with me, Rachel. She should fall for someone more sophisticated, smarter, someone who can give her the life she deserves."

"Now if you really felt that way, wouldn't you break it off with her and help her move on to another town?"

"I think that's part of why I feel so guilty. I'm just being selfish. I'm ruining her life."

"Does she think her life is ruined?"

"No, but she doesn't understand. I'm not what her father would have wanted for her, I let myself think that I could be something I'm not and I let it get too far."

"I see. So things have gotten…close?"

Jimmy nodded.

"You talk about giving her a life and what her father would have wanted. She's not a child, Jimmy. She gets to have a say. I've had times when I had money and yet, my husband and I had little but our love for each other. I can tell you what made me happiest. And if her father wanted her to marry a college graduate with great business prospects, he wouldn't have moved her out here."

Jimmy next found himself in Teaspoon's office. And after telling the whole dilemma to the man who knew him better than anyone else in the world, save his horse, Teaspoon paused for a moment more for effect than for any true necessity.

"Jimmy, you are selling yourself short. There are plenty of things you are qualified to do and I think I have a possible solution to your problem. Let me do some checking and you just relax. You've already done the hard part and found a nice girl you love who loves you back."

"How hard can it be? You've done it six times."

"But the first time is the hardest and something tells me you'll do it better and not have to try six different times to still not get it right."

The flashback dreams continued through Teaspoon finding Jimmy a job as Marshal in Kearney City and soon they were back at the same picnic spot where they had first declared their love for one another.

"Mel, I wanted to talk to you about something; something kind of important."

"Should I be worried? You look so serious."

"Well, I've been thinking, they'll be shutting down the Pony Express any time now. It was a job for a boy anyway."

"So what do you think you'll want to do now?"

"I'm going to be heading to Kearney City. They need a Marshal and Teaspoon put in a good word for me. I think he was grooming me for something like this all along."

Her eyes dropped as did the corners of her mouth and she was clearly fighting to maintain composure.

"I see. So when will you leave?"

"Well, I need to go pretty soon but exactly when depends on you."

"I don't understand."

Jimmy took Melody's hands in his. He really wanted to look her in the eye as he said all he needed to but his nerves got the better of him and he kept looking down. He thought he surely didn't feel like this awkward of a schoolboy even when he was an awkward schoolboy.

"Melody, I really never thought I'd have a chance like this. I never thought I'd meet someone like you. I hoped but I never really believed. I love you Melody and I want to be with you. I don't have much to offer but my promise to make the best life I can for you. Melody, will you marry me?"

The last came out in a rush and he wasn't sure she understood it at first but then the smile spread across her face and she threw herself against him knocking him over in her embrace.

"Yes! Jimmy I will marry you!"

In this frenzied dream state Jimmy suddenly felt still and peaceful remembering the simple wedding. Rachel and Lou helped Mel make a dress; nothing fancy but she couldn't have looked lovelier. Teaspoon stood as his best man and his world had never made more sense. He had never felt so very far from "Wild Bill" Hickok. For a moment he thought he could perhaps bury that man and allow only James Hickok; just a man, a husband.

Jimmy was shaken out of his dream to see Mel looking worriedly down at him.

"Jimmy-"

Jimmy cut off her words with a kiss.

"My God Melody, how could I have forgotten for even a second? You are real, right? It still sort of feels like a dream."

"I am very much real but you are in some serious trouble for scaring me like that."

They both became aware of the extra person in the room.

"Hey, Doc…I'm sorry to trouble you but I'm fine now. I guess I just got a little over tired and needed some extra sleep."

After the doctor excused himself and Jimmy was up and dressed, Melody came up behind him as he was buckling his gun belts. She leaned her head against his back and he could hear her poorly muffled sniffing. He turned around and took her head in his hands.

"Now why are you crying, Mel?"

"I was just so scared. I thought that, well, I-I…"

"Listen to me, I just spend so much time thinking I don't deserve you and that this must all be some dream or something that this is how my life turned out…I think sometimes I just talk my mind into believing that none of this-meeting you and our life-none of it happened."

He kissed her on the forehead and then the corner of each eye in an attempt to dry her tears.

"I've got to go and check on things. We'd all like to think that Hawkins can handle things but…"

His voice trailed off but it was enough to get a laugh out of Melody as they both thought of his deputy Matt Hawkins. Matt was young and might someday make a serviceable lawman but for now he spent way too much time getting in his own way.

"I expect it will be an easy enough day; I just want to check up on things is all. I'll see you tonight for dinner. I love you Melody. You'll never truly understand how much or what you've done for me but I do love you."

"I love you too Jimmy."

A quick kiss and Jimmy was out the door leaving Melody to wonder what he meant when he said things like that. There was likely not a moment of her twenty-three years unknown to her husband but she knew so little of him except that there were demons in his past that haunted his dreams and even his waking hours.

***

The world at large and especially those souls who read those ridiculous "Wild Bill" books would never have guessed what an introspective man Jimmy Hickok was. The few who truly knew him would all agree it was a shame he didn't have more formal education for he had a powerful drive for learning, or at least for understanding which is the first gateway to learning. At this moment, Jimmy was wondering if it was possible for one man to be stuck in the body and life of another. This concept that would one day puzzle science fiction writers had Jimmy staring into the glass at the front of his office trying to discern if he was still himself. When they were planning their nuptials, he had contemplated cutting his hair but Mel had balked. Even his hair was the same. So much for his brilliant theory. Sighing, Jimmy entered his office and headed for the coffee pot feeling stupid for even thinking of people inhabiting the bodies of others. As stupid as he felt, however, he was still wondering if a person so trapped would see themselves as they expect or the reality, 'Stop it Hickok,' he thought to himself, 'You're just being ridiculous; it's time to look at some less magical answers.' As he poured his coffee, he heard someone enter the office. Instinctively his hand went to hover over one of his guns as in his head he wondered if whoever just walked in would be better or worse than Hawkins' over-detailed report of the morning in Kearney City.

"You carry two of those now? Weren't you enough of a menace when you just had the one?"

"Sam?"

Jimmy relaxed and turned to face Sam Cain. He looked a few years older and a few years of Emma's cooking heavier but it was the same man.

"You know I wasn't sure about approving this post for you but Teaspoon said you were ready and I hadn't heard of any trouble. Now I see why."

"Aw…it's just for balance, so I don't go leaning to one direction all the time. What brings you here, Sam?"

"Just heading back home after helping with a prisoner transfer. I had to go right by here anyway and thought I should stop in and see how you're settling in."

"I can't complain; doesn't stop me some days but ain't nobody gonna listen if I do."

"Is that a wedding ring?"

"It is, c'mon over to the house. Melody will have my head if I don't at least invite you for dinner and if you're staying the night, we have an extra room. You won't find a more comfortable bed at the hotel."

"I don't want to be a trouble."

"Do you really want to go back to Emma and try to explain why you passed on the chance to meet my wife? She's going to want some details, you know."

***

"Can I get you some more potatoes, Marshal Cain?"

"Thank you, Melody, I don't mind if I do. Really Jimmy, where did you find this fine young lady and how did you trick her into marrying you?"

"Finding her was easy as for the other part, I have no idea."

"Well, Emma's going to be real happy when I tell her about your life here."

Melody stood and started clearing dishes away.

"You two must have a lot of catching up to do." She said, "Why don't you both head out on the front porch and I'll bring you some coffee and pie there?"

Once the door was closed behind them, Sam turned before even finding a place to sit.

"She doesn't know, does she? She doesn't know the first thing about the man she married."

"You of all people know that's not fair Sam. Just because she doesn't know about 'Wild Bill' and that reputation…well, I'm not only that now am I?"

They both took a more relaxed stance as Melody appeared with two plates and two cups and then excused herself saying she had a mountain of mending to do.

"Jimmy, I know how badly you want to put that behind, I really do, you but pretending the past didn't happen just isn't going to make it all go away. That woman has a right to know who she married; what you are."

"Sam, there are things I did and I tried real hard to have no regrets but none of that is who I am. Why can't it be possible for me to just be Jimmy Hickok; just a man with a job and a wife?"

"With a different last name, maybe you could but are you really going to try to fool yourself into thinking that there aren't still men gunning for you?"

"Sam, how long were you and Emma together before she knew the full truth about your past?"

"Too long and I'll admit to that but I wouldn't have married her without her knowing the truth. What were you thinking?"

"I don't know, I guess I was just fooling myself. It's not bad enough I messed up my life, I had to go and mess things up for Mel too."

"Now that's not exactly what I meant. I happen to know that it is possible for a man to change his ways. Some people aren't going to be cheering you on and a few might even try to stop you. But I did it. I was pretty sure I'd always be alone, that no decent woman would accept me, not if she knew who and what I was, or had been. But there's scarce a more decent woman than Emma and she took everything I had to tell her in stride."

"So what do I do now?"

"I think you need to have a long talk with your wife."

The men went back in the house and Sam stretched.

"Melody, that was about the tastiest apple pie I have ever eaten. I'd love to catch up some more, Jimmy but I've got to be heading out at first light or Emma's going to be waiting for me with a shotgun for worrying her."

"Goodnight Marshal," called Melody.

"'Night Sam."

Jimmy and Melody turned in for the night and Jimmy tried to process everything Sam had said. When it came down to it, he was just plain scared to tell her but then Sam had a point, she needed to know the things that might chase him down.

"What's on your mind?"

"Hmm?"

"You're not sleeping. What's bothering you?"

"Some things Sam said and knowing their true."

"What kind of things?"

"Things I don't know how to tell you but should've already and now it just scares me to even think about."

Melody sat up and shoved her pillow into a more comfortable position in the small of her back.

"Now you're frightening me. Though I don't see what you could possibly have to be afraid of."

"You'll know I'm a liar and leave and then I'll be alone and things I thought finally could be just won't be."

"I don't believe I understand you and I'm not sure I want to. Does this have anything to do with the nightmares or the reason you always seem to be checking behind you?"

Jimmy pulled back in surprise.

"Don't act like that. I'm not a child, Jimmy. I see things. You say you're a liar. Who have you lied to and about what?"

"To you, to me and about everything."

"I seriously doubt that's the case. It would be an elaborate ruse for sure if you truly constructed your entire being for my benefit. I do know some truths about you."

She held him close to her bosom and twirled her fingers in his long hair and continued.

"You told me the truth about where you worked, who your friends were, your family and, while I know there are some talented in deceit, there's no profit in lying about your feelings to me so you told me the truth about loving me."

"Isn't withholding the truth the same as telling a lie?"

"Sometimes I think it would be. If you knew a person was innocent of a crime and didn't come forward with evidence, I think that's lying but not telling Mrs. Walters that her behind looks as big as the back of a stagecoach in that new dress, well, that's not lying at all. That's just being pleasant; you don't have to go out of your way to hurt people just to be honest. Besides, I knew there were things you weren't telling me and I had faith you'd tell me in your own good time."

"I guess now is my own good time. I just can't hide things anymore-not when they're things you have a right to know; things that could affect your safety."

"Every time I think I have caught up with you, you lose me."

"You know those stupid books they sell at the general store, the ones about the heroes of the west?"

"Papa always said they weren't worth the paper they were printed on, that I should put my energy into reading good books. I got one once though. It was about a man called the Kangaroo Kid and I can't say if it was supposed to be real or not but it was horribly written and completely unrealistic, I decided Papa was right."

"He was at that. And you are right, they are far-fetched but they're almost always based on someone and even some real things. When I was younger, I thought I needed to be a certain way to get respect. I didn't know that respect came from the way a man carried himself or in sticking to his word or keeping up with his responsibilities. I felt brushed aside and looked down on and I knew I wanted that to stop. I went about it wrong. I was being hot headed and showing off at the wrong time and in front of the wrong person, a writer fella and next thing I know, I am Wild Bill Hickok, the fastest gun in the West."

"But it wasn't true?"

"The book made me out to be a cold blooded killer."

"But that's just wrong! You are the kindest man I've met."

"No, it wasn't all true and none of the things in the book ever really happened but who I was then or who I thought I needed to be, well, I was surely headed down that path. Most of the people who read that book never met me and never would which meant their imaginations were allowed to go wherever this Mr. Marcus wanted to lead them."

"Who you were? I'm afraid I don't understand; you keep speaking in riddles."

"I believed then that there wasn't a problem that couldn't be solved with a gun. Age, time, loss, I don't know what but they give you wisdom. Teaspoon once called it perspective, I think. I see guns caused most of the problems I thought they'd solve; violence and killing people will never make things better for anyone. Doesn't change the fact that James Butler Hickok will always be Wild Bill to so many and there are a lot of people out there who think I've done things I haven't."

"You were a gunfighter?"

"Sometimes I guess I still am. I'm sorry. You had a right to know all of this sooner."

"No, this was yours to keep and tell when and to whom you felt right about. Certain things make more sense now. Comments people have made to me about you. Did you think I'd leave if I knew? Did you think it would make me not love you? I love you more for it. You made mistakes but you learned. You were just a kid trying to figure out who you are. That's not an easy thing for a man to do and these are confusing times to try to do it in."

"Where did I ever find a woman like you?"

"In the middle of the street in Rock Creek; now get to sleep before I have to deal with a repeat of my husband not knowing who I am."

***

The wagon paused at the top of a bluff looking out over a vast expanse of unspoiled America.

"There it is Melody. That is possibility. This is where whatever you dream could happen."

"Oh Papa, it's beautiful! We are really living here?"

"Just over that next hill we should find Rock Creek and that's our new home. Oh, Melody, the people we will meet here. These are not people easily deterred. You'll not find a more pure specimen of the unconquered human spirit. There's much to be learned from the people who settle out here."

Melody only half heard her father's poetic words as she was overcome by the beauty of the untouched land around them. There was nothing as far as she could see to indicate other people but there was life all around and more colors and shades of colors than she could name-indeed more than she had ever dreamt of. In that moment all of her childhood dreams of knights in shining armor and princes in glittering palaces disappeared and were replaced with visions of men of a different sort. The kind of man who could keep her safe in this rough landscape; a strong, handsome, hardworking and honest man.

She opened her eyes to find that she had dozed off on the front porch with her crocheting in her hands and panicked for a moment before pinpointing what caused her to wake up. That question was quickly answered by a rumble of thunder. Melody looked out across the wide sky and saw the growing darkness headed straight for her and the town. It was sometimes hard to get used to how far she could see in this land that had become her home. This storm was certainly going to be a bad one and Melody went over to secure her horse in the barn along with the goat and whatever of the chickens she could herd together before the first raindrops fell and she had to head into the house. She pulled the front door shut just as the first big wave of heavy rain began to pound the roof. After putting a roast in the oven to start cooking for dinner, Melody made herself a cup of tea and sat down with her crocheting to wait out the storm and hope that Jimmy was alright. She wasn't worried that he was out in the storm so much as she knew he was typically smart enough to come in out of the rain but she still worried that me might need to go out in the storm or that he'd try to come home in the worst of it. She had made it a good deal into the new shawl she had been making for herself before she heard a squeaking sound outside the front door. Holding very still she listened for it to repeat and there it was again. It was more of a cry but nothing human. Opening the front door she looked around to see the cause of the sound. Looking down she saw the most pathetic sight, a small grey and black tabby kitten soaked to the bone. It shied away from her hand at first and then must have decided that whatever was in the house couldn't be worse than the thunder, lightning and torrents of rain outside and allowed Melody to pick it up. She dried the cat and ascertained it to be male and opted to name him after a young man she had known back east, Borje.

By this time, Jimmy was past late and Melody needed to set dinner to keep warm. She took a few small pieces of the roast for poor Borje who looked as though he hadn't eaten in quite some time. Once he had some food and milk in his belly, he curled next to her in her chair and halfheartedly tried to swat at her yarn before he busied himself with the task of an after dinner bath.

"Well, little one, I'm not sure your fate; I have no idea if Jimmy likes cats at all but for the time being, I guess you need a safe place and I could use the company. I suppose if nothing else, you could live in the barn and take care of that rodent problem we seem to have."

Borje, for his part, seemed wholly unconcerned with the future and simply yawned and then resumed washing his paws while purring loudly.

"Well I'm glad you can be so nonchalant. I am scared out of my wits right now. I know he's probably fine and is just trapped in his office by the storm but you just don't understand how much he means to me. Oh, Borje, you should have seen it when we met. Perhaps I should have too but I was crying too hard to see much of anything."

She took a sip of tea and scratched the kitten behind the ears before continuing.

"As if the stupid war weren't bad enough, there are people still that just hurt people for the sake of hurting and steal purely for their greed. I guess I can give some consideration for those who steal for an ideal. I guess it doesn't even much matter if I agree with the ideal; at least they have some convictions. Some though are just not very good people Borje. And sometimes those not very nice people get together and work together and then innocent people get hurt. My papa was one of the innocent people. So there I was a complete mess, on my knees in the street, crying and talking to Papa like he was going to answer me. I know they say everyone has their own way of dealing with grief but I was an extra messy mess. Next thing I know there is this handsome stranger taking care of me and speaking so gently. I had heard so much of the toughness of the people out here but not nearly enough about the compassion. I didn't really know what to think of this man at first, I think I was hurting too much to think about a whole lot. We became friends and then more than that. I can't pinpoint when I fell in love with him but it was well before the words were uttered between us."

***

Jimmy was pacing his office like a caged Tiger. He knew that Melody was most likely safe but that tiny chance that she wasn't was about to drive him out into one of the worst storms he had seen in years. He hoped she wasn't too worried about him. In the months since they had moved here, he had been absent from dinner only once and there had been a disturbance in the saloon that he had to break up. He had come in that night looking like he had been drug behind a horse and Melody had been beside herself with worry and had fussed over him until he almost wanted to leave; almost but not quite. He was actually very proud of that day. There were some very drunk people waving guns around and he was able, with absolutely no help from Hawkins, to get all the offending parties into a cell to sleep it off without a single shot being fired. He hadn't really been able to explain this to Mel at the time but perhaps now she would understand why that was such a great thing. If she wasn't furious at him for worrying her or lying dead in the barn after the horse is spooked by thunder and trampled her. 'Okay Jimmy, you should start writing those stupid books yourself.' Sighing he leaned against the window again and once again seeing no improvement in the rainfall continued his pacing.

***

Melody sat alone waiting out the storm in the sitting room feeling utterly ridiculous to be carrying on a conversation with a cat; especially one that had been asleep for the last hour. The alternative however was to either talk to herself (though she supposed an argument could be made that talking to Borje was largely the same thing) or sit with only the storm and her worry for company. So pretending that little Borje was actually hanging on her every word was preferable. She knew that Jimmy would find her going to bed and getting some sleep more to his liking, he'd surely hate her waiting up for him and imagining every horrible thing that could have happened to him, but she knew that sleep wouldn't be coming if he wasn't next to her in their bed. So, on she talked telling the story of her courtship with Jimmy to the blissfully sleeping feline.

"He was so very sweet, Borje. To look at him, you'd expect someone rough, brusque, harsh but to me he was always so dear. So many things make more sense now. I supposed love kept me from wondering too much about those things that seemed a little off before. I don't regret that Borje, he's a good man and I can't think of a thing he could have told me about his past that would have made me stop loving him. Whatever he's done doesn't change what I know is in his heart. He has a good heart. He was so shy around me when we met and first started spending time together. He seemed almost ashamed, I never understood until now. And then when we'd talk, he'd ask me things about my childhood, about Papa, about well, really everything about me and never spoke about himself. You know, I might have thought that funny or even scary but there were people who knew him; he had friends and coworkers. The Marshal could vouch for him. Oh, and you should see the love in his eyes when he talks about that family at the Pony Express, the ones still there and the ones who are gone now. He's got a sister too, not that bad people don't have siblings but he's so fiercely protective of Celinda and his nephew. I don't think I've ever met a prouder uncle. I knew there was pain in him and I know men don't like to speak of such things. It was a rare day when Papa would talk much about Mama. Well, that's not all true. He'd tell me how I looked like her or how I'd make a facial expression like her but he so rarely spoke of how he missed her or how his heart broke when he lost her."

Melody's voice cracked as she thought of the woman she'd only seen in pictures. Her papa was a wonderful father who had loved her more than any other girl had been loved but she still had always longed for a mother. It somehow felt wrong to be a young lady coming of age without a mother to teach her things.

"I just thought he'd lost someone at one time and didn't want to talk about it. I guess I didn't know the half of it. The way he treated me though was like he could make his hurt go away by soothing mine and that was so selfless that I just was powerless to resist him. What girl could even want to mount a defense against that? We were together almost all the time. Sometimes he had to go on a run and sometimes he had an errand for Teaspoon. But the rest of the time, we were together. I would even talk to him while he did chores. When we came west I thought I'd find a friend but I imagined another girl like myself. I never imagined my new best friend would be some suntanned man of adventure with guns slung low on his hips. One evening, after I'd helped Rachel clean up the dinner dishes, we were standing by the fence watching the sun go down. He took my hand and laced his fingers through mine. It gave me goose bumps and at the same time a warm safe feeling. I rarely had experienced such comfort from touch and never had touch excited me so. I turned to see the purples and oranges-more shades than I knew existed-of the sunset play across his eyes, his cheekbones, his lips. Borje, it was so beautiful I thought I'd stop breathing. He was so beautiful. He must have felt my gaze because he returned it. His eyes were so intense I almost wanted to run away but then his lips were on mine. This wasn't my first kiss but never before had a kiss make me feel as if I'd only just been born that moment. He held me tight and his arms became my home. Oh Borje, what would I ever do without him?"

Reliving those memories made Melody's arms feel empty and her lips cold for want of her husband's embrace and kiss.

"Well, I guess it's a good thing that you don't have to deal with that thought right now."

While Melody had been talking, the worst of the storm had passed and Jimmy had been able to make it home. Riding up and seeing the warm light from inside the house brought great relief for him just knowing that she was alright.

"Jimmy! You're safe!"

She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck covering his face with kisses.

"Yes, Melody. I'm sorry the storm rolled in a little too quickly for me to get home before."

"I know, I knew it was silly to worry but, well, I just do."

Melody bustled around the kitchen fixing Jimmy a plate. She was far too agitated to eat anything herself.

"So who were you talking to? Someone named Borje? Is that a boy name or a girl name?"

Melody blushed when she realized he had heard her essentially talking to herself. She went over and scooped up the sleeping kitten who, upon being suddenly awakened, yawned and looked completely nonplussed at Jimmy.

"He was crying on the porch and he looked so pitiful, I just had to bring him in. Borje is a boy name, I knew someone once with that name."

"A beau?"

"Not exactly. But I always liked the name. So how much did you hear?"

"Enough to be reminded that I am a lucky man to have been the one to stumble across you in the street that day."

A short while after Jimmy had eaten, the pair settled down for the night. He had agreed that whatever they decided to do with Borje could wait for morning as it was still raining and Borje showed his gratitude by curling up on Jimmy's pillow and cleaning himself in preparation of some more sleep. The rain that was the tail end of the storm beat a soothing rhythm on the roof of their home and Jimmy held a little tighter to Melody just thinking about what he had heard of her description of their first kiss. He could tell by her breathing that she was relaxed but still awake. He knew she'd be a while completely calming down from her worry.

"Mel, you aren't going to tell those same lies to our kids if we have any, are you?"

"What lies?"

"Well, it's just that's not how I remember our first kiss at all. The way I recall, I was nervous. Yeah, we had been spending a lot of time together but it seemed very little of it was alone and there I finally had you all to myself and a part of me was wishing someone would happen along to save me from making some kind of fool out of myself. I wanted to get away, and don't take that the wrong way, it was because it hit me right then that I loved you. It's funny because my younger self would have just pushed full speed ahead and damned who I hurt in the process but I have lived long enough to see people hurt and even killed for getting close to me. Hell, that's not even really it. I really was just scared of being so weak-no that's not the word I'm looking for-when you love someone, you have to lower your defenses and there's a word for that."

"Vulnerable?"

"Yes. I was scared of being vulnerable and, I don't know, I guess I was thinking too much because I was coming up with all kinds of reasons to be afraid and they all seem stupid now. Thing is though, scared as I was, I really wanted to be closer to you. I wanted to be close enough to smell your hair and have your laughter just be mine for a while. I did take your hand and I remember looking at you. You were so beautiful with the colors from the sunset turning in your eyes and hair. I wanted to tell you how beautiful you looked and how you made me feel but I just didn't know how to put any of that into words. I couldn't help kissing you but I was so unsure if it was right or if it was what you wanted. It wasn't all that much of a kiss until you kissed me back. I have never in my life been so unsure of myself around anyone, man or woman. Kid and Lou and Emma and Rachel and even Teaspoon told me I'd find someone but I never believed them. People would ask me how I saw myself five or ten years down the road and I'd tell them I didn't think about things like that. I lied. I saw myself alone…alone and probably dead. I kissed you and it was the first time I ever considered the possibility that I might make it into an old man and that I might have someone by my side while I did it. I didn't have plans or really even hopes or fantasies. They seemed like a waste for someone like me. You made me think I could be someone different."

"You are Jimmy. No man is the same person he was as a boy."

"I think I need you to start writing books about me…they won't be as exciting but people'd stop coming after me."

"I fear if I wrote about you, it would only be men that stopped coming after you but the women would heading west in droves. You weren't really nervous about kissing me were you?"

"I'm surprised you didn't drop my hand immediately, I was sweating pretty hard right about then. You do something awful powerful to me, Mel."

Melody didn't answer, just snuggled closer and heaved a contented sigh.

"Mel, can I ask you something without sounding too much like a jealous husband?"

"You can ask me anything you want, how you sound isn't up to me but you are kind of cute when you get jealous."

"Who's Borje?"

"He's the cat. Are you having memory problems again, Jimmy?"

"Melody," he answered his voice impatient, "I mean, who was Borje. Who did you name the cat after?"

"Papa and I lived in New York for a while. I was maybe fourteen. We lived in an apartment building, on the third floor. It was a small apartment but not so bad for the two of us. On the second floor was another family, well, there were families on all of the floors but you know what I mean. There was a specific family the Holmgren family. My best friend at that time was Anna Holmgren. She was my age and when we were together, just the two of us, we were the so close we were nearly sisters but it was different when we were out among other people, it felt different. Anna was always the same to me but she was so much prettier than I was that she was all anyone saw. And not only was she prettier but she had a mother and an older sister to teach her how to do her hair and which dress in which color looked better on her. I had my papa who knew nothing of these things. Anna and her mother tried to help me but she was just a natural at being a girl and I was a natural at hiding behind books."

"You should never hide that pretty face and you still haven't told me who Borje was."

"Things are different in a city like New York than here. And I am getting to Borje; you just hold your horses. Borje lived in another building down the street. He was two years older and I found him quite handsome. I suppose many of the girls did, he was tall and strong and had such strong bone structure; a squared jaw and chiseled cheekbones. He set all the young girls' hearts a-flutter that is for sure. Anna liked him too, I know she did but she knew I liked him so and she had so many young men wanting to court her. She never flirted with Borje and she always spoke highly of me to him. I tried so hard to be something that he would find appealing but still his eyes always followed Anna. She wasn't just pretty in the face, mind you, she looked more a woman than any other girl our age and most of the girls Borje's age. I looked like someone bundled a bunch of sticks and put a yellow mop on for hair. There was really no hope for me to catch his eye. He and Anna married a couple of years later. I believe they have children now."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not. Not at all; I see now that it wasn't just my body that had yet to mature, it was my mind. There I was trying to change who I was, what interested me, how I looked to get his attention. If he had taken notice, what kind of life would that have been? This is so much better. Besides, you are more handsome than he was anyway."

"Borje missed out. You really never think about what could have been? You could have stayed in the city and your life would have been easier, I'm sure."

"No, I really never do. The city is crowded and noisy. It's hard to breathe sometimes there. This is better and you are better. I know you don't think so. I know you think you're unworthy of me or maybe of anybody but you just don't see yourself. Not really. You are a good man. I don't know why you can't seem to forgive yourself for whatever you've done in the past. I wish I knew how to make you see what you really are."

"Mel, it's you who needs to see what I really am. A part of me doesn't want you to because I am not a good person at all."

"Well, for such an evil fellow, you certainly have a lot of people who love you."

Melody then propped herself on one elbow so that she could lean over him and began to plant kisses on his neck.

"Melody, please, you're killing me right now. You need to know certain things. You need to know how bad things could get. You need to know what I've gotten you into. I won't be able to save you. I'm never able to save the people I care most about. I can shoot and I can kill and I have done both but it's never enough to save the ones I love. Sooner or later some kid who's faster and has more to prove will come or someone whose brother or cousin or uncle or even father or son I have killed is gonna come. They always come and their business will be with me but you'll be the one hurt because that's always what happens. I won't be enough. Nothing I do will be enough to save you, don't you see?"

Tears were running down his face steadily at this point and Melody was actually frightened for a moment. She had seen emotion well within him before and even seen a tear or two fall but that part of him was so well hidden, she was typically not even allowed a glimpse. She drew herself up to sitting and pulled him to her and just rocked him like one would a baby. His face was hot from crying and his breath was coming in unsteady hitches.

"Jimmy, it's okay…Shh…just breathe, I'm here."

In time his sobbing quieted and his breathing returned to almost normal but he didn't move from her arms. He wanted to be ashamed for breaking down at all, let alone in front of another person and Mel of all people. But there was no judgment in her.

"Are you feeling a little better now?"

Jimmy could only nod his head against her neck. He didn't trust his voice just yet.

"Do you see how I would need an explanation to understand what just happened here?"

Again, all he could muster was a nod.

"Can you speak yet?"

He shook his head in the negative.

"Well, that's going to make this harder."

He wanted to start crying again but Mel just kept talking.

"I guess for now we'll have to make do with yes and no answers and you can fill in details later. So I guess I'll start with a few questions that I really already know the answer to just to get an idea of how things are. That way you know you don't have to be afraid to answer truthfully. Are you James Butler Hickok?" Nod. "Good. Did you once work as a rider for the Pony Express?" Nod. "Alright then, have you ever killed a man?" Nod, but a tentative one. "Now don't get all tense on me, I knew the answer to that one too. I also know you've killed more than one man. Were all of these men killed in self defense?" A shake of the head and his eyes squeezed shut as another wave of tears hit him. "Shh…It's alright, really. I am not some fragile flower, I really can handle this. I guess this brings us to the big question. Did you ever shoot a man in cold blood?"

Jimmy nodded and tried to pull away but she held tight, she was stronger than he gave her credit for.

"No, you can't run, not from me. You made promises to me in front of God and your friends and family and I made some too. For better or for worse. Do you remember that line? Because I will never forget it. I meant it when I said those words. I knew there were things you hadn't told me and I knew those secrets might not be good ones but I made that promise knowing that and I meant it. You are a good man James Hickok but more than that, you are my man. You say you are sometimes a jealous husband, well, I am a very possessive wife and you will not be leaving me."

"Mel, you don't know what you're saying. Let me go."

"I do know what I am saying and you may have five whole years on me but that does not give you the right to treat me like a child. I missed a lot growing up without a mother but what Papa couldn't teach me about being a woman, he made up for by teaching me how to think for myself. You think I married you because I was alone, because I had no one else and nowhere to go? Did you forget I still owned the newspaper and I am perfectly capable of running it too? Selling it, marrying you, moving here, those were choices I made. I know that the amount that I know about you is a trifle compared to what I don't know but the things I do know are so much more important. I know your heart. I do not expect perfection. Children dream of such silly things. I know, I had the perfect vision of the man I would marry firmly stuck in my head at one time and there is no such man in reality. Not one of us on this earth will ever find a perfect person to marry but if we are really lucky, we'll find one who is perfect for us. I wish I could make you see that you are the perfect man for me. I never will though because you just won't listen."

Jimmy was dumbfounded. Melody had never asserted herself like this in the time he had known her. It wasn't a bad thing. It actually made him feel even more proud to have been the one to wed this woman.

"Sweetheart, I am tired. It has been a very long night. I know we still have more to talk about. Lots more. And we will, but right now, I think Borje has the right idea."

She nodded to where the kitten was slumbering peacefully along only twitching a bit as he chased mice throughout his dreams.

"So, I have only two more questions for you. Nod, speak, whatever but just answer honestly. Do you love me? I mean really love me, not just the idea of being married or of being with me; I need to know if you really love me."

"Yes, I do. I think even more now than before."

"Okay, I just need your word that you won't go bolting off before morning. I trust your word."

"You have it. If I wanted to leave, I don't think I could. You're right; it has been a very long night."

Melody nestled back down under the covers and worked her way as close to her husband as she could without actually being in his skin with him.

"I love you, you know that? I really need you to know that and I need you to understand that nothing is ever going to change that."

"I think I am finally getting that through my thick skull. Goodnight Melody, I love you too."

The morning breakfast table was quiet and uncomfortable. There is a sort of uncomfortable that comes from a fight when the couple in question has fought and knows there is a rift that might not be repairable. That is an angry uncomfortable and a scared one. This was slightly different. That uncomfortable involves a doubt, doubt that the love that might once have brought them together was gone. There was none of that doubt around the Hickok kitchen table. But there was the awkward silence of two people who don't know what to say to each other. In truth, both Melody and Jimmy were afraid to say much for fear they would open a conversation that didn't have time to be finished. There was so much still unsaid between the two of them and they knew those conversations would be long and involved. Not much more than "Pass the salt" was spoken between them. Even the question of what to do about little Borje was tabled not knowing what possible can of worms might be opened by even that discussion. Jimmy finished his breakfast and pushed himself away from the table. He headed toward the door where he paused to take his gun belts one by one from the hook there and buckle them low on his hips. He looked up to see Melody hanging back, clearly unsure of herself and how to act. For his own part he knew he wanted to say something to make her feel better but he wasn't sure what. He just stood there a moment waiting. She had never failed to kiss him goodbye when he left the house and he wasn't sure how he'd feel about heading out without that kiss. It wasn't as if he was all that superstitious but he considered it a good luck charm.

Melody watched him ready to leave and she wanted more than anything to rush to him, to throw her arms around him and endure his chastising of her that he needed to get ready. More so than any other morning she needed this to be like any other morning but this one was so very different. It scared her and that made her long for Jimmy's embrace even more. She needed the way he would chuckle at her and roll his eyes when he thought she was being silly. She needed to hear, 'Mel, you worry for nothing all the time. Can't you trust me to know when there's something worth the worry?' Oh how she needed that good natured joshing that was such a part of how they interacted. She needed a comment about how unruly her hair was in the morning, anything. Yet, she was met with silence save the rustling of his belts against his pants legs. When she raised her eyes to his, he quickly looked away. It felt as if she had been punched in the stomach.

Jimmy stayed still just looking at her for what seemed like forever and then decided that he needed to go. If they couldn't get over this, well, he wasn't sure what good he'd ever be to anyone again.

"I'll see you for dinner, Mel."

With that, he turned and walked out the door into the new day's waking light. He made it about two steps across the porch before she closed the gap between them and grabbed his arm.

"Hold me for just a moment. Please. Tell me it's going to be okay. Tell me we're going to be okay. I don't care if you believe it or not, I don't care if it's a lie, just tell me."

She was doing a good job of holding back tears but her voice was shaky. Jimmy wrapped his arms around her and held her close-he didn't have to be asked twice-and began to let loose a string of every comforting thing he could think of to say. When she relaxed her grip around his waist, he took her face in his gloved hands.

"It is going to be okay. We are going to be okay. We have to be. I could not bear to lose you."

He did not wait for her kiss goodbye; he leaned down and kissed her. This was not a frightened little kiss, nor was it the near chaste kisses normally shared on his way out the door. This was deep and passionate and contained every feeling he dare not speak. When their lips parted, they were both breathless. The sun's first tentative rays sparkled in her moistened eyes and gave the illusion of exotic jewels. If he didn't leave now, he never would and he knew he had to.

"I will see you later, I promise."

And he was gone. Melody stood for close to a half hour looking after him; long after he had disappeared from her sight. Somehow she was able to shake herself from her thoughts or really lack of thoughts. She'd not actually been thinking anything at all but her face was damp. Untying her apron, she dried her eyes with it and set to her chores hoping that keeping busy would help her to stop thinking about her fears. The worst thing was that she wasn't even sure what she was afraid of. She found that washing up the breakfast dishes and sweeping the floors didn't take her mind off of things but it allowed her some peace and quiet to think about them without becoming too upset. She hoped that thinking things through would make it easier to put into words when she and Jimmy spoke later. Her fears were so overwhelming, she wasn't sure if she was afraid that they would part or afraid that Jimmy was right that she really couldn't handle what she would learn. His admission the night before had frightened her a bit as well. But doing something bad doesn't make a person bad. He wasn't in jail and hadn't been hanged so there must have been circumstances that somehow justified whatever he'd done. Or perhaps, her horribly wicked mind offered, there were just no survivors; no one to speak as witness. A chill gripped her and she shuddered at this thought. No, there was no way that Jimmy would have done something so terrible. He was too kind, too caring and so tender to her. He'd never, ever have-only a monster could…She couldn't even finish that thought. There were things she knew her husband to be and things she feared he might be but she knew in her heart that he was no monster.

***

Jimmy did a quick sweep of the town, finding it the same as every other morning and retired to his office where he hid behind papers, pretending to read them so that Hawkins would just leave him alone. He hated the way he thought of Matt sometimes. The kid was a nice enough lad and always respectful but it was just in Jimmy's nature to be easily annoyed. He tried not to and he supposed that Mel was right, that if he wasn't so busy trying to rein in his own feelings, he might have more energy left over for patience with others. Oh hell, there was no supposing it, she was right. He just didn't come of age in the best situation for learning trust; playing things close to the vest was survival. It was necessity, not choice that led him to a life of keeping things to himself. He felt terrible that after more than a year with Melody-they had courted for a good ten months before they wed and six since, almost seven. He was only now beginning to trust her as he ought to have all along. Now he knew he stood to lose her and he knew it was his fault. If she left, he'd have no one else to blame but himself. How he could think he could act the same and find different results was beyond his understanding.

"Marshal? Marshal Hickok?"

Pulled from his thoughts Jimmy looked up to see Matt staring at him in concern.

"Dammit Matt, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Jimmy? And what is it?"

He had snapped at the boy and felt horrible for it. Matt didn't do anything wrong.

"Right, Jimmy…Are you alright? You kind of look like you're in pain or something."

The poor kid looked terrified when he said this but still braved it anyway. Jimmy softened.

"Look, I'm sorry Matt, you didn't deserve that. I'm not mad at you. The way I treat you, you probably think I'm mad at you all the time."

Matt looked down in an answer that said he did but was too afraid of what might happen to him if he said those words aloud.

"Matt, c'mon and sit down here a bit."

"Mar-Jimmy?"

Jimmy realized he had worked alongside his young deputy for nearly seven months and had never just sat down and talked to him and the boy had just taken it.

"Really, sit down and have some coffee with me."

Hawkins obliged and Jimmy soon found himself looking for words.

"I'm sorry Matt," he started and raised a hand to keep Matt from interrupting him, "No, I really am. You're a good kid and you work hard and I treat you like, well, I don't know…Mel's good with words, not me. But I treat you pretty rotten. I don't know how I can expect you to learn a thing if all I do is yell at you and never stop to teach you or even get to know you. I've been unfair to you son and I'm sorry for it. I really don't know the first thing about you, do I?"

The youngster shook his head bewildered by this conversation.

"You're what, seventeen?"

"Sixteen, sir."

"Please, Matt, don't 'sir' me. It makes me feel old and it's a term of respect I haven't earned from you. Least of all from you. Sixteen? You still live with your folks?"

"With my mom and my little sisters."

"Well, that tells me why you're so responsible; you're the man of the house. You have a girl, Matt?"

"Um, I, well, kind of…"

Jimmy tried not to laugh at the kid's confusion and apprehension and he managed a smile that didn't look condescending.

"Kind of. Is that the sort of kind of where you like her but don't tell her or the sort of kind of where you're friends but you want to be something else or maybe the sort where you flirt with each other and you know you like her and you're pretty sure she likes you but you're both to scared to do much about it?"

Matt blushed.

"The last one."

"I had a feeling, she'd have to be some kind of coy to not share your feelings or to keep them hid. You're still so young and taking it slow is a good thing but when you and she are ready to get past kind of, you be sure to trust her and talk to her."

"Jimmy?"

"We're never done learning, son."

Matt seemed emboldened a tad bit by Jimmy's tender tone and hoped he wasn't butting in.

"I-Is there something wrong between you and Mrs. Hickok?"

The lad flinched a bit expecting a blow up that didn't come.

"Yeah, Matt, I messed things up but good. I just hope I can fix it. Women are a confusing lot."

"Jimmy can I say something?"

"Go ahead."

"I never would have thought you'd have trouble like that. I mean I know you don't like to talk about it but you're 'Wild Bill'; how can you be, I mean, how can YOU, I mean, well, you know what I mean."

Jimmy couldn't help but laugh.

"Matt, knowing how to shoot a gun doesn't make you an expert at anything but shooting. The smartest man I think I've ever met was married six times so you have to know it's harder than it looks."

The two sat in silence for a while after that. Matt for his part was ecstatic that his hero, though he'd never tell him that for fear of the repercussions, this man who he saw as such a great man had actually talked to him and even confided in him. Jimmy was mostly lost in thoughts of Mel and how he'd face her but also a thought that Matt wasn't a bad kid at all and maybe with a little guidance he could become a better man than Jimmy ever dreamed of being himself. He wondered if this was how Teaspoon had looked at him. As both men sat lost in their respective thoughts, the door to the office swung open and in walked Melody.

"If it weren't for the lack of a checkers board, I'd think you two sure had some hotly contested game going on. Am I interrupting a meeting of the Kearney City brain trust?"

"Such as it is, I guess. But you're never an interruption, Mel."

Matt had jumped up as soon as he recognized a lady had entered and now offered his chair to his boss's wife who had always been so kind to him.

"Thank you Matt but I don't think I'll be staying and Jimmy, I would dare to say that if you two ever got your brains working together that this would be a fearsome brain trust to be sure."

"I'm glad to see you Mel but what brings you in here today?"

"Well, I got my chores done early and thought maybe I could persuade my dear husband to play hooky and come on a picnic with me."

Jimmy was about to protest but then thought maybe things would go better for Matt and it was peaceful around town.

"I think that would be great, Mel. You can handle things Matt, can't you?"

Hawkins looked up fearfully but saw a smile on Jimmy's face as the man nodded at him.

"Yeah, I sure can."

***

The couple had a spot they liked to go to for picnics or just to spend time together. It was a small clearing in a wooded area where the grass was soft and the sun peeked through leaves here and there.

"You know I love every minute I can spend with you but what are we doing here, Mel?"

"I think you know. I wasn't lying when I said I got all my work done early. It gave me some good thinking time and I just couldn't wait for you to get home to talk to you. I went back and forth over whether or not to talk here. I was afraid it might ruin the spot for us but then I'd rather have this spot tainted than our home."

"Mel, I don't know what to say. I don't even know where to begin."

"I am a newspaperman's daughter. I know how to ask questions to get to the story. And I have a lot of questions."

"I'm sure you do. I guess I just hope I have the answers."

Melody was silent for a while and Jimmy was starting to worry, about what he didn't know, but he was worried. Finally he couldn't take the silence anymore which was saying a lot for as quiet a man as he was.

"So, what are we going to do about Borje?"

Mel furrowed her brow at him and at first he thought she was upset or thought he was making light of a very serious situation but then she started to giggle and then to outright laugh and pretty soon there were tears running down her red face and for the first time in days, her tears weren't sadness and he didn't feel guilty about causing them. When she finally regained her composure, she did answer him.

"Jimmy that was the best job of breaking the ice that I have ever seen. Thank you. I needed that. Um, Borje is in the barn, or was when I left the house. I let him out this morning and he already brought me half a mouse."

"Great, the cat doesn't think I can provide for you. That makes a man feel confident."

By this point the two were laying on the blanket staring up at the clouds as they slowly drifted by and Melody moved to rest her head on Jimmy's chest.

"Mel, is it wrong to wish that our whole life could be this?"

"No, I know that's what I wish. But we're here for a reason and it isn't to talk about the cat or his belief that I would live better on mice. But I think you know what my first question has to be."

"I do. I don't really know where to start."

"You said you killed a man in cold blood. Just one?"

"Yes, I know I was accomplice to others and there were accidents but I took one and only one life that there was no cause to take and that I did have the power to stop."

"How old were you?"

"Maybe sixteen, I guess."

"You were just a child!"

"Mel, you were the one who told me that things are different here than back east. I just left a child, by your definition, in charge of our town."

"I know; I still forget how quickly children have to grow up here. How soon boys are expected to be men. So you were sixteen, where were you living?"

"I had been taken in by a judge so I guess I was living pretty well. He gave me my first gun. I have since told the tale that this," he gestured to the Colt on his left hip, "Was my first and some of my friends know about how I came to have the matched set. But the first gun he gave me wasn't this fancy. It was to test me, to see if I was loyal. No one else knew. He sent me out to kill a man, told me awful things about him but I learned after I took that man's life that he was nothing but a business rival I had conveniently taken out of the way."

Jimmy had sat up and was facing away from Melody. His voice sounded dead.

"I'm sorry." Her response sounded disoriented as if she spoke from a dream world, or a nightmare one, "I guess I don't understand how you are still walking free."

"I shouldn't be. The judge gave me an envelope to leave at the scene and told me to make sure the man's gun was in his hand. I found out later that in the envelope was a note made to look like a suicide note. The widow screamed that her husband wouldn't take his own life and that the handwriting wasn't his but there was no investigation. They had two small children, Mel."

Jimmy violently rocked forward on his knees and emptied his stomach on the grass. He hadn't eaten any of the lunch, Mel had packed because he knew this might be his reaction but there was still something to come out and his stomach seemed to turn inside out.

"Jimmy, he used you. You really were just a boy and you were hurt and angry. You had been sent so many mixed messages your whole life and this man was a judge, how could you think that he wasn't being honest with you?"

"Because he wasn't the first person to use me like that. And sixteen is old enough to learn from your mistakes."

"I don't understand."

Jimmy went on to tell her of his time with Dobbins and the horrible things that had gone on there, including how he had been a part of the murder of an innocent husband and father. He wept openly. He had spoken of Dobbins to only one other person, Jesse and he hadn't allowed Jesse to see him cry and he had never spoken of that one errand for the judge. The other riders had known some things but even they didn't know what he was asked to do for the gun he now carried, how he was supposed to kill a man like a brother to him or let himself be killed. But now that the floodgates were opened, Melody-dear sweet Melody-was hearing everything. How he had kept the second gun under his mattress for so long after Brad's death. He told of how he still wondered if Brad had been telling the truth when he said he was aiming away from him. He went on to tell of the woman in Benton and how he'd fallen so completely apart that he became, for one dark day the Sheriff of Regrets. He spilled every secret he had held, how his father spoke so compassionately about the rights of black men to not be owned by others and yet beat his mother. He told her of the people he loved in his life and how so many were dead now. He told her of Alice who showed him a way of living without violence or guns but how his violent past threatened her world and he'd had to leave. The times the rest of the riders had stuck their necks out for him and come back wounded for their troubles. How a man had even pretended to be him and robbed banks and killed people making his reputation worse with him not even doing anything. When he at last had talked himself out, he was sitting a few feet from Melody, his back to her resting his head on the trunk of a young tree. He no longer had the strength to hold his own head up though with all he had just told Mel, he doubted he'd ever need to again. He closed his eyes and just hugged the tree trunk as if it would defend him, as if he deserved defending, which he did not.

He sat that way for a while. He was exhausted and Melody wasn't saying anything. In his head, he tried to find the joy that had existed in his world only an hour or so before. He tried to think of the kitten with the funny name or that nice kid that worked for him. As he struggled to find anything good, anything that was still there for him now, he felt a touch. Another time and place and he would have already had his gun drawn but he really didn't care anymore. The touch was light upon his shoulder and then there was the unmistakable feel of lips pressed to his temple and then light breath and words in his ear, softly whispered.

"You are no killer. You are not a murderer."

He relaxed and allowed himself, just for the moment to believe those words, those beautiful words.

"I'll take your burdens, my love. You must be so tired of carrying them. Give them to me."

And it was as if a great weight had been lifted from his chest and he felt he could breathe freely for the first time in as far back as he could remember. Her arms wound their way around him and he didn't fight or pull away, he just allowed himself to be held like a babe and found the same comfort in it. Neither one of them knew how long they stayed that way with Jimmy limp as a ragdoll in Melody's arms and Melody just holding and rocking him. There was no pressure on either of them to move. Eventually Jimmy's eyes refocused and he looked up at his wife to see such love shining in her blue eyes.

"Welcome back," she said with a smile that was contorted from a new wave of tears that wouldn't fall for she was indeed cried out.

"Mel, I-"

"Shh…There's no need for that. We can talk more some time. Right now all you need to know is that I love you and you can't change that. Just walk around in that knowledge for a while."

"I don't understand, how?"

"You will. I love you unconditionally. I wasn't sure myself but it is true. Do you understand what that means?"

Jimmy shook his head.

"It means that I love you just because I do. I could list off all of your good qualities but even if you didn't possess them, I would still love you. I think we should sort of let it all just be for now. Just get used to being loved and knowing what that means and the rest can be dealt with another time. I think we should go home."

They got up and Melody packed up their things and off they went home. It was a quiet evening for the two of them. It wasn't an uncomfortable quiet, in fact there was a more settled feeling than there had been for days and Melody sat down to the first complete meal that she had felt able to eat in over a week and it did her heart good to see her husband dig into dinner so ravenously. She sat back in her chair at the table and allowed the thought that maybe they would be fine after all. It had been hard to hear those things coming from Jimmy's mouth, hard to hear the hurt he had lived with and how harshly he'd judged himself. She hadn't lied to him; his revelations changed her feelings not one bit. If she needed any confirmation this fact, she now knew for certain that she would love this man to her dying day.

At the other side of the table Jimmy sat lost in his own thoughts. He had said all of those things out loud, things he usually dared not even think on too long. He hadn't blown up, lightning hadn't come from the sky to strike him down where he sat and most of all, Melody didn't leave. She was quiet but there was no anger, no fear. There were loving smiles and she touched him every chance she had. She'd held his hand all the way back to the house. There was sadness there too and it concerned him a little but he thought he saw something deeper in her eyes, a strength, a resolve, a ferocity that perhaps dated back to her Viking ancestry.

As Jimmy was finishing his dinner, a knock came at the door. Jimmy rose and went to the door. He pulled one of his pistols out of its holster which hung there and slowly opened the door to see a young man he recognized from town. He couldn't for the life of him remember the boy's name but he was a friend of Matt's.

"Marshal Hickok, you need to come quick, Matt's in trouble. He's holed up in your office."

Jimmy grabbed his belts and began to put them on.

"How many are there?"

"Three or four. There was one more, I think but Matt wounded him. I've never seen Matt scared like that Marshal. Not of anything."

"You ain't seen it don't mean it don't exist. Do me a favor, son, and stay here. Melody could probably use the company and I don't want to be worrying about you too."

"Yessir."

Melody caught Jimmy as he was shrugging on his coat. She kissed him and then whispered in his ear.

"You be careful. I love you so much."

"I will. I'll see you soon."

Once he was out the door, Melody turned to her frightened visitor.

"Tobias Mills, how is your mother? I haven't seen her in a little bit."

"She's alright, I guess Mrs. Hickok."

"Well, why don't you sit down here and have a slice of pie and tell me how things are."

Jimmy hated going into situations blind but he knew that getting more details from that friend of Matt's would have taken time he, and Matt, just didn't have. So he crept into town where things seemed quiet but he knew looks could be deceiving so he went around to the alley that ran behind his office. He didn't want to chance being seen at the front door. Besides, if Matt was doing what he had been taught, the front door would be barred. He reached the back door with no indication that there was anyone watching it and fished his keys out to open it. So far it looked like Matt had followed what he had been told to do. Once inside, Jimmy made his way through a short hallway and paused while still in shadow.

"Matt? Are you out there?"

There was a small rustling and then Matt answered.

"Jimmy?"

Jimmy let out a sigh, he didn't think he had ever met Matt's mother but he sure didn't want to make her acquaintance by telling her that her son was dead.

"I'm walking into the office now Matt, you just relax and stay still."

Almost as bad as having to deliver news of Matt's death would be having to explain a gunshot wound to Melody. Jimmy slowly walked into the office to find Matt on the floor, back to the desk. His eyes were wide as saucers and it looked as though his gun had become a permanent part of his hands. Jimmy went over and pried the gun from Matt's hands and he patted the young man on the shoulder.

"Are you alright? You're not hurt are you?"

Matt shook his head.

"Well, that's good. I need you to tell me what happened here."

Matt took a deep and wavering breath and began.

"Things were real quiet and nice around here while you were gone and then I heard some commotion out on the street so I came out of the office to check it out. Well, these two men I didn't recognize had Lucy Edmonds, you know her?"

Jimmy nodded, Lucy was the blacksmith's daughter and he doubted if she had even had her thirteenth birthday.

"Lucy's just a little girl, you know? My kid sister Ella is real good friends with her. She's not even out of pigtails yet, Jimmy and these guys were talking about all these things they were gonna do to her, to this little girl that still plays with dolls. Stuff she shouldn't even hear about or know about yet. I told them to let her go but they wouldn't. They laughed. I know I'm not that old but still, it made me mad and what they were doing to Lucy and what they wanted to do made me madder. So I told them again that they needed to let her go. And then this other man stepped up and he was with them I guess and he drew on me. I shot him. I never shot a man before but I shot him. I don't think I killed him but he went down and then the other two were more interested in shooting me than in Lucy and she got away. I shot back and came in here and barred the door. I shot a man and then I hid. I really messed things up, didn't I?"

"Actually, you did real good. I'm proud of you Matt. Lucy's safe, right? And you're not hurt and no one died and by drawing their fire, you kept any of the townspeople from getting hurt. I would say I did alright leaving you in charge."

"So what do we do now?"

"I'm gonna go back out and make sure that they're gone. I figure they probably are at least for the night; they need to take care of their wounded man. Sounds like the man you shot was most likely the leader so they might not come back and if they do, they'll be far less dangerous. But let me make sure they're gone before we go celebrating too much."

Matt nodded and Jimmy slipped out the back door. A quick sweep of the town confirmed what Jimmy had thought and he went back into his office.

"Yeah, they're gone, Matt."

Together they unbarred the door. Then Jimmy put a hand on Matt's shoulder.

"You okay with shooting him?"

"I guess I didn't have a choice."

"Not a good one anyway. I know what you're feeling and right now you might be a little numb but this is gonna hit you at some time. I know everything you're gonna feel because I've been there too. You come talk to me if you need to, there's no shame in it. But I want you to remember something."

"What's that?"

"At the very least, you saved that little girl's innocence and you probably saved her life. There's no decent person who could judge you harshly for what you did here today."

The boy nodded earnestly and Jimmy hoped he would come and talk about things. Jimmy wished he'd had someone to talk to before now. Jimmy decided he should take Matt home. It was late and Jimmy wanted to talk to his mother. They approached the house where Jane Hawkins was sweeping the porch in a poor attempt to look like she wasn't worriedly watching for her only son to return home. Mrs. Hawkins dropped her broom and opened her arms to her son.

"I was starting to get worried about you Matty. I heard there was some disturbance today."

"Ma'am, I wanted to tell you personally that your son is a hero. There were some men planning on doing a great deal of harm to little Lucy Edmonds and he saved her, himself."

"Matty? Well, I always told you that you could do great things. You go on and wash up for dinner."

She had understood the look that Jimmy gave that said he wanted to talk to her privately and once Matt was inside, he did speak.

"That's the truth, what I said. He did all the right things and kept the situation from getting out of control. He's a good boy and he's well on his way to being a good man. I'm sure you're proud of him and you should be. The thing is that in all of this mess, he shot a man. It was a man who was doing wrong and he shot to protect an innocent girl as well as himself but a man was hurt by Matt's hand and he's gonna feel that at some point. It's not a good feeling, even when you're in the right. I just wanted you to be warned."

"Thank you Marshal."

"You're welcome ma'am, now I'd better be getting along now before my wife worries herself into a tizzy."

***

Jimmy walked into a bear hug upon entering his home. He looked over to see that young man whose name he still couldn't remember looking uneasy and a little scared. Once disentangled from his wife, he looked at the boy full in the face-Tobias! That was his name.

"Well, Tobias, it looks like you did a fine job of looking after things while I was out. Everything's alright in town, at least until morning. Matt did a fine job. You probably ought to be heading home before your folks get to worrying."

"Yes sir!"

The boy seemed about on a dead run out of the house but Jimmy caught him and offered his hand.

"Thank you Tobias."

The boy shook the outstretched hand with uncertainty and then left.

"Is there a reason all the boys in this town act like I'm gonna tie 'em to a tree and leave 'em for dead when I talk to them?"

"You are Wild Bill Hickok the fastest gun in the west after all."

"Now do you see what a menace those books are? Hell, even Matt who did everything right thought I was going to be mad at him and I don't know if he thought I'd shoot him or what but he was scared and I think he was more scared of me than of those outlaws coming back."

"I'm sure Matt was just panicked. Are they coming back, do you think?"

"I wish I knew. It'll depend on a lot of things and I just don't know enough about who these men are to know what's going to happen," he spoke as he hung his gun belts, "Either way, I need to get some sleep, I'm bushed."

He turned to find his wife mere inches from him. Melody took his head in her hands and tilted it to reach hers. She kissed him deeply and then pulled back with an impish grin.

"You go on ahead; I don't think I'm that tired yet. Perhaps I'll read a bit out in the sitting room. I wouldn't want to keep you awake."

Jimmy smirked, he knew exactly what she was implying and all of a sudden, he wasn't all that tired either. In fact, parts of him were quite awake. He scooped up Mel and carried her to their bedroom. Clothes were shed and with them the last impediments to the acts of lovers. So many emotions had coursed through this house in just a few days; fear, apprehension, anger, sadness, grief, joy and above all love. Every one of those feelings and a few more for good measure was played out between their sheets. Jimmy often mused how the passions of the young could never match the intimacy developed over time. When you know someone, truly know them, and love them anyway, perhaps as much because of their faults as in spite of them. Oh the passion of a new romance was fiery and pleasure-filled but there were so many insecurities that went with that new heat. Making love was really something different than just bedding a woman; he didn't understand that before and doubted few men did until they had been with a woman they truly loved. And making love with Melody was better and better as they discovered more about each other and truly became a single entity. Once they were both satiated, sleep came easy and deep and they slept a contented and secure sleep tangled in each other's arms. And that is how morning found them.

***

Jimmy was in his office earlier than usual and was checking the weapons there when Matt came in.

"Am I late, Jimmy?"

"Nope. I just wanted to make sure we're ready if those men come back."

"I'm sorry, I should have thought of that too."

"Matt, sit down."

Matt did what he was told and looked as though he was sick to his stomach.

"We need to talk. You're not in trouble. But I want to know what I can do to make you stop being so afraid of me."

Matt looked sheepish.

"I-I don't, I mean, I don't know, I try not to be but…"

"But I'm Wild Bill. Is that it?"

"I guess so."

"Matt, you should know me well enough by now to know that's not me. I shut people out and I snap at you when you don't really deserve it. But you treat me like I'm going to shoot you. Especially today. You've actually messed up in the past and I didn't hit you or shoot you, I'm definitely not going to hurt you when you've done things right. Hell, I think you did better than I could have. Besides, I've possibly got two or more men riding into town today bent on revenge; you think I want to deal with that alone?"

This actually got a small laugh from Matt.

"I know all of that; I guess I just let those books I used to read get the better of me."

"So how about a deal? I try to stop getting annoyed with you over nothing and you stop flinching every time I look at you."

"Deal. So, how is Mrs. Hickok?"

"Things are better. I think we have a chance at being okay. How about you? Still numb?"

"A little I guess. I feel bad that I hurt someone but I guess I keep thinking how glad I am that I was there to help her. How could anyone even say those things to a little girl, let alone mean them?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think there really is evil in the world."

The two sat in silence for awhile and Jimmy really started to think things were going to be fine and his warnings to Melody to stay home today were for naught. Then a gunshot rang out in the street. Jimmy waved for Matt to stay in the office.

"But Jimmy, there might be more than one."

"I've faced worse. Stay here."

Matt might have protested further but Jimmy wasn't listening. He stepped out into the daylight and looked to see where the shot came from and saw a man dismounting his horse, and holstering his gun.

"I'm gonna tell you this just once. Get right back up on that horse and ride on out of here."

"That's not going to happen. I have some business here. I'll be on my way when I'm done. That boy you're hiding in there killed my brother and I'm here to see him pay for it."

"I don't see there's anything to pay for. From all accounts, your brother drew first. My deputy was just defending himself and a little girl you were roughing up. Now you're not coming in the office and he ain't coming out so I guess you can either deal with me or you can ride on out like I asked you before."

Fear momentarily crossed the face of the other man but he was too set on revenge to back off at this point. He drew his weapon and before he could raise it to fire, a new look overtook him: shock. The man's legs buckled beneath him and he dropped dead right where he had stood. Jimmy holstered his gun and calmly walked back into the office.

Matt was trying to look brave but the tears were forming in his eyes.

"Jimmy, he said I killed him…"

"He must have died in the night. If they had chosen a more honest life, they'd have been able to get a doctor to help them."

"But I wasn't, I didn't, I-"

Jimmy looked up from his own internal struggle which occurred every time he had to take the life of another and was overwhelmed by a wave of sympathy for the boy. He knew in time, Matt would learn to deal with these sorts of things but he openly lamented the circumstances that made that necessary. He walked over to Matt and took the kid by both shoulders.

"There is a sweet, innocent little girl playing with her dolls right now because of what you did. If that man had lived, Lucy might have been spared but somewhere, in some other town another little girl would be suffering. You need to remember that."

He spoke with all the softness he could muster and yet he knew that his words would not sink in for the boy until much later. Then Jimmy did the one thing that no man had done for him when he was a child and the one thing he had craved most of all, he hugged the boy close to him. A mother's love is a given but a father's approval is earned. Matt had no father anymore and Jimmy knew he was the closest thing around. He hoped that he could give Matt some of what he needed to grow into the man Jimmy now saw that he could be. He stood there for a while letting the boy cry into his shirt and finally straightened up and looked the boy in the eyes once more.

"I know it hurts to take a life. I do. I don't show it but I feel it too. It hurts like that every time. I want you to know I am proud of you."

***

Days passed and turned to weeks and even months. There'd been little talk of Jimmy's revelations to Melody and yet there was a new openness, a candor that he knew stemmed from her knowledge. She never once looked down on him for it or passed judgment. He did not know how she managed that. He wasn't sure he could if the roles were reversed. So many times he had wanted to ask her what she thought but he was too scared to do it. He had no idea what he was afraid of but he was scared half to death. Maybe he just thought he shouldn't push her to examine too closely how she really felt about finding out she was married to a gunfighter, a killer, a…murderer. She may have said he was not those things but as much as he wanted to believe her, he knew that he was. And that nothing would ever change that.

Melody, for her part, seemed to have taken the news in stride. She busied herself with her chores and decorating their home. She read and wrote things in a journal he was too afraid to read and crocheted and made quilts. She baked pies and cakes and did all of the things that wives did. And yes, she most certainly fulfilled her "wifely duties" to him although she never acted as though she felt them to be duties really. He was a lucky man and yet here he sat looking a gift horse straight in the mouth.

He looked up from the newspaper in front of him to see Matt sweeping the office while whistling a particularly happy tune.

"What's got you in such a good mood?"

He tried to sound gruff but he and Matt had reached an understanding and even a level of kinship when Matt had killed the man who would have hurt Lucy and the harshness wouldn't reach his eyes and made only a passing visit to his tone.

"Nothing."

Jimmy openly laughed at the young man.

"I know you Matt, this is not nothing. You and that girl got past the 'kind of' stage, didn't you?"

"Her name's Nancy and maybe we did."

"Nancy, huh? The only Nancy I know in town is Mr. McGregor's daughter."

McGregor ran the general store.

"Yeah, that's her."

"So, tell me about her."

"She's beautiful; red hair, green eyes and her skin is like fresh cream."

Jimmy recognized the look on Matt's face and realized there was a talk to be had here, unless Matt's father had a chance to give it before his passing. Jimmy hoped he had as he really didn't want to have to do this.

"Matt, how old were you when your daddy passed?"

"Eight, why?"

"He probably didn't get much chance to tell you about girls, did he?"

"No, I still thought they were horrible."

"Have a seat, son. We need to talk."

It turned out Matt's friends had been a wealth of knowledge as far as understanding where babies came from and the very nature of relations between the sexes, as far as what went on behind a closed bedroom door so that saved Jimmy some of the more embarrassing parts of the talk.

"Matt," Jimmy began, "There's a bit more to things than just the physical knowledge of what goes where to make a baby and there's a lot more to being with a woman and loving a woman than just getting under her skirts. And I know, because I was your age once too, that in her blouse and under her skirts is about all you can think of right now."

Matt blushed and started to protest but Jimmy hushed him.

"Just remember that women think different from men. What we don't think about that much, they think is pretty important. Nancy is young and I'm going to guess as inexperienced as you are. Keep in mind that she can be hurt real easy. I know you don't want to do that so I'm telling you to be careful."

"Well, I wouldn't ever make her do something she didn't want to do."

"It's more than that, she's got something very special to her and she may be willing to give it to you but you need to remember there is a responsibility in taking it, even if it's offered freely. Be real sure you're up to it."

"I will…"

Matt was obviously pondering what he was told and that told Jimmy that he'd not be lightly entering relations with Miss Nancy McGregor. He wondered sometimes how Teaspoon didn't go crazy with six of them all needing some level of parenting or another all at once. Jimmy wasn't even sure he was doing right by this one young man.

***

Jimmy rode up to the house to find Mel hanging the wash to dry. He was struck again, as he was at least once a day by her beauty. The way the sun shone through her hair would always make him stop and stare in wonder at her angelic countenance.

"Hello there handsome! You're home early."

Jimmy dismounted and led his horse to the trough before going to the clotheslines and planting a tender kiss on her cheek.

"Things were slow in town so I decided to see how the prettiest woman in Nebraska was doing this afternoon."

Jimmy reached into the basket of clothes and began to help hang them.

"Well, I can say it sure is nice to have an extra pair of hands for this work."

He felt a peace in his very soul and the knowledge that these were indeed the best times of his life. Nothing special was happening, they were just together and it felt so easy. So, of course his first instinct was to potentially sabotage it all with the one hornet's nest he hadn't dared bring up in roughly three months.

"Mel, you never really told me what you thought after I told you all about my past."

She hung the last item of clothing, her favorite skirt and turned to him with moisture shining in her perfect--at least they were perfect to Jimmy, blue eyes. Reaching up and touching his cheek tenderly she began to speak.

"When you told me all of the things you had to live with and how all of it happened at such a tender age for you, my heart broke. There was no one to hold you, to comfort you. It made me angry that people who should have been decent and taught you right from wrong only made that more confusing for you. They used your confusion and anger for their own gains. And all the years you carried these things in your heart, I cannot even imagine the weight that must have been to bear. I don't know what you expected to hear from me but I can only tell you what I really felt and it hurt to know that someone I love so much was harmed so."

"Mel, I'm not innocent. Did you ever think what this would have done to your father if he ever had known you would end up with someone like me?"

"Papa taught me lots of things Jimmy. He taught me that a repentant man can be redeemed of his sins and that there was such a thing as starting over. He taught me that the only people who never make mistakes are the ones who never try anything. He also taught me that there are as many sides to a story as there are people involved and sometimes one more side: the truth. You keep bringing Papa up like you knew him but you didn't. I did and I know what he believed and what he wanted for me. Would he have planned for me to meet a man with a past such as yours? Maybe not but he'd have respected how hard you have worked to get out from under the specter of those books and the things you did and saw and were made to be a part of. More than that, he would have liked you. I know you don't think you're very smart but intelligence has nothing to do with learning. You got a late start on your learning is all. But you've a curious mind and that is something Papa would have liked. He'd have given his blessing whether you believe it or not. I love you James Hickok and there's nothing you can do about it."

Jimmy tried to comprehend her words. It seemed like she was talking about somebody else but maybe it was he who saw himself incorrectly.

Evening found the pair curled together on the porch swing. Jimmy watched the stars while Melody read from one of her favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a very entertaining story and one that made Jimmy think. He liked stories like this; stories that seemed to have a point and a purpose. There was such a big world out there beyond what Jimmy would have ever known if not for the strange hand of fate that brought Mel to his world. For once, he felt in his heart that things would actually be alright and that he could just live out his days dealing with the odd scuffle or rowdy drunken soul in the saloon and then going home to this beautiful woman with whom he would grow old. It was really a simple existence that he longed for and yet it had seemed so very out of reach before. Maybe he was wrong about angels. Maybe they existed after all and Melody held divine power to see his need for a new start and maybe somehow his wishes were granted. Maybe she was right that a repentant man can move beyond the evils he had done once to do good things and then have good things. Maybe.

In the distance there was a sound, a very unmistakable sound and Jimmy nudged Mel to an upright position. He listened a moment more to confirm but he had been right, hoof beats. One horse running hard straight toward the house.

"Mel, get in the house and hand me my belts."

"Jim-"

"Just do it Mel, please."

She did as he asked and hurried inside where she grabbed his gun belts from the hook next to the door and handed them out to him.

"Now stay inside."

He took only the time to kiss her quickly before shutting the door behind her and buckling his belts around his hips. He stood tensed on the porch waiting to see what was riding at him, hoping against hope that it wasn't something from the very bowels of hell sent to punish him for believing that good could come to him. Hoping even more that whatever was coming that Mel didn't need to be hurt for it to be banished. Finally the horse came into view as a silhouette in the scarce light of the crescent moon.

"Jimmy!!! Jimmy…is that you?!"

The voice sounded familiar and his hands relaxed a tiny bit although they remained in easy reach of his guns. Rarely did someone calling him out use the same nickname his loved ones used. As the rider drew closer, Jimmy did indeed recognize an old friend and certainly no one who posed any threat.

"Buck! You scared the heck out of me! What are you doing riding up on someone in the dark like that?"

Buck brought his horse to a stop in front of the porch and dismounted.

"Sorry about that, Jimmy. I yelled as soon as I was within earshot. I didn't want you shooting at me."

"It's a good thing you did or I would have," Jimmy reached out a hand to his old friend who brushed it aside and drew the man who had become so like a brother to him over the years into a hug, "It's good to see you Buck."

The two separated and spoke while they saw to Buck's horse.

"So what does bring you riding like that to my porch in the night?"

"Teaspoon sent me," Buck looked around as if making sure Melody wasn't lurking around a corner somewhere, "There's trouble coming and you need to be ready for it."

Buck and Jimmy mounted the front porch and Buck reached for the doorknob but Jimmy grabbed his hand.

"Whoa, you don't want to do that yet."

Buck looked confused as Jimmy pounded on the door and called loud enough to be heard in the house.

"Melody, it's okay honey!"

He then turned to Buck.

"If I know my Mel, she was barricaded in the bedroom with a shotgun. Best to be safe."

The two entered the house to see Melody exiting the bedroom as Jimmy had predicted. Buck approached as if to hug her but stopped as something swiped his leg. He looked down to see Borje growling with his hair raised.

"Jimmy, what is that thing?"

Mel scooped up Borje who was pleasant as could be once he was held by her.

"That's Mel's cat, Borje. He used to be our cat Borje but he's gotten funny the last two weeks. He won't hardly let me near her either. He used to be a real nice cat."

"He still is, to me," Melody cooed at the kitty in her arms, "Aren't you, my fuzzy little sweetie-pie?"

She continued over to the front door and put the cat out for the night where he could get his fill of mouse hunting. Turning around she addressed their guest.

"Buck Cross is it good to see you!" she exclaimed as she embraced him and planted a small peck on his cheek, "What brings you to our humble home?"

"Um…I…" Buck wasn't sure at all how to answer until Jimmy spoke up.

"Buck says I have trouble headed my way. I don't know details yet but he rode out here to warn me."

"Not just to warn, I'm here to help however I can. We're going to be outnumbered but…" he paused because now he wasn't sure if he'd said too much or something wrong. He knew there had still been some secrets that Jimmy kept when they left Rock Creek and he couldn't say he blamed his friend for wanting to keep those things secret but then Jimmy finished his sentence.

"But we've been outnumbered before. It's okay Buck. I don't fear the truth anymore."

Melody looked more uncomfortable than she normally would. Jimmy didn't seem to notice but Buck did and it concerned him some. He really didn't want to be the one to cause a rift between these two. Before he could speak further to Melody, she stood up and then wobbled a bit. Jimmy caught her and held her steady until she could keep herself upright.

"I guess I must have stood up too fast," she quickly said, as an excuse, "I'm feeling quite tired so I think I'll just put some coffee on for the two of you and there's still most of that pie from dinner as well."

Buck jumped up as well.

"I'll help you, Melody."

Once in the kitchen, Buck spoke low so has not to be heard in the sitting room.

"He doesn't know yet, does he?"

"How did you-"

"It's not hard for someone who's paying attention. I respect you and know you need to deal with something like this in your own way but I'm asking as a friend to Jimmy. Please tell him and soon. He needs to know before these men come."

"I will. I promise. What do these men want with Jimmy?"

"Revenge."

From his spot in the next room, Jimmy could see Mel and Buck and in a less secure point, he might have imagined all sorts of horrible things from their hushed tones and furtive glances around but he just couldn't find jealousy anywhere in his being. The two came out of the kitchen with an obvious secret between them. He wouldn't ask what it was though…after all he had concealed and for so long, Mel was entitled to her secrets. She gave Buck another hug, kissing him on the cheek and whispering something in his ear that Jimmy couldn't hear.

"Goodnight Buck, I'll see you tomorrow, won't I?"

"Of course, Mel. I rode ahead because I could get here faster but I'm not going back to Rock Creek until this is all over."

Satisfied, Melody turned her attention to her husband who had stood to approach her. The kiss she gave to him was no chaste peck on the cheek; it wasn't even a kiss that would normally have been shared in front of another. It was an impassioned kiss of a woman desperate to hold onto her world and believing somehow if she could just love this man enough, show her love enough, that he would somehow be safe. When she pulled away, eyes shining, she reached up and laid her fingers gently on his cheek.

"Good night my darling. I love you so."

"I love you too. Get some sleep, I won't be long."

Melody walked toward the bedroom with a reluctance that screamed that she was afraid somehow if she left the room and let him out of her sight, she'd never see him again. Soon, however, she was in her nightgown and in bed reading by her bedside lamp. Or rather, she was pretending to read though she wasn't sure who the pretense was for as she was alone in bed. It seemed strange, she'd not been alone in bed since the night before they'd wed.

In the sitting room, Buck and Jimmy spoke earnestly about the approaching threat. Buck resisted the urge to spill Melody's secret; it was hers to tell, not his and he certainly didn't want to steal that from her.

"So, who's coming for me?"

"There's a gang of former slave owners heading here, they know the work your father did and that you helped Rosemary and Isaiah Burke. Not to mention that your work with the Underground Railroad isn't exactly a secret. I couldn't believe it when I heard. The war is over, slavery was abolished."

"Buck, for some people, the war will never be over. To a lot of those, abolishing slavery is like abolishing owning horses, they don't look at people with different color skin as people, and you should know that."

Buck gave half a sad smile in answer that he did know this.

"You said you rode ahead," Jimmy began, "Others are coming?"

"We didn't know what kind of help you had here."

"I have a sixteen year old deputy who's knee deep in his first love."

Buck grimaced.

"I guess it's a good thing the rest are coming."

"The rest?"

"Teaspoon, Kid, Lou-Kid tried to stop her but she insisted on leaving the kids with Rachel and she's on her way. And word got to Cody, somehow. He sent a telegram that he's on his way too. I don't know where he was or what he was doing but he's coming here. He said he'd be in sometime tomorrow afternoon."

"Helluva time for a family reunion. I have to say I'd much rather get together with you folks around the Christmas table."

"Yeah, me too.

"Another time, I wouldn't have let you come and do this, wouldn't have wanted the rest of you risking your lives for me. I still don't like it but that woman in there doesn't deserve to be a widow either."

"That's why we're coming. You didn't think it was because of you, did you?"

Jimmy laughed and for just a moment he was returned to an easier time. It was the two of them sitting in the bunkhouse playing cards or just shooting the breeze. He treasured how full his life was now but a hard lesson was hitting him between the eyes. The more you have, the more you have to lose. Buck seemed to understand and tried to steer the topics of conversation to memories of the good times the riders had shared. They laughed over much of it.

"Remember when we found out Lou was a girl?" asked Buck.

"I'll never forget it. I was standing there while he-I still thought she was a he-confronted his father and the man said he had two daughters and she said, 'You still do.' You could have knocked me over with a feather right then. It's funny, if you'd asked any of us before we signed up about working with a woman, we'd have argued all over that we wouldn't do it but once we found out, it just didn't seem to matter."

"I know. Well, we did a lot of growing and learning back then, usually the hard way. Let's hope your young deputy doesn't have the same taste in first loves as you did."

"I'll have you know Sarah wasn't my first love," Jimmy protested and then looked down sheepishly, "But she was a first."

"That," Buck laughed, "Explains a whole lot. I never could figure before now why you were so willing to go to the gallows for her."

"Doesn't explain how Teaspoon still has a hair left on his head. I just had to have a talk with my deputy, Matt about girls. His daddy's passed on and he looks to me. He's going to drive me to an early grave."

"Well, Teaspoon was smarter than you are."

"There's a whole lot of truth there. So, how are Lou and Kid doing?"

"Well, you heard that she lost a baby a few months ago?"

Jimmy nodded.

"That was real hard on her. She's a great mother, you know that and for her to think of one not being there, well, she was devastated. She's doing better now. I think they still want another one though."

"I would say at least one more if I know those two. Their boys are, what, two and four now?"

"Exactly. So Rachel is going to have her hands full for a few days."

"Is it really going to be that different from taking care of Teaspoon?"

Buck laughed but there was a serious tone to it.

"He's really slowin' down, Jimmy. I'm the deputy but he doesn't do much anymore. I think this is his one last hurrah before he hangs up the belt for good this time."

Jimmy would have liked to have protested and said how Teaspoon had a lot more years in him but he knew it wasn't true. He knew that Teaspoon was moving a bit more deliberately even before he and Melody left Rock Creek. He supposed that Teaspoon was even considering the possibility that he'd die here defending Jimmy. The thought made him sad but as much as he'd like to stop his mentor from being in the fight, he knew they'd need Teaspoon's gun and that if the old man was going to go out, he'd prefer to go out in a blaze of glory.

Jimmy and Buck shared somber looks and then Jimmy stood up.

"I guess I'd better turn in, tomorrow is going to be a busy day."

"I'll see you in the morning, Jimmy."

Jimmy quietly entered his darkened bedroom and tried to undress without waking Melody. What he didn't know was that she was wide awake and had only put out the lamp when she heard him coming to bed. He slid into bed and drew himself up close to her back. He snaked his arms around her and inhaled the sweet smell of her hair.

"Jimmy?"

Her voice startled him a bit.

"Who else would it be? You go back to sleep, everything's fine."

"Jimmy, we need to talk."

He felt his arms reflexively tense around her in a protective gesture but he wasn't sure what he was protecting exactly.

'Jimmy, we need to talk.'

Those words ran through his veins like a brook swollen with snowmelt and it felt as though his insides were threatening to become outsides.

"Mel, I-"

"Did Buck say anything to you?"

"Not about you."

She sighed, grateful and yet a part of her wished he had spilled the news because she wasn't sure of quite how to go about it.

"I should have known there was no cause for worry from him. I don't even know how to say this to you."

"You are starting to really scare me, Mel. First you two are whispering in the kitchen and now this."

His sense of security was fading and the jealousy was beginning to rise within him. His earlier thought that she had a right to some secrets was gone and he was terrified of what the secret might be. And more terrified of what he might do about it.

"Well, I don't know exactly how but he figured it out. I've only known a short while myself and I just didn't know what to say…I guess if I don't tell you soon it will be obvious anyway. Maybe that's what I was waiting for."

"You could just try saying it."

"Jimmy, I'm…going to have a baby."

The last came in a rush and Jimmy wasn't sure at all he had heard her correctly.

"Say that again."

"You're going to be a father. We're going to be parents."

Jimmy fell back against his pillow unable to speak. This was news he hadn't expected and it would have taken a bit to process under the best of circumstances but with horrible thoughts in his head already, he felt as if every bone in his body had turned to jelly. To think he had considered that Melody and Buck had been carrying on behind his back. Well, to start, he should have known neither one would ever have done that to him and they hadn't seen each other in so long. But he still was left to deal with this new revelation. Fatherhood.

"Are you okay? I know we never really talked about this, not seriously, but you had to know it was always a possibility. I mean, you know how things like this happen."

"I know I just…with everything else…I…are you sure?"

"The doctor said so and I am so sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I just wasn't sure, how…are you angry?"

"No," his voice softened, "No, I think this is the most wonderful thing I've ever heard. It just took me by surprise is all. How did Buck know?"

"Borje's behavior, my near faint, and I guess I just look pregnant."

"You are especially beautiful lately, you seem as if you're lit from within. Is that what you mean?"

"I think it's called glowing."

He pulled her close to him again and squeezed her tight.

"Good name for it."

Morning came sooner than anyone in the little house was hoping for and they were barely stirring when Kid, Lou and Teaspoon rode up.

Soon all were seated around the table enjoying plates of pancakes. Except for Melody who sat down and then quickly excused herself to run outside while the others, save Buck, looked to Jimmy for explanation.

"I think they call that morning sickness," he explained and then dug into his breakfast.

Kid piped up in a rather patronizing tone, "Morning sickness is what pregnant ladies get, Jimmy."

"Then I got it right, Kid." Jimmy matched his friend's tone even though he didn't entirely understand it.

Mel came back in looking a bit pale and all attention turned to her.

"I see the cat is out of the bag," she said and swayed slightly grabbing the door to keep from falling over. Jimmy hurried over and scooped her up. He carried her to the sitting room and sat her down gently and soon found Lou next to him with some water and a small piece of bread.

"Here," Lou offered, "Sometimes it helps if you put something plain in your stomach. I can take it from here Jimmy. You go back to the table and figure out how we're going to take on Nash and his gang. Kid can fill me in later. I think the ladies need to talk."

Jimmy really didn't want to leave Mel's side, she looked so weak.

"Really," Lou reassured, "I can take care of her."

Lou patted jimmy's shoulder.

"You sure you're alright, Mel?" he asked, fully willing to be the one filled in later if it meant being there for whatever Melody might need.

"I'm fine. You just figure out how you're still going to be around when this baby comes."

Reluctantly Jimmy stood up and turned to move to the table but first he hugged Lou.

"I'm glad you're here, Lou."

"Wouldn't be any place else, Jimmy."

Lou finally convinced Melody to lay down for a bit and got back to the table to find everything from salt shakers to silverware being used to replicate the town as the men were planning the strategy. Jimmy looked up.

"How is she?"

"She's resting. You need to calm down, Jimmy. Women get pregnant and have babies every day. The first few months she'll be tired and she's weak because she's not keeping food down but that will go away too. Don't you remember when I was expecting Jed? I could barely keep water down. Turned out alright though."

"Lou, you're family and all but you were another man's to worry about."

There was a collective sucking in of breath at that statement.

"Jimmy," Lou began through clenched teeth, "Did it ever occur to you that a woman is perfectly capable of worrying about herself and does not require a man to do so? Now drop that manly need to own and control and be dominant over everything or I might just forget that I came here to protect your life."

He realized what he had said and backpedaled.

"Lou, I'm sorry, I didn't mean…I, well, um, where were we again, Teaspoon?"

Teaspoon saw the desperation of his protégé and as much as he would have loved to see Jimmy learn yet another lesson, he decided to help him out.

"Well, we've got Cody with the rifle on the salt shaker…"

Once a satisfactory plan was in place, the kitchen table confab was disbanded. Jimmy found Lou on the porch.

"Lou, I hope you know I didn't mean that how it came out. I've never had this much to lose before and I'm scared. I guess that's why my foot's been in my mouth so much."

"I know and I shouldn't have jumped all over you. You are the only one who never treated me like I should just be a girl or like you knew what was best for me. It's just that Kid and I fought all the way here about me even coming. Does he think I want to leave the boys without a mother? He ought to know I wouldn't want that but you and Mel are family too. I know she'd get by somehow without you, but she loves you so damned much and I know what that's like. It's not whether you're able to live; it's whether you'd find any joy in it. Kid should understand that."

"Well, that explains why he's been shooting daggers out his eyes at me since he got here. All I know is that you'd better make it through this or if you don't, I'd better die with you or Kid'll kill me."

Lou laughed and for a moment he captured the wistful girl he had known in years past; not the one trying to be a boy and not the one scared of the shadows that haunted her nights. No, he saw the Louise McCloud she had been around the other riders, her guard and pretense down. That was the way they all were. Not a single one of them had fit in anywhere else until they were stuck together at Emma's. If any of them had ever had family, it was by then so long gone as to have become a shadow of what might have once been a memory.

Lou looked up and reflexively called out, "Rider coming!"

The rest looked too and saw Cody riding up on them.

"Cody!" Jimmy called to him.

"Hey Jimmy…seems like old times us all riding in to save your rear."

Jimmy would have liked to follow with some scathing comment but the man had ridden from who-knows-where to be here and help him and the joking only lightly veiled a genuine concern.

"Thanks for coming, Cody."

"So where's that pretty wife of-Oh there she is!"

Jimmy looked and there was Melody on the porch waving like a crazy woman. He was about to rush over and tell her she should be resting but Lou caught his eye and shook her head.

"Why, I don't believe my eyes," Melody called out, "Can it really be William F. Cody in the flesh?"

Cody closed the gap between himself and the house and wrapped Melody in a hug.

"None other. How've you been Mel?"

"I can't complain too much except for the men out to kill my husband. Sit down and let me get you something to drink. You must be parched from the ride."

Cody found a seat on the porch and called after her, "I swear you really do get prettier every time I see you."

By now Jimmy was on the porch too.

"I'm informed that is called 'glowing' and all women do it when they are expecting. And I really would appreciate if you'd quit flirting with my wife Cody."

"A baby? Really? Well, that's real good news Jimmy. Guess we have one more reason to save your sorry hide this time."

Jimmy swatted Cody on the head.

"What do you mean 'this time'? I seem to recall more than once bailing you out of some jam or another."

Melody came out with a tray of iced tea.

"Boys! You knock that off right now," she hollered and then looked wearily up at Teaspoon, "Honestly, how did you not just shoot the lot of them?"

"I kept sending them out hoping someone would do it for me but they never managed to finish them off and after a while, I guess they kind of grew on me."

As the rest of the bunch was greeting Cody and having him fill them in on his adventures, Jimmy sidled up to Melody.

"Are you feeling alright? Do you need to sit down?"

"I'm fine. You worry too much."

"So," Cody's voice rose above the others, "Who are these men coming for Melody's husband?"

Jimmy shot a half-hearted glare at Cody while Buck began to explain.

"Ezra Nash a former slave owner and a bunch of his friends are riding around taking revenge on everyone they know who helped escaped slaves, and since Jimmy did some work with the Vigilance Committee and helped the Burke's and then went on to move people on the Underground Railroad…"

Cody nodded.

"I get it. Of all the legitimate reasons to want to kill Jimmy, they pick this? When do you all figure they'll be getting here?"

"Tomorrow," Kid answered, "Or the next day."

"Wait," Cody looked worried, "What about your sister, Jimmy? Didn't she and her husband help the Burke's too?"

"Celinda and Nathan moved around a lot and there's more than one Nathan Smith out there. I've got the name and the badge so I get the target on my back."

Kid let out a huffing sigh and stalked off to the barn.

'Same ol' Kid,' Jimmy thought, 'Head straight for the Katy when he's upset.'

Jimmy followed.

"Kid, I don't know exactly why you're so steamed at me but we should probably talk it out or I'm not going to trust you not to kill me yourself."

"You are just bound and determined to take her from me, aren't you?"

"Who?"

"Lou. You tried years ago to make her yours and that didn't work. You don't need her or even want her anymore, you're married to a beautiful woman who's having your child, but you're going to make sure I don't have her either."

"Kid, Lou's going to be just fine. You came. You think she wants to consider losing you? But you put that on her without even thinking. I'm sure she wants to help me but more than that, she's probably here to make sure you don't get yourself killed."

"Jimmy I'm here because, whatever our differences, you are like family. Like a brother."

"And Lou's like a sister."

"Like Hell she is! You wouldn't let your sister within a mile of this fight."

"My sister can't handle a gun like your wife can."

"Do you kiss your sister too?"

Jimmy just stopped in his tracks.

"Oh you thought I didn't know, didn't you?"

"Kid, that wasn't anything. Not to either one of us. She spent that whole trip worried sick about you. We were both scared and not sure what was coming next. I regret it, I really do. It wasn't fair to either of us to have acted on that. I'm sorry."

"Dammit Jimmy, I really try to stay mad at you. I really do but I just can't."

"So are you on my side again?"

"I never left."

Jimmy took his friends into town for them to get a real idea of where this fight would take place. Arriving at his office, they found Matt leaning against the door frame talking to Nancy. Once Matt laid eyes on Jimmy, he jumped and tried to act like he had been hard at work although it was obvious that things were peaceful in town and no real work needed to be done.

"Matt, we've been over this and we had a deal. You're doing fine."

He tipped his hat to Nancy.

"Good day to you Nancy. Could I trouble you to run along and tell your father I need to talk to him about something?"

The girl blushed as the rest of the riders, save Lou who no longer made a pretense of her sex, tipped their hats.

"I'd be glad to Marshal," the girl replied and then her tone became conspiratorial, "I'll see you later Matt."

Once inside the office, Jimmy made introductions and explained the coming danger to his deputy.

"Right, so where do you want me, Jimmy?"

"Home. I am not going to be responsible for anything happening to you."

"But it's my sworn duty-"

"To follow the orders I give you."

Matt deflated. The others found interesting things to look at on the walls in order to give Jimmy a chance to talk to Matt more privately.

"Matt, I know you want to prove yourself a man but this really isn't how you do it. I learned that the hard way and a lot of pain came to people I care for because of it. A man takes care of his family and that's what I want you to do. Take care of your mama and your sisters. Where would they be without you? A man thinks of things like that."

"Don't they have responsibilities too?" Matt asked, gesturing to the other riders, "They're here."

"We've all fought together before, they are my family."

"Jimmy you're the closest thing to a daddy I have now, doesn't that count for anything?"

"It does; it counts for a whole lot. But you need to know that any man filling a father's role is duty bound to teach the child right and to look out for his best interests. Your real daddy wouldn't want you leaving your women folk over some ten cent hero and I don't either. You hear that Nash and his bunch are coming and you get right home. You make sure your family is all there safe and you wait until the fuss dies down. I mean it. I'd never forgive myself if I let you get hurt over me."

Matt looked dejected and turned to leave. Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

"Matt, I just found out that Melody is expecting a baby. I don't know what the future holds or even if it will be a boy or a girl but I can only hope that if I do have a son that he is half the man you are growing into. I mean that."

As Matt left, he passed Mr. McGregor coming into the office and Jimmy felt badly for the lad because it was obvious that he was intensely uncomfortable around the father of his girlfriend.

"Thanks for coming right over Mr. McGregor. We have a little situation and I thought you could help me out."

The danger approaching was quickly explained.

"Now," Jimmy continued, "I don't expect anyone to put themselves at risk for me and more than that, I'd prefer if they didn't, I'd really just like if you could let everyone know to stay inside and let us take care of this."

"Oh I think you'll find plenty of us willing to stick up for you. I had my doubts when we were told who was coming here to keep the peace but you've done a fine job, you've always been fair. You risk your life for us, why shouldn't we return the favor?"

It was Kid who spoke up then.

"Actually Jimmy," he began before Jimmy could protest them to a more uneven fight than was necessary, "We could use all the help we can get. We can put townspeople in less risky spots. I just don't think we're in a position to turn down an extra gun or two."

That night the rest of the riders were in town at the hotel and Jimmy and Melody had the house to themselves once again. Word had reached them that Nash and his men were less than a day off and Melody was trying to avoid the giant lurking in the corner of the room as she spoke. And she spoke, Jimmy had never heard her go on and on like this but she spoke of everything except that looming specter. So he finally did.

"Mel, I know you're scared."

"Really," she snapped at him, "Whatever would give you such a notion?"

Jimmy wasn't even sure how to answer but it didn't matter because she went on.

"You cannot leave me alone, you know that, right? I can't live without you. I wasn't this dependent before I met you. Damn you! How could you make me fall in love with you and then try to leave me?"

She was screaming and Jimmy just sat there dumbfounded.

"I'm sorry; I know this isn't your fault. I really admire the things you did that made these men so mad. They are the bad ones. Oh God! I am so sorry."

Now she was crying and clinging to him like a babe to its mother. He held her and rocked her and whispered in her ear that he was going to be fine, that everyone was going to be fine. He told her over and over that he would never leave her. He made promise upon promise that he hoped with all of his heart to be able to keep but knew he shouldn't be making. Promises were for things in your power, things that you could control. He'd never willingly leave her but tomorrow, it might not be his choice. When sleep found them, they were both worn out from emotions beyond their comprehension and were limp in each other's arms.

***

With a kiss from Melody as his only source of strength, Jimmy set off for town early the next morning. He met up with his friends who were already gathered around breakfast though no one was eating much. After breakfast, or at least after they had spent what they deemed an appropriate amount of time pushing food around their plates, they got up and went to Jimmy's office to await the arrival of Nash and his friends. Hours passed, or it might have been days or years, there was little talk and no laughter or smiles. This was a somber affair to be sure. There would be more time for the reminiscing of old friends once business was taken care of. At long last there was a knock at the window and they looked up to see Joe, the bartender from the saloon standing there. Jimmy leaned out the front door of his office.

"Marshal Hickok, there's riders headed in. It's time."

The men quickly disbanded to their prearranged locations around the town to await the invading gang. The group was there in short order with Nash leading the way. Nash was a tall, slender man with dark hair just grayed at the temples and a mustache that probably took more care and grooming than most frontier folk would have spent on their whole person.

"Hickok! You come out and show yourself. No one else needs to get hurt!"

From the front of his store, Mr. McGregor called back.

"You aren't taking our Marshal Mister."

"You just back off now. My quarrel is not with anyone else here. Just send out Hickok and we'll leave you in peace."

"Well," McGregor went on, "You pick a fight with Hickok and you've picked a fight with all of us just the same. We're all named Hickok as far as you and your friends are concerned."

One of the men riding with Nash took aim at McGregor but a shot rang out and took him off of his horse before he could fire. From a rooftop across the street from the store, Cody was lowering his rifle and surveying the rest of Nash's gang for anyone thinking to harm anyone else in the town.

Jimmy looked around from where he was at the alley that ran along the side of the building that housed his office and took count. There were at least twenty-five men with Nash and nowhere near that many on his side, even when the townspeople willing to fight were added into the equation. So he did the only thing that seemed right.

"Nash!" He called out. "I'm right here! You're a southern gentleman; surely you aren't opposed to a fair fight."

Nash should have listened to the voice inside his head reminding him that not all of the "Wild Bill" stories could be fabrications and that he was likely not going to be able to have a fair fight with this man. But listening to that voice would have gone against his ego which was wounded by the outcome of the war and which he thought he could heal by wiping people such as James Hickok off the earth.

"Of course not, Mr. Hickok, I would welcome it."

Jimmy stepped out with hands slightly raised to show the fight would not commence right then.

"Okay then, you keep your men back and where I can see them and I'll bring mine out into sight. I know you duel differently where you come from and perhaps a guest should be made more welcome but I didn't invite you so I'll have to say that we'll be playing by my rules."

Nash didn't bat an eye.

"As they say, Mr. Hickok, 'when in Rome'"

Nash dismounted his horse and was motioning his men back when Matt came running up aiming his gun right at the uninvited guest to their town.

"Nash," Matt shouted, "You better get out of here!"

Nash raised his gun to fire at Matt and Jimmy ran toward Matt, simultaneously trying to shield the boy and drawing his gun. Shots rang out and bodies fell and for a moment after the shooting, no one really knew what had happened. Cody ran to street level, as did Kid. Teaspoon came out from Jimmy's office and Buck and Lou ran from their staked out locations. Nash was dead, that was for sure and some of his men as well. The rest rode out as fast as their horses could carry them, truth be told, most of them had lost their appetite for this vengeance ride a while back and were only still along out of a fear of Nash.

The dust settled and Lou was the first to assess the situation.

"Someone," she yelled tears staining her cheeks "Get a doctor!"

The doctor approached to find the ragtag looking bunch still reeling. Cody was shaking his head just repeating "no" over and over, Kid just stared at the ground in disbelief, Teaspoon had simply lost the will to stay upright and had sat down right outside the door of Jimmy's office, Lou stood mostly numb but held tight to Matt as he screamed for the man lying in Buck's arms on the ground. They all backed up to give the doctor space and upon a brief examination, Buck and Kid carried Jimmy inside while Cody rode out to Jimmy's house. The group just hung outside waiting for news.

Cody rode like his backside had been set on fire and was in the process of dismounting before his horse was completely stopped.

"Melody! Hey! Mel!"

He pounded on the front door and yelled and then Melody opened the door.

"Cody, what's wrong? Oh no…please tell me he's not…"

"No, not when I left. Come with me, we need to hurry."

Not feeling it appropriate to take the time to saddle her horse, Cody mounted his horse and then pulled her up to ride with him. So afraid was he that she'd not be able to keep a hold of him, he situated her in front of him where he could hold her on the horse himself. He rode considerably slower back into town with Mel slumped weakly against him and it wasn't long before he felt her tears hot on his neck.

"I'm sure he's fine Mel. He's been hurt worse and he's too stubborn and ornery to not be okay."

"How did this happen?"

"He was shielding that deputy of his."

"Matt? Is he alright?"

"He's not hurt but I think he's pretty shaken up."

"He wasn't supposed to be there."

Her voice sounded distant.

Cody and Melody rode up to find the rest of their bunch still sitting outside the doctor's office. They all looked despondently toward Mel and Kid came over to help her off the horse.

"There's no news yet, Mel. It seems like they've been in there forever."

He was trying to be strong and a support for her but his voice wavered and cracked. Matt was openly crying and couldn't look her in the eye. She went to him and took him by the shoulders looking him up and down.

"You aren't hurt are you Matthew?"

"No ma'am," he whispered looking at the ground, "No, I'm not."

She drew him into a tight hug.

"Well thank goodness for that."

Matt realized that despite his own guilt that she wasn't mad at him and hugged her back. They stood like that for quite some time until the doctor came out and they all turned hoping for some good news.

"Mrs. Hickok," the doctor began, "He lost a lot of blood. I've done what I can. He was shot more than once and I couldn't get one of the bullets out; it's just too close to his heart. If he doesn't get an infection, he might have a fighting chance."

"Can we," Kid began, "I mean, can she see him?"

"You have to allow him his rest but I don't see any harm in visiting him."

The crowd slowly walked in and Cody held the chair for Melody at Jimmy's bedside. She all but collapsed into it. The rest could not bring themselves to leave just yet but they still felt as if they were intruding on the couple's privacy.

"Jimmy," Mel spoke softly as if afraid he might hear her or be disrupted from his rest by her meek voice, "Jimmy, I don't know if you can hear me but I'm here."

He stirred.

"Melody…"

"Yes. I'm right here," she took his hand and kissed it, "I'm not leaving you, I promise."

"Sorry…"

She tried so hard to be strong for him but just could not stop the flow of tears.

"Why are you sorry?"

"Broke my promise."

"Jimmy, I don't care, you're forgiven, just get better. Is there anything you need?"

"New…book…read…"

"I don't think you're up to reading, Jimmy"

He shook his head weakly.

"You…"

"I understand."

She stood and leaned over his bed and kissed him as if the fairy tales might for once be true and she could heal his wounds with a loving kiss then she walked through the crowd of his closest friends and patted Matt on the way her look telling the young man that it was okay for him to have a moment with her husband. Matt nodded solemnly and went to sit for a moment. Cody and Kid caught her arm.

"Book?" asked Kid, "What on earth did that mean?"

"He loves books. He's still not a very strong reader so I read to him a great deal. I just got a new book. Well, it was published a while back but I just got my hands on a copy. I promised him I'd read it to him but I hadn't yet begun."

Cody, anxious for something to do to feel useful was the one to volunteer.

"Where is it Melody? I'll run and fetch it for you."

"On the stand next to my side of the bed…I sleep on the left side."

He nodded as if he was just given the key to saving the world for now and all time from evil.

Matt was talking but Jimmy was unconscious again.

"Jimmy, I'm sorry. I know you told me not to come but I thought I could help. But you're going to be okay, right? And then you can yell at me all you want. You can fire me and hate me forever and that 'll be just fine with me as long as you get better."

Matt got up and Melody hugged him tightly before allowing him to leave. The rest of the riders one by one sat for a moment or two to talk to Jimmy individually. Cody went first so that he could run out on his special errand. He lightly touched Jimmy's arm when he sat down.

"Jimmy you've always had a flair for the dramatic but this beats all. You know we would have stayed a piece to visit without you getting yourself shot. There's no need to worry Mel like this," his voice softened as if he was afraid that someone would hear him show genuine feeling, "No need to worry us either. I'm going to go get that book for Melody. You don't go anywhere now."

He wiped his eyes before standing up and making his way through the group to his horse and the welcome relief of having a task to do.

Buck sat down next and he made no effort to hide the rivulets running down his cheeks. He felt no shame in his worry or sorrow for his friend.

"I'm not going to talk to you as if you're dying because I know you wouldn't do that to her…or to us. We've lost too much as it is. But remind me once you're up and around again to punch you."

Kid and Lou stood by the bedside next.

"This has really gone far enough Jimmy," Kid started, "I know you're going to be fine because you know I couldn't bear to lose another brother. You're just doing this for flair like Cody said, just making sure we'd all fuss over you."

Lou could not even come up with words, at least not ones she wanted to share with the world. Instead she leaned close and kissed his temple before whispering in his ear.

"You gotta stay with us, Melody needs you and you need to meet that baby. I know there's enough love here to bring you back from wherever you are, you have to just follow it."

At last, Teaspoon was the only one left to have a moment with Jimmy and the others, even Melody, left the room to allow the two men their privacy. For that Teaspoon was grateful as he wasn't going to be able to hold himself together much longer.

"Dammit Jimmy, I like being right about things, I do but didn't you figure out by now I didn't want to be right about you dying young, shot down in the street? If I really thought that's all there was for you, I wouldn't have wasted my time. I honestly believed we were past this stuff. You get your rest now son and get back to your wife because I'm not burying anymore of my own."

Jimmy heard most of what was said to him even though he was unable to respond to anyone after Mel. It just had taken way too much out of him. Why had he thought of the book? True he had wanted to hear it but he figured it had more to do with how safe and at peace he felt when listening to her voice. And maybe a little was knowing that if she was focused on reading, then her mind might be taken off of his condition, if only for a little bit. He knew she was worried, he had heard that in her voice and the way he felt and the few memories he could conjure didn't fill him with hope.

He knew the basics of what had happened of course; he lunged to protect Matt and ended up taking the bullet that would have killed the young man. He wasn't sorry to have saved the boy. Just once in his life he had been enough to save a loved one. No one would have to tell Mrs. Hawkins that her son was dead. Sweet Nancy McGregor could wait a while longer before discovering the pain of loss. He was pretty sure he had killed Nash. He remembered before he blacked out, seeing that unmistakable look on Nash's face of a man having a surprising and unpleasant final thought. He lost consciousness off and on, he remembered yelling and crying and being carried and intense pain. He forced himself to a near waking state when he heard the pain in Melody's voice. He'd never been able to sit idly by while she was hurting and that thought made him ponder if maybe he was a decent enough husband anyway.

One by one he heard the words of his friends, those closer than family to him and while they spoke of him fighting and things they would do when he recovered, the tones of their voices sounded more like a eulogy. They had seen enough people shot to get a good idea on who would be pulling through and who wouldn't. But they wanted him to fight and fight he would. With all the strength he had, James Hickok was going to fight for his very life.

A short while later found Melody alone at her husband's bedside in silence, just holding his hand. At first the doctor had said that Jimmy should be alone to rest but it was quickly discovered that his breathing was more even and steady when Melody was there and for her part, she was much less prone to becoming hysterical when she was in with him so it was a better situation for all involved. Upon hearing footsteps, she looked up to see Cody standing next to her with the book.

"Is this the one? You have a fair amount of books but this was on top of the pile."

"Yes, this is it. Thank you Cody."

Once Cody had left the room, she sighed a moment turning the book over in her hands. In time she laid it in her lap and opened the cover.

"I really think you'll like this one dearest. You always like the ones that make you think. Here we are, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo."

She flipped pages for a bit.

"Very long and detailed table of contents here. Oh here we are. Hauteville House 1862. Fantine. Book First-A Just Man. Chapter One-Monsieur Myriel. In 1815, Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of Digne since 1806."

The next week passed with little change in Jimmy's condition and no consistent change whatsoever. Some days he seemed a little more on the mend and then just as suddenly and with no more rhyme or reason, he'd take another turn for the worse. He spoke little and when he did it was only to Melody. The others visited as often as they were able and sat with him whenever they could convince Melody to take a break and get some food or try to rest. Mostly her rest came right there at his bedside. She sat in the hard chair and occasionally allowed herself to lean forward and rest her head on the pillow next to his. Within a day or two, she had taken over his care completely. There was really nothing more for the doctor to do. Melody cleaned him and changed his bandages; she brushed his long hair and, with some small help from the others kept him on clean bedding. But always, except perhaps in the darkest hours of the night, someone read to him. If she was busy cleaning him up or seeing to his dressings, Lou or Cody read for her and soon the story of Jean Valjean and the others fighting for their freedom against unthinkable hardships became her entire world. His release from prison and how it should have been the beginning of a free life for him but for the law that would keep him a prisoner even on the outside. How the assumption of his wickedness became an excuse for him to commit a wicked act and how the kindness and mercy of a stranger showed him that there was the chance of redemption. His journey through his life, meeting Fantine and the commitment he made to raise her dear child Cosette. There were days when the others sat around and listened just to keep up with the story and more than once they had gone off to dinner pondering and discussing the many digressions the author, Mr. Hugo had made into the nature of politics or freedom or religion and Melody's heart ached for she knew that Jimmy would have loved so to have been a part of their discussions. Perhaps the others had never known that curious and almost desperate for knowledge Jimmy that she had come to know. He had been there all along but hadn't revealed a great deal of that part of himself to his friends.

Eventually the story came to Paris where things were near to a powder keg and the revolution was coming like a locomotive with no brakes. Poor Jean Valjean was still trying to make a safe and simple life for Cosette who was now a young lady but there were faces from the past all around to keep him from feeling safe. Reading of Cosette and Marius's budding relationship was nearly painful to Melody. How it resembled her meeting Jimmy. How she felt a kinship to Cosette raised by a father who loved her with every fiber of his being but who still could not give her the full life he felt she deserved. And finally meeting the man she loved and having the world open to her as if it had never existed before. Though aside from that, she saw few similarities between Marius and Jimmy. For Marius was still such a boy, one who still believed he held all of the answers when he was not yet even aware of the questions. She knew that had been Jimmy once but it was never the Jimmy she had known.

She persevered through the story, through the battle where so many were lost and she wept for them as if they'd been her friends and they might well have been for so many were like the young men and boys she had known that marched off to fight this last war and not come home. And through this all the constant of Valjean being pursued by Javert and the Thenadier's. His past never really in the past. This poor man was never able to take the joy in his life that a man ought. Never able to delight in his adopted daughter's discovery of the world and not even able to celebrate her nuptials. This man struggled so much throughout his life and spent more of it honest than not and yet there was no peace for him until his death.

At long last, she reached the end of the book and but one page remained. She read on: "The Grass Covers and the Rain Effaces. In the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise, in the vicinity of the common grave, far from the elegant quarter of that city of sepulchres, far from all the tombs of fancy which display in the presence of eternity all the hideous fashions of death, in a deserted corner, beside an old wall, beneath a great yew tree over which climbs the wild convolvulus, amid dandelions and mosses, there lies a stone. That stone is no more exempt than others from the leprosy of time, of dampness, of the lichens and from the defilement of the birds. The water turns it green, the air blackens it. It is not near any path, and people are not fond of walking in that direction, because the grass is high and their feet are immediately wet. When there is a little sunshine, the lizards come thither. All around there is a quivering of weeds. In the spring, linnets warble in the trees.

This stone is perfectly plain. In cutting it the only thought was the requirements of the tomb, and no other care was taken than to make the stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man.

No name is to be read there.

Only, many years ago, a hand wrote upon it in pencil these four lines, which have become gradually illegible beneath the rain and the dust, and which are, to-day, probably effaced:

He sleeps. Although his fate was very strange, he lived. He died when he had no longer his angel. The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone."

She closed the book and sat a while in the first silence she had allowed in more than a week. She had been horribly frightened of allowing the quiet in, perhaps fearing that it would overtake all and sound would not return. But for this brief moment, she held Jimmy's hand and allowed the lack of sound to envelope them, freeze them there, at this moment.

Jimmy had heard most of the story, enough for it to have made sense and now he heard the silence. He knew she was still there although he had not the strength to open his eyes. He could feel her hand warm on his own. She said she wouldn't leave him and aside from a break for some food, she did not. Had she not been there, he might have been scared himself but there was nothing to fear with Mel by his side. He heard her breath grow ragged and then she began to speak once again, halting at first, as if she had forgotten how to converse, as if the only words she felt confident in uttering were those of someone else.

"That's all of it," she started, "It was a long one, wasn't it? And don't you go getting any ideas, your day is not gone and your night is not coming any time soon. You called me your angel and I am still here, right by your side and I'll not leave you. Do you hear me?"

She had laid her head on his chest and the tears seemed to scald his skin there. He squeezed her hand in answer to her, that yes, he heard her.

"Okay, what do we normally do when we finish a story…" she paused, for she really had forgotten, "That's right, we discuss. Well, it's not going to be much of a discussion with you in this shape but I do have some thoughts to share. You remind me so of Jean Valjean. This poor man haunted, hunted by his past and he's finally shown a way to redeem, finally a way out of the darkness but he never seems to be able to fully step into the light. And yet there is a piece of you that is so like Javert because even though there are those who would let you create a new life for yourself, you seem like the one holding yourself back more than anyone. It is you who can never see anything but a gunfighter. The rest of us see so many different things when we look at you. Even those men and that woman outside, they knew you when you were that hotheaded and ill-advised youth and they see the man you've become. They see that you are a completely different person now. And me, I have seen you work so hard to be what you think I want and the only thing I ever wanted was you, just you. You've no idea how great a man that is."

She paused and Jimmy seemed to be sleeping but he rarely opened his eyed and even more rarely spoke so she could never be quite sure.

"You know my favorite part? I think it was right at the end when Marius and Cosette find Jean Valjean near death and Cosette tries to forbid him to die as if wishing could make a thing so and Valjean says he'll try to obey her. I know you are trying to obey me as well. And I would forbid you to leave me, to abandon your love that carries your child within. If I thought it would do any good at all, I would forbid it with all of my might. But I recall what else Valjean says in that scene. 'It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live.' You have lived, not so much as I would have hoped for you and not nearly enough of your living has been in happiness. I want to be brave for you my love. I want to be but I am not, I feel as a petulant child stomping my feet to have my way but I am old enough to know that a tantrum doesn't result in getting one's way."

Jimmy heard her words, every single one and forced his eyes open.

"Melody…"

"Oh my darling," she covered his face in kisses as she spoke, "Please say that you are with me again, that you are not leaving."

It took all he had within him to raise his hand enough to lightly stroke her hair.

"I…love…you…"

Melody clung to Jimmy as a drowning soul to a branch and he stroked her hair and pulled her head closer to his, turning her ear toward his lips.

"Book…"

"The book? You want to talk about the book?" Melody was oddly encouraged, "You want to tell me your favorite part?"

He nodded.

"To love…another…person…is to see…the…face of…God."

With the last power within him, he kissed her deeply and then fell back against his pillow. Jimmy felt as well as saw the world go dark before his still open eyes and from somewhere a world or maybe many worlds away, he heard his Melody scream, he heard her cry and call for his friends. He could hear her ever fainter calling for him and he wanted to go to her and hold her tight and never, ever leave her but then there was this very warm light and it was inviting and soft and he felt that was where he now belonged. The light led him to a tunnel; a very long tunnel. He journeyed what seemed forever. He could no longer hear Mel behind him, there was only that soft, warm light ahead of him and so he ventured forth, step after plodding step. Finally, when it seemed he had never been anywhere else ever except in this tunnel, he saw the point of light ahead grow larger and larger and then he emerged from it.

***

Jimmy felt he was in a bed and he hurt like hell. His head surely felt like he had been on a bender but he was certain that was not the case for it was more like he had been very, very ill. He wasn't sure he wanted to open his eyes but Melody, his darling Melody was waiting for him to do so. He didn't know where he had been or for how long but she would surely wait for him, wouldn't she?

Slowly and with some caution he opened his eyes and to his comfort, the light in the small room was dim. He tried to look around but found himself to be very weak, though he could see far enough to spot the middle aged man at the desk next to his bed. He tried to speak but nothing came out but a small croaking sound. It was enough to get the man's attention.

"Oh my, you're awake! I have to admit I was beginning to wonder if you were indeed going to stay with us."

Jimmy had to struggle to follow the man's words through his thick accent; he somehow knew this accent to be Swedish, although he'd never known anyone from Sweden. Melody sometimes had a small hint of an accent, which must be how he recognized it. The man had poured a cup of water and helped Jimmy to a sip of it. He hadn't realized until right then how on fire his throat had been. With the lubrication of the water, he found himself able to speak softly.

"Where am I?"

"Kearney City, though I expect you might be wondering more specifically, you're currently lodging above the newspaper. I'm afraid there wasn't a way to move you from here so you've been in my study for the last few weeks."

Jimmy found himself able to sit a bit with a little help from this man who set pillows behind him.

"Who are you?"

"Right, we weren't ever properly introduced, were we? Erik Lingren, Editor-in-Chief, reporter, copy boy and mail room clerk for the Kearney City Dispatch."

Jimmy was beyond confused, Erik Lingren was dead, had been since the day he had first met Melody.

"How did I-"

"Save your voice young man. You've been through a lot. Not that I know all of what. All I really know is that we found you in the street early one morning. I'm not sure how you came to have such injuries but you had a gunshot wound that was horribly infected and the fever had caused you to fall right off your horse-not to worry, he is at the livery-and you were conscious only a little at a time and then not at all. We were quite worried for you. Do you remember what happened?"

Jimmy shook his head.

"Trouble sometimes follows me though."

"I would imagine that's the reason for the two belts. And not to worry about those either, they are hanging right over there on a peg."

"You took in a gunfighter? You don't even know who I am, do you?"

"I'm afraid I don't know your name, no. And I suspected you might be a gunfighter as you say but you were sick and I'd not let another human die in the street. I'd not leave a dog to that fate."

Jimmy looked at a stack of books on the corner of the desk, lower in the pile was The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers but on the top was Les Miserables. He reached over and ran his finger over the embossing on the cover.

"To love another person is to see the face of God."

"Quite right, young man. I wasn't sure you were hearing us when we read to you but it seemed to calm you a great deal when we did. We'd taken to calling you Jean Valjean, not knowing your name. I beg of you, what should we call you?"

"Name's Hickok, James Butler Hickok but friends usually call me Jimmy."

"Jimmy it is then. Say, I saw a book once about a man named Hickok; a Wild Bill Hickok. He wouldn't be any relation to you, would he?"

The temptation was great to lie but after everything that had happened, he thought better of it.

"I guess that would be me."

"I don't mean any offense to you but those books are such rubbish."

"No offense taken, I couldn't agree with you more."

Jimmy tried to get up just to get out of the bed he'd been laying in for so very long and stretch his legs but he found he was not as recovered as he might have liked to have thought.

He did notice his left hand however was bare.

"Did you notice if I had a ring on when I arrived?"

"No, nor was there any sign you'd ever worn one."

Now that just couldn't be true, he and Mel had been married near a year. Mel, she must be worried sick but then, this whole thing was topsy turvy, he was the Marshal in Kearney City and yet the newspaperman didn't know him and the newspaperman had the same name as his wife's dead father. Could all of those wonderful things have been a fevered dream? Was it possible that he had imagined the whole thing? It surely begged a few questions.

"You look upset young man; this must be very disorienting for you. There were times your fever was so high, I thought you'd do yourself harm from the thrashing. You should lie back down and get some more rest. You will be staying here until you are fully recovered or I'll never hear the end of it."

"Mr. Lingren-"

"Erik, please."

"Erik, you say 'we' but I don't see anyone else-"

Jimmy's question was cut off by a woman's voice calling up the stairs.

"Papa! Papa are you up there?"

"I am and our guest has awakened."

Jimmy looked toward the door just in time to see a curly-headed angel appear there.

"My dear, may I introduce Jimmy Hickok and Jimmy I'd like very much for you to formally meet my daughter-"

"Melody!"

***

"Okay," said Lou around a bunch of straight pins, "Turn around and see what you think."

Melody Lingren looked at Rachel for a second opinion. Here she was in Rock Creek, in Rachel's house with her two newest friends. Rachel's smile was huge and she nodded encouragement. Melody closed her eyes and held her breath but turned around so that she was facing the full-length mirror. Cautiously she opened one eye and then the other and stood gaping at what she saw there. The dress was a light ivory or really just a shade off of a true white. Its neckline was open, which was something Melody hardly ever wore but she had to admit, the effect was nice, the sleeves made a puff to just above her elbows and the skirt billowed with layers of lace.

"Oh Louise, it's just lovely."

The last word was lost in tears. The other women looked at each other with small suspicions of what might be troubling her but not being quite sure. Rachel produced a handkerchief.

"Now sweetie," she began, "Nerves are normal but there's no need for such a beautiful bride to cry like that."

"I'm not nervous Rachel. Marrying Jimmy is the first thing in my life I've been completely sure of. I just, well, it's silly…"

The other two just looked at her and Lou gave Melody's hand a squeeze; one that said she was among friends, that nothing would be silly in this safe place, that they were there for her. Melody fascinated for just a moment that a simple touch could convey so much but she understood what Lou was saying to her and felt confident for the first time in a long time in a friendship with other women.

"I just, I wish Mama was here. Is it possible to miss someone you don't even remember meeting?"

Rachel and Lou both felt the tears well and Lou understood so much; the thought crossed her mind when she had married that her day would have been truly perfect if only her mother could have been there to share it with her. Rachel pressed a kiss to Melody's temple.

"I like to believe that she is here and she can see you. I know she'd be so proud to see what a wonderful woman her little baby girl grew into."

Lou gave her new friend a squeeze around the shoulders and then stood.

"Out of that dress so I can finish it before Saturday."

***

Jimmy was sitting out in the old bunkhouse, no longer used as such since the end of the Pony Express but it was still there and that is where he and his friends were. He figured it was for old time's sake. They were all there, well those for whom it was possible. As good as it was to be in a room once again just shooting the breeze with Cody, Kid and Buck; they all felt the absences, the gaping holes left by Ike and Noah. Their family would never again be complete and they all knew it.

"So," began Cody, "You have to tell me about this girl Jimmy because I have to say, she looks way too good for the likes of you."

"She is," Kid piped up.

The both of them laughed but also ducked what they felt was the assuredly coming wrath of Jimmy Hickok but there was none.

"You're right," he said flatly, "She's way too good for me. I don't understand it myself. She's educated and well-read and grew up in big cities back east. I don't know what she sees in me at all. At first I thought it was just because she felt bad for me, because she had worried over me while I was sick and before she even knew me. But somehow she still liked me when I was awake."

Cody's head popped up at this.

"She fell in love with you without talking to you? Well, I don't know if I should understand that or be shocked she could fall for that ugly mug of yours."

Jimmy was about to reach over and smack Cody when Buck spoke up.

"You should hear the whole story…it's a good one."

Buck turned his head to a very sheepish Jimmy.

"Tell 'em."

"Well, I apparently had some pretty interesting dreams while I was running that fever. One dream actually…Mel and I were married. It was perfect, she was perfect, she didn't care who I'd been in the past, the things I'd done. She just loved me and I her. In the dream I was shot and killed but she was at my bedside when I died and then I woke up over the newspaper in Kearney City. I was pretty confused because in my dream I was Marshal there and her father was dead and there I was talking to him and he didn't know me from Adam. They had been calling me a name from a book Mel read to me. My mind was still telling me I was married to her and that she'd be worried. Then there she was. She spent so much time reading to me and talking to me that I already knew her. She's exactly as she was in my dream so I was in love already."

"Wow," Kid shook his head, "That is some story."

Jimmy knew that they didn't know the half of it. He stood and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Cody asked.

"Need some air. Going for a ride."

The others thought about following him but Buck stopped them. Once Jimmy was out the door, he spoke.

"He's spent more time thinking since he came back with Melody. That dream he had was pretty real and I think a part of him feels like he did die and he's been granted a second chance. He's not completely the same as the person you knew before.

***

So much had happened to Jimmy in such a short period of time. When he woke from his fever, the only thing he knew was that he loved Melody, or at least the Melody of his dream. He had no idea of the real Melody but quickly learned that there was no difference. She even had a cat named Borje and the story behind his name was the same. It took less than a day after he had awoken for him to realize he was truly in love with Melody. It took a while longer for him to muster the courage he needed to speak to her father.

"Erik," he began. Damn, it felt weird calling him by his first name but he knew that he would only be corrected of he used any other method of addressing the man. The two were working to set up the presses for the next edition of the paper, Jimmy had found the work agreeable and the least he could do for their kindnesses shown him. "Erik, I know you don't know a whole lot about me."

"I expect that I know a good deal more than you think, Jimmy."

"I've done things in my past I'm not proud of. I've hurt people directly and indirectly my whole life, it seems."

"And so you are the Jean Valjean of the great Wild West."

"I feel sometimes like you're the bishop who gives Valjean that second chance. I'm obliged to you for that. And I don't have the right to ask of you, not after all that you've done."

"I've done what decent folk do. But it seems you do have something you want to ask of me."

"Yes sir, I, well, I'm very fond of Melody, I'm sure you know that. She's so different from any woman I've ever met."

Erik's eyes sparkled as he started to catch on to the point of this conversation.

"Go on."

"I wanted to ask for your permission or your blessing, or whatever…I want to know if it's alright if I court your daughter. I'm in love with her. I don't have a right and she's far too good for me."

Erik hid his smile under false stern features.

"So you want to court my little girl, do you?"

"Yes sir."

"You think you could make a suitable husband for my only child?"

"Erik, I-I don't know but I'd sure try. She won't find anyone else who loves her like I do."

Erik could not maintain his charade any longer and began to laugh.

"I am teasing you Jimmy. You win her affections, which I don't think will be too hard, and she is yours to marry. All a father can truly ask for his child is happiness and one extra wish for fathers of daughters, we wish for men who will love them and be good to them."

"I'll do that, you can be sure of it."

It hadn't taken long after that for him to feel the time was right to propose and she had said yes. Fear had set in hours later but he had pushed it aside. He would marry her and be the best husband she could ask for.

***

The ladies were sitting on the porch in the blessedly cool evening air just talking about everything and yet nothing at the same time. It was Rachel who couldn't contain her curiosity anymore.

"I know how the two of you met, but how did you fall in love with our Jimmy?"

"Well, first I had him brought in because, well, you can't just leave a sick and wounded man in the street to die. And then I got a look at him. He was weak and pale but so very handsome. Oh I know a part of me was being a silly, overly romantic little girl but with those guns and his wounds, I imagined him some noble knight of proper chivalrous intent caught far from his home kingdom. He wasn't awake a lot but when he was and was almost lucid, he was so tender, his voice was tender. He would sometimes take my hand and profess his love to me, or well, I figured he was professing it to his own lady but it made me want to be that lady. Part of me was so afraid he'd never wake up, that he was just too sick but another part of me was afraid he would and then he'd be off to wherever and whoever. And worse than that would be finding out that the brave and noble night of my fantasies was anything but noble. I feared him and loved him all at once. When Papa called to me that he had woken up, I almost wanted to run the other way and then he spoke my name, like he had been waiting for me to come to him. And he smiled at me. I had imagined what his smile might look like and it was even more beautiful. He's not exactly the knight of my dreams but in so many ways he's better because he's real. I couldn't hold that knight in my arms or cling to him in the dark of night but I can Jimmy."

It was Lou who mustered herself enough to ask, "Do you know who he really is, Melody?"

"Louise, I appreciate your concern, it shows what a true and caring friend you are, to both of us. I understand why Jimmy has such a soft spot for you."

"You didn't answer the question."

"I'm not sure how. Are you asking if I know the man, who he is inside, what he feels, thinks and dreams of? Or are you simply inquiring as to whether I know of his past?"

"Can I take that to mean you do know all about him?"

"Enough, he wouldn't propose until he told me the impetuous child he once was and all of the things he did. He's not proud of those things but he felt I had a right to know. I actually know a few things about him that neither of you know. Not that I'll tell…"

"I wouldn't ask you to," Rachel said patting Melody's arm.

The ladies sat in silence for a while allowing Melody a chance to be alone with her thoughts and memories.

Melody ran up the stairs toward her father and the man she had fallen in love with. 'Silly girl,' she thought, 'you can't be in love with him, you don't even know him.'

"Papa, are you up there?"

"I am and our guest has awakened."

Melody's steps slowed and she walked the rest of the steps with dread. What if he didn't like her? What if he thought she was ugly or boring? He must have had such an exciting life and she just had her books and her papa. Worse yet, what if he was mean? What if he was married or never would and was one of those brutish men who used women and then threw them away? There had been times when he had been almost awake and had treated her with such tenderness. He petted her hair, touched her hand and once even said he loved her, though was he even speaking to her? She reached the top of the stairs and anxiously peeked around the door frame.

"Melody!"

He called her name! He knew it and he called it and he seemed so very happy to see her. Papa had just said the man's name…Jimmy. Her true love's name was Jimmy.

"Jimmy?"

And that was it for them. It took little time for Jimmy to get his strength back and he was soon helping Papa with the newspaper and spending all of his free time with her. And one day he sat down with her and told her of his past. He wept for the things he had done, the people he hurt and from his belief that these things would cost him the woman he loved. She wept for the confused and used child and the pain this tender man had carried through his life.

When she did not flee from him and once again told him of her love, he knelt right then and there and asked her to be his wife.

Now, sitting on the porch with Rachel and Louise and having met the men Jimmy saw as brothers and the man who had substituted as a father to him, she felt all worry slip from her. Maybe some brides were nervous or fearful but she felt as if her life were truly beginning. And according to all the storybooks, that was how it was supposed to be.

***

Jimmy stood at the altar shifting from one foot to the other wishing this whole thing would just get underway. Finally, the organist began to play and Jimmy looked up to see Erik looking prouder than any man he had ever seen before and on his arm was the most beautiful thing that Jimmy had ever seen. Melody had somehow, no doubt with much help from Rachel, gotten her unruly curls under control and somehow had turned them into well behaved ringlets. She looked unsurely around the congregated friends, smiling at those closest to him but when her eyes found him; any look of trepidation left her. For the rest of her journey down the aisle, her eyes did not leave his and her focus on him made Jimmy feel at once peaceful and unsettled. He had never had anyone stare directly into his soul before and it made him feel nervous and a bit queasy. At last she reached the altar and her father placed her hand in his, giving her to him with a look of trust that he was putting her in good and loving hands. This husband thing was turning out to be a very high pressure thing indeed. Jimmy jerked his gaze momentarily away from Melody when Teaspoon cleared his throat.

"Dearly beloved," he began and smiled a bit, that was always his favorite part, "We gather together today to join this man and this beautiful woman in the bond of holy matrimony. Melody Astrid Lingren, do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband; do you promise to love and honor him through all the days of your life?"

"I do."

"James Butler Hickok, do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife; do you promise to love and honor her through all the days of your life?"

While Teaspoon said these words, Jimmy felt one moment of panic at the wide-eyed trust being placed in him. Those sparkling blue eyes were seeing to the very core of him and allowing him access to her whole being, her very soul and for that moment, he almost ran from the responsibility of that trust but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted that trust, he wanted that love, that undying passion she somehow held for him.

"I do."

They exchanged their rings and then Teaspoon spoke again.

"I have to say I often thought this day would never come but I'm sure happy it has. And now, by the power vested in me by the United States government, I pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss your bride."

Jimmy did not have to be asked twice.

The End.

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