Author's Note: Artistic license taken with timelines
The sun was beginning to set and Jimmy was cursing the late start he had gotten on the day. It wasn't entirely his fault; he'd had to wait for a special package before he could head out for home but still, if he'd been able to start out at first light like he'd wanted, he would have been home already. He wasn't that far off and could still make it before it was full dark. He fully planned on doing just that. If nothing else went right today, he was going to finish it by sleeping in his own bed with a belly full of whatever Rachel was cooking. Somewhere in his mind he was probably still paying attention to where he was going and nudging his horse in the right direction but the majority of his thoughts were lost in how good it was going to feel to get home, clean up and eat a decent home cooked meal before turning in for the night.
Those thoughts and any others he might have been entertaining were quickly pushed aside by gunfire ringing out in the distance. Gunfire and screams; that was never a good sign and a part of him wanted to do what Teaspoon had told them all to do their very first day on the job: run. He wanted to go home and forget he heard anything but it wasn't in his nature any more than it was inherent in any of the young men he'd come to know like brothers. And as much as Teaspoon rolled his eyes and chastised them when they got involved in things they could have walked away from, he knew he saw a glimmer of pride in the older man from time to time when he saw these boys take a stand for someone that needed it. He pulled up on the reins and steered his horse in the direction of the shots.
Before long he came upon a small farm. It wasn't much and Jimmy didn't figure these people did a lot of farming for the purpose of selling their produce. It looked more like they farmed purely for their own survival. Riding up, he saw bodies. A man and woman looked to be a husband and wife and then two boys looking around thirteen or fourteen. What Jimmy couldn't figure out was what possible gain there was for anyone to hurt these people. They had nothing. From the corner of his vision he saw movement in the barn. He slid off his horse drawing one of his pistols and walked cautiously toward the barn, hoping that he'd only find the family cow agitated from the flurry of violence that had transpired. Instead he found a girl, a young girl. She was maybe ten but he thought more likely as young as eight and her straw colored hair had once been in braids, perhaps as recently as that very morning but now more closely resembled a bird's nest than the tidy plaits that her now deceased mother had mostly likely made. She wore a simple shift of a blue that matched her eyes. The dress was torn and there were scratches on the girl's face and arms and there were angry purple finger print shaped marks appearing on her wrists and, Jimmy discovered with anger, her neck. She sat against a stall in the barn, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth with a blank stare forward.
"Hey," he called softly, not wanting to startle someone already frightened, "Hey, are you alright?"
She didn't turn her head or give any indication that she'd heard him other than to echo his words.
Her voice was flat and emotionless and it sent a chill up Jimmy's spine. He crouched down next to her but she made no move toward or away from him. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps she was blind but wouldn't she have felt the heat from his body or heard his footsteps? Then she did turn her head, but not toward him, she turned toward a cat that wandered near, obviously convinced that the threat was passed. The girl even held her hand out in the direction of the cat.
"Marmalade," she said in that flat, creepy tone, "Here kitty, Marmalade."
The cat came over and sniffed at the girl's outstretched fingers and then rubbed against them with a purr. Jimmy thought maybe if he tried interacting with the cat, he could get the girl to acknowledge him. He held out his hand too and called the cat's name, and a pretty good name it was as the cat was the very color of marmalade. Marmalade came over and sniffed at him and the girl looked at his hand but if he hadn't known better, he would have thought she was not seeing it. Not only did she see, she took his hand and petted the cat with it.
"Marmalade is a nice kitty but must pet gentle."
"She is a nice cat." Jimmy agreed.
Jimmy was thinking he wasn't going to ever get used to that emotionless tone of voice.
"Listen," he began, "I'm real sorry about your family."
"Right." He sighed, "What's your name?"
'Did you really think she was going to answer you, Jimmy?' he thought to himself.
"Are you hurt?"
"Yeah, hurt; let me look at those scratches."
He reached out and touched her arm and she screamed like she had been set afire as her arms flew at him. He pulled back from her quickly but not before one of her blows landed and split his lip. He was starting to see how she ended up with those bruises, not that he condoned hitting or strangling a little girl but he could see the temptation. He sat back and waited for the girl to tire herself out. When she was calm again, he crept back over to her, but did not touch her. He worked to speak as gently as he could to her.
"It's dark, we should go inside."
She stood and walked toward the house. He followed. Once inside, she went to a chair in the sitting room, a rocking chair with a ratty blanket sitting in it. She picked up the blanket, which had certainly seen better days and found a ribbon on it; she sat there rocking back and forth running the ribbon between her fingers. Jimmy was relieved that she was quiet but wasn't at all sure what to do next. He searched the kitchen and found a can of beans to heat for their dinner. He still wasn't much of a cook but he could handle that, at least. He grabbed two plates from a cupboard and when he went to set them on the table, he saw a pad of paper there. As he flipped it, he saw in detail, the faces of the dead laying in the yard. For as detailed and perfect the drawn renditions were, the writing underneath each was a child's scrawl. Mama, Daddy, Joe, Tom…names to go with the faces he had never met in life and yet the drawings were so detailed, he almost felt they could move off the page and converse with him. The next page was the one that stopped him cold. There, in perfect rendering was his new friend and underneath the picture read, "Susan."
"Susan," he read and then heard the little girl respond.
As she spoke she came out to the kitchen and without being told or reminded, she went to the sink and pumped the water to wash her hands.
"Susan is me."
"Yes," Jimmy couldn't help but smile, "Yes, you are Susan. He sat across from her and she looked at him, but she still did not meet his eyes. In fact, he was sure she was staring at his mouth. Slowly her mouth tried to mirror his in a smile. It wasn't a natural expression for her, he was sure but it was such a genuine attempt that he smiled all the wider.
"You have a very pretty smile, Susan."
He found himself less unnerved by her expressionless voice as time went on.
"Did you make these drawings Susan?"
Her hand groped at the table landing on the pad of paper and pulling it to her, then reaching again. Jimmy caught on and handed her the pencil that had been next to the pad.
She was silent and ate her food but between bites, she took up the pencil and drew. He didn't try to look while she drew, he just studied her face and how placid it was when she was drawing. It lacked expression most of the time but was still strained. When she drew, however, her face became peaceful, serene. She was really a pretty little girl and someday, would probably be a beautiful woman. He wondered if her appearance would ever matter as there was obviously more wrong with her than just shock from losing her folks. At last her tapping drew him from his thoughts. She was tapping the pencil on her drawing. He looked and saw his own face looking back at him, smiling at him from the page.
"That's real good Susan."
She kept tapping and after a moment he realized that she wanted him to take the pencil, she was tapping where the names had been on the other pictures. He sighed. He could read now but had never really gotten comfortable with writing. But he took the writing implement anyway and did what he could to form the letters. He almost laughed at the confusion on her face when she tried to read what he had written.
"I'm sorry Susan, I don't write very good. My name is Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
Jimmy hadn't the slightest idea what to do next with this girl but he didn't have to. She cleared her plate to the sink and went off to her room and when she reappeared she was wearing a nightgown. Jimmy had already washed the few dishes from dinner at this point and really wasn't paying a great deal of attention to Susan until she tapped him on the leg. He looked down to see her holding a brush up to him. Did she honestly expect him to brush her hair? Well he surely hoped she didn't expect for him to braid it too. He'd learned as a younger boy to keep his hair short enough that his sisters couldn't braid it but that was about all he'd ever learned of braiding. He took the brush and Susan marched over to a small footstool in front of another chair and sat down with her back to the chair. Jimmy sat behind her and first tentatively took her ties out that had held her earlier braids. This was no easy task with as tangled as her hair had become but he somehow managed without pulling too much. Slowly he set to trying to detangle the mess of yellow hair in front of him. Susan began to sing.
"When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd."
For as emotionless as she was when she spoke, her singing was anything but, in the midst of her clear young tone was feeling, real and true feeling. She stopped singing and patted his knee. Jimmy figured he was supposed to sing too. Well, she asked for it.
Together they sang and Jimmy figured out why her parents had been killed. This song was one usually sung by runaway slaves. His suspicions were confirmed when her next tune was "Swing Low Sweet Chariot".
"So, your mama and daddy worked the Railroad, huh?"
He tied her hair into pig tails, it was the best he had to offer, and patted her head.
"I think that's time for bed now Susan."
The girl stood but did not budge.
"It's late Susan," he said, "You need to go to bed and get some sleep."
Still she just stood there. Finally she took his hand with her tiny one and pulled, beckoning him to follow her. She led him to her room.
"You need me to tuck you in?"
"Tuck in, night-night."
She climbed into her bed and Jimmy pulled the blankets up around her. He turned to leave but she yelled at him stopping him in his tracks.
"No, what? Am I supposed to do something else?"
Susan simply pointed to a small table at her bedside. There was a book there with a piece of yarn as a place marker.
"Well, I guess it won't hurt to read a bit to you."
He soon found himself swept up in the tale of Gulliver finding himself in a land of tiny folk. He read one chapter and then marked the spot and put the book down. Before he could stand and leave, Susan wrapped her arms around his neck. She clung to him for a while and Jimmy could not resist but to return her hug. When at last her grip released, she spoke softer than he had heard from her thus far.
"Night-night Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Good night Susan."
He tucked her back in and then could not fight the urge to kiss her lightly on the forehead. He cringed not knowing if that would bring about another tantrum but she just sighed sweetly and closed her eyes. Jimmy darkened her lamp and then sighed himself. He had work to do. Tomorrow he'd take her with him to Rock Creek but he couldn't leave her family laying dead in the yard.
Morning came far too quickly for Jimmy's liking. He'd spent most of the night burying the family, exactly what family he did not know for he could find nothing telling of a surname for these people. He finally finished and cleaned up a bit and then fell asleep in the chair where he'd sat to brush Susan's hair. He felt like he had barely fallen asleep when he felt a patting on his chest. He forced his eyes open and there was Susan climbing up on his lap.
"Is it morning already Susan?"
"Are you hungry?"
"Well, I don't know how to make much but I think I can manage some breakfast."
After breakfast Jimmy saddled the horse and packed a few of Susan's things. He was securing everything when Susan walked up and tugged on his jacket.
"Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Susan, just call me Jimmy."
"Right, I'm almost ready to go now."
Susan ran in the house and when Jimmy went in to collect her, he found her in the rocking chair with her worn blanket rocking and running the ribbon between her fingers.
"Susan," Jimmy called, "I'm ready."
Susan didn't look at him at all.
"Jimmy go away. Jimmy leave. Mama leave. Daddy leave. Joe leave. Tom leave. All go away. All leave Susan."
Jimmy squatted down in front of her.
"Susan, I'm not leaving you. No one left you on purpose, your mama and daddy and your brothers didn't want to leave you. They loved you, Susan. I'm sure of that."
"Yes, I know they must have. I've known you less than a day and you're growin' on me."
"That's right. And I want you to come with me now."
"To my home, Susan. Will you come with me?"
"Susan go home with Jimmy."
Jimmy secured Susan in front of him in the saddle where he could make sure she stayed on. He wasn't sure how much she had ridden and he didn't trust that she'd not fall. He set off for home knowing there would be a barrage of questions when he rode up with this little girl and he hoped his well meaning friends wouldn't scare her. He still didn't know what was wrong with her but he knew she was not like other children. He wasn't sure what would become of her but he knew he couldn't just leave her to her own devices. On they rode; Jimmy kept one hand protectively around his young charge while she went along with her blanket wrapped around her and drew. Every once in a while Jimmy would look down at the pad of paper and saw her pictures of the scenery they passed. There was even one drawing of the two of them as they must have looked riding along the trail back home.
Finally home came into view and Jimmy slowed even more as he tried to figure out how to introduce little Susan. He heard the call of "Rider coming" and looked up to see Rachel on her porch. He waved and tried to signal to the others to hold back but they didn't catch on and soon Susan was shrinking back into his chest.
Rachel was the first to reach up and touch the girl, just a light touch on her arm.
"Hey sweetheart, what's your name?"
Susan screamed and started thrashing and it was all Jimmy could do to keep her on the horse with him and keep the horse steady.
"She doesn't like to be touched," he hollered at his friends while holding onto the young girl protectively, "Her name's Susan. Just back off and she'll calm down."
"She doesn't like to be touched, huh," Cody began, "She seems okay with you."
"She's better once she gets to know a person and I don't think she likes being crowded."
Jimmy slid off the horse bringing Susan with him, he tried to put her down but she clung to him so he just kept her in his arms.
"I'll take care of the horse," Lou said seeming to understand that Jimmy had his hands full in more ways than one.
"Thanks Lou," Susan repeated flatly.
The others looked at Jimmy and then at the girl in his arms.
"That's how she talks. Rachel, I think she's probably getting hungry. Do you have anything?"
"I think I made plenty of lunch for us to share." She said with a smile, "Can you get her cleaned up for lunch?"
"Cleaned up for lunch." Susan parroted.
Jimmy nodded and then looked at Susan, "Alright then, you want to come with me and get washed up?"
"Go with Jimmy. Go home with Jimmy."
Jimmy put the girl down and led her to the bunkhouse. The others looked after the unlikely pair and marveled at how the young gunslinger was shortening his steps to allow his little friend to keep up.
"That looks like Hickok," said Cody, "But I think maybe it's some imposter."
Lou rejoined the group.
"You know there's always more to people than you can see, Cody," she said, "I'm not surprised at all. She's an odd child though."
The others nodded and then went to get cleaned up themselves and ready for lunch.
Soon they were all seated around the table and it was impossible to not take note of the way Susan leaned into Jimmy.
"It's okay Susan," Jimmy reassured, "They're friends."
"Right. See there is Lou."
Lou and Kid each waved at the girl. Jimmy went around the table introducing Susan to the others. Once during the meal, Rachel moved to take the pad of paper from Susan while she ate but Jimmy interceded.
"It's best to let her have it. Seems to soothe her to draw and she needs a lot of soothing right now."
After lunch the others left Jimmy alone with Susan. The girl yawned.
"Maybe you should take a nap Susan."
"Yeah, that's my bunk right there. You can lie down. No one will bother you."
He got Susan to lie down and pulled a blanket over her and then got up to leave.
The one word was soft and he almost didn't hear it but he did feel her fingers digging into his arm nearly drawing blood.
"Okay, I guess I can stay a little bit. If you wake up and you don't see me, I'll only be outside the door. You're safe here Susan. No one's going to hurt you."
"No," his voice was barely above a whisper, "No hurt. I promise you. No one's ever going to hurt you."
Her wide eyes stared up at him and he felt desperate to somehow make her feel safe. He looked around and made sure he was alone before he started singing softly. He was by no means knowledgeable about music but he remembered songs his mother had sung to him
"Twinkle, twinkle little star…"
Once Susan was asleep, Jimmy made his way outside the bunkhouse and sat down. The rest of the riders and Rachel were waiting along with Teaspoon who had happened by and was filled in on the visitor to the station.
In fact, it was Teaspoon who started in with the questions.
"Where's her family Jimmy?"
"Dead." Jimmy spent a while relating the story of hearing gunshots and discovering the girl in the barn.
"I don't know what's wrong with her, besides probably watching her family killed I mean," Jimmy went on, "But she's not like a normal little girl."
"That stare," said Rachel with a chill seeming to go up her, "And how she only talks by repeating everything. And she has no expression or emotion when she talks. It's almost creepy."
"It is," agreed Cody, "And the way she reacted to being touched. Just odd. She always like that Jimmy?"
"How do you think I got the fat lip?"
"Is she feeble-minded?" asked Kid and Lou elbowed him in the ribs, "What? I can't be the only one thinking it."
Ike stomped his foot to get Kid's attention.
'Just because someone can't talk well doesn't make them feeble.'
"I know that Ike, I just-"
Buck saved poor Kid.
"There's a difference between not being able to talk and not being able to communicate, Ike."
"She can communicate," Jimmy piped up, "You just have to be real patient with her. Once she warms up a bit, she comes out of her shell a little."
"But Jimmy," said Rachel earnestly, "She doesn't seem to have any emotions. Does she even understand what happened?"
"She has emotion Rachel but I just don't think she feels them or thinks about them the same way."
Jimmy snuck back in the bunkhouse and grabbed the pad of paper from the table.
"Here," he said, showing the pictures to the other riders, "I don't know what to call what she is but she's not feeble."
In just the short time the riders had been assembled for lunch, she had been able to draw two pictures. One was of Rachel and her warm, full smile leapt off the page. It was so much like looking in a mirror that Rachel actually gasped. The next page held a picture of Cody and somehow Susan had captured the near transparent quality of Cody's eyes with only a pencil.
"Damn," Cody said when he saw it, "What could she do if she had paint?"
Beneath the picture she had written the words, "William F. Cody Friend."
They flipped back to Rachel's picture where "Rachel pretty" was written.
"I guess you were right," Buck began, "She communicates just fin-"
His words were cut short by a piercing scream from inside the bunkhouse and Jimmy jumped up in order to be the first one to Susan. Jimmy covered the ground from the door of the bunkhouse to his bed in two huge strides and soon had the screaming child wrapped in his arms.
"Susan I'm here. It's a dream honey, just a dream."
She blinked and looked around.
"That's right. Can you tell me what your dream was about?"
"I figured that. Can you tell me more than that?"
Susan was silent but her hand groped and Jimmy handed the pad and pencil to her. Cody came over to see what was happening. He spoke to Jimmy in a hushed tone.
Jimmy nodded but looking over at her he noticed her left hand, the one not drawing was flapping wildly. Without thinking he took up her blanket and found the ribbon that was barely attached still and placed it between her fingers. Susan's breathing became very even and relaxed as she ran her fingers over the worn fabric.
Rachel was the first to take note of how naturally Jimmy took care of this child.
"How did you know to do that?"
"It's what she does when she gets upset."
Jimmy looked over at Susan when he heard the pad fall to the floor and the girl whimper. Instinctively he placed his arm around her shoulders. Kid picked up the tablet. There were three pictures she had drawn and under each were the words: bad man, no friend. He crouched down and tried to look the girl in the eye.
"Right, I'm Kid, that's right. Did these men hurt your family?"
"Hurt Susan; kill Mama, Daddy, Joe, Tom!"
She was screaming and thrashing and the other riders pulled back, except for Jimmy who had learned earlier trying to keep her from falling off the horse that hugging her tightly worked, at least for him. He didn't try to talk to her, just held her tightly enough to immobilize her, not allowing her to thrash out of control and slowly she quieted. He petted her hair and looked up at the others.
"One of you get the doctor please."
"I'll go," Buck offered as he ducked out.
Once he was gone, Lou stepped forward.
"Why the doctor, Jimmy?"
Jimmy lifted the girl's sleeves revealing the scratches and bruises and then pushed her hair aside so that they could see the marks on her neck as well.
"She's prone enough to tantrums that I thought maybe she did at least some of it to herself but I think we need to know what happened, what they did to her."
Jimmy was still holding Susan tight to him when the doctor appeared at the door. The others left save Teaspoon who knew that the information gleaned may be helpful in an investigation of the men who murdered Susan's family but even he turned his back to allow for some privacy during the examination.
"Who's your friend Jimmy?"
Jimmy looked up at the doctor.
"Her name's Susan," he began, "Her family was, um, killed. She says the men that did it hurt her. She's got marks on her. I just want to know what happened."
"Well, put her down and I'll have a look," Doc Bates sighed, examining a child who'd been a victim was never how he wanted to spend a day, "I'll ask you to step outside."
Jimmy worked to extricate himself from Susan's grasp but he shook his head at the last part.
"I'm not leaving her. She trusts me and she don't know you."
"I'm not going to hurt her Jimmy."
"Well, I know that but she don't. And trust me; she ain't going to want you to touch her. If I ain't here, you won't have a prayer."
"I think I can handle a simple examination of a little girl."
Jimmy shook his head once more with a finality that said he'd not be giving in on this.
"She's frightened enough and I'm not leaving her."
"Jimmy no leave."
"Of course not Susan. I promised, didn't I?"
"Oh," said the doctor, "I didn't realize she was-"
"I was going to say simple."
Teaspoon felt the need to respond to this.
"Believe me Doc, that girl is a lot of things but simple ain't one of 'em."
The doctor merely sighed, this was going to be more difficult than he originally thought and asking the girl anything was probably pointless. He reached out to touch Susan who recoiled. Reluctantly Doc Bates looked at Jimmy imploring him to do something.
"Susan, Doc Bates is a friend."
"That's right and friends help."
"Now to help, he needs to find out how those men hurt you and make sure you're going to be okay."
"Bad men. Bad men."
She would have been thrashing but Jimmy immobilized her and spoke softly in her ear.
"Susan, the bad men are gone and I won't let 'em get you, not ever."
The girl stopped struggling but held fast to Jimmy's neck. Her reaction to the memory of the "bad men" was something that Doc Bates could understand. He had seen women who'd been beaten before and he knew that giving control back to the victim was paramount.
"I have an idea Jimmy. You do the examination. You won't be causing her any pain and I can tell you what I need to see. Does that sound alright to you?"
"I can do that," Jimmy turned his attention to Susan, "Doc Bates isn't going to touch you but he needs to be here so we can help you."
"We need to see where the bad men hurt you."
Jimmy was about to push the girl's sleeves up to reveal the marks on her arms but she moved first, still expressionless and looking no one in the eye, she raised her skirt. Jimmy felt the anger boil within him and wanted more than anything to punch something but instead he touched her hands and lowered the hem of her skirt. He looked over at the doctor.
"You're not going to make her, I mean, you don't need to…"
He was pleading and really didn't want anyone to know how close to tears he was at that moment. There was no way he wanted to expose this poor girl and have anyone ever touch her like that again, no matter the reason.
"I'm afraid I have to see what kind of damage was done to her. No one has to touch her."
Once the examination was over, Doc Bates left the bunkhouse with Teaspoon right behind him.
"She going to be okay, Doc?"
"She's healing but there's no way of telling what internal damage might have been done until she's grown. I'll never get over the cruelty that some people can visit on another, Marshal."
"I hear ya, Doc," Teaspoon replied, "I hear ya."
"What are you going to do with the girl?"
"I ain't rightly figured that out yet. We got no way of knowing if she's got kin out there somewhere."
"Well, there are institutions that will take in children like her."
Doc Bates picked up quickly on Teaspoon's expression that told him that institutions of that sort were not places he'd consider sending little Susan and took his leave. Teaspoon knocked on the door of the bunkhouse and waited a moment before entering. He found Jimmy and Susan sitting at the table looking over her drawings. He actually felt his heart swell a bit in pride at seeing the young man, once so headstrong and violent, physically sheltering this wounded waif of a child. He imagined that some men felt this pride at seeing a grown son with a grandchild and perhaps that is exactly what he was feeling. He sat himself down across from the table from the unlikely pair and first addressed Susan.
"Hello there Susan. My name is Teaspoon."
He saw the little girl shrink into Jimmy and he wasn't sure if his heart was breaking for her fear and pain or filling with gratitude that she at least had one person in the world who made her feel safe.
"It's alright, Susan," Jimmy comforted without a second thought, "Teaspoon is a real good friend."
She reached across the table and Teaspoon looked at Jimmy for, well he wasn't sure, but Jimmy nodded and Teaspoon put his hand close enough to Susan's that she could touch him. It was a small gesture but he had seen enough of her behavior that day to know the weight of it and he felt a lump set itself firmly in his throat. He swallowed hard to dislodge it before asking his question.
"How old are you Susan?"
"Yes, honey, how old are you?"
Susan didn't answer directly but wiggled her fingers in front of her a bit before counting them off.
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Susan eleven."
"That's real good Susan," Jimmy praised, "You're a smart girl, you know that?"
The door opened to the bunkhouse and in walked Noah, covered head to boot in dust from his ride and Susan looked to be trying to make herself as small as possible in the presence of this new person. Jimmy stroked her hair tenderly.
"Now Susan," he admonished gently, "You can't keep being scared of every new person you meet. I promised you something. Do you remember what it was?"
Noah, for his part looked completely confused. He'd only been gone a day and everything was different, it seemed.
"New rider?" asked Noah.
"You know, Noah," Teaspoon said, "That might not be a half bad idea. She's not that much smaller'n Lou. How'd you like that Susan? Would you like to ride for the Pony Express like Jimmy here?"
"You'd better be kidding Teaspoon," Jimmy warned, "Riding's way too dangerous for her."
Teaspoon winked at Jimmy knowing that Susan wouldn't see it.
"Well, I think you just aren't giving her a chance Jimmy. And just to teach you a lesson, I think you need to be in charge of teaching her the job."
Jimmy caught wise.
"I'll give it a shot Teaspoon. Who knows, you might be right about this."
Noah also seemed to understand the deeper reasoning behind Teaspoon's suggestion.
"Susan, would you come with me? I sure could use the help with the horses."
The girl stood up.
Noah held his hand out to the little girl but she walked right past him so he just turned to follow her.
"She's out of the way Teaspoon," Jimmy said once she was out the door, "What is it?"
"I just thought we should talk about what might happen to her."
"What do you mean?"
"Doc Bates had a suggestion," Teaspoon tentatively ventured, "He said there are institutions that might take her in."
"What kind of institutions?"
"I would imagine he's talking about asylums or hospitals. You know she's probably not looking at what anyone would call a normal life."
"I don't think I could send her somewhere like that," Jimmy's voice rose half an octave as he spoke; "she's not sick or crazy or stupid. You wouldn't make me send her away, would you?"
"What if I said I would?"
"I don't think I could work here anymore. It wouldn't be like when I said I quit and didn't really mean to leave. I'd really have to leave."
"That's a lot of responsibility Jimmy. She can't live on her own and even when she's grown she won't be able to live on her own and I don't think she'll be getting married and finding some man to take care of her."
Jimmy pondered his mentor's words a moment.
"I just can't send her off like that. She's a person Teaspoon. I see her coming out of her shell as she meets everyone here. She responds more every time I talk to her. I just don't see how locking her in some warehouse for crazy or sick people is going to help her."
"Alright then, she stays at least for now. She's kinda growing on me too so I was hoping you'd say something like that. 'Sides, I need her around at least until we catch the bad men as she calls them. Might need her to testify."
"Now Teaspoon," Jimmy started concerned, "She's doing better but I don't know if she could answer questions."
"Son, why don't you just let me worry about that?"
Jimmy looked down at the tablet.
"Look at this Teaspoon."
The picture depicted Teaspoon as she would have seen him during her examination; he was drawn in profile facing a wall as he had turned himself so as not to look at what the doctor was doing and wouldn't he know it, that little girl had even caught the tear that was sliding down his cheek. Underneath she had written: No cry Teaspoon Susan fine. It almost brought another tear to him.
"Damn," Teaspoon choked, "I think I'd quit before I let you send her away now."
"Yeah, for someone who seems so unaware of the people around her, she sure knows how to worm her way into a person's heart. She had me wrapped around her finger last night when I tucked her in and she threw her arms around me."
"Well, I'd say she wasn't playin' fair with you Jimmy." Rachel said from the doorway where she'd been listening in.
Jimmy jumped up.
"Where's Susan? Is she okay?"
"Relax," soothed Rachel, "She's fine. Well, she's actually better than fine. You didn't tell us how good she is with animals. She and Ike are having a ball out there."
"I didn't know. She must be feeling more comfortable."
"She's talking more too and didn't holler or try to hide when Jesse came home from work. I'm starting to get used to her tone."
"I know that takes a bit and I'm glad she's taking to the place and all of us so well because we just decided that she's stayin' on for a while."
"Well, that's good. I need to be starting supper. Either of you two gentlemen want to give me a hand?"
Teaspoon agreed to set the table while Jimmy begged off completely and went outside to check up on Susan. He could see her in the coral on a horse with Ike leading her around. He didn't want to interrupt that moment, he could see she was happy, not that she was smiling but she was so relaxed that he could just tell. He made to walk over to where nearly all of his rider friends were gathered around Susan but he heard a noise behind the bunkhouse. Jimmy peered around the corner to see Lou sitting on the ground crying into her knees which were pulled up tightly to her chest. He sat down next to her.
"You okay Lou?" he asked, "Kid's not being difficult again is he?"
The last part was added in more a desperate attempt to make her smile than an actual accusation. It didn't work but she lifted her pained and tear-stained face to him.
"We all heard what happened to her Jimmy and it just ain't right."
The last word was mostly lost in a new barrage of tears. And Jimmy understood where Lou's pain was coming from.
"At least she's got you, Jimmy. I'd've given anything to have had a protector like you."
"Well, day late and dollar short but you got me now. And Kid and the rest. I can't make that right, what happened to you but I can make damn sure it never happens again."
"I know Jimmy. It's funny but you and Kid took it the hardest when I told you what happened. Kid I get because we're, well, close."
"Kid and I both grew up watching our mamas hurt. There's two ways I figure a man can go from that. Either he decides that's the way to treat a woman or he decides that it's not. Kid and I both came up on the same side of that. Not saying anyone here thinks a lady should be treated like you were but the two of us just feel it stronger."
"How are you doing with this Jimmy? With Susan, with finding out what happened; I haven't seen you hit or shoot anything so I'm wondering how you're dealing with this."
"If I could get my hands on those men right now, I can guarantee they'd never hurt another little girl or any living soul for that matter. I guess it just seemed more important to take care of her though, than to punch something."
"She looks a natural on that horse."
"Yeah, she does but I'd better get her off him. She needs to wash up for dinner."
"Now that," Lou stated quite matter of factly, "sounded like words coming out of a daddy's mouth."
Jimmy whipped his head around and tried to protest.
"It's a good look on you. I think fatherhood suits you better than being a gunfighter."
"But I ain't her daddy."
"No," Lou said sadly, "Her daddy's dead. But you're right here."
The bunch made it through dinner marveling at how Susan continued to draw while she ate and followed their conversation with her occasional parroting of things they would say. It was noted by each but not said aloud how the girl would look up and watch Ike's hands when he signed and then would repeat part of whatever he had said. None of them had ever seen someone catch onto the signing that quickly. After dinner Rachel took her into her house to get the little girl ready for bed, all were planning on Susan sleeping in Rachel's extra room. Jimmy and the boys, plus Lou were settling down for the night themselves when there was a knock on the door. Rachel barely waited for a "Come in" before she did just that with little Susan in tow. Jimmy looked up and smiled at the girl who tried to mimic the expression to no real success. He then looked questioningly at Rachel.
"I got her into her night gown and that's where things fell apart. I tried the blanket thing like you told me but nothing is settling her down. She nearly hit me with the brush about five times just screaming 'Jimmy do it' over and over."
"Susan," Jimmy started in tenderly while the little girl climbed up next to him and wormed her way onto his lap, "Why on earth would you want me to do this? Rachel is way better at it. She's a girl like you."
His words were lost on the child who just kept on thrusting the brush into his hand. Jimmy sighed his resignation, took the brush and started working the day's tangles out of her hair. He looked at the bemused faces of his friends.
"Do all of you know 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'? She seems to like it and I'm not singing a solo tonight."
Jimmy got her hair brushed and was as amazed as he had been the night before that what had looked like a jumbled pile of straw was now something more closely resembling corn silk.
"You want me to teach you how to braid?" Lou piped up and Jimmy was about to snap at her until he saw her face was sincere. She wasn't mocking him, she was trying to help.
"I guess I'd better learn sometime, huh?"
"It's not hard, I'll show you."
Soon Susan had two braids, one much better executed that the other but Jimmy felt pretty good about his first attempt at the new skill.
"There you go, now you run along to bed."
"Tuck in night-night."
Susan pulled on Jimmy's hand and he looked to Rachel for some indication of what he should do.
"I guess you'd better come on and tuck the poor child in, then Jimmy."
"Tuck in night-night Jimmy."
He quickly pulled on his pants and shoved his feet into his boots before scooping Susan into his arms. He whispered something to her that none of the others heard.
"Thank you Lou," the child said, "Thank you for braids."
"You are very welcome Susan. It was my pleasure."
The rest of the riders called goodnight as Jimmy carried Susan out toward the house. Once inside, he convinced Susan to crawl into the bed as the girl looked to him expectantly.
"Rachel, did I tell you about her book?"
"No, I didn't even know she had one."
"It should be in her sack of things I brought. Gulliver's Travels, I read her a chapter last night and I think she's waiting for me to read her some more."
Rachel produced the book and sat down on a chair in the corner to listen as Jimmy read the next chapter. When Jimmy finished and marked the new place with the piece of yarn, he looked down at Susan.
"Do I still get a hug?"
As if she had been waiting for the invitation the little girl sat up and threw her arms around this man who had saved her when things were the worst they had ever been in her life. Somewhere in her mind, were words that Susan feared she'd never be able to say to this man but she knew that he seemed to understand some of them when she hugged him. A tear escaped her and he pulled back a little when he felt it on his neck.
"Hey, now," he half cooed at her, "What's this?"
He was afraid she was in pain as he'd never seen her cry. He'd seen her thrash and scream and yell and make the same noises as a person crying but never actually cry.
"Are you hurt?"
"Are you sad?"
He wasn't sure what else to ask but he figured if she wasn't hurt or sad then maybe she was alright. He tried to straighten up to leave but ended up taking Susan with him as she would not release his neck. He sat back down on the edge of the bed.
"Susan, honey, you have to let go so you can sleep. I'll just be in the bunkhouse with the guys."
Still he couldn't seem to get his neck back from the little girl.
"You know, Jimmy," Rachel started, "Sometimes when kids are scared, they sleep with their parents. Didn't you ever crawl in bed with your mama?"
"My father wouldn't allow it but she'd come into bed with me if I had a bad dream."
He closed his eyes remembering falling asleep in his mother's tender embrace and how safe it made him feel and he hadn't even been afraid of anything real, just images in a dream. This poor child had real monsters to fear and he was the one who had promised to keep them away. Of course she wasn't going to be okay with him being in a different building.
"What do I do Rachel?"
"I think tonight you should sleep in here and we'll worry about the future tomorrow."
He turned his attention to the girl in his arms.
"Will that be okay, Susan? You want me to sleep in here with you?"
Jimmy was able to tuck her back in and then lay down on top of the blankets next to her. Susan fingered her blanket and Jimmy stroked her hair until they were both asleep.
Sometime in the night, Rachel crept in and spread another blanket over Jimmy. Tears stabbed at her eyes to see the two of them each gripping the other as if life depended on it, not just their lives but all life. Rachel felt like an intruder into this moment of peace for two very tortured souls but she couldn't stop herself from taking that seat in the corner once more and watching them a bit. She loved these boys and she made no quarrel about it. They were family and if she weren't truly their mother, she felt she could at least be that dear, trusted aunt. They all worried her, each in their way; maybe because she knew she came to them far too late in the game to change things for them. But Rachel believed in miracles and in her heart knew there was a God who did indeed work in mysterious ways. If she couldn't be the one that He worked through to help these boys defeat their demons then she prayed every night and parts of the days too that someone or something would come that would save each of these young men, and the one young woman from horrible fates. She had already seen them be a salvation for each other. Kid and Lou would be fine, somehow. They had each other and in that had found a renewed faith in love and tomorrow. Things they had stopped believing in at far too tender ages. She'd always worry for Ike's tenderness and Cody's ego and for Noah; what those boys still felt they had to prove was beyond her. But then she knew them and others did not. And what would become of poor Buck? He had found a home here with young men as outcast as he but when the Express ended, and it would, where would he go?
She always knew where Jimmy would end up without the interceding hand of God. It made her weep to think on it but she knew. Even worse was knowing that he knew it too. She could see it in his eyes. He knew where everyone was going in their own time and he was fully aware he'd get there before the rest of them. It made him a good friend who always had your back because he knew it wasn't destined for him to bury his friends. In fact, he seemed angered when God didn't see things that way and tried to take any of the others before him. It was like they had a deal and God was welching on it. She let the tears flow freely as she was want to do when she knew no one was watching and she hoped and prayed with all the strength in her that this little girl could be the angel God sent to save this young man. He had so much within him that the readers of those worthless books would never know or care about. But she saw it. And silently she prayed.
"Dear God, Please, please let this be a rope you're throwing him. He's a good man. I'm sure no matter what happened in the past he was always a good boy at heart too. I know you see that. I see the road he's on and he does too. Please, just give him a choice, a fork in that road; please let this little girl be an angel to lead him to a different path. For her sake as well as his. Amen."
Jimmy had rolled on his back and the little girl had found the crook of his shoulder to sleep in and she had wound her hand into a piece of his long hair and was running it between her fingers the way she did with that ratty old blanket she carried. Rachel wished she possessed the artistic skill Susan did just so that she could capture this moment but she knew she'd just have to save it in her mind and felt grateful to have been able to witness it. No matter what happened in the future, what grief or joy may come, this was how she would picture "Wild Bill" Hickok when she thought on him. Noiselessly she turned and went to her own room to sleep.
Susan woke first. She sat up slowly and looked at her protector as he slept. Only the day before she had been at her home and had sat and watched him sleeping for a while. He was so beautiful when he slept, and when he ate and when he spoke and maybe most of all when he smiled. For whatever anyone thought of her, Susan was not a stupid girl, she knew that she was far too young for this man who had come to rescue her. Once her mother had read a story of knights and Susan believed that her Jimmy would have made a fine knight. She climbed from the bed and took up her pad of paper and sat in the chair in the corner to get a better perspective on her subject. She drew for a bit and then determined that she needed to get closer to get his features correct. As she drew, she became transfixed on the small cut on his lip. She knew she had been the cause of it and felt terrible that she had done anything to mar that perfect face. Susan couldn't help herself and extended her hand to touch the small wound. He was surely a very good man to still want to help her after she did that. Her touch woke Jimmy and he looked up to see Susan staring down at him and then looking back to her pad and making some marks. She noticed his open eyes and patted his head to try to get him to hold still so she could work at getting those eyes right. For all of the words she could not speak aloud, those eyes spoke all of them and many, many more. Jimmy laid back and allowed the girl to finish her drawing. In truth he felt right uncomfortable and hoped the others never saw him posing for a portrait in this fashion but he was coming quickly to the conclusion that there was nothing in the world he'd not do for this child. At last she finished and turned the paper to face him. The caption read "Sir Jimmy" and the picture depicted him on his horse, in armor but with his own hat. She had illustrated his guns holstered to the armor and showed him raising an ornate sword.
"A knight, huh?"
"Knight in shining armor."
A smile spread across Jimmy's face as he got himself up from the bed.
"I don't think I know the first thing about knights or being one but if you say so, I'll take your word for it. If I'm a knight, what does that make you?"
"Da-damsel in d-distress."
"I guess that's the truth then. Well, my damsel," he said as he headed out the door pausing only to kiss the top of her head, "I'll see you for breakfast once you get yourself dressed."
With that he was out the door. Jimmy sat down for breakfast to questioning looks from his friends.
"What? You all just going to sit there staring at me?"
"We were just wondering where the rest of you was," said Kid laughing.
Before Jimmy could answer, Susan stood in the doorway.
"Well," said Teaspoon leaning back in his chair, "I see our little princess now."
Susan didn't respond but walked right over to sit next to Jimmy. He reflexively placed a hand on her back as she settled herself at the table. The gesture was not lost on anyone of those assembled. Teaspoon wiped his mouth and then spoke.
"Susan, I need to ask you something and it's kind of important."
The girl turned her head to the direction of his voice but did not cease her staring at the tabletop.
"What's your last name?"
"Exactly. Like Jimmy there, he's not just Jimmy he's-"
"Hickok, Jimmy Hickok."
"So you do understand me. I need to know your parents names and your full one."
Susan's speech was halting and Jimmy wasn't sure she'd succeed in getting everything out but it was obvious that she had rehearsed this at some point.
"Elias Robert Casey. Elizabeth Susan Casey. Joseph Robert Casey. Thomas Michael Casey. Susan Elizabeth Casey."
"Thank you Susan, or should I call you Miss Casey to be more proper?"
After the meal, Susan went out to help Ike with the animals and Jimmy stayed behind with Teaspoon.
"What was that about?"
Teaspoon adjusted his hat before speaking.
"We got the description of the men what killed her family but before we can start asking people to come forward, I needed to know who these bad men killed."
Jimmy was entirely torn on whether he even wanted these men caught. On the one hand, the Casey's hadn't deserved killing and what they did to Susan ought to be punished. But on the other hand, catching them would mean a trial and that meant his little damsel in distress would be in even more distress. He jumped when he heard someone enter and turned to find Rachel setting up another bunk.
"What are you doing that for, Rachel?"
"Well, she's got to have a place to sleep and Lord knows she won't sleep in the house with me unless you're there and I get enough gossipy talk from the town without a young handsome man sleeping in my house every night."
"But sleeping out here with the guys?" he implored, "Is that really where a little girl belongs?"
"Lou seems to be just fine."
"I don't see how. You fellas somehow manage to not be too improper with her here, just make the same considerations for your new bunkmate."
Jimmy didn't like this at all and it's wasn't because he thought any of the riders would be improper or say something they oughtn't or that she'd see anything a young girl shouldn't see. He wasn't even really sure why he didn't want her in there but it just felt wrong. He walked out toward the corral where he found Lou leaning over the rail watching Susan help Ike saddle one of the horses.
"Lou," he began, "Rachel thinks Susan should sleep in the bunkhouse with us."
"Probably a good idea; she sure is attached to you Jimmy."
"Well, you're a girl and you sleep there, is it really alright for her to be there?"
"You guys can be a little too, well, just too much. But mostly you're pretty good about things and I don't think I turned out too badly."
Jimmy considered this for a bit and stayed silent just watching Susan. Lou grew concerned for him; she could see he was trying so hard to do what was right for this girl. Lou knew he'd figure it out just fine, he had a good protective instinct and, while she never considered it before she could see him as a father.
"Was there something else worrying you Jimmy?"
"You know I slept in with Susan last night because she was scared."
"Yeah, I thought that was real sweet of you to do for her."
"Ain't about sweet, I'd do anything for her. Thing is I get why she's scared, I do but all I see is the fear and I know she's feeling more than that. I don't think she knows how to show it but she must feel it. I don't even know how to ask this, Lou, but well you know what she's feeling and…"
"You think maybe I could talk to her about it?" Lou finished.
"I wouldn't ask this of you, I know it's hard to think on, but she's well, I-"
"You care about her Jimmy and you want her to be happy."
Jimmy hadn't considered what he actually felt about this little girl but he supposed Lou was right. It wasn't how he would love a woman and it wasn't the way he loved his sisters, though that was closer. Maybe he was feeling something like what a father would feel for his daughter. That thought scared him half to death if he was honest. What did he know about being a father? He had so many conflicting messages from his own father and then when he left home he didn't exactly find the best role models for fatherhood. There was Teaspoon; he was a good father figure. It seemed that whether he felt he knew what he was doing or not, he was the only one to take care of Susan and he did, in fact, love her. Maybe that would be enough to know what to do for her.
Jimmy had grown silent again and Lou wished sometimes that she knew what went through his mind when he brooded like that.
"Jimmy," she said and his attention turned to her, "I'll talk to her. It'll be nice to know that what I went through might help someone else."
Lou called to Susan who came over without ever looking at the person who called to her.
"Susan, I thought we might go for a walk for a bit. I know a nice spot where you'd find lots of pretty things to draw. Will you come with me?"
Susan turned toward Jimmy.
"I don't know," Jimmy started to protest but Lou cut him off.
"Sure Jimmy can come, who else would protect us ladies if he stayed here?"
Jimmy looked uncertainly at Lou but she just nodded at him. The three of them wandered off a ways and Lou brought them to a nice and uncharacteristically green spot, it was a place she came often to think and sometimes she and Kid came here as well. Lou leaned toward and spoke softly to Jimmy.
"Stay close. She'll need you."
"Lou," Jimmy was aware he was whining. There were things in life a man never wanted to hear about his sisters or daughters or any woman he cared for and what he was about to hear topped that list.
"You took her in, Jimmy. You promised to keep her safe. You made the commitment. So you have to stay here. I know it'll be hard for you but whatever you're feeling'll be nothing compared to what she's going through."
Lou sat down and patted for Susan to do the same, which she did. Jimmy chose a spot a few feet away.
"Can I look at your pictures?"
Lou held out her hand and Susan placed the tablet in it. Lou flipped through a few smiling at the apt depictions of her found family. She stopped and blinked back the moisture in her eyes when she saw the picture Susan had drawn of Kid and Lou together. The tenderness between them was almost palpable. Lou then flipped to the next page and stifled a giggle when she saw "Sir Jimmy". She grew somber though when she thought of how Susan must have felt hiding alone before her champion rode in on his trusty steed. She also saw that Susan was a bit more mixed up than Lou or Jimmy had known. She'd have to address this with Jimmy at some point.
"Susan, do you know why I wanted to talk to you?"
Susan remained silent so Lou just sighed and continued speaking.
"I know what happened to you and I know what that's like. It happened to me too."
Susan reached over and patted Lou's hand. That simple gesture made it nearly impossible for Lou to continue speaking but she forged ahead anyway.
"I was young when it happened too; much too young for a man to look at me that way. I knew what was happening though. Do you understand what they did to you?"
"I know they hurt you but there are different kinds of hurt. What they did to you, do you know what that was?"
"How babies are made."
Lou sighed but wasn't sure if she was glad or not that Susan had at least some working knowledge of human biology.
"Right, that's how babies are made. But not for you."
"Susan too young."
"I'm glad you understand that part. Anyway, when it happened to me, it hurt for days. Are you still hurting?"
"Hurt go away."
Lou wanted more than anything to hug this poor child but she knew better. Susan hugged Jimmy and had patted a couple others and she'd let Ike help her on and off a horse but no one aside from Jimmy dared initiate contact with her.
"I'm glad it doesn't hurt anymore. You're a brave little girl, you know that?"
"It must have been scary. I know when I was hurt, I felt a lot of things. I was scared and sad and mad too. I didn't trust anyone for a real long time. And when the time came that I felt those grown up feelings for someone, it was real hard for me to act on them at first. It was hard to believe that men weren't all like the one that hurt me."
"That's right and you need to remember that; the men who hurt you are bad men and most men aren't bad like that. The good ones want more than just that one thing."
"He is. I'm very lucky to have found a man like him. But he's not the only good man out there."
"They are a good bunch of fellas aren't they?"
Susan had been drawing through their conversation and she tapped the page to draw Lou's attention. It was a picture of Lou smiling, her eyes sparkling.
"That's a real nice picture Susan."
Susan just kept tapping the paper, specifically tapping at the smiling mouth.
"You want me to smile? Well, I would sure like a hug. I think that might make me smile. Can I hug you Susan?"
There was no answer so Lou took a chance and wrapped her arms around the girl and soon found Susan's arms around her own body. Susan petted Lou's hair and the effort of this wounded little girl to bring her comfort made the tears well in Lou's eyes. She blinked them back and forced a smile.
As the trio headed back for home, Lou let Susan venture ahead and pulled Jimmy closer to her.
"She likes you Jimmy."
"Of course she does, I'm likable and besides, I saved her."
"I mean, she's got a crush. She's all mixed up right now, you are everything to her, brother, father and well, anything else that a man might be to a young lady."
"You're wrong Lou; she's too young for such thoughts."
"She's plenty old enough to have a crush and right now, that's all it is. With what happened to her, she won't want to act on those feelings for quite a while, if ever and hopefully she'll know by then that well, it's not to be."
"I didn't mean for it to happen."
"Of course you didn't and you didn't do anything wrong. She's just mixed up. Don't treat her different than you have. She needs you and she needs the love and comfort you give her."
"This is confusing Lou."
"That's why you got me and Rachel to help you."
Days passed and Susan settled in a little more every day. She slept in the bunkhouse and bristled every time Jimmy suggested she go back to Rachel's so he stopped bringing it up. They discovered that Susan was a voracious reader although she still preferred that someone else read to her at night. The riders took turns with this and they added songs to their repertoire for when Jimmy brushed her hair. All in all, Susan had become one of them and had gotten to feeling so comfortable that it occurred to none of them that a meltdown was on the horizon. Of course they all knew Jimmy would be scheduled for a ride sooner or later. They just had all seemed to forget how much she had once clung to their friend. The morning came and Jimmy saddled Sundance to find Susan leading one of the other horses out next to him.
"What are you doing?" he asked with a smile.
"Go with Jimmy."
"Sweetheart, you can't come with me. I have to work now."
"Susan, you can't come with me. I'll be back soon. I promise."
He tried to give her a hug to comfort her or to say goodbye or, well, he wasn't all sure what but he felt like he should hug her. But she pulled away and began to scream and thrash and threw herself on the ground. The rest of the riders came running when they heard the ruckus.
"What'd you do to her Jimmy," asked Cody, "She hasn't acted like that since she first got here."
"I don't know," Jimmy answered honestly, "I's just trying to give her a hug goodbye. She thought she was going to come with me."
The others understood immediately and really, Jimmy did too, he just didn't want to admit that he had been oblivious to how this would affect her. But he knelt down to her anyway.
"Susan, I'm sorry. I didn't think at all. We should've talked about this and that's my fault. You see the guys come and go here. It's like that. I'll go but I'll be back and you know that this bunch will keep you safe."
Lou decided she ought to help him out or else he wouldn't be ready in time.
"Remember when we talked and even you said the riders were good men? Well, the good men protect young ladies. None of us would let anyone hurt you."
Jimmy picked the girl up onto his lap and held her close to him.
"No, no hurt; not ever again."
"I'll miss you too. But I'll be back tomorrow."
He kissed her forehead and then stood when he heard the call of "rider coming".
"You be good now."
"I know you are."
Jimmy swung himself into the saddle, took the pouch and he was off. But he realized that his mind never left the station and perhaps never would again for every time he closed his eyes, even for a moment he saw Susan. The others probably didn't know how often he prayed for something, anything to be a reason for him to settle down. He'd hoped it might come in the form of a woman to love, to wed. He didn't hold for much hope. He didn't figure many women would want to deal with him and his moody nature. Emma used to say that someday he'd find a girl who'd love him and he wanted to believe her. He wasn't sure if he did but then here was this angel in his life and while she was too young to be the woman he'd dreamt of, she was something, someone to make him want to be a better person, someone to believe he could be. Her trust, while some would say misplaced, made him want to be the man, the knight, she envisioned him to be. Now who would have ever thought that an eleven year old girl would be the angel to lead him to becoming a better man or that he'd just stumble upon her?
Still Jimmy found himself wondering as he rode if he was being selfish. He knew she was capable of saving him but could he really save her? She looked to him as a father now and he knew he was beginning to sound and maybe even look like one in how he treated her. But he wasn't sure he was up to that task. Maybe no man felt he was but most men started with a baby, not a scared and scarred near to teenage girl. He didn't really know the first thing about rearing a child; he'd never really had that and hadn't been around near enough to see how it worked with girls. Hell, if not for Lou, he wouldn't even have any decent experience at being a big brother. He knew he had failed Celinda and Lydia miserably at that. Celinda seemed willing to forgive him and he was grateful but it didn't change the fact that he had abandoned them when they needed him and thought only of himself. And for what else Lou had mentioned, well, there had been women but to have this child so vulnerable and trusting starting to take a liking to him, it was too much. The responsible thing would be to find another home for her. Of course that would be no small feat. Most would say that she belonged in an asylum or hospital and he knew she didn't. But it went far beyond that. He just didn't want to send her away. He wanted to take care of her. He had promised things to her not out of pity or of any obligation in being the one that found her. He made the promises because he wanted to keep them.
Jimmy sighed. This was going to be a mighty long ride.
Back at the station, Susan stared off into the distance until Jimmy's silhouette disappeared over the horizon. She seemed to deflate a little once she could no longer see him. Kid looked uncomfortably at Lou.
"Who'd've thought Jimmy'd be a daddy before me?"
"And who would've guessed," added Cody, "That he'd be this good at it?"
"Certainly not when we met him, that's for sure," agreed Buck.
They turned their attention back to the little girl who was standing and wafting back and forth as if blown by a wind only she could feel. Noah got an idea.
"Hey Susan, Rachel brought home a book yesterday that I think you'd like. You want to come with me and read?"
Susan lifted her hand to take Noah's and he was touched at the contact. Maybe Jimmy was right and she would function better once she got comfortable around them all. Together they walked to the bunkhouse and Noah sat the girl at the table and then put the book in front of her. She began to read it silently.
"I was thinking; why don't you try reading to me? Like how we all read out loud at night now. You started that for us and it's real nice to hear a story out loud like that."
Susan screwed her face up for a moment and then relaxed it.
"Right, it's only me here and I know you understand all the words. Think what a surprise it'll be for Jimmy when he comes home and you can read to him instead of him reading to you. He'll be so proud."
"Proud of Susan."
Before Noah could respond, Susan began reading again and this time out loud. Her voice was hesitant and she stumbled to speak aloud words he knew flowed perfectly in her head. He had a theory that since she understood the words she read and heard and she could speak some words, that if she could practice saying them that eventually she might speak more normally. When Lou came in a little later, Susan was still reading away and very quietly the others joined and sat to listen as they each finished their chores for the day. At some point someone put a sandwich next to Susan and she ate while keeping engrossed in her book and taking the others along on the journey. Evening drew near and Rachel came in to start dinner and stopped dead in her tracks at hearing the halting and sometimes timid voice reading the book. The others looked up and placed fingers over their lips to indicate that Susan shouldn't be interrupted so Rachel went about cooking while listening to the last few chapters of Ivanhoe. She could hardly believe her ears. She wasn't sure which of the young men, or if it was the young woman, she should hug for this gift but she thought that hearing Susan speaking in complete sentences, even if the words were not her own, was perhaps the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. Outside, on the porch, the riders all heard Teaspoon and Jesse coming in for dinner and it was Kid who slipped outside to explain things and ensure their quiet cooperation to keep Susan reading. It might have been perfect timing on the part of fate or it might have been Rachel's doing but dinner was not ready until Susan had spoken the last word of the text in front of her. She looked up to see all of her new circle of people surrounding her with smiles. But only Noah spoke.
"I knew you could do that, Susan. I just knew you could."
Susan tried to make her face into a smile but she just couldn't get it quite right. She concentrated a great deal on her response and the riders all seemed to understand that she was trying to speak so none of them spoke over her or tried to rush her.
"Yes, you sure did."
The others all looked at each other shocked that she could speak in a sentence that she formed herself but Noah felt only validation and a pride that he could now feel as though he'd paid Jimmy back a little for the things his gun slinging friend had done for him. Jimmy could have walked on by at many a point when they had first met and he certainly didn't have to do all he did to get Noah away from Barnes. Noah knew it had taken a lot for Jimmy to even turn to his sister for help. There was so much Noah felt the need to repay Jimmy for and he knew he never would, not completely anyway, but bringing words back to this little girl, Jimmy's little girl was a start.
He turned when he heard Susan say his name.
"Will Jimmy be proud?"
It was a question but of course with her still flat tone, it didn't sound much like one.
"I'm sure he will. I know I'm very proud of you."
Later that night, Susan fought for sleep and just could not manage it. She knew that she was safe and that these friends of Jimmy's would allow no harm to come to her. They had quickly become like brothers to her, except for Teaspoon who was more like an uncle or grandfather. And of course Rachel and Lou who were like sisters, she supposed. Susan had never had sisters. Jesse reminded her so of Tom, he had been the younger of her brothers. He was so busy with his own things that he paid her little mind. He loved her though, Tom did. She knew it because sometimes, he would go for walks with her and tell her all about people he would meet or books he had read or really anything that popped into his head. The rest of the riders were like Joe. He was the one who took time to help her read and talk better. With Joe around, she always knew that someone would wait for her to get the words out. These men and women were so like a family to her now but still she missed her own family. She wasn't stupid like so many people tried to say and she understood death. She knew she'd never see her parents or her real brothers again and she was grateful for the family Jimmy had brought her to. Still, she was so used to his form being in the bunk right next to hers that she was unable to find slumber without him there. She thought about trying to crawl in with one of the other riders but wasn't sure how they'd take to that. So she did the next best thing in her mind, she climbed into Jimmy's bed and mashed her face into his pillow. It smelled like him and she figured that would just have to do until he got home. In her mind she pictured her real family and this new one and most of the pictures that flitted through her mind were of her rescuer, her Jimmy. And it was with his smile warming her thoughts that she was finally able to drift off to sleep.
Susan was awakened by the smells emanating from Rachel's breakfast preparations. The other riders were already up and had taken full notice of which bunk she was sleeping in and just let her be. Nearly all of them had known a time when they had clung to a place or object because of the person it reminded them of. And still there were times when Lou found herself in Kid's bunk when he was away. It had nothing to do with the romantic nature of their relationship but because when the nightmares came the scent of him could hold them at bay.
Cody was the first to notice the little girl sitting up and blinking the sleep from her eyes.
"Well, good morning Princess Sleepyhead. How are you today?"
Susan opened her mouth unsure whether it would work or not. She had to be very at ease for things to come out the way she wanted them to. She knew how people interacted with each other. Joe had gone over and over it with her but when she was frightened, well nothing worked quite right at all.
"Ve-very well Cody, th-thank you. Ho-how are you?"
She tried to look him in the eye like Joe had told her she ought to do when she spoke to people. She didn't understand the purpose of that but Joe had said it made people feel better about the person they were talking to. She managed to meet his gaze for a very brief moment. Susan glanced around at the stunned faces and wondered if she had said something wrong. She had been so sure that she said it right but now she just didn't know. Susan wanted to just disappear until she heard Ike tap the table to get her attention.
'It's okay. We've just never seen him speechless before.'
Ike's eyes were so kind and reassuring that she couldn't help herself, she went to him and hugged him tightly.
"Did I say it right, Ike?" the words were spoken softly into his shirt.
He smoothed her hair and patted her back and Cody, realizing that it was his reaction that had caused her upset, crouched next to the pair.
"You said it just right Susan. I'm just not used to it is all. I'm sorry I made you feel bad, I didn't react right."
Tentatively Cody placed a hand on her back and she tensed for only a moment. She typically did not enjoy being touched and she especially did not like being touched without warning. Physical contact of even the most benign nature was near to painful for her. But there were exceptions and those had always been her family. Joe could scoop her into a hug whenever he wanted and it never frightened her and it never hurt. It was warm and safe. Her mother could hold her and kiss her head and her father could as well and all of this was home. She was now feeling that same way about these men and women. Their touches and hugs brought comfort, so they must be family now too.
After breakfast Susan tried to busy herself with chores but found her mind and eyes wandering frequently to that patch of horizon where she knew Jimmy would eventually appear.
"That's not going to bring him back any faster, believe me, I've tried."
Susan looked up from the sheet she was pinning to the line to see Kid standing near her.
"I still do it though. When Lou's away, I find myself just standing and watching for her."
"Mi-"Susan shook her head, determined to speak correctly, "I miss Jimmy."
"I know you do and he'll be back before you know it. In the meantime, you want a hand with that laundry?"
The two of them hung the rest of the wash and talked; no earth shattering topics of conversation and Kid did most of the talking. He talked about places he'd been and adventures the group of them had, though he stayed intentionally away from any stories that might worry poor Susan. For the first time that day, Susan didn't feel anxious and she had even stopped gazing off in the direction from which Jimmy would be riding. Then they heard Buck call out, "Rider coming!"
"See Susan," Kid said gently, "I told you he'd be here before you knew it."
Susan ran to where Jimmy was dismounting and just stood there awkwardly staring at the ground.
"Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes?"
"Su-" she stopped and recollected her thoughts, of all the people in the world, she most wanted to sound like a normal person for Jimmy, "I-I missed you. Welcome home."
She held her arms open to receive a hug but Jimmy just stood there flabbergasted. He'd never admit it to his friends but he was near to tears. Susan timidly looked at his face, he wasn't smiling. She didn't know what that meant. She knew that other people could tell a person's feelings and sometimes even thoughts by looking at that person's face but Susan never possessed that ability. She knew when he smiled that he was happy and she knew that when his face was relaxed that he was at least not angry but this expression with mouth open and eyebrows knitted together, she could divine nothing from it. Her arms dropped to her sides.
"Yo-you are a-angry. I-I did something wrong."
She didn't know that for certain but that must be why he did not speak or embrace her. Her words shook Jimmy from his state of shock and he dropped to his knees in front of her.
"No Susan," he comforted the child, "You ain't done nothing wrong. I's just surprised is all."
He pulled her into a tight embrace and felt her worry melt from her.
"Noah said Ji-" she sighed and shook her head, "Said you would be proud."
Well, now he knew who to thank for this gift.
"I never been prouder."
Over lunch Jimmy asked her how she had come to speak so well so quickly.
"You know what I mean," he clarified, "Really talk; communicate."
"When I am scared," the girl began and although her voice sometimes hesitated and there were times when she would search for a word or have trouble getting the sounds out just right, she was speaking almost normally, except for that emotionless tone, "I cannot make my mouth and mind work together. I know what I want to say but sometimes nothing comes out and sometimes all I can do is repeat things."
It was a longer speech than any of them had heard from her and Jimmy beamed at her, he had seen indications that she was trying to be interactive with them, not that he ever imagined that she could speak so well. Noah picked up where Susan left off.
"I had a theory that if we could get her talking in a way where she wouldn't have to think about what she would say next that it might get the ball rolling. She read us a whole novel yesterday and then it was almost like a whole different person was sitting there when she finished. But I guess it was just the Susan that was stuck inside there all along."
After the meal Jimmy caught Noah outside the bunkhouse.
"Thank you. I knew somehow that she was in there but I would never have figured out how to draw her out."
"There's no thanks needed and you would have in time. I didn't know my idea would work so quickly. I think she tried extra hard because she wanted to please you. She still doesn't talk a lot and I think she might be quiet by nature but then I guess that would be a good fit for you."
"How did she do while I was gone?" Jimmy's tone had turned serious.
"Well, we kept her pretty distracted during the day with reading and she seemed okay at night. She even let Lou brush and braid her hair but sometime in the night she moved and this morning she was sleeping in your bunk. She trusts us well enough but you are the one she counts on."
Jimmy shook his head. He couldn't grasp how anyone could count on him. Yeah, sure, the others counted on him in a fight and he supposed that was kind of the same but the reliance she had on him and the faith she had in him were really beyond his understanding. He wasn't sure if he'd ever feel up to that task and fear gripped him of what might happen to her should the legend of "Wild Bill" catch up with him again. Most people seemed much more concerned with the coming war to worry too much about building their reputations off of a man they read about in a dime novel but that might not always be the case.
Susan came out of the bunkhouse and took his hand and leaned her head to his side. She drank in the smell that had thankfully clung to his pillow and allowed her to sleep the night before. She wasn't sure why he was there for her, why he was still so concerned with her well-being. He wasn't her blood and really didn't have to. He had promised but she doubted a promise like that made when she was in such a state as she was, could really be upheld. Surely someday she'd be too much trouble for him or he'd find some woman as beautiful as he was and wish to marry. Susan squeezed his hand a little tighter and Jimmy looked down at her.
"I need to go talk to Teaspoon about something; would you like to come with me?"
Susan thought on his words. No one, not even her dear parents or beloved Joe, ever asked her to go into town with them. She knew she wasn't like everyone else and she wasn't sure if it was their own or her embarrassment they were trying to avoid. She looked up at him and Jimmy wasn't sure she had heard him before.
"Do you want to go?"
She nodded quickly before he had to ask again and then maybe he'd change his mind. She was scared and excited all rolled into one but more than anything, she was so very proud to walk among the general public with Jimmy. There were many looks cast in her direction as they strolled toward Teaspoon's office. Jimmy had released her hand to properly offer his arm to her, like a gentleman would for a lady.
"Who's your lady friend, Hickok?" a voice called from behind them and Jimmy stopped and turned around to face the man who had just walked out of the store.
"Hey there Mr. Tompkins," Jimmy replied with a smile, "This is Susan Casey. Susan, this is Mr. Tompkins, he owns the store."
Susan tried to meet his eyes but just couldn't. She did manage a small curtsy as her mother had taught her and found her voice with the strength she gained from the small squeeze Jimmy gave her hand.
"Pleased to meet you, sir."
"The pleasure is mine Miss Casey. Now, Jimmy, what I want to know is what this fine young lady is doing with the likes of you."
Susan looked at Jimmy concerned that the other man's words would make him angry but he smiled. For her part, Susan was upset than anyone would suggest her savior and protector was anything but brave and upstanding. She knew children weren't supposed to speak unless spoken to but she was not going to stand by and let anyone disparage Jimmy.
"H-he saved me. He's a good man."
The words came out louder than she wanted. She hadn't always been able to control the level of her voice and both Jimmy and Mr. Tompkins looked shocked.
"It's alright Susan, he was just teasing me a little is all," Jimmy tried to smooth her ruffled feathers and then turned his attention to Tompkins, "Her family was killed just before I found her so I brought her back to stay with us. I thought I was protecting her but I guess she's looking out for me too."
Jimmy patted her on the back to let her know that what she said was just fine.
"Well," said Tompkins, "I hope to see you again Susan."
Susan backed away but waved and Jimmy followed her.
"Was I bad?"
"Susan, I don't think you could be bad if you tried."
"But I would not. Not ever."
Jimmy had to smile at her earnestness.
"I know. You think I'm a good man, huh?"
She nodded adamantly. They arrived at Teaspoon's office and Jimmy ushered the child inside.
"Well, look who it is!" exclaimed Teaspoon upon spotting Susan, "What did I do to deserve a visit from such a pretty young lady?"
Susan was so glad to see another face that she knew that she ran to Teaspoon and climbed onto his lap. Jimmy smiled to see her react so warmly and Teaspoon, for his part was taken aback at first but recovered quickly. This child would go to one of those "institutions" over his cold, dead body. Teaspoon looked up and read the expression on Jimmy's face.
"Would you do something for me, Susan?"
"I need to talk to Jimmy for a bit and I'm not going to be able to keep an eye on things while I do it. Do you think you could sit in that chair right outside the door and keep watch for me?"
Susan scurried out to do as asked and really she felt good to be needed, though the thought tugged at her some that Teaspoon had just been sitting at the desk with his feet propped when she had come in. But perhaps he was watching things through the window.
"Alright," Teaspoon said once Susan was out the door, "What's got you in such a dither?"
"What am I doing Teaspoon? And why didn't you stop me like you usually do when I do something without thinking?"
"What in tarnation are you going on about?"
"It was impulsive to bring her here," mused the old man rocking his chair back on two legs and seeming to study a spot on the ceiling, "But not all decisions made in the heat of a moment are wrong ones. Sometimes thinking about things too long just messes you up."
"Now that just don't make sense Teaspoon," Jimmy protested, "You're the one who's always telling me to cool down and stop and think about things."
"That's true because when you first came to work for me your first instincts weren't what I would call well-advised. You didn't think about the consequences of your actions."
"Well, now I am and the worst consequences could fall right on that little girl out there."
Teaspoon pondered this for a moment and when he spoke his words were measured.
"I'm more concerned with what would happen to her if not for you."
"She wouldn't be in danger, that's for sure."
"Seems without you, she wouldn't be speaking, she would end up in some asylum locked away and alone. Here she has you and all of the rest of us to look out for her. Now you tell me where the greater danger is."
Jimmy thought about it and knew there was sense in his mentor's words.
"Teaspoon, she looks to me like I'm her Pa or something. How am I supposed to live up to that?"
Teaspoon's face softened as he rocked forward planting all four chair legs on the floor and leaned over his desk toward Jimmy.
"No man ever feels truly ready to be a father. Probably most women are a little over whelmed at parenthood too and coming to a child half growed, well, I can tell you that is a daunting task," he paused seeming to search for the right words to express himself, "You already are what she needs. And somehow you keep finding the way to be what she needs. I have a hunch you even know what that somehow is."
Jimmy looked around before he spoke as if making sure no one would overhear him.
"I care about her. I don't know how she did that to me that fast but I love her. It's like how I love my sisters but not like it because it's stronger, deeper. It's…I don't know what it is. When I first found her I just felt like someone had to get her somewhere safe and then she just…I don't know."
A smile came across the older man's face at that.
"Believe me, I understand how you feel. That'll guide you."
"What will guide me, Teaspoon? The fact that I don't know anything?"
"Nope, what your gut tells you when your mind has no answers," he paused a beat for effect, "If you'll excuse me, I think that all the teaching I done with you qualifies me to be something like a granddaddy to that young lady and I hear tell that granddaddies are supposed to spoil the grandkids. I think I'm going to do just that."
He left to better acquaint Susan with the candy selection at Tompkins store and to let his words sink into Jimmy. For his part, Jimmy just stood there trying to fully understand what had happened to his life in such a short time.
Teaspoon and Susan walked into the little store and the girl hid behind Teaspoon afraid that Mr. Tompkins would be mad at her.
"Afternoon Teaspoon," Tompkins called out, "Say isn't that young Miss Casey trying to hide there? It's good to see you again Susan."
"Sweetie, you don't need to hide from Mr. Tompkins like that."
"It's alright Teaspoon, we met earlier and I think the young lady thinks that I'll be angry that she stood up for Hickok. I'm glad I get the chance to apologize, I think I may have offended her before."
Susan knew that the right thing to do was to accept the apology but she was having trouble finding her words at that moment so she nodded. Tompkins turned his attention to Teaspoon.
"Looks like the cat got her tongue. Well, what can I do for the two of you today?"
Susan looked around for a cat and moved her tongue around in her mouth to make sure it was still there. Her brow furrowed and she wished Jimmy was there. Sometimes when she got confused by what people said, they would laugh or call her stupid when she tried to ask about it. She just knew that Jimmy wouldn't do that. Teaspoon led her to the candy and she was choosing some when someone else entered the store and she looked up to see her Jimmy standing there. Susan ran to him and he scooped her into his arms, giving her a squeeze before setting her back down again. Susan made no move to leave Jimmy's side so Teaspoon brought her candy to her.
Later Susan sat by and watched Jimmy chopping wood.
"Jimmy, may I ask something?"
"You can ask me anything you want."
"Why did Mr. Tompkins say the cat had my tongue when it was in my mouth the whole time and there was no cat?"
Part of Jimmy wanted to laugh out loud at this question but she was so serious that he couldn't bring himself to let the laughter go. Somehow he just knew it would hurt her feelings if he laughed at her.
"It's just an expression people use. I don't know how that one got started even. It is kind of silly when you think of it, isn't it?"
"What does it mean?"
"Just means you were being quiet is all. It's nothing bad. He'd heard you talk so he knew you could. Lots of times people use that saying when someone gets shy all of a sudden."
Susan pondered this for a minute and decided it was a very silly saying. At least some sayings sort of made sense even if they didn't mean what they sounded like they should mean. She felt comforted though by his serious answer to her question.
"What are you thanking me for?" Jimmy asked as he wiped sweat from his brow.
"You did not laugh at me."
"Do people usually laugh at you?"
"They say mean things and call me names too."
Jimmy knew what names she was talking about and simultaneously felt a flash of anger and a stab of pain for what this little girl had endured. Taking note of the far off look in her eyes, he let the ax fall to the ground with a thud that he barely heard and sat down next to her.
"No one here's going to call you those names. I won't let 'em."
Susan tried to be soothed by his words but what would happen when he wasn't there anymore; if Jimmy left? Again her thoughts turned to the terrifying thought of Jimmy moving on, without her. She knew someday he'd wish to marry and she knew there would certainly be many who would wish to marry him. The woman he wanted to marry might not like Susan; she might not want her around. Susan couldn't ask him to give up happiness like that. He kept making promises and even a kid like Susan could tell he'd want to break them someday. Jimmy was honorable and Susan didn't think he'd back down from his word but he'd want to.
"Do not promise."
"What?" he asked. He had heard the words correctly he thought but they were so soft and made so little sense that he had to ask for them to be repeated.
"Do not promise."
He had been just about ready to promise her that he'd always protect her from the mean words of small minded people.
"I don't understand you."
"I do not want you to promise me anything anymore. It is not fair."
These words hurt her to say and she didn't want to say them anymore but she knew it was the right thing.
"I want to promise you," he said softly, "I want to promise you things I can't even begin to deliver on. I want to promise you a life of no pain and I want to promise you, oh things I can't even think of. I want to promise you happiness always. I can't because no one can promise those things. I can only promise what I have. No one is ever going to hurt you again."
"Do not say such things. Maybe you cannot see it. Maybe you can only think of the things that went wrong," she was trying so hard to put all of her thoughts into words; if only she could draw faster and then the images in her mind of the beautiful woman who would want his hand but not Susan as part of the package would be clear to him. Words were hard.
"Someday," she went on, "you will meet a girl. Not like me, she will be…be," where was the word she was looking for, "right. She will be right for you. You will want to marry her and you should."
"Sweetheart," he said lifting her chin to look her in the face, "No woman could be right for me unless she wanted the both of us. Listen to me now."
He had seen her forming words to try to oppose what he had said.
"I've been thinking a lot about you and about me and about us together. I never really gave a lot of thought to marrying. I guess there were times when I thought I was in love but I wasn't really and so I never really gave any thought at all to being a father. Hell, I got two sisters who can tell you what a lousy brother I was. But I've got feelings for you I can't rightly figure out. They're not like being in love with a woman and they're not like how I feel about my sisters. I guess they're like how a pa feels about his child."
She just stared at him as if she had no idea what he was saying so Jimmy went on.
"I know you just lost your pa and I wouldn't ask you to call me anything other than Jimmy. But I need you to know that you are no orphan. Not no more. You got family. We might not always be here, the Pony Express is dying and war's coming. I can't promise the rest of the fellas will always be family, though I suspect they would. I will be there for you. That I can and want to and will promise you."
Susan really didn't know what to say at all in fact she wasn't even sure she understood all that he had said.
"Susan, I wish you'd say something."
"I-I do not understand."
"I'm not sure I do either," Jimmy half laughed, "This surely ain't anything I saw coming. Scared me at first, I think because I wasn't sure what to do but I will never leave you."
Susan shook her head trying to comprehend what Jimmy had said.
"I'm not scared of you. Don't think that. I was scared at first that I wasn't up to the task. I'm still not sure that I am but if you'll have me, I'd like to try," Jimmy couldn't believe how much this sounded like a marriage proposal but if he thought about it, the idea was sort of the same and she should have some sort of say in her future, shouldn't she? She wasn't a tiny child and she was far more aware than most would give her credit for and more so than most children her age.
"It is my choice?"
She fought to make her voice sound like a question and did a good enough job that Jimmy understood that she was asking, not telling him.
"Yes, it's your choice. If you want to find a different family somewhere, I won't stop you."
"You will be my daddy now?"
"I'd consider it an honor if it's alright with you."
Though her face did not contort and she would never be able to understand why, a single tear meandered its way down her cheek. Words were completely lost to her as the realization set in that her grandest wish had just been granted without her even having to utter it. She simply nodded as Jimmy wiped the tear away and somehow, not that he'd ever know how, he knew that it was no tear of sadness.
All was quiet in the bunkhouse as was the norm for the middle of the night. Kid and Buck were both off on separate runs and the rest were deep in slumber. It was near to a full moon and if one had ventured inside, they would have been able to clearly make out, not only the sleeping forms of the inhabitants but their facial features as well. The peace was all at once shattered by a shrill scream as Susan sat bolt upright and let out a wail the likes of which the men and woman within the building had scarce heard before. For her lack of expression and inflection when she spoke, the cry the girl let out now contained sorrow, pain and more fear than any of them had seen or heard in one place before. And they had all seen a lot. Without a moment's consideration, Jimmy was out of his bunk and on the edge of hers trying to bring her full to waking. While still asleep, she was screaming and he was sure he'd be deaf in one ear the next day but still he held her close and spoke softly in her ear.
"You're safe Susan. Wake up and see, it's just a dream."
As abruptly as the noise began, it ceased and there was a collective sigh of relief from the other riders. Jimmy did not relax for her silence did not mean all was well.
"Susan, are you okay?"
She heard him and wanted so desperately to answer him. To tell him of the images in her dream, to put voice to her fears, to tell him that she was not okay but might be if he just held her long enough. There was no voice to be found for her though. All she could do was shake her head. Jimmy cradled her in his arms and tried to comfort her, remind her that he'd never really leave her and that she'd always be safe.
In his own mind, he wondered what good his promises were for he knew he might never be able to protect her from whatever was in her head that was torturing her so. He didn't understand how her fear and her screams could hurt him nearly physically, but they did. He looked up imploringly for someone to give him just a hint of validation or insight or anything that might let him know if he was doing this right. His eyes happened upon Lou who nodded at him as if she had sensed his question and was letting him know that he was doing things exactly right. As he held her she grew very still and seemed to calm down so he tried to set her down but when he did she stiffened and grabbed at his neck shaking her head violently.
"Okay, I got you. I won't let go. You want to tell me about it?"
Susan nodded but knew that no matter what she wanted, words had abandoned her for the night and nothing was going to come out.
"I'm listening, you can talk to me."
She shook her head, signaled to her mouth and then shook her head again.
"You can't talk, can you?"
She looked defeated and just shook her head again. Jimmy wasn't sure what to do but then he remembered when he first found her and her pictures. He hadn't put it together before but her pictures were how she had communicated before she found her words. I was worth a try.
"Cody, could you hand me her tablet?"
"Can you tell me with this, Susan?"
She nodded and took up the pencil. When she finished, Jimmy wanted to run out and punch something. In the image was the roof of her family's barn as it would have been seen if someone was on his or her back looking up. It was, however, mostly obscured by a face with a leering smile wielding a gun. This would have terrorized him if it had appeared in his dreams and he wasn't a little girl and he was furthermore not a little girl who was having a flashback. He recognized the face from the wanted posters that had been made from her drawings and another face from her drawings was also there standing behind the attacking man, laughing. It made him sick and broke his heart and made him furious all at once and there was nothing he could do really but hold the girl and swear silently that he would see these men dead. If they were tried and hanged so be it but if he had to track them down and end them himself he felt he could probably take pleasure in that. He had never felt that way before about the taking of a life; not even Longley and he knew the others had their theories about that incident but he felt no joy or pleasure in the man's death and even wished for a moment after it had happened that there had been another way, that he'd not forced things to that inevitable conclusion.
Jimmy tossed the tablet onto the table. Lou caught sight of the picture and sucked in her breath harshly.
"Turn that over somebody or I'll be having nightmares too."
Cody was still standing, he hadn't been able to settle down since being awakened and nervous energy was keeping him up. He flipped the tablet over to obscure the image but happened to see it before it was hidden.
"If I look at that too long, I will too."
He shuddered on the way back to his bunk and once seated he called over to Susan.
"You feeling a little better baby girl?"
Susan frowned and used the sign she had learned from Ike to answer.
'I am not a baby.'
"I know you're not but you should've been able to be one a little while longer."
His words were met with a blank stare as Susan tried to figure out the meaning of them, people spoke in such riddles sometimes. When she could make her mouth work again, she'd have to ask Jimmy what Cody meant. Susan yawned, having finally found some comfort and perhaps a little relief at being able to share her terror with the others.
"You're getting tired now, aren't you?" Jimmy asked her tenderly.
She nodded and then gripped him tighter.
"No I wasn't going to leave you. I'm learning."
Cody snorted a laugh at this.
"She's got you wrapped right around one of those pretty little fingers of hers."
"That's how it's supposed to be for little girls and their daddies, I understand."
At this the others jumped out of their bunks in alarm and trying to figure if they heard right. Before any of them could say a word, Jimmy shushed them and motioned to the near sleeping girl in his arms. The others went back to their bunks but they weren't about to let it drop. Ike knew he could be the one to question their friend as his "speaking" would make no noise.
'What did you say?'
Jimmy answered softly so as not to wake his little girl.
"You heard me Ike; I know you're not deaf. We didn't figure to make much fuss over it but I'm going to take care of Susan from now on. I don't even see how it can be that shocking to the lot of you. Most of you were teasing me about it anyway."
"Jimmy," Lou said softly as much to the darkness and the moonlight as to her dear friend, "You're doing the right thing, I hope you know that."
"Thanks Lou, but if you remember, it was your idea in the first place. I should have listened to you when you said it."
"Well, if I weren't so tired," she answered with a yawn, "I'd get right up and write that down in my diary. Jimmy Hickok admits I was right about something."
"You're right about a lot of things Lou. Good night now."
And, with his arms still protectively around Susan, guarding her from the monsters of her dreams, he fell asleep himself.
Susan woke before the others and stayed still just reveling in the feel of Jimmy's arms around her. To be safe and loved was such a wonderful thing to her and she felt she'd never get used to it. But maybe, if he was as true to his word as she believed he'd be, she'd get the chance to try. She felt Jimmy stir against her.
"Well, hey there Princess. You feeling better this morning?"
Susan nodded against his chest; not wanting to give up drinking in his scent for fear that it was the only thing keeping the nightmares from invading her waking world. Jimmy allowed her to cling to him a bit longer partly because he knew that she needed the comfort but mostly because he needed to give it. Her trust and faith in him was sometimes frightening and overwhelming but the love he felt for her overwhelmed him in a different way. He never knew that loving someone else could feel this good; could actually feel better than being loved. He understood the difference, he'd been pondering for days to figure it out. Falling in love was fraught with insecurity over whether the woman you loved would love you back. A love like this, parent for child, didn't concern itself with the love being reciprocated. It was enough to know he loved this little girl and he'd walk through the fires of Hell for her. He wasn't sure still the extent to which she felt things, emotions and the like or if she was capable of feeling love like he felt but he didn't care either. It was just a detail and not one that mattered at all. Somehow he felt stronger with this knowledge as if finally realizing that loving another was the answer to all of his questions in life; the ones he'd asked only in silence and solitude and the ones never even thought of. Learning to love, to give with no want of anything in return was a reward in itself. He kissed the top of her head gently and whispered softly to her.
"I love you, Susan."
The girl said nothing but pulled back just a bit and studied his face as if memorizing it. Her hand came up and traced the contours she saw there and finally she wound her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.
Later in the day Jimmy had decided to take Susan on a picnic. He felt she needed a change in scenery and something to take her mind off of her worries. The two were riding a little ways when she spoke. These were the first words she had spoken since waking up screaming the night before.
"Jimmy, why did Cody call me a baby?"
He couldn't completely stifle the chuckle but tried to answer her as seriously as he could.
"It's just some sort of loving nickname. Like 'sweetie', or 'honey' or even 'princess'. You never mind when we call you any of those. And he didn't call you 'baby' as I recall he called you 'baby girl'."
"It is the same."
He sighed, subtleties were not his strong suit any more than hers but even he could grasp the difference.
"It's not really. If he'd called you a baby it would've been a put down. Like telling you that you're not good enough for something. But 'baby girl' is a loving sort of thing to say; more like we love you and want to care for you like a baby girl."
Susan still wasn't sure she understood the distinction so she just soldiered on with her next question.
"He said I should have been a baby for longer."
"He's right," Jimmy sighed sadly, "The way some people treat you, how mean they are, and losing your family like you did and then especially what those men did to you, you had to be too grown up too soon. A girl your age should be playing with dolls and, well, I didn't pay enough attention to Celinda and Lydia to know what all else you should be doing but having those kinds of nightmares isn't it."
"I never played with dolls."
He brought Sundance to a stop and turned in his saddle to face her.
"You didn't have dolls?"
"I had them. I did not play with them. I did not understand how."
Maybe this girl was never meant to be a child in the way most thought of being a child.
"Well, whatever you did, you shouldn't've been worrying about the cruelty of small minded people and you shouldn't be mourning your folks and…"
His voice trailed off because that was really the worst, wasn't it? Children dealt every day with death and even with how mean people could be. This was a harsh place to be a child. But what they did to her after killing her family, well that was something no child should ever deal with, no grown woman for that matter.
Jimmy's sadness all of a sudden made Susan uneasy in a way that she almost could not put voice to.
"You are sad. Do not be sad."
"Well, that's like ordering the sun to go backward in the sky, what they did to you is just going to make me sad and angry, at them not you and that's just all there is to that."
The two rode on in silence for a bit before Jimmy found a spot that was right for them to have their picnic. He dismounted and made to walk to her to help her from her horse but she jumped down before he closed half the distance. A smile ghosted across his face at how natural a rider she was; either she was a natural or someone spent a great deal of time teaching her. In his mind he opted for her natural ability.
They sat for a while quietly. Jimmy had never really been uncomfortable with silence like some folks were and knowing that Susan wasn't a talker, he felt fine with the lack of words between them but then something occurred to him, something he had been meaning to ask.
"Susan, how does it work inside your head?"
She lifted her eyes from her paper where she had been drawing but said nothing. She had no idea what he was asking and therefore had no answer to give.
"You don't understand what I'm asking do you?"
She shook her head and looked down, he was learning her movements the way one can learn another's expressions and she was feeling ashamed, thinking the deficiency was her own.
"I didn't ask right," she looked up again and he was glad she knew he'd not try to put her down in any way, not ever, "I'm trying to understand how you think. I know it's not the same as the rest of us but you're smart and you notice things that I don't and I just want to understand. Like last night, you couldn't talk but you could draw me a picture. And you could sign. I think if I understood you better I'd be a better father to you."
If Susan hadn't loved her rescuer before now, this would have been the one thing to push her over that precipice. Even her beloved Joe had never asked that before. Her own mother never truly understood the things that Susan saw and thought or how she went about thinking at all. She closed her eyes making sure the image of this moment, of every sensation of it was preserved in her mind for it was the very best moment of her life. When she opened her eyes, Jimmy was still looking at her, waiting for her to respond. He was so kind and patient with her. Joe was her best friend before and he tried so hard to be good to her and teach her things but even he got tired of waiting for her to speak or to understand something and sometimes grew cross with her. She had seen Jimmy angry, maybe not as angry as he could get, but she'd seen him yell and once even though his anger wasn't directed at anyone around him, she saw his hand reflexively go to the butt of his gun. She knew he was not a man to be crossed and those who did could and probably would, and for that matter probably had, paid dearly. But his anger had never been directed to her. He'd never raised his voice at her, nor his hand. When they had first met she had hit him in her fit and he'd not reacted against her. He could have and she'd not have blamed him but something within him wouldn't allow that treatment of her.
"I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have asked. I don't mean to make you feel bad."
"You do not."
Her words coming as they did after such a bit of quiet startled him.
"I guess I just don't want to make you feel like you don't fit or belong or, well, maybe I don't even know what I mean."
"I do not fit and I do not belong. I know this. I am not like other people. I wonder if there are others like me but if there are, I have not met them."
Jimmy shifted uncomfortably on the ground. Her tone made it so hard to read her feelings. Everyone wanted to fit in, or so he thought, but he couldn't tell if there was pain that went with her words. She was so matter of fact about everything. She didn't give him a chance to ask anything else.
"It is lonely, I think. I do not need people the way most seem to do but I do not like being alone either. But this is not what you asked, was it?"
Jimmy only shook his head for now he was the one who could not find words or a voice with which to speak them.
"I think in pictures. My thoughts come in pictures. And when you speak to me, I have to make those words into pictures and then when I want to say something back, my pictures have to become words. It is very hard and sometimes takes longer than people would like to wait. Sometimes I cannot find words at all and sometimes my voice goes away. It is like Ike except that there is nothing wrong with my mouth or throat and my voice will come back. I can draw so I can show you the pictures in my head. Last night I was feeling better and had words but I could not make my voice work. Is that what you wanted to know?"
He was trying to find some words for her but nodded dumbly at her instead. Things surely made more sense now. He held out his hands for her paper to see what she'd been "thinking" while they sat there. She pushed the pad of paper to him and began fidgeting with a blade of grass. Jimmy'd been finding words elusive before but this picture surely drove all verbal ability far beyond his grasp and he didn't at that point care if it ever came back. The picture was of the two of them walking through town, her hand on his arm. His proud smile was probably exactly as it had been that day they had gone to visit Teaspoon but somehow she had depicted a smile, one he knew she had thus far been unable to conjure, on her face. His breath stopped and his heart may have also for never had something seemed as beautiful to him as the smile on that face that he'd never seen show any expression at all aside from fear. He'd never even imagined what she might look like with a smile but surely he'd not have been able to conceive of anything so lovely. The smile lit her eyes and he could see them sparkle even in the black and grey pencil depiction.
Jimmy tore his eyes from the image in his hands to the little girl seated a few feet from him. She looked down at her hands which were set on tearing a blade of grass into impossibly small pieces. She was feeling insecure about the drawing. He had to say something, anything.
"Is this how you feel with me?"
She nodded not looking up.
"Do you know there are different kinds of smiles?"
Susan shook her head picking a new blade of grass to systematically destroy.
"The smile you drew for yourself is joy. There's no other word for it and if that's what you feel inside when you're around me then I'm real happy."
The girl's attention was diverted from the piece of grass in her hands.
"What I really want to talk about is the way you drew me. Was that the expression I had that day?"
"Well, that's right then because that is a proud smile and that's just how I feel about being your, your…"
"Daddy," Susan finished for him.
"Right, I am your daddy, ain't I?"
"It takes some getting used to."
"How many smiles are there?"
Jimmy smiled and leaned back on an elbow to contemplate.
"I don't rightly know. There's an awful lot of them and I'm sure I don't even know the words to describe some of them."
Susan tried to smile and once again it looked nothing like a smile, it was more a grimace. Yet Jimmy couldn't help but return the smile. Nor could he help but reach over and pull her to an embrace close to him. He worried that such sudden contact might trigger a bad reaction but she didn't tense at all, just hugged him back. He held her tight as if holding her could keep her safe and happy forever. Then he heard something, something that stopped him cold and for the second time in just a short while he thought his heart might stop and this time it might even explode. It was barely a whisper and his mind at first tried to tell him that he was hearing things but then it came again just a tiny bit louder and he knew that it was real and not wishful thinking. Tears sprang to his eyes and if the entire bunch of riders had been sitting there he'd not have been ashamed to let those tears fall for never had such beautiful words been spoken to him and certainly none that could have meant more to him.
"I love you Daddy."
There was a change in James Hickok after that picnic, one his friends could not help but notice. The first thing they noticed was that it seemed nothing could upset him, nothing at all. Cody tried his darnedest and just could not rile their typically brooding and hair triggered friend. And then that was the next thing they took note of; he wasn't brooding, most of the time he was smiling for no apparent reason.
One day, perhaps a week after the changes to Jimmy were first noted, Kid found himself alone with his smiling friend. Teaspoon had left the both of them in charge in his office while he went to run some mysterious errand or another. Kid didn't really care what Teaspoon was up to, just that he finally had a chance to find out what was going on with Hickok. It's not that the changes upset anyone but for a man to change that drastically, that quickly, well, it had some of the riders worried a little. Lou was harping about it and Kid thought he could ease her worry. And if he was being completely honest, Kid was worried too. He'd never seen Jimmy like this. Someone, Kid couldn't remember who, had suggested that Jimmy might be in love but they'd seen Jimmy in love before. It wasn't always a pretty sight and it surely never had him this mellow.
"Jimmy," Kid began with some caution, "Me and the others was kind of wondering something."
Hickok was sitting, just sitting, placidly and peacefully. And smiling. Kid was starting to find it almost creepy.
"What was you wondering, Kid?"
"Now that I got you here to ask you, I'm not sure how to go about it."
"Give it a shot."
Kid was beyond perplexed. Normally if someone wanted to say or ask something and even beat around the bush a little they'd get some agitation from Jimmy. He took a deep breath and tried to put into words what was concerning the entire Rock Creek station.
"You just don't seem yourself lately. I guess we aren't complaining a lot because you're less moody but then you're always smiling. I feel like we don't even know you anymore."
Jimmy laughed long and hearty. He'd wondered what was up with Cody being such a pest lately and the others' sideways glances at him. Well, he just wasn't bothered by things and couldn't bring himself to fake it for appearances sake. Now he just had to figure how to put what he was feeling into words when he didn't entirely understand it himself.
"I guess Lou probably told you that I decided to take care of Susan. It's not official, not like I'm adopting her or anything but I made a promise to be like a daddy to her."
"Yeah," Kid replied, "She told me that and I think that's real good of you too. I don't know which of you's getting the better end of the deal. I think she's as good for you as you are for her."
"You said a mouthful there, Kid. Thing is, I never realized a lot of things before. I thought I was in love a couple of times but I wasn't. I see that now. It wasn't real. See, what you got with Lou, that's real so you probably already know the things I just figured out."
Kid's brow furrowed, "I'm not sure I'm following you."
"When you really love someone, it don't matter if they love you back and it don't matter what they can do for you. All that matters is that you love them and you do for them."
Kid nodded, it wasn't a lesson easily learned for anyone and he'd surely learned it the hard way himself.
"See, I got all that figured out first and I never really knew if she could even feel the same feelings for me, you know? She's so different from anyone else. I mean, I guess I knew she must feel love or something close to it somehow but, I never expected to hear it from her. I tell you, once you love someone good and true, the kind of love you don't even care if it's returned, when it is, that's a whole 'nother kind of happiness."
"Susan said she loves you?"
"Yeah," Jimmy said softly and looked at Kid with moist eyes, "'I love you Daddy', she said. I never told her to call me 'daddy'. Never told her she couldn't, just figured she wouldn't want to because her daddy was gone so recent," he cleared his throat and blinked a couple of times before speaking again, "I guess that just about took the moody right out of me."
Kid wasn't remotely sure how to respond, what to say. He hoped nothing was expected of him right now as the story Jimmy told had moved him as well. He imagined that someday he'd hear those words from his own daughter or son but knew that Jimmy never had fathomed a world where such a thing could happen. If asked, any of the riders would have told Jimmy that there was someone out there for him and that he could have a family if he desired but if pressed to truth, they wondered if that really was the case at all. Jimmy wasn't easy to live with and he had a reputation that sometimes up and tracked him down and frankly, Kid had never seen an inclination toward family life from his friend, but then, Jimmy was a very guarded man. What he desired in the deep recesses of his heart was anyone's guess and few would ever get confirmation if they were right in their guessing. Kid cocked his head to the side.
"I never knew you wanted a family, Jimmy."
"Neither did I. Maybe sometimes we get what we want before we even know we want it."
"Maybe," mused Kid, "'Course maybe sometimes we get what we need whether we wanted it or not."
Jimmy contemplated those words a moment and then a warm smile spread across his face.
"I think you might be right, I think you just might be."
The two men sat in silence for a few minutes; it was a settled sort of silence, the kind where a man could sit with his thoughts for a piece without feeling the need to fill the space with words or sounds. It was comfortable and the way things ought to be between friends who shared a great deal of miles between them and behind them. They both knew that they were still young men and looked to futures that they hoped would stretch out a ways ahead, but youth was relative and as Teaspoon might say, it wasn't the years, it was the mileage a man put in and they had each put in more than most men's fair share, literally and figuratively. Their peaceful rumination was halted abruptly by Jesse's hurried entrance. The boy scurried about searching for something and when the men took full looks at him, they got a good idea of what he was searching for. There was blood pouring from the boy's nose. Quickly, a towel was found for poor Jesse and once the bleeding was stopped, Kid and Jimmy both tried to get the story out of him.
"Don't worry," Jesse said proudly, "The other guy looks worse."
The two men were both on the verge of laughter at that statement but they knew there'd likely be hell to pay from Rachel when she saw the condition of Jesse's face, or even caught wind of him being in a fight.
"You start it?" asked Jimmy as seriously as he could. It was so hard to be stern with the boy sometimes having been a lad himself once and not being that many years removed from it besides.
Jesse shook his head.
"Not really, I mean I threw the first punch but it was Freddy Haynes that started it."
Kid sighed and rolled his eyes.
"You better have a good reason to start the punching or at least you better make one up before Rachel hears about this."
"Oh I did," the boy stated sincerely, "Freddy was saying that he was in Tompkins' store and heard Tompkins talking about Susan and saying she was strange and feeble minded and so Freddy started in at me and saying we were keeping an imbecile with us; called her lots more names too: idiot, dummy. I couldn't let him say those things about her. They just aren't true, you know that."
The smile that had graced Jimmy's face and seemed to never fade, no matter what went on around him had just been wiped clean away and it was all Kid could do to stop his friend from storming out the door and quite possibly making Tompkins take back his words at gunpoint.
"Jimmy, calm down," Kid pleaded, "You can't go down there like this."
"Kid, let go of me," Jimmy was shouting and Kid was fairly certain he was about to take a punch if he didn't let go soon.
"How 'bout you leave the guns here? At least then I won't be locking you up for murder."
Kid truly hoped that the minute or so taken in removing the gun belts would cool Hickok down a little but Jimmy shot a hole through that idea by simply removing the guns from their holsters and storming out in the direction of the store.
"Find Teaspoon, or anybody," Kid called to Jesse as he ran out the door after Jimmy. As mad as he was right now, Kid doubted that the man would need a weapon at all to do Tompkins in.
By the time Kid got out of the Marshal's office, Jimmy was already off the street and presumably in the store, Kid hoped to all that was good and holy that Jesse'd find some help soon because a man as enraged as his friend was now was going to need more than one man to stop him.
Jimmy threw open the door to Tompkins' store hard enough that it slammed against the wall.
"This is it Tompkins," he bellowed from the threshold, "I'd've liked to've taken it to you when you put down Ike or tried to keep Buck out of your store. But they're at least grown men. Now you're going after a little girl who just watched her family murdered and that's the last straw."
As he spoke, he was striding toward the older man who was probably wishing with all of his might that he had been behind the sales counter when Hickok had entered, but he wasn't and Jimmy caught him easy enough.
"You talk sweet enough to her face and then call her names to half the town," the last word was emphasized with a punch to Tompkins' jaw.
The older man didn't go down from the punch but soon wished that he had as Jimmy was on him pinning him to the wall with a forearm across his throat. Luckily for the storekeeper Kid ran in right then and started the daunting task of removing James Hickok from the other man's neck.
"Jimmy, get off, you're going to kill him!"
"It'd serve him right for messing with a man's family."
For his part, Tompkins was trying his hardest to speak, perhaps even to apologize, but was having a difficult time finding air and was actually starting to turn a bluish color. At last, Jesse came running in with Buck and Teaspoon in tow and the three of them were able to assist Kid in pulling Jimmy away and out the door.
"I'm not through with you Tomkins!" Jimmy yelled as he was dragged off.
Teaspoon poked his head back into the store where William Tompkins was doubled over trying to work air into his lungs and coughing for the effort.
"I'll be back to deal with you later."
By the time the Marshal made his way to his office, the other riders had Jimmy locked in the cell where he was pacing like a caged animal. He looked over at Jesse's bruised face; this day was just getting better and better.
"I'll deal with you later," he said to Jesse as he turned his attention to Hickok, "What in blazes was that about?"
"He's got it going all around town that Susan's slow or something. It's bad enough the things he's said about Buck and Ike but she's just a little girl and it ain't true. She's smart as anyone else, smarter."
"I know that Jimmy but you can't just go around trying to strangle every person who says something stupid. Especially when you know he's prone to ignorance."
Jimmy leaned against the bars drawing Teaspoon closer to him and spoke very softly.
"I promised her I wouldn't let anyone hurt her. People called her names like that her whole life and it hurts her. Just 'cause she don't cry all the time about it don't mean it don't hurt. I promised."
He looked at his hands through the bars and felt as if he'd failed her. He knew how Tompkins was, how he'd always been. The man's mind was so set in his ignorant beliefs he had turned his own family away. He should have seen the problem before it happened and headed it off. He had failed her; he'd broken his word to her. He'd been a father little more than a week and already he was a failure.
Teaspoon placed a hand on Jimmy's arm and opened his mouth to say something and then seemed to think better of it and just turned around and walked out of the office. Before he went through the door he leaned to Kid.
"Don't let him out."
Teaspoon stormed into the store causing Tompkins to jump, perhaps thinking Jimmy was back to finish what had been interrupted before. He relaxed when he saw the Marshal stride in, but only for a moment, it was obvious Teaspoon was riled up about something.
"Tompkins, I have put up with just about enough of you through the years. You and I are going to have a long talk later about that little girl you think you need to talk to everyone in town about. But first you are going to march on down to my office and apologize to Hickok. I got him locked up so's he won't kill you while you do it."
"Apologize?" shouted Tompkins in return, "He's the one who tried to kill me. He's the one who should be apologizing."
Teaspoon clenched his fists and took a few breaths trying to calm himself and when he spoke, he tried for at least a calmer tone, even if it was still a bit louder than he wanted to speak these words.
"I don't have time to explain all this to you but that girl is like a daughter to Jimmy and you were spreading rumors about her," he paused a bit in effort to remain calm, "You don't know what you're talking about in regards to her and given how well-armed Hickok usually is, I'd say you should just count your blessings and apologize for offending him."
He started to walk out and paused in the doorway.
"I'd hurry if I's you. Once I get back down to my office, I'm waiting five minutes and then I'm letting Hickok out and giving him his guns back. Whatever happens after that ain't my fault and if you're set to insulting a man's family like that, I might just forget this town has a Marshal."
And he left and did not take his time getting back to his office; he was steamed and at that moment, professional obligations or no, he really didn't care if William Tompkins was soon the new owner of a bullet hole or two. Teaspoon had not even the chance to close the door behind him when Tompkins came in, lightly winded from his near sprint down the street. At seeing the shopkeeper, Jimmy lunged at the bars of the cell. Tompkins recoiled as if thinking for a second that the younger man's anger would grant him strength to tear through the bars.
Teaspoon spoke up more to calm his protégé than to save Tompkins any amount of upset.
"Jimmy, just listen son. I think he's got something to tell you."
Jimmy backed away repeatedly clenching his fists and glowering at the other man.
"I-I'm sorry," stammered Tompkins, "I shouldn't have said anything about Susan."
Jimmy's eyes were still burning holes into Tompkins and the older man shifted under the weight of that look.
"I guess I didn't know the situation with you and her."
"That," snapped Jimmy "Shouldn't matter. She's just a little girl and you knew her parents just died and you know how folks like to take everything and find a scandal in it."
He was shouting and Tompkins flinched at every word.
"You're right. I'm sorry. What can I do to make this right?"
Jimmy was still furious and didn't want to accept the apology but he knew it was the only way he was going to be on the same side of the jail bars as Susan.
"I'll accept your apology. I don't know how it can be made right but I'll think on it."
Tompkins exhaled loudly and extended a hand but Jimmy just let it be.
"I don't think I'll shake your hand today," he then turned as if dismissing Tompkins, "Kid, you can unlock me now. I just want to go home to my little girl."
Once out of the cell and having collected his guns, Jimmy strode out of the office past Tompkins as if the man had become transparent and approaching the bunkhouse, he became aware of Susan's voice joined with Cody's. For all of the ways God had chosen to be stingy with her, he had given her gifts as well and that voice was once of them. Not her speaking voice though that was less unnerving the longer one listened to it. Jimmy even thought he heard inflection in it from time to time. He didn't but his knowledge of her moods and unconventional body language made them occur when he heard her. Her singing voice, on the other hand was nothing short of exquisite. Closing in on the porch of the bunkhouse, the music grew louder and he could make out the tune more clearly, "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," it had recently become Cody's favorite and with the two of them singing together, Jimmy was finding it quite pleasing as well. Then another sound, even more pleasing, came from inside: a laugh. It wasn't Cody laughing; he'd heard that laugh more times than he could count. It was Susan's laughter; he hadn't known she could laugh. That sounded odd because surely everyone could laugh but, she wasn't everyone, she wasn't like anyone, really. He peered in the window, careful to not be noticed and nearly fell over laughing as well. Cody had been helping her clean up the bunkhouse and she still held the broom but he had her sunbonnet on his head and was prancing around, obviously playing the part of Jeanie in the song. Jimmy gasped because, not only was she laughing, she was smiling. The thing she could not do when she tried was occurring naturally now. Part of him wanted to run inside and scoop her up, another part wanted to just sit there forever watching her laugh and smile, almost like she was any other child but another part didn't want to risk interrupting her fun. He didn't know for sure about her life before he'd met her but since he'd known her, she'd had little, if any fun. So he snuck away so as not to stop the clowning that was going on and bumped right into Ike who just raised his eyebrows in question.
"Hear that? She's laughing, Ike," he stopped there knowing there was no way he'd ever be able to explain to anyone how badly he needed to hear that laughter, this day of all days. It was as a balm to his soul. Maybe no explanation was needed as Ike was smiling widely, a smile that seemed to express the same level of joy that Jimmy was feeling. Jimmy considered things for a moment and then put an arm on Ike's shoulder leading him away from the bunkhouse.
"I was wondering if I could ask you about something."
Ike nodded and Jimmy related the story of the day's events and watched as his friend became angered at the horrible words directed toward Susan and chuckled silently at Jimmy's description of the very one-sided fight with the store owner. When Jimmy was silent, Ike pondered the story a moment and then signed very earnestly.
'You didn't fail her. You saved her.'
"It felt like failure."
'Good fathers want to save their children from all pain and hardship but they can't. It's not failure; it's life.'
"What do I do now? How do I ever take her anywhere again knowing that's how some people think of her? I guess I'm asking you 'cause you know what it's like when people think certain things about you that ain't true."
'Most people are good. If you can teach them, they can learn and they can admit they were wrong. Even Tompkins, sometimes,' the last he signed with a sardonic smile, 'I think I have an idea.'
After talking to Ike for a short while more, Jimmy headed into the bunkhouse with a renewed spring in his step, he was in fact almost returned to his care free and smiling state of earlier in the day. His faith in his own abilities may have been shaken but it was not broken and Ike's idea had bolstered his confidence. The laughter had stopped but he could still see the smile on her face when he walked into the bunkhouse, it wasn't the same now, it was more like her face muscles had remembered how to do something and now couldn't remember how to stop doing it. When she saw him however, the smile returned full force, and then some as she ran across the room.
He lifted her into his arms, kissing her forehead before setting her gently back down again. Things might just be okay after all.
"Hey there Princess, sounds like you and Cody were having a pretty good time in here."
"Cody is silly."
"That's a right good word for him. Say, I just ran into Ike outside and he was hoping you'd help him with his drawing."
"Okay," she responded scurrying out the door.
"You upset with me, Jimmy?" Cody asked.
"Far from it, I never heard her laugh before and I never saw her smile before. It was real nice."
"It almost scared me when she started laughing 'cause I hadn't heard it before either. It is nice though."
Cody hadn't lied, when the girl had started laughing, he almost stopped what he was doing but then he had realized she was laughing and he was making her laugh and it felt really good. He was starting to see how his friend had been so quickly taken with this little girl.
"Cody, I need to ask a favor of you, to help Susan and me with something."
"Anything, you know I've always had your back and I'm real fond of Susan."
Jimmy related Ike's idea to Cody who reiterated that he would help in any way he could. Hickok nodded his head in thanks and went to find the others, partly to enlist them in the plan and partly to run interference for Jesse who still had yet to face Rachel.
"Jesse Woodson James!"
Jimmy heard the shriek of the poor boy's full name and raced to get to Rachel before she found the target of her anger. Once he located her on her front porch, he approached cautiously and tried to calm her more because he was afraid of her than for her, or Jesse's good.
"Rachel, calm down, he's just a boy."
Her venom turned to him.
"So what's your excuse?" she spat at him, "I spend days upon days teaching that child not to solve everything with his fists and what example do you set for him? He idolizes you."
Right about then, she laid eyes on Jesse who froze in his place, too terrified of her anger to form the thought to move, much less do it. Jimmy found himself the only thing between Rachel and Jesse and further torn between helping the lad and letting him fend for himself.
"Rachel, please, let me explain."
Hands on hips, she turned her attention to Jimmy and he swallowed hard trying to think of something to say to placate her. He was starting to see how Susan's words could so abruptly leave her from time to time.
"Rachel, he was defending Susan. Now, he should've gone about it differently but his heart was in the right place. As for me, go ahead and be mad at me, I don't have a defense. I just got mad and let that get the better of me."
He hoped with all his might that his words would have their desired effect. He knew he could take her; she was smaller than he was but he'd not fight a woman, not even in self-defense and he didn't feel much like getting hit today.
After a moment of letting Jimmy's words sink in, Rachel seemed to lose her steam and sat down on the step.
"Jesse, come here and let me take a look at you."
Her voice was soft and motherly leaving Jesse no more reason for apprehension and he sat down next to her so that she could inspect the bruises on his face and check to make sure his nose was not broken. Jimmy walked over slowly.
"Can I sit down too or are you still mad?"
"Jimmy, it wasn't really anger. I worry is all. From what I heard of what happened today, that's what got into you too."
He sat on the next step down from where Rachel and Jesse were and looked into the sunset as the rays of light seemed to be grasping for purchase at the horizon, fighting for just a few more minutes of day.
"It was a lot of things, Rachel. I's mad and scared and worried and sad and mad some more. And most of the mad was at myself for not seeing this coming."
Jesse pulled away from Rachel's examination of his face.
"How could you know he'd say those things or anyone'd repeat them?"
"People are mean to anyone that's different. You see how people who don't know Buck or Ike treat them, Susan's not like everyone else either. I should've known. Tompkins is one of the worst at it."
Rachel rested her chin on Jimmy's head and squeezed his shoulders.
"I wish I could tell you it'd get better but, you're right, people are mean."
He sat for a moment lost in her motherly gesture to him, grateful that he wasn't in this grand new adventure alone for he'd certainly never be able to do it by himself. He could see that now. It wasn't just the female insight that Rachel or Lou could give, it was how Cody could make her laugh or Noah helped her find her words. It was the way Kid could relate to how she missed him when he was away or how Ike made her feel safe and normal inside her silence. Sometimes he wondered what good he was at all but then, like tonight, she would light up at seeing him and call him daddy. Or she would whimper in the night and reach over to run a piece of his hair between her fingers. He knew his purpose, daunting as it was, and he embraced it. He wasn't sure if he was worthy or not but he knew he'd never take as much joy in any other role in his life.
Rachel got up to head on and start dinner and this pulled Jimmy from his thoughts as he went to collect Susan and make sure she got washed up, though Ike was probably already on top of that. He guessed all of them sitting down to a meal together was as good a time as any to let everyone in on Ike's wonderful idea. He didn't figure he'd have to do much convincing.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Jimmy?" asked Kid.
"You got a better one?" Jimmy answered him quickly, "'Sides, it wasn't mine. Ike came up with it. Just seemed it made sense to me."
Kid leaned against the back of his chair.
"I don't, it's just, I don't know…"
His voice trailed away because he didn't have real reasons for his unease but to think that somehow Susan could be hurt in all this and that it was too risky but then, maybe it was a risk that needed taking.
Jimmy turned to the little girl next to him.
"Do you understand what we're talking about?"
She nodded. The mean words followed her and were now coming from other people and Jimmy wanted to find a way to make them stop. But then a thought occurred to her.
"What if the words are true? Everyone says them about me, what if they are right?"
"They're not," her daddy answered her softly, "Just because a lot of people all say or think something, don't make it so."
Teaspoon jumped in.
"Did you know, Susan, that at one time, every person on earth believed the sun went round us instead of the other way 'round? And that when a man finally figured out how things really was, he was punished for it?"
She shook her head wide-eyed at him.
"People are scared of things they don't understand so they're scared of you."
Susan could sit and listen to Teaspoon talk forever and sometimes she was pretty sure he could talk forever if allowed to do so.
"They are scared of me?"
She could not fathom such a thing. She was so small and scared of so much herself.
"Yes, because you are a mystery and folks like to solve mysteries or shove them aside so they don't have to think about them. It ain't in human nature to just accept things we don't know. They figure if they put you down then they can just go on along and forget about you. But you're still there and letting them pretend you're not ain't good for anybody. 'Sides, we can't deprive them of the privilege of knowing you."
Teaspoon winked at the girl and she somehow did understand he was playing a little bit with the final remark. She turned her attention at last to the man who had become her entire world.
"We are having a party?" she did not understand this idea in the least. She knew that Jimmy had thought it over and that Ike had suggested it and maybe they knew that they were talking about after all but she was frightened. She had never been to a party of any sort.
"It's sort of a party but not exactly. We just want to get people together to try to get them to understand you. The truth, not what someone's going to make up about you. Is that alright?"
"Yes," he wanted it and thought it best for her but it didn't stop her fear from mounting at the prospect of all of those people.
Once Susan had agreed to it, the rest were fully on board, or at least kept their reservations to themselves. It was a quick jump from getting everyone behind him in his plan to starting the actual assigning of tasks. The men talked amongst themselves and the women went to Susan and began planning a party dress for her.
"I'll go tomorrow and get some fabric," Rachel offered, "What's your favorite color, Susan?"
Susan thought a moment, she knew there were colors that were upsetting to her and some that were calming and even soothing but she'd never contemplated a favorite.
"I do not know."
"We could go with pink since she's a little girl or blue to match her eyes. Do you like those colors?"
Susan only nodded; this was all starting to overwhelm her. At last the women moved along to plan the dress and her hair away from her. She took up her paper and pencil and snuck out to the porch where it was quieter and the air was fresh and she could draw in the light that made its way through the windows, subdued as the voices wafting into the night air. At first she couldn't think of what to draw but then it came to her and the corners of her mouth turned up as she drew. The book her mother had once read about knights was really about King Arthur and in it were the Knights of the Round Table. Each was a noble and brave knight but each had his own special talents to offer the group. Her noble knights, still inside planning their next great adventure did not sit at a round table but she felt them to be largely the same. And so in her mind and on the paper in front of her, the rectangular dinner table became rounded and each man traded the clothing of the American west for armor. She loved them all. Presently she became aware of the presence of another and looked up into Jesse's startlingly blue eyes, though to her chagrin, she noticed one was nearly closed for the swelling there. She loved them so for their willingness to defend her but was horribly upset when any one of them was injured on her behalf.
"Hey Susan," he smiled at her, "Am I bothering you?"
"No, Jesse. There is just too much noise inside."
"I know, I had to get out of there myself," he paused a bit turning things over in his mind, "I'm sorry, I feel like some of this is my fault."
Susan was shocked. Jesse had never said one unkind thing to her and she was certain in how he treated her that he did not think them either. She shook her head at him.
"It is not your fault. It is mine."
Jesse had taken a seat in a chair next to her and now he took her hand, the gesture took her by surprise but she found she didn't wish to move her hand.
"You shouldn't say things like that. None of this is your fault. Is it Ike's fault that he got scarlet fever and can't talk? Is it Buck's fault that he's half Kiowa? People are mean to them and say the stupidest things. But don't ever think it's your fault."
Susan looked down at his hand holding hers. He was just a boy and not all that much older than she but he was stuck in an awkward stage where he neared to a man's height and had the hands and feet of a man while retaining the slight build of a boy. Her hand looked so tiny in his. She searched her brain for words.
"Why did you get in a fight?"
Jesse felt the color rise to his cheeks. He could feed any of the rest of them any story he pleased but not her. And it was funny too because she was the one least likely to know if a person was lying. Maybe that was it, what made it seem more wrong to lie to her.
"I was mad. I can tell the others all kinds of things but Freddy made me mad. He shouldn't've said those things; he should just mind his own business."
"It does not make me mad. You did not need to fight."
"But it makes you sad and that makes me mad. He needed someone to shut his mouth for him."
Things were getting more confusing for Susan.
"I do not understand."
"We're kind of a family here and no one likes to see family hurting or sad. Maybe Jimmy's right and I should've handled it different. Maybe he should've too."
"What did Jimmy do?"
"Wait," Jesse was incredulous at this, "He didn't tell you? No one told you about the fight?"
She shook her head, her daddy was in a fight because of her; this was awful.
"I don't even know if I can call it much of a fight, it was so one-sided," Jesse laughed and Susan wondered why men all thought fighting was so funny but then Jesse went on, "I think the bigger fight was Jimmy getting away from Kid."
He looked at the girl's confused face and decided to start from the beginning and relate the tale of his fight and what happened after he ran into Teaspoon's office.
"I never seen Jimmy that mad before and he's got a temper. Mr. Tompkins should be thanking God right now that Kid got Jimmy's guns away from him."
"Jimmy would have shot him?"
Jesse stared off in the distance a bit before speaking.
"I don't know; I've never seen him draw his guns in anger. He was steamed though," Jesse looked at Susan and thought maybe a different subject would do her good, "So, what were you drawing?"
She lifted the pad and tilted it so that the lamplight glowing from inside would illuminate her brave knights around their round table.
"We're all knights?" he really sort of liked that thought.
She nodded but her mind never really left the story Jesse had told her of Jimmy nearly killing the man from the store.
"He could have killed him."
"What?" asked Jesse unclear on her statement for a moment but then he caught on, "Yeah, I guess he could have, wouldn't be the first time."
"Jimmy has killed people?"
Jesse looked at her like he was starting to think the people in town had a point, who did she think James Hickok was?
"You didn't know? He doesn't carry those guns just 'cause they're pretty. He can use 'em and he has."
Susan couldn't hear anymore, couldn't think anymore. She just had to get away and so she ran, her drawing falling to the ground when she stood. Jesse was immediately aware he shouldn't have told her the things he had and thought to go to her to try to fix things but knew that he, of all people, would not be able to clean up this mess, even though he had made it. Reluctantly he went inside to find Jimmy.
Jesse cautiously tapped Jimmy's shoulder and hoped those Colts weren't going to be turned on him once he explained what happened. Jimmy looked up at the boy and his smile faded as he saw Jesse's serious expression. A brief explanation later and Jimmy was torn between anger for the boy and worry for Susan. Worry won out and he went to find her, though he had a fairly good idea where she'd be. Walking out the door he found her latest drawing and wondered what she thought of her knight now. He hated the idea of the man he'd been previously coming to knock him from his place in her mind as her savior but should have known it would eventually. He walked out into the darkness and found her, where he thought he would, in the barn.
His heart broke in his chest for there she was looking so much as she had when he'd first laid eyes on her. Her back was against the edge of a stall and her knees were hugged to her chest and she just stared straight ahead as if seeing nothing at all. He lowered himself next to her and spoke softly.
"I'm sorry. I was wrong to let you think I was something I'm not. I understand if you hate me now."
She remained for the most part motionless and stared at nothing but she did speak.
"I do not hate you. I am afraid. What would happen if you had killed that man today?"
"I don't know. I wasn't thinking. Teaspoon'll tell you that's a habit of mine, running off without thinking. He's right too. I have to cut that out. Is that what you're afraid of, me doing something stupid? Or are you afraid of me?"
"I think both."
Her words stung him as nothing before. He once had enjoyed, though he wouldn't admit to it out loud, the fear his reputation inspired. But he never wanted to have anyone really scared of him, least of all a little girl and very least of all this little girl.
"Susan, I would never hurt you."
"Why did you not tell me?"
'Good question Hickok,' he thought to himself, 'So what's the answer?'
"It's a real long story."
"I like stories. I want to hear."
"I guess it all started a while back when the bunch of us was still at the Sweetwater station. There was this writer fella, J.D. Marcus and I had to go shooting my mouth off, and my gun. Hard to believe I was ever that person. I drew first and asked questions later. I'm not proud of it but it's how I was. Anyway Marcus decided to write a little book about me, named me 'Wild Bill' Hickok and called me the fastest gun in the west. Things got a little dicey for a bit. I never went looking for the fame or the reputation but I didn't think enough to see that's how things might turn out. It's been a while since anyone's called me 'Wild Bill' and I'm grateful. There might've been a time when I thought that was the life I wanted but I learned pretty fast it wasn't."
He paused in the telling of his tale to see how Susan was doing; she blinked a couple of times and then turned her head to him.
"Joe read that book to me. I did not know it was you."
"Yeah, it's me. Nothing in the book was true though, he made it all up. Anyway, just 'cause people don't call me that anymore don't mean they don't know. I can see it in 'em; that little bit of fear behind their eyes, that extra care taken to not offend me. And then you came along and trusted me. I thought maybe I could be something else but that was foolish of me to think."
"What did you want to be?"
"I want to just be James Hickok, just a man, your father. Nothing grand or fancy, I'll grant you but it'd be a fine life if I could manage it."
Susan was silent. She wanted to believe good things about this man, wanted to believe still in his honor, his virtue, wanted to believe him still to be her knight in shining armor, her hero riding in on his golden charger to save her from evil-doers. But she wasn't sure. She was no longer sure about anything anymore. The men who killed her family were bad men and Jimmy had killed people. He almost killed a man today with his bare hands. She wondered if he could still be a good man and have done these things and if he could then were the men whose faces were on those wanted posters good men as well? She just didn't know and further didn't know who to ask. Jimmy was always who she went to but now she wasn't sure she could trust him or what he said to her. She wasn't sure she could trust anyone here. The townspeople obviously didn't like her and the rest were all friends of Jimmy and she wasn't sure if any of them would be able to help her without a greater motive of helping him.
Jimmy touched Susan's arm but she pulled away. This was not the uncontrolled thrashing as when he first met her; there was intent to turn him away, to separate herself from him. Her rejection cut him deep but he knew that he was only getting a fraction of what she was feeling.
"Will you talk to me, Susan? Can't you let me in so's we can talk this out?"
"I do not want to talk to you."
"You should talk to someone, sweetheart."
"There is no one."
Susan had never felt this alone in her life. She'd been this alone when Jimmy had met her but she'd been in such a state of shock that she hadn't had time to notice. Now she truly was alone, there was not one ally she could think of to help her. A tear slid down her cheek followed by another and another until there were veritable rivers cascading down her face. Jimmy watched and felt helpless. He didn't want to leave her though he knew she wanted him to. He still wanted to protect her but she no longer wanted any part of him. Slowly he rose to standing and began walking sadly away but he paused and turned back to her.
"Might not be a good idea to sleep in the barn. You could sleep at Rachel's or in the bunkhouse. I don't have the right to ask anything of you, I know that, but please…"
He let his voice trail as he walked away defeated. As he moved toward the bunkhouse, he passed Teaspoon who had heard the whole story from Jesse and had gone to see if everything was alright.
"She in the barn?"
Jimmy only nodded.
"Must not have gone too good if she's still there."
"She hates me, Teaspoon."
Teaspoon could not stifle the chuckle that rose within him. There was a certain vindication for parents who had seen a child through adolescence only to bear witness to that same child being on the other end of things.
"No, she don't. How many times have you hated me?"
"Is it? I have a feeling she's confused more than anything else. Did you try talking to her?"
"She don't trust me anymore. She said she doesn't trust anyone."
Teaspoon laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"You go on back to the others and let me try to talk to her."
Jimmy walked away, he would have liked to have protested but he knew there was nothing he could do by staying. That was hard to swallow but it was the truth and it was the truth he brought about himself.
Teaspoon sighed and walked into the barn to find the weeping child still hugging her knees. He grunted as he lowered himself to the ground across from her and just sat in silence for a while, observing her. He knew she had taken notice of him as he had come to understand that very little escaped her observation. But she made no move, she even cried in stillness. Her shoulders did not shake or heave as someone else's might as they wept and not a sound came from her, the tears simply flowed. At last he spoke.
"I know putting names to your feelings is hard but how's about we give it a whirl?"
"I do not want to talk to you."
Teaspoon stretched out his legs.
"You think I'm going to take his side, not tell you the truth, not look out for your interests, that it?"
"Well, then," Teaspoon sighed, "It looks like we can start playing that feeling naming game. I'll start with lonely, 'cause if you're feeling you can't talk to me then you must be feeling there's no one and that's got to be lonely. Am I right?"
"Yes. I still do not want to talk to you."
"Too bad, I'm a pretty good listener but if you're not going to talk I guess I'll have to do all the talking. And that's just fine 'cause I'm a pretty good talker too."
There was no movement from Susan.
"So I know you're feeling lonely and I'm going to guess scared 'cause you got lots of reasons to feel that too. You seen things and had things done to you what would make anyone scared and then the one person you come to trust, you don't think you can trust him anymore and he was s'posed to protect you. You have to be wondering who's going to protect you now. And the things you learned about him must make him seem kinda scary too."
Still nothing from Susan, her eyes just kept staring blankly ahead.
"I'm thinking you're hurt and sad too. He didn't tell you the truth right away. Makes you think he don't trust you or don't think you can handle it. Maybe you think he sees you like the people in town. And I think you're probably confused too. Trying to sort out how Jimmy's not on a wanted poster, how he can be a good man when he's done things that make other men bad. Now you stop me if I'm wrong on any of these feelings, Susan."
There was still nothing from the girl.
"He ain't perfect, Susan. He's made mistakes, more of 'em than he'd like to think about most days, I reckon. Mistakes don't make a man bad though. They make him human but not bad."
Susan rubbed at her face; the drying tears were starting to itch.
"There is another."
"Did you say something?" Teaspoon asked leaning forward to catch her soft voice.
"There is another feeling."
"Which one did I miss?"
"I still love him."
Teaspoon settled back against the wall and crossed his hands over his abdomen smiling.
"I had a feeling."
"I do not understand how I can still feel love for him. He was not honest. He has done bad things. He scares me."
The two sat and talked for a very long time and eventually Susan came to understand that there were circumstances that sometimes made things that would otherwise be bad, less bad and sometimes even good. She heard stories of Jimmy's past, how his mother had been hurt and how that caused him to try to protect women all the more because he'd felt so helpless as a child. Stories of how others used his reputation to their benefit and his detriment.
"Is he angry with me?"
"Actually, he's worried you're angry with him. He'd still really like to have this party and try to make things better for you in town and I know he'd like it better still if you slept in your bed tonight."
They both stood and Teaspoon offered her his arm which she took and he escorted her to the bunkhouse where a lamp was still burning. She walked in to see Jimmy sitting at the table studying the picture she'd drawn just a short while before. The others were sleeping but he'd not been able to and had been so transfixed with the picture, he now could recount every minute detail and pencil stroke. Really though, he had ceased seeing the picture a ways back when his eyes became too clouded with tears. He had been her knight, her rescuer, her father and now he was just another in a list of those who'd hurt her. He heard the door open and figured it to be Teaspoon and it was but on his arm was the most welcome sight; his dear little Susan.
She walked to him with visible trepidation and sat at the table waving a quick goodbye to Teaspoon. Jimmy stayed quiet, wanting her to be free to speak first, knowing it would allow her to say whatever she truly needed to. He studied the tear stained face and knew he'd find no clues there to what she was feeling. At last she broke the silence with a frightened whisper.
"Jimmy, are you still my daddy?"
He could no longer restrain himself from holding her, nearly crushing her in a hug.
"Of course I am Princess; I'm your daddy as long as you'll have me."
That night as Susan drifted off to sleep in her bed watching the steady rise and fall of the chest of the man in the next bunk, she contemplated the confusing day that had been. People were such a puzzlement to her and she wondered if she would ever be able to figure them out completely. Amid her confusion was fear. She had so much fear for the future. If anything happened to Jimmy, she didn't know where she would go or what she would do. Teaspoon had helped her to see that Jimmy was in fact the same person that she had thought him to be and that the things he had done were not who he was, not entirely anyway. But if he had cases to kill people to defend himself or others then he could be killed or someone could misunderstand as she had and he could go to jail or even be hanged. And this idea Ike had about this party scared her as much as it excited her. She had read about parties and heard others talk about them but had never been to one at all. She was excited on the one hand to see what a party was like, to see all of the people but she was afraid of too many people. Sometimes when a lot of people got together, they made so much noise and that was very hard to take. Only that night, she'd had to go outside to get away from the people she loved because there was too much noise. There would be many more people at this party. Unconsciously she reached and grabbed a piece of Jimmy's hair and worked it between her fingers. She paid little notice but he had become so aware of her that, without waking, he rolled toward her to make it easier for her. Eventually she was able to sleep but sleep only brought frightening dreams filled with taunting people and Jimmy nowhere to be found.
In time, the sun's soft early rays made their way to the little bunkhouse and began prying at the eyelids of those sleeping inside. Sometime in the night, half awakened by Susan's thrashing, Jimmy had wrapped the girl in her blankets and brought her onto his bunk. Once there she had settled a bit but still whimpered occasionally from dreams she may or may not be able to relate once awake. Movement nearby caused Jimmy to stir and realize that Susan was with him, he didn't remember bringing her to him but then, he must have. He looked up to see Buck looking down at him with concern.
Jimmy nodded, the world of sleep still having its claws too firmly entrenched in him to allow speech. Buck sat on Susan's bunk and took in the pair of them. It was hard to not feel joy at the new life that had serendipitously come to his friend but there were difficulties too.
"I'm glad you finally got some sleep. I was beginning to wonder if you were just going to sit and stare at that picture all night."
"Was I keeping you up?" Jimmy tried for a biting tone but fell a great deal short and ended up with a question fraught with concern that he'd disturbed the sleep of his friends.
On another day, with different circumstances, Buck may have tried a more comedic route and teased his friend for his tears but it just wasn't the right thing to do and he knew that if the roles were reversed, Jimmy wouldn't tease him either.
"No. I was worried about her too," silence fell between them for a moment as it can with two men who are so comfortable with the lack of words, "You ever wonder how Teaspoon does it? How he knows what to say or do to calm someone down?"
Jimmy laughed quietly so as not to wake Susan, she'd had a hard night and needed her sleep.
"I just always figured he was lying to us when he said he never reared no kids. I'll bet he's got a passel of 'em somewhere."
This brought a smile from Buck as he imagined Teaspoon with a large brood and his mind automatically went to a rhyme he'd heard the sisters at the mission tell the younger children about a woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children she didn't know what to do. But in Buck's mind it was Teaspoon living in a giant shoe with children overflowing. It was all he could do to not fall over with laughter but then he'd have to try to explain it. Perhaps he could try to tell Susan later, she might even know that rhyme for he couldn't remember how it went fully. He knew that if Susan had heard it or read it, that she'd know it and she might even be able to draw a picture of it. But he didn't need to look like a complete crazy person to the other riders.
Just as Buck was finally getting himself under control from his humorous mental image, Rachel came in carrying a basket.
"What's that Rachel?" asked Cody.
"Well, if it was December, I'd say Santa'd been here but I don't know. It was on the porch and this card says it's for Susan."
Jimmy shifted to a sitting position cradling his little girl in his arms and spoke to her to wake her.
"Susan, honey, it's morning."
First she turned her head into his chest and then seeming to realize where she was and who held her, she opened her eyes.
As always, when she addressed him so, Jimmy felt his heart swell. He'd never be sure how he was so lucky to have this dear child in his life but he knew he'd never need to ask for anything else for himself now that she was there.
"Good morning, Princess. Seems you have a present."
Susan sat up and pushed the blankets away and then looked to where Rachel stood with the basket.
"There's a card addressed to you," Rachel said with a smile, "So I didn't open it."
Susan walked over to the table and tried to figure out who would give her a present. It wasn't her birthday and it wasn't Christmas and there was no one she knew except the people right around her and none of them seemed to know where the basket had come from. She picked up the envelope Rachel extended and slid out the paper to read the note.
"Dear Susan, I feel very badly that I played any part in the hurtful things said about you. When I said you were a fine young lady, I meant it. I hope you can forgive me. I was able to speak at length with Teaspoon about you and he told me how much you enjoy art. If you would use the items in this basket to create something to make yourself happy, I would be grateful. Perhaps, if you can forgive me, you could show me your drawings sometime.
Most sincerely, William Tompkins"
Susan read the note at least five times before even looking into the basket. It bewildered her how many problems could arise over misunderstandings. She had always thought that things would be easier if she could communicate like other people but now she was seeing that they didn't do any better of a job at it than she did. She set the note aside and Jimmy picked it up anxious to see who had sent the basket. Susan was unprepared for what she found inside. There were new sketch pads for her and pencils and even a box of water colors. She could not wait to attempt to depict her new family in color. In the midst of her joy at the new art supplies, she had a thought, perhaps Jimmy would not want her to take them, perhaps he was still mad at Mr. Tompkins she looked to her side and saw a look upon his face she could not name, of course, this meant nothing as she could not name many expressions at all.
"Daddy, are you still mad at Mr. Tompkins?"
"No, I'm feeling awful foolish though," he replied, "I think after breakfast we should go on over to visit Mr. Tompkins. I need to apologize and clear the air some and I think you need to thank him for the gift. Sound good?"
She nodded and felt better about so many things all at once. For one, her daddy wasn't going to kill the man from the store and for another; the man from the store wasn't a mean man at all. He didn't think mean things. And maybe if talking to Teaspoon and having an understanding about her helped Mr. Tompkins feel better about her, then this party would be alright too. If she were a girl prone to metaphor, she may have said that a great weight had lifted off of her but she wasn't prone to such things. However it did seem easier to breathe.
A short while later found Jimmy walking in the direction of Tompkins' store with a lovely lady on each arm as Rachel had wanted to come too in order to find some fabric for Susan's dress. Rachel entered the store first to a friendly if reserved greeting from the proprietor. She was followed by Jimmy and Susan for whom Tompkins could only manage a nod. It wasn't hard to discern his expression of fear, for anyone other than Susan anyway. Though Susan was just as frightened as the man in front of her although for different reasons.
While Rachel went about her shopping, Jimmy led Susan to Mr. Tompkins and he spoke first.
"I want to apologize for my temper yesterday. I was out of line and it wasn't the kind of example I want to set for my little girl. I am sorry."
Even Susan was able to notice the relief that crossed the older man's face and she felt it too and that made it easier when the attention was turned to her to find her words.
"Thank you for the presents, Mr. Tompkins."
"You're very welcome," he said with a smile, "Do you forgive me then?"
"I was not angry. I did not know what to think. Teaspoon says that people do not like not understanding. He says that they want to figure out mysteries or forget about them. I think it is good you try to figure out."
To himself only, Tompkins might admit that the girl's affect was still sort of unnerving but Teaspoon was right about her, there was much more than met the eye or ear at first blush. The Marshal had come down after the fuss had died down the day before and had a long talk about Susan. Tompkins was glad too. He hadn't ever called her feeble-minded, only slow and he hadn't meant for anyone to take those words and try to hurt the little girl with them. He'd only been trying, as Susan had said, to understand the child and her sometimes unsettling behavior. He became aware that Hickok's hand was extended to him and he grabbed it quickly.
"You know, Hickok," he began, "Once I did understand, as our bright little friend has pointed out, I couldn't blame you too much for the state you came down here in yesterday. I hope things can be better between all of us now."
"I recall you asked me what you needed to do to set this to rights," he looked at the other man, "seems to me you figured out a way yourself."
Right about this time Rachel came over and put a hand lightly upon Susan's shoulder. She couldn't have used more pressure than a butterfly landing there but it was enough to grasp the girl's attention.
"Susan, would you come with me and pick out some fabric for your dress?"
Susan looked up to Jimmy for permission.
"Before you do," he answered, "Didn't you have something for Mr. Tompkins?"
Her eyes widened, she must have been so preoccupied with speaking to him and how afraid she was that Jimmy would get mad at him that she forgot before. Reaching into the pocket of her pinafore, she produced a sheet of paper and handed it wordlessly to the store owner. Then she was off to the other side of the store with Rachel. Once Susan and Rachel were off planning the girl's dress, Tompkins opened the folded sheet to see his own smiling face looking back at him.
"She drew that over breakfast," said Jimmy who'd been there to see how she'd worked at getting the man's smile right. And she had, even Jimmy had to admit that when he had a mind to, William Tompkins had a right warm smile and she'd captured it perfectly. Looking at the man across the sales counter from him, Jimmy thought that perhaps he saw the man's eyes shining a little more than usual.
"Teaspoon didn't exaggerate her talent," Tompkins finally choked out, "She is a very special child. I can see why you all are so taken with her. I know I hadn't said so, or had much chance to say so but I think it's a fine thing you taking care of her. I wouldn't have thought you to be the one to take on something like this but it is a fine thing."
"Since we're talking about Susan's and my situation, I guess you ought to be the first one we invite to the party we're having this Saturday. I guess it's kind of an adoption party and a way for people to get to know Susan, maybe head off more misunderstandings."
"I'll be there. Is that why Rachel's looking to make a dress?"
"Yeah, Susan don't have anything for a party. We're trying to tell as many folks as we can, Teaspoon can talk to a lot on his rounds but if you could mention it to folks too, I'd be obliged."
"I'd be more than happy to."
Susan woke before dawn on Saturday. The rest of the week had been a blur to her. Rachel and Lou had been making her dress and having her try it on repeatedly for fit while the rest were bustling around for the party while keeping up with chores and Susan had felt it was odd indeed that in preparing for a party that was for her, she was feeling like such an outsider. But it was also kind of nice because it gave her a chance to sit back and watch her people go about their business and she loved to watch people, they were interesting even though she understood so little of them. And in between her chores, she was able to try out her new paints. She'd never had paint before and it was intimidating at first but she quickly developed a feel for the new medium and was quite proud of her newest works, ones that she had shown no one yet.
She was excited for today; Mr. Tompkins had bolstered her hope with his kind note and gift and even more so by how he spoke to her when she visited him. She thought that maybe the rest of the town would be the same, or at least most of them. But she was nervous too, no; nervous didn't cover how she felt. She was scared. She knew the possibility existed that Tompkins would be the only one who was kind to her. She knew that each friend was precious and she could be happy with only her little family here and Mr. Tompkins as friends but she was frightened they'd be mean to her. That would be bad enough because it did make her sad when people called her names but she feared that Jimmy and Jesse and the rest might get angry if others were mean to her and then there would be a fight and she just didn't know what she'd do if that happened.
But there was something else upsetting her and that was the reason she was sleeping in Jimmy's bunk in the first place and the real reason she was awake so very early, before the sun itself was even considering waking. Jimmy was not there. He had left on Wednesday and was supposed to have been back sometime Friday. Two nights without him was bad enough of a prospect but when light had faded the night before and there was still no sign of her Jimmy, she just didn't know what to do. The others comforted her and told her that there must have been something that came up and he'd surely be home first thing Saturday morning. He'd surely not miss her special day; their special day.
Susan pulled his blanket around her partly to keep warm in the predawn air and partly to keep his scent with her and walked out to watch for him, or really to listen for Sundance's hoof beats. As she sat, the sun awoke and stretched its arms to bring color to the darkened eastern horizon and before she knew it, there were sounds, but not the ones she was waiting for. She heard the riders begin to stir and their bunks shift as they stood. She heard belts jingle as they dressed and then she heard a door swing closed as Rachel headed out to start breakfast. Before long the rest were eating but she could not be pulled from her post. Susan was only vaguely aware when someone sat next to her and took little notice in her peripheral vision of the biscuit being handed to her. She still did not move, only continued to scan the horizon for a hint of dust being kicked up and strained her ears for the tell tale pounding of a horse's hooves.
"Didn't I tell you once that won't make him come home faster?" Kid's voice broke through her thoughts.
Susan could not answer; she could not pull her attention from where Jimmy would be coming.
"Look, I'm going to get Katy saddled and ride on out and make sure he's alright," Kid said resting his arm around her shoulders, "I'm sure it's just what we said though, someone had him wait for something special to take with him and he had to take an extra night. But if it'll make you feel better, I'll go look for him."
"Susa-" she shook her head and frowned, not today, especially not today, she had to be able to talk like a normal person today, "I want to come too."
"No. You have to let Rachel and Lou make you extra pretty for your party. Besides," he laughed gently, "You can't go riding off after your daddy with rags in your hair."
It was true, she looked ridiculous. Rachel assured her that when all was said and done, she'd have the most darling ringlets but for now she looked anything but darling. So she just stood in her nightgown with Jimmy's blanket wrapped around her and watched as Kid readied Katy. Before he mounted, he kissed the top if her head.
"It's going to be fine, you just wait and see."
She nodded and wanted to believe him, he'd never lied to her, after all, but she worried. She watched him into the saddle and just before he nudged the horse to a start she spoke.
"Thank you. Ride safe."
"There you are!"
Susan turned to the sound to see Noah walking toward her.
"Out here in your nightgown and bare feet, Rachel is going to have a fit."
He picked her up and carried her to Rachel's porch and before he sat her down, he whispered in her ear.
"It's going to be fine. Trust us."
And with that she was turned over to Rachel where she was bathed and dressed in her new dress with the lace and the puffy sleeves and at last the rags were removed from her hair and Rachel set to work. When Rachel was finally finished, Susan stood before the mirror, wishing she were allowed to look out the window instead to watch for Jimmy. She did have to admit that the dress was pretty and so was her hair. And maybe even so was she, Jimmy told her she was and some of the other riders as well, so maybe she was. She looked normal enough she guessed and hoped the people in the town would think so too.
From outside she heard a commotion and looked out to see Ike taking care of Katy but there was no sign of Jimmy or of Sundance. Her heart fell and she knew there was bad news. Rachel was looking over her shoulder.
"Don't you worry honey, I'm sure everything is fine. We have to go now or you'll be late to your own party and that just won't do."
Outside Rachel's door Teaspoon and Jesse were waiting for them and walking up were Buck, Ike, Cody and Noah. Kid, having just ridden in, was getting ready and Lou was waiting for him. There was still no sign of Jimmy and she wondered how they could have an adoption party without her daddy. She went along anyway but paused as they passed the bunkhouse.
"What's wrong?" asked Cody, "Did you forget something?"
"Under my mattress."
Cody sprinted into the building calling something that might have been "I'll get it" or something to that effect. He returned to the group quickly with a large paper that had been rolled up and tied with a ribbon.
"Is this it?"
"Yes. It is for my daddy," she knew deep inside that she wouldn't need to bring it because something had obviously happened and Jimmy wouldn't be there but something made her want to bring it anyway. She wanted to cry and run away and most of all, she wanted to be alone but that was not to be.
Cody carried the gift for Jimmy and offered her his other arm while Jesse stood on her other side and offered his arm to her as well. Aside from her daddy, she couldn't have had handsomer escorts. Any other day, she would have been proud to be seen walking through town with these men but there seemed a hole, a void and she knew what, who, was supposed to fill it and he was not there. At last they arrived and Teaspoon went in first, he said he wanted to say a few words before her grand entrance.
Teaspoon strode into the center of the room and waved his arms to get the attention of the townsfolk who had assembled there.
"I'm glad to see so many of you came on out to our little party. I know a good deal of you are here just 'cause you're curious. We did say this was an adoption and we did say it was none other than James Hickok doing the adopting and that had to get some amount of curiosity stirred up."
There was a titter of laughter, as none of the guests knew for sure if Hickok was there and no one wanted to laugh out loud and risk offending the notorious gunfighter.
"Well, we wasn't lying. Jimmy Hickok came upon a horrifying scene a little while back and right smack in the middle of this terrible thing was a little girl. If you'd've told me a while back that he'd stumble upon an orphaned child and take such a shine to her and her to him that he'd up and want to be a daddy, I'd've locked you up waiting for the liquor to wear off. But it did happen and she's a right fine young lady too."
He looked around assessing the crowd for this is where things might get tricky.
"I know some of you have heard some talk about her, that she's not quite right in the head or maybe a might bit slow. I wanted to set the record straight. She's unlike most folks you'll meet but she ain't slow or simple. She's right smart and talented too. She's very shy and talks a little different and if you all crowd up to her at once, you'll scare the daylights out of her. And I guess that's about all you need to know before you meet her so I'll just go and fetch Miss Susan now."
Susan heard what was said and thought it was the nicest way anyone had explained her differences and she wished she could have truly reveled in the love her new family showered upon her but with the most important member of her family missing, she just could not feel any joy at all. There was only dread and fear. She just knew in her heart that when Kid showed up, he'd be bearing bad news of a sort she didn't think she'd recover from.
Susan was led in, with the riders forming a protective circle around her so that she wouldn't be mobbed by strangers. There were many introductions and she curtsied to all. They had come to the consensus that curtsying was a polite way to get out of shaking hands and would therefore allow her to avoid touching anyone. Soon she was seated and Jesse brought her a cup of punch.
"Are you alright?"
She wanted to smile and nod but she shook her head. Then she saw Kid and Lou walk in and wanted to go over to them to find out where Jimmy was, what the news was that Kid had. Even if it was awful and broke her heart, she had to know. She could hear hushed tones around her and Jimmy's name being mentioned but she couldn't quite tell what they were saying about him. She stood and tried to make her way to Kid but there were so many people and most of them were grownups and taller than her so she couldn't see where he was. And then she was being lifted and she almost started to scream from the shock of it but then she caught a whiff of a scent. It was leather and sunshine and, it was Jimmy. He kissed her forehead and then set her down bowing slightly.
"I'm sorry to have kept my damsel waiting. Are you mad at me?"
She shook her head and fought to keep her words with her.
"I was scared."
He crouched down to her.
"There was no need for that, Princess. Something came up I had to deal with, I promise I'll tell you all about it later but I wouldn't miss this for anything in the world."
She looked at him and saw a cut above his eye and a bruise on his cheek. Reaching, she gently brushed her fingers over the wounds as if wishing her fingers were some magic wand that would instantly heal him. He took her hand in his and kissed her fingertips.
"I'm just fine, it takes more to stop me than a couple of bruises and a cut or two," he smiled to reassure her, "I think I'm supposed to say something now."
He stood up and managed to draw attention to himself and, along with him, to Susan which made her uncomfortable but at the same time so very proud to be with him.
"I'm sorry about my late entrance folks but I sure am glad you all came out to meet my little girl. I could've never dreamed I'd be any kind of family man, let alone this way but I guess stranger things have probably happened. I don't know what they might be," he paused to chuckle a bit and flash that boyish grin that let others know it was alright to laugh a bit, even if it was partly at his expense, "I don't know how these things work or anything. Teaspoon says there's really no law about adoption and no ceremony or piece of paper that goes with it but I'm glad to have you share this with me anyway. I do believe that today I am the luckiest man alive and probably the proudest father."
Susan beamed, that was her daddy who was so proud and he was proud of her and to be her daddy and that was all she needed in the world, ever. There was applause and from some corner of the room, music. Then Susan was aware of a boy being pushed toward her she looked at him but did not know his name.
"Frederick Haynes, don't you have something to say to this young lady."
Susan immediately knew the name and the marks on his face made sense, Jesse hadn't been lying, he had gotten the better of Freddy in the fight. A part of her was glad of that, not because Freddy had said mean things but because he had hit Jesse and that made her mad.
"I-I'm sorry," the boy stammered being once more prodded by his mother, "I shouldn't have said those things about you."
He then turned with a pleading look at his mother, begging to be told he had fulfilled his obligation. She nodded but then turned to Jimmy.
"I want you to know, I did not raise him to use such words when speaking of another of God's children."
Jimmy smiled and a part of him felt a little for the Haynes boy but a larger part was glad for the bruises left there by Jesse.
"I'm sure you didn't ma'am."
With the music in full swing, Jimmy bowed to Susan once again.
"Would you do me the honor of a dance?"
Princess he called her and for the first time she felt like one. Here she was, Susan, at a party with couples dancing all around her, wearing a beautiful dress and she had the attentions of the most handsome and noble man there. He could have danced with the pretty ladies who were there; she could see some followed his movements with their eyes as if wishing he'd spare them a glance. But he did not; he only wanted to dance with Susan. Princess he called her and princess she must be for as he took her hand and led her to the floor, she felt as Cinderella must have felt at the ball when the prince would dance with no other but her.
The rest of the party was like a dream to Susan. She'd never learned to dance but Jimmy lifted her so that her feet rested on the toes of his boots and she was able to go along for the ride. In the course of the festivities, she danced with each of the riders and Jesse and Teaspoon and even Mr. Tompkins.
Jimmy sat back and watched as Buck twirled Susan across the floor. He saw the ringlets that Rachel had cajoled her hair into sway and bounce and the easy smile that adorned her face. The music turned faster paced and Susan was having a hard time keeping up with how she should move her feet. Jimmy had half a mind to get her but then thought that Buck would bring her to him if need be. But his friend did not stop the dance, instead he lifted Susan into his arms and held her as the dance continued, eliciting laughter from the child. Jimmy hoped this party would work. He knew there'd be no incident here. No one would dare to cross him and that allowed his precious princess to have her day. His attention went back to the dance floor where he was unable to find Buck and Susan. He wasn't terribly concerned, neither Buck nor any of the other riders would let anything happen to Susan, but he missed seeing her happy face and now longed for it.
There came a tap on his shoulder and he looked to see Susan's deep blue eyes looking past him in that way she had.
"There's my princess. Where did you get to?"
She held out the rolled up paper to him.
"I have a present for you, Daddy."
Jimmy untied the ribbon and unrolled the paper to discover there were many sheets rolled into the bundle. Every one was a painting she had made of the two of them. There was one of the two of them walking arm in arm and another of her watching him chop wood, one of him astride Sundance and one of him brushing her hair and the final one showed her sleeping snuggly in his arms, protectively sheltered there. Beneath were the words, as artistically written as she was able, "I love you, Daddy."
There were no words for Jimmy to give this child; no way for him to thank her or even to express what any of this meant to him. Perhaps later, when it was just the two of them, alone, he'd be able to find a way to explain. For the time being, Jimmy let an embrace speak what he could not.
The party went on as folks were in need of something to celebrate and in time, Jimmy felt the need to take Susan home and get her to bed. And if he were fully honest, he was plenty tired himself. The pair walked through the darkened town wordless and smiling. Passing the Marshal's office Jimmy paused.
"I have to peek in for a minute. Do not leave this spot until I come out. Stay right here."
Susan nodded. This was the closest Jimmy had come to being stern with her and it scared her a bit. He stepped into the office and she wanted so very badly to follow, to see what made him speak the way he did to her but he'd said to stay where she was and so she did. He wasn't inside long but there was yelling from inside and that frightened her; she had thought everyone was at the party, so who was in Teaspoon's office yelling at her daddy? He came out with a frown that turned to a warm smile when he saw her.
His heart melted at seeing the tiny girl, so small for her age, he thought, trying too hard to not move even a fraction of an inch from where he'd left her.
"You are a very good girl, do you know that?"
She looked up at him uncertainly and he lifted her and carried her the rest of the way home.
Once inside and nightgown clad with her hair in her familiar pair of plaits, Jimmy took up the latest book he'd been reading to her, The Three Musketeers, the girl sure loved those swashbuckling tales. He guessed her proclivity for sword fighting heroes was far preferable to those dime novels that weren't worth the paper it took to print them. Before he could open the book to where he had left off before this last run she stopped him.
"Why were you late?"
"I'm sorry it took longer, Susan. I didn't mean to scare you or make you angry."
"I am not mad. I was only scared that you were hurt or that you were not coming back. You said you would tell me what happened. That is the story I want. It is the one you promised me."
He knew she sometimes fell asleep to Cody's over dramatic retellings of his adventures on the trails but what he had to tell her was no bedtime story, not for her anyway and not tonight. Tonight he wanted her dreams filled with music and dancing and happy things, not what he had to tell her.
"Susan, I'd rather tell you about Athos and Porthos and the rest for tonight and leave that tale for morning. It's not a good bedtime story."
He tried to pull her into a hug but she pushed him away and he sharply sucked in air. Susan looked at him studying his face carefully.
"You are hurt. You did not tell me you were hurt."
"I guess, if I'm being honest, I got a bit more than just a cut and some bruises."
She just looked at him and at that moment she possessed the skill that all women had of demanding a man to cut through whatever line of bull he was dishing out and tell the truth. He never thought he'd be sorry for her to be normal at anything. He spoke softly hoping she wouldn't quite hear.
"I got shot."
But she did hear and soon was curled tightly into a ball, her head in her hands just repeating the word, "no" over and over again. Well, there was no use trying to keep the story away from her any longer. He took her into his arms and cradled her like a baby.
"I'm alright, it's not a bad one, it's not much more'n a scratch," he thought of telling her he'd been hurt worse in the past and although the words would be true, he knew they'd not calm her, they'd frighten her more, "Settle down and I'll tell you the story."
She nodded her agreement and Jimmy settled down next to her, once she heard this story, she'd surely not sleep in her own bed. He took a moment to collect his thoughts and reflected briefly that one of the things he liked most about Susan was that she never prodded someone to start talking. She understood better than most that sometimes words had to be collected before they could be spoken. At last he felt ready to tell the tale.
He'd been on his way home with not much on his mind but getting home to Susan. He'd been making good time and would have no trouble at all getting home before sundown. There was a small stream running alongside where he rode and he thought he'd give Sundance and chance to get a drink. He'd just gotten his feet onto solid earth again when he heard voices up ahead. He figured them to belong to some other travelers doing the same thing he was doing but he had found through the years that it behooved one to know who was nearby. So he peered around the bushes and saw three men. They seemed unaware that he was just a few yards away so he was able to just watch them for a short time. A lot could be gleaned by just watching people but there didn't seem to be a lot told him by their behavior. Then one of them turned so that Jimmy could get a good look at the man's face. He knew it immediately. It was the face that hovered sneering over Susan in her nightmares. He wasn't leering now but it was the same man and Jimmy recognized the other two as well. He didn't like the odds at taking them in, their three to his one. Of course he didn't have to take them in. He could kill them right there, he could stay behind the brush and pick them off one at a time. He'd have to make up a story if he did that, but he figured that would be easy enough to do and then his sweet little girl could know for sure that the monsters would never really come for her and then maybe her nightmares could someday be free of them as well. It couldn't be that wrong if it had that good of an outcome.
The thing was, Jimmy knew it was wrong. He may have done stupid things in the past but he'd always known right from wrong and this was wrong. He knew he could never lie to Susan and he knew that he couldn't teach her this sort of lesson. He had to be better than that now. But the dilemma still remained for him as to what to do about this problem. He could not let them just go on their way and yet he couldn't just shoot them and he was pretty sure that they weren't going to just go peacefully with him to be tried and ultimately hanged. He opted to follow for a while.
He paused in his telling to see that those deep blue eyes were still open and the little girl belonging to them was awake. He was glad he had left out of his narration his temptation to kill the men outright under cover of brush. She never needed to know about that.
"Are you alright, Princess?" he asked.
She wasn't sure how to respond. She knew she was safe here with her daddy and she knew he was safe now too, except that he'd been hurt and he'd come face to face with the same horrible men who'd taken her other family from her. At this time the rest of the riders returned from the party which had finally broken up. Jimmy was grateful for the distraction as he wasn't at all comfortable with telling this story to her. He could kick himself for promising her. He'd hoped that he could just tell her he caught the men and that would be the end of it but she knew there had been violence and she wanted to know the whole story. He knew that if she were any other child, he'd eventually have to learn to say "no" to her. But she wasn't like any other child he'd ever known, or any other adult for that matter. And all she wanted was the truth, which was hardly unreasonable.
Jimmy looked over as Kid sat down on Susan's bunk. He looked torn over what to say.
"You really need to have someone look at your side, Jimmy," was what finally came out of Kid's mouth. He wasn't sure how much his friend had told the little girl but judging from her face, she knew at least part of the story.
"It's fine," Jimmy protested, "Long as I don't sleep on that side, shouldn't be any problem at all."
"Jimmy," Kid was getting exasperated at this point, "It ought to at least be bandaged proper and you doing it yourself this afternoon isn't getting it done proper."
Susan turned to Kid with an imploring look.
"Is Daddy hurt bad, Kid?"
Kid wanted to smooth things over for her, and he could to an extent as he knew the wound was hardly severe in itself, he was more worried about getting it cleaned and bandaged well so that it wouldn't get infected. So that's what he told her. He tried to go about it delicately but if Jimmy wouldn't listen to his friends, Kid hoped that he'd listen to his daughter.
"Daddy, let them clean it."
That did it, and Jimmy knew it would for he really could not say no to that girl. He turned down the top of his long johns exposing his torso and the crude bandaging job he'd done himself earlier. A hiss escaped him when Kid removed the cloth from the wound.
"Did you clean this at all, Jimmy?" Kid asked looking at the angry tear through Jimmy's side. In truth, it wasn't a bad spot to have gotten shot. No one wants to be shot ever but one that went straight through in a place where there were no internal organs of importance and where the flow of blood could be relatively easily staunched was at least a good place, if one was going to have to take a bullet, that is. But still, any bullet wound needed cleaning and this one hadn't been well enough.
"Some," Jimmy responded not wanting to admit that he was far too preoccupied with getting ready for the party. He hadn't wanted Susan to think he was standing her up. A quick shower was really all he'd allowed himself before rewrapping the site and heading out.
Kid shook his head and then looked worriedly at Susan who was analyzing the hole in front and bending to see the matching one in back. She looked oddly unaffected.
"Susan," Kid said finally, "Maybe you should sit with Lou for a bit while I take care of this." He gestured to where Lou sat on the other side of the room.
"It goes all the way through," she observed and then touched Jimmy's face pulling her hand quickly back as if surprised at his warmth.
He caught on fast and took her hand gently in his and placed it over his heart, reassuring her of the beating organ within.
"It don't always happen like it did with your folks. Lots of people live through getting shot. I ain't going nowhere."
She nodded somehow understanding more about how not all gunshot wounds were the same than she ever would about the different sorts of smiles or frowns there were in the world.
"I will help Kid."
She turned to the other rider for instructions. Kid, for his part still wondered if it was such a good idea to have this recently traumatized child tending to the hole now found in the man who'd just taken over for her father. He looked to Jimmy who had also worried but he was starting to develop instincts about this girl that, when he took time to listen to them and trust them, were quite accurate and helpful. He nodded to Kid to let the child help.
Soon Jimmy's newest wound was cleaned and bandaged. Susan sat on the edge of her bed and faced him. He had no idea what to say to her or even where her mind was at. Thankfully seeing a hole through his body hadn't driven her words from her.
"Where are the bad men now?"
So she wanted to go back to the story, he hoped that he could skip portions of it.
"In a jail cell, they're not going to hurt you."
"But there are three of them and there was only you," Susan could not figure how he brought all three in by himself.
"Actually," interjected Kid, "There's only two of 'em now."
"I do not understand."
Jimmy would have liked to be angry with Kid for telling her this but she could count after all and she'd be facing them in court, he'd have to explain at some point how there came to be one missing. So he resumed the telling of his tale.
He'd followed along until they were making camp and he thought he'd wait until they were asleep to get an upper hand on things. One of them stayed awake to stand, or really to sit, watch. Jimmy thought one to one was better than three to one though what he was going to do when the others woke, he wasn't exactly sure but he still figured sleeping men with their guns unstrapped from their hips had to be easier than any other way of going about this. He first knocked the watchman unconscious with the butt of one of his guns and set to tying the man up, it certainly wouldn't do to figure a way to get the others under control and then have this one wake and sneak up on him. As he was binding the first man, he felt someone behind him and heard the unmistakable click of a bullet sliding into the chamber. He gave no sign of having heard and thanked his stars for the darkness of this night and the guttering fire that allowed him to reach his hand across his body without detection. Slowly he began to turn leading the man behind him to think perhaps he'd surrender. He turned the last bit suddenly while freeing the Colt from its housing and firing. It was all one motion, one he'd practiced on numerous occasions. That man slumped forward and Jimmy knew instantly that he'd not be standing trial for what was done to the Casey family or to Susan. The shot however woke the remaining member of the party, the one depicted in Susan's most horrible nightmare, and Jimmy didn't see him or hear him at first. Jimmy's gun was already drawn which was a good thing but not enough as the last man was able to get a shot off. Jimmy felt the burn in his left side and fired hitting the man in the right shoulder. He fired again, taking aim at the glint of metal in the man's hand. The gun flew to the side in a clash of lead on steel and allowed Jimmy to pounce. There was a small scuffle before Jimmy was able to completely subdue the other.
When Kid met Jimmy the next day, it was quite a sight; Jimmy was leading the men's horses with them bound upon them. The two men rode back to Rock Creek, locked up the prisoners, fetched the doctor for the wounded man and Kid rode back to get ready. Jimmy made sure the prisoner was fine and the doctor had left before he made his way back to the station. The others had left by then so he quickly readied.
"And that is the whole story," Jimmy concluded.
"The other man, the third one, he is dead?" Susan asked.
Jimmy nodded, "I didn't really have any choice in the matter."
Susan stared ahead, or so Jimmy thought at first but then he followed her gaze and realized she was staring at his gun belts hanging from his bunk.
"Princess, are you okay?"
She turned toward him and then placed her hand on his chest as if needing confirmation that it was Jimmy who had survived this ordeal and not that horrible man. Feeling his heart beating a steady rhythm gave her the strength to speak again.
"The other men, they cannot get free?"
"Teaspoon and Buck are keeping watch. They will be stuck in jail until the judge can hear the case and then they will be punished."
Susan was silent and would remain so but Jimmy could see there was much happening behind her eyes.
"I think," he began, "That it's time for a certain little girl to get some sleep."
Susan curled onto her bed with a fear in her expression that usually drove her into Jimmy's. He was certain she wasn't intentionally trying to cause him pain as her mind just didn't work that way but the result was the same. It hurt to see how muddled she was and know that he was so largely responsible for her confused state and her fear.
He didn't sleep well and so light was his slumber, the first tentative light from the sun was enough to wake him. He first noticed that Susan's bed was empty, her nightgown draped across the thin mattress. It was still mostly dark and he didn't like the thought of her running around on her own so he quickly dressed and crept out of the bunkhouse to find her. He thought he'd find her in the barn, she so liked to be with the animals, but there the only thing he noticed was the absence of the horse she'd named Honey. He hurried back to the bunkhouse to grab his pistols to discover that one was missing from its holster. He buckled both belts around his hips anyway and headed to saddle Sundance. She wasn't difficult to track, deception had never been a skill it even occurred to her to possess and he found her in the spot where they'd had that picnic and he'd first heard words of love escape her lips. She sat but was anything but still as she rocked almost violently back and forth hugging his gun to her chest. She did not react to the sound of his approach and he knew it was because she did not hear; her ears and mind too filled with other things, things he should have dealt with the night before.
"Susan," he called as he walked up on her, "I'm sorry Princess, I'm so sorry."
He knew all of the things he was apologizing for and still knew he'd never get them into words. He was sorry he'd skipped over so much of his story the night before, sorry he'd killed the man, sorry he'd only killed one of them, sorry he'd seen them at all, sorry he'd brought them back and sorry those men had ever set foot on the Casey farm. He was sorry that the tiny bit of a childhood this girl had ever had was taken from her, he was sorry he'd not gotten to her sooner and, he thought bitterly and guiltily, sorry he'd turned his horse toward the gunshots in the first place. He hated himself for that last thought and knew he was grateful as well for that decision.
Jimmy sat on the ground behind her. He'd learned a few things in his time with her and one was how to handle her when she was in this state. He wrapped his legs around hers and, before she could react, he closed his arms around her torso and arms tightly. She fought against him only a moment and then settled and ceased her rocking. Jimmy gently pulled his gun from her hands and set it on the ground beside the pair of them and kissed her cheek. He opened his mouth to speak softly to her but before he could say a single word, she let out a wail; one filled with anger and hurt and resentment and sadness and loss and every conceivable negative feeling there might exist in the world. It formed no word, just a noise. He thought at first to shush her but then realized she needed to somehow express these feelings for which she had no words. He found comfort in her release as well for the pain she was letting out was bottled within him also. She expressed every time he wished to hit something and held back, every tear he didn't let drop, every word left unsaid and every wound left festering on his heart; the ones since meeting her and the ones before that even. He let her scream out the pain of both of them. Two childhoods lost forever, two children never allowed to be children, two lost souls who thought and felt too much and said too little. He knew he'd tried to heal what ailed her and had succeeded in bringing more pain to her life and the worst was, he didn't know if there was a way to not bring pain to this child. Perhaps pain would be all she'd ever feel.
Her cries ended suddenly and Jimmy had to take a moment to adjust to the silence once again.
"How does it work?" she asked and her soft words startled him.
"How does what work?"
"The gun," came her flat reply.
"You don't need to worry yourself about those; they're not for little girls."
"Lou has a gun."
He wanted to tell her it was different for Lou but knew she'd ask how it was different and he had no answer.
"Are you asking me to teach you how to shoot?"
"Can I ask why you want to know?"
"I want to understand," she said, "You can make people dead and those men can make people dead. I do not understand."
"You don't want to make people dead. It don't help," he searched for words to tell her he knew how she felt and he'd been there and that the guns were no answer, "Believe me, I've tried to make myself feel better with those guns and it just don't work. It just brings more pain."
"No one can hurt you if they know you can kill them."
"Fewer try but they can still hurt you," he whispered, barely audible, "And killing brings its own pain."
"I know," she said and he was certain there was sadness in her typically unemotional voice, "I have made people dead. I do not wish it; I want only to understand the gun."
"Sweetheart," he responded trying to hide his shock, "I know you've never killed anyone."
"I have. The bad men said they would not shoot Joe and Tom but they saw me and said they could have fun and Joe and Tom stood in front of me. And one of the bad men is dead now and that is my fault and you almost killed Mr. Tompkins and you are hurt and that is because of me and you say the other men will be punished, I know what that means. They will be hanged and they will be dead and that is because of me too."
"No, it is not," he said emphasizing each word, "Those men are the cause of all of it. I know I never talked to you about what they did to you but I ought to've. What they did to you it's supposed to be for two people in love, two people who both want to do it, both want it to happen. No man should take a woman without her wanting it too. It's just not right. But you're not even a woman yet. No man should even look at you like that. The wrong is in those men, you did nothing wrong. You did not cause anything."
"But now you are hurt," she touched his side lightly.
"That's not your fault either. I should tell you something else. I wanted to just kill them. I could've done it too. Men who'd do what they did, well, they sort of had it coming. I thought…I don't even know what I thought or if I was thinking much at all. I've taken life and it always shakes me some, even if I know I didn't have much choice. But then I got to thinking that you gave me a chance to be something, something other than what I'd been. I want that and I think I always did but if I'd killed them from hiding, then, even if no one else ever knew just what happened, I would and I knew I couldn't ever be anything good."
He was speaking too fast, trying to get everything out before he lost the words or the insight-or the courage.
"I thought at the time that I didn't kill them because I wanted to set a better example for you but it was me. I knew I'd never really be able to look you or anyone else in the eye again if I did that and lied about it. I really somewhere in me thought that I'd enjoy killing those men, being the one to take them from your nightmares but when I killed the one, I felt the same stab of guilt I always do," he paused and gestured toward the bullet wound, "This is nothing. I've been hurt worse from my own stupidity. You didn't cause this; those men had to be stopped before they hurt anyone else. Your mama and daddy weren't the only ones working the Railroad you know. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
She nodded and considered his words. So often had he tried to make things less confusing for her and only muddled her more, although his very presence made her feel more at ease. This time however, his words had cleared so many tangled thoughts from her mind. She knew it was because it was the first time he spoke without leaving things out. She knew that he often chose his words too carefully; trying to leave out things he thought would upset her. In editing the things he told her, he only succeeded in making her more worried for, somehow she knew when he was not telling her all of a story and her mind wandered and thought of horrible things to fill in the blanks he left. His candor on this newborn morning reassured her more than his veiled truths ever could have.
"Why do you hide so much from me?"
"I forget sometimes-most times-that you're not like other children. Things still might frighten you but you need to know things. Teaspoon'd say it's choosing between the devil you know and the devil you don't. I usually choose the one I know and I think you do too," he thought a moment more and then added, "I's being silly too, thinking I could keep you from knowing about the evil in the world when I found you in the middle of all that evil."
"You think I am the names they call me."
"No," he took her face in his hands and stared into those eyes that he knew would never meet his, "I want you to still have your innocence. I guess I'm trying to keep you from losing what's already been stolen and I know that don't make sense to you. When I say it out loud like that, I sound right stupid, myself."
He released her face and looked at his hands helplessly.
"It's in a man's nature to want to fix things. We see a step getting wobbly or hear a door starting to creak and we fix it. It's hard to accept the things we can't fix. And sometimes we're so dead set on trying to make things the way they was before that we mess 'em up more. People ain't like fences or doors or stairs, and when they're broken, you can't put them back just the way they used to be. We know that from the way things heal on the outside. This hole in my side is going to heal but there will be a mark that will always stay. Knowing that, us men should know that it works that way on the inside too. Wounds leave scars but if you tend them right, they don't keep hurting you. I ain't been tending to your wounds right Susan but I'm going to do better."
She followed his eyes and saw his palms turned up illustrating his powerless feeling and placed one of her small hands in his. The other hand reached up and rested on the side of his face. His cheek was rough with the morning's stubble having not yet been shaven away. She removed her hand and leaned to him and kissed him on the cheek. She'd never kissed him, or anyone he'd known of as long as he'd known her. He kissed her head sometimes and she was comfortable enough with that. Some of the other riders had adopted that brotherly gesture as well but she'd never kissed anyone that he'd seen. This was an innocent kiss to be sure; the kind a daughter would offer her father and his heart swelled to have been granted this sweet contact with his little girl. Her face hung by his a few moments longer and he felt a tickle on his cheek, his reaction was to pull back but he didn't want to offend her. When the tickling stopped he looked at her questioning.
"What was that?"
"Butterfly kiss," and she batted her eyelashes to show him, "I used to give them to my da-my fath-…" she looked at him helplessly searching.
He hugged her tight, awash with emotion, she shared something with him that had been for her real daddy and nothing could have been more beautiful.
"You know he's still your daddy. He and your mama gave you life, you won't hurt my feelings none to call him 'daddy' or 'father'. I'm grateful I get to be your daddy now."
She hugged him all the tighter for his words. She may have thought her knight to have tarnished a bit and even fallen off of his golden charger but she could see now, that was her flawed perspective. For there he was shining in the new day's warm light as brave and noble as ever, ready to protect his Princess from all harm that may befall her.
Teaspoon sat at his desk, feet propped upon it and hat tilted over his eyes while Buck sat relaxed in a chair gazing out the window but too lost in thought to really see anything. The two prisoners in the jail cell were still yelling as they had been most of the night. Finally Teaspoon had enough and righted his hat on his head before planting his feet on the floor.
"The two of you better stop your fussing before I shoot you both and claim you was trying to escape."
The slightly older of the two men who looked to both be in their early to mid-thirties sneered at the marshal.
"No use keeping us here. We didn't do nothing and even if we had, there's no one to say anything about it."
"That," said Teaspoon pointedly, "Is where you are dead wrong. How do you think we got them pretty pictures of you for our posters? Ain't none of us that creative or hard up for criminals to just go drawing pictures of people no one's seen."
A thought seemed to occur to the man.
"That's a good question. How did you come up with pictures of us?"
"One of your victims drew them."
The man looked unsettled but fought to compose himself quickly.
"But Marshal Hunter, we're supposed to have killed the whole family. Dead folks don't draw, now do they?"
A twinkle began in Teaspoon's eye and he looked to Buck to make sure he was listening as well in case he needed a witness; these men were just about to hang themselves without need of a trial.
"But you didn't kill the whole family, did you?" Teaspoon asked just as sweet as pie, "You left a little girl alive didn't you?"
The other man jumped off his bunk at that.
"You're lying! She couldn't say nothing, she's too dumb. Feeble minded, you know…"
His words were cut off by the other man.
"Stay quiet now Clete!" he hissed at his counterpart before turning back to Teaspoon and a now seething Buck who was none too happy to hear disparaging things about little Susan, "Now Marshal, let's just say that maybe we met this family, and if we did, I can assure you we did not harm them but let's just say we met them and this little girl. Well, that little girl don't talk at all. Seemed nearly wild so you can see where we might doubt that she can draw such detailed pictures as you say."
Teaspoon was obviously upset that there hadn't been enough said by the younger one to hold up in court as a confession but he took delight in what he had to tell them next.
"Susan? She ain't feeble and she ain't dumb. She ain't wild or mute either. She draws like she was trained to do it longer than she's lived and she talks just fine too. Doc got a good look at what you did to her and ain't no one in town here going to stand for two men going free who'd do that to a child. You'll likely hang on that charge alone."
Buck shared Teaspoon's smile at seeing the men in the cell visibly deflate before their eyes but neither man would say aloud in front of the other two that they didn't want her to have to testify, to have to come face to face with these men ever again.
Once chores were done for the day, Jimmy took Susan's hand and led her behind one of the outbuildings and began setting cans onto a bit of fence there.
"What are you doing, Daddy?"
He smiled; he loved when she called him that and more everyday he felt like he deserved it.
"Well Princess," he said as he went on about what he was doing, "You asked me to teach you something and I know you ain't forgot so I figured to just do it before you starting asking again."
Susan thought for a minute and then remembered the only thing she had asked of him recently. She had been horribly upset but asking for this was less a part of her upset than her curiosity. Jimmy hadn't ever really said for sure if he would teach her or not. She knew he came out here to practice sometimes and she felt special to be allowed to be here with him, let alone to be taught.
"You will teach me how to shoot."
"That's the aim."
At last he was finished setting cans up and stepped back to where he had left Susan. Her eyes followed him intently as he brought one of the pistols from its housing.
"First, you got to be real careful with these and don't ever use 'em when I'm not around; least not 'til you're grown."
She nodded at him somberly, or at least he thought it was a somber expression, it was so hard to tell with her.
"First you take aim and pull back on the hammer, like this," he demonstrated, "All the way back. You gotta hear that second click sound and then you squeeze steady on the trigger."
A shot rang out and a can went flying from the fence. Susan jumped at the noise but her eyes never wavered from Jimmy. He looked at her with an ounce of hope left that she would no longer want to use the gun but that hope was dashed quickly when he saw the fascination she held with the firearm. And he couldn't even blame her, he'd felt the same about guns since he'd been even younger than she was now.
"You want to try?" he asked.
He motioned for her to come over to him and knelt behind her, knowing that she might have trouble firing it on her own and even if she managed that, she'd end up on her backside from the recoil if he wasn't there. He placed the weapon in her hand gently and saw her briefly adjust to its weight in her small hand.
"Might need to use both hands," he said softly.
She clasped the gun with both hands and was able to steady it and then moved her thumbs to bring the hammer back. Jimmy raised a hand to help her but she shook her head and managed the task herself.
"Good," he encouraged, "Now settle on your target and squeeze slowly. Don't pull the trigger so much as just tighten your fist around it."
She did as told and missed everything and fell back against Jimmy for her trouble.
"You okay?" he asked and saw her nod, "Should have probably told you there's a kick from these. You get used to it after a while. You want to try again?"
He hadn't intended to encourage her curiosity so but he spent so much time with these guns and sharing them with her seemed much the same as a blacksmith teaching his son to make horseshoes.
"Well, alright then, see if you can hit that big one in the middle there."
She had an easier time chambering the round this try.
"Take a deep breath," Jimmy whispered into her ear, "And let it out slow as you squeeze the trigger."
She did as she was told and was rewarded when the can she had aimed at flew from its perch.
"You did not just teach that sweet little girl to shoot a gun!"
Jimmy jumped at Rachel's voice. There was a time that tone of voice from her would have been a reprimand and he'd have acted like a boy getting a tongue-lashing from his mama but there was a different tone to her words today and even if there hadn't been, Jimmy knew himself to be her peer and equal now. He calmly turned to face Rachel with a proud smile, because there was no hiding how proud he was of Susan right then.
"Sure did. She asked and around these parts it's something everyone ought to know."
"From the looks of it you're as good at teaching as you are at shooting those things."
Susan looked to Jimmy unsure if she needed to say anything to defend him but he spoke first.
"No, she's just a natural is all."
Rachel rolled her eyes at him but still thought to herself that nothing looked quite so beautiful as that look of fatherly pride on the face of Jimmy Hickok. Maybe that boy could be saved after all.
"If it's all her," she chided him, "Then why are you looking so pleased with yourself?"
He reholstered his gun and lifted Susan into his arms.
"Because that was my little princess that just shot that can down."
"Well, I need to borrow little Princess Sharpshooter for a bit. I'm trying to explain some of Jesse's schoolwork to him and I'm not having any luck."
Jimmy looked to Susan, "You want to go help Jesse?" She nodded and he leaned his face to hers, "Butterfly kiss?"
Rachel furrowed her brow and watched as Susan fluttered her eyelashes against her daddy's cheek and then as he sat her down and kissed the top of her head before sending her on her way.
"Oh, and Jimmy?" Rachel called as she walked away with the little girl, "Lou's looking for you."
Lou wasn't hard to find. She was sitting on Rachel's front porch rocking and shelling peas for their supper that night. Jimmy walked up and sat down next to her.
"Rachel said you were looking for me."
Lou pondered what to say next, or rather how to say it.
"Did I just hear a shot?" she finally asked.
"Unless your ears are giving out, you should've heard three," he answered matter of factly knowing that she hadn't come anywhere near whatever she wanted to talk to him about.
"Was Susan with you?"
"She was," he answered beginning to get annoyed with these questions that he was fairly certain were nowhere near the point his friend wished to make, "She asked me to teach her and since I was younger than her when I learned, I didn't think it was a bad idea." The last bit was said with a defensive tone as if defying her to call him out for how he chose to raise Susan.
Lou was quiet for a bit and looked very interested in the bowl of peas in front of her.
"I want you to know that I think you're a real good father to her," she said at last, "I know you don't need my approval or anything but I wanted you to know I thought that."
Jimmy turned toward her in disbelief, "I appreciate it, Lou, I really do but is that why you was looking for me? To tell me that?"
Lou turned her eyes up to his incredulous ones.
"No," she answered, "I wanted to talk about something else but I wanted you to know that first. I wanted to talk to you about how you take care of yourself; like how you got shot and didn't take care of it proper. Now suppose you got an infection or something, she can't lose you. You know that, right? She's already lost more than a little girl ought to have to deal with and you are all she has. She loves us in her way and we adore her but you have to work at sticking around for her. I know how things happened and I know how you got shot and I'm not saying you could've done anything about it but when you got back, you owed it to her to look after yourself a bit. You should've had the doc look at that wound at the jail when he was patching up that other fella. I didn't mean to lecture you like that and like I said, you're a real good daddy to her. I think it was nice you taught her to shoot…"
Her voice trailed away as she realized she was rambling and really didn't know what to say. She wasn't a parent and she knew she really didn't have a lot of business giving anyone else advice on being one but she didn't think this had occurred to her dear friend and she was hoping he'd take her words in the spirit they had been given.
For his part, Jimmy had grown very quiet as he pondered Lou's words to him. His first inclination had been to tell her to butt out and mind her own business but then he got to thinking that she had a point after all. He hadn't thought of it before. He allowed himself to think with fear of what might happen to Susan if something bad happened to him. He wondered where she would go and if she would ever speak again, or draw, or anything else that made her happy.
Lou looked over at Jimmy to see he looked almost as if he was about to be sick.
"Are you alright, Jimmy? Is it your side? Or did I upset you? I didn't mean it. Can I get you something?"
She was standing over him and he just shook his head, rose to standing and wrapped her in a hug.
"Thank you Lou."
He walked away pensive but not outright brooding and left Lou standing alone on the porch wondering what had just happened and even what he was thanking her for.
Jimmy barely looked up when Teaspoon walked into the bunkhouse. Susan was at the table with a sketch pad and Jimmy was resting on his bunk nosing through a book.
"Hickok, I was wondering if I could have a word with you."
Jimmy looked up, "Sure, what is it, Teaspoon?"
Teaspoon motioned toward the door and nodded to Susan as he spoke.
"We maybe ought to take this outside, it's sort of delicate."
"I'll just have to tell her when I come back in anyway," stated Jimmy, "Otherwise she'll get scared of what we're talking about."
Jimmy did, however sit up grimacing just a bit as he did. Sitting still and resting was probably good for healing but it took a bit for his body to get used to moving again and every time he did move, he felt the need to check his shirt as it felt as if the wound was being reopened.
"Susan," Jimmy said, "Come on over here and sit with me. Teaspoon's got something to talk about."
Obediently the girl came over and scaled her way onto her daddy's lap while Teaspoon took one more assessing look at the younger man's face still unsure if this was the type of conversation to open in front of the child. He was chagrined to see the young folks both just staring back at him in expectation. Well, far be it from him to tell another man how to raise his child though it was still hard for Teaspoon to look on Jimmy as a man. He guessed it was like that for everyone upon seeing a grown child; they'd never quite be grown in the eyes of those who'd seen them through the missteps of their youth. But when one of your own takes a responsibility like this on himself, he can't be called a boy anymore. Teaspoon just sighed and began to speak.
"We got to move the prisoners to Beatrice for trial," Teaspoon paused hoping against all hope that Jimmy wouldn't want to be part of this move. He'd understand the desire and also knew that if Jimmy really wanted that, then he'd go along with it. But he felt it would be a very bad idea.
"Who's 'we'?" asked Jimmy.
"Well, I don't rightly know but they've got to be moved."
"You ain't looking at me to do it, are you?"
"Actually I was worried you'd want to go and I didn't think that would be such a good thing."
Jimmy smiled and looked to the girl in his lap.
"Can't go leaving her right now. 'Sides, I've had just about enough of the Franklin brothers to last me the rest of my life. Just tell me when Susan and me need to be there for the trial."
Teaspoon considered the maturity behind those words, maturity he often thought would never flow from James Hickok.
"You got a preference for who I do send?"
"Long as it ain't Jesse, no," he said then added, "Anyone here'd make sure they got where they was going."
Teaspoon had to laugh at that a minute, Jesse'd volunteer for sure but there was no way in creation that boy was doing any such thing. The older man stood with a grunt.
"Guess I'll just have to see who wants to volunteer," Teaspoon paused before leaving to place a hand on the side of Susan's face and allowed himself to feel a moment's heart ache for her and what she'd been through and even more, what she was in for.
Once Teaspoon had gone, Jimmy squeezed Susan a little tighter.
"Do you understand this Susan?"
"I think so. Why did Teaspoon think you would want to take the bad men?"
Jimmy had to laugh, but not at Susan, more at the boy he used to be.
"I guess that would be 'cause there was a time I'd've fought to go. And I mean I really would have fought anyone who tried to stop me," he shook his head thinking on the rash young man and what a miracle it was that he'd lived long enough to be anything to this girl, "It's more important to be here for you now."
They sat that way for a while, Jimmy just relishing the weight of her in his arms and the easy quiet between them. It was, oddly enough to Jimmy's way of thinking, the little girl who broke the silence.
"What is a trial like?"
"Well, I ain't been part of too many of 'em but they're all kind of the same I guess. There's a man called a judge and twelve more called a jury. Then there's another one who tells the jury and judge all the proof against the folks accused of the crime. He calls up witnesses and they tell what proof they have. When he's done, another fella stands up and tries to prove that the accused folks didn't do it or if they did, they had a good reason. Then the jury thinks about everything and decides which side had the best proof."
"What if the jury thinks that the proof is not good enough? What if they do not believe me? People think I do not know things."
Jimmy wasn't sure how to answer as she had just given voice to his own fears regarding the case. The only firsthand witness was Susan and he knew the defense would try to make her look simple and slow. He also knew that if she was frightened in the courtroom by seeing Morgan and Clete Franklin that she might not talk at all.
"Princess, we're going to make sure that doesn't happen," he didn't know how he or anyone else would accomplish that but he knew somehow he'd make it so.
"Daddy, I cannot breathe."
"What? Oh," he said as he realized he'd been holding her too tight. He made himself release his grip and it scared him to let go even a little bit. After a pause he spoke again, softly and almost unsure.
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?"
He took a ragged breath and made a silent prayer that he could put this into words.
"Lots of reasons; I'm sorry you're going through this trial. I know that don't make sense to you 'cause it ain't my fault what happened but I'm still sorry. Maybe that's part of wanting to protect you. And I'm real sorry they took your family away from you. I try to make it right with this bunch of misfits but sometimes, in your sleep, you call for your brother, Joe. I know you miss him and I'm sorry he was taken from you. And I'm sorry about this hole in my side. Lou pointed out to me today that taking care of you wasn't enough if I wasn't taking care of myself. I know there wasn't much I could do about being shot but I should've seen to it proper before I did. I wasn't thinking at all. Can you forgive me?"
"Yes. Please do not do it again. You made me scared."
"I know and that's the last thing I ever want to do. We will get through this somehow. Am I still your brave knight?"
"Butterfly kiss on it?"
She obliged him and he felt truly invincible; a feeling the Colts on his hips had never granted him.
Teaspoon looked to the hands that went into the air at his latest request. Seldom did they all volunteer like this but when it was one of their own they were taking care of, he found he had to beat them off with a stick. He figured he needed at least two of them, no good having them outnumbered, even if the people who'd outnumber them were bound.
"Alright, Cody and Kid; you two go."
Teaspoon knew there would be protests but he also knew that there was too much potential for things to go wrong with any of the others going. If Lou went, there was always the possibility that the Franklin brothers would find out she wasn't what she pretended to be. If Ike went, he would be taunted mercilessly and if Ike didn't snap from that, then whoever was riding with them would. The Franklin's killed the Casey's for helping fugitive slaves so that meant that sending someone not white would probably lead to trouble. Teaspoon had experienced firsthand how loudmouthed the brothers could be and he needed to make sure they made it to Beatrice alive. If it weren't for the badge on his shirt, he wouldn't care one way or the other. But being marshal meant that he couldn't very well deputize and send men to transfer these prisoners that he was certain would end up killing the people they were supposed to transport. As it was, enough negative talk about Susan or Jimmy or the Casey family and the Franklin boys could still find their way to a hole in the ground before they made it to Gage County.
With no further ceremony, he and his chosen riders made their way to the jail to ready the prisoners for transfer.
"I'm surprised Jimmy didn't want to do this," Kid remarked as they approached the door.
Cody nodded in agreement, "Would have given him an excuse."
Teaspoon just shook his head a moment. He understood the boys' confusion but he more clearly understood Jimmy's reasoning for staying with his little girl. She needed him more than he could ever need revenge.
"For starters," he addressed both riders, "Being a daddy means you think of someone besides yourself and put their needs first and for another thing, if he'd wanted an excuse, he could've just killed them all when it was just him and them alone. We wouldn't've been none the wiser."
Teaspoon found a certain satisfaction in saying the last half of his comment within ear shot of the two men who could have easily become victims of the legendary Wild Bill Hickok.
Once the men were bound and loaded on the buckboard with Cody driving and Kid riding Katy alongside, Teaspoon waved a goodbye not sure if he was really hoping the prisoners would arrive safely or not.
A few miles out of town Morgan, the elder of the Franklin brothers and the one depicted in the most frightening manner in Susan's artwork cleared his throat.
"That man that brought us in, I didn't catch his name."
"Knowing him," said Cody, "He probably didn't throw it at you. It's Hickok, James Butler Hickok."
Cody made certain to emphasize every syllable in the infamous name.
Morgan's eyes grew wide in recognition.
"Wild Bill? Why didn't he kill us?"
"You complaining?" asked Cody, "'Cause if you are, Kid and I can take care of that right here."
"No," Morgan was quick to answer, "Just didn't think Wild Bill would take a man in alive."
"I guess I can see where you'd be confused since you know him so well," Cody let the contempt and sarcasm drip from his words.
Morgan stammered and Cody decided to just keep talking.
"Don't get me wrong, if you two were facing off in the street, he'd drop you like a sack of manure. But Hickok won't go looking for that kind of fight, enough of 'em come to him; and he won't ambush someone because it wouldn't be a fair fight," Cody paused a moment, and then resumed speaking, "I don't know what the gossip is these days about him but James Hickok is an honorable man."
There was silence for a while before Morgan decided to speak again.
"Quite a show you're putting on for us. You think we're going to confess to something?"
"I don't know what show you're referring to," Cody answered easily, "And don't care one way or another if you confess. I know what you did and I know you're going to hang for it."
Morgan laughed but there was unease in his demeanor.
"You don't know nothing but what some idiot told you and I don't even think she told anyone anything. I seen cornered raccoons was tamer than she is."
Kid was pondering how badly this man needed at least one additional hole in his head and then spoke up.
"Must just be the effect you have on a person," he said trying to hide his disdain under an affable smile, "I can see how you might make a body upset enough to lose control."
Kid's resting of his hand on his sidearm did not go undetected by either Franklin and silence reigned most of the rest of the trip. Even when the group stopped to briefly rest and water the horses and allow Cody and Kid to stretch their legs a bit, there was no talk from the Franklin brothers.
As the two friends leaned under a tree for a few minutes just feeling good to not be on the trail for a bit, Kid smiled deviously at his companion.
"So," he began in a teasing tone, "Should I tell Jimmy you're sweet on him? He might just be flattered. Or he might feed you one of those Colts."
"If we weren't in the middle of an important job, I'd stop you from saying anything for a good while."
Kid laughed at Cody's exaggerated reaction, Cody knew he was teasing and was just playing along.
"Really, you didn't say anything we all don't think." Kid continued with a more serious tone, "He drives me crazy sometimes and I can count on one hand the number of times I've really agreed with him but, well, you know."
"Sure," replied Cody with a glint in his eye, "Have you told Lou about these feelings you been having?"
Kid rolled his eyes but couldn't say much, he had started it after all.
They decided they ought to hit the trail once more and were both thankful that the Franklin brothers were keeping quiet as they went along. A thought occurred to Kid and he turned his head to Cody.
"Say," he began, "I was wondering, I mean none of us have said anything about it but, well, take the other night as an example, Susan helping to clean up that gunshot wound on Jimmy's side."
"I know it seems peculiar," agreed Cody, "But then he sort of seems to understand her like no one else. She seemed to do better with being able to help."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. You'd think something like that would make her more scared," Kid mused a bit more on the subject, "Have you noticed she's taken over changing his bandages?"
Cody nodded. He had thought it strange too but then Susan wasn't like other children. They'd gotten used to her monotone voice and often expressionless face and she could talk mostly like anyone else but there was no denying that the guidelines of raising her had to be a little different. There seemed an almost uneasy quiet growing between the pair as neither one wanted to say out loud that Susan would just live by different rules. It wasn't that either felt there was anything really wrong with Susan or the way she was or even how Jimmy had to deal with her, they just didn't want Morgan and Clete hearing anything that might give their lawyer any ammunition against Susan. The less he knew about her, the less he'd be able to prepare for his questioning which would mostly be an effort to discredit her.
Then Cody thought of something else he wanted to ask Kid about, something it might be just fine and dandy for the Franklin's to hear.
"What do you think about him teaching her to shoot?"
Kid smiled in a half laugh.
"To be honest, when I saw her out there with him, scowling over that gun that was almost as big as she is, you could've knocked me over."
"She's a good shot though."
"Yeah," Kid agreed, "Of course with James Hickok teaching, you'd expect that. What you don't expect is him handing over one of his guns to someone without being in a pretty tough spot."
By this time Morgan was fully attentive to the conversation and trying, though thoroughly tied up, to motion to Clete not to talk. He still wasn't sold on these stories they told. It didn't sound like the girl he remembered at all. The one he remembered never spoke, only screamed like a banshee. He was sure if Clete opened his mouth, he'd get them hung more surely than that wild little idiot child ever could. But still, he wondered if they could seriously mean that Wild Bill Hickok had taught this creature to shoot one of his famous Colts.
"I forget sometimes," Cody went on, "That she's small for her age. Eleven's not that young to learn to shoot. I know a lot of girls might not get to, or even want to, learn but you know Hickok, he'd make sure she could defend herself."
"Besides," added Kid, "She'd been asking him to teach her ever since he came home with that hole in his side. I wasn't sure about teaching a girl to use the gun at first but I knew better than to say anything out loud."
"I'll bet you did," laughed Cody, "You say anything like that and getting shot by Hickok'd be a relief compared to what Lou'd do to you."
"The more I thought about it, him teaching her that, the more I thought it was kind of sweet. I mean, what else is a gunfighter going to teach his child?"
At this, Morgan could not stay silent anymore.
"His child? Well, see, I knew you guys were making this up. You just made the mistake. You had us thinking about a different girl, not some child of Wild Bill Hickok."
"No mistake at all," Cody piped up, "Hickok adopted her. Never seen a man take so natural to fatherhood. He sure is protective though."
Kid nodded in agreement.
"You notice how he lights up when she calls him daddy?"
"Sure do," Cody smiled as he spoke, he could actually feel the fear in the men behind him, "I'd hate to be the man who brought hurt to her."
"Especially after that scene at Tompkins' store," Kid added.
Morgan's attempts at keeping his brother quiet finally failed.
"What scene?" the younger Franklin brother asked.
Cody took it upon himself to relate the whole story of how Jimmy had nearly killed the storekeeper with his bare hands over a misunderstanding.
"Everything's fine now but it got iffy there for a bit; it took four men to drag Hickok off of him."
Kid smiled to himself at Cody's dramatic retelling and leaving out that one of the men who pulled Jimmy off Tompkins was Jesse, so really just a boy.
"Morgan," Clete whined to his brother but Morgan just hushed him and told him to stay quiet.
There was no more talking the rest of the trip. The brothers were starting to get too scared, even Morgan who was trying to tell himself that all of the talk about Susan was a bluff, and Kid and Cody were getting tired. It wasn't a great distance from Rock Creek to Beatrice but with the wagon it was slower going than if they'd been riding flat out and the two of them were starting to get sick of the ride when Beatrice, Nebraska finally came into view.
Teaspoon heard the door to his office open, looked up from the newspaper he was pretending to read and was surprised to see Susan walking all alone through the doorway.
"Well, hey there sweetheart, does your daddy know where you are?"
"Yes, he is resting. I asked before he fell asleep."
Teaspoon raised an eyebrow at the child.
"He's resting? How did you manage that?"
"I told him he would not get better if he worked so hard," she said flatly, "He said he was fine but I told him the skin near the hole is getting red and hot and he needed to rest."
"Well, you are a good nurse to him. Sounds like he was starting on an infection."
She nodded, "Yes, I told Buck because he has medicine that helps."
Teaspoon watched as Susan sat down with her pad of paper and a pencil and began to draw. He was always fascinated by the peace that overtook her when she drew; almost as if she channeled something of the divine. Perhaps she did, far be it from Teaspoon to understand all of the mysteries of the world. He thought about asking her the reason for her visit but then he knew that if she wanted to talk, she would in her own time so he just rocked onto the back two legs of his chair and folded his hands across his stomach. He wondered at the power of this child to turn a hot headed boy into a responsible family man. He wondered how Kid and Cody were faring and he wondered what Rachel was thinking about fixing for their supper.
He had nearly started to doze off from the effort of wondering so many things when he heard the soft voice address him. She had been sitting across the room but had walked closer to him while he was lost in his wondering.
"Teaspoon I am scared."
Those four words, spoken so softly and in that unemotional way that was common only to her, brought his eyes open, his feet and chair legs to the ground and his arms open to her. She took up the invitation immediately. Teaspoon knew she still didn't always like to be touched and yet she craved the contact sometimes. He wondered what that kind of conflict felt like. For his part, he loved the times when she would crawl on his lap and allow a hug, or even give him one. It was like having a grandchild and that was an idea he liked very much.
"What's scaring you?" he asked softly.
"Daddy is hurt. I do not like that. He is getting sick."
"Now, little girl, you are taking right good care of that daddy of yours. You said Buck gave him medicine, and you made him get some sleep. I'll just be willing to bet that when he wakes up, he'll be near to all better."
Susan was quiet but seemed to try to make herself even smaller in his arms.
"What else is bothering you?"
"I am scared of the trial. It is hard to talk to people I do not know and there will be so many. And I will have to see the bad men and I do not know if they will believe me."
"Why wouldn't they believe you, honey?"
"I do not talk like other people and I do not act like other people. And when I cannot talk or I cannot find words, people think I am stupid. No one believes stupid people."
"Did you tell Jimmy how you feel?"
"Yes, he said that he would make sure they believe me. He is never scared."
Teaspoon couldn't help the chuckle that escaped him.
"Why do you laugh?"
"I'm sorry," he said gently, "I ain't laughing at you. It's just I know he does get scared. He gets scared plenty."
"I do not believe you. He is always so sure of everything. He cannot be scared."
"He can and he is. Mostly he gets scared that something bad might happen to someone he loves but I've seen him scared for himself once or twice too."
The girl stayed silent but shook her head as if she still didn't believe him.
"I don't suppose he's told you too many stories about himself."
"No," she answered, "Cody tells stories but not about Daddy."
"I would guess not and I'm sure no one told you how he was almost hanged."
She shook her head and turned to him wide-eyed. He sighed and started in with the tale.
"Seems your daddy thought he was in love and the woman he thought he was in love with wasn't a very nice lady. She and this man she traveled with had a scheme they used. She would marry a man and then they would kill the husband, usually making it look like an accident. Then the woman would be a widow and get all the man's money and the two would move on," he paused for breath, "Once she met your daddy who already had his reputation starting at that point, she saw that she could shoot her husband and frame Jimmy for it. She made him believe that she was being hurt by her husband so he'd come out to rescue her. All the evidence pointed to Jimmy and there wasn't nothing we could do to save him. He was found guilty of murder and the judge said he was to hang. We sent Lou and Kid off because we heard that these two might not be what they claimed to be. Still Jimmy had to march onto the gallows and the rope was around his neck. We couldn't take it and the boys all drew on Sam-he was the marshal in Sweetwater then-and shortly after, Kid and Lou rode in and had proof Jimmy was innocent. He acted like he knew all along we was going to save him but I saw the fear in his eyes. He really thought he was going to die that day."
"You would not let him die."
"I wasn't sure for a minute if I was going to have a choice. If my boys hadn't stepped up, things would have been different. But, like I said, he's usually not scared for himself as much as for those he loves. But don't think for a minute that he don't get scared."
"Why does he not tell me he is scared?"
"He probably thinks that if you know he's scared that it'll make you more scared. But I know that it helps sometimes to know you're not the only one frightened. He's just a man. He makes mistakes, he gets scared, angry, every other feeling out there."
"There is so much he does not tell me. I do not understand."
Teaspoon pressed a kiss to the top of the child's head.
"You have no idea how much more he tells you than most fathers would tell their young 'uns. But I think in this case, he can't admit to himself how scared he is. He wants to be a strength for you."
"I am still scared."
"I know," and it seemed he was speaking to himself or to an invisible someone else in the room, "I know you are. I am too. Somehow we will keep you safe. I promise you that."
"You will promise? Daddy promises a lot. You will promise too?"
Teaspoon picked the girl up from his lap and set her on the desk so he could look at her.
"You see this badge?" he saw her nod at him, "This means that I made a promise to everyone in Rock Creek to keep them safe. That's my job. But I would protect you without the badge. You understand?"
"You feel better?"
Again the girl nodded an answer.
"Well, good, then I guess my work here is done. How 'bout you go on home and see how your daddy's doing?"
As he watched her leave, he added one more thing to his wonderings; he wondered how any of them were going to keep their promises to her.
Susan sat next to Jimmy as he slept. She went back and forth between comfort and panic as she watched his chest steadily rise and fall. It felt good to know that she wasn't the only person who felt fear. Sometimes it seemed everyone else was so calm while she worried herself to near madness. To know that even Jimmy, her rescuer, her guardian, her protector, even he felt fear was comforting in its way. But there was a panic bubbling as well. He was always so certain of things, so calm and collected. If he felt fear, then there was credibility to her own fears. She had always reasoned that if she was the only one afraid then maybe there was no basis for her fear. It didn't entirely stop her from being afraid but she at least felt a security that she was surrounded by leveler heads. Now she wasn't sure.
She thought of the story Teaspoon had told her and couldn't help reaching out and placing her small hand on his neck. It terrified her that there had once been a noose right there, a bit of rope that would have ceased that reassuring rise and fall forever. She would have eventually died in that barn; scared, hurt and alone for there would have been no Jimmy to save her. If she was lucky, she would have been left to die in solitude for there was no way to know that anyone who would have come along wouldn't have been worse than the bad men. She had been lucky that the man who had, in fact, come to see about the gunshots was a man she could trust.
She gently peeled the blankets back hoping the cooler air in the room wouldn't wake the sleeping man. He was bare to the waist as she had just replaced his bandages before convincing him to lie down and she placed her hand over the wound. It was now the same temperature as the rest of his body and she was grateful for that. She would have to thank Buck for the medicine he gave her. It was some tree bark but she wasn't sure exactly what and what it was mattered less to her than the fact that it worked. She brought the blankets up to cover him again but paused halfway up to place her hand over his breastbone to feel that constant beating within. Sometimes feeling that rhythm was all that could bring her comfort and today was one of those times. She didn't know how he would manage the things he promised and she was starting to gain an awareness that he didn't always know that either but he hadn't ever let her down and she was starting to develop a faith that he never would. As long as that heart beat within that chest, she knew his promises would not be broken and she would be safe.
Her hand lingered a while longer allowing the steady pulse to soothe her worried mind. She did not notice when his eyes opened and he surveyed his surroundings but she felt it when his hand settled on hers.
"Hey there Princess, I hate admitting when someone else is right but it seems I did need that rest. Maybe I should listen to you more often."
Jimmy watched as Susan led Honey over to where he stood next to Sundance. He had offered earlier that they could take the buckboard to Beatrice but Susan had said no. He crossed over to boost her into the saddle but she pulled herself up on her own. He smiled and knew there was no way she could have gotten that stubborn streak from him but he fancied she had all the same. She looked to him and he knew it was time to leave. The others had gathered around to see them off. Jimmy and Susan had to get there sooner to allow for the prosecuting attorney to prepare his case around Susan. The others would follow as soon as they could, having arranged for riders from a couple of other stations to fill in for them a few days. Jimmy knew that everyone gathered there wanted to be able to make the journey with the child but he knew that the time with just the two of them would be better for her. He could really talk to her and try to reassure her. He knew how scared she was and shared her fears. But times when it was just the two of them, made the rest of the world disappear. There was no one to think ill of either of them. He was just a young man with his child and she just a little girl. There was no feeling of more freedom for him and, he thought, for her as well.
There wasn't a lot of hurry, this was a six hour trip if they rode without stopping so, having left not long after daybreak, Jimmy felt they could just amble along and stop when they pleased. He was certainly in no hurry to get her there, he knew what awaited her.
Jimmy let Susan ride just a little ahead of him so he could enjoy her easy demeanor. It was times like this, when it was just the two of them and she was doing something she really enjoyed, that he treasured the most. These were the times when she looked most like what she would never be, a normal, happy little girl. He tried to do all he could about the happy part and he had figured out that it just had to be defined differently for her but normal, well, she might come close to it some days but he knew she'd always pass on by without so much as making contact. He saw her bring Honey to a stop and turn her head to look at him.
"Why are you smiling?" she asked him.
"I'm out here on this beautiful morning watching the prettiest little girl in the world ride along the trail," he responded, "And the thought hit me that the little girl is my little girl. I guess I couldn't help but smile. Why were you smiling?"
"I like to ride and the sun feels nice on my face," she said flatly, "I am not pretty."
"Whoever told you a thing like that?"
"No one told me. I just know."
"I think you should look again. When we get there and get you into the hotel, look in the mirror and you will see a very pretty girl."
She shook her head and the smile was resolutely gone. Jimmy felt desperate to bring it back. Females were confusing enough to him for the most part and this one was especially hard. He wasn't sure if he had taken the smile from her or not but he always felt like the light had left his world when he saw her face like this; he knew the subtle cues of her sadness. The morning sun didn't even feel warm anymore and he wanted to rub his arms for the chill. Instead he brought Sundance alongside where she had stopped and touched her chin gently with his index finger. He knew she wouldn't meet his eyes but she would at least look at his face.
"I want to know why you think you aren't pretty."
"I do not smile. Lou and Rachel smile. They are beautiful. They have bright eyes when they smile. I do not. I do not smile right."
"Princess," he began earnestly, "You don't smile when you try. I think you want to so badly that it doesn't work out for you. But I saw you one day in the bunkhouse laughing at Cody and your smile was as beautiful as any that Rachel or Lou has."
"Is this true?"
"I wouldn't lie to you. Besides, there are times when people are awful beautiful and they aren't smiling. Like Rachel when she's just sitting on the porch reading a book. She looks so content right then and that's beautiful," he studied her face and wasn't sure if he was reaching her or not, "And Lou when she wrinkles her forehead all up when she's real determined to do something, that's beautiful. Do you know why that is?"
"Because that is the way I always think of her. She has a nice smile and I love that but I think of Lou bucking the odds and everyone who tells her she can't do something. And when you draw or sing or ride, there's a peace that comes over you and that is the most beautiful thing in the whole world to me."
She nodded and they started riding again but she whispered something to herself that he did not hear.
"You are always beautiful to me."
The pair stopped for lunch and Jimmy felt that Susan was uneasy about something. He hoped he wasn't the cause but there was little way of knowing and no real way to ask. She would eventually talk to him if he was patient; not that patience was a particular strength of his.
It didn't take the girl long to voice her question to him.
"Are you scared of the trial?"
He wanted to tell her he wasn't; James Hickok feared nothing. But that wasn't the truth. The truth was he feared a lot. He remembered the first time he ever met Marshal Sam Cain and had asked how he knew a certain outlaw would back down and Sam had told him that any man that carried that many guns must be afraid of an awful lot. Jimmy looked to his own hips which seemed to keep getting heavier with hardware and knew the logic applied to him as well. He could not lie to this child. He told her repeatedly that he wouldn't and she deserved honesty.
"Yes I am."
"A whole lot of reasons," he frowned trying to think of them all and put them into words so that she could understand, "I'm scared of all the things that scare you. I'm scared they won't listen to you; that you'll be scared and maybe your words will leave you, as you put it. I'm scared that seeing those men again will bring your nightmares back even worse. I'm scared their lawyer will turn everything you say around. I'm scared those men will go free and I'm scared of what some folks, myself included, might do if they do go free," he paused and sighed heavily, "Mostly I think I'm scared that I made promises to you that it might not be in my power to keep and you won't trust me anymore."
"What will you do if the jury says the men are not guilty? What would scare you?"
"I think I might kill them," he said the words to the open air, to the bird he heard somewhere singing its little heart out, to the fly that lazily circled Honey's head, to the tree at his back and to his own helpless hands but not really to the girl sitting in front of him.
"But you said it did not make you feel good to kill the other man."
"It never feels good to kill. I'm not saying it would feel good. I just don't think I'd feel safe or feel you were if they weren't dead," he didn't know how to explain to her that he'd do something that wrong and feel it was right, "I would hate it every day but I know the one promise I will never, ever break to you is that they will not hurt you again."
She was quiet for a while and then suddenly spoke.
"Is it wrong to kill?"
Jimmy's head jerked up and he wasn't sure at first what she was asking.
"Is it wrong to kill? Mama read the Bible to me and it says it is wrong to kill but then many are killed in the Bible by people who are heroes. And you killed that man when he would have killed you. And those men are on trial for killing but if they are guilty, they will be killed. And even if the jury says they are not, they will be killed. I do not understand how to tell when it is right and when it is wrong."
'Well, Hickok,' he thought to himself, 'Hope you like this corner you just backed yourself into because you're going to be here a while.'
He sighed and tried to figure out how to answer her questions. He knew he wasn't qualified to talk about religion or philosophy. Up until just a few minutes before, things had seemed to make sense but she brought up some good points and he wasn't sure how to resolve her quandary. Before he could form any sort of answer, she spoke again.
"Teaspoon says you almost were killed once. He said that the judge said you were guilty of killing and that you were almost hanged," she reached her hand to touch his neck and he closed his eyes and for a moment he was standing on the gallows with the rope snug around his throat.
He took her hand in his and tried to keep his memory of that fear from his voice.
"That was all because people lied and I was too young or…something, to see it. This is different. You are certain these are the men. I know you are. You drew them perfect and they've all but confessed."
"I still do not understand when it is right and when it is wrong."
He sighed, "I don't know if I always do either. And that's the God's honest truth."
Oddly, or maybe not, she seemed more satisfied with this answer than with any he'd tried to give so far. Honesty went a great, long way with this child.
Silence was their companion the rest of the way and to Jimmy it didn't feel quite right. Neither one of them were big talkers but still they usually filled the spaces a little more than what they were doing now. He even at one point tried to get her singing to no avail. He knew that he was getting more agitated the closer the horses brought them to their destination and he thought that she might be too. He knew that the more anxious she was, the less likely she was to talk. He just couldn't shake that nagging feeling of something being not quite right. Soon enough though, they were riding into town and once the horses were seen to, they went to arrange accommodations for their stay. He saw her trepidation as she walked into the hotel room. New environments were still a bother to her.
"It's alright Princess, this isn't home forever but it will be for a little while. The beds are probably more comfortable than the bunkhouse."
She walked slowly over to one of the beds and climbed onto it and nodded at him, still looking at the floor.
He set their few things down on the floor and watched her take in her new surroundings.
"We probably ought to get something to eat. It's your choice, we can have something brought up here or we can go to the restaurant. Just tell me what you feel up to."
"I have never been to a restaurant."
He was reasonably certain of that before she said it, he felt it doubtful that before the horrible tragedy struck her world that anyone save the other four members of the Casey family and a handful of scared runaway slaves even knew that Susan existed.
"Does that mean you'd like to go to one now?"
She only nodded.
"Well, alright then."
He helped her clean up and then brushed out her braids tying a ribbon around her loose hair.
"There now, pretty as a princess," he stated after appraising her. He then offered his arm and they left the room.
Once seated at the restaurant, he glanced to her, concerned at how she was handling the number of people. He saw she was doing the best she could to ignore that there was anyone else there besides the two of them.
"How are you holding up?"
"I am fine. Did I make you mad?"
Bewildered did not begin to describe his response.
"When we were talking about that time you almost died, you made a mad face and then you did not want to talk to me anymore."
He softened, "Princess that face wasn't for you. It was for someone else and I guess I didn't want to talk for a bit. It's not a happy memory. I'm not mad at you though."
"I am sorry. I should not have talked about that."
Jimmy placed his hand over hers and spoke very deliberately.
"You have nothing to be sorry for. Anytime you have something to say, I am the one you can say it to," he looked to her puzzled face, "Never be sorry for talking to me."
"I do not want to upset you."
"You might be the only one in the world who never has," he mused and then added, "Do you feel better now?"
"I think so," she paused rounding up more words while Jimmy sipped his water thereby allowing her all the time she needed to collect her thoughts, "What do we have to do tomorrow?"
"We are just going to talk to the prosecutor; he's the one who tries to tell the jury why the men are guilty. He wants you to know what questions he's going to ask you and help you know what the other lawyer is going to ask too."
"I do not like talking to people I do not know. It is hard."
"I know," he wanted to tell her she didn't have to but he knew that he couldn't, this was something he could not protect her from, "This whole thing is going to be hard and I know that. I will be with you the whole time."
"You will not leave me?"
"I can't sit on the witness stand with you but I will only be a few feet away."
"I am so afraid," the words barely reached his ears they were so soft. It killed him that there was nothing he could do to comfort her. There was no saving her from any of this and he wished, not for the first time, that he had just kept riding when he saw the Franklin brothers. They might still have haunted his nightmares but she would have been free of this whole ordeal.
It was all he could offer her.
Jimmy and Susan were ushered into an office where a short but robust man waited with an outstretched hand. Jimmy took the offered hand but Susan merely curtsied.
"Please have a seat," he gestured at two chairs in front of his desk, "I'm Andrew Beaton, prosecutor for this trial, and really for all of the trials around here. Can I get offer the two of you anything? Something to drink?"
He was looking pointedly at Susan who shifted uncomfortably and looked uncertainly to Jimmy. He smiled at her hoping to reassure her enough to allow speech.
"No thank you," she stammered her eyes fixed on her hands in her lap.
Mr. Beaton's expression filled with sympathy, he knew the basics of the case and he knew that preparing a child who had been through such things for trial would not be an enjoyable task.
"Susan," Beaton began, "I know this is going to be difficult for you. If you need a break, please ask. No one will be upset."
Susan said nothing and Beaton was unsure of how to proceed. Jimmy spoke up.
"You might as well know that Susan is, well, different. She has troubles with new places and talking to people she don't know. The defense will probably try to make her out as slow but you'll learn she's anything but."
"I see," replied the prosecutor, "And you've been acting as her father?"
"That's right," Jimmy said nodding, "I guess it started with me not being able to just leave her all alone and then it just was the right thing to do. She needs me and I think I needed to be needed if you know what I mean."
"I have children myself and I do understand. There's nothing quite like the love of a daughter for her father to make a man feel like he's invincible."
Andrew Beaton crouched in front of the chair where Susan sat.
"Susan, I know you are scared, I can see that. Do you know what my job is?"
"Yes," she answered, "You tell the jury that the men are guilty."
He smiled, "That's part of it. The rest of it and maybe the biggest part of it is that I speak for the victims. A lot of my victims don't have voices because they are like your family but it's my job to speak for you too. If you can talk to me today, I can make sure the jury hears you and knows the truth. Is that a deal?"
"You can talk for me?"
"Sort of, I ask questions and you answer. If I know that something is really hard for you, I can ask certain ways. And I can make the judge yell at the other lawyer if he's too mean to you. I can make the jury see him as a bully picking on a sweet little girl."
"Great. Now I need you to tell me the whole story."
Susan stood in the middle of the courtroom trying to memorize it.
"Where will I be?"
Beaton stepped forward to her in order to answer her.
"Well, you won't be in here most of the time. I don't think you need to hear most of what's going on. But when we call you in, you will come right up here," he gestured to the witness stand, "A man will hold out a Bible and you will raise your right hand and place your left one on the Bible and he will ask you to swear that you will tell the truth. At that point you are what we call 'under oath'. That means it is against the law for you to lie. I know that won't be a problem because I can tell you are a very honest little girl."
"Where will my daddy be?"
"He will be outside with you and when you come in, he will sit behind my table. I want you to be able to see him without seeing the defendants. My table is right here and that is where I will be. The table over there is where the defendants will be with their lawyer. You do not have to look at them except when you point them out. The jury sits there and then the judge will be next to you. Do you understand?"
"Are you still scared?"
"Yes, but not as scared. It is better now that I know what will happen. What will everyone else be saying? Why do you not want me to hear it?"
Beaton hesitated but Jimmy spoke to him, "She gets scared when things are hidden from her. Best to tell her or she'll worry herself sick."
"Susan, the doctor will be on the stand and he'll have to answer very specific questions about what the men did to you. And the defense will try to get the doctor to say you are not very smart and that you are not a reliable witness because of it. These are not things you need to hear. It will sound to you like the case is not going well but I have seen a lot of cases and I know what I can do to make it go right."
"I understand. The doctor never talked to me. Can I listen to that part?"
Jimmy patted her head, "Yes you can. I'll be right with you and I'll try to keep my temper in check, okay?"
The day before the trial, the rest of the riders arrived along with Rachel and Teaspoon. Susan was glad to see them but it did not show as their arrival only meant the impending trial was ever nearer. She had finally gotten used to being in the hotel but that night, sleep would not come to her and she found herself crawling into Jimmy's bed. He woke when the mattress shifted around him.
"Hey there Princess, can't you sleep?"
"No I cannot."
"What can I do to help?"
She was quiet for a moment and Jimmy thought that she had maybe fallen asleep.
"I would like it if you told me a story. When you are away, Cody tells me stories and it helps me."
"I'm not all that good at storytelling. Cody has the gift for that."
He was glad the darkness of the room kept her from seeing his scowl. She wasn't supposed to know how to manipulate him like that and maybe she wasn't working him but he could never say no to her when she called him that.
"Alright, I'll do my best. Once upon a time, there was a knight who rode a golden charger."-"The charger was named Sundance," she interjected-"Yes, you're very right. The horse was named Sundance and the knight was James. So anyway, Sir James was riding along one day trying to get home from his latest, um"-"Quest"-"Right, his latest quest. So on his way home, he heard shooting and screaming and as tired as he was, he knew he had to see what was going on."
He paused and kissed the corn silk hair on the top of her head, "How am I doing so far?"
"I think it is a very good story. Please tell more."
"So Sir James rode on to where he heard the scary sounds coming from and he found that some very bad men had been there and hurt some innocent people. He was very angry but there wasn't anything he could do for those people," he paused when he heard a sniffle, he had only ever seen her truly cry once before and he knew she'd not wept for her family. He had thought that perhaps she didn't need to but it seemed she did.
"I am sorry," she said through her sobbing.
"Don't be sorry. If anyone has a right to cry, it would be you. Let it all out and you'll feel better."
"I miss them."
"I know you do and that's okay. I can't imagine how much it hurts that you lost them like that."
She buried her head in his chest and cried some more. It was somehow easier to take the hurt now that Jimmy had said it was alright for her to feel what she was feeling. And she felt the loss a little less with his arms around her. In time her tears slowed and she spoke to him feeling grateful for his patience with her.
"Will you finish the story now?"
"Of course; Sir Jimmy was feeling mighty sad for the people in the yard and then he saw something out of the corner of his eye and went to see what it was. He was worried it might be a bad man still there but it was a damsel in distress. She was too frightened to speak to him and was even more afraid for him to touch her. He got a fat lip for trying to see if she was hurt."-"I am sorry I did that."-"I know you are and I was never mad. Sir James decided that he needed to take the damsel home with him to make sure she was taken care of. There's something you ought to know about Sir James that no one else knew. He was not a very happy man. He pretended he was sometimes. He loved the people in his life but he felt there was something missing. In the weeks he spent getting to know the damsel, little Princess Susan, he discovered that she was what had been missing. He marveled at how this child could make him feel so very important. Before he'd met her, he had given up on his life and his future. He had allowed himself to be not so noble as a knight. People feared rather than respected him because of things he had done when he was younger. He thought that having people fear him would be what he wanted. He thought it would make the hurt go away but it didn't. Suddenly he had someone in his life who didn't want him to be fearsome; who didn't expect him to be something he wasn't. She loved him no matter what mistakes he made and he felt like there was a future for him at last. The two of them would surely have their difficulties as people do in their lives but James knew that if he had little Princess Susan by his side that they would get through them somehow. The end."
"That was a better story than the ones Cody tells."
"Can you sleep now?"
"May I stay here?" she asked listening to the beating of his heart within his chest.
"Of course you can."
"Lou!" Jimmy whined holding up another horribly failed attempt at braiding Susan's hair, "I just can't get them right today."
Lou hurried over and sat next to Susan giving Jimmy a squeeze of the arm as she took over the hairstyling duties of the little girl. Jimmy went around to the front of Susan and crouched to her eye level.
"I'm just too nervous today."
"That is okay," she answered and then added in a whisper that was meant for only the two of them, "Princess Susan and Sir James will be fine because they are together."
Lou overheard but only smiled.
"That's right little damsel," chuckled Jimmy. He was still trying to figure out a way to convince Susan to not listen to the doctor's testimony. He had no problem with her speaking to the doctor privately and having everything explained to her or to the doctor telling him the information and then conveying it to the child. But in an open court with people there to stare at her like she was on display at a zoo or something and then having the defense ask, Lord only knew what. He just had to stop that. Perhaps Lou could help.
"Susan, I need to talk to you about something."
"What is it, Daddy?"
"I think that today we ought to just concentrate on getting through your testimony and not get sidetracked with other things."
"I do not understand," she said and the tiniest of twitches in her face gave away the true level of her confusion, "What other things would sidetrack me?"
"I just think it's going to be hard enough to get up there and do what you need to do. You don't need to be thinking about what the doctor says or what anyone might think of it," it was times like this when Jimmy wished she had more expression in her face so that he could read something there, anyway, "Maybe it would be better to talk to the doctor after the trial is over."
"Alright," she said simply. She was disappointed because she was very curious about what exactly had happened and she had not been feeling quite well lately. She had hoped the testimony of the doctor would help her understand why that was. But her daddy didn't think it was a good idea and she knew he'd always keep her safe and know what was best for her. And he would let her talk to the doctor later.
That was far easier than he thought it would be. He looked to Lou in question and she smiled and nodded her encouragement.
"You're fine with that?"
Lou finished the second braid, tied the ribbon into a bow and then kissed the top of Susan's head.
"There you go beautiful."
Jimmy and Susan stayed outside the courtroom and really didn't know much of what was happening inside. The others were inside and would occasionally sneak out to fill them in. There had been news of the opening arguments from both sides and the doctor had been put on the witness stand. Rachel had come out halfway through Beaton's questioning of him. She was crying.
"Is it going that bad in there?" asked Jimmy.
"No. I just couldn't listen to any more details of what they did to her. I'm sorry. I'm probably not helping that much."
"You're being a good friend, Rachel."
Susan walked over to the bench where Rachel had sat down.
"Why are you crying Rachel? You never cry."
"Oh sweetie," Rachel answered, trying to conjure a smile for the girl, "I cry plenty. Most people do, I guess. Could I have a hug to help me feel better?"
Susan wrapped her arms around the woman who was so like her own mother had been and yet completely different.
"It is okay Rachel. You do not have to be sad."
The three of them looked up when they heard a commotion from the courtroom and saw a woman looking faint and being helped out by a man.
Jimmy rounded up that boyish sort of half smile he had, "I guess you weren't the only one that couldn't listen to anymore. That should be good for our side."
After a time, Jimmy looked up to see Kid and Noah walking toward them. They came and stood next to where Jimmy, Susan and Rachel sat.
"I wish I had left when you did, Rachel," remarked Noah, "It was bad enough listening to the doc tell what happened, hearing that pompous windbag in there try convincing everyone that she wanted that or caused it…" He just shook his head, unable to finish the sentence.
"It was worse than that, Noah," growled Kid, "It was almost like he was saying that what they did to Susan didn't matter because she's something less than human; like she's not even a person."
Noah nodded sadly, "That Mr. Beaton is working harder during the cross examination than he was during his questioning. He's up and down objecting to everything."
"How was the jury acting?" asked Jimmy, "Which side are they hearing the loudest?"
"I just don't know," Kid said looking at the floor.
A short while later Beaton came out and whisked Jimmy and Susan to his office.
"The court has taken a recess for lunch," he explained and nodded to food that had been brought in, "I thought it might be better to allow Susan to be away from the crowds."
"How is the case going?" Jimmy had tried to contain the question but he had to know.
"I think the jury is leaning to sympathy for our side. That is very good. The doctor's testimony was useful and your Marshal Hunter did a beautiful job of explaining the Franklin brothers' likenesses for the wanted posters. I am feeling very confident so far."
Beaton's attention turned to Susan, "What I would like to know is how you are feeling today Miss Casey."
"I am well."
He smiled, "Is that the answer you were taught to give?"
She nodded at him.
"How are you really feeling?"
"I am scared."
Jimmy's hand tightened around Susan's shoulder but the other man continued talking in the same smiling, soothing tone.
"I appreciate your honesty with me. I think I have everyone in there ready to be on your side, just like I said I would. I need you to trust me. I can make the people in there hear you and the truth. I have had to object a lot so far. That means that the other lawyer has been asking the kind of questions he shouldn't and I have to have the judge tell him to stop. So when he asks you something, take a breath before answering. That will give me time to object if I need to and also maybe give you time to think about your words. If I object, you just close your mouth and let me hammer it out with the judge. Okay?"
He had worried before when Wild Bill Hickok had come in, daughter in tow, telling him what an unusual child she was. He worried that he wouldn't be able to stand up for her enough and he was frankly afraid of the young gunfighter. But he no longer felt afraid of Hickok and the case seemed to be going well.
"One other thing," Beaton called out as the two were about to leave his office to take up there places in the hallway to await Susan being called to testify, "I might not need to do it, but keep in mind that the defense will spend their entire case trying to discredit the one witness against them. I may need to call you and possibly even one or two of the other riders as rebuttal witnesses. That's a witness we call just to say that something they are saying is true really isn't. If I need to call a rebuttal, you would for certain be up there, Mr. Hickok. What I want to know is who else among your friends would be able to speak for her, speak to her intelligence?"
"Noah was the one who got her talking by having her read that book, Kid and Cody talk to her a lot, Cody even gets her laughing and singing. She spends a lot of time with Ike and Buck when they are caring for the animals. She has a way with them. You know your jury better than I do. Just don't call Lou."
"Why is that?" Beaton's interest was piqued.
"Remember you said it was illegal to tell a lie under oath?" Jimmy asked him.
"Yes, it is called perjury."
"Well, Lou's not what he appears to be, he'd have to commit perjury."
Beaton looked at Jimmy and Susan perplexed.
"If you tell me, I cannot repeat it."
"Well," Jimmy started reluctantly, "You said the first question is usually just your name for the record, right?"
"Lou's name is Louise and there's no way she could say that on the stand but there's no way she couldn't either."
"I see the problem. I'm sure I can find other suitable witnesses and I thank you for your candor."
Jimmy and Susan sat in silence waiting. The others had gone in already and they knew it wouldn't be long until Beaton called his first witness of the afternoon and that would be Susan. They looked up as a man leaned out of the courtroom. Jimmy nodded at the man.
"You ready for this?"
"No but I will be alright."
She gripped his arm tightly and they walked in. From some corner of the room there could be heard weeping as many of the people had already been touched by the story and to see the girl to whom all of that had happened brought tears. Susan paused next to the table for the prosecution and Jimmy sat next to Teaspoon. Before he sat down, Jimmy squatted down and hugged her.
"I'm right here. Ain't no one going to hurt you. I love you."
"I love you too, Daddy."
She made her way to the witness stand and there was the man with the Bible. She raised her hand as she had been told to do and swore to God and everyone else that she would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help her God. Beaton stood up and told her she could take her seat which she did and waited patiently for the questions to begin. She made sure to only look at the prosecutor's side of the courtroom where her new family sat. She knew who was on the other side and she didn't want to see them.
Jimmy almost couldn't bear to look at her. She was so tiny and frail looking and he wanted to grab her up and yell at everyone to stop looking at her. Teaspoon must have sensed this conflict in the younger man as he patted Jimmy on the arm.
Beaton strode across the courtroom to begin his questioning of her.
"Would you please state your name?"
"Susan Elizabeth Casey."
"Very good," he encouraged, "May I just say you look very pretty today Susan."
"Thank you Mr. Beaton."
There was shifting in chairs and murmuring through the gallery as people were taken aback by her unemotional tone. The judge banged his gavel and quiet reclaimed the cavernous room.
"You are eleven years old, are you not?"
"Up until a few months ago, where and with whom did you live?"
"I lived on a farm with my mama and daddy and my brothers, Joe and Tom."
"Why do you not still live with them?"
"They are dead," her voice cracked and, while surprised by the emotion he had heretofore not seen from this little girl, Beaton was glad because it humanized Susan even more.
"I am sorry for your loss, Susan. Could you tell me how they died?"
"Three men came and said that Mama and Daddy did bad things and the men shot Mama and Daddy."
"That must have been very frightening for you to see."
"I was scared. Joe and Tom were there and the men said they were not going to kill children but one of them saw me and said that they could have some fun. I did not know what he meant but his face was not kind. Joe and Tom understood and they stood in front of me to keep the men away. The men shot Tom and then Joe."
The tears flowed freely for her as they had the night before. She had thought that she had cried all of the tears she had for her family but there were more and she was starting to understand now that she would always have tears for them, especially for her Joe.
Beaton produced a handkerchief from his coat pocket and handed it to her so that she could attempt to dry her eyes. Open and unabashed sobbing could be heard throughout the courtroom and Susan could see that some, though not anywhere near all of it came from Rachel.
"What happened next, Susan?"
"The man with the unkind face grabbed me and drug me into the barn. He pushed me down on the ground and pulled down my pantaloons. And then, I did not understand what he was doing but it hurt very badly. He was making faces and squeezing my throat so I almost couldn't breathe and the other men were laughing."
Even having heard the story before in his office didn't make it easier for Andrew Beaton to hear it again. He wanted to join those weeping in the gallery.
"Do you understand what he did to you now?"
"Yes. It is something that is for adults who are in love and not for a man to make someone do."
"That is a very good way to explain it. Do you know the word for when someone makes a woman or girl do this thing?"
"Susan, I know this is hard for you but I need you to do something for me. Do you see the men who hurt you and your family here in this courtroom?"
"Can you point them out to me?"
"There is one missing but that one right there shot my mama and that one shot my daddy and Joe and he is the one who took me to the barn and did the rape of me."
Susan surprised herself by making eye contact with both men. She was terrified but a part of her felt good, felt strong for being able to do that much. They had no guns today and could not touch her. She dropped her arm and her gaze returned to her newfound family. Jimmy's smile looked strange to her but he did smile.
"Let the record show," Beaton called out, "That the witness has indicated the defendants Clete and Morgan Franklin, respectively."
He turned his attention back to Susan who looked as if she might shatter if he so much as breathed on her.
"What happened after Morgan Franklin raped you?"
"They left. I could hear their horses go away and then I was alone."
"For how long were you alone?"
"I do not know. I stayed in the barn and I do not know how long it was before I was found."
"Thank you very much Susan, you are a very brave girl," Beaton looked to the judge, "I have no further questions for the witness at this time."
Beaton sat down and the fear filled Susan. Talking to Mr. Beaton wasn't hard. He was a nice man but she did not know this other man. She steeled herself to the extent that she could and hoped it would be enough.
"Good afternoon, Miss Casey," the other man began, "My name is Oliver Cray. I have just a few questions for you, okay?"
"First I want to say how sorry I am that such tragedy befell your family. That must have been awful."
"Thank you, Mr. Cray."
"You are a very polite young lady. Who taught you those manners?"
"My mama and my brother Joe."
"How old was Joe?"
"He was fourteen."
"A fourteen year old boy spending all that time with his kid sister, he must have been a very special young man. Didn't he have other things to do?"
"Mama and Daddy said he was the oldest and needed to look after the younger children. Tom was only a year younger so Joe said he did not need looking after but I did."
"Tell me Miss Casey, did you ever attend school?"
"Why is that?"
"It is hard for me sometimes if I am around people I do not know or too many people."
"You still haven't gone to school since arriving at the Rock Creek station?"
"No. Rachel says I already know everything they are teaching there. I read all the books before the other children do. I like to read."
"How did you learn to read if you never went to school?"
"Mama and Joe taught me."
"I see. So now you call Wild Bill Hickok 'daddy', is that right?"
"Wild Bill is not a real person. He is James Hickok."
"So what has your new daddy taught you?"
"He teaches me a lot of things. He taught me to shoot a gun. And he taught me that sometimes people will still treat me well, even though I am different, if I can talk to them and explain things. And he taught me that it is okay to be scared but sometimes you still have to do the thing you are scared of."
"What were you scared of?"
"This trial, you, those men at the table and that the people here would laugh at me or call me names and not believe when I told the truth."
"But have you told the whole truth here?"
"You said these men said your parents did bad things."
"What did they claim your folks had done?"
Beaton shot out of his chair, "Objection! Relevance?"
Cray turned to his counterpart, "Goe state of mind."
"Is council conceding the crime and attempting a justification defense?"
"I am merely seeking to put forth all aspects of the incident in question."
"Approach, your Honor?" asked Beaton. And the two attorneys approached the bench.
"The Casey's were conspirators to thieves by helping runaway slaves," argued Cray.
"That's a lovely way to explain away the deaths of Elias and Elizabeth Casey. But there remains that the only motive for killing the children was to the end of raping an eleven year old. It is still a capital offense if I drop all of the murder charges. I do not see the gain in this line of questioning and I further do not see how asking these questions of Susan will benefit your case."
The judge agreed and as the attorneys made their way back to their previous positions, he announced that the objection was sustained and prodded Cray to ask his next question.
"Miss Casey, does this look familiar to you?" he asked as he held up a wanted poster featuring the Franklin brothers.
"I never saw the posters but I made those drawings."
"An eleven year old girl and you made these drawings?"
"There were three men who attacked your family, correct?"
"Where is the third one?"
"He is dead."
"Mr. Hickok killed him, isn't that right?"
"Yes. He did not have a choice."
"There were no witnesses except Hickok, Morgan and Clete. Are you sure it was self defense?"
"Daddy said so and his anger is larger for the man you call Morgan. If he killed him and it was not self defense, he would have killed Morgan."
She was so matter of fact in her logic that those assembled, the judge included, had to fight the urge to laugh.
"I have nothing further."
Beaton stood at that last statement.
"I have something else I would like to ask of Miss Casey."
The judge indicated for him to proceed.
"You like to draw, don't you Susan?"
"And sometimes when you are scared and you can't speak, your drawings do your talking for you, don't they?"
"Will you take this paper from me and draw a picture for the court?"
She did as she was told and thought for a moment before touching pencil to paper. As she drew, Beaton kept the conversation going.
"Who taught you to draw?"
"Really? No one taught you? You just could always draw?"
"And I understand you can sing also?"
"Did anyone teach you that?"
"Mama sang a lot. I tried to sound like her."
"What would she sing?"
"Alas my love you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously. For I have loved you, oh, so long; delighting in your company."
There was not another sound in the courtroom as this tiny child sang the old tune. Those who had been weeping in sadness were now weeping in the wake of the beauty of her clear voice. Beaton had been unsure of this tactic but Hickok said she could emote when she sang and he was certainly right. There would be no need now of rebuttal witnesses. She looked up from her paper and then handed the drawing to Beaton. He showed it first to the judge and then to the members of the jury and finally to Mr. Cray, the Franklin brothers and the rest of those assembled. It was a picture of Beaton himself, smiling and kind-eyed.
"The point of this, before Mr. Cray can begin to raise his objections, was to show that this eleven year old is more than capable of drawing the faces from her nightmares is such a detailed fashion."
Susan was allowed to step down from the witness stand and went straight to Jimmy who wrapped her tightly in an embrace and lifted her with him as he stood, carrying her from the courtroom. As they walked out, they could hear the judge and both lawyers agreeing to adjourn until the next day. Susan didn't care what they did. For her, it was finally over. It didn't matter what all the lawyers and judges in the world did and it almost didn't matter what the jury said, she had her daddy and she didn't have to talk about or look at Morgan Franklin ever again. She relaxed in Jimmy's arms and he soon realized she had fallen asleep there.
Jimmy sat watching Susan sleep. When he brought her into the room, he hadn't even wanted to put her down. Sometimes it just felt good to hold her and know that while she was in his arms, nothing could get to her. He was filled with pride at how she had handled the courtroom. He had been so frightened for her and maybe for himself too. But she had found the strength to stand up to the men who hurt her. She was tough, that was for certain. He wondered sometimes if he had married and had children of his own if they would be as amazing to him as Susan was. He figured that all men thought that way about their kids but in the same thought he believed that Susan was particularly special and specially suited to be his daughter. She was perfect, even if it was only in his eyes.
If he was being honest, he was sort of proud of himself as well. He had held his temper and resisted all urges to save her from having to relive those terrible memories. Being a father was hard and not even in the ways he thought it would be. He didn't know how often he'd have to sit by and watch her struggle knowing that she would learn more and be stronger for it. Knowing it was for her good did not make it easier. And he knew, just knew in his heart, that she'd eventually bring up her questions about killing and death and the shifting perspectives that determined morality. She loved her life in routine and absolutes and there was so much that didn't fit into that and he knew he wasn't going to be able to come close to explaining these things to her.
For all of the fear wrapped into the previous time since he found and brought in the Franklin's, she was utterly peaceful in her sleep now. She knew she had gotten through the hard part and she knew she was safe. Jimmy finally allowed himself to hope that feeling of security would last. He still worried about the verdict and what might happen after but for now he just sat and watched her sleeping, enjoying her placid face. There came a knock at the door and Jimmy reflexively grabbed his gun to see who was there. Opening the door a crack, he put the gun back in its holster hanging from the hat rack by the door and then opened the door all the way to allow Teaspoon into the room. He was carrying a tray.
"Rachel was worried that you two hadn't had your supper."
Jimmy gestured to a table where his friend could set the tray down.
"What was you worried about?"
Teaspoon only nodded to the little girl asleep on her bed and then to Jimmy.
"You're checking up on us?" Jimmy asked with a hint of a smile.
"Yes I am. I think a part of me was hoping that she'd clam up today so's you wouldn't have to hear her put voice to certain things. I know you knew about them but…"
"You forget," answered Jimmy, "I was there when she was prepared for testimony. I heard her say all those things before. I won't lie; it hurt, but she needed this in a way I don't know if I can explain."
"Took a lot out of her though," said the older man, "I'm sort of surprised you aren't sleeping like that too. Seems after the worry you two have been through, you'd both just fall over with the relief."
"Her worries are gone but mine aren't. I don't think she even cares anymore what the verdict is or what happens after, she just needed to know she could stand up to them."
"What do you need?"
Jimmy sat on the end of the bed staring at his hands. He opened his mouth as if to speak a half dozen or so times but nothing came out.
"I need them gone," he said at last, "I need to know they can't ever hurt anyone else again. I need to find a way to explain that to her and to myself. And I need things that can't be. I need this to've never happened to her."
Teaspoon sighed heavily as he sat in the chair across from Jimmy.
"Just when I get to thinking I'm done raising you boys…start over and go slow because I'm having trouble following you."
"I want them dead, Teaspoon. A week ago that seemed like a reasonable idea but she got to asking me questions about killing and when it's wrong and how you figure that out and I don't know how to answer that. She wants hard and fast rules and I don't have them to give to her."
"No one does, son," Teaspoon replied, "What's right depends on who you are and what your circumstance is. I reckon you could tell her that. So what are you planning on if the verdict don't come back guilty?"
"I ain't got any plans. I'm afraid what I might do and she knows what I'm afraid I'd do."
"Is she afraid of what you might do?" Teaspoon asked raising an eyebrow.
"She's confused but I don't think she's afraid; not of me anyway."
"She knows you won't do it," Teaspoon mused.
"She can't know that. I don't even know that."
Teaspoon smiled at the young man who still had so much left to learn.
"I was wondering myself where she found it in her to keep answering those questions. I know she felt comfortable enough with that Mr. Beaton and you sitting there helped but she didn't even waver talking to the Cray fella. It makes sense now."
"What does?" Jimmy asked him.
"She knew you'd kill them if they went free but she knew if she could hold her own on that stand today that you wouldn't have to; that she'd done it for you."
The color drained from Jimmy's face as he realized she, in her mind, had most likely killed these men to save him from himself. He looked to the peacefully sleeping child and wondered how her mind, so conflicted about the morality of killing could be at peace after this.
Teaspoon seemed to read his thoughts.
"Deciding to save someone you love don't have a thing to do with morals."
Before Jimmy could ask more, Teaspoon took his leave pausing only to whisper, "You might want to wake her up and see if she'll eat."
The door closed behind his mentor leaving Jimmy still sitting on the edge of his bed just numb. Finally he looked over to Susan again and was certain he saw the ghost of a smile cross her lips. He touched her shoulder and shook her gently calling her name.
Susan blinked a few times as her world came into view and with it, her daddy. She smiled easily as she often did when there was no thought behind it and it was just a reaction.
"Hey Princess, how are you feeling?"
"I am well. Did you get sleep also?"
As she asked, she brought her hand to his face and touched the darkened circles under his eyes.
"No, I didn't," he said this with a bit of sheepishness, "Rachel sent up some dinner if you're hungry."
"I am a little," she said, "You should have slept. You are tired and you are not all better from being shot."
He watched her pick at the food and wondered how their roles had gotten so reversed.
"I was a little worried when you fell asleep like that," he began, "We weren't even out of the courtroom and there was such a crowd…"
"I was tired."
He shook his head; she wouldn't let him get away with that answer.
"Susan, you get upset and confused when I don't tell you everything," he was trying to mask the frustration in his voice, "There's something you aren't telling me."
"It was hard to talk to the other lawyer, Mr. Cray. I did not know him and I knew he would try to trick me."
"I know it was hard. I don't understand why you worked that hard at it. I know you almost lost your words a few times and I saw you make eye contact with Morgan Franklin."
"I won the case, did I not?"
Jimmy smoothed a piece of hair that was sticking up from her nap.
"You probably did. There's still more to the trial but I don't see any way Mr. Cray can put things that won't make him look like a horse's hind end."
"I needed to win the case."
"That's what I don't get," he said softly, "You were so unsure about this trial and how you wanted it to come out and all your questions about killing…Why did you need to win?"
"You did not really want to kill those men but if they were not guilty then you would have. And you would be sad all the time about it. I could make them be dead with my words and then you do not have to kill them."
"But now you'll be sad, won't you?"
She put down the biscuit she had been breaking into pieces.
"I am already sad. Those men killed my family. I do not know if it is right to kill them for that but you also said that they would hurt other families too. I think it is right to save the other families. And it is right to save you."
"It's not your job to save me," he wanted to cry but just couldn't in front of her.
"I was the only one who could save you," she spoke so simply as if he should have known these things without asking, "You told me once that people can get hurt inside and that when you get hurt inside it can keep hurting. I could not let you get a hurt like that."
Her words were so simple and the love behind them so pure he could no longer keep the tears from falling. He'd have been ashamed in any other circumstance but this one. Susan wiped a tear away with her hand.
"I do not understand why you are crying. Everything can be fine now."
"If I tried a million years, I don't think I could explain why I'm crying."
Jimmy was filled with unease when he rolled out of bed the next morning. He saw that Susan was already awake and dressed and waiting for him to do something with the straw pile her hair inevitably became every night. He began to dress but she stopped him.
"I need to see the gunshot. I need to see it is better. You still make the face when you move and I think it is not getting better."
Begrudgingly he turned his long johns down to the waist and let her remove the bandage which had not been changed the previous day with all of the nervousness surrounding the trial. He saw her frown and tried to look down to see the wound himself but she was busy cleaning already.
"It is not so bad but it should have been cleaned yesterday."
Soon it was cleaned and re-bandaged to her satisfaction and he had to admit, it felt better. He was about to begin dressing again when she threw her arms around him in much the same way she had that first night when he had found her. He could identify the emotion in it now; hurt, sadness, fear, desperation…that last one was the biggest part though. He realized now how desperate she must have been for help, for understanding, for someone to not abandon her. She should have been afraid of him after what had been done to her. He was a man and one she did not know. She had no way of knowing he wasn't bad too. She released him and walked over to her paper where she could draw until they had to leave.
"Susan," he started while dressing, "I want to ask you something about the day I met you, if it won't upset you too much."
"What do you want to know?"
"How did you know you could trust me?"
She put her pencil down and hugged her knees to her chest as if reliving that moment would help her remember.
"I did not know that. I was scared when you came in the barn. I thought you would hurt me too. I thought you would even kill me. I could hear your guns and I knew you could kill me if you wanted to. You talked nice to me and I still did not know if you would be nice. Sometimes people talk nice when they are not nice. I knew I hit you and I thought you would hurt me for that but you did not and then you talked to Marmalade. I still did not know for certain that you were a nice person. When you brushed my hair, you did not pull it. Mama tried not to but she always did. You did not. You made me think of Joe. Joe was always kind to me. He lost patience sometimes but he never hit me and he never called me names."
"I won't ever hurt you or call you names either."
"I know that. I knew it that night. I do not know how I knew this but I knew it."
He smiled, "For once, I understand something you don't. That knowing but not knowing how you know it is called instinct. I guess some people call it your gut too. Buck could tell you about how animals will know a predator is near without seeing or hearing them. It's the same thing."
He was finishing buttoning his shirt and noticed there was something turning over in her head. She'd seemed satisfied enough with his answer about instinct but there was something else weighing on her.
"What's going on in that head of yours now?" he asked.
"I know what the men did to me and I know that when you make someone do it who does not want to that it is rape. What I do not understand is why anyone would want to do that. You said it is for people who love each other. It hurt a lot. I do not understand why someone would hurt someone they love in that way or why anyone would want to be hurt."
Jimmy wanted to run screaming from the room. First she asked about morality and killing and then she asked about this. He thought he had enough of the big talk with her already but apparently not and he knew it wouldn't do to run and get Rachel or Lou. He looked over at her and there she was staring at him expecting something.
"Well, um," he stammered, "Well, it hurt for you because you are just a little girl. When you're grown up, it doesn't hurt."
He wasn't even sure if he was telling her the truth. His experience was limited, not non-existent but limited and he hadn't actually taken a poll but none of the women he had been with had seemed to be in pain. Of course he didn't want to make it sound too appealing either, he didn't want her running out to try it just because she thought she was grown enough.
"Is it called something else when the man is not making the woman do it?" she asked.
"It's called making love. I guess there are other names for it too but that one's as good as any."
"Does it feel good for the man? Is that why some men want to make women do it?"
He swallowed hard. He adored her directness most of the time but times like this; she just had no idea that she should be embarrassed by the topic.
"It does feel good," he answered finally, "But that's not why a man will force himself on a woman. Some men enjoy seeing people hurt and others want to feel powerful. Most men can't stand seeing a woman hurt like that."
"Is that why you were angry when you knew they had done this to me?"
"Yes it is."
Jimmy slid onto a seat next to Rachel in the courtroom having deposited Susan on Teaspoon's lap.
"We were beginning to wonder if you'd make it today," remarked Rachel, "I figured you'd be so worn out, you'd sleep through."
"Got up early enough and then she went and started asking things I didn't rightly know how to answer."
"Teaspoon told me she was confused about killing and hangings and what was right and wrong."
"That wasn't it," he said, "She wanted to know about, well, you know…" And he tried to convey with his eyes what he meant. Rachel looked puzzled for a bit and then started to laugh at him.
"Did you talk to her? She's probably horribly confused."
"She was," he shot back at her, "She ain't now."
Rachel was still smiling from the thought of Jimmy Hickok having to explain human sexual relations to that tiny little girl when they all had to rise for the entrance of the judge.
Judge Hutchins brought the court to order with a quick rap of his gavel and then spoke.
"It is my understanding that the defense will present no witnesses and is resting its case."
"That is correct, Your Honor. We wish to proceed with closing statements."
"Very well," said the judge turning his attention to Beaton, "Are the people ready to deliver their closing arguments?"
"We are, Your Honor."
Beaton stood and walked over to the jury.
"Gentlemen of the jury, you may ask yourselves what is happening here so I would like to take a brief moment to explain. The defense had every right to present a counter argument to the case I set humbly before you. I called witnesses and showed evidence and it was the right of Mr. Cray to do so on behalf of his clients. It is, in fact, the right of every soul in this room today to have a trial should they ever be accused of violating any law and within that trial you would want to have an attorney to argue your case. So, again, you may pose the question, why is Mr. Cray not bringing witnesses to the stand? I will answer you, it is because there is no one who can dispute the facts I put forth. If, out in the great wide world, there existed anyone, man, woman or child, who could say these men were not responsible for these crimes, they would surely be here today. I can therefore only conclude that there is no such soul. So, let me remind you of the facts of this case as we have had them given us by the witnesses. We know that every member of the Casey family, save one tiny girl was murdered without provocation or the opportunity to defend themselves. Elias Casey. Elizabeth Casey. Joseph Casey. Thomas Casey. Hard working, God-fearing people just trying to carve a simple life out of their corner of this great land and they are now gone. The lone survivor of this massacre a little girl in braids and pinafore brutally raped and left to fend for herself. Susan Casey. We've heard the testimony of the doctor who saw to her after the attack that he'd not ever seen such injuries. We have shown you the renderings in the child's own hand of her attackers and we know that those were the very images replicated for the posters declaring those men as wanted for murder and rape. You can judge for yourselves if these are indeed the men on those notices but I believe they are. And finally, you heard, in Susan's own words the harrowing experience she was put through. Mr. Cray tried to cast a light on little Susan Casey to show her as slow-witted or simple-minded. I believe she proved herself otherwise. I can do no more except to leave the case to you. I know as twelve responsible citizens you will carefully consider the evidence and the need for justice in this case and will return with the correct verdict of guilty."
Beaton walked deliberately back to his table and offered a smile to Susan who had made her way back to Jimmy's lap. He sat down and waited to hear what Cray would come up with for a close. His counterpart slowly stood and walked to the jury box, leaning casually against it.
"Gentlemen of the jury, my esteemed friend across the aisle is correct about a few things. He is correct that I could have brought witnesses to prove that my clients were not responsible for these heinous crimes but he is most incorrect as to why I did not. In a court of law, gentlemen, the burden of proof rests solidly on the prosecution and in this case, that means Mr. Beaton over there. It is his job and his alone to prove his case beyond all reasonable doubt. That means that I need to prove nothing to you. I only need to point out to you now the doubt that still exists. He certainly proved that the child is an orphan but did not prove beyond reason that her family was killed and he proved that some man did horrible things to little Susan Casey, but again, there is no concrete proof that it was my client. I will grant you that Susan seems a precocious child but she is still just a child of only eleven years. She was frightened, and rightfully so of what had happened to her and could have been easily swayed by a marshal and prosecutor out for a conviction. Do not mistake my words, I have nothing but the utmost compassion for what this child has been through, I only question if she was perhaps manipulated by those around her. This matter is firmly in your hands, gentlemen. It is for you to decide if there is reason enough for doubt. If you feel no reasonable person could doubt the guilt of my clients, then by all means, return with the verdict Mr. Beaton has asked for. However, if you see the shadows where doubt lives in this case, then it is your sworn duty to return with a verdict of not guilty."
Cray sat down and the judge spoke once more.
"The jury shall now take the case into deliberation. Court will adjourn until a verdict has been reached."
All stood as the judge left and then Beaton turned to Susan.
"How are you doing today, Susan?"
"I am well, thank you, Mr. Beaton."
"I don't think it will take very long to reach this verdict. If you'd like to wait somewhere with your friends, I will make sure you are notified when the jury comes back."
Jimmy offered a hand to Beaton, "I wanted to thank you. No matter what the verdict is, the way you treated Susan made this bearable for the both of us."
Beaton smiled and gratefully shook the gunfighter's hand, "It was my pleasure to meet her…and you. I'll admit I was terrified of this case at first. Knowing Susan and her…difficulties and then knowing that you are her father now, well the pressure was certainly on me, I thought."
"If you hadn't been patient with her, things might've been different," Jimmy said with a smile, "We'll be over to the restaurant waiting for when there's news."
Jimmy led Susan back into the courtroom, they had barely sat down at the restaurant and started on some coffee when the word came that the jury was coming back with a verdict. Jimmy took a seat directly behind Beaton and leaned over to him.
"This is fast, what does that mean?"
"It's often a good sign," replied the prosecutor.
All rose for the judge's entrance and once seated Judge Hutchins spoke to the jury.
"I am to understand that the jury has reached verdicts on all charges against the defendants, is this correct?"
The jury foreman stood and answered, "That is correct, Your Honor."
"For the murder of Elias Casey, what say you?"
"And the murder of Elizabeth Casey?"
"The murder of Joseph Casey?"
"And the murder of Thomas Casey?"
"And finally for the rape of the child, Susan Casey, what say you?"
"Guilty, Your Honor."
The foreman sat down and the judge once again spoke.
"Morgan Franklin and Clete Franklin, you have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of these crimes. All that remains is for me to determine a sentence. There is little to consider as there is only one fitting sentence, you will both be hanged by the neck until dead. Mr. Cray, please see the court officer to determine the date and time of the execution. I thank the jury for their service. This court is now adjourned."
The gavel banged once more and Judge Hutchins stood and left.
"Is it over, Daddy?" Jimmy turned to Susan's hopeful eyes.
"Yeah Princess, it's over."
In just two days time, the group was assembled once more but this time before the gallows. They had asked time and again if Susan was sure about watching the hanging and if Jimmy was sure about letting her. She asserted that her testimony had put this event in motion and that she should be there. Jimmy knew that if she was that determined to do it, that she would be more haunted by not going than by anything she might see. So, their own opinions now kept to themselves, they had all stayed in Beatrice to await the hanging and support their friend and his child who had come to belong to all of them.
There was chatter among the people of the town for whom this was nothing more than free entertainment but none of the pieced together members of Susan's surrogate family uttered a word. They did allow themselves quick side glances now and then at the little girl, her face so difficult to read under normal circumstances and now entirely undecipherable. At last Morgan and Clete Franklin were marched from the jail to the gallows and Jimmy hoisted Susan onto his hip.
"You still want to be here, Princess?" he asked sincerely hoping she would change her mind, "No one would think less of you if you don't want to."
"I need to be here," came the soft reply.
The men on the gallows were still as their crimes were read and silent when asked for any last words. Susan watched stoically as hoods were placed over their heads and the nooses were tightened around their throats. She thought again of how easily that could have happened to Jimmy so long before she had even met him. The lever was pulled and a crashing sound emanated from the gallows as the trap doors opened beneath the brothers dropping their feet beneath the floor. Women screamed in the crowd and Lou tried to cling to Kid without betraying her identity. Rachel turned away and was comforted by Noah and Ike. Buck closed his eyes and Teaspoon merely shook his head. Jimmy turned to the child in his arms surprised that there was not so much as a flinch from her at the noise. Her face was just as unreadable as it had been; there was no change at all.
"Are you ready to go?" he asked her.
"What happens now?"
"What do you mean what happens? It's all over."
She looked at him with furrowed brow, "What happens next to them?"
He caught on to what she was asking, "Oh," he said, "Now the doctor comes and makes sure they are dead and then the undertaker gets them. If someone claims their bodies then they can have them buried wherever. If not then they just get thrown in the ground I guess."
There was still no expression at all from her. Jimmy had gotten really good at reading what little she offered of her emotions on her face but there was nothing to find or read at this moment and it concerned him greatly.
He turned to see his friends had disbanded and were heading back to the hotel. Teaspoon lagged behind and Jimmy, still holding tight to Susan, quickly caught him.
"Are you all heading back now?"
"Yep," Teaspoon replied, "No sense in sticking around and we need to get those borrowed riders back to their home stations."
Jimmy nodded and knew they'd be expecting him to return with them.
"I need to ask for an extra day," Jimmy said hating to even ask it. He knew they'd not deny anything he felt he needed to do for Susan but he still hated the imposition he put on them.
Teaspoon looked pointedly at the still motionless and expressionless child in Jimmy's arms and nodded.
"You take what time you need," he said, "Ain't nothing going to fall apart if you're a day or two behind us."
Jimmy nodded his thanks and took Susan back to the room. She did not speak to him the rest of the day and he found himself singing solo to her while brushing her hair. Once he got her to sleep, he took a look at her drawings, for even though she did not speak or alter her extreme lack of expression, she did draw.
The first drawing was possibly the most detailed he had ever seen of hers and that was saying quite a bit. It was of the Franklin brothers hanging. The rest of her drawings for the day were equally macabre. There were the images of her family in death and even one of Jimmy with his gunshot wound the way Susan saw it the first time. There were pictures of every unkind thing she had ever seen in her short time on the earth. There were images of the scarred backs of the former slaves her family had helped, Jesse's face after his fight with Freddie, Freddie's face after being on the receiving end of Jesse's wrath. There was no beauty or hope in these images and Jimmy had no idea where to find those things for her. Her drawings always held such warmth. Even the horrible nightmare drawing where she depicted the heinous thing Morgan Franklin had done to her depicted the barn as a warm place where she often felt safe. There was a glimpse of something that made the bad not so bad. In this batch, there was none of that. She didn't even draw Jimmy's face as she normally did. There was no warmth, no smile, and no light in his eyes. The Jimmy in her drawing merely grimaced in pain.
He sighed heavily and undressed. He turned down the lamp and then looked at his bed. He took the blanket from it and crossed to her bed and settled atop the blankets on her bed. When he rested his arm protectively around her, she shot straight up and started screaming.
"Leave me alone! Get off me!"
The very words she'd not been able to vocalize during her attack were with her now and Jimmy jumped out of the bed and crouched on the floor next to it. He spoke gently knowing that she'd hear soft words more clearly than loud ones. And she did quiet and open her eyes. Jimmy thought it lucky that it was still earlier than some folks were wanting to get to bed or else there would have been questions galore. The lack of prying hotel guests allowed him to more completely focus on Susan as she settled into her awareness of the world around her.
"You alright, Princess?" he asked when he felt reasonably certain she was actually awake.
"I had a nightmare."
"I gathered," he said almost as flatly as she typically spoke, "I think it was my fault too."
"How could you make me have the nightmare?"
"You were sleeping just fine until I put an arm over you."
"I am sure I was having the dream longer than that," she said simply, "It was a dream about what happened in the barn. Even in my dream it hurt, how can that be?"
"Sometimes your body can remember pain real good," he said knowing the truth of his words too well, "So when you dream on the things that hurt like that, you feel the pain too."
"I do not like it."
"No one does."
It wasn't much past dawn when Jimmy and Susan went to collect their horses and head for home. Neither of them slept a great deal after her nightmare though he thought she had gotten more sleep than he had purely because he had spent most of the night talking softly to her about anything that could run across his mind. He told her stories that he hadn't before. He told her of Alice and the Peacemakers and how for a brief time he thought to give up his guns completely until his old life had chased him down and made that impossible. He knew he couldn't destroy something as beautiful as their way of life so he moved on. He told her of his sister and how she was expecting her first child and how that would make him an uncle for the first time as well. He told her about how he had first learned of Lou's true identity and he told her about Emma and how he couldn't even explain what she had been to him. How he had thought that any love he felt for a woman meant he was in love with her. She taught him otherwise and although he hadn't wanted to learn that lesson, he had and was grateful for it. She had been mother, big sister, aunt, friend and confidante to him. He told her of how his heart broke when he knew she'd be leaving them and how a part of him didn't want to accept any other woman in their lives. He even told her about when Rachel first came and how they had really only wanted her around because she was so pretty. At least that was the story he told Susan. No need to tell her it had less to do with Rachel's pretty face than with her buxom figure or the low cut blouses she wore. He told her of meeting Teaspoon for the first time as he emerged from the horse trough and rubbed himself with bear grease and how they thought for sure that they were in the hands of a lunatic. He knew that once she was still, in the wee hours, he had allowed himself to close his eyes and drift away but neither of them slept very soundly and the slightest tugging of the sun at the horizon was enough to wake them both. Somehow Jimmy felt rested more so than he had in a long time. He didn't know if it had to do with the reminiscing he had done or if it was the fact that the monsters in Susan's nightmares would forever be memories and just images in a dream; they could never actually harm her ever again.
They mounted up and rode a ways in silence before Jimmy just had to ask.
"Are your words hiding from you or don't you want to talk to me?"
"I have been trying to think of the words I need to say."
"Are you mad at me for something?" he wasn't sure what she could be upset about but then, he wasn't sure of a lot of things.
"No I am not angry, Daddy," she responded, "I am confused."
"Confused has never kept you from talking before. Usually you talk all the more."
"I do not understand why it made me feel better when Morgan and Clete Franklin were dead. I do not understand why the law punishes killing by killing. I do not understand why you choose to have a child and to be a father but you do not choose to have a woman. I do not understand why you still sometimes speak about me to others as if I am not there. I do not understand why the jury made the decision it did."
She paused for a breath and Jimmy jumped in before the list was too long for him to remember.
"First of all, you felt better when the Franklin's died because you know they can't hurt you and I won't go running off to do something stupid. As for why we kill to punish killing, I don't know. It says in the Bible 'an eye for an eye' or something to that effect. I don't get it because, you have a point, it seems like it makes all of us the same as the criminals. All I can tell you is that right and wrong aren't set in stone things. They kind of depend on who you are and what you believe," he paused to let his words sink in and then continued before she could reload and ask more questions, "The jury believed you more than they believed anyone else and that made their decision. I talk about you like you aren't there because I don't think and I'm insensitive sometimes."
He had deliberately avoided the other question hoping she'd forget it. She didn't.
"Why do you not have a woman?"
"I guess I have you so I don't need one. You do almost everything a woman would. You look out for me and keep me honest and make sure I don't act a fool. Why would I need anyone else?"
"A woman can cook for you and sew and Mama and Daddy would hug and kiss different from how they would to me or to Joe and Tom. I think you should find a woman and marry. I think then you could be happy."
"It's not that easy," he said trying not to laugh at her over-simplistic ideas of male-female relationships, "You can't just go grabbing a woman at random and think it's going to make you happy; or her for that matter."
"I am sure women would want to marry you."
"You think so?" he couldn't stave off the laughter anymore, "Well, they don't seem to be stampeding down my door."
She grew silent trying to figure out how women wouldn't want to marry him. She knew if she was old enough, she would marry him for certain and they would live as happily as the people in the fairy stories her mother and Joe used to tell her. She knew that would never be and somewhere knew that she'd probably never find anyone who would marry her. She didn't understand all of the reasons that a man would never want to make her his wife but she knew part of it was that no one would ever have the patience with her that Jimmy did. It was thoughts like this that made her wish sometimes that she was like everyone else; normal.
"Are you that worried about me getting hitched?" Jimmy asked concerned.
"I worry you will be lonely because of me. I worry about a lot of things."
"I know you worry," he said gently, "I think you worry too much and about things that ain't worth it sometimes. But don't you worry about me; not about me being lonely at any rate. You don't know what could happen in the future. Everyone at the station fell in love with you. Might be I'll meet some woman someday who does too and then maybe I would marry. Besides, how can I get lonely when you're here?"
"I am not a wife. I am too young."
He started to understand her meaning and marveled at how perceptive her mind was and how it put things together.
"That sort of thing is for me to worry about," he said almost sternly, "You are right that you're too young. You're too young to concern yourself with such things."
"Why does it make you upset when I talk about that?"
"Because it's not a subject for children," he stated flatly.
"There are things that are just not for children to do or worry themselves with. They can get hurt."
"Well, like what you're talking about. A child can get hurt doing that and not just on the outside," he said wishing the topic could just be dropped, "You can get your heart broke too."
She considered his words a moment and then, much to his chagrin, spoke again.
"Is that why some men want to show they are powerful and make someone do something they do not want to do? Are they afraid they will be hurt if they do not do the hurting?"
He brought Sundance to a stop and just stared at her with his mouth hanging open.
"I'll tell you, Princess," he said finally, "That thought never crossed my mind. I think you might just have something there though."
They rode a bit further before Susan spoke again.
"Daddy," she started and he cringed at what new and difficult line of questioning she might now open up, "When I am scared, I cannot speak and can hardly move. But when others are scared, they hurt people. Why are they normal and I am not?"
"You know," he answered, "The world would probably be a better place if more people stopped and thought about things when they were scared instead of lashing out."
"Morgan and Clete and the other Franklin had a lot of fear, did they not?"
"They did. They felt threatened by changes in the world and their place in it," he said tenderly, "I guess people never much like change; even you."
"No, I do not like when things change. I was very scared to go with you but I was more scared not to go," she confessed, "I should not have called them 'bad men'. They were scared but maybe not really bad."
"Does that help you?"
"It makes me sad that they are dead."
"You know you didn't kill them," he said.
"Yes I did."
"No you didn't," he argued back, "There are things in life called consequences and you learn that they are there and what to do to avoid them. You wouldn't set your hand on a hot stove would you?"
"No, it would hurt."
"Right and hurting is the consequence," he went on, "In this country and most others too I guess, there are laws and those laws tell you that if you do certain things that there are consequences. Whether or not you agree with hanging a man, that is what they knew would happen if they got caught after what they'd done."
"You are wrong," she countered, "They did not think anything would happen to them. They thought they were safe because I was the only one left and they thought I could not talk."
"But," he reminded her, "They were going to leave your brothers alive until they decided to do another wrong thing."
There was no further argument from her as she let the thoughts simmer in her mind. She stewed the ideas in her mind for a good hour before startling him out of his brooding with her words.
"Do you wish I was a boy?"
"Now why would you even ask such a thing?" he responded incredulously.
"I hear men talk of having a son. They want someone who can be like them. I do not even look like you. I have hair and eyes like Cody. And I am a girl."
He laughed out loud at her and then quickly apologized.
"I'm sorry, Susan. I ain't laughing at you so much as the thought of Cody sneaking up close enough to a woman to even have a child."
"Is Cody not attractive?" he could see the tiny hint of hurt as she put together that she looked like Cody.
"I ain't a female and I don't pretend to know what a woman might find attractive but him running his mouth all the time usually scares all the women-folk away," he pondered for a moment, "Hell, maybe he is attractive. You do look a little like him and you're a right pretty little girl; probably be a beautiful woman someday."
"You did not answer my question. Would you rather I was a boy?"
"No," his voice took an earnest tone, "I could not love you anymore no matter what you changed about yourself. You are absolutely perfect."
"I am not normal. I am strange. And the others talk about how a girl should not learn to shoot. I should have been a boy. I should have been killed and you should have found Joe or Tom and then you could be a father to one of them."
"Joe and Tom wouldn't have needed me and I probably wouldn't have had patience with a boy like I do a girl. And you are not strange," he said almost angrily wondering who had put that idea in her head, "And I don't care who says girls shouldn't shoot. Lou does and she's as fine a girl as any I've met."
"You like Lou."
"Of course I like Lou, don't you?"
"It is not the same," she explained, "You like her the same way Kid does."
"No, I don't. Thought I did more than once but it's easy to get confused about things like that."
"I think she is confused too."
He smiled, "Once or twice she might have been; we live in pretty close quarters and it's easy to get thoughts that ain't right."
"Why are they not right? Is it wrong to feel what Kid feels for Lou?"
"No," he said quickly, "Not when it's Kid feeling it. Or Lou feeling it back."
"You cannot feel those things?"
"Not for Lou, I can't," he said, "She belongs with him. He's good for her like I can't be. Maybe I can be good for someone else but Lou's happy with Kid and she'd never be with me."
"You can't be in love with more than one person," he tried to explain but was only working things out as he spoke, "You can love as many people as there are in the world but you can only be in love with one. She's in love with Kid and he's in love with her. That's just all there is to it."
"I still do not think I understand."
"Believe me, Princess;" he said with a grin, "You have no idea how normal that makes you."
Although they weren't far from Rock Creek, Jimmy decided they would stay one night camped out rather than push ahead. He had decided this before even leaving that morning and after her day of questioning, almost thought of changing his mind. He loved her more than he'd ever be able to explain to anyone save another father, he thought, but she was right exhausting and he sometimes wished he could hand her and her questions over to someone else and give his own head a break. He knew that just wasn't right though. He had to deal with whatever parts of being her daddy that were hard or trying in order to earn the moments when she was nestled safe in his arms or when she softly told him she loved him. And those moments were more than worth any embarrassment or confusion she caused him at times. Still he rubbed at his head and wished that sometimes she could just accept things and not need an explanation of everything.
"Are you not feeling well?" she asked concerned.
"I'm fine," he soothed her; "It's just been a long few days."
"You should lie down."
She got down his bedroll and readied it for him.
"Susan, I'm really fine; you don't need to do that."
"I do," she said simply, "You are tired and need to rest."
"Somehow I managed to look after myself before you came along," he said gently, "I think I still can."
"No, you did not take good enough care of yourself so I will."
There was no arguing with her and it did feel good to lie down. She sat down and placed his head in her lap and rubbed at his temples and began to sing the sweetest song he thought he'd ever heard.
"As I walked forth one summer's day, To view the meadows green and gay A pleasant bower I espied Standing fast by the river side, And in't a maiden I heard cry: Alas! Alas! There's none e'er loved as I."
She sang with more conviction than he'd heard before, from her or anyone. It was more lovely than any bird and he knew it must be the very voice of an angel. And he knew at once that she was just that; an angel sent to him to show him another life, to teach him patience and compassion, to challenge him in ways that would make him better. He saw now that she had made him a better man in every conceivable way. And he would continue to become even better as he knew that every day until his very last, he would endeavor to be the man she always believed him to be. He closed his eyes and listened as her song went on weaving the story of the maiden as she collected wildflowers and then lay upon them, never to rise again. It was a sad and mournful sort of thing and yet there was such beauty and purity of the love within. He wasn't sure but he thought he heard a catch in her voice as she sang the last line.
"Alas! Alas! With love her heart did break."
"You should sleep now," she said to him and he did, not knowing that she sat there the entire night holding his head in her lap and watching him sleep. She slept rarely these days although he was unaware of this. Since the day when she gave her testimony and slept the afternoon and evening through; she had possibly accumulated five or six hours of sleep in all of the days. Most of her time was spent watching her beloved father, memorizing every detail of him and closing her eyes to feign sleep only when he began to wake.
Jimmy woke to see her empty sleeping space and looked up to notice her tending the fire. She heard him stir behind her.
"I have made coffee."
She handed him the cup and closed her eyes as he kissed her forehead.
"Your face is cold, Princess," he said with worry, "You feeling alright?"
"I am fine. The sun is not all the way up yet so it is not so warm."
"You sound like you're out of breath."
"I had to get more wood for the fire."
Jimmy's gut said there was more to it than her simple explanations but he let it drop. The two packed up and rode off toward home which they reached before lunch. Susan took their things into the bunkhouse while Jimmy saw to the horses. She placed his things on his bed and went out to find him. As she walked, she found she needed to place a hand on the outside wall of the bunkhouse to steady herself and doubled over to vomit. Kid and Cody were walking by as she was emptying her stomach onto the hard ground.
"What's wrong, Susan?" Kid asked filled with concern.
"I am fine," was the nearly inaudible response.
The two men looked at her and knew her words to be false. She was never good at lying and they guessed that's why she'd never really attempted it before. Turning her face to them now, they could see her typically golden-tanned skin was nearly chalk white and she was only able to stand with the assistance of the bunkhouse wall. Kid stepped forward and lifted her to cradle in his arms and Cody went off calling for Jimmy.
Kid could feel that she was terribly cold even through her clothing and hugged her tight to him trying to give her his warmth. Entering the bunkhouse, he grabbed the blanket off of every bed he passed to wrap around her and was sitting on the edge of her bed rocking her when Jimmy came in. He gently lifted the tiny child from Kid's arms and held her limp frame in his own.
"Is Cody fetching the doctor?" asked Kid softly and Jimmy only nodded.
Kid walked out the door to find that he wasn't alone on the porch, the other riders, save Cody were already there standing a sort if vigil. There was no talk and no eyes met but the collective thoughts were the same and they knew they were all praying in their own way.
The doctor came and went. She had an infection that had taken root most likely in the wake of her attack. It had been lingering in her body and was now causing every organ to become inflamed. If they could get enough fluids into her and get them to stay in her, she might have a chance but he didn't look hopeful.
Jimmy sat by her bedside frequently tucking the blankets tighter around her and smoothing the hair away from her face. He tried to keep a brave face but knew he was losing that battle as sure as he was losing the only thing in the world that had ever really meant anything to him. He did keep the tears from falling though they were ever present in his eyes. In time Susan opened her eyes to him.
"Please do not be sad, Daddy."
"I'm afraid I can't help it, Princess," he choked out while assisting her in a drink of water.
She looked as though she wanted to say something more but unconsciousness claimed her once again and she slept. Days passed and Susan woke only brief periods at a time. The others tried to pry Jimmy from her bedside and allow them to care for her for a few minutes. He would not leave her; in his heart he knew that if he turned from her, she would not be there when he looked back. They were able to convince him to eat and he sometimes settled himself next to her and napped a short while but never long and he always looked frantic when he woke. One afternoon while the others were seeing to their chores, Teaspoon came in and sat beside Jimmy.
"Son, you've got to start caring for yourself more."
Jimmy smiled sardonically at the irony of his mentor's words.
"Lou told me once I had to take care of myself for her," he said almost bitterly, "Said Susan couldn't live without me. Maybe that was true but I can't live without her either. I try to see me without her and there just ain't nothing there."
"Sure there is," said Teaspoon drawing the younger man to an uncharacteristic embrace, "There's everything there was before she came. Loss hurts but we ain't meant to quit living just 'cause someone we love does."
"I don't like what was there before her," Jimmy confessed softly, "I never did. She made me something better."
Teaspoon released the young man in whom he saw more of himself than in anyone else, "She didn't make you anything. She just showed you what was there all the time. You don't have to give up who you were for her; she wouldn't want you to."
Teaspoon took his leave to allow his words to sink in. He knew the truth to them but he also knew how badly a person could want to follow a loved one out of this life and right about then he wasn't thinking too fondly about a world without their little princess.
Despite the best efforts of the little family of Rock Creek station, Susan was not improving; in fact, she was getting worse. She spoke less and was conscious less and less every day. They all could see what was to come and knew Jimmy could too. There was nothing that any of them would be able to do to comfort him and they knew that too. Helplessness was reigning supreme all around but nowhere more so than in the little bunkhouse where a once fearless and fearsome gunfighter sat clasping the tiny hand of a dying child.
He looked to see her cornflower blue eyes fixed on him and the smile she did not try for but that came so willingly when she saw him.
"Hey Princess," he whispered knowing that his voice would betray him in the worst way, "How are you feeling today."
"I am not well but you know that," she said plainly, "Do you remember when we talked about you finding a woman to marry?"
He would never forget it for that was the last day he'd truly had with her. Those questions had been vexing and he'd thought to lose his patience once or twice but was glad now for the talk and for the insight she'd given him.
"Do you know of courtly love?"
He shook his head.
"A knight chooses a lady to fight for and often she cannot be with him because she is higher born or already married but he fights for her and gives her his heart," she paused to accept the water he offered her and to catch her breath which seemed to be running away from her most of the time, "If the lady should die or leave to marry someone far away, the knight must find another to fight for. You are my champion and you have given your heart to me. I must give it back to you now so that you may find another lady. You are a brave knight and you should not be without love. Find a lady who can return your love."
"I will," he doubted he'd ever bring his heart back enough from the dark place it was going to ever truly love again but he would tell her anything she wanted to hear.
"Will you promise?"
"I promise," and he knew then that he would at least have to try for even in death, he could not break his word to her and she knew that.
"I am so cold," she said and he moved next to her to hold her closer to try to bring her warmth. It was a futile gesture as she only grew colder and her breathing and heartbeat finally slowed their previously torrid pace and then stopped altogether.
Jimmy did not know how long he sat there cradling his daughter's body in his arms. He vaguely noticed the shadows growing longer and then the door opened and Kid entered. Kid knew instantly what had happened and went to his friend. Jimmy looked up helpless and red eyed.
Kid had seen Jimmy cry only once before when Bull Dog had died and everyone at that time had pretended to look elsewhere to save the young gunfighter's pride but Kid knew there was no shame in the tears the man cried now and he simply pulled a chair alongside his friend and held him close allowing the tears to soak the front of his shirt. Lou found them that way and backed quickly out not wanting to disturb Jimmy's grieving. It was one thing for brothers to share such a moment but another to think he'd let those tears out in front of a woman. She fled the door and ran right into Teaspoon who was coming to check on things. At seeing him, her tears broke free and the old marshal knew all there was to know.
"Damn," he said softly knowing his own tears would come in the night in solitude but that they would come.
The others came in from chores and work and the word spread without having to be spoken. There is nothing in any home to rival the sadness of the passing of a child and this home was no different. A light was gone from all of them that they knew would take a very long time to rekindle.
Once Jimmy had relinquished his grip on Susan, he crawled inside of himself and none of them could get him out. He, in fact was very like Susan had been when she first arrived at the station. He did not speak and he lashed out almost angrily at any physical contact. At night, they heard his muffled tears cried into his pillow and felt powerless to ease his pain.
The day of Susan's funeral came and they all readied to say their farewells. Rachel could see the anger inside Jimmy and tried to speak to him.
"It should have been me, Rachel," he said as if pleading with her, "I should've died. She was just a perfect little girl."
Rachel took his face in her hands forcing him to look her in the eye.
"Things happen for reasons we can't understand. You're still here and there must be a reason for that. She must've done what God wanted of her."
Jimmy just shook his head and walked away sadly.
His expression was unchanged when they saw him again watching with them as Susan's tiny casket was lowered into the ground. If anyone had been able to see into the box, they would have seen her hand wrapped around a tattered blanket with a ratty ribbon run between her index finger and thumb. Jimmy seemed to watch the descent of the casket with no emotion but then he knelt and let the tears go free.
"She said I was her knight. She said I rescued her," he may have been speaking to her or them or himself or maybe even God, "She wasn't wrong about much but she was wrong about that. She rescued me. I always knew what my life was and what it would be. I didn't want it but I knew. She gave me a hope for something else; a way to be somebody else. I've thought a lot about why she was given to me and then taken away and finally figured out that she wasn't given at all. She was loaned to me and I guess she'll be moving along and being someone else's angel now. I went through it all; angry that she was gone, sad 'cause I lost her. But angels aren't ours; not to keep and I guess I'm supposed to be grateful she was there at all."
He looked down at the little box in the ground and added so softly that no one else heard, for it was for no one else to hear, "I love you, Princess. I always will."
The rest of his days, whether lawman or gambler, Wild Bill, James or Jimmy; he often thought on his dear angel. Sometimes he woke with her smile behind his eyes and in some of his darkest hours he heard her sweet song of the maiden by the river in his dreams. Years later he recollected the day she went still and cold in his arms and it was the first time he thought on it without a stab of pain for he remembered something he hadn't been aware of at the time. When Kid had come in and Jimmy had simply said, "She's gone," Kid had said something in reply. Jimmy had been too filled with grief and too overcome with tears to hear it then but it came to him now.
"No she's not," Kid had said, "She never really will be."
Jimmy finally found in Agnes Lake a lady to champion as he had promised Susan he would and it had felt good to once again be the noble, armor clad warrior defending a lady to the death. He left her to better provide for her and grew to understand that he'd not be seeing her again. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he did, that he was not long for this world. He penned a letter but could not bear to tell her outright that he'd not be returning to her though he was sure she would get his meaning.
"Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will breathe the name of my wife-Agnes-and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore."
It was not long after that, he woke to a day that at first seemed much like any other. Soon, he came to have an inkling that it was not.He didn't feel quite right about sitting where he did and it was nothing he would have done on any other day but then, perhaps, he knew he had accomplished all he'd needed to in this life. He felt no fear when he heard the hammer pull back. In fact, it took his mind back to Rock Creek and watching Susan's tiny thumbs endeavor to cock his Colt the day he first taught her to shoot. The memory of her smile at taking that can off of the fence was the last thought he had.
Those who saw to him after Jack McCall took that shot, may have wondered about the worn watercolor painting folded and tucked into his jacket pocket. Indeed, no one would have recognized that smooth-faced youth curled protectively around the small blonde child as Wild Bill Hickok; no one except those who knew him before he embraced the fame and infamy.
Author's Note: I cannot thank Paola enough for her insight as I wrote this.