Prologue - Ghost Riders
She stood as still as a statue, her eyes riveted to the crowded cemetery down below. The whole town had turned out, she noted with some satisfaction. Of course, they’d come more to say they’d been than anything else, but at least they were there. No one saw her there. They never did. No one wanted to see her.
She stood alone on the hill. She wore her only dress, a faded gray frock that she’d outgrown a few years ago. It was all she had though, and her only way to pay her respects properly.
Tears threatened her eyes as the words of the preacher drifted to her. She fiercely bit her lip and forced them down. She didn’t cry. Anger twisted her heart at the scene. She’d always been angry, but never so much as today.
A breeze finally stirred on the hot summer air. She twisted her neck so that the wind might caress her cheek. The breeze grew stronger, and strands of straight, coppery red hair drifted across her neck and forehead.
But still, her strange, silvery gray eyes remained dry and clear.
She had loved him dearly, and he’d never known why.
August 20, 1876
All her life she’d loved the land of the West. She’d built her life around it, dreamed, lived, loved, and grieved there. Perhaps that was why she took such comfort from the tiny bluff that overlooked the windswept grass rolling all the way up to the majestic silver mountains.
A blink of her eyes instantly transported her back fifteen years. God, she thought as she watched the shadows of the clouds roll over the mountain, I was so young then…we all were.
She could feel the earth tremble long before she could hear the hoof beats in her mind of horses long gone. She could hear youthful voices brimming with excitement, could almost see them all as they’d been then, fresh faced and happy, as they thundered into the station. She could feel the energy and heat radiating from them as she reached up to take the reins, to greet them with a smile.
“Rider Coming…” Unconsciously the words formed on her lips and escaped them. The heavy, still air of summer did little to carry the words away, seeming to warn her that her voice was never to reach the ears of those riders again.
There were no more riders coming in, she knew. It was an era long gone.
A pain unlike any she’d ever known seemed to squeeze her chest, an emptiness and hollowness that she doubted would ever leave her settled deep into the pit of her stomach and spread throughout every corner of her.
A man with unparalleled greatness and heart, who had given such shades of meaning to her life, was dead.
She turned around slowly from her perch on the bluff and felt a wave of tenderness wash over her as the tall boy nervously dropped the reins of his loud colored paint mare and walked up the hill to her side. He was the picture of his father. Light, thick brown hair was tousled from his gallop to find her. His blue eyes had a million facets, a million depths, all of them loving and gentle when he gazed upon her. He was thin and lanky, not having quite grown into his large feet and hands yet, but he still moved with an easy grace and confidence.
Words were too hard, she realized as she stood up and turned to face him, her throat was far too tight to speak. She couldn’t possibly say anything when she stood here and looked at the young man in front of her. Not when the memory of his namesake washed over her in waves of dizzying agony.
“I came out here as soon as I heard. Rachel said you didn’t want to be bothered, but I couldn’t let you sit out here alone all day,” his eyes were apologetic and sheepish for intruding.
Just like his father, she thought, and a smile crept onto her mouth, although her lips trembled with restraint of holding back tears, He has to protect me too. But there is no protecting me from this. There is nothing anyone can ever do.
When his mother still didn’t speak, James felt tears start in his own eyes. James Hickok had been a legend in his own mind since before he could remember, and a loving uncle as well. News of his murder had shaken James to the core, and looking into his mother’s tortured eyes made matters much worse.
“Mama, I’m sorry.”
Lou finally could hold back her tears no longer as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around her son. Could this be the same boy that she’d once rocked in her arms, the same tiny child that had come to her in the midst of the blood bath of the War? The same child that would never have known his father if it hadn’t been for Jimmy’s great love of them both?
“Mama, I’ll miss Uncle Jimmy so much!”
He forgot his young man’s pride as he sobbed onto her tiny shoulder as he had not allowed himself to do since he was a child.
Lou finally found her voice in light of her son’s grief, “I’m going to miss him too, James. I don’t think we’ll ever stop missing him. Time helps though,” she added the last part to console her son. As for herself, she knew better. Jimmy had been a big part of her life and family for too many years.
As she held her son, there in the sweltering late afternoon heat, Lou’s mind again drifted to Jimmy Hickok in life. A firebrand at first, but slowly, and ever so surely, a man of great dignity. He’d never found the peace he desired so desperately, although he’d had bouts of love and rest, often while visiting her and Kid at the old Sweetwater station.
Her emotions had always been a maelstrom with Jimmy. Although she would never change the choices she made or the life she lived, she and Jimmy had always had a special bond. She’d guiltily denied it for a long time. She loved him as her brother, as her friend, as someone more dear to her than she could say. And, at one time, she’d even loved him as more than those things. There had always been an attraction between them that was more than physical. They understood each other perfectly. Always had, right till the end.
“Why don’t you come back to the station?” James suddenly asked her, stepping back and wiping his eyes, “Teaspoon’s there, and word has been sent to everyone else, just in case they didn’t know. I’m sure Papa will rush home as soon as he hears.”
Lou’s heart twisted again as she thought of her husband, out moving some horses to auction in Kansas. She prayed he wouldn’t find out until he returned, although she longed for his arms now sorely. She wouldn’t be able to let the brunt of her grief out until her husband looked into her eyes. She dreaded and wished for his return with confusion. It would be one of the hardest things they’d ever have to face, and yet, they had both known some day the news would come, much as it had, in the form of a newspaper.
“Mama?” James repeated softly, his concern and discomfort at seeing the woman that was usually so steadfast in such shock and grief.
Lou reached for James’ hand and squeezed it tightly. “I think I want to sit out here a while longer. I’ll be fine. You go see if you can’t get Rachel to feed you something.”
“Rachel is always trying to feed me something. If she had her way I’d look like Teaspoon by now.”
Lou genuinely smiled at his brave attempt to grin, “There’s nothing wrong with that. Run along, now.”
He nodded, and with rare wisdom for someone so young walked away. He instantly understood that his uncle’s death had affected his mother in a way that no one else could even come close to understanding. Although Teaspoon looked twenty years older since that morning when for all they’d known Uncle Jimmy had still been alive and well, and protecting the citizens of Deadwood, James knew his mother was fighting with emotions she might not even understand. He knew better than to ask questions. She probably couldn’t have told him, even if she wanted to explain it.
Best to let Papa talk to her. He was the only one who could, James thought.
Lou watched him ride away, his back straight and proud in his saddle, Katy’s granddaughter kicking her heels high and enjoying the run.
Slowly, she turned around and folded her arms across her chest. A chill had come over her, even though small beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. Her long dark auburn hair was pulled back from her face and hung down her back in a thick braid, but a few strands escaped and stuck to her tear and sweat moistened skin.
The same empty, deadly calm settled back over her as she watched the sun sinking lower. She’d just seen him at Christmas. He’d spent two weeks with her and her family, teaching James how to shoot, helping Kid with the horses and talking quietly with her. They’d always had the ability to talk about nothing and everything for hours, although it was strange for two quiet people to have so much to say to each other.
Again, she could feel the trembling of an approaching horseman of yesterday, and she longed to look up and see Jimmy on his golden palomino, black hat pushed low over eyes that were both piercing and guarded, but always gentle.
The thundering persisted, and Lou realized with a start that there really was a rider approaching her.
She stood up and unconsciously moved her hand close to her gun, ever on the lookout for the dangers of the still Wild West. However, her hand swiftly dropped to her side as the big black and white paint mare came into view.
Kid had come to her.
She never tired of watching him ride, she thought, just as she loved to see their son on horseback. The horses were the center of their life, right along with the land they raised them on. They’d tried to get Jimmy to stay on the ranch with them, to be a partner and not just a hand, but he’d refused.
Lou could still remember the shouting match they’d had the day he refused their offer. He’d been too worried that trouble would find him, and along with him the McCloud family.
Kid rode directly up to her, and his horse, Belle, sat on her haunches and threw dirt onto Lou’s split skirt, although she didn’t care. She thought of how much Belle looked like Kid’s old horse, Katy, who was still alive at twenty years old, and as spoiled as ever. Every foal she’d ever had bore her loud markings, and her blood was coveted in the region.
Lou finally and reluctantly turned her eyes up to her husband’s. Even if she hadn’t already known the news that brought him home early, one look into those pools of crystal blue would have told her the worst had occurred. They were more pained than she’d ever seen them. Even the deaths of Noah and Ike hadn’t brought this look to his face. His skin was tight and pale, and everything about him looked haggard. He and Jimmy had their share of disagreements and differences, but they had been brothers and best friends since they were boys. Kid had a lost look about him, and for a moment, Lou felt she was seeing him as she had the first time.
Lou felt the tears come coursing down her dusty face before she realized she was crying. Kid reached down and swept her onto Belle in front of him, putting his arms around her and sobbing into her neck in great heaving breaths.
Lou wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him closer, willing him to hold her tightly enough so that she could take his pain and he hers.
Not a word was spoken. None would do. Jimmy was dead, and nothing in the world could change that. There would be no last goodbyes, no words of love to pass between them ever again.
Kid straightened in the saddle. Lou righted herself also. Kid suddenly screamed into the wind, a cry of grief and rage, as well as a signal to his horse. The spirited animal quickly started into a dead run.
Lou and Kid both leaned low and allowed the wind to dry the tears that continued to pour from their eyes. Lou closed her moist eyes and felt the rhythmic, surging power of the horse beneath her, trusting the animal and her husband to take care of her.
And so they rode hard, away from their home, trying desperately to come to terms with James Butler Hickok’s death.
He’d been part of each of them since they met. He meant so much to each of them separately, and together as well. At times he’d almost come between them, but always, always, he’d been a part of their whole, intermingled and intertwined with their life and their love.
And today and ever after, he was gone.
Chapter 1 - The Burn of a Stare
The lights of the little town were bright against the otherwise pitch blackness of a wilderness at midnight. No moon had helped them on this last leg of their journey, and they rode with torches to light the dangerous ground.
Dakota Territory was rough itself, and Deadwood was much worse.
Nevertheless, the weary travelers were thankful for the civilization even a primitive town like Deadwood offered after three days of nothing but rocks and salt flats.
"I'm getting too old for this," Teaspoon had muttered the other night as he grunted and shifted on the rocky ground.
As Lou sighed and pressed against Kid for warmth, with a rock digging into her side unmercifully under the bedroll, she had been inclined to agree with him.
They'd been on the road for a week, making most of the journey by rail, stopping often and spending the nights in small towns along the way. However, an interruption in the track had made it necessary for them to take the horses from the box cars and ride them for the last three days. None of them wanted to think of why they travelled; of the waiting goodbye to be said by a graveside.
The October air had a bite to it tonight, and the wind blew strongly.
"At least we won't have to sleep outside again," Emma murmured, shivering even under the weight of Sam's heavy jacket.
Rachel sighed with relief as well. They weren't accustomed to the harsh life on the trail, as the others were, and it was hard for them.
It had been two months since Jimmy's death, but that was how long it had taken everyone to find their way to Sweetwater. It was still amazing to Lou, as scattered as they were, that they'd come so quickly.
Buck had shown up first, appearing very much the savage in buckskins and an animal hide vest. His eyes had been tired and wary at first, as they always were after months of living the nomadic life the Kiowa were forced to adopt. He divided his time between living with them, and travelling to Washington D.C. as a spokesman for the Native Americans. Only after Lou, Kid, and James warmly embraced him did the shadows in his eyes recede, and a smile split his face.
Sam and Emma had arrived next, from their home in St. Louis, where Sam acted as territorial marshal. They had a beautiful family there, with two grown daughters and one son a little older than James. Sam had wisely left all three of his kids at home, none of them having seen Jimmy more than once or twice, and none of them really ready to face a week's long trip in the wilderness.
Rachel and Teaspoon had long ago moved to Sweetwater, and built a house not far from the McClouds. Although they were not married, for neither had the desire to ever step up to the alter again, they'd lived together for nearly thirteen years, and shared a deep love. Lou had never been able to fully guess the nature of that love, but she suspected they lived as man and wife in spirit and body, if not in law. Teaspoon was still the marshal of Sweetwater, and Rachel had set the school in town up herself, and still had her same passion for instilling a love of learning in children.
Cody was the last to arrive, having to travel all the way from New York, where his Wild West Show was still a huge success. Kid, Lou, and James had gone to New York a few years ago to see it, and had been amazed. Jimmy had even been a part of it…for one night. Until the bright lights had hurt his weakening eyes, and he'd shot out the spotlight. Lou had scarcely seen Jimmy look as miserable as he did up on that stage and had scolded Cody sharply after the show for talking him into it. Jimmy had smirked smugly behind Lou's skirts, enjoying watching Cody squirm under her wrath. Cody had married, but left his beautiful young wife in New York. When questioned why he didn't bring her, his words were flat, "This doesn't concern her."
Lou smiled slightly in pride as she remembered the amazement and praise from them all when they saw the station. They'd seen it several times before, but never failed to marvel at all they'd done with the place. It was little wonder, Lou thought, their ranch was impressive now. They'd bought a thousand acres in addition to the old station. The house had been renovated completely and added onto, now sprawling impressively on the flat land at the heart of the ranch. The old barn had collapsed on itself during the neglect of the war, and had been torn down to make room for new stables. The new stables that stood in its place were Kid and Lou's pride and joy. Two long, wide buildings with spacious stalls inside, light and airy in the summer and cozy in the winter. Paddocks and corrals contained sleek, brightly colored paints, which were the trademark of the Bar M Ranch. A new bunkhouse to shelter the ranch hands had been erected. A livestock barn had been added in addition to the stables, to house the cows, chickens, goats, and pigs also belonging to the McClouds. The only things reminiscent of the old days of the express were the creaky windmill, the beacon that had led them all home from a hard ride time after time, and the old bunkhouse, where they'd lived so closely. Lou worked hard to keep the bunkhouse exactly as it had been in the days of the express, should any of them want to come home and stay there instead of in the main house. Jimmy had always stayed in the bunkhouse…
It wasn't hard to find a hotel in the busy little town, but finding a hotel that didn't seem to crawl with vermin was a different story. When the party finally settled into their rooms in a place that seemed the least likely to get them murdered in their beds, Lou lay down on the bed and sighed, allowing her weary limbs to sink deeply into the mattress.
"Mama!" the voice preceded the tall figure bursting into her room by only a split second. Tiredly she looked at her son, whose tall frame filled the doorway almost completely, his eyes bright with excitement.
"What are you looking so pleased with yourself about?" she wondered.
"Uncle Cody asked if I wanted to come out onto the porch with him and Sam and Buck!"
Kid shuffled in the room, sliding by his son wordlessly, collapsing onto the bed face first, and laying there motionless with a contented sigh.
"Why aren't you going out on the porch?" Lou asked her husband without moving to look at him.
"Because I feel about a thousand years old, and all I want to do is sleep."
"Sound good to me."
"Well?" James asked, stamping his foot.
"Well what?" Lou asked, with a slight grin, seeing the set of his stubborn jaw as he became agitated with her.
"Can I go?" he hissed.
Lou giggled, "Go where?"
"Mama!" He cried out, stamping his foot again with impatience, but finding in at inadequate expression of his frustration.
"Let the boy go so we can get some peace and quiet around here," Kid suggested, his voice muffled by the pillow.
"Go ahead, Jamie," Lou smiled, loving it that his uncles loved him so much, "Be careful, though. I don't want you wandering off alone."
"God, Mama, I'm fifteen years old! I can take care of myself! When you were fifteen you were already out on your own!" James pointed out indignantly.
"You're gonna be out on your own too if you don't kindly close that door and let me get some sleep!" Kid muttered around a mouthful of pillow.
Lou raised her eyebrows and exchanged a grin with Jamie, waving him away and laughing, "Go before you make a hole in the floor with your dancing around. You'd think you had ants in your britches!"
With an exaggerated sigh of mock irritation, James disappeared.
Lou giggled, despite her tiredness, and told Kid, "I think my favorite thing about being a parent is the right to aggravate him beyond all reason at times."
A soft snore was her answer.
Lou watched him for a moment, his face-at least what she could see of it over the overstuffed pillow-was dirty and creased with exhaustion and stress.
She tugged the heavy blanket over him and herself, and nestled her icy toes against his warmth, smiling slightly when he jerked in his sleep. Sensing her, he reached out and fitted her into the natural hollow that she'd seemed to carve along his length in the years they'd shared a bed. In seconds, she was sleeping soundly by his side, confident that Cody would look after Jamie for her.
Lou had no inkling of how long she'd been asleep before her eyes fluttered open in the darkness of the room. There was a bright moon out, and fires in the street still burned. When her eyes adjusted, the room seemed very light indeed, and sighing, she sat up slowly, knowing she wasn't going to be able to go to sleep again. Careful not to wake Kid, she slid out of bed.
Low male voices drifted up through the drafty window, which seemed to indicate to her that she hadn't been sleeping for very long. She pulled the curtain aside and had a good view of all the men of her family, save the one sleeping in her bed, and Teaspoon. They were sitting on the stairs, near one of the street fires.
Cody was talking, gesturing wildly with his hands, and often reaching over to smack Jamie on the shoulder. She couldn't make out the words, but imagined that Cody wasn't disappointing them with his natural ability as a story teller. Lou smiled at Jamie, his eyes wide with wonder at everything Cody told him.
Her heart swelled with love for all of them, sitting there together, but especially for her son. She couldn't believe at times that Jamie, caught somewhere between child and man, was the same tiny infant first laid beside her in the middle of the war. When he slept he still looked so much like the child that she wanted to wrap herself around him and protect him fiercely, but she also recognized his need for independence, for room to discover who he was.
And God, what a man he'd make! Lou thought proudly, with a stinging sensation in the back of her eyes. He had his father's gentle heart, but her own will of iron. Kid's leadership ability was a gift he shared, and he was more fearless and sometimes ruthless than his father, which Lou thought might come from her. He could be a lion or a lamb, she realized, and he'd be a force to reckon with some day…although that someday was coming faster than she was willing to admit.
Another round of laughter caused a tender smile for all of them to lift her mouth.
If only Jimmy was down there as well…
A blast of cold air rattled the window suddenly, lacing around her with morbid tidings, reminding her that one had fallen by the way side. One of them was gone.
She wrapped her arms around herself, trying desperately to shut out the cold hands tugging at her heart.
James wasn't sure why he looked up. Perhaps he saw the curtains move, or perhaps it was a sense of regret that his mother and father weren't there, sharing in the warm memories of Uncle Jimmy. Whatever the reason, he was still surprised to see his mother standing by the window, looking sadly out toward the mountains, as if she expected someone to come riding in at any moment.
He's not coming back, Mama, he thought with a heavy heart.
The room flooded with the light of a soft lantern, but James didn't think his mother noticed. He sighed in relief when he saw his father come to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her middle and placing a gentle kiss on her neck.
Lou jumped in surprise, not having realized Kid was awake, so deep were her thoughts.
"After tomorrow it will be better," he whispered into her ear, his warm breath causing a chill to run over the rest of her body.
"How? How can we do this Kid? How can we say goodbye to him…to Jimmy?"
Lou's voice sounded almost frantic, and Kid turned her around and pulled her into his chest.
After holding her and stroking her hair when she sobbed, Kid's voice reached down to her, gentle as a caress, "We won't say good bye. We'll say, 'until we meet again'."
The sun was very warm on Lou's back, despite the blustery wind that kicked dust into her eyes and dirtied her fine black dress. In fact, a slight sweat broke on her brow, and trickled down her back as she gazed at the simple grave.
Sighing, she had no choice but to acknowledge that the coldness that settled into her bones came entirely from within.
She closed her eyes as Teaspoon continued reading passages from the Bible, drawing more strength from the two strong hands that clenched hers than from the words. Kid and James stood right beside her, heads bowed with their own silent thoughts as Teaspoon continued, reading the scriptures that were appropriate, the ones that Jimmy had liked best.
A tear dropped off Lou's nose, squeezed out of her eye by her tightly closed lids. She tried to picture him, and succeeded all to well.
Not incredibly tall, but commanding, slim in his youth, but a bit stockier as the years went by. Wide in the shoulder and chest, narrow in the hip. Long brown hair framed a square jaw and a wide, sensuous mouth, high cheekbones, a straight fine nose. The teeth were a brilliant white, startling in his weather tanned face. Eyes unlike any she'd ever known. Eyes that, though dark in color, could flash and shine and burn and pierce. Eyes that had caused many a man to back away in fear, and many a woman to approach eagerly. Eyes that saw too much too early, and carried a pain that at times dimmed but never faded completely. Eyes that were intense, demanding, and saw straight to her soul, accepting nothing less than everything she was willing to give.
Eyes that reached out, that touched. Lou had never been able to feel anyone's stare so much as Jimmy's, and recalled countless times she'd felt that slight burning in the middle of her back, at her cheek, wherever his eyes happened to be falling. She'd never failed to turn and find him there, so real was the heat of his gaze.
Lou thought that surely it must be her overactive imagination when she felt that familiar burning feeling at the back of her neck, but it persisted even as she focused on Teaspoon's words, and her heart skipped. Was he there, then, watching over them in spirit? Or was he there in body, actually standing behind her, laughing at them all for believing that such a life could be cut short by an assassin?
When the feeling continued, making a wave of heat rise over her neck and suffuse her cheeks, and gooseflesh stood on her arms, Lou turned her head quickly with a gasp. Both James and Kid looked at her in surprise and swiveled their heads as well to see what she was looking at.
Lou quickly inhaled when she spotted someone on the hill behind the cemetery. However, soon her head cleared and she realized it was only a girl. Kid and James turned back around, unconcerned after surveying the situation, but Lou continued to stare openly.
She'd felt it, and it wasn't her imagination. She still felt it. She could feel this young girl's stare as plainly as if she'd walked up and tapped her on the shoulder. She'd only known one other pair of eyes in the world that could stare so intensely, and it unnerved her.
Lou wrinkled her brow. There was something familiar about her. She had long dark auburn hair that glinted in the sun like gold, and she was tall. She didn't move and stared boldly back at Lou. Something in the arrogant tilt of the head, the carriage of the shoulders reminded her of someone she'd known long ago.
As suddenly as she appeared, the girl was gone. Lou didn't see her go. The moment she dropped her gaze and then raised it again, she was no where in sight, as if she'd faded into the hill.
A slight squeeze on her hand from Kid returned her to the grim moment at hand. Thoughts of the girl still stayed with her, the burn of her stare still hot on her neck. Oddly, it was comforting.
The service was much too short, and yet, Lou felt as if she'd been standing there, with the freshly turned dirt of Jimmy's grave crunching beneath her boots for days. Teaspoon thumped the Bible closed with a shocking finality, and Lou felt herself dip slightly as her weak knees almost gave away.
No one moved for what seemed like hours. Instead they stood in the deepest of silences. Not a sound from the country or the town behind them dared reach into the graveyard. It was as if time had stopped, and a bubble enveloped them safely in remembrance. Slowly, they said their final good byes, one by one walking up to the grave, then turning and making their way from the cemetery, avoiding the miserable eyes of the others. Buck, Sam, Emma, Rachel, Buck, Kid, James, and Cody were soon all gone.
And then it was only Teaspoon, Lou, and Jimmy left in the graveyard. Lou met the older man's eyes and fully understood the message there. Leaving the cemetery, was in turn leaving Jimmy behind, to mesh with the earth in the cycle of life, alone, as he had so often been in his later years.
They were reluctant to leave him. They'd both had different kinds of love for Jimmy, but equally strong and complex. Lou watched as Teaspoon walked slowly up to the tombstone, crouching down beside it, despite his stiff joints, and leaning his forehead against it.
His words were too low for Lou to catch all of them, and only as his voice occasionally cracked with emotion could Lou understand what he was saying, and thus only caught bits and pieces of phrases, "a son to me…so proud…a great man…love you…"
Lou closed her eyes, wishing to close it all out, to deny that she was here. Suddenly the sun seemed to win out over the chill inside her, and she was incredibly hot. She was next to tell Jimmy goodbye, she realized, and her heart began thumping far too rapidly against the wall of her chest. Her lungs felt shallow and drawing a full breath of air became too hard, although she frantically tried to pull air in. A ringing sound in her ears seemed to keep time with the bright lights flashing in front of her eyes.
Through the huge splotches of red and blue she was seeing, she noticed Teaspoon straighten up and turn to her, his face alarmed as he rapidly began walking toward her. Shouts behind her seemed to indicate that she was, in fact, weaving unsteadily.
Then, without remembering the transition, she was lying on the ground, the loose dirt of Jimmy's grave rubbing roughly against her cheek as she closed her eyes and found escape.
"What happened?" Lou asked, sitting straight up and knocking the cool cloth Emma had laid across her head into her lap.
James, who'd been sitting on the edge of her bed, gasped and started at the sudden movement.
"You fainted," her son informed her, "And the Doctor said you should lie down."
"I don't faint," Lou snapped.
"Apparently, you do," Cody answered, from his perch by the window.
Lou was a bit surprised to find them all there, sitting around her hotel room. Kid pushed through them to lean down close to her and kiss her forehead.
"It was a hard day, and you haven't eaten anything in days. You made yourself weak, and that with the stress of today…"
Lou groaned and held her hand to her aching forehead, "I have to go back. I have to tell him goodbye."
Kid nodded, "I know you do. We'll go tomorrow if you're stronger. Today, though, rest."
Lou glanced out the window and gathered that 'today' was almost history. The sun was setting slowly, and the town was coming alive. She sighed, feeling very foolish indeed.
"Are you alright now?" Kid asked with great concern, feeling her head for a fever.
Lou nodded, "I'm fine."
Kid smiled, "Good. If you're sure you are okay, I'm going to go into town with Cody, Buck, and James, all right? Emma and Rachel are going to stay with you."
Lou nodded, "Just be careful, for God's sake. This town is crazy."
Little did they know how right she was.
James walked proudly between his father and Buck, feeling manly to be out on the streets with them. Women and men alike looked curiously as they walked down the main street, all with the easy grace of born riders.
It was dark, and the fires already lit the streets. The town had an air of danger about it that thrilled James, who was feeling invincible with the legendary men at his side. He was quite content to drink his saspirilla with Buck in the smoky saloon as Kid and Cody chose to drink whiskey, no doubt to wash away the day's memory. James had rarely seen Kid drink anything stronger than water.
It was late when they left the saloon and started back to the hotel. Cody and Kid were noticeably more relaxed, although not drunk by any means, and the conversation flowed easily between the old friends.
"Give it back to me, now!" her voice trembled in rage, and her eyes snapped with fury at the very large man in front of her, who extended the object of her desire high above her head.
"Beg for it, and we might," he informed her, and a round of raucous laughter from his drunk buddies filled the dark alleyway.
"Beg me, and I might not claw your eyes out you son of a…"
She was cut off in mid-sentence by the big man's hand cracking against her cheek, the edge of the metal object in his hand cutting her below her eye.
She gasped in shock and anger, then threw herself at the man with all her strength, nails raking his face and a scream of fury bouncing off the walls of the saloons on either side of them.
A glancing blow sent her flying backwards, into the dirt, and she hit her head hard.
"Get this straight, darling! Wild Bill ain't around no more to protect you! You may have warmed his bed in exchange for his protection once, but he ain't around and the new marshal ain't into whoring!"
Without any warning at all she was up again, shrieking and reaching for the hand that still encased her most prized possession. "Give it back! Give it to me!"
When one of the man's companions moved to hold her, she placed a well-aimed kick in his groin, thus stopping his advances.
The other man got his hands on her and she screamed like a banshee, kicking out with all her might, while trying desperately to sink her teeth into the man's flesh and claw him at the same time. He was easily three times her size though, and aside from splitting his eardrums, there seemed little she could do. Finally, she fell silent, chest heaving, and looked at the man in front of her from under a wild lock of red hair.
"Now, maybe we can talk reasonably. About how you can get this back."
"I could cut your throats!" she growled, and struggled again briefly.
"No, but you could entertain us tonight…"
With surprising strength for such a small girl, she tore loose from her captor's grasp and screamed bloody murder. Although every instinct told her to run away, the blood of rage was singing in her ears and she went toward him, lunging at his chest with such force that she knocked him flat on his back.
James was laughing at Kid's recollection of the time Jimmy had gotten a sore tooth and how it had taken all of them tackling him to get a good look at it, and more effort still to drag him to the dentist, when the shrill scream filled the air.
"Give it back to me!"
Bewildered, Buck, Kid, Cody, and James all stopped and turned their heads in the direction of an alleyway. Another scream, mixed with terror and fury, pierced the cold fall air, and as if by reflex, James was off first, flying down the alleyway.
Kid's piercing command for him to stop fell on deaf ears, as the older men followed him frantically, for his sake as much as whoever was screaming.
The light in the alleyway was much dimmer than on the street, but thanks to the bright windows of the saloon above, James had a clear view of the situation in front of him.
Two men were dragging a woman off a third man. Both the woman and the man were screaming in rage. James called out, but was still too far down the alley for the party to hear him over their own screaming.
In horror, he watched as the third man scrambled to his feet, a heavy board clutched in hand. His intentions were unmistakable as he raised the board over the girl. She shrieked and struggled, but was restrained by the two men at either arm.
"No!" James roared, every ounce of color draining from his face as the huge man brought the board hurtling toward the tiny woman. Cody, Kid, and Buck emitted similar sounds of protest.
She managed to twist mightily, and the board avoided her face, but the sickening crunch of the blunt object crashing upon an arm pulled taunt by the other men echoed in the alley, and everything went completely silent for a moment.
The fall to the ground seemed to take forever, but she didn't really mind. There had been a brief, shattering pain in her forearm, but now it just tingled unpleasantly. She landed on her back, hitting her head quite hard.
She stared up at the poorly built saloon roofs, noticing how they both leaned inward. Cries from men running down the alleyway filled her ears, mixing with the gentle hum of the rattling of her skull.
Rescuers, she realized, then thought wryly that they were a bit late.
Her eyes slid down to her arm, lying at a disgusting angle out from her body, and with detached interest she studied the bone, sticking cleanly through the skin, glowing ivory in the darkness.
"How interesting," she said to the shadowy figure that bent over her, asking frantically if she was all right, "The bone is sticking right out, and I don't feel a thing."
She lost consciousness then, her large eyes fluttering closed.
Kid let out a shaky sigh, glad to see the woman was still alive. A cry of surprise escaped him when he moved back and a square of light from a window fell on her face.
She was no woman, but merely a child, twelve or thirteen at most.
He looked up at a particularly loud groan and saw the second man collapse on the ground beside the first, and Cody rub his knuckles in satisfaction.
He searched for the third man, and saw him running down the alley. Kid raised his eyebrows when he saw his tall, lean son quickly gaining on him with ground eating strides. He also noted that the man he chased was twice his size in girth, if not height.
"And what does he plan to do when he catches him?" Kid asked Buck and Cody.
He soon found out. James leapt upon the broad back of the man and his weight succeeded in throwing the man into the dirt. Kid couldn't help but be proud as James' fists moved expertly. A right, a left, an undercut, and the man under him struggled no longer.
Soon Buck was on his way to find the new marshal, providing there happened to be one, and Cody and James came to crouch beside the girl with Kid.
"She's just a girl!" Cody said, his voice wild with fury.
"I heard her yelling at the man about giving her something back," James said slowly, panting and sweating with exertion, "And I found this in that man's hand."
Kid and Cody looked curiously into his outstretched hand and gasped.
In his palm lay the tin star they'd seen a hundred times.
Jimmy Hickok's badge.
Chapter 2 - An Oath Sworn On the Grave
Though it was late, Rachel, Emma, and Lou were still sitting up and talking softly when the door to Lou's hotel room burst open.
All three women jumped and stood up when Kid walked through the door first, the limp body of a girl in his hands.
"What happened?" Rachel demanded, and at the same time Emma and Lou both wondered, "Who is that?"
Kid set his mouth in a grim line and ignored them, laying the girl on the bed. Lou cried out softly when she saw the girl's arm, splinted crudely, with the bone poking through her fair skin jaggedly.
For a moment, they all stood back and stared at her. She was actually tall for her age, and very slim. Her hair was a brilliant coppery red, and her nose spattered with a few freckles. Her facial features were just beginning to sharpen and emerge into womanhood, and she had a straight, aristocratic nose, and high, prominent cheekbones. Her mouth was full and finely shaped. Her brow was wide and clean, her large eyes spaced far apart and fringed by dark auburn lashes that appeared almost black. Her chin had a stubborn, almost square shape to it. The fight with the three men in the alleyway had left her with a bruise on her left cheek and a long, shallow cut across that cheek.
"It's the girl from the cemetery," Lou murmured suddenly.
"Where is a doctor, she needs this arm set!" Emma said sharply, focusing on the most important matter at hand.
Buck shook his head, "The doctor in this town is also the barber, and he wouldn't come out here this late. I thought that maybe Lou could do it."
Lou widened her eyes at her friend as if he'd lost his mind.
"Well," Buck shrugged, "You did work in the hospital during the first part of the war."
Lou nodded slowly. True enough. However, her experience involved stitching wounds, administering medicine, and writing letters home.But, she'd seen it done a thousand times, and knew what to do, if not how to do it. There was no one else to do it, after all.
With a deep sigh, Lou began untying the splint, careful to avoid jarring the arm. She spoke as she worked, "All right, but I'm going to need your help. You're going to have to hold her down." She paused, the board they'd used to splint the arm in her hands, "How did her arm get broken?"
"Someone hit her," James supplied, with a quiver of anger in his voice at the memory.
"With that board," Cody answered, waving his hand at the object in Lou's hand.
The board clattered to the floor loudly as Lou released it, looking at it in horror.
"Good God," Lou breathed slowly, not appreciating the irony of using the object that had injured her to heal her. "Poor child!"
She was all business as she bent over the girl, motioning Kid and Cody to hold her, knowing the pain would probably jar her into consciousness if only for a minute.
She was right. Lou's hands were as gentle as possible as she maneuvered the broken arm, setting it at the angle she thought would most likely be the correct one. She breathed in deeply, knowing that there was nothing gentle about her next move. "All right, I'm going to pull it now. It'll be quick, but it will be painful."
A scream tore from the girl's lips as Lou quickly yanked the arm straight out, breathing a sigh of relief when the bone disappeared neatly inside the skin, leaving only a bleeding puncture would behind.
"It's all right, sweetheart," Cody gently told the girl, looking into her wide eyes, which were the most startling color he'd ever seen, "The worst is over."
She said nothing, but bit her lower lip fiercely to avoid crying out with pain. Her eyes shone with tears, but she blinked very rapidly, refusing to shed them.
Kid was taken aback by her eyes as well. They were a deep, dark gray, rimmed with black, with tiny specks of lighter gray in the center, surrounding her pupils.
"What's your name, sweetheart?" He asked her gently, brushing a strand of hair gently away from the cut on her cheek. She flinched beneath his touch, but did not attempt to avoid it.
For awhile, she didn't speak, and he imagined it was because she was still fighting tears of pain. Then, she parted her lips and managed to whisper, "Autumn Rose."
Kid smiled, "Well that's one of the prettiest names I've ever heard of, Autumn Rose. What is your last name?"
Her beautiful eyes suddenly slid away from his and her lips clamped firmly shut.
"All right, don't tell me," Kid said, smiling slightly, "But, listen to me, Autumn Rose, whoever you are, you're safe with us. Those men won't bother you again!"
Despite all her effort, a tear escaped from her eye and she turned her head into the pillow to hide it as much as she possibly could. The two men above her lifted their restraining hands and in her field of vision was suddenly the woman she'd been watching earlier that day in the cemetery.
Lou smiled slightly as she saw the recognition on the girl's face, and left her side to lean over her with a comforting smile.
Rose watched her carefully, no trust in her eyes, only acknowledgement that she had no choice but to let this woman care for her. She fixed her silver gaze on the deep brown eyes looking down at her, and felt as if she'd known her forever.
An unexpected wave of emotion and realization washed over Lou, and she had to place a hand against the headboard of the bed to steady herself when she fully looked into the girl's face. It was suddenly clear why the gaze had been so comforting, the carriage so familiar. Now the eyes seemed to know her as she looked into them with tears slowly filling her own eyes.
Jamie suddenly stepped forward, and addressed the girl shyly, "I think you were looking for this."
Her eyes traveled from his kind blue eyes to his outstretched hand, and she could no longer hide the tears of relief. She made a small gasping noise, and reached out for his hand with her good arm. He smiled and gently released the silver star into her keeping.
Exhausted, and hoping she was in good hands but too tired to care if she was not, she closed her eyes, the badge clutched within her fingers.
"Why in the world would she have Jimmy's badge?" Kid finally wondered.
Lou smiled, and wiped the tears from under her eyes, "Isn't it obvious? A blind man could see it."
"What?" Cody and Kid asked together.
"Her. She's Jimmy's daughter."
"Ow," she groaned softly as her eyes fluttered open. Her arm, while painless upon the initial injury, now ached meanly.
"I know it isn't pleasant," came the soft voice from the other side of the room, "I fell off a horse about two years ago and broke my arm too."
Rose emitted a startled gasp and pulled herself up. The room was lit only by a single lantern, but it was plenty bright enough for her to see the youngest of her rescuers.
"Who are you?" she wondered.
"James McCloud. But everyone calls me Jamie…unless I'm in trouble with Dad…then he calls me a lot worse."
She laughed, despite her intention to be cold to him, "And which one is your father?"
"The one that carried you in here. Does it hurt much?" Jamie wondered.
Rose found herself staring intently into his kind blue eyes. He winced slightly as he nodded toward her arm. "Nothing I can't handle," she told him tartly, although in reality it hurt like the devil. She looked around restlessly, "Where's the badge?"
"Right there on the night table. Mama was afraid you'd cut yourself on it."
"How does your mama know Bill?"
"Wild Bill Hickok," Rose elaborated, rolling her eyes, and irritated at his stupidity, or so it seemed to Jamie. He tolerated it quite nicely.
"Oh. They are old friends. All of them rode in the express together. I'm named after him," Jamie puffed up noticeably with pride, then squinted in her direction. "How do you know Wild Bill?" He knew his mother's guess, but he wanted to know the truth from her.
"If you believe half of what the men in town say, I bed with him."
Jamie felt his ears grow hot in embarrassment at her boldness. He shook his head slowly, "No. Uncle Jimmy would never do something like that…not with a girl."
Rose snorted with laughter, then winced as she jarred her arm, "Oh, he would too. But you're right. Not with a young girl. And not with me."
Lou poked her head in the door, and smiled when she saw her patient was awake. She glanced at Jamie with purpose. "It's late, Jamie. Your father is going to stay in your room with you. I'll stay with Autumn Rose."
"It's just Rose," Rose mumbled quietly, not sure she liked the idea of being alone with this woman with eyes that knew.
With characteristic directness, Lou sat down on the edge of Rose's bed and leaned over to check the dressings of her punctured arm and then fixed a heavy gaze on Rose.
"Did Jimmy know?" she wondered softly.
"Know what?" Rose asked, feeling her good hand clutch down on the sheet. What did she know?
"About you. Did he know you?" She said, her voice sounding strained.
"Yeah. He knew me. He saved my life once…pulled a drunk man with a knife right off me before he slit my throat."
"That's not what I meant. Did he know you were his daughter?"
A million expressions crossed her face, as she tried desperately to hide the truth from this woman.
"What are you talking about? Are you crazy?"
"I'd have to be not to see how much of him is in you." Lou responded calmly.
Tears welled rapidly in her eyes, but immobilized, Rose couldn't run from this woman's prying eyes. The remark had meant more to her than any words ever spoken to her, save those from her father himself.
There seemed no point in lying. .
With a shaky sigh, Rose shook her head, "No. He didn't know. I came to find him, but I never could tell him the truth."
Lou reached out to touch the girl's good hand, "It's a shame. He would have been so proud to know…it would have brought him joy."
She got up and hastily walked to the window, looking out of it intently, with her arms folded tightly across her chest.
"He talked about you a lot." Rose shut her mouth tightly after the words escaped. She had not planned on speaking to this woman any more than absolutely necessary.
"Do you know who I am?" Lou asked in shock, turning back around without bothering to swipe at her tears.
"Louise," Rose said simply, but didn't need the nod of agreement from her to know it was true, "I knew it was you when I saw all of you at the cemetery. I go there from time to time, to think, and to visit…"
Lou's eyes grew moist again, "I'm sure he is grateful for it." She paused awkwardly then asked, "What did he tell you about me?"
Rose smiled slightly, remembering the long, warm summer days she'd spent in his office, perched on his desk while he leaned back in his chair and spun tales for her.
"Told me how you rode for the express, how you dressed up like a boy and fooled all of them," Rose's eyes drifted doubtfully to her now, femininity personified in a simple white night dress, "Said he never respected another woman more than you. Never found a braver one." Rose's voice trailed off and tears misted her eyes, "He told me once…that I reminded him of you…the night when he saved my life."
Lou came back to the bedside and sat again, brushing the girl's hair away from her forehead.
"Then God help you, and me, for that matter," Lou smiled slightly.
Rose raised her eyebrow in question. Ignoring it, Lou asked, "Do you have any other family here? Where do you live?"
Rose shook her head, "I don't need any other family. My mother died last year, and the only way I knew who my father was, was that she cursed his name on her death bed. She was a…a lady of the profession," Rose's cheeks burned painfully at the revelation to the fine lady sitting in front of her, "she was mad because Bill…I mean James, wouldn't settle down with her, so she ran away from him and never told him about me. So, I came here…to tell Bi-James-I just never could get up the nerve."
Lou sighed, "And how do you eat? Where do you live?"
"Well, at first I got a job in the saloon," when she saw Lou's eyes cloud over with painful shock, she hastily added, "I mean, I didn't do that, I just waited tables, did laundry, stuff like that." Another shadow passed Lou's eyes, Rose was sure of it this time. Still, she continued, "A drunk man tried to attack me one night, thinking I was his daughter who'd run off with her beau, can't blame her with him having such a temper, and he tried to stab me. My father pulled him off, and took me back to his office. He put me to work there, sweeping the floor and keeping the place tidy. Let me sleep there too, when there wasn't any prisoners in there. If there was, he'd get me a hotel room and let me stay there, near him."
Lou smiled and closed her eyes, amazed once again at the generosity of the extraordinary man who'd been such a part of her life. No doubt, he'd remembered her own experience at the hands of Wicks at a similar age, and had wanted to save Rose from a similar fate, which was why he'd kept her out of the saloons.
"What have you done since…since he passed away?" Lou wondered, having to force the words from her throat.
"I tried to look for honest work…but there wasn't any. So, I went back to the saloons. They let me sleep in a back room if it ain't too crowded."
"Isn't too crowded," Lou corrected her by reflex, used to curbing Jamie's wayward grammar, which he picked up from the ranch hands, and Cody when he was around.
"Hmm," Rose mumbled in reply, her eyes searching the beautiful face in front of her, "Why are you keeping me here? Why haven't y'all sent the saloon to get me?"
"Because there is no way you are going back there, ever," the voice wasn't Lou's, and both of them turned in surprise. Lou smiled slightly at the intruder and waved her arm in his direction, "Rose, this is my husband, Kid."
Kid walked up to stand behind Lou, hand automatically seeking her shoulder and squeezing it affectionately.
Rose's cheeks went bright red, wondering how much of her story he knew. She'd heard about Kid from Jimmy too, and the fights they'd had over Lou.
"I have to go back," Rose said quietly, "It's not so bad."
"Oh Rose, but it can be," Lou said quietly, tears filling her eyes, "I would know."
"You were a…?" Rose couldn't bring herself to say any of the synonyms for the profession she was referring to in connection with Louise.
"No, but once, like you, I worked there," Lou said softly, and Rose could finally understand the sadness in her eyes.
"No place for a young lady," Kid agreed.
"Well, I'm sorry, but it isn't any of your business," Rose finally said, feeling defensive at their disapproval of her way of life. Easy for them to say, she thought bitterly, dressed in their fine clothes.
"Well, maybe not. But we'd like it to be," Lou told her softly, and when she started to protest, leaned forward and put a finger over the girl's lips.
"Kid and I, and Jamie, own a horse ranch in Nebraska territory. It's the old pony express station where we used to ride with Ji-your father. And I know that he'd want us to look after you, and we would love to have you if you'd come."
Rose felt tears of gratitude fill her eyes and spill over, but she wasn't ready to believe it true yet, "He didn't even know about me. Why should you care?"
Lou shrugged, "Because you are part of him, because I see him looking out through your eyes and it's more of a comfort than you will ever know. Because once he saved my family…We can't save him, but we can save you. And we can love you. Just like he would have, Rose. God, I wish he'd known you were his own! How he would have loved you!"
Rose was blinded by her tears, but still she protested feebly, "What if I wasn't really his daughter? What if it was all a mistake?"
Kid smiled gently and resisted the urge to stroke her hair. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten her.
"You are his daughter. I should have known that when I saw you trying to take those men on, three to one. Just like him," Kid's mouth twitched at the memory, "But even if you weren't his, do you think we could leave you here to this life when we have plenty of room to share? Not to mention plenty of work to go around."
Rose grinned slightly at this, Kid felt a great wave of tenderness pull at his heart.
"Go to sleep now. We'll see you in the morning," Kid smiled back at her and backed out of the room.
Rose's large eyes studied Lou as she settled into a chair by the window with a blanket, "You aren't going to sleep there are you? It'll be uncomfortable."
Lou laughed, much to Rose's surprise, and she found it a musical sound, "I've spent half my life sleeping on rocky ground, and sometimes on the back of my horse! I assure you, this is quite pleasant!"
Rose nodded, and closed her eyes, but found herself glancing up from time to time to look with curiosity at this woman who had made such an impression on Bill that he'd never given up his way of life for another woman.
"Did Uncle Jimmy know she was his daughter?" Jamie's voice startled Kid, who had just eased into the small bed beside his son. He'd been convinced Jamie was asleep, and had taken great pains not to wake him.
"Don't you think you could have told me you were awake before I stumped my toe twice, and hit my shin on the chair?" Kid wondered, reaching out to ruffle his son's hair.
"Those were some interesting words you used, by the way, Dad. I'll have to remember them at church on Sunday," James said, then snorted with laughter when Kid poked him in his ticklish ribs.
"Go right ahead. It isn't my mouth your mother will wash out with soap!" Kid pointed out, then answered his son's earlier question, "And no, Uncle Jimmy didn't know she was his daughter."
"Oh." Another long silence, and Kid sighed, closing his eyes and thinking James had done the same.
"What will happen to her?"
With a groan, Kid opened his eyes and smiled at the ceiling. At this particular moment in time James reminded him of when he'd been five, and asked nonstop questions from why the sky was blue to how were babies made. He chuckled at the memory.
"What's funny?" Jamie asked him.
"Nothing. I just expect any minute that you're gonna climb in my lap and ask me to read you a bedtime story," Kid laughed lightly, then before his son could ask what he meant by that, said, "Never mind. Rose will come home with us. It's the least your mother and I can do for her. Especially now. She's got no one."
James sighed, "Kind of like you and Mama when you were young."
"Yes," Kid said thoughtfully, "like me and your mama." In fact, the resemblance between the young Lou and Rose was startling.
Again, a short silence, but this time it was Kid that broke it.
"Do you mind, son? I know it's kind of a shock to put off on you. I'm sorry we didn't discuss it with you first."
Another silence made Kid wonder if Jamie did, in fact, resent the idea of having Rose in his home. Kid tried frantically to think of some way to explain why they had to do it.
It turned out, James was only choosing his words carefully, "No, I don't mind," he finally said. "I thought a lot about her tonight. I keep seeing her standing there on the hill looking down at all of us in the cemetery. And I think about how hard it was to say goodbye to Uncle Jimmy today, and I realized she had to say goodbye too, only she didn't have anyone else to be there with her. She ain't got…I mean, doesn't have any one. And tonight, if we hadn't been there, those men would have hurt her bad…probably killed her before it was over with."
Kid cleared his throat, "About that…"
Jamie drew a deep sigh in and said with resignation, "Here we go."
"You're right. Here we go," Kid said, sounding as fatherly as possible, "Next time, don't go charging in there like you are the cavalry. Those men could have had guns, and taken you down first thing. Always use this," Kid tapped James' forehead with his finger, "before you do anything."
"But Dad! I had to do something! You ran in too! And you would have even if I wasn't there!"
"I also had a gun," Kid pointed out, "Just think next time, alright?"
James sighed and sounded duly scolded, "Yes sir."
Kid grinned suddenly and then said, "With that out of the way, I'm proud of you, son."
The room was still, and then he spoke, and Kid could hear the smile of pleasure in his voice, "Really?"
Kid nodded, then realized his son couldn't see him, so he said, "Yeah. It was a brave thing to run in there, not knowing what you'd find, even if it was stupid. And you took that man down very nicely. It's a big man that will risk his neck for a stranger, and I'm more pleased than you know to see you're a big man, James Noah."
James puffed up with pride, hearing his father use his full name was rare, unless he happened to be in trouble.
"But don't go getting any ideas," Kid continued, cuffing his son gently on the ear, "I don't want you being a hero just yet. Next time you tackle a two hundred and fifty pound man, he might be quicker with his fists than this one was. And I sure don't want to answer to your Mama if that pretty nose of yours gets broken."
The yelp of laughter that Jamie let into the still night startled Kid, but he soon broke into laughter too.
In a minute, they both quieted down.
Kid closed his eyes, sure that this was the end of his son's questions.
"What?" Kid hissed, desperately wanting to sleep.
"I'm proud of you too."
Tears touched Kid's eyes at this unexpected revelation.
James, encouraged by the silence and the darkness, continued, "I mean…what you're doing for her, I'm glad. I hope that I got that from you and Mama, the kindness I mean."
Kid reached out to stroke his son's hair, like he hadn't been allowed to do for sake of his boy's pride for years. James lay still and sighed in contentment.
"You did get that from us, Jamie. That and so much more. You're going to be greater than me or your mother one day, son. And we can't wait to see it."
Kid would have sworn that he saw a tear sparkle on Jamie's face from the light drifting in the window. It was close to dawn, he realized with a start.
"Get some sleep, Jamie. I love you son."
"I love you too, Dad," came his son's quiet voice, just starting to deepen.
Kid wondered briefly what it was about death that caused them to admit things they wouldn't have the day before, to allow such closeness and love to shine through. Wondered why it stopped the urge in Jamie to be his own man, and instead urged him to lay close to his father's side as he had when he was young, seeking protection from the monsters under his bed or the thunder that rattled the house.
He sighed. It was of course, the desire not only to slow time, but to reverse it. To stop the process that carried them on to uncertain futures, and instead to go back into the warm certainty of the past, to spend just a minute more in a safe embrace, to look into a loved one's eyes again, to make it known to that one how much you'd loved them.
He found tears running down his cheeks as he thought of Jimmy and the daughter he'd never known, the conversations like this one that he'd never had. It was the deepest form of tragedy, he decided, as he leaned forward to kiss his son's forehead, not to know one's child.
The day was overcast when Lou left Kid with a final squeeze of his hand, standing on the rise where she'd first seen Rose yesterday. His eyes had been dark and still with concern for her, but he'd not protested when she stopped him, kissed his cheek, and continued alone.
All other thoughts but the task ahead of her left her mind as she came to a stop at the tombstone with his name on it.
Without paying any attention to her light brown skirts, Lou crashed on her knees in front of his stone. When she heard Kid's cry from the hill, she quickly held her hand up to signify she was all right.
"You know Kid," she began in a shaky voice, "He never did think I could take care of myself." The words came faster with the initial step taken.
"Oh Jimmy…I don't even know how to do this properly, but I don't think you'd mind. I haven't been the same since I found out what happened to you. Every day I wake up and I hope and pray that it's all been a bad dream. But seeing this, your resting place, I think I finally have to admit it's true."
She paused and closed her eyes, freeing the tears that had welled in them and bowing her head. "And I'm so angry Jimmy! Angry at the man who shot you, angry at you for riding away from Sweetwater, angry at myself for not dragging you off that damn horse and making you stay! I think I knew it would be the last time…when you rode away this spring. I watched you till even your dust was gone, with this empty feeling inside of me. I didn't know what it was then, but now I do. I could still feel your kiss on my cheek hours after you'd gone, and I kept asking myself why…now I know. I wonder if you knew. Were you just so weary with life that you welcomed the end when it was near?"
"And the reason I'm so angry is because I don't know if you ever knew how much you meant to me, to all of us! I can still remember the first day I met you, and how I thought you were an arrogant, hot headed idiot, and I suppose you were. But I remember every day in between too! And you were so much more than what everyone always made you out to be!" Lou's voice rose with her anger and grief, "I knew you, Jimmy Hickok, and so did the others, and we knew your heart! And that's something the world never knew, and I feel sorry for them! You are…were…a great man, my dear Jimmy."
"And I'm here now to thank you for some things I can never thank you for…for something that you did years ago to ensure my life and my happiness at the risk of your own. To ensure my happiness you hid your feelings for me when I wasn't strong, when I was apart from Kid. Oh, Jimmy, I would have loved you and loved you well if you would have let me…but you didn't. Because of that damned mental block you had that no one that loved you could survive. But look Jimmy, I'm here, and I survived! Kid and the others loved you too! But I know Jimmy, I always knew, that you loved me. And I loved you back. But you knew before I did that me and Kid were meant to be, and you gave me my life…And you didn't just give me my life…you fought for it for me. I'll never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I found out how you'd gotten Kid out of the prison at Point Lookout…you gave up your freedom and your country for me and him, and Jamie…because you loved us all so much…and there's no greater love, and there's never been anything I could do to repay you, except give you shelter, rest, and all the love in my heart…until now."
"I met her last night Jimmy…Rose. She's extraordinary, you know. I'm sure you saw that, but what you didn't see-although I don't know how in God's name you didn't-was that she's your daughter Jimmy. I don't know who her mother is yet, but I'm sure you will, she ran away before you found out about Rose. Rose came to tell you, but she never could find the nerve. I know you would have loved her if you'd known, I'm sure you loved her anyway not knowing…but still, it would have been different. And Jimmy, I see you in her, looking out from behind her eyes, and I know that you still live."
Lou drew a deep breath, "So, I came here not only to say goodbye to you Jimmy Hickok, and to thank you for my life, but to make a promise to you that I will never break so long as I live…I promise to take Rose and raise her as my own, to give her all the love and shelter and peace I would have given you if only you would have let me. She'll know of you, who you really were, she'll have your name, and I will love her well!"
Lou slowly extended the flower in her hands and lay it at the base of the headstone, "I know you don't like flowers, but Rose asked me to give you this one…she's worried you'll miss her, because she won't be able to visit anymore, but she thought this rose might remind you of her. She loves you fiercely Jimmy, thinks you hung the moon, and I don't plan on ever dispelling that notion, because I think she may just be right. I told her, that spirits weren't confined to graves like bodies, and that you'd look in on her, and I hope you can."
Lou leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on the tombstone, closing her eyes and imagining instead his warm, shadowed jaw under her lips. She would have sworn the stone warmed and that she smelt the familiar smell of him, tobacco, leather, and whisky, for just a moment.
Finally she stood up on knees that trembled badly, "I have to go now. I do love you Jimmy Hickok, and always will. And I swear to love her, as you would have, if only you would have known. You live in her, and in me, and in Kid, in all of us that you touched over the years. We won't let you fade, Jimmy. Rest easy, my dearest friend, and ride safe, wherever you are."
Chapter 3 - A Knight to Remember
"And this is Katy. She's pretty much the backbone of the operation. Thinks she owns the place," Jamie informed Rose as they paused by the largest box stall in the stables.
Rose stood on her tiptoes and gazed into the stall, letting out a sigh of appreciation. Even at twenty-odd years old, Kid's favorite horse was still a striking animal with her loud color and large, soft eyes.
Jamie watched her out of the side of his eye and grinned as she reached a tentative hand out to stroke the velvety muzzle. She'd never been around horses until she'd met them, and though she'd been travelling in the wagon behind one for a week, she was still intimidated by the large animals. However, that was fading fast, and her love for them was growing.
"Your arm still feeling alright?" Jamie asked with concern, nodding at her sling, "Mom will have my hide if you hurt yourself worse."
"I'm fine," Rose insisted, and then, when Katy lost interest in her visitors and returned to her hay, Rose turned away from her stall to wander to the next one.
Her gasp was loud, and Jamie rushed to the stall, sure that the horse inside must be dead. Instead, the gelding just pricked his ears and munched his hay lazily.
"What?" Jamie asked, feeling his heart rate return to normal.
"Him! He's beautiful! He's golden!"
"Never seen a palomino before?" Jamie wondered with a grin.
"A palo-what?" She giggled, clicking her tongue for the horse to come closer, "And yes I've seen them, just not one so pretty."
"Palomino," Jamie said, hiding a smile, and taking his role as horse master very seriously, "We don't really raise them, but Dad buys one every once in awhile."
"That's right," a third voice broke in, and Jamie and Rose both turned to see Kid and Lou strolling down the stable aisle, hand in hand. Kid paused by Katy's door, and a long, low nicker of greeting sounded from within, just before a dark muzzle shoved over the door to touch Kid's hair.
"They are hard to come by, but always did like a good palomino," Kid smiled, then glanced at Rose, "Your father always rode palominos. Started in the express, and kept on. Didn't see him on another colored horse that often," Kid assured her, then smiled, "Looks like you're like him more than you knew, huh?"
Rose flushed with pleasure and turned back to the stall, fascinated by the shiny golden horse with the wide white blaze, snowy white main, and stockings.
"That's a new one. I just bought him. I tell you what…" Kid grinned as her gray eyes turned up to his, "You let me, Lou, and Jamie show you how to take care of him, and he's yours."
Lou's smile widened, and she felt tears touch her eyes as she watched Rose's eyes well with tears as well.
"You mean it?" She nearly whispered, not quite trusting he did.
"I mean it," Kid grinned, and Lou was amazed at the gentleness in his eyes. She'd seen that look a thousand times when he held her, and when he looked at Jamie, but she never tired of it. He smiled, "After all, you can't very well learn to be a ranch hand without a horse, can you?"
Jamie grinned at Rose, and winked, "I don't think I'd take him up on it. It sounds like a nice deal now, but it won't when you're saddle sore, and covered in horse-" the look from his mother stopped him short of finishing that sentence, and he hastily added, "hair."
Lou made a mental note to talk to Cody about his word choices around her son, and smiled, "You two come on in. Lunch is ready."
Rose felt a bit overwhelmed by the sudden change in her life style. In a week, she'd gone from the smoky oppression of saloons where she lay at night on a pallet in a back room trying to drown out the sounds of the brothel's clients by placing a pillow over her head to the wide open country and her own room, complete with a white bedspread and lacy curtains. Instead of screaming whores who took out their own unhappiness on her, or lurching drunks who too often mistook her for the more experienced employees, she'd landed among sweet, mannerly people who truly wished to know her, and more than that, to love her no matter who she was.
However, she adjusted easily, and within weeks she was part of the scenery, and everyone at the ranch adored her. She and Teaspoon had become fast friends, with his gift for teaching and story telling, and Rachel drug her along to school, unwillingly at first, but then not quite so forcefully as Rose met other girls her age. Jamie, also attending school in town, assumed the role of guardian and any of the boys who would have pulled her braids reconsidered when they saw his tall form watching over her darkly.
She lived for the afternoons and weekends though, when she spent hours and hours with the horses. After Lou pronounced her arm healed, she and Jamie both gave Rose riding lessons, and if they couldn't for whatever reason, the ranch hands were usually happy to do it.
There were three of them, all in their mid-twenties, and some of the most unlikely friends in the world. Seth, from Texas, was at least six foot four, with white blonde hair and bright blue eyes that twinkled and laughed. Rose imagined it would be hard to find anyone quite so Texan as Seth outside of that state's borders. Patrick was an immigrant from Ireland, and his thick brogue made Rose giggle. She constantly demanded him to pronounce words again and again, so she might imitate it. He liked the attention, and took it upon himself to teach the girl Gaelic, sure that with her fiery hair she must have some Irish in her somewhere. His own hair was fiery red, though much lighter than Rose's, and his eyes a light green. He was small boned and wiry, and only an inch or two taller than Rose herself. Carlos was from Mexico, of medium height and build, with flashing dark eyes, jet black hair, and bright teeth that were startling in his dark face. If Rose was to learn Gaelic, then she was to learn Spanish too, and between Carlos and Patrick, she was sure that she'd forget English.
"Hey there Lassie!" She heart Patrick's voice before she saw him emerge from the shadowy barn. It was a particularly cold December day, but more importantly, the last day of school for two weeks due to Christmas.
"Merry Christmas, Patrick!"
He laughed out loud, "We'll, ye're a bit early, aye? But, same to ye, lass. I'm guessin' ye didn't come out here just to bid me Merry Christmas a week before the event, though, no? I'm expectin' it's that yeller herse ye're seekin'?"
His smile grew wider when her eyes sparkled. He put his arm out when she approached and patted her shoulder. With a devilish grin she nodded, "Aye, there Patrick, it's the yeller horse I'll be wantin'!"
"Keep practicing, lass. Ye're but a wee girl yet, no?"
"Is he in his stall?" she asked, squinting as they entered the dim barn.
"Well, no," Patrick said.
"Where is he then? The pasture?"
"Keep your britches on there, Rose, I got him right here for you," came the inevitable drawl, and a second later she heard the peaceful clopping of hooves on the hard packed dirt of the stable aisle, "Reckoned you'd be rarin' to go, so Pat and me went ahead and saddled the beast up for you."
"You're the best Seth!" exploded Rose, and she left Patrick's side as she ran down the hallway to greet her horse, who, upon seeing her, neighed loudly.
"I know she's purtier than me, but this favoritism is gonna hurt my feelings one of these days, horse."
The corners of his eyes wrinkled as he stepped aside and let the girl vault onto the horse easily.
"Getting good there, cowgirl," Seth told her, "Is that arm still doin' okay?"
"It's fine, I promise! The doctor looked at it last week and said it was completely healed!" Rose said breathlessly, obviously ready to be on her way.
"Careful then, lassie," Patrick said, coming to stand at her knee and pat her gently, "It'll be dark soon, so don't go too far aye?"
"Aye," Rose agreed, hiding a smile.
With that, Seth and Patrick both stepped back, smiling, and Rose was free.
She had been quick to pick up the skill of riding because she was a born rider, Lou had said, beaming one sunny November afternoon. Rose didn't know if she was right or not. All she knew was that she'd never been happier than when she was on her palomino riding in the open fields surrounding the ranch.
The air was cold today, and her horse felt good, so she let him gallop long and hard, further than usual, with no qualms about being back on time for dinner. Her horse felt strong and she knew he'd be just as content to run the other way.
She'd named him Mesa, because he was the golden color of the ridge near the Rockies when the first rays of sun struck the earth. Kid and Jamie often shook their heads in amazement at the bond between horse and girl. Their horses loved them, but nothing like Mesa and Rose. Rose could barely whisper in the barn and loud whinnying from the other end would demand her attention. In the pasture, she had but to call once before thundering hooves could be heard approaching the homestead. They sighed, and admitted it must be a woman thing, because Lou's young horse, Target, was just as attached to her.
Finally, and reluctantly, she pulled him up and then let the reins loose on Mesa's neck, allowing him to take a breather, and gasping for air herself. The wind had whipped tears from her eyes and she wiped at them before uttering a contented sigh and leaning down in the saddle to fasten her arms around Mesa's golden neck, enjoying the warm, sweet smell of him as he munched at the grass.
"Pretty lucky, aren't I?" Rose asked the horse, her voice muffled in his long silver mane.
At first she couldn't understand what was happening. She was only aware of a glancing pain on the side of her face where Mesa suddenly threw his head up, startled, crashing into her lowered cheek.
She almost lost her seat as he danced, so disoriented was she by the blow. Frantically, her hands grabbed at the loose reins, but one had dropped off his neck and dangled by his foot.
"What's wrong with you, silly?" She wondered in a shaky voice, remembering Lou's constant instruction to talk to the horses…it doesn't matter what you say, your voice eases them.
She made a quick lunge and secured the rein, sighing with relief. Mesa snorted and started backing up in earnest, throwing his head down and digging into the dirt.
"What is wrong with…" She started, looking in the direction of his pricked ears. They soon flattened, and his tail swished with irritation.
She need look no further than a few hundred yards in front of her to discover the source of her horse's nervousness. Five Indian braves had pulled up on the rise, and sat watching her closely.
Rose tried to swallow, but found that the lump of fear in her throat made that impossible. Her hand touched the rein, jingling it ever so slightly to get her horse's attention. "You're gonna have to run boy…and this time it counts," she whispered, as the first loud whoop from the Indians filled the air, dispelling her fervent prayer that they might be peaceful.
Rose had known fear before, but nothing quite like the raw terror that gripped her now as she leaned low over Mesa's neck and turned for home. He was a quarter horse, and true to his breed, he was in a flat run in no time at all, and pulling ahead of the Braves. She only prayed that he could keep his lead as far as the ranch.
She couldn't see anything for the tears whipped from her eyes, and so finally decided to close them, trusting the horse to carry them to safety. His ears were pinned against his head, clearly understanding that this wasn't a friendly romp.
Rose finally dared to glance behind her and gasped. The gap was closing rapidly, and she screamed when she saw one man drop the rawhide rein across his horse's neck and draw his bow.
"Run!" She screamed into the wind, then thinking the better of it, "Help!"
An arrow shot past her head and Mesa, catching sight of it out of the corner of his eye, bucked and doubled his speed, nearly dislodging her again.
Then she saw the ranch rise into view, and let out a piercing scream, and another and another. She hadn't thought about bringing a war party down on them without warning, but that was exactly what she was doing.
She sighed in relief when she saw Jamie, Seth, Carlos, and Patrick emerge from the stables, guns in hand. She watched, as if just a spectator in the scene as Jamie and Seth both grabbed the two closet horses, and leapt on them bareback, starting at a dead run with guns drawn. Patrick and Carlos went to find two more.
Mesa suddenly screamed and bucked violently, and Rose only felt mild surprise to find herself flying through the air, only to land with an impact that forced all the air out of her lungs.
"Rose!" Jamie's voice pierced through the sound of her own gasping, and she closed her eyes tight as she heard the guns fired. Once, twice, three times, then relative silence, with some hooves thundering closer and others retreating.
She was already sitting up when he slid off the horse and crouched beside her, shaking her shoulder.
"Are you alright? Are you hurt?"
Rose nodded her head, still not trusting her voice to speak. Seth slid down next to them and crouched as well, asking the same questions.
More hoof beats drew close, and Patrick and Carlos both jumped off their horses before they'd stopped.
"Rose?" Patrick asked breathlessly, and Rose realized grimly that it was the first time he'd called her anything but some derivative of lassie.
"I'm fine," she finally mumbled, her voice sounding incredibly composed. She sighed and started to climb to her feet as four pairs of hands reached out to pull her up. "I'm fine," she repeated, this time her voice not so strong.
"Where's Mesa?" she asked, looking around wildly.
"Probably already in his stall, quaking in his shoes," Jamie smiled, and Rose was alarmed at how pale his face seemed.
"Are you alright?" She asked him.
He attempted a smile, but failed miserably, and didn't lie to her, "Been better. I didn't think we were gonna make it in time, and when you fell, I really thought it was over."
Seth nodded, "You're lucky, little Rose."
Rose sighed and nodded, thinking it ironic that she'd had the same thought before all hell had broken loose.
"Come on, you can ride back with me," Jamie offered, and lifted her easily onto the small sorrel he'd startled out of a peaceful nap moments ago.
Jamie felt his breath leave him in a shaky sigh and his muscles all went limp when he climbed on the horse. Behind him, he was aware that Rose was shaking like a leaf, and he put a hand around the one clutching his middle to reassure her.
"It's alright now," he told her in the voice he might have used to calm a spooked horse.
"Will-will they be b-back?" her teeth were beginning to chatter, and he guessed it wasn't from the cold.
"No. We nicked two of them, and we have guns."
Rose shivered violently despite herself. Jamie sighed, and glanced back to see her face had gone a startling ashen gray, except for a slight bruise on her cheek.
"What happened to your face?" he wondered.
"Mesa reared up and knocked me good…I'd beat him for it, but he saved my life."
"That he did. I'd say he deserves a hot bran mash tonight," Jamie replied softly, then added, "And so do you."
Rose smiled, despite herself, "I never cared much for bran mashes."
Jamie laughed, and rode straight into the stables and stopped before Mesa's stall before sliding off and lifting Rose down. She was still unsteady on her feet.
"Figured you might want to say thanks to your horse. Don't worry, I'll unsaddle him. You hurry and get to the tack room and warm up. Mom and Dad will be home soon, and I don't want you in the house alone just yet, alright?"
Although he was only two years older than her thirteen years, his voice rang with authority, and Rose nodded without protest.
He turned to rub his mount down as she let herself into the stall, that sure enough, Mesa had made his own way to.
She wrapped her arms tightly around the golden neck, and whispered a thousand shaky thanks to Mesa. He snorted and wuffled in her ear softly, then tossed his head restlessly.
"What is it?" She whispered to him, her eyes drifting to his, and seeing that his expression was not a happy one. He flattened his ears slightly and suddenly bared his teeth, nipping at his flank.
Rose quickly ducked under his neck to see what was wrong.
"Jamie!" Her scream filled the air, full of panic, and nearly sent the horse James was leading on top of him, and several more nickered nervously.
"What?" He shouted back, letting go of the red horse altogether and starting toward Mesa's stall, where Rose was now sobbing hysterically. He burst in, and Mesa shifted restlessly at his quick movements.
"What?" he repeated, but saw she was beyond words, so he came around to stand beside her.
Soon it was apparent. Blood dripped from the horse's yellow flank, and deeply imbedded in his hindquarter was an arrow.
"He's going to die, isn't he?" Rose sobbed, attaching herself to his neck again, "No! Oh please don't die, Mesa!"
Carlos and Patrick both poked their heads into the stall.
Jamie sighed with dread and turned to Carlos, who was something of an animal doctor, "You'd better have a look at this Carlos."
Rose was vaguely aware of them conversing in low tones, meant to sooth both the animal and her.
Patrick soon came to pry her arms from around his neck and try to steer her out of the stall. His voice held none of his normal good humor as he told her, "Come on lass, let's get ye to the tack room, the stove's burning. Ye're chilled as a bloody block of ice."
Rose started to follow him numbly when Carlos' thick, low voice drifted to her, "I don't think there is much we can do. I think we'll have to put him down…"
"No!" The scream tore from her lips and she broke free of Patrick's grasp and put herself between the horse and the two young men, "No! Please don't!"
"Rose, the horse is in pain. There's nothing we can do," Carlos reached out to touch her shoulder in sympathy, "The arrow is very deep, and the wound won't heal."
Jamie felt tears touch his own eyes as she wept bitterly in front of them, turning around and laying her head on her arms across the horse's back, giving into long, body wracking sobs. It didn't help matters when Mesa turned his head and nudged her slightly with affection.
"Maybe there is something we can do," Jamie didn't realize the voice was his until everyone was staring at him. Rose with new hope, and Carlos, Patrick, and Seth, who'd secured the horses and had just arrived to take in the scene, with doubt.
"Seth, will you ride into town and get Dad and Mama? They'll want to know what's happened, and I may need Dad. They are supposed to be at the town meeting. Probably a good idea to mention the Indian trouble anyway so folks are aware. Patrick, I need you to light all the lanterns, we're losing light. Carlos, I need your help."
"What do I do?" Rose asked softly, her fingers curling into her horse's mane with the strength of new hope.
"You stay with him and talk to him, alright?" Jamie said, and looked into her hopeful eyes, "Rose, I can't promise you nothin', he may not live…I've never done this, only heard about it, alright?"
Rose nodded, but he could see it was too late. The blind faith and trust was too clear in her expressive eyes, and the weight of it suddenly was heavy on his shoulders.
Despite the chill that settled over the barn, Jamie and Carlos were both soon wiping sweat from their brows. Mesa was hobbled on his side, and didn't like it one bit. Only Rose, who crouched by his neck, her back turned on his wound, kept him from panicking badly.
James glanced at Rose's turned back, and shook his head. The arrow was imbedded deep in his hide, and the horse had lost a lot of blood. Surely, if the arrow hadn't punctured a kidney, then the muscle would be damaged and it would cripple him. Jamie sighed. As long as the horse lived, for Rose's sake, Jamie would consider it a battle won.
"I'm going to pull the arrow out, and then I'm going to need that burning stick to seal the would up, or something…" Jamie couldn't recall the actual reason he had to touch the wound with a burning stick, he just knew that was what Sam Cain had done to save Katy when she'd been shot.
Mesa screamed and flattened his ears when James went to pull the arrow from the tender hide, "Watch him, Rose, he may try to bite," he warned her, "Stay on your toes."
With tears running down her cheeks, she nodded, not turning around, and placed a hand on his neck. Mesa screamed in pain, a horrifying sound that she never wanted to hear again, and thrashed out, barely missing her with a front hoof that came lose from his hobble.
"The stick now!" Jamie shouted, and Patrick thrust a burning stick into his hands. James thrust the stick into the wound, and Mesa screamed again, kicking with all his might, and narrowly missing Jamie's face.
When the sizzling stopped, and the air smelt of burnt horsehair, Jamie stood back and with a tug undid the last of the hobbles. He, Carlos, and Rose stood expectantly, waiting for Mesa to climb to his feet.
For a tense moment, the horse lay perfectly still, and Jamie was sure that he'd killed the poor animal.
Then, as if suddenly realizing that he was free, Mesa snorted and clamored to his feet clumsily, tossing his head.
He looked at if he'd bolt from the rude people who'd been poking at his sore hind end, then nickered and came up to Rose, thrusting his nose into her hand.
"Bleeding stopped," Patrick mumbled, reaching out to stroke Mesa himself, "There's a good lad. Seems to be sound enough."
With a smile, Carlos reached up to stroke Jamie's hair in a similar fashion, "There's a good lad, too," he said, his Mexican accent sounding absurd with the Irish intonation, and they all laughed.
"All right, lass, it's off to warm up with ye now," Patrick said firmly, and went to tug on Rose's shoulders, "Tell the beast goodnight. I expect ye'd sleep in here with him if we'd let ye, but put that notion out of yer bonny wee head."
Rose kissed her horse on the muzzle, and started to walk away willingly, but suddenly broke free again and ran back to Jamie throwing her small form into his arms.
She was suddenly sobbing again, her tears wetting the front of his sweaty shirt even more, and Jamie laughed and set her on her own feet, keeping a gentle grip on her arms and bending down to meet her eyes.
"What's all this?" He asked, smiling.
"You saved his life, and mine!" She finally choked out.
Jamie laughed and wiped her tears, bringing up his own sleeve to wipe at her nose as well, "And I have a feeling you're more grateful for my keeping the horse around, aren't you?"
Rose raised her eyes to his, and studied them intently. They were such a bright, vibrant blue, and so gentle, as were his hands at her shoulders. He'd saved her life twice now, and her horse's too, and he was right, the latter ranked somewhat higher than the former.
She shook her head yes, and turned away cheeks flaming.
But she realized, at that moment, with the typical sureness of a young girl's heart, that he was her hero, and she would love Jamie McCloud always.
Rose let Patrick sit her gently on the beat up bunk in the tack room, used by Kid when a young mare was close to giving birth for the first time, and leaned against him heavily, trembling.
"Why were the Indians chasing me?" She finally asked, shivering as the warmth of the tiny stove in the room started to embrace her, reminding her just how cold it was outside.
"Who knows? I'd imagine something provoked them."
"Me?" Rose asked, incredulously, "I was on the McCloud's land still!"
"Aye, I know, lass. It wasn't yer doing."
"They are savages aren't they?" Rose asked softly.
"Well, I'll tell ye God's honest truth. I come straight from a land where bloody English soldiers burn and rape and plunder every day. Burned my own home from over me, left me and me mother and father out in the dead of winter with not a cup to beg with. Died of the famine, both of them, so I came here. But before that, I saw both people, English and Irish, commit some bloody horrible acts. Me, I did some bad things too. And I'll tell you lass, I don't see as it's much different for the Indians than it was the Irish. God gave them the land, but it'll slowly be ripped from their hands. Gets harder to tell who's the savage then, no?"
Rose shrugged, "Maybe. But I am not taking their land!"
Patrick put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tightly, realizing she was too young for this discussion. "Indeed ye're not. Lay down now, lassie. Ye've had a long day."
Rose would have protested, but the mattress was soft, and she was horribly sore from her fall, and her eyes felt like they'd been sand papered from all her crying. Obediently, she lay down, and smiled her thanks when Patrick lay a clean horse blanket over her.
A while later, Jamie walked into the tack room, shivering and looking blue around the lips, and went straight to the stove.
"Been a long day," He murmured to Patrick, who was cleaning a saddle. He smiled when he spotted Rose, sleeping soundly, "Longer for some than others, I guess."
"Ye did good today, lad," Patrick smiled, feeling much more than ten years older than the fresh faced boy.
Jamie grinned, "Thank God it all turned out alright. I didn't have the heart to put down the horse," he said, growing serious, then cleared his throat and turned pink around the ears, "For Rose's sake, I mean."
"Aye, for Rose's sake then," Patrick said knowingly. "Ye're mother and father not home yet?"
"Turns out Bill Tompkins wife is very sick. Mom is staying with her and trying to help the doctor, and Dad was staying with Tompkins. They won't be home till late. I already sent Seth back out there to tell them everything was fine here."
"Ye think the Indians will come back?"
Jamie sighed, "I don't think so. I hope not," he added, his voice uncertain.
"Why don't ye take her to the house and get yerself some supper and go to bed?"
Jamie nodded, "I think I will." He sighed, and walked to the bed, "Seems a shame to wake her, doesn't it?"
Patrick grinned, "Well then don't. She does not weigh more than a sack of grain, I'd wager."
Nodding, Jamie reached down and gently lifted the girl out of the bed, horse blanket and all. She stirred and murmured in irritation, but didn't wake up. Her head fell heavily against his neck.
"Goodnight then, Patrick."
Jamie deposited the boneless weight of Rose on the couch in front of the fireplace, and built a roaring fire. The trip from the stables to the house had set her to shivering again, and he covered her with two or three new blankets.
Sighing, and content that Rose would be warmer here than in her own bed, he stifled a yawn and climbed up to his room.
He was in the middle of a disturbing dream about horses who walked on their hind legs like people, and talked as well, when a blood curdling scream from below shook the house.
Chapter 4 - A Lady in Waiting
Dragging half of the bed clothes with him, Jamie bolted for the door out of his room, sure the Indians had come back and were in the process of scalping Rose. His skin was covered in chills from the piercing scream from below as he ran down the hall. He finally kicked the last sheet free at the top of the stairs and raced down them, two at a time. It occurred to him too late he had no weapon.
"Leave her alone!" He warned, trying to deepen his voice substantially.
He reached the landing and came to a sudden halt, chest heaving with fear and brows wrinkled in utter confusion.
Lou was leaning over Rose, looking into her eyes and talking to her like he'd heard her talk to Kid when he used to wake screaming from war nightmares.
His gaze slid to Kid, who walked over to him and patted his shoulder, absentmindedly. Jamie noticed, even in the dim room, that he looked ghostly pale and stricken.
"What happened?" he finally asked.
"Well, we just got in, and I saw that Rose had kicked off a blanket, so I went to pull it up around her again. She came awake screaming and kicking like I was killing her." His voice sounded desperately sad.
"She's had a long day, Dad, I'm sure she didn't mean it…You heard about the Indians?" An affirmative nod assured him he had, "well, I'm sure she thought you were one of them, about to scalp her."
"She opened her eyes, looked right at me, and kept screaming. Even when she knew who I was, she thought I was going to hurt her. She begged me not to. As if I could do such a thing!"
Jamie grew silent, not knowing what to say.
"I-I was having a dream, about the man with the knife…" Rose was explaining to Lou slowly, her voice still trembling, "And it was so real, like he was really there. I used to dream about it all the time, but haven't in a long time, till now. And then, I woke up, and I thought that Kid was going to-hurt me."
Lou felt tears well in her eyes as she kneeled in front of the girl and placed a hand on each of her cheeks, "Rose, honey, let me be the first to tell you, Kid's the last person in the world who would hurt you. He loves you like his own, and even if he didn't, he's not the kind of man to do something like that! Surely you know that?"
Kid left his son's side and came around to stand behind his wife, flinching noticeably when he saw Rose draw away from him. "Rose, I don't know where you come from or what happened when you were there, but I promise, those days are over…I'll never lay a hand on you. I swear it."
Rose nodded, a tear dropping off her nose, and Jamie sighed and felt real sorrow. She'd been through Hell today already, but it seemed that it had only triggered stronger emotions within her.
"Why don't you tell us about it? About the man with the knife. That helps sometimes," Lou suggested as Kid crouched next to her.
Rose studied him for a minute warily, then cautiously slid her hand into his. He seemed to find infinite relief in the offering of her trust and nodded, "I think Lou's right."
"Well…there's not much more to it than you know. He was horribly drunk and burst into my little back room. I guess I looked like his daughter, although I must have been younger, because he started screaming and calling me Sarah, and got his hands around my throat. He started choking the life out of me, but I hit him with a lamp. I thought he was going to leave me alone, but instead he drew a knife. I screamed like the devil, but no one came in…such sounds aren't uncommon in a place like that. Then he held me down and started crying and saying he had to do it, that he had to kill me. I was fighting the whole time, but not strong enough…" Her voice trembled, and a tear caught the fire light, "He, cut off, part of my ear first," she finally said, "I still don't know why. Then he said he was going to cut my face up so I wouldn't run off like that again…"
Kid and Lou looked at each other in surprise, and Jamie straightened against the railing of the stairs in horror. Slowly, with trembling hands, Rose pulled her heavy hair back and revealed the signature of the man who'd been intent on murdering her. The lobe was completely gone. Her hair had successfully hidden it from them for months.
"He cut me again, down my neck," She turned so that they could see the light, white scar running down the side of her neck, "He was trying for my face, but I was quick with turning my head. I screamed the whole time for help. He was just about to cut my throat when Bill came in. He knocked him out, or killed him-I don't know which and I don't care-and then picked me up and carried me out of there. I just remember being covered in blood from my ear…it was everywhere, all over him and me. And while the doctor stitched up what was left of my ear and my throat, Bill sat right there and held my hand, and promised me to keep me safe, and telling me how brave I was. That's when he told me about you," her eyes shifted from their far away look, to Lou, "And he told me then that I was like you."
Lou smiled and nodded, climbing onto the couch beside her and wrapping her arms around the girl, kissing her cheek soundly. She trembled fiercely.
"Does it ever stop? The nightmares, I mean?" Rose asked finally.
Lou started and met Kid's eyes, which were instantly boring into hers. Both of them were still not strangers to waking up in cold sweats, Lou with memories of Wicks, Kid with memories of prison guards who held his head under water and shot randomly into the prison yard with shotguns.
"They fade a bit," Kid told her truthfully, "Over time."
Lou nodded, "He's right. It'll always be with you, of course, but with time, and love, you learn to move on."
Lou looked at Kid and they exchanged a tender, secret smile.
"Time and love, huh?" Rose said softly, as she let Lou tuck her back in, seeing no point in moving her to her room now, close to dawn, "Well, I guess I've got plenty of both those things here."
"You do, sweetheart. Go to sleep now." Lou's kiss was warm on her forehead as she left her there, motioning Kid and Jamie to follow her up the stairs.
And she did go to sleep, haunted by the man who'd sliced part of her ear off in a drunken rage. However, this time, when help came, it wasn't Bill that pulled the man off of her, but Jamie.
Jamie gained a loyal follower after the incident with Mesa, who healed slowly, but surely and was soon ready for Rose to climb onto him again.
Lou marveled at Jamie's patience. Although she loved Rose fiercely, and more so with every passing day, she imagined that being a hero could often be hard work. But, he was wonderful with her, and seemed to genuinely enjoy her bright company.
Jamie indulged Rose with the affection of a little sister. At thirteen, she was still very much a child, and though only two years older, Jamie at fifteen was rapidly becoming a man. Lou knew good and well that Rose fancied herself in love with Jamie, as any young girl would such an idol, but also knew that Jamie was blind to it, his head filled with visions of adventure, horses, and now school.
Just as well, she thought grimly.
Jamie was making preparations to leave in the summer to travel with Cody and then to attend a prestigious Boy's school in New York in the fall. He had a sharp, eager mind, and Wincrest had been quick to accept him, especially with Buffalo Bill's endorsement of him. He would live with Cody and his wife in New York, and was dancing with excitement to go.
Lou knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime, but her chest clenched with sorrow whenever she thought of him leaving. He loved the ranch with all his heart, and she had no doubt he'd come back to run it, but he also dreamed of doctoring the horses he raised, and so Kid and Lou had proudly agreed to let him try the school in New York.
When the day finally came to see him off, both Lou and Rose looked as if it was a funeral, rather than a train departure they were attending.
"I'll be back soon enough!" He laughed at them, kissing first Lou, then Rose.
Cody, who'd ridden out to meet them, hugged them both as well, "Don't worry, I'm not going to feed him to the wolves!"
"Might have to if he doesn't calm down on the train," Kid laughed, embracing his son tightly.
Jamie grinned, too elated at the prospect of seeing the world to feel terrified at leaving home for the first time. With the ever boisterous Cody there, it was even harder.
Then he looked again at Rose.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, although she tried hard to hold them back.
He leaned down to meet her eyes like he always did when she was upset and squeezed her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger.
"You're gonna wait for me aren't you?" He asked her teasingly, "Not gonna run off and get married before I can come back and propose to you are you?"
Lou bit her lip slightly, seeing the girl's eyes light with hope. Jamie was teasing, but she didn't realize that.
"No…I'll wait for you," Rose said softly.
"All right then, dry your tears. I don't want my future bride looking like a lobster."
Obediently, she wiped at her eyes, but her efforts were in vain as the train whistle blew, and new tears replaced them. Jamie bid his parents goodbye once again, and patted Rose's head before following Cody onto the train.
Lou glanced at Rose, who watched the train leave with such a mournful expression that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry with her.
"Come on, Rose," she finally said gently, "the sooner we get home, the sooner he'll be back."
The time dragged for Rose, but there were other things to occupy her mind as the months rolled by. She still wrote Jamie every week, and he faithfully wrote her back. The letters arrived every two weeks, and neither hell nor high water could keep her from the mail office on delivery day.
Christmas finally rolled around again, and Kid, Lou, and Rose all stood waiting on the platform when the train rolled up. Jamie tumbled out of the train with excitement, his arms wide. He hadn't seen them in three months, since a brief visit at the end of the summer.
Lou didn't think it possible, but he'd grown at least another three inches. His voice had deepened, and his features were sharpening, now giving a real hint of the handsome man he would be.
Lou raised her eyebrows. There was a dance in town the next night, and she had a feeling Jamie McCloud was about to be the envy of every mother and her daughter in Sweetwater.
"Aren't you pretty!" Buck exclaimed as Rose descended the staircase slowly.
She smiled shyly at him. She'd been walking through the pasture one day last week when he'd appeared from nowhere, scaring the daylights out of her. In all fairness, her shriek had scared him nearly as badly. Before she could fling the rock she dove for at his head, Buck had hastily reintroduced himself, not horribly surprised that she didn't recognize him after a year, especially with his buckskins and vest on in place of the white man's clothes she was accustomed to seeing him in.
After her attack last December, she'd been a bit timid around Indians in general, but she was slowly warming to Buck, who was staying for Christmas.
She glanced down at herself. Donned in a dark blue frock with lace at the high collar and sleeves, she felt more like a china doll than a girl…young woman… she corrected herself, of fourteen. Lou had flatly refused to let her wear any of her other choices at the seamstresses, saying that she couldn't wear such dresses until she was at least sixteen, or folks would talk. It had been a sheer battle of wills, one of their first, but Lou had turned out to be more stubborn, and had won out.
As a peace offering, Lou had pacified her by curling her hair into ringlets and dabbing a bit of rouge on her lips and cheeks. When Rose had looked at Lou's lower cut, hunter green velvet gown and beautifully upswept hair, Lou had caught her envious stare and laughed.
"Don't wish your childhood away just yet. One of these days, you'll be wanting it back."
Sound advice perhaps, Rose thought, but not very helpful to her now when Jamie was coming down the stairs looking dashing in a well-cut suit.
When he exclaimed at how pretty she looked, though, all notions of bitterness were lifted, and she returned to the gracious young girl Lou knew still lived inside her once again.
Lou saw she had been right about the girls in town within five minutes of their entrance into the town hall, merrily bedecked in holly and red bows. Female heads swiveled from every direction to stare intently at the tall figure of her son coming through the door. He had the air of mystery of a stranger, although he'd been to school with all of them since they were five years old, and it was suddenly clear to Lou that in the life of a sixteen year old girl, six months was long enough to be reborn completely.
Jamie rushed forward to greet some of his male buddies, and Lou didn't miss the sighs of disappointment from the clump of girls by the punch table.
Teaspoon made his way up to her and kissed her cheek, exclaiming at her beauty, and Rachel wasn't far behind.
She nudged Lou with her shoulder and grinned, winking, "Looks like your son is the center of attention for at least half of the crowd."
Kid laughed, hearing this, "Like father like son."
Lou cast him a grin and rolled her eyes, "No, Rachel was referring to the female half. It's the men who prefer your company so you can talk horses with them."
Kid raised an eyebrow, and looked down at Rose, who was shyly hiding behind him, "Come on, Rose. Let's prove to her that I've still got a way with the ladies."
He whirled her out on the dance floor.
The evening rolled on, full of laughter and warm wishes for happy holidays. Rose danced with Kid, Teaspoon, Buck, Seth, Carlos, and Patrick at least twice. Her eyes constantly sought Jamie, but his attention was focused primarily on a pretty blonde named Elizabeth Walters.
Rose watched sadly as dance after dance he whirled the beautiful girl, who was all laughter and smiles, around the floor. She would have to be beautiful, Lou thought, watching Rose watch Jamie from the refreshment table by Patrick. From over Kid's shoulder she studied Elizabeth. Beautiful and sweet, Lou knew, but not particularly brilliant either. Rose would be just as beautiful in a year or two, but Lou could understand as well as anyone Rose's frustration. She'd caught Rose the other day, turned sideways in the mirror and peering down at her still flat chest. Lou glanced down at her own chest, which even after child birth was only moderately full, and sighed. Maybe Rose would be lucky.
Jamie looked across the floor to see his mother staring intently at him. From around Elizabeth's blond curls he raised his eyebrow in question. In answer, Lou titled her head ever so slightly in the direction of the refreshment table.
Jamie wrinkled his brow in confusion, wondering if his mother was trying to tell him that it would be polite of him to get Elizabeth a cup of punch, which he'd done already.
Then he spotted Rose, sitting dejectedly, and staring at the toes of her simple slippers. He suddenly realized that all her earlier partners had found different…and older companions for the last half of the dance. The boys her age were far more interested in chasing each other outside, and she was the picture of depression.
The music slowed, and the head violinist announced that the last dance would be a waltz.
With an apologetic smile, Jamie explained to Elizabeth, "I would love to dance with you again, but I promised the last dance to someone else."
Her pretty face fell for a moment, and Jamie laughed and nodded in Rose's direction.
"How sweet!" Elizabeth exclaimed, the stars back in her eyes when she gazed at Jamie.
"Can I walk you home afterwards?" Jamie wondered, and was delighted when she nodded in assent. Flashing her a devilish grin, he bowed slightly and walked to the refreshment table.
Rose couldn't bear to watch any more. Her Jamie had been taken from her by dumb old Elizabeth, who she couldn't even begin to compete with, and Jamie hadn't even danced with her once. She basically considered her life over.
And then, a pair of big black boots appeared under her nose and she looked up to see him standing there with a grin.
"Didn't think I'd forget my best girl, did you?"
Rose, still feeling a bit shy around him after the long absence, shook her head wordlessly as the music started. He was forgiven of all sin instantly.
"May I have this dance?" He asked with a gallant bow.
"You may," Rose replied and curtsied, just like Lou had taught her, putting her hand into his with all the trust in her heart.
And for six or seven minutes, Rose thought she must know what heaven was like.
However, the cloud of happiness that surrounded her dispelled when Jamie patted her head after the song ended, "Go find Mom and Dad," he told her, "And do me a favor…tell them I'm walking Elizabeth Walters home, okay?"
He walked away without waiting for an answer, having no idea the hurt his words would bring her. Rose stood dumb struck in the middle of the floor.
Rachel happened by her on her way to collect her shawl. She placed a hand on the young girl's shoulder, asking if she was all right. Choking back bitter tears, she nodded, and hurried outside.
Jamie looped Elizabeth's arm through his as they burst out of the crowded hall, their breath exploding into silver clouds of vapor as they laughed together.
A movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he turned suddenly, looking toward the side of the building.
Rose was there, staring right back at him in surprise, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Hey, Rosie!" He cried, using the nickname he adopted for her the winter before, "What's wrong, sweetheart?" he took a step toward her.
Not sure whether to be broken hearted or furious at his ignorance, Rose glared at him for a moment, then when he started for her shrieked, "Leave me alone!" and bolted.
"What is wrong with her?" Jamie wondered.
Elizabeth's sweet laughter filled the air, "You are blind, Jamie McCloud! That girl has a huge crush on you!"
"No, she doesn't, she's just…" Jamie stopped suddenly, his mind whirling. Of course, she was right. Rose had a crush on him. It was obvious when laid before him so simply.
"I'll have to talk to her," he finally said, and attempted to smile at Elizabeth as they began the short walk to her home in town. However, his spirits were dampened incredibly when he thought of Rose's stricken face, and he realized he'd hurt her horribly without ever having such intentions.
Kid walked casually through the night to get the horses from the livery, knowing he could take his time when he saw Lou being dragged into the circle of women talking about plans for the New Years Ball. He shoved his hands in his pockets and whistled softly as he made his way through the big barn and out the back where the horse and buckboard were tied up. Dancing with Lou closely, and showing her off always put him in a good mood.
He was a bit surprised to see Rose sitting on the wagon, her face buried in her arms against the back of the seat.
"Hey, don't I know you?" Kid asked softly.
She jumped and his face grew solemn when he saw her tears. Lou had pointed out her stricken face after Jamie left her to walk with Elizabeth, but neither of them realized quite how upset she would be.
He climbed up beside her, but didn't pick up the reins. He sensed if he tried to hold her she'd jerk away, they were volatile tears she cried, after all, and so he lounged back against the seat.
"Pretty night, ain't it?"
Her eyes turned to his in irritation, as if she couldn't believe he'd make small talk at a time like this.
Ignoring her he sighed, "You know, going to dances like this always makes me think about courting Lou. See, she couldn't enjoy dances when we were first riding for the express, cause Teaspoon thought she was a boy and he was always there." He paused and a smile tugged on his lips at the memory of one particular dance where he'd drug her, men's clothing or no, outside and practically forced her to dance with him. They'd shared a kiss too, and Kid's mouth lifted as he wondered if anyone had seen them and thought the worst.
Rose's eyes were boring into his though, searching for a point to the story. He did have one, but was not to be rushed.
"Of course, it wasn't always like that. There were dances when I'd sit there and admire the pretty girls right under her nose, not even realizing that it hurt her. Dance with them too, and ask her to hold my hat at first. 'Course I didn't realize then she liked me much as I liked her, and by the time I did, I'd probably hurt her a few times. I wouldn't have for the world, mind you, but I did all the same."
Rose sniffed, "So?"
Kid smiled, and ventured a hand out to wipe at her cheeks and push her nose, "So, you see who I was dancing with tonight."
"She's your wife," Rose pointed out.
"Exactly!" Kid said and patted her knee as he reached to pick up the reins, "Sometimes it just takes us boys a little longer than you gals to come to our senses. But in the end, we usually make the right choice. When it counts."
Rose stared at him a minute, and he grinned at her and held out his arm. With a tiny smile she scooted close to him, burrowing her icy hands under his coat.
"Rosie, are you awake?" The hushed voice came only moments after Rose had put out her candle, but she didn't want him to know that.
She made no sound, and closed her eyes more tightly, as though she could rush herself to sleep that way.
"Oh, stop playing opossum, I know you're awake. The light was coming out your window two minutes ago."
Jamie crept into the room, and grinned slightly when she didn't answer. A small foot peeked out from under the covers and with a wicked grin he reached a hand down and tickled it.
She exploded into motion, turning over and drawing her knees up to her chin.
"That's better," Jamie whispered again.
"What are you whispering for? I'm awake, you know."
Jamie sighed and said in his normal voice, "Good point."
They sat in silence for a minute before Jamie sighed again and said, "Rose, we have to talk."
Rose sighed, and said bravely, "I already know what you want to talk about. You want to break our engagement so you can marry Elizabeth."
"Our engagement? What are you talking about, girl? And I'm not quite ready to marry Elizabeth, by the way."
"You asked me to wait on you the day you left for school, and I have! I could have kissed Bobby Lee Garrison behind the livery stable last week and I didn't because I am engaged to you!"
Jamie suspected that the burst of laughter that escaped his lips wasn't appropriate, and if he had any doubts, Rose's glare obliterated them.
"Oh, Rose, sweet heart, I was just kidding!"
"I thought you loved me!" She cried, tears coming into her eyes.
Jamie realized just how serious the matter was then. He tried to choose his words carefully, "I do love you Rose! I love you more than life, honey…but not like that! I love you like a friend, or a sister."
Judging from the tears that spilled out of her eyes, he guessed that was the wrong answer.
"Do you think I'm ugly?" she asked, her huge eyes pleading.
Jamie couldn't stop a snort of disbelief, "Are you daft?" He asked, using the phrase he'd picked up from Patrick, "Rose, honey, you're a beautiful girl! I thought so the first time I saw you! And there isn't a girl in this town who will compare to you in a few years…even Elizabeth!"
"So why can't you marry me?" Rose asked.
Jamie sighed, and grabbed one of her hands, trying to make her understand what he had a feeling she could not, "Because, I'm too old for you, honey."
"But Teaspoon and Rachel? And your dad is a year older than your mom, and you're only two years older than me!" She sobbed brokenly.
"It's different. You see, we're on different sides of a fence…it isn't a very big fence, but still, we can't quite cross over to the other side," he explained awkwardly. How did he explain that she was still a child, even though only two years younger, and that he was not?
Her blank stare plainly told him that she didn't understand.
"Well, can't you wait for me to grow up?" Rose wondered, "I'll wait."
"Well that wouldn't be fair to you," Jamie said, "To make you chose something before you've seen more than one of the choices, right? Rose, please try to understand…I love you dearly, and I'm flattered that you feel that way, but it just isn't meant to be."
"But I love you!" She wailed, and fastened her arms around his neck.
Jamie pried her off his neck so she could look into his eyes, "You just think you love me, don't you see? But you don't know what that kind of love is yet, Rose. You will someday, when a lucky man comes along, just not now."
He wasn't quite prepared for the vehemence of her response.
"I see, all right, Jamie McCloud! I see that you are a big, fat liar! You told me to wait on you, and I did, and now you just want to pretend like you didn't say it, but you did!" She was sobbing, and her voice had risen to a fine screech that he was sure Kid, Lou, and Buck could hear. In fact, he wouldn't doubt that Rachel and Teaspoon, in their home a mile away could hear, "I do love you, and you should have just said first thing that you didn't love me back! It isn't me who won't want you! It's the other way around!"
He tried to catch her as she floated by him in her flannel nightdress, his hands falling on her shoulder, but she bit his thumb with incredible force and kept going.
A minute later, Lou filled the doorway with a candle, finding her son sitting on the bed with his head bowed and his thumb in his mouth.
"Surely it isn't so bad that you've got to revert to sucking your thumb is it, Jamie?"
Jamie glanced up and saw genuine worry that he'd lost his mind on her face and wordlessly removed his throbbing thumb from his mouth and showed it to her, "Little devil bit me," he explained wryly, "hard."
"Looks like a bad one. Does it hurt badly?"
"Not compared to what it feels like inside Mama." James looked up with tears in his eyes, "I didn't know she thought I was serious! I wouldn't have hurt her for all the money in the world."
Lou came to sit by her son, knowing Kid had gone after Rose. She put her arm around his shoulders and laid her head against him.
"I know that. She'll be fine, Jamie. All little girls go through this. I saw it coming, but I didn't know how to stop it."
"That doesn't make it any easier to know that I did it," Jamie pointed out.
Lou nodded and squeezed his hand.
Jamie put his sore thumb back into his mouth, and closed his eyes hard, trying not feel the tears that stained his shirt. Tears shed over him by a girl that had already shed too many in her life.
He had practically heard her little heart break, and he wondered if it was something she'd ever forgive him for.
And even if she did, he wondered if he'd forgive himself.