He'd lost all his money. Lost his guns too, in the final hand before too drunk and too broke for poker he'd staggered to a vacant table to finish off the last half of a bottle of cheap whiskey. He was having trouble staying awake, staying upright even. He'd startled himself alert at one point, when his head had hit the table with a loud thud. He hadn't felt any pain, though surely it must have hurt. Now he was slouched over the table, all but laying on it, trying to reduce the distance he would fall when eventually he passed out into blessed oblivion. His posture and churning stomach were making it difficult to continue drinking, but he doggedly persisted, sucking from the bottle like a child, spilling as much as he drank. He'd already thrown up once, barely making it out the door and around the corner to the alley before splattering what was left of his dinner in the dirt. He was miserable, past shame or care with a constant throb of grief still housed in his heart, regardless of the riot in the rest of his body.
He had not noticed her earlier. He hadn't come here for company but to be obliterated. She'd wiped down the bar, turned down most of the lamps, and gently shooed the last drunks out into the eerie dawn. Now only he was left. She regarded him from a distance, her hands on her hips. Blearily, he lifted his head to look at her. Her dress was too short to be a lady's, her neckline too low. She was dressed in cheap taffeta that was a garishly deep blue, and the lace at her cuffs was black and moth eaten. Earlier in the evening her hair had been pulled back in crisp shiny ringlets, but now they lay limp, a halo of stray hairs surrounding her face. "You got some place to go, stranger?" she asked with impatience. He grunted something unintelligible but she seemed to understand and with a sigh came closer, prying the bottle from his hand and propping him upright against the chair. She pulled out the towel tucked into the sash at her waist and efficiently wiped up the liquor and spittle on the table. "Don't guess you got money for a hotel either." He shook his head in reply. Holding the dirty towel and empty bottle in one hand she shifted her slight shoulders beneath one of his arms and with a heave pulled him to his feet.
He struggled to walk across the floor, vaguely conscious of how heavy he must weigh across her shoulders, of the cool touch of her skin through his sweat soaked sleeve. She wobbled with him towards the bar, stopping to leave the bottle and towel there and picking up a key on a chain that hung on a hook beneath the shelves of bottles and glasses. "C'mon then, stranger, let's get you somewhere you can sleep it off." She guided him out the door and helped him lean against the wall as she turned to lock up.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, forcing the words past his thick and clumsy tongue, lingering on the r's as if he forgot what the next sound was.
She dismissed his apology with a shake of her head, her dying curls rustled against her collar. "You ain't the first drunk I've had to mother. You can stay at my place tonight." She slipped the chain with the key around her neck and leaned into him again, letting him gain his balance before setting off down the rutted road. "No funny business, mind you. I'm not a workin' girl; I just wait tables, nothin' more." He lurched away from her and she pulled him back with gentle hands. "Don't seem like you'd be up to much tonight, anyway."
He felt his stomach jump and weakly tried to turn his head away. It was nothing but bile and whiskey and the sour stench cut through his haze with unforgiving cruelty. She gasped softly, and he noticed the streaks of his vomit down her skirt. She pulled the bandana from around his neck and wiped off his mouth as he stared at her dumbly, not so far gone he didn't blush at being so helpless in front of a lady. She tucked the dirty bandana into his jacket pocket and readjusted his arm on her shoulders. "It's not too far down the street," she said softly, kindly. He slumped against her, unable to stay upright on his own and she shouldered his weight without complaint.
The Imperial had several card tables but the serious gamblers always ended up at the same one. Situated in the middle of the room, directly under a swinging chandelier, and covered in faded green felt, it was the table the regulars sat at. Two gamblers called the Imperial their home. Though they all made occasional forays to other establishments, eventually they all flocked back to the little saloon by the river. The first was Leo, a thin and spindly Irishman with thinning ginger hair, a bristling mustache, a threadbare but flamboyant brocade vest, and a dirty sense of humor. Always taking the seat opposite Leo was Fred Tucker, a jovial, effete fellow with a ponderous gold watch fob, ruddy cheeks, and a propensity for sweating profusely under even the meager heat of the chandelier. He'd wipe the sweat from his face with an elaborately embroidered handkerchief and opponents shuddered to touch the cards he dealt, damp as they were from his clammy hands.
The last few days, Jimmy had found himself regularly filling a third chair at the table. Folks called him simply "Stranger" as he'd spent several days gambling at the Imperial before anyone had caught his name and even then they only knew him as James. Any further personal details he kept to himself. Even Lucy, with whom he went home every night to sleep on a makeshift bed of two mismatched armchairs, knew little more than that.
He'd been drinking a lot lately, which meant he hadn't been playing to his full potential. Tonight, however, Jimmy was able to cast off any thought of Mike and the events in Abilene and focus on the game. He took one shot of whiskey before the stakes got high enough to distract him from the thought of liquor. Lucy made regular passes by the table, refilling glasses, taking empty glasses and bottles away. "You need anything, Stranger?" she asked sweetly, leaning over the table to snatch away Leon's empty glass. The low neck of her dress gave Jimmy an unprecedented view and he blushed, quickly snapping his eyes up to meet hers. She smiled at him and he realized she'd been fully aware of what she'd presented him with. Lucy laughed and winked at him. "Better keep your mind on your cards; you got rent to pay me." Jimmy could feel the other men staring at him as he watched her walk away, the sway of her hips putting him into an almost hypnotic trance.
A few hands later she came back by again, this time coming up behind him and running one pale hand down his chest before leaning in to say in his ear, "Looks like you're havin' a lucky night." Jimmy swallowed hard. He could feel the thud of her heart as her chest pressed against his back.
As usual, Jimmy stayed until the Imperial was closing up. Leo had stayed as well and he was carefully counting out his winnings while Jimmy stared at Lucy as she wiped down the bar. "She don't take just any man home with her," Leo said without looking up. Jimmy looked at him and blushed scarlet but the older man paid no mind to his sudden embarrassment. "She might not be a lady exactly, but she's a good girl, and I don't care to see her misused. You keep that in mind." Finished up with his counting, Leo took his leave, tipping his hat at Lucy as he went.
Jimmy felt rooted to his chair. The past few nights he'd been dead drunk by the time the saloon closed, with nowhere else to go. Lucy had taken pity on him and given him a place in her own rented room, but tonight there was no reason he couldn't get his own room at a hotel or boarding house. He idly shuffled a deck of cards, unsure of where the night would end. "You ready to go home, stranger?" she asked, coming around the bar and pulling a shawl around her bare shoulders.
Jimmy stood up slowly and walked towards where she stood at the door. "I could get a room somewhere," he said, waving the bills he'd won in the air. "You don't have to give me a place to stay.
Lucy shrugged. "I know I don't have to; tonight I want to." He stood beside her and she raised one hand to curl around the back of his neck. "And you don't have to sleep on the chairs tonight either." She leaned into him and Jimmy let her kiss him.
He didn't expect to feel anything. After all he'd left his heart back in Sweetwater. But her kiss, expert yet tentative, seemed to pull something forgotten out of him and before he knew it he had one hand on her waist pulling her against him and the other tangled in her glossy black curls. He could feel her own arms wrap tighter around his neck and the curves of her body seemed to melt against him. He pulled away from the kiss at last to catch his breath and let her lead him out the door.
"Having regrets?" She had on only a sheer dressing gown tied loosely around her waist and a strip of her skin was visible down her neck and between her breasts; her wrists and calves flashed in and out of sight as she walked to the little pot-bellied stove and poured him a cup of coffee. It was disconcerting, yesterday they were strangers, still watching each other from the corners of their eyes, and this morning everything had been stripped away and without hesitation she was scrambling up onto the bed and straddling his hips to hand him his coffee. Without thought, Jimmy took his coffee in one hand and rested the other on her waist.
He caught her eye for the first time and saw reflected there a certain apprehension. He realized he hadn't answered her question. "No regrets about you," he reassured her.
She smiled and leaned forward to press a kiss to his lips. "I'm glad." She pulled away and let him drink his coffee. She toyed idly with the edge of the quilt against his chest. It was almost enough to distract him from his thoughts. He took another drink and turned to peer through the soot covered window. She gently tucked a stray piece of hair behind his ear. "You can tell me about it if you want."
His brow wrinkled and he looked darkly into his cup. "You'd be disappointed in me."
She laughed. "Stranger, we met when you were dead drunk trying to drown your sorrows. I know you got somethin' weighin' on you. I've made my own mistakes; reckon I can understand yours."
He shifted uncomfortably under her weight; their current position wasn't conducive to the focus needed to tell his story. She took the hint and languidly rolled to lay beside him, keeping one palm resting on his flat stomach. For a moment he only watched her hand rise and fall with his breath. "I killed a man," he said at last and paused, keeping his eyes on her hand. She didn't move away, her hand didn't tense and its full weight still lay against him. "He was a friend," he whispered, almost wishing she wouldn't hear.
There was still no reaction from her and she gave him plenty of time to continue before responding. "Why?"
He didn't know how to answer. "I don't know. We were in a gunfight and he was backing me. I wasn't keeping track of him and when he yelled my name, I just turned and shot."
"So it was an accident."
He shook his head and frowned. "How can something like that be an accident?"
"You didn't know it was him, you were in a life threatening situation, it was a mistake," she said soothingly.
"I didn't take the time to see, I just - " He choked on the words and felt tears burning at the corner of his eyes. "I intended to kill the man behind me without knowing who he was, what he looked like, whether or not he meant me harm."
"Sounds reasonable to me," she muttered against his shoulder.
"You don't understand," he snapped and pulled himself away from her and out of the bed. His clothes were neatly draped on the back of a chair and he quickly started to dress, suddenly feeling a need to get away, out of this room, maybe out of town, but definitely away from her. Lucy didn't know who she'd invited into her home, didn't know what a danger he was, how knowing him was enough to put her life at risk, loving him would be worse.
"Hey, hey, hey," Lucy said, scrambling up and towards him. She took over buttoning his shirt with calmer hands. "You going to run away from me now?"
He grabbed her wrist and held her away. "You don't know me, Lucy. Trouble is always at my heels; I stick around you'll get caught in it." He hadn't forgotten seeing Lou shot with a bullet meant for him. It was why he'd left Sweetwater in the first place and ended up in Abilene.
"James, look around you. I've been on my own since I was twelve, earnin' my keep any way I can. I haven't ever known a man who'd come home with me for a night, let alone a week, and sleep cramped up on a couple of chairs instead of pressing his advantage. I know that when you let go of my arm there won't be bruises and that if one night I choose not to have you in my bed, you won't force me. Whatever trouble you come with, it's worth it." He dropped her wrist and she returned to buttoning his shirt. "I'm starving. Let's go eat."
He stared at her. "Doesn't any of this bother you?"
She sighed and fidgeted with his collar. "We don't know each other very well, but I know you aren't a bad man. And I like you. You make me laugh and you make me feel safe. Don't go running from me, James. When the time comes and you're ready to go back to whatever you left behind, I'll let you go. But don't run away." She looked up at him in appeal. For the first time he noticed the rough white scar at the base of her neck, the ill-repaired holes in her robe. He twirled one of her black curls around his finger. She'd pulled him back from the brink. Didn't he owe her something for that?
"I won't put you in danger," he muttered, "Trouble catches up with me and I'm leaving."
She stretched up onto her tiptoes and kissed him deeply. His arms wrapped around her waist and he pulled her closer to him, as though he might absorb her strength into himself. "Fair enough," she whispered as their lips parted, and she let him hold her until he chose to let go.
The Imperial had begun to feel like home and the fear that someone might walk through the door who knew him by name or reputation lessened. Jimmy was surprised at how easy it was. He'd stepped through those bat wing doors as Wild Bill but once inside he'd been reborn. Leo and Fred accepted him at their table without question; since he no longer wore guns he found he didn't truly need them; and then there was Lucy.
He peered over his cards towards the bar where she was pouring a cup of coffee for a new father who'd celebrated a little too much. She caught his eye and winked. He grinned back. He could never quite define what was going on between them, though he often thought of himself, gratefully, as a kept man. He knew he wasn't in love. There was none of the soul twisting, stomach churning, dizziness he'd felt every time Lou stepped closer to him. Things with Lucy were easy, uncomplicated.
He turned back to the cards. He hadn't been paying attention and only now realized that the others at the table were looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to see or fold. Roy, a semi-regular at the Imperial who was making his first appearance since Jimmy's arrival, chuckled lasciviously as Jimmy started to blush. "No need to be embarrassed, son, Lucy's somethin' to look at. Ain't one of us hasn't gotten a little distracted when she bends low over that bar, givin' a man a look at what the good Lord gave her." Jimmy felt his jaw tighten and his eyes snapped to Roy's face. Roy didn't notice, or he didn't care. He continued, "Truth is, I was sorta hopin' she might be down on her luck again. I wouldn't mind takin' a dip in those waters again, if you know what I mean. I tell ya, boy, I've had me my fair share of women and ain't nobody like Lucy. My god, last time I was with her I thought - "
Jimmy's hand twitched to his leg where his gun should have been, but he only slapped his leg. His jaw stiffened to steel; he was too furious to speak but he could feel his temper pushing out against his skin. Leo must've seen the look on his face because he interrupted Roy, "Lucy ain't on the market, Roy. She's with the Stranger now."
"Well, then I guess he knows what I'm talkin' about," Roy said, friendly as ever. The hand ended and Roy excused himself to wobble out the door in search of the outhouse. Jimmy still sat silent, fuming. Leo nudged a shot glass of rotgut across the table at him, and Jimmy shot it back without a word.
"She never worked real regular," said Fred nervously. "She's had her lean times, though, and you can't fault a girl for doin' what she's got to do to keep herself fed." Jimmy snatched the bottle from Leo and poured himself another drink. Fred mopped his sweaty brow and eyed Jimmy with apprehension. "You ain't gonna dive too deep into that bottle are you? You're a damned sight less pleasant when you're drunk."
Roy walked back in through the doors and Jimmy watched him with the eyes of a hawk. Roy stopped at the bar for a drink, which Lucy poured, laughing at something he'd said. She picked up a tray and walked around the bar to start cleaning up the emptying tables. As she passed Roy reached out and slapped her backside.
Jimmy stood up with a roar, oblivious to the restraining arms of Leo and Fred. He had Roy by the neck in an instant and was vaguely aware that he'd slammed the man's head against the bar. He heard his own voice, as though far off, shouting, "Don't you touch her!" There was a general chaos of voices shouting at him; several hands tried to pull back his arms but there was no stopping him. Roy lifted up his hands in surrender and mumbled an apology, his voice distorted by a split lip.
Jimmy felt a slender, cool hand on his elbow, tugging him towards the door. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Lucy, struggling to both wrap her shawl around her shoulders and pull him out of the Imperial. Her grip on his arm was firm enough that he wasn't going to get away without a struggle and so he let her pull him out into the cold night air. She swung him up against the outside wall and stared at him with eyes that glittered with irritation. "What the hell was that all about?"
His temper was starting to ebb. "I don't want him touching you," he muttered sheepishly.
Lucy clutched her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders. "That's part of the job, James." Jimmy didn't know what to say, so he stayed silent, staring at the splatters of mud on the toes of his boots. Lucy sighed and tugged at a strand of her hair, stretching it straight. "I appreciate that you treat me like a lady, but the honest truth is, I'm not much of one. If that's a problem for you, then maybe it's time for you to move on."
Jimmy shook his head. "Don't want to move on. I just don't want to listen to some grubby fool talkin' bout you like you're somethin' for sale. You ain't never gonna have to do that again, Lucy."
"James - "
"I'm serious. I'm gonna see that you're taken care of, swear to God."
She laughed and stood on her tiptoes to lightly kiss his lips. "That's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."
Jimmy held her close to him. "And I mean every word." He kissed her, hoping his passion might prove his earnestness. "Marry me," he whispered when at last the kiss ended.
She stared at him blankly. The silence around them was thick and palpable. At last she said, "I can't marry you. I'm not the type of girl boys marry, James."
"You're the type I marry. Hell, Lucy, I never figured I'd be alive long enough to get married at all; never spent a lot of time thinkin' about what sort of girl I'd tie the knot with."
She chewed her lower lip nervously. "You're serious?"
"Course I'm serious," he answered. "You want to work at the Imperial forever, Lucy? You want to die still living in that rented room?"
She pursed her lips. "I don't see how either of those things relates to marryin' you."
"I'm askin' to take care of you, Lucy, till death do us part. I would have gotten myself killed if you hadn't taken me in when I first came here. I thought my life was over and now I know it was just starting."
She pulled away from him, turned away to watch a rickety wagon pass by. "This is ridiculous. We hardly know each other! I don't even know what my last name would be if I married you."
Jimmy grinned; he could tell a yes was on its way. "You'd be Mrs. James Butler..." and there he paused. She didn't know who he was. A year had passed and no one, not Cody, not Coulter, had found him. Nobody at the Imperial had ever guessed who he was. At last he'd put Wild Bill behind him. "That's who you'd be, Mrs. James Butler. We'll leave Saint Louis and head west. I'll find a real job and build us a house - "
He stopped as she turned back to him. She held his face between her hands and studied him for a long minute. "I could do worse, I guess," she said at last and leaning forward whispered, "Yes, let's do it." He whooped for joy and pulled her close. He let every memory of his past drown in their kiss. What had come before was nothing; now there was only her, only this.