"We can't keep doing this," Buck sighed, watching the grey dawn light creep in beneath the curtains and stretch out along the floor. Beside him, Joss groaned sleepily and shifted in her sleep. "I'm a married man-"
"If I hear you say that one more time…" Joss mumbled grumpily. She screwed her eyes shut tighter against the morning. "You don't even know where Maya is, how married can you be?"
Buck didn't answer; he pulled back the covers and got up. In silence he washed his face and pulled on his pants and boots. He returned to the bed and threw the blankets unceremoniously off. "Shirt, please," he said, looking down at Joss, curled into a ball, his shirt pulled on over her under things.
"No," she muttered, her eyes still closed. Buck stretched out his hand and set his mouth into a grim line. Finally, with a string of curses and a vicious look in her face she sat up and took off his shirt, slapping it down into his waiting hand. "Fine, here." She fell back onto the bed and jerked the blankets back up and over her head. "Now, leave me alone.
"It's my bed," Buck reminded her as he buttoned his shirt. His shirt smelled of cloves and it made him smile. "Are you still leaving today?"
The bedding erupted off the bed and Joss sat up, giving him the eye, "Are you in a hurry to get rid of me?"
"No," he answered calmly, knowing full well she'd like to pick a fight and stubbornly refusing to give her one. "Just want to know your plans."
"Ye're not my mother, Buck," Joss muttered, climbing out of bed and stretching lazily in the faint sun. Buck didn't answer, and he watched her dress, clumsily stumbling around his room looking for her clothes.
Buck wrapped an arm around her waist as she tried to get past him, intent on a boot beneath the dresser. "Why don't you stay?" He knew he was breaking a rule by expressing any sign of affection for her. Knew that it would make her muscles stiffen, her voice cool, and her temper would get even snappier. She'd been at the ranch for five months now, the longest she'd ever stayed, and he'd gotten used to her presence; he thought he might even miss their quarrels when she was gone.
He was surprised that she didn't wriggle out of his grip. She didn't look at him though, and everything about her seemed to indicate that his arm was an unfriendly snake. "What? Stay here in a married man's house? In his room? No way, buddy, you'd be lashing yourself and walking on peas in a couple more days."
"Just be careful, okay?" he said, finally freeing her from his embrace. She gave him an exasperated look. "What are you doing this time? Patent medicine? Shell game? Or do I even want to know?"
"I just thought I'd pick up a few games of poker. Then I'll come back, maybe be gone a week or two is all," she said, and looked up at him. Buck loved moments like this, when Joss' guard was down and he caught a glimpse of the real her beneath the layers and layers of prickly temper.
At such times he found it hard not to touch her, and he satisfied himself by carefully brushing back the loose hair from her face. "I worry about you," he muttered sweetly, knowing she wouldn't like it, but unable to say anything else.
"I know you do," she answered with irritation, and then with a great sigh, like a child forced to eat something unsavory, she kissed his cheek.
The wagon arrived a week and a half later. Buck stood on the porch and watched as it rolled in, unsure of who might be showing up but hoping it would be a big sale. He was considering showing them the roan that he'd just broken; it was a horse that a man could coax a lot of speed from. Then again, he thought, for reliability you didn't get better than the sturdy paints that were his bread and butter. Any business concerns were cut short when he noticed the horse following behind the wagon, mud brown and bobbed tail; it was Joss' horse.
Buck jogged out to meet the wagon, throwing up his hands to slow the horses. An older man and a boy sat up front and in the back, lying still, he could see a pale figure with hair the color of gingerbread. "Joss?" he cried out, afraid, his heart turning to stone and plummeting through his stomach.
The older man tipped back his hat and looked him over with an appraising eye, "You Buck Cross?"
"Yes," Buck answered, his eyes never leaving Joss. "What happened?"
"I'm Doc Hadley from over Round Tree way; this here's my nephew. Yer, er, uh, well, yer friend ran into some trouble outside of town a few days back." The two men clambered down from the wagon. "Got her patched up as best I could, got her rested up some, but I thought she'd do better to heal up at home."
"She doesn't live here," Buck said hastily.
The old man gave a wry chuckle, "That's the same thing she said. Still, this is where she said to bring her. Todd here'll help you get her to a room; my bones ain't quite up to it." Todd had already jumped into the bed of the wagon and waited expectantly for further direction.
Buck took the lead, up the porch stairs, into the door, past Teaspoon in his chair, watching them with worried eyes. Up the stairs, and he hesitated. He passed up the room they had shared for the past two years and led Todd into the room with the green and white quilt and the patched dress in the wardrobe. As he slipped Joss into the bed, he wondered at her heaviness; she was stringy and thin and heavy as stone, as though all the lightness had been sapped from her.
Buck stared at Joss as she lay beneath the green and white quilt. Doc Hadley had braided her hair into two quirky and crooked pigtails so that it would not matt and tangle. Her face was swollen and bruises covered one entire side, spreading across her lips and chin, vibrant purple, dull yellow and gray. Her right arm was in a sling.
"I don't understand," Buck whispered, "What happened?"
"Don't know the whole story, I'm afraid," Doc Hadley answered from where he stood behind him. "Best I can figure she bested some pretty rough men at the poker tables and they jumped her on her way out of town."
"Will she…" Buck swallowed hard, surprised at the swell of emotions that threatened to break through his features, "Is she going to be alright?"
"Oh, she'll live, she'll live. Right now she's got a whole lot of laudanum in her to get through the ride, but once that wears off, she'll look a little better. Broken arm, some cracked ribs maybe, and the bruising, nothing she can't survive." Silence overtook the room for a moment and then, with a clearing of his throat, Doc Hadley began again, "However, ahem, I wasn't able to save the baby."
For the first time since their arrival, Buck tore his eyes off of Joss and looked at the man. "The baby?"
"Yes, I assume you were the father. She does have a room in your house and all."
Buck continued to stare at the doctor blankly. He blinked several times before finally answering in a daze, "Yes, yes I was."
Buck stayed in Joss' room that night. He sat next to the bed and stared at her as darkness filled the room. He was vaguely aware that he must have moved to light the lamp, but he could not remember having done so. Buck cursed himself silently. He could not give his heart to Joss; he'd given it to Maya when they were married, it was no longer his to give. But he had given his body, and he had taken, and this, this broken body, their lost baby, this was the punishment for what he had done. He slammed his fist against his knee angrily. Joss seemed strong, but he knew she was fragile, and he'd been careless.
She woke up to see him there and when she saw him her face melted and she squeezed her eyes shut to hold back tears. Buck had never seen her cry, and it frightened him. Her voice was shaky but cold and it warned Buck not to reach out to comfort her. "I know what you're goin' to say and I didn't cheat. I just won fair. First time I ever won fair. But I was so stupid!" Her voice broke and despite her efforts several tears started to slither down her face. "I knew better than to brag, than to rub their noses in it, but I was so excited. I ain't never won like that before, and I wasn't thinking. Should've known they'd try to roll me, but I was in a hurry to get home - to get here, and tell you…" She stopped talking, silent sobs jolting her body. She choked them back, kept her eyes screwed shut, willed herself into numbness.
"It was my fault," Buck said, tentatively holding her hand, "I'm so sorry, Joss."
She looked him in the eye for a moment, and then jerked her hand away, "No, it weren't. It weren't nobody's fault but my own." She closed her eyes again and unsure of what else to say, Buck let her pretend to sleep.
She stayed in bed for days, barely talking and when she did saying nothing but curt and bitter complaints against Buck's attempts to comfort her. She stared out the window in her room and chewed cloves, spitting the dark mush into an empty teacup. At last, with ribs that still throbbed with pain from any sudden movement, any breath, any cry; with bruises that had melted into only shadows, she started to help out again where she could, when she could. Always pushing herself too far before angrily giving into Buck's suggestion she get more rest. She managed small smiles for Teaspoon, joked with him in a stilted recreation of happier times.
At night, Buck would pause in her doorway before going to his own room, the room they had once shared. They would talk in hushed whispers; he was careful to avoid the subjects that would make her turn away from him and feign sleep, but inevitably he voiced some concern for her, some affection, gave away that he knew the secret she was trying to keep and the conversation died with one of the casual cruelties Joss specialized in. He waited for an invitation to stay beside her, to hold her, but it never came.
One afternoon, after a trip to town, he found her in her room, sitting in the cane back rocking chair, the traces of tears drying on her cheeks. "I got you something," he said, attempting to sound lighter than he felt. He set a pitcher and bowl made of cut glass atop the dresser. It was rose pink and glowed in the afternoon sunshine. "Do you like it?"
"It's lovely," she answered, her voice heavy with irony, as though its beauty were a fault to be contended with. She stared at it for a moment and then turned her attention to the window, "Looks like it would break if you breathed on it."
"I thought you might like it," Buck said with a sigh; his temper was wearing thin.
"It's lovely," she repeated, sincerely this time, looking at him with somber eyes for an instant, before looking away. He waited in silence for her to say more but she remained quiet. The rocking of the chair made the floorboards squeak loudly in the small space.
"How are you feeling?" he ventured, knowing she wouldn't answer honestly if at all.
"I'm coming around," she said softly, "be back to my old self in no time." The next morning, she was gone, leaving behind nothing but the smell of cloves and the heavy silence of things never said.