The package came wrapped awkwardly in brown paper and with no indication of the sender. This wasn't all together unusual as Rose had so many doting uncles who felt it necessary to spoil her with anything they thought she might like. So she saw no reason to be thankful that Emma hadn't been at home when the package arrived. It was small, square, entirely unremarkable, and Rose almost felt bored as she opened it. It felt like a book, which were Buck's specialty, but at the time Rose thought she would have preferred some of Cody's expensive sweets.
She tossed the paper aside carelessly and sighed. It was a book, and a dirty, battered one at that. She opened the letter with it, absently reading it aloud to Scout, seeing no reason to worry that Sam or Emma might walk in. She quickly hushed up, and Scout clambered onto her lap to better see what had so absorbed her attention.
Finished reading, Rose crumpled the letter in her hand and tossed it angrily across the front porch, watching as it skipped across the planking. "I'll understand when I grow up," she said with a huff. Scout sat patiently at her side and cocked his head, waiting to hear more. "I'm eighteen for Pete's sake! If he's so awfully old for me, then what's he doing sending me letters, then? Huh? If this is a bad idea for both of us, why couldn't he just leave me alone? I'd just about forgotten him anyway." Scout barked at the lie and Rose sighed deeply. She stood up and clumsily and walked over to retrieve the paper. Scout sniffed with curiosity at the book she left behind. "It's a journal. My dad had it with him in Deadwood." She scratched Scout behind the ears as she bent to retrieve it, rifled through the pages. "Ambrose Merriweather," she mumbled, reading the inscription in the front before smoothing Jesse's letter and tucking it safely between the pages.
Rose looked up at the sound of an approaching rider and saw Sam come charging into the yard. "Rosie!" he shouted, his face was creased with worry.
"What's wrong, Sam?" Rose held the journal behind her, no reason to get Sam any more upset than he already was.
"Accident out at the Baker place, their boy is in a bad way. Doc says he could use your help out there."
Rose didn't move. She'd been working for doc for over a year waiting for the chance to prove her mettle, and so far she'd only been allowed to order bandages and catalogue syrups. She felt her cheeks flush with excitement and she dashed into the house to change.
The house always seemed empty in the mornings. Even Teaspoon's snores echoing out from under his door sounded ghostly and unreal, as if a memory only. Buck stared at Sam's letter. There didn't seem to be any way around it, Kid was hell-bent on taking part in the set up for the James gang at Centerville. Buck tapped the letter against the table and willed a solution to present itself. A sound from above startled him and as he jumped a scalding drop of coffee hit his forearm, stinging sharply. Buck smiled at the ceiling; David was just waking. It made the mornings seem less lonely knowing that Ike's son was asleep in the spare room. His attention turned again to the letter. Sam wanted him in Centerville, needed him there to keep the Kid from being party to a massacre, but Buck didn't see how he could manage to go.
He heard a faint call from the back room, Teaspoon needing help into his chair. Buck knew it was hard on Teaspoon to be so reliant on others. He'd resigned himself to accepting help from Buck, and in the last few days from David also. And Buck knew the older man would struggle to do everything himself if he had to, would insist on it if he knew what Kid was up to. He walked deliberately to Teaspoon's room. It wasn't life or death if he didn't go to Centerville and if Teaspoon pushed himself too hard…
Teaspoon was sitting on the bed, already dressed. Buck admired the ingenuity of the old man. He'd developed a million systems for every task the day might present so as to do as much for himself as possible. Buck saw the dark circles beneath Teaspoon's eyes and wrinkled his brow in concern. "You feeling alright, Teaspoon?"
The old man sighed, "I'm fine, Buck, just slept light is all." His words were thicker than usual, a sign Buck had learned years before meant Teaspoon was feeling poorly.
"Maybe you should lie back down then, and get a little extra sleep."
Ordinarily, Teaspoon would respond angrily to this suggestion, but this morning he just stared at Buck, his slack mouth glistening with saliva. Finally, he nodded. "I think ye're right. Maybe clear some of these cobwebs outta my head. I might just rest my eyes for a while, if'n you don't need me for anything."
Buck shook his head and slipped out the door as Teaspoon settled back onto the bed, his boots and suspenders still on. He'd send a telegram to Sam and let him know that he couldn't make it to Centerville.
There was a bang as the front door flew open and swung shut again, followed by a loud voice, "Where is everybody?" The voice did not sound friendly.
Buck stilled at the sound of her voice. She hadn't been back in two years, and there was no reason to expect her now, but there she was standing in the hallway, looking thinner than usual, her face drawn with exhaustion and her familiar traveling attire dusty and threadbare. Her coat was the same as before, patched and worn, with holes for the freezing wind to blow through. "Joss," Buck breathed, "You're back."
"Guess so," she muttered, removing her coat and hat and starting to hang them on the second hook by the door as usual. She noticed David's things there and said nothing, merely hung her own another hook down.
Buck felt chastened, as if he should have reserved the hook for her, regardless of the likelihood of her return. "Those are David's," he said with a half-hearted gesture towards the hooks. "Uhhh, I've let him stay in your room, but he's leaving tomorrow and when he gets back he can stay in the bunkhouse, or he can take my room and I can stay in the bunkhouse."
Joss pushed past him to the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "Don't put yourself out on my account. I guess it makes more sense for me to stay in the bunkhouse as I'm just passing through." She started to make coffee and eggs in her usual brisk manner.
Buck watched her silently. He felt his vision blur around her, the kitchen was nothing but a smudge in the distance, with Joss close by and in crisp focus. He felt as much as saw the details of her, the rough hands red with cold, the way the bones of her wrist pushed out at her skin, the piercing sharpness of her eyes. He heard himself speak before he could think clearly enough not to. "I tried to follow you after you left, but it was like you disappeared."
"Handy to know how to get out of a place when you cheat folks."
He heard the warning in her voice, but chose to ignore it. "But you haven't ever cheated me, Joss -"
She interrupted him with a harsh laugh, "An argument can be made to the contrary."
Buck continued, "You haven't ever cheated me, Joss; there's no reason for you to run." He watched her turn away from him, focus her energy on the eggs in the frying pan, her grip on the pan's handle tight enough he could seed the strain, and he pitied her, gave in, let up, granted her her pride. He stepped farther into the kitchen, poured himself another cup of coffee, keeping his eyes on her. "It's actually lucky you came. I need to help Sam out with something in Centerville and I can't leave Teaspoon alone-"
"What about this David?"
"David's got business of his own," Buck snapped back, feeling the old animosity creeping back into his blood. He remembered the last time he had seen her, bruised and broken, and breathed deeply, tamped it down, ignored it and calmed his voice. "If you have plans, you don't have to stay, but I'd really appreciate it."
Joss slopped her eggs onto a plate and leaning back against the counter started shoveling them into her mouth. "Well aren't we awfully polite today? You know you don't have to mind your manners with me. If Teaspoon needs somethin' you just got to say it. I knew if I came back you were goin' to be all nice." she said, the rubbery egg slipping from the corner of her lips.
Buck grunted in exasperation, throwing his hands in the air, "Since when is being nice a crime? I was trying to be considerate after-" But Joss cut him off, "When it comes to you and me, bein' nice is downright unnatural. Last time I was here you didn't argue with me once, and you were buyin' me pretty things and walkin' on eggshells. Well gettin' rolled ain't the worst thing to happen to me, Buck Cross; I don't need your sympathy." She slammed her plate down as punctuation and glared at him. Buck cut his losses and said nothing, returning her stare with one of his own. At last, Joss spoke again, "I came back again, 'cause I…I got somethin' to tell you. I found Maya."
Buck felt like the kitchen had begun to spin. His heart leapt into his throat and sat there beating at a furious pace, he keenly felt the hot dry air from the stove across the room and he stared at the look on Joss' face, that perfect poker face that gave away nothing.
Rose didn't have much of an appetite. She pushed the dinner Emma'd made around on her plate, picking at it solemnly and staring into the distance. She'd been so excited to help Dr. Haines at the Baker place. What better way to prove she'd finally grown up than to save a life? But things had not gone the way she'd planned. The blood and the acrid smell of the medicines made her stomach turn, and the panicked look in the face of Mrs. Baker was even worse. She'd rarely felt so helpless, and she supposed the world was right to consider her a child.
She wasn't really listening to Sam and Emma's conversation, was entirely unaware of the concerned looks they both occasionally gave her. "Maybe if Rose and I went up to look after Teaspoon, Buck'd change his mind. You'd like to visit Teaspoon and the ranch, wouldn't you, Rose?" Emma asked brightly.
Rose turned slowly towards her and blinked a few times until she could make out what had been said. "Sure."
Emma smiled broadly and winked at Sam, "David McSwain is likely to be up there; Buck says it's workin' out real well havin' him around the place to help out."
"Ugh," Rose grunted without thinking. David McSwain, despite the hopes of Emma and the fears of Sam, had not impressed her. She remembered again their brief encounter, how maddeningly practical he'd seemed, how competent. No doubt he had seen men die from worse injuries than the Baker boy, and taken it in stride, had maybe inflicted some of the wounds himself; he was an outlaw after all. She tried to focus on the conversation more thoroughly. "Why are we going to the ranch?"
Emma just shook her head, "Your mind is certainly somewhere else tonight, Rose. Sam and Kid need Buck's help in Centerville, but Buck is worried about leaving Teaspoon."
"Oh," Rose answered, already losing interest and returning to the artful arrangement of half eaten food on her plate.
Sam started to speak again, in the half hushed tone he reserved for topics he wasn't sure should be mentioned in Rose's presence. Years of practice had made Rose's ears particularly tuned into this frequency, as usually anything of interest was first mentioned in this tone, to be silenced by a look from Emma. But tonight even that was not enough motivation to prevent her melancholy thoughts from traveling down familiar paths. Jesse James. The reality of him had almost faded into a daydream, and then the letter had arrived and then the trip to the Bakers, and now the two things were somehow twisted together, a condemnation of her for not being hard enough, tough enough. Suddenly something in Sam's conversation piqued her interest.
"My worry is that Kid seems to think it'll end with Jesse behind bars. I've seen these sorta set-ups before with the Pinkertons; the truth of the matter is that no one in the James gang is going to leave that bank alive."
Buck tended the horses by rote. He hardly needed to think about it anymore. This, he knew, was a mixed blessing; it meant he could think about other things, and at the moment he wanted most other things to simply go away. He spread fresh hay out in one of the stalls with more intensity than the task required. Joss. She was the only person he'd ever known who made him this mad, who awakened this fury that was like a force of nature, barraging his insides and buffeting him from one moment to another. And now that fury was tinged with something else, with some strange tenderness and affection that he had fought against valiantly but could not help but surrender to.
David joined him, leaning against a stall door and looking over the morning chores that were all but finished by Buck already. "There's a strange woman in the kitchen feeding Teaspoon."
"Joss," Buck informed him through clenched teeth.
"Your business partner? Oh. She ain't what I expected," David commented.
"She's a piece of work, that's for sure," Buck muttered. "Shows up after two years and wants to act like nothing's happened. Well, fine. I don't have to be nice to her. If she wants me to treat her poorly, well then I can do it, that suits me just fine. Selfish, ridiculous, irresponsible…" The muttering petered out and Buck huffed angrily.
David stared at him, it was highly unusual to see Buck so agitated and it was somewhat amusing. "She really gets under your skin, huh?" David said, trying to hide his grin.
Buck stopped what he was doing and stared at David, pulled a folded bit of newspaper out of his pocket and shoved it towards the younger man. "And look what she brings me. I don't need this! Things were going along fine and then that girl shows up and it all just goes to hell in a very fast hand basket."
David read over the clipped article as Buck resumed his work.
Since Captain Hass' death last spring, his grown children, Robert and Daniel, have questioned the legality of the Captain's will and their stepmother's claim on the handsome house built on Grove Street as well as certain others of the late Captain's assets. The younger Hasses' court case against the widow took an unexpected turn last week when it was revealed that the erstwhile Mrs. Hass had a husband prior to the Captain, a certain Mr. Cross. The Captain's widow married Mr. Cross on the Kiowa reservation in the Oklahoma territory prior to moving north to Fort Laramie and then here to Denver with the Captain. Mr. Cross' current whereabouts are unknown, and the Captain's supposed widow is working at a local laundry, with express orders from Sheriff Wales not to leave the city until the exact nature of her marital status can be ascertained and, if necessary, criminal charges pressed.
"You're married?" David asked, trying to puzzle out exactly what was going on.
"I was," Buck answered, his voice low and still tinted with irritation, "She left me and I moved back here. David, I know you're still not settled for sure that you want to stay here, but with this…with Maya in trouble, I've got to go to Denver. Joss will be here until after your job in Carter, but I'd like to know you'll be coming back. She won't want to stay here very long and somebody has to look after Teaspoon."
David paused, he wasn't sure Buck should be counting on him; he was still adjusting to ranch life and there were times when a robbery still sounded mighty appealing. "I guess…uhh, yes. I'll get back as soon as I can." David knew there was nothing else he could say.
Buck let his shoulders collapse with relief, "Good. I'd feel better knowing Joss doesn't have to stay any longer than she wants to. I don't feel right making her look after Teaspoon -"
"You ain't makin' me do nothin'," said a voice, and they both turned to see Joss silhouetted in the doorway, "Teaspoon needs somethin', I'll take care of it. I told you that."
"I know that," Buck shot back, his voice growling with frustration, "but it doesn't seem fair to make you stay here while I go for Maya."
"Life ain't never been fair," Joss answered curtly.
In the dim light of the barn, where everything blended into the same warm gray tone and details were murky and went unseen, the stare between Joss and Buck was so heavy it seemed visible. David felt as if he could see it, a beam of cold light between them, hard and immovable. At last, Buck tossed his pitchfork to the side, a careless gesture that didn't suit him. He threw his hands into the air and hustled out the barn's back door, slamming it shut behind him. David exhaled and returned to work, assuming Joss would take her own leave.
She didn't. "Yer David, I'd imagine," she offered him her hand, and her grip was strong. David nodded. "What'd you do before comin' to the ranch, David?"
David winced at the way she said his name, as if it were a lie. "Been picking up odd jobs mostly."
Joss nodded, but continued to regard him with a look of suspicion and distaste. "Let me tell you somethin', David. I been dishonest all my life and I can tell when someone's bluffin'. I don't know what game you're playin', but if Buck gets hurt or you cheat him, I will carve you up." The threat carried beyond her words, it was in her eyes and the stiffness in her spine. David had known hard men and he recognized the same ruthless spirit in Joss, as though life had taught her that every end justified any means. He nodded his understanding and her face melted. She smiled, "Just remember, when push comes to shove, Buck'll always have your back. That's worth a lot more than you can take him for."
David kept himself from saying anything more.
In Carter, David found Frank and the boys without much trouble. They'd been lying low for long enough and everybody was ready to blow off some steam. David never had much use for most of the men, they took to much pleasure in the violent aspects of their work, and now he had even less. If his mind wasn't made up before, just hearing Bobby talk about how excited he was to shoot another bank manager - as if he'd shot so many in his short life - was enough to make David realize he was done with being an outlaw.
David didn't spare time for pleasantries. "Where's the boss?" he asked Frank bluntly.
Frank took a long pull from the cigar in his teeth, "McSwain, you ought to remember this outfit's got two bosses, not just one." Frank rested his hand against the butt of his gun and waited for a response, but David wasn't in the mood to be deferential. Frank tipped his head with a grim expression, and answered the question. "Jesse's in Centerville already, makin' plans."
David nodded. Something about Frank made him queasy. "Then I'll be goin'," he said with a tip of his hat. David's loyalty was to Jesse alone, and he saw no reason to discuss his quitting with Frank.
"Hold up there, boy," Frank growled, grabbing David's arm in his iron grip. "You're to stay here with the rest of us and wait for word to go on down there. You think you get some special consideration? Think Jesse needs you down there to look after him? 'Cause he don't. Yer job is to stay here and wait to be told otherwise."
"I'm not doin' it, Frank. I'm out. Found other work," David wrenched his arm away and left, not sparing even a look for Frank.
Around the cigar in his mouth, Frank laughed, "Hunter, McCloud, which one of them got their claws in you? They got a lot of rules, McSwain. You ask Jesse what happens when you break them rules, ask him where all those fine folk go when you really need them."
David didn't hear or maybe just didn't listen, and he plowed through to Centerville that same night.
Buck finished up the chores for the night and leaned back on one of the support beams in the barn. It had been only a few weeks since he'd been doing all the ranch work by himself, but now he was used to David's help. He felt tired out, his muscles ached, and the last thing he wanted to do was spend the next day in the saddle.
He looked up as Joss came in, a yellow lantern in her hand casting strange shadows across her face. She looked away from his eyes and shuffled her feet nervously. Buck wondered if she'd shy away if he reached out to her. He moved to close the gap between them, but stopped when she spoke. "You leavin' for Denver tomorrow?"
Buck lowered his eyebrows and frowned, he hadn't wanted to talk about Maya until the morning. "Guess so. I wanted to talk to you about it before I go."
"What's there to talk about? I don't have anything to do with it."
"Yes, you do. I don't want to do anything to hurt you." Buck stepped closer to her, hoping she'd come halfway herself.
Joss shrugged and turned towards the door, "No skin off my nose, do what you want." She looked back at him and said just as blandly, "I can be gone by the time you get her back here, if that's what ye're worried about."
"That's not what I meant," Buck huffed in exasperation. "I have an obligation to Maya. I have to see that she's taken care of, but it doesn't have to be here. I could take her to Lou, to Emma, until things are settled."
Joss turned around to face him and her voice was even harder, almost angry, "What things you got to settle exactly? I never asked for a stake in this damn place, or yer help, so don't worry about settlin' nothin'. I'll be clearin' out for good now she's back."
"You aren't going to run away, again, Joss!" A horse whinnied at his shout.
Joss glared at him and did not answer right away. Two red spots of fury burned in her cheeks, "I don't answer to you, Buck, you're not my mother or my husband. And I ain't nothin' to you neither. So you do with Maya what you want and I'll do what I want, and we'll both be happy."
Buck grabbed her elbow and jerked her to him, "You know you are something to me, Joss, don't pretend otherwise. We almost had a child together, damn it!"
Joss' face stayed locked in stubborn ferocity, jaw clenched, eyes stern; her body stayed tense and stiff. But her chin began to tremble and Buck watched in awe as tears slid unimpeded down her cheeks. She kept her eyes focused on the wall beyond his shoulder and said nothing. Buck's grip began to loosen and she gasped in a shuddering breath but refused to sob.
Buck enfolded her in his arms and stroked her hair but she would not relax against him or share the sorrow that choked her. She kept her arms at her sides, but Buck did not let her go. "I'm sorry," she whispered, almost inaudible. A ragged cry broke through her defenses and for a moment she clung to him, grabbing hold of his vest so tight her knuckles paled and burying her face in his shoulder.
But in an instant Buck felt her tense in his arms and swallow the tears. She stepped away from him and roughly wiped her eyes. "You gotta make your own decision about Maya, Buck; I ain't makin' it for you." She left him alone in the barn with his worries and questions.
At the hotel in Centerville David blundered through a litany of Jesse's aliases before the clerk found a Mr. James Hunter in room 24. Mr. Hunter wasn't in but the clerk was happy to take a message. David took the offered paper and pen and stared at the blank page trying to decide on the simplest way to sever ties. At last he merely scribbled his name and room number. Best to handle such things in person.
He found his own room down a dimly lit hallway on the second floor. A few doors down a blue dress swayed with the movement of the shapely woman inside it. As David opened his door he heard her grunt in frustration and looked over to see her evidently having trouble with her key. With what light there was he determined her to be fairly pretty and realized that an engagement with such engaging company would be a pleasant way to spend the evening. He dropped his bag inside the door and hurried to the damsel's aid.
"Need help, Miss?" He hoped she was a miss.
Two startled eyes looked up at him. "No, I, uh - " It was Rose. Her hand had a hairpin in it and she was clearly picking the lock. David looked at the room number: 24.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed.
"Sam's here," she stammered, "And Uncle Kid. It's a trap."
"The payroll, it's a trap. There's a bunch of marshals and some Pinkertons. They're going to wait for Jesse to get inside and then surround the bank."
David grabbed her unceremoniously, "You have to get out of here," he said, dragging her toward the stairs.
Rose struggled, "Don't tell me what to do. I've got to warn Jesse."
David stopped at the head of the stairs and held her arm a little tighter. "Don't say his name. I'll get word to him. But you better get before things get messy. How're you goin' to explain this to Sam?"
"Good question. Just how are you going to explain it to me?"
The two of them turned to see Sam and Kid paused on the stairs below. Sam looked livid, but Kid was having a hard time suppressing a grin.
"It's my fault, Marshal," David started, wondering why he should trouble himself to defend her.
"I don't even wanna hear it," grumbled Sam, "Rose, my room - now." He stomped up the stairs and down the hall and Rose meekly followed.
Kid clapped a hand on David's shoulder, "Don't worry, even Sam knows Rose gets herself into trouble on her own," he chuckled.
Buck felt a little overwhelmed by Denver. The sound of hawkers on side streets jangled his nerves; the explosion of color in the large shop windows made it hard to focus on the street, which was bustling with rigs of every sort and an equally varied assortment of people on foot. He'd asked once where to find the laundry and had ended up down a dark alley at the end of which dirty, bare-footed children played. The over-bosomed woman who bent sweating and panting over a kettle of boiling linens, had glared at him cruelly, "I ain't about to hire no Injun whore. Now get on out of here!" Her shrill voice had summoned several pinched faces to peer out the windows of the neighboring buildings, each of them looking hostile. Her children began to throw small pebbles at the legs of his horse, making it shy away and Buck hurried to get back to the main road.
At first hesitant to ask anyone connected to the case for information, for obviously there was little sympathy or tolerance in them, Buck realized that wandering the streets was futile. Denver might have had a hundred laundries, but it was sorely lacking in friendly faces. He managed to find his way to the newspaper office just as the editor was locking the doors to close down. He magnanimously unlocked the doors again and invited Buck inside.
"So you're the errant husband, eh?" the editor chuckled. He was a youngish man with thinning hair and a brightly colored vest tight across his thin frame.
Buck nodded, nervously tucking his hair behind his ears, "I was hoping you could tell me where Maya has been working."
The editor sat down behind his desk, and gestured for Buck to sit opposite him. He rustled in a drawer and pulled out a humidor, chose a cigar for himself and turned the box towards Buck. "Cigar?" He returned the cigars to the drawer as Buck declined. "Now, Mr. Cross, I would be happy to take you to the laundry where the Widow Hass has been recently seen; your reunion should make one heck of a story. I'll tell you, this story is real popular. But perhaps you would grant me a brief interview before we go?"
"I don't think so," said Buck. It had been a long day and he felt his temper slipping.
The editor was unruffled. "Just a few questions. Now, why did you leave your wife?"
"I didn't leave my wife!"
The editor raised his eyebrows. The vehemence of Buck's answer seemed to have surprised him. "According to a Lieutenant Wilks, let me find that testimony here," he flipped open a large file on the top of his desk and fluttered the pages until finding one, which he pulled out and read from, "Ah, yes, here we go. 'Captain Hass began seeing Mrs. Hass after her Kiowa husband left the reservation. He was a half-breed and it was generally assumed he had ties to the white world.' Are you saying the Lieutenant's testimony is wrong?"
Buck sank into the offered chair. It was obvious he wasn't going to get the editor's help if he didn't cooperate. He resolved to give the shortest answers possible. "I was gone. A friend of mine had died and there was some business I had to take care of. But I came back."
The editor scribbled furiously and hemmed in satisfaction. "And what course has your life taken since you became a bachelor once more?"
"I've got a horse ranch in Nebraska."
"And will you be taking the Widow Hass back to your home now that you have found her?" the editor peered over his glasses, his eyes greedy for a good story.
"I don't know," Buck muttered, and abruptly stood up, "I'd appreciate your help in finding Maya, but I really don't have time for this."
The editor sighed and stood up, putting his hat back on, "Perhaps you will tell me more as we make our way to your wife. It's your opportunity Mr. Cross to clear your wife's name, or vilify it further. The people love a sensational story and when it's true they love it even more." Buck followed the editor up the street. Had Maya been subjected to the same humiliating questioning? He supposed she had, and despite his efforts to do otherwise, he felt for her.
There'd been an awkward dinner with David and Rose walking on eggshells in front of the older men. What they imagined they were hiding was beyond anyone's grasp as it was plain as day in Kid's eyes they were smitten with each other. He took another sip of the whiskey Sam had insisted he have. He'd never developed a taste for the stuff and felt uneasy in saloons, the war seemed to spring to life again when men were drunk, as if they wanted to fight the battles all over again, and having fought on the losing side was a liability.
Sam was smoking a cigar and nursing his own drink. "I don't like it," he muttered, "it's back-handed. It's practically murder."
"The James gang are murderers, Sam," Kid said through gritted teeth. "We got to play a little dirty, here."
Sam looked at Kid from under raised eyebrows, "Kid, you've never been one to bend the rules much."
"We can't just let Jesse and Frank run roughshod. Look at what they've done already in Missouri."
"If you help them Pinkertons out, Kid, don't imagine that Jesse'll leave that bank alive. You gonna be okay with that?" Sam asked. Kid didn't look up from his drink. "Cause you change your mind tomorrow, you start seein' that boy you knew instead of an outlaw, I'll have to send you home to Lou in a box." Sam took a drink and winced as it hit his throat.
Kid set his jaw, "After what Jesse's done since we parted ways - the boy I knew don't exist anymore" He threw back what remained of his drink and slammed the glass onto the bar.
"Sorry, you feel that way, Kid," said Sam, setting down his own emptied glass and glancing around the near empty saloon. "Cause I hoped it wouldn't come to this."
Kid didn't see the punch coming and had barely felt it land before he slumped against the bar, out cold. Sam shook his hand and cursed, it'd been awhile since that particular skill of his had been called for. He sighed, and slung one of Kid's arms over his shoulders. "C'mon, Kid, let's get back to the hotel. I'll tie you up if I have to, but I ain't lettin' you make this mistake."
Frank was there. David glanced at him nervously before he spoke. Frank's interest in this job went beyond the money; it was something personal. That made him dangerous. David worried the brim of his hat. It was strange how quickly these men he'd thought of as friends became enemies and he remembered Joss' words back in Sweetwater. "There ain't any payroll," he finally said, breaking the heavy and imposing silence.
Frank narrowed his eyes. "What d'you mean by that?"
"It's a trap. Marshal Cain is in on it; Marshal McCloud too. They're going to let you in and then Marshals and Pinkertons'll have the place surrounded."
The brothers just stared at him and the silence closed in again. David fought the urge to look back at where Bobby held his gun belt. David was out of the gang, he was distrusted, his rights revoked. He looked at Jesse, a man he respected and had trusted. "Just ride out, Boss. There ain't a pay load here."
"I don't believe you," sneered Frank, "Them do-gooders got you all confused as to where your loyalties lie." He shook David roughly by the collar, "Why should we believe you?"
David didn't notice Frank's eyes flit towards the back of the room and the slight nod of his head was imperceptible. David didn't turn around until Jesse's eyes looked past him in Bobby's direction. But it was too late. The butt of Bobby's gun was already coming down.
Kid was sulking. He was resigned to the fact that Sam was not going to let him leave but he wasn't happy about it. Conversation had lapsed some time ago and in the silence they had strained to hear the opening salvos of the ambush.
Sam pulled back the curtains and looked down on the busy street. From above, the well-armed Pinkertons stuck out, but he imagined that below they blended into the crowd. "Where's Rose been while you've been babysittin' me, Sam?" Kid asked, more as a distraction than out of real interest.
"I told Rose she wasn't to leave our room, for anything. It's bad enough to have her running loose when something like this is going down without that boy of Ike's prowling around -"
"David doesn't' seem like he prowls," Kid protested.
"Here they come," Sam whispered, and Kid joined him at the window.
"Only two," Sam said suspiciously as two men, one identifiable as Jesse James, slunk towards the bank. They stopped at the door, seemingly fussing with a pocket watch, and did not go in.
"Not just two," Kid countered, his sharp eyes picking out others, hidden in plain sight along with the Pinkertons.
"They know," Sam breathed.
They were too busy strapping on guns and running for the door to see Rose rush into the street or hear her shout. They were only halfway downstairs when the shooting started.
Rose opened the door to Sam's room slowly and peered out into the hall. She saw no one, not David, not her uncles, and not Sam. With a sigh of relief she slipped out of the room and quietly shut the door behind her. She crept down the hall and ran down the stairs. She'd been watching for Jesse all morning. She wasn't going to trust David McSwain to warn him. It was obvious that David's allegiance had changed, and he was now as loyal to Buck as he had been to his former boss. Rose was a little disappointed. At least when he was an outlaw, David had been interesting. Infuriating and arrogant, she thought, but interesting. Now he was going to be the same as all her uncles. She rubbed the bruise on her arm where he'd grabbed her the evening before. She'd been lectured before, countless times before, but never with that sort of malice. He was a brute. And he'd made it clear he thought her foolish for coming here. One more person who thought she was still a little girl.
She left off thinking when she walked out into the day. David was just standing there, outside the hotel, as if he were an eager spectator at the upcoming blood bath. She spared one scathing look in his direction before shifting focus to Jesse as he stood on the stoop of the bank, evidently making idle conversation with the man next to him. Just to her right, a man in a black suit raised a gun aimed at Jesse James' heart. Rose acted as soon as she heard the hammer cock back.
"Jesse!" the scream tore out of her throat, primal and frightening. She dashed forward, putting herself between him and the bullet and cringed when she heard the loud report of the gun. But she felt nothing, and she turned around as she heard a soft moan and watched a familiar figure crumple to the dirt at her feet. She fell to her knees beside him and felt tears spring up in her eyes. She was a fool, she realized.
David's head still felt murky, his thoughts unfocused and as he opened his eyes the design on the shabby hotel rug tilted and whirled. He gently felt the goose egg swelling on his forehead. It took him a moment to piece back together recent events. He staggered up and out the door, trying to steady himself enough to make it down the stairs. He'd find Marshal Cain and warn him that Jesse and Frank knew.
As he stepped outside the glare of the midday sun made his mind reel and he momentarily lost his bearing. A pretty blue dress ran past him, a voice called out, "Jesse!" and in an instant the situation came roaring into focus.
David ran forward, not thinking. He felt the bullet burrow its burning path through his chest and it knocked the breath from him. The fall to earth he hardly noticed. The previous moment of clarity melted in his mind to a thick fog, which David found he hadn't the strength to fight.
Kid reached them first. He shoved Rose behind him and grabbed David's shoulders, dragging him back towards the hotel. Sam was quick to provide cover fire as the street exploded in chaos.
The James gang was quick to their horses. Nothing had gone according to plan and it was Jesse that called for retreat instead of slaughter. Kid got an open shot at Jesse and he took it. Jesse pulled up short and looked back at him as the bullet passed by.
"Shot went wide," Sam commented, a little smugly.
"Nope," Kid replied, "It went where I wanted it to."
In the distance, David heard humming. It was a woman and for a moment he thought it was his mother. He realized he was asleep, but a strange, disembodied sleep that mixed his dreams with reality. He felt trapped in it and began to fight his way to wakefulness, listening as the humming got louder. He felt himself break through the foggy haze and his eyes snapped open.
The pain hit him first, a dull gnawing ache radiating from his chest out through his body. His ears were ringing, his head ached, and every breath was agony. Next to him, reading an old journal and humming was Rose. With one hand she absently stroked his hand and David grabbed it, finding the repetitive motion annoying.
Rose looked up at him and smiled. "Hi," she whispered, blushing prettily.
David squeezed her hand, "Hi," he whispered back. "You alright?"
Rose nodded, her eyes locked on his. David noticed the dark shadows beneath them and wondered if he were the cause. The thought gave him some satisfaction. "What were you thinkin' running out into a situation like that? You might've been hurt." He lectured. His thumb ran back and forth over her knuckles.
"I was just being foolish," she answered, "What about you? Why did you go running after me?
David smiled, he was feeling light headed, giddy almost - partly the effects of pain. He winked at her wryly, "Let's just say it's a family tradition."
Joss couldn't sleep. With every toss and turn the bedstead groaned and she worried she was keeping Teaspoon up in the room below. At last she climbed out from under the green and white quilt. The hush of the winter night sounded loud in her ears and seemed to press in on her. She ran her hand along the pitcher and bowl on the dresser. The glass' pink color didn't show in the dark and it looked like thick ice. She rummaged through her things and found a little pouch of cloves and put a pinch in her mouth.
She walked out of the room, no specific destination in mind. In the hall she noticed the door to Buck's room was open and a sliver of moonlight spilled onto the hall floor from his windows. No curtains. He liked to sleep with the windows open except on the coldest nights, and the billowing of curtains in the breeze was an unneeded annoyance.
Joss hesitated before stepping into his room. It smelled faintly of sage and the furniture stood straight and sturdy, nothing cluttered the dresser, nothing wrinkled the quilt on the bed. Joss fought the urge to open all the drawers and strew the room with clothing, to tear the bedding from the bed and throw it up into the air to land where it may. The neatness of Buck irritated her, but there was a familiarity to it that made her smile.
She yawned. She was tired, had been so for a long time. She wandered to the window, carelessly picking up the book on the nightstand as she passed. Outside, the air was still, the ground sparkling with frost, and all across the sky the stars watched her, peering into the window, waiting to see her crack.
She held the book tightly against her chest. She didn't need to look at it to know what it was. Buck never read the bible, didn't believe in its faith, but he took strength from the childish pictures drawn inside. Joss willed some of that strength into herself. Willed herself to give up what she'd never wanted, never asked for, but somehow had found.
A horse whinnied in the barn and the night was still enough for the sound to carry. Joss returned the bible to its place on the nightstand, ran her hand along the edge of the bed, leaving a trail of wrinkles behind her as she walked away.
"On my way to summon help for Jimmy, I found myself recalling Professor Whitcomb's philosophy lectures, in which he asserted…" Rose's voice echoed in the house. Joss had set up a cot in the parlor, and David lay there, happy to convalesce under Rose's watchful eye.
"What sorta story you readin' there?" asked Teaspoon from the doorway.
Rose turned the leather bound book over in her hands, "It's a journal I found in Dad's things. It's got a name in it. 'Ambrose Merriweather'"
"Bulldog's journal!" Teaspoon cried merrily, "Well you don't mind if I listen in, do ya?"
Rose shook her head. "Did you know Ambrose Merriweather, Teaspoon?"
"Yes I did, and if I remember correctly, met his sister once too." He wheeled into the room and looked with satisfaction at the besotted look on David's face. Ministering angels were hard to resist.
"Then maybe you can solve a mystery for me." Rose said, taking the journal over to Teaspoon and opening to the back pages. "This was in tucked in the back. You can't make out any of the words anymore," she held up a heavily singed and brittle letter that seemed tempted to turn to dust at any moment. "And then on the very last page," she flipped to the back of the journal and handed it to Teaspoon. "There's this address written for somebody named Beth and it's in Dad's handwriting, not Mr. Merriweather's."
"Well what do ya know," muttered Teaspoon, a curious glint in his eye. "Beth was Bulldog's sister. She passed through Rock Creek at the beginning of the war. Your Pa and her were friends, though she came and went pretty quick. I didn't think he knew where she was anymore, didn't think he'd ever heard from her."
"And what happened to Ambrose?" asked David.
Teaspoon sighed and pulled at his suspenders, "Well, Bulldog was a hero of sorts. Saved Jimmy's life. You should ask one of yer uncles or Sam for the story; I weren't there. He's buried here in Sweetwater. I used to try and keep the grave up, but I got too old." They lapsed into silence, the sadness of the story seeming to invade the room. "Let's hear more of that story, Rose." Teaspoon said at last and Rose returned to her seat beside David.
The house was silent except for Rose's voice and the steady ticking of the clock in the hall. It was cold outside and the snow sparkled in the sun like bits of glass. Inside, filtered through the window panes, the sunshine was warm and cozy and a drowsy contented feeling permeated the room. David's eyes began to droop, and soon he'd fallen asleep. He'd done the hardest part of healing in Centerville but he was too weak still to spend much time out of bed. Back at the ranch, with Rose ministering to his every need and Joss tending to the ranch, he was finding it difficult to be motivated to get much better.
Rose shut the book gently and crept away from the cot. Teaspoon had fallen asleep as well, and she pulled the quilt on his lap up a little higher, kissed his cheek before creeping out of the room and shutting the door. She headed into the kitchen to see about supper, and heard the front door open and slam shut. Soon enough, Joss was in the kitchen with a box of groceries and a telegram clenched in her teeth.
"How was town?" asked Rose, finding it hard to speak at full volume with the men asleep on the other side of the hall.
Joss set the groceries down on the table and jerked the telegram from her mouth, shoving it in Rose's hand. "Buck'll be back soon, with Maya."
"He's bringing her back?" Rose was surprised. She knew that Joss and Buck weren't married, and though she suspected, she couldn't even be certain they were anything, but still she knew that if Maya came to the ranch, Joss would leave it.
"'Course he is," Joss snapped back, the tone of her voice implying that Rose should not question her uncle's actions. "It's the right thing to do, ain't it? And Buck always has to do the right thing. They're leaving Denver in a few days, should be back here in a week or so. Think you could handle the stock until then?"
"What? You're not leaving, are you?" Rose read the telegram and watched as Joss started putting the groceries away.
"Thinkin' I'll head out tomorrow. I seen this guy in Leadville workin' a con I never seen before, and I want to give it a try myself. Set yourself up with a tent, spout some big words and tell people you can see their future by feeling their scalps. Easy money."
Rose scrambled for an argument for Joss to stay, "But Uncle Buck told you to stay-"
"Buck," Joss spat, "Is not my mama." She brutally flung a bag of flour into the pantry cupboard and slammed the door.
They bought the sleigh in Cheyenne. Maya hadn't minded riding, and it was the quickest way to get back, but the snow kept getting deeper, and Buck knew the horses were wearing out, sinking into the drifts under the weight of their riders. Maya had been quiet for most of the journey, and they did not speak of the rift between them. Buck avoided the subject of what awaited them in Sweetwater, mostly because he wasn't sure what did await them. When they set out again the bells on the harnesses and reigns fortunately broke up the silence and lifted the burden of conversation.
Buck looked over at Maya, nestled in robes and a worn cloak. He had to admit she was still beautiful, perhaps even more so than she had been before. Her dark hair was pulled up in an elaborate coil that lay sleek and perfect, shining in all sorts of light. Her clothes were of expensive cut and fabric, though frayed and the worse for wear since her time as a widow. The cloak she wore now was scarlet, with a cowl of gray rabbit fur, and despite it's shabbiness she looked regal and commanding. Buck had to admit it suited her more than traditional Kiowa dress ever had.
"Was your husband good to you?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
"Robert? Oh, yes," she answered softly. "Buck, I hope you have not…you have not been alone all this while?" Hope laced her voice, and Buck knew it was only half concern for him which prompted the question.
"No, I haven't been alone."
"I am glad," Maya said with a little smile and settled back into the robes, contented that she had not been the only one to forget their vows. The wind was bitter and she shivered despite the warm robes and Buck instinctively put his arm around her. She cuddled against him, and the quiet of the plains settled back over them, the harness bells ringing out against it.
The fire had been banked and the red coals winked through the grate. David lay dozing, sleepily opening his eyes now and again to look over at Rose hunched over the desk in the corner. Teaspoon sat at the window, watching the icicles drip in the sun.
Rose straightened and held her work up, "I hope this sounds alright. Teaspoon, you sure I'm not overstepping my bounds?"
"Beth'll appreciate knowin' someone's lookin' after Bulldog's grave, and if you can bear to part with it, I'm sure she'd appreciate havin' that journal. I suspect she and your Pa had other things on their minds when they met before, they were both going through hard times." Teaspoon answered with a smile. Rose looked at him for a moment. There was something in his face she didn't entirely trust. She felt awkward writing a letter to someone she didn't even know but Teaspoon had insisted it was a kind gesture, and if she were honest, she had to admit that she was more than curious about the burned letter.
The bells sounded like fairy music as the sleigh pulled into the yard. David's eyes snapped open at the sound and Rose looked at Teaspoon in concern. They'd known Buck would be back soon, but still they dreaded it.
Rose pushed Teaspoon out with her to the front entry just as Buck opened the door. Maya followed him in. She was pale and thin, her nose crooked in an otherwise lovely face. She seemed nervous and only tentatively offered her hand to Rose as they were introduced.
Rose welcomed her warmly, at first. And then Buck asked, "Where's Joss?" He was tired and wanted help with the team.
Teaspoon and Rose hemmed and hawed awhile before she answered, "Joss left a few days ago."
"I told her to stay," Buck said angrily.
Rose's own temper flared, "She said you weren't her mother and she had things to do." Her kindness towards Maya evaporated into barely veiled hostility.
Buck clenched his jaw and tried to keep his voice in check, "Well, who's been looking after the stock?"
"I have," Rose shot back. Buck grunted in disgust and went to see to the team, mumbling about Joss beneath his breath. The three of them stayed where they were in an awkward silence until Teaspoon suggested coffee and Rose hustled off to the kitchen. She made the coffee and offered to take Maya's things upstairs. She left Teaspoon and Maya there, knowing that Teaspoon would be friendly and charming.
Buck came in again, laden with bags and paused in the parlor doorway puzzled by the cot and David. He could see the heavy bandage wrapped around the young man's chest and it made something in him lurch. "What are you doing in there?" he asked.
David looked up at him a little sheepishly, "Got in the way of a bullet in Centerville."
"Centerville!" Buck rubbed at his forehead, trying to make things make sense.
David nodded soberly, "There's a lot I got to tell you, Buck, but it'll wait till you get some rest."
Buck sighed, "I think it's going to have to."
They both looked up at the sound of a soft knocking and saw Rose in the doorway, "I took Maya's things to Joss' room - I didn't know where she'd be staying," Rose's cheeks colored slightly at the implication.
"What about you?" Buck asked, "Where will you stay?"
Rose's blush deepened and she looked away, 'Oh, I've been sleeping down here on the sofa anyway."
Buck looked back to see a huge goofy grin across David's face. He chuckled and shook his head as he left the room. "Just don't let Sam know I knew about it."
The staircase seemed longer than usual, the squeaky step louder, but at last Buck was at the top. He nudged open the door, and set Maya's last bags down in the room with the green and white quilt. The setting sun filtered through the glass pitcher and glared in his eye. Buck sat on the bed with his head in his hands; he had grown used to making do.