Maya was a good housekeeper and a better cook. She had taken on the responsibilities of the house without fanfare and Buck suddenly realized how badly mended his shirts were and how accustomed he'd become to beans and eggs. It was strange how the house had changed. It had always seemed clean, but there were corners and crannies that no one else had ever noticed that Maya had cobweb free. At Christmas there had been gingerbread, and wreaths of holly and juniper. At New Years, Maya had hung oranges full of cloves in the corners and the whole house smelled like cold winter nights spent by a roaring fire. Buck had appreciated most of Maya's improvements, but awaking every morning to the smell of cloves had him resenting the sudden change in his life. It was a smell he'd woken to many times before, and those memories haunted him every time he passed by the door down the hall and glimpsed the pink glass pitcher or the green and white quilt.

He and David had worked hard that winter. It had been colder than usual and keeping the stock safe from the winter storms proved a challenge. But at last, spring was beginning to beckon and the snow was changing to mud, thick and sticky. Buck no longer could see his breath during the morning and evening chores, and it was getting easier to climb out from under the warm quilt and blankets of his bed.

That morning, as usual, Buck came in after his chores to the smell of bacon and biscuits warming in the oven. He was headed to the kitchen when he heard a smash and a shatter from upstairs. "Maya?" he called out, shrugging at Teaspoon as the older man peered out of his own room in curiosity. He took the stairs two at a time and arrived at the top to see Maya emerging from Joss' room, the remains of the pink pitcher in her hands.

"I'm sorry, Buck. I was cleaning and it slipped from my hands. I'm sorry." Maya kept her eyes downcast. She walked on eggshells around Buck, too ashamed to do anything else.

Buck took the largest piece from her hand and turned it around in his hand, watching the light gleam across it. It was a silly thing, nothing of importance, and yet it tugged at something in him that he had been carefully ignoring since bringing Maya to the ranch. "It's alright," he said finally, "Joss never liked it anyway."

"The bowl's alright," Maya offered.

Buck nodded, and pushed past her into the room, "I'll take it. I'm sorry. You probably would have liked to pick out something yourself; I shouldn't have left it in here." He put the broken pieces into the bowl and took them both into his own room, setting them gently on the dresser.

Downstairs the front door opened and closed. David's pleasant voice rang out, "Mornin' Teaspoon! Looks like it'll be another cold one."

Buck ran his finger along the edge of the bowl, and then setting his jaw left his room. Breakfast couldn't be put off; the work of the ranch had to go on. Life had to go on, and if he'd learned anything it was that you had to make the best of what you had and not pine for what you didn't.

Still standing outside her door, Maya gently grabbed his sleeve as Buck began to pass by her. "You are sad again this morning."

"No," he protested weakly, shaking his head.

Maya smiled sadly at him. "You are. After breakfast we will talk about this, you and I." Knowing he was about to protest, she put a finger lightly against his lips. "Chores can wait."

Buck didn't eat much. He wasn't looking forward to talking with Maya. There was nothing new to say about their situation. As she cleared away the dishes, Teaspoon and David looked at him expectantly. He generally got up first to begin the day's work, but today he just sat at the table fidgeting.

"Guess I'll go see to hangin' that bedroom door. I finished up the frame last night," David said uneasily, looking from Buck to Teaspoon.

Teaspoon cleared his throat and exchanged worried looks with David. "Uh, maybe you wouldn't mind pushin' me over there with ya, son. I'd like to see all you've been doin' to the old bunkhouse."

David nodded and pushed Teaspoon towards the door, whispering as he went, "I don't like abandoning him like that; he looks like he's about to face hangin'."

"Son, I wouldn't be surprised."

Maya watched them go with a smile on her face, but it disappeared as she turned to Buck. She sat next to him and took his hand, slowly running her fingertips across his palm. "It seems silly to make David stay in the bunkhouse, when we are husband and wife and do not need separate rooms."

Buck took his hand away from her, "David wants to stay in the bunkhouse. He's working on it; turning it into a real house."

"Ah," said Maya, "Then let me ask you this: Why did you bring me here?"

"You're my wife."

Maya stood up and paced the kitchen, "That is not much of an answer."

Buck felt his temper rising. He looked up at her warily, challenging her to pursue the matter further. "Well, it's the only one I have," he snapped. She stared back at him in silence until he regretted his words; but regrets were a thing he'd gotten used to years before and he left the room without apology.

***

David had never excelled at checkers. He had generally preferred games that involved running and rough-housing when he was younger, and hadn't much opportunity to play since he'd grown up. Losing wasn't a foreign concept to him, but the thorough trouncing Teaspoon gave him still came as blow to his pride. He fixed the old man with a dead eyed stare as he reset the board. He wouldn't be beaten so easily this time. The knock on the door caused his stare to waver and Teaspoon to chuckle.

David walked to the door, quietly cursing whoever had interrupted his mental preparation. He opened the door to a lovely woman with gray eyes and silvery hair and a ten-year old boy in large round spectacles. The woman looked nervous and her hands fluttered like frightened birds as she spoke. "Good afternoon. I…we came to see Rose Hickok. Is she here?"

David opened the door wider to let them in. "Rose don't live here, ma'am," he said, taking her jacket and hanging it by the door. The boy copied him with his own. "It's her uncle's place."

"Oh," the woman's face fell and David wasn't sure if it was from disappointment or relief. "She lives in town then?"

"No, ma'am, she lives in Lincoln. Is there something I might be able to do for you?"

"Oh, no, I…I don't think so. She's not expecting me, but I got a letter from her, you see and I had to come and see if it was really her," the woman was flustered and the boy put a reassuring hand on her arm.

"Is that Beth Merriweather's voice I hear out there?" shouted Teaspoon as he wheeled his way into the hallway.

The woman turned and her face broke into a wide grin, "Teaspoon!" She flung her arms around him in a tight hug and he patted her back warmly.

At last she let go and he held onto her hands, looking up into her face. "Ye're just as pretty as ever, if I do say so myself."

She blushed her thank you and then suddenly remembering, withdrew a hand from his to motion the boy over. "Teaspoon, this is my son, Thomas."

"You look like an able boy. You play checkers?"

"Yes, sir," said Thomas shyly.

"Well, come on in then! You and I'll play a game while your mama tells us why she's finally come for a visit. David there ain't any kind of checkers player, I'd be happy for some actual competition."

David watched the woman carefully as she chatted with Teaspoon. She asked after Rachel and Lou, and Teaspoon told her about everyone. David knew who she was, knew why she was there even if she dodged the question gracefully. He'd memorized the way light refracted in hair that shade of silvery blonde, and he'd marveled at eyes that never wavered, that always met your own.

"So, you've come to see, Rose, eh?" asked Teaspoon when other topics of conversation slowed. "She's been readin' Ambrose's diary. She's a dreamy thing herself, 'spect she sees some of herself in it."

"Yes, it…it was very kind of her to let me know she had it," the woman answered sweetly, the blood rising in her face ever so slightly.

"King me!" shouted Thomas, interrupting the moment and taking Teaspoon's attentions away from his line of inquiry.

David spoke quietly, hoping not to be heard by the older man. "I could take you to Lincoln to see Rose, if you'd like; I was planning on making the trip myself in a few days."

"You were?" asked Teaspoon with a chuckle, "First I've heard of it."

"If Buck can spare me, of course," David added.

The woman looked at David and nodded. Teaspoon elbowed Thomas and pointed a palsied finger at David, "He's goin' courtin' if you ask me."

"Nobody did ask you, Teaspoon," David shot back, embarrassed. He blushed as Beth looked him over with kind and approving eyes.

***

Rose stared at the woman, at her perfectly smooth hair, her nervous smile, her shaking hands. There were tears trembling on the ledges of her eyes. Rose felt shaky and she did not notice David's arm at her elbow, steadying her. David and Emma did the talking, and the woman nodded at what they said. Rose did not feel able to talk, she felt suddenly turned to stone, immovable, unchangeable. David guided her to the parlor, and Rose found her eyes torn away from the woman, David whispering in her ear, "I thought you'd be happy, Rose."

Rose had expected to be happy too, but she was having trouble mustering up those feelings. This was not what she expected. Not a knock at the door on a usual day, and a neat little woman with a ten year old son, and no explanation...but there could never be an explanation that suited. Her mother was supposed to be dead or tragically poor or tragically ill - tragedy was the only excuse Rose was willing to accept. This woman was not tragic; there was too much an air of practicality to her.

David took the boy out to see to the team, and Emma went to make tea. The woman fidgeted nervously with the gloves in her hands, spoke at last without looking at Rose. "I expect you have a lot of questions, Rose." Rose nodded, not yet trusting her voice to speak. "I will answer what ones I can, though there are bound to be ones I can't, but I would prefer to tell you alone and then let you decide what you want the others to know."

Was there a catch in her voice? Rose thought she heard a catch, a sudden regret dredged up from somewhere inside. "Did you love my father?" the question came without bidding.

The woman laughed slightly, the tense pull around her eyes and lips relaxed a fraction, "I wasn't expecting that to be your first question.' The woman looked at Rose with a shake of her head, "You're a romantic, like my brother."

Emma came in with the tea and went out with a soft squeeze to Rose's shoulder. Rose repeated her question, "Did you love him?"

The woman looked out the window as though staring back through the years and sighed, "I often wondered what would have happened had James been there when I came back to Rock Creek with you. I imagine we would have married and yes, I think we would have come to love each other." She glanced at Rose, measured the stubbornness in her daughter's features, "But at the time, no, I can't say that I was in love with him. Nor, may I hasten to add was he in love with me. He was, in fact, very much in love with somebody else."

"Who?" Rose asked eagerly, unable to keep the childish curiosity from her voice.

"If he didn't tell you, Rose, then neither will I." They drank their tea in silence for a few moments, each holding their cup in the same delicate, elegant way. "Was James happy?" the woman asked in a soft voice, the quiet parlor vibrating with the words.

Rose contemplated the answer. "I don't know for certain. I always thought he was."

They sat in silence for a moment, aware of Emma and Sam's murmured conversation in the kitchen and of David playing with Thomas outside. The woman smoothed her already perfectly smooth hair, and her voice caught as she spoke again. "It was such a shock to get your letter. I thought maybe he'd had another daughter and the name had only been coincidence, but when I saw you...you look so much like you did when you were little. Just as pretty as you were."

"I don't know if I want to hear how I ended up in that orphanage," Rose blurted. "You seem like a very nice person, and I've always wondered about my mother, but - but I can't promise that your story...I've made up a great many stories to explain why I didn't know you, I'm not certain the truth will compare favorably."

Her mother sighed, and delicately set down her teacup. The tiny clink of the motion seemed to echo through the parlor, seemed to silence Sam and Emma in the kitchen, quiet the roughhousing of David and Thomas. "I understand, but I want the chance - "

The woman's shaking voice was cut off by Sam. He stood awkwardly in the doorway, hat in hand. "Sorry to interrupt, but uh, Rose, there's been an accident out at the Hensen's. The doc's hoping you can meet him out there."

Rose nodded, glad for an excuse to escape. "Of course, I'll leave right away." She stood up quickly and nodded perfunctorily at her mother, "Excuse me please." Her mother nodded back and watched as Rose hurried out the door. She caught Sam's eye and the lawman cleared his throat, fingering his collar nervously in the uncomfortable silence.

***

Buck built up the fire listening to the wheeze in Teaspoon's voice as he told a story he'd told many times before. The sound of Maya's needle and thread rasping through the bundle of buckskins on her lap provided a comfortable counterpoint to the old man's tale. It was like living in a picture of contentment from a child's primer. The crackling fire, Teaspoon beneath a quilt, the lamplight shining off Maya's dark hair, the three of them, bellies full, companionable, warm…the scene had no flaws, and yet Buck felt as though he'd rather be out on the trail, freezing beneath the early spring sky than a part of it.

Teaspoon lapsed in his story before he reached the end, pausing to cough and never picking up the yarn again. His silence only threw the frightening sound of his breath into starker relief and Buck instinctively grabbed at the medicine pouch around his neck. He looked to Maya, who remained focused on the sewing on her lap, yet her head was tilted ever so subtly, and her brow was creased as though she were listening intently to Teaspoon's heavy pull on the air. Coughing again, shaking the quilt on his knees into multi-colored sea waves, Teaspoon asked, "What's Cody got you sewin' on now?"

Maya lifted her head to answer, smiling as she did, "He needs buckskins for his show and he says no one else can do the beading as well as I can." She blushed even repeating the compliment, she was so unused to being needed for something. "The two of you require so little mending; I have the time to help."

Teaspoon nodded at the answer and turned again to stare at the dancing fire. He seemed to often look at ghosts these days, his long winded stories interrupted by silent reminiscence more often than not. The quiet of the room pressed in on Buck, and he measured his heartbeat against the steady sound of Maya's needle until Teaspoon's breathing morphed into a rattling snore as constant as the ticking of the clock.

***

Rose lay on top of her bed, a handful of her quilt clenched in her fist. This time there had not been such an awful lot of blood; just the sickly sweet smell of ether and Mr. Hensen's body broken and bent with purpled contusions mottling his skin, his abdomen stretched tight as blood pooled inside of him. There was no saving him, his insides were pulp and everything in him stagnated.

There was no one who understood the fury that made Rose kick her boot against her tick and snort hot air our her nose as if she could expel the memory of Mrs. Hensen's screaming. Her anger was unfocused, for there was never anyone to blame for the dozens of harsh realities that produced the patients she and Doc Hanes could not save. A part of her had relished Sam's appearance, the idea that her mother had seen how important Rose was, how people needed her, how she was called on in life and death situations. Rose liked to fancy herself a hero, but the truth had been weak knees at the smell of the ether.

The knock at the door was timid, and Rose knew who it would be. Emma with a cool wash cloth and a cup of tea. It was meant to be soothing, but tea in the face of death seemed absurdly inadequate to Rose. Still, for Emma's sake, for Rose knew she worried, she called out, "Come in."

She didn't look up at the light footsteps or the soft shutting of the door. She did not turn until she felt someone sit at the foot of the bed. This was a departure from routine and she sat up warily and looked at who had come in. Her mother stared at her hands, neatly folded in her lap. "Things didn't go very well?"

Rose sat against the headboard, drawing her knees up to her chest, "Mr. Hensen died."

"I'm sorry," her mother whispered, running her hand over the quilt. Her hand paused over a bit of black cotton with tiny white dots scattered across it. "This looks like a shirt your father had."

"It was," sniffled Rose, eyeing her mother with defensive eyes.

Her mother just nodded. "David is a very nice young man."

"I guess," muttered Rose. She did not want to discuss David with this woman. Right now she didn't want to discuss much of anything with anyone. She roughly ran her fingers under her eyes, wiping away what remained of her tears.

"Emma says you often help the doctor," her mother started awkwardly, waiting for the agreeing nod from Rose before continuing, "and that you are almost always this upset afterwards."

Rose sighed with frustration, "I can't help it. I want to help people, but every time…it's always ugly, and usually there's so much blood, so much more than you ever expect. I'm too much of a coward to be much help."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. What sort of a person would you be if those things didn't bother you?"

"An adult," Rose answered gruffly.

"No, Rose, you would only be hard. Anyway, you musn't be too much of a coward. David told me you walked into the middle of a gunfight to save a friend."

Rose felt the heat rise to her face. She was not sure that the word friend described Jesse. The pile of letters in her dresser were more than friendly, though laced with guilt and retractions. "That was different," she answered.

Her mother laughed softly, shaking her head, "You are so like my brother. You know that journal you have, it only tells the story of him out west, not the truth of it. He wrote me letters, and he was so devastated he didn't live up to his daydreams. He couldn't ride a horse, he couldn't shoot a gun; he felt a fool. But when push came to shove, he saved your father's life. That you're afraid, Rose, doesn't matter, it's what you do that counts."

"But I couldn't do anything! Mr. Hensen still died." Rose sobbed and as her mother reached out for her, Rose buried her teary face against her shoulder without a second thought. Her mother stroked her hair and hushed her sweetly, until her sobs quieted and when they parted, Rose noticed her mother was crying too.

Her mother laughed and pushed the tears away, "Look at how silly I am, crying. I just never imagined I would get the chance to hug you again." She drew a fancy handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped Rose's face and then her own. "Thomas and I will leave on the stage tomorrow. But you have my address and I hope you will write. When you want to hear my story, I want to tell it."

Rose nodded and watched her mother head for the door, "Wait!" she cried, stopping her mother's hand on the doorknob. "Teaspoon and Joss and I all celebrate our birthday on April fifth -"

"But your birthday is in Novem-"

"Dad didn't know," Rose said quickly, without malice. "Teaspoon doesn't know his birthday and neither does Joss, so we've always just celebrated together. Anyway, everyone will be at Buck's ranch and if you could come…" She let the invitation hang in the air.

Her mother smiled, "I'll be there."

***

The birthday was a solemn affair. It wasn't the first time Joss had not been there, but her absence before had never been so noticeable. A cold had settled in Teaspoon's chest and he celebrated from bed, a sinister cough wracking his frame. Beth was there and everyone welcomed her warmly, purposely avoiding asking questions. Beth stayed with Rose in Teaspoon's room as the others scattered, the men to the stables and the women to the kitchen. Emma and Lou's occasional bursts of laughter filtered through the house to the back bedroom, where Teaspoon sleepily told the two of them stories Rose had heard a million times before.

Perhaps Teaspoon's declining health made him unaware of the unspoken ban on asking questions of Beth, or perhaps he knew what he was doing when he said, "Now, Beth, just how did Rose end up with us? No one's told me the story, and I suspect it's a doozy."

Beth laughed nervously, "No one knows the story, Teaspoon."

The old man chuckled, "Even better. Then let's hear it, eh, Rose?"

Beth looked at her daughter and Rose nodded slowly. Beth looked at her hands, carefully inspecting her clean nails as she started to speak, her voice shaking. "When the Oregon families realized their unmarried school teacher would be having a baby, they were quick to dismiss me. The parson and his wife felt a Christian obligation to take me in until Rose was born, but quickly thereafter it was clear my welcome had worn thin. I didn't have anywhere to go, or any friends except you all in Rock Creek. I managed to get us there, though how we made it still amazes me. And no one was there. I'd run out of money, and I couldn't go any farther. Besides everyone said James had headed for the war, and I couldn't very well follow him. I found work with Tompkins and he was very kind, even giving us a room above the store to call our own. I was there for almost a year when influenza hit. It hit me pretty hard; popular opinion was that I wouldn't make it. Tompkins told me he couldn't take care of the store, Rose, and me; he said until I was well Rose would have to be sent away. He told me he was sending her to stay with his daughter, that we would send for her when I was better." Beth's voice broke and Teaspoon squeezed her hand in his trembling one. "It took months before I was fully recovered and then - Tompkins told me Rose had taken sick since she'd been gone and that she had died." She turned to Rose but could barely meet her eyes, "If I had known you were alive, Rose…I thought you were dead, and I missed you so. I planted rose bushes all around our little house in Waderville to remind me of you -" Rose reached out and pulled her mother into a tight embrace.

She did not let go until she felt Emma's soft hand on her shoulder. "It's about time to head back to the hotel," she said sweetly, her own eyes glistening. "Mr. Spoon's worn out."

"Now, Emma, I got some get up and go left," Teaspoon protested.

"We'll be back in the morning," said Emma brusquely, kissing his cheek and herding Beth and Rose out the door. There was chaos at the front door, coats being pulled on, good-byes being said. David, however, was missing and Rose looked out the open door and saw him on the bunkhouse porch.

"I can't go yet," she said suddenly, "I promised David he could show me the work he's been doing on the bunkhouse."

Sam grunted, as he often did when Rose mentioned David, and answered in a stern voice, "It'll still be there in the morning."

Cody winked at Rose, and leaned lazily against the door jamb, "I could stay a little longer, Sam. I'll bring Rose into town after she's had a look."

Sam grumbled something that sounded like permission and Rose winked back at her uncle before running out to the bunkhouse.

She found David standing on the porch of the bunkhouse. Rose suspected that the day would come when she would move into the house he was creating and be very happy as Mrs. McSwain. Jesse would be relegated to a daydream, which is where he belonged.

David's brow was furrowed, and his expression did not soften as she approached. "You've been looking sour all day," she chirped as she walked up the steps and leaned playfully into him. "What's wrong?"

David shrugged, "I don't want to ruin your birthday." He squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain.

"What happened?" Rose whispered. David only handed her a crumpled bit of newspaper and she read it in the dim glow of the porch lantern. "I don't understand…" her voice faltered.

"I never liked Bobby Ford," David growled, his voice tight and caught in his chest, "Knew you couldn't trust him. Never thought he'd shoot someone in the back though, let alone Jesse." He put his arm around Rose as she trembled, tiny sobs escaping her lips. It broke David's heart to hear her cry, and he cursed himself for a fool. No one picked David McSwain when Jesse James was the other choice.

***

The sun had set hours earlier, before the cake with the bright candles was brought out of the kitchen, the flames casting Maya's face into familiar shadows that Buck remembered with a pang that forced him to look away. Now the cake was more than halfway gone, and Cody still stood in the kitchen, wolfing down just one more piece while he talked with Maya about the costume requirements of his show. In past years, there would have been a pile of string and colored paper on the floor for Buck to choose to neglect until the morning. This year Maya had scrupulously gathered it up immediately, and Rose's presents stood not in the disarray of years past, but in a neat pile on the sideboard. Teaspoon's gifts had been trotted in to him, and were piled atop his dresser, next to the warped frame with the picture Ike had drawn so many years ago. Upstairs, in a dresser drawer Buck saved for such things, was another gift.

The present had been waiting for Joss for two years, and Buck supposed it would wait another. He imagined the heavy silver cuff tarnishing, wrapped in a fading bit of yellow calico, as years passed by and Joss never claimed it. He wandered into Teaspoon's room. The older man was snoring, still propped up on pillows to receive well-wishers and blow out the candles with Rose's help. Buck settled the blankets around him, arranged the pillows into a more comfortable position. A breath caught in Teaspoon's throat, and he coughed in his sleep, something rattling ominously in his lungs. Buck glanced out the window, where the winter moonlight cast the bare tree boughs in blue and silver, towards the old bunkhouse, black and indistinct in the night. Two shadows leaned close to each other, Rose and David, speaking in whispers, holding hands.

Buck walked upstairs, holding a lantern in front of him, lighting up the dark hall and the two doors, each open barely enough to peer in. He did not bother to close the door behind him as he went into his own spare room, the broken bowl and pitcher next to the whole one on his dresser. He turned down his lamp and looked out the window, over the undulating sea of prairie grass, waving in the night wind. He did not know how long he had been there when he heard her at the door. "Why don't I stay with you tonight?"

"No," he mumbled in reply, "that's alright. You don't have to."

She walked into the room and stood beside him, absently running her slender fingers through his hair. "I know that." She did not pester him for a response, but let him stay silent. With practiced ease, she braided his hair, letting the braid fall loose and beginning again as she reached the end of his hair. "Cody needs many costumes for this show of his."

Buck had to laugh, a little ruefully even. "Cody's show. He's always been a dreamer, but that show…" his voice petered out, there weren't words to describe Cody's latest folly.

"He will be traveling to many fine cities. He will need someone to fix tears and replace buttons. He has thirty braves and each one must wear beaded buckskins." Her voice was soft and warm, and Buck closed his eyes as he listened to it. "Cody says white women's stitches are too big, too loose, the beads lay crooked and fall off. He will need someone who can sew small to keep them looking right."

Buck cracked open an eyelid and craned his neck to look at her, "Someone like you?"

Gently, Maya turned his head back towards the window, intent on keeping the braid of his hair straight. "I owe you the duty of a wife, but you owe me nothing. If you wish me to stay here, I will. But you are unhappy with me here, and I am unhappy, and if we are both unhappy…" she shrugged, "I have always wanted to see the city buildings. They say they touch the sky."

They looked out the window in silence, Maya's hands weaving in and over in steady rhythm. The moon cast landscape fell into darker shadow, and the lantern burnt low, its light pale and yellow. "Teaspoon is dying," Buck whispered, the thought frightened him even more when spoken.

Maya's hands let his hair fall, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Again they lapsed into silence, Buck stared outside; Maya stared at him. He peeled her arms away from him and turned to look at her. A few wisps of black hair fell around her face, and Buck carefully tucked them behind her ear. He kissed her cheek softly and said nothing. There were tears in her eyes and she threw her arms around his neck with a soft cry. They held each other for a moment before she let him go, brushing away the tears that stained her face. "You should go with Cody," Buck said, "You should be happy."

"And you?"

Buck looked at her helplessly, "I will try to be the same."

***

In the morning, the entire family was back at the ranch for breakfast. David saw them arrive from his door. He'd been up and working for some time already, and at the moment was knocking the rotted wood from the door jamb, replacing the worn frame with fresh timber. He didn't particularly feel like joining the loud jostling crowd at the table, preferring to be alone with his own thoughts and the leaden weight in his chest.

Rose was sent to fetch him or, had he been in a better frame of mind, chose to come out and find him. Either way, she appeared in the doorway, pretty and pink-cheeked, her freckles like gold dust across her face. "Aren't you coming in for breakfast?"

"Not sure I feel like it," he answered, trying not to look at her too closely. "Got a lot of work to do."

"Everyone's talking about Jesse; it's hard to believe that they knew him too."

"Yeah," David focused on the task in front of him. Of course she would want to talk about Jesse. He tore away the old wood savagely, the care he'd taken on the rest of the house seemed wasted and at the moment he found the squeal of the rusty nails soothing.

Rose gazed curiously over his shoulder into the house. "Will you go see him? They say the body will be on display for awhile."

"I wouldn't be welcome. Will you go?"

Rose seemed surprised by the question, "No." She turned away from him for a moment before looking up at him again, squinting her eyes in the morning sun, "I forgot last night that you were going to show me the house. Can you show me now while they're trying to fit everyone around the table? It's so crowded, no one will notice if we're not there for awhile."

"Alright," David nodded, and set down his tools. He felt a pleasant rush as she took his arm to follow him inside. The big room remained largely unchanged, but the bunks were gone. He had a settee and horsehair chair on one side of the room, a small table on the other, the benches replaced by chairs he'd made himself and stained a yellow gold.

Rose looked it over approvingly, "It doesn't look like the same place."

David led her back to what was once the backdoor. Now it opened on a small room, just big enough for the brass bed and wardrobe inside of it. Two rolls of wallpaper stood in the corner. Rose looked from them to David with her eyebrows raised. "Roses? That's an odd choice for a bachelor."

David blushed and spluttered, "I…I like roses. But I can't decide which one to use, I thought maybe you would - " he faltered, unable to finish the sentence. He was presuming too much.

"They're both lovely," Rose answered sweetly, looking up at him with eyes that could pass for adoring. "But I think I would prefer the smaller flowers - if I were you. Now, show me the rest."

"There's not much more," David mumbled.

"I know that front room used to be bigger. You divided some of it off, didn't you?"

"Yes, I didn't know anyone would notice. Here, the door's through the bedroom," he pointed nervously at the small door across from them. Rose opened it and stepped into a long, narrow, white washed room with the bunkhouse's old windows along one wall. The room was empty except for a willow rocker.

Rose picked up a worn teddy bear from the rocker. "Is this yours?" she teased him.

"It was," David answered, "I thought that maybe, I mean if I were to -"

Rose blushed as she replaced the bear on the rocker; she could well imagine what the room was intended for, the width probably being just enough for a crib. "It's a beautiful house, David," she said happily, reaching out for his hands and smiling at him.

David felt his heart pound rapidly in his chest, and he fidgeted with her fingers, watching the way they interlaced with his own as he spoke, "I'm glad you like it." He felt himself tumbling into those grey eyes, and it was a very pleasant fall.

"We should go into breakfast," she murmured, not taking her eyes from his. They didn't move at first, but at last headed out of the house and across the yard.

"When will you be back this way again?" David asked, noticing that she still held one of his hands in her own.

"Soon, I would imagine. I want to check in on Teaspoon; he seems to have gotten so much older this winter." She swung their hands playfully in the air. "And we'll want to start making plans for the wedd-" Rose caught herself mid-sentence and David came to a dead stop in the muddy yard, staring down at her, mouth agape. "I mean presuming that you were going to ask…" her voice trailed off and she looked down miserably.

"If I asked would you say yes?" David asked gently, lifting her chin up to better see her eyes. Rose nodded vigorously, not trusting her voice. "Then I asked," David said, grinning widely.

He bent to kiss her, pulling away when Sam's voice barked at them from the porch, "That's enough of that now." Rose giggled and David swung their hands happily back and forth through the air between them as they climbed the steps and went into the house.

EPILOGUE: July 1881

The funeral ended but everyone lingered in the cemetery. They'd spent years expecting it, but no one was ready to say goodbye. Rose clenched her jaw and looked out stoically, David's arm wrapped securely around her shoulders, anchoring her. Sam and Emma, Kid and Lou, mimicked the pose with subtle variations, each relying on the other for strength. Cody couldn't make it, and so only Buck stood alone, wishing for something or someone to hold onto. Slowly the couples took their leave, walking with heavy feet out the gate, most of them never noticing the figure that stood outside the fence.

The others were well on their way back to the ranch by the time Buck felt able to tear himself away. He turned his back on Teaspoon's grave and saw her, leaning against the fence from the outside, her eyes red and nestled in darkened hollows. She said nothing, and for a moment neither did he. He left the cemetery, and circled around the fence to where she was. He reached for her hand and she gave it to him, letting it relax into his firm grip.

Joss turned to him, her eyes aglimmer with tears. "He had me makin' up stories, y'know, figurin' out ways he might have really been my pa, might not have known about me. Hell, my mama might have been one of his wives, weren't no way for me to know. I hadn't made stories like that up since I was real little. I just figured good riddance to family, I didn't need nobody anyway, but Teaspoon…he just wormed in under your skin, and had me wishin' things different." Buck nodded and pulled her close, holding her trembling form to his chest. He understood, Teaspoon made people family just by the sheer power of his will and his compassion, and now that he was gone that connection felt stronger somehow, as if the loss of him had sealed all of them as family, bound up together by grief.

He'd lost track of what Joss was saying, but stopped thinking to listen again. Her voice sputtered on, her words interrupted by sobs and her snuffling nose. "When I was stayin' at that boardin' house in Saint Joe where your friend's mail used to always come, her dad sent her a little girl. Weren't hers, weren't his. This little girl, couldn't have been more than three, and her mama was dying and her pa didn't know he even had a girl, and nobody wanted her. Took her to the orphanage myself, but first I made a friend read through the letter that came with her, I couldn't read much then, and he wrote her name out on a piece of paper and we pinned it to her dress. I didn't want her not to know her own name, not like me. Wanted her to have some place to start when she was dreamin' up stories of who her parents were and why they'd left her. 'Cause you can't figure it out if you don't got a starting place, and everybody's got to know where they belong. Teaspoon made me belong, even if I fought it, and he gave me a startin' place, even if it were just wishful thinkin'."

Buck said nothing, but ran his hand over her hair, the repetitive motion as soothing to him as it was to her. They stood there for a second, the spring breeze growing chillier as it grew stronger, and the poplar leaves flickered from green to silver in the wind. At last, she pulled back from him and looked up at him with a grim smile. "I'm bein' silly, ain't I?" she tried for the usual hard set to her face but failed and looked down chewing on her lower lip, trying to keep it from trembling.

"Come on, let's go home," he whispered and Joss nodded, blinking back a few errant tears before squeezing his hand gently and letting him lead the way home.

Thanks again to Ellie for beta-ing this entire project; truly could not happen without you.

Email Mollie

HOME