At first, Rose didn't believe it. Agnes had to tell her twice before she'd understood. There were too many distractions. The horsehair cushion felt stiff and unnatural where her hand braced against it. The light through the windows was sharp and seemed to cut things in half, leaving the entire parlor part in shadow and part white with sunshine. Rose shook her head as if to shake what she was hearing out of her ears. "But I don't understand," she whispered, "he said if he wasn't wearing a badge anymore, this wouldn't happen." Agnes explained it again, her own eyes bright with tears.

Agnes made soft motherly sounds and went to hug her but Rose shrugged her off. "I'm going for a walk," she said and slipped out the door like something insubstantial. She wandered through town, sparing no thought for the sunshine or the dresses in the windows. She felt the bustle of people and the squeal and rattle of wagons like sandpaper over her nerves. And all the while an unbiddable anger clenched her fists and gritted her teeth.

After the reverend offered his condolences, Rose tried to avoid the sympathetic stares of the townsfolk. Her need to get away from the solemnly shaken heads and the gentle squeezes of her arm drove her to the edge of town where the stage depot stood, a northern bound stage sitting empty - for who wanted to go North with autumn peering around the corner? She was an hour out of town before she fully realized what she was doing. Ahead of her lay the town and the man who'd claimed her father's life, and Rose was going to find justice there.

***

The camp thoroughfare was muddy and crowded with a host of rough and dirty characters. Rose found it difficult to imagine her father walking down this street in his tall shiny boots and fancy vest, the red sash at his waist and his two sparkling guns. The stage disgorged its passengers in front of a hotel, and Rose stood on the board walk beginning to panic. She had only two bits in her pocket, no change of clothes and had hardly slept since leaving Cheyenne. She had imagined arriving and seeking out McCall in a heated rage; ruthlessly gunning him down, shooting until his blood poured out in a flood of biblical proportions. But now the reality of the situation pierced the haze she'd been in. She was alone, with no money, in a terrifying place. She had no gun, no way to obtain one, and her father had been scrupulous in seeing to it that she did not know how to use one.

Tears started to sting her eyes. She needed a miracle and one seemed unlikely in the muddy, pungent atmosphere. A palsied hand grabbed at her, the tattered lace at its sleeve yellowed. "Allow me to provide you accommodations away from the rowdy bustle of the thoroughfare."

Rose looked over the rodent like man with frightened eyes. He was repulsive and the clutch of his hand made her shudder, but she was alone and not knowing what else to do, she nodded. The creature led her by the elbow into the hotel and paused at the front desk. "What name shall I enter into the register?" he asked with a strained civility that barely seemed to contain whatever darkness seethed inside him.

"Rose Hickok."

"Miss Hickok!" the creature hiccupped, his face a mask of both fear and excitement. "Not related to the late Wild Bill, who indeed spent his last night under our very roof?"

Rose looked at him shrewdly, distrustful of his eager look. "He was my father," she said in measured words meant to convey an authority she did not have.

"Come with me then, and quickly," the hotel man said, leading her back out the door, "There are several august personalities in our camp who will want to meet you."

"I'm sorry," Rose answered shakily, trying to resist his pull on her arm, "I'm really very tired and I'd rather not."

"I'm afraid they will brook no delay," the creature yipped excitedly and hustled down the street through the morass of people and into a saloon of sturdy if questionable character. "Al! Al!" the creature screeched, still dragging Rose behind him.

The saloon was clean, its patrons were not. It was early yet and there were merely a few drunks and some lazy working girls lounging at the tables. Rose fidgeted, looking in vain for a friendly face. The women, in dirty undergarments glared at her dress and shoes, her neat hair. The drunks leered at her and one licked his lips like a dog in anticipation of table scraps. She hardly noticed the game of faro in a corner by the door, or the lean, hungry face that watched her from it.

"What is it, E.B.?" said a man in a dark suit, looking Rose over warily.

"I think you'll want to discuss this in your office, Al, where Miss Hickok will no doubt feel more comfortable," the creature from the hotel leaned in and whispered in a conspiratorial manner meant to be overheard.

Al's eyebrows raised, "Hickok?" he said in a voice dark with danger, "I think that does merit a trip upstairs, E.B. Miss Hickok, won't you follow me?" Rose knew that you didn't say no to that even smile and went up the stairs steadily, focusing on the way the air filled her lungs and then left them without thought or effort on her part.

***
Neither Al Swearengen nor the sweaty hotel man said a word to Rose once they reached the office upstairs. Al's eyes stayed on her, appraising her with the detachment of a jeweler to a diamond. How much was she worth? He peppered EB with questions, always circling back to the same one. "And Bullock doesn't know she's here?"

"No, Al, I snatched her up as soon as she was off the stage. Knew you'd want it kept quiet which is why I wisely secreted her here where you might decide how best to make use of her."

"Does Bullock expect her?" Al asked shrewdly and getting only a dithering shrug of a response from EB turned the question to Rose, "Does Bullock expect you?"

Rose was confused and tired; the only thing keeping her from panic was her temper. "I don't know anyone by that name, sir," she said, her voice defiant if wavering.

Al shook his head, "You do not want to make the mistake of thinking that bein' a woman or young earns you any protection in my eyes. If you lie to me, I will know, and you will not relish the consequences."

Rose met his gaze evenly. The open threat had quenched the fear that tingled up her spine, and she felt a strong urge to slap Al, to slam his head into the scarred desk top. There was a knock on the door, a penitent voice calling in, "Al, that soap seller says she's got to talk to you, right away. Says she knows all about Hickok's daughter."

"The web gets tangled, huh?" Al said with a mirthless smile. "Let her in, Dan," he called outside.

Rose watched with interest and apprehension as a mousy looking woman in a worn calico dress slunk into the doorway. Like everything in the camp, the woman was covered by a layer of grime, though in her case it hadn't seemed to quite set in past her skin. The woman looked dangerous, her frame tensed and ready to flee or fight if necessary. Her eyes were cold bits of jade, like an animal's, devoid of any emotion other than survival. Rose had never known a woman who carried such menace and it made her shudder.

Then Rose recognized her. It was Joss. Rose had only met her at the wedding. As Buck's business partner and a friend of Agnes' she'd been there. Rose had found her intimidating even then, for she was gruff and brusque and lacked the gentility and grace of other women. But she had been friendly enough, and when Rose was bored with the dancing, Joss had taught her how to spit outside, chewing cloves and then launching the soggy brown mass a foot into the street. Away from Buck's ranch, however, she had morphed into this frightening creature, and Rose felt unsure as to whether she could be trusted.

Al looked at the woman as though greeting an honored guest, and when he spoke his voice was measured and full, "You know this girl?"

"In a manner of speaking," Joss answered. She spared no focus for Rose, but stayed intent on Al answering his congenial manner in kind. "I've done business with her uncle."

"Did you know her father?"

"Met him a few times. Only a passing acquaintance." Joss answered.

It was Al's speed that made Rose gasp, the unexpectedness of it, as he turned and grabbed Joss, slamming her face against the edge of his desk. "And you see this as the fittin' time to share that fact?" Joss knelt at his desk, no breath to answer as Al strode around to her. Rose stared in fascination and horror as he grabbed Joss' hair and pulled her back and into the one chair left empty. He remained there, his hand tight on her hair, bending her neck over the back of the chair.

"Don't!" Rose shouted, but the sound seemed weak, even to her.

Al looked amused by her exclamation, "You do not want to play the hero, here, Miss Hickok." Joss struggled to rise and Al used his free hand to slam her back into the chair. Rose watched as dark blood started to collect at the corner of her lip. "Does Bullock expect her?" Joss groaned but made no answer. "Does Bullock expect her?" Al shouted.

"How would I know," came the garbled reply, "Bullock and I ain't exactly chums."

Al pulled back on her hair a little harder, stretching her neck further, "That this would be a coincidence is enough to make the Almighty believe in a higher power. I have granted you some amount of protection and leniency as Bullock seems to have taken a dislike to you. How is it then that when his confederate's daughter arrives in camp you know her? The mind boggles."

Through spit and blood, Joss' voice came in starts and stops, her arms flailed ineffectually against Al, "She ain't his daughter."

"What?" Rose squeaked. She began to fear that she hadn't any friend in the room.

The pull from Al's hand lessened a fraction. "Do continue," he said in velvet tones.

"She ain't his daughter. It's a scam. A con we cooked up in Cheyenne. She just got into town and your lackey brings her here before I can give her the lay of the land."

"And what exactly is the current geography?" Al's voice was suspicious if no longer cruel.

"That there's no one of consequence in the camp that can be conned. You ain't lost no tears over Wild Bill, and Bullock's too cussed upright. And Wild Bill didn't have another friend of means to make the venture pay off."

"The lay of the land, in terms of playing schemes, is that I am the one pulling those strings." Al tugged on Joss' hair so that her face was tilted far enough upwards to look him in the eye. "Something goes down in this camp without my say-so, those that did it had better hope they have Bullock backing their play. I do not like entrepreneurs. I allow you to gamble in my joint, though the presence of a fully dressed female usually cools a game. As our Montana man will not have you outside his hardware store, I grant you freedom to hawk your dubious soap, outside of my joint and EB's hotel-"

"In which I have rendered you good service, by giving you means to further rankle Bullock," interrupted Joss.

There was a tense silence in which Rose felt Joss' life hang in the balance. "Fair enough," said Swearengen at last, dropping her hair, and returning to his seat behind the desk. "In payment for said services rendered, I will assume this little conversation has been sufficient to convince you of my sincerity on the subject. No cons without my permission." He passed a hand over his oiled hair and sighed deeply. He poured a shot of whiskey from a bottle in the desk drawer and peered at the amber liquid intently before downing it. He motioned carelessly towards the door, "Get out of here."

The hotel man stayed where he was, "But, Al, is that wise? Maybe she's not Hickok's daughter, but we were taken in by the ruse, why wouldn't Bullock? She might cozy up to him and we would finally get to the bottom of his animosity towards you and your ambitions for the camp." He stared greedily at Rose who shuddered beneath his gaze.

"EB, shut up," Al snapped back curtly, one hand at his temple, as though the weight of the world had settled on his shoulders. "I don't want Wild Bill's ghost in this camp anymore than I wanted him here. We're going to let dead dogs lie." Joss' firm hand on Rose's shoulder kept her from responding.

***

The tent was small, cramped, bare; boxes of soap against one canvas wall, a wobbly cot against another. Joss hadn't spoken since they'd left the Gem and Rose still felt uncertain whether she was in the company of a friend. Joss all but shoved her into the tent, and gestured toward the cot in a no nonsense manner that had Rose sitting down meekly, ready to accept whatever lecture or punishment might be coming.

Still, Joss kept silent. She tended to the dried blood on her face, the purple welt blooming on her cheekbone ugly and frightening. Joss wasted no time on tenderness, but scrubbed and prodded like an efficient and unsympathetic nurse. Rose watched with fascination, wincing and thankful she wasn't the one who'd been hurt. At last Joss turned to her, hands on her hips, a look of irritation on her face. "Anybody know ye're here?"

Rose shook her head and looked down at her hands where they lay trembling in her lap. She could hear the lecture now, and she couldn't help but shudder at the thought. Surely surviving the harrowing scene in Swearengen's office was punishment enough.

"Course not," Joss muttered almost too quietly to be heard. "Might be for the best; not sure Sam or Buck wouldn't just make things worse." She sighed and fiddled with the lamp propped on an empty soap crate in the middle of the room. At last it lit and the warm amber light made the tent seem a little less grim than before. "First thing I gotta do is unload this tent and sundries on some sucker. That oughta get us enough to find a ride out of here. Don't guess you got any money on ya?" Rose shook her head again. Joss exhaled loudly and then smiled, "Guess that's for the best too. Better if I'm not tempted."

Outside the hustle and bustle of the camp continued unabated. A couple of greasy, unfriendly faces peered into the tent at regular intervals, looking for something to steal and being discouraged only by the look in Joss' eyes. Joss rummaged around in her worn carpet bag until she found a nicely bound book. She tossed the book into Rose's lap, and Rose grabbed at it without thinking. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. 'Till then, stay in the tent, and don't talk to anyone. Read that book if you want, I stole it from the ranch last time I was there." Rose sniffled pathetically, and with a great sigh, Joss awkwardly hugged her. But then she was out of the tent and into the street.

***

Joss returned late. Outside the tent the sky was black velvet, starless and the traffic past the tent became more irregular; every man who passed smelled of liquor and sweat and the scent filtered through the heavy canvas and stuck around long after the shuffling, weaving steps had passed on. Rose continued to stare at the first page of the book Joss had left with her. She'd been unable to read. The words made no sense, but merged and melted on the page; or maybe she was crying again. She felt too dazed to tell. All afternoon she had tried to imagine her dapper father in this dirty, frightening place and failed. Rose was beginning to think there was too much in the world she did not know, did not understand; she could never learn it all, never find a way to fight through it alone.

"You hungry?" asked Joss as she came through the tent flap. One eye was swollen shut and the bruise on her face had grown bigger. It looked black in the shadows of the tent.

"No, thank you," Rose answered, startled out of her reverie.

"Good," Joss said wearily, and sitting on the edge of the bed started to unlace her shoes. "We got lucky. Charlie'll take us with the freight tomorrow. He's a good fella, tough." She stretched and gently touched her bruise, cursing loudly when she pushed too hard.

"Thank you," Rose stuttered, "for all your help."

Joss shrugged, "Buck wouldn't forgive me if I didn't. 'Sides, I was gettin' sick of this place anyway. Everybody here is workin' an angle. It ain't impossible to cheat a cheat, but it's a damn sight more work than I feel like puttin' in. We best get some sleep, it's gonna be a long ride tomorrow, and the day after too." She stood up and grabbed a canteen that was hanging on the tent pole and took a drink. She tossed it to Rose without putting in the stopper, and a splash of water hung in the air as it flew. Joss pulled a bedroll from beneath the cot and started to unroll it, but there wasn't enough room on the tent floor.

"Here, I can help," Rose said quickly and carefully moved the crate with the lamp out of the center of the small room. The two of them worked in silence, stacking the soap crates higher against the wall so that the stack was only one deep, until at last Joss unfurled the bed roll and turned the lamp low. There was the rustling of calico and bed clothes, the cot creaked under Rose's weight, and with a soft whoosh Joss blew out the lamp.

In the dark, Rose felt exhaustion and grief bear down on her chest with an uneasy pressure. It was impossible to tell which would win out, whether she would cry or sleep first. "Joss, will we have time tomorrow for me to visit my father?" Her voice sounded tiny and far away to her ears.

Joss sighed heavily and in the darkness Rose could see the faint shadow of her propped up on her elbow on the ground. "It ain't a good idea, Rose. You look a lot like Jimmy and Swearengen…" her voice faltered and faded into the night, but Rose understood what was left unsaid. "Charlie put up a real nice marker for him, though. And maybe someday you might could come back, once the camp is settled more."

"I don't like leaving him here," Rose said, staring up at the peaked roof of the tent, at the frayed edges of a hole in the canvas. "I can't picture him here. I tried all day, but I can't imagine it. He must have been someone else to be here; he couldn't have been my father. My father would have run a man like Swearengen out of town, and he wouldn't have stayed in that awful hotel, and what would he do here? I guess I didn't know him at all." She took a deep breath, expecting it to catch on a sob, but instead felt it fill her chest, watched the blanket rise and fall when she spoke again. "What were your parents like, Joss?"

"Don't remember much. Poor, for one thing."

Rose was not to be deterred, "Did they die when you were very young?"

"Might have." Joss did not offer more information immediately and Rose opened her mouth to speak again. "Don't know," continued Joss, perhaps sensing that more questions were to follow, "Mama left when I was seven. Don't know what happened to my Pa, just that he wasn't around. And one day she dresses me up and takes me to the train station and tells me we're gonna wait for my Pa to get in on a train. We wait all day and he never shows and she says she's going to check the schedule and I should stay put and not talk to anyone. And where she went from there, I don't know."

"How awful," Rose whispered, "What did you do?"

Joss shrugged, "Nothin' much, I was just a little thing." Rose felt her exhaustion gaining ground and tried to focus on the words in the darkness. Joss' voice continued, low and steady, "Some older kid found me, must've been about ten years old, and he showed me where all the little street kids slept, in the big livery at the center of town. They had three hay lofts and each one was filled to bursting with straw and children. And I learned to pick pockets and steal from the market stalls."

Half asleep already, Rose murmured softly, "When did you meet my father, Joss?"

Joss yawned as she answered, "Same time I met Buck, what four years ago."

"Not before me?" Rose asked without thinking, a fleeting hope already faded.

"No, not before you," Joss' words slipped softly into the night.

At last Rose could not fight it anymore. She was too tired to even feel the sadness and hurt that had driven her to Deadwood. She dreamt of her father, fussing with his mustache as he always did. She dreamt of him as he must have looked when he met her mother, young and clean-shaven, handsome. She dreamt of the smell of him, leather and hair wax; and the way that his arms had felt when he hugged her, the warmth and weight of his hands. She would not remember her dreams in the morning.

Email Mollie

HOME

::: Made with CoffeeCup : Web Design Software & Website Hosting :::