He had ridden hard for a few days now and both he and his horse were tiring. He hadn't felt so dusty, and exhausted since the Express ended. His eyes were gritty and his back ached and he had very cold feet. His boots were snug and warm, but the queasy feeling in his stomach had been getting stronger as the wedding got closer.
Jimmy stared down at the small house below. He thought he heard snatches of song on the breeze but brushed the notion aside as a bit of uncharacteristic whimsy on his part. The yard was neat with roses blooming in a row beside the house, like sentinel guards keeping watch.
She was still pretty, as she bent among the flowers, tending to them. Time had distorted Jimmy's memory and he hadn't realized how much Rose looked like her. She still looked at the world straight on and straight-backed and that too she shared with her daughter.
He imagined himself riding down the hill; arriving on her doorstep unannounced. But beyond that imagination failed. She caught sight of him and seemed to wave. Jimmy froze, all certainty fled from him, his purpose muddied. He stared at her and the way her skirts and hair flew in the wind, as though she were a memory only, something as insubstantial as air.
Beth twirled the flower in her hand, watching the wind riffle through the delicate petals. She was singing softly, but she was unaware of the lulluaby or the tears at the corners of her eyes. Roses often made her tear up, which was why Theo didn't like her planting them. But she insisted, and they lined the front of the house, pink and yellow and coral. Beth thought of her little girl and not for the first time wondered what she would be like now. She'd be thirteen and if she took after her mother, stubborn and prone to trouble. When she was little, Rose had shown more signs of having Ambrose's dreamy nature than Beth's own practicality. Beth wondered what parts of her daughter came from James Hickok. She'd looked like him, certainly, but Beth used to wonder during those years at Tompkins if that's where Rose had gotten her energetic temper. Beth hadn't known Jimmy well enough to know for sure. And what did it matter now anyway, Rose was gone. Both Rose and Jimmy were bittersweet memories, warm thoughts and quiet regrets. Beth dropped the rose in her hand into the basket with its fellows and stood up, her skirts billowing out around her.
There was a hill on the road past their house and Beth looked to see a lone rider there, silhouetted against the sky. It was a heroic picture - the sort of thing that might have been on the cover of one of Ambrose's books. It almost seemed unreal. She raised her hand to wave in greeting. She could not see the rider's face but felt he was looking at her, staring even, and she wasn't convinced he was friendly. She shielded her eyes against the sun hoping to get a better look. She wondered if she should be frightened.
"Momma!" a little boy in big glasses ran around the corner of the house and hugged her legs. "I caught a fish for dinner."
Beth looked down at her son and laughed, ruffling his hair, "Just one?"
"I caught some too."
She watched as her husband rounded the corner, carrying a string of trout. He caught sight of the roses and his forehead wrinkled as he wrapped an arm around her waist. "You're being sad again," he said sweetly, kissing her forehead.
"I can't help it, Theo, I miss her." Beth let herself be led towards the house by the two of them. The rider was forgotten.
Jimmy sighed and watched the family go inside. They looked happy, like something from the pages of a story-book. He turned his horse back towards town and left without looking back. The image of the house, the yard, the roses started to fade into something like a dream, too perfect for reality, and he would not break it.
He let his horse break into a faster pace and had to grab at his colts to keep them from being jiggled loose. The scarlet sash that had replaced his belt was Agnes' idea. She liked well-dressed men, and he liked pleasing her. He looked once back over his shoulder at the house with the roses. The gait of his horse and the rhythm of his heart repeating the same phrase, "What might have been, what might have beenů"