Part of the Lost and Found series
Rose cuddled up against Jimmy's shoulder, her two silvery braids catching the moonlight that slipped through her window. She was getting taller, and her bare feet and ankles stuck out below her crisp white nightgown. Hugs were becoming rare, which made Jimmy treasure this particular moment even more.
It was tradition for Jimmy to share a late night conversation with his daughter nights before he was leaving town. Jimmy realized with some regret that he left a lot. He and Sam had to go where the trouble was, and thankfully it wasn't often in Lincoln. But that meant a lot of time away, and lately he was beginning to wonder if his little girl wasn't growing too quickly to be kept up with.
She looked up at him with droopy eyes and a yawn, her arms crossed in exhausted defiance. "Why are you going to Rock Creek?" she pouted, "You just got home."
"Sorry, honey, I'd stay with you if I could."
She scowled, "There sure are a lot of criminals for you and Sam to chase down."
He laughed, she did that, made him laugh, "Well, I'm not chasing anyone down this time."
She glared at him, the same look of fury he'd given plenty of times. But on her face it looked ridiculous, and Jimmy couldn't help but wonder if some of the men he'd faced had wanted to laugh when they saw his menacing glare. "So you're choosing to leave," she accused, "You want to go."
"I'm trying to find an old friend." Jimmy answered. He didn't want to get her hopes up; he was going to have a hard enough time with his own.
"The one who sent you the letter?"
Jimmy stared at her in wonder. He still hadn't figured out how she always knew everything. "Yes. She sent me the letter a long time ago, when she was in trouble but I never got it."
"Because of the war," Rose mumbled sleepily.
She yawned and stretched, her little pink toes at the foot of the bed reaching for the farthest wall. "And now you have to be sure she's okay, even though it's years and years since she sent the letter and if she hasn't worked it out by now it's probably too late?"
Rose snorted, "Well that's stupid." Jimmy laughed and kissed the top of her head. Despite her protests he tucked her into bed. Moments like this were growing few and far between and he felt a need to hold onto them, to stretch the minutes into something less fleeting. Rose was growing up, growing away from him. She'd started asking questions about her mother, and Jimmy wondered how much longer he could avoid answering them. Soon, he thought, he'd have suitors to worry about. He shook his head to get rid of the thought. He stood in her doorway awhile, watching her as she fell asleep. The moonlight made the entire room glow, as if something from a dream, something so sweet and wonderful it could not be real, as though if he turned his back on it even once, it would disappear and Rose would be gone.
"Why are you going to Rock Creek anyway?"
Jimmy shrugged. If he could tell anyone the truth, it was Buck. He knew that Buck would not ask questions or comment. But Jimmy wasn't ready to tell anyone just yet, no matter how understanding they might be. Buck accepted his silence as an answer and they rode on, the wind fresh in their faces and birds singing overhead as they passed.
Jimmy and Buck slowed considerably as they approached the town, as if by staying away they could deny the painful memories. Rock Creek had become a town of ghosts for them. It had grown and prospered, but to them its streets would always seem empty, its cemetery crowded. After they'd left, no one had seen fit to return. Lou had stayed with Rachel until Jimmy brought Kid back from the war and Jimmy had chosen to settle, when he did settle, in Lincoln with Emma and Sam.
"Do you think Jenny Tompkins is still as pretty as she was before?" Jimmy asked suddenly, remembering his reason for asking Buck along.
"Didn't you hear? Tompkins died about a month ago. She's taken over the store. Sam told me. He just passed through here last week." Jimmy ignored the glare Buck leveled in his direction.
Buck slowed his horse to almost a stop, "Jimmy, is this all a big plan to get me and Jenny together?" Jimmy looked away guiltily. "I'm a married man, Hickok."
Jimmy sighed. He didn't want to make Buck upset but it was clear he was lonely, just him and Teaspoon on that ranch and the occasional hand or two. "Look, Buck one of the greatest men I know has had six wives and remains on the look out for the seventh. Why shouldn't you have two?"
"It's not the same, Jimmy."
Buck looked at him sadly and simply said, "Because it isn't."
The town bloomed in front of them. The wooden shops with their facades had mostly given way to sturdier buildings of red brick and the streets were clogged with handsome buggies and dirty work wagons. Down towards the bad end of town a circus tent was set up, bright blue and yellow in the sun.
In Rock Creek, Jimmy wasn't exactly sure where to start. He left Buck at the livery and struck out on his own. He hoped Buck would find his way to Tompkins but Jimmy resolved not to mention it. The town had changed, and there was only one person Jimmy knew for certain was still there. Sam had said that Davis was sheriff now, and Jimmy headed for his old office trying to figure how he could begin the conversation.
Jimmy was taken aback by Davis, his full and unruly beard, the hulking mass of him - the eager young deputy was gone. "Marshal Hickok!" Davis all but tipped over his chair as he scrambled to attention at the sight of Jimmy.
"Sit down, Davis; I ain't your boss no more."
Davis blushed beneath his beard and grinned, "Sorry, Marshal, but some habits are ingrained for life. Did you get those letters I sent you? Would've gotten 'em to you sooner but I didn't know where you were. When Marshal Cain mentioned he knew you…"
"I got 'em."
"Probably all old news by now anyways."
Jimmy chuckled, "Not entirely." He thought back over the fine script and the words he'd painfully figured out on his own, not trusting anyone else to look at the letter for him.
"I don't expect anything from you, James. I know you have Teaspoon to think of, as well as yourself. But I do want to see you and I bring with me someone you will want to meet."
Jimmy recovered from his musings to find Davis looking at him quizzically. He blustered a little as he spoke, "Uh, Davis, I uh, well, I was wondering, did anyone ever come lookin' for me after I left?"
"You? Well, Wild Bill got a few guns comin' through here, hopin' to make a name for themselves. That what you mean?"
Jimmy shook his head, Davis wasn't going to make this easy. "No. A girl, sometime in '63 or '64. Maybe right after Rachel and everybody left."
Davis pulled at his beard, thinking. "Yes, actually. The girl that ended up working for Tompkins came by looking for you. Pretty little thing, a widow. Mrs. Merriweather."
"She worked for Tompkins?" Jimmy could hear a three year old Rose in the back of his head, "Tockins said she couldn't take care of me anymore…"
"For a while, yeah."
"Did she, uh, did she die?" Jimmy asked uncertainly.
Davis thought for a minute, "No, not that I know of. She got real sick awhile after she showed up here. They had to send her little girl out to relatives and I don't know particulars, but the little girl didn't come back. Mrs. Merriweather stayed on after that for maybe another year or so and then she married and left."
Jimmy clenched his jaw in anger. This was unexpected, that Rose's mother might have chosen to give her up, to not call her back once she'd recovered. And it presented a whole host of new problems. Before he'd only been afraid of revealing his own indiscretions, but when Rose was old enough to understand, he was willing to do it; he knew she deserved the truth. But he couldn't imagine telling his little girl that she'd been sent away and her mama had lived, and not cared enough to bring her daughter back. "Who'd she marry?"
"Blacksmith, I think," Davis answered, "Name of Banks. They went to Waderville, if I remember correctly. You lookin' for Mrs. Merriweather?"
"Yeah," Jimmy mumbled. Davis waited patiently for an explanation, but Jimmy didn't even know where to start. Before he could start bumbling through an explanation, Buck came through the door with a look of fury on his face. Jimmy seized the opportunity. "Buck, meet Davis, my old deputy. Davis, this is my friend, Buck Cross, useta ride with the Express."
"Mr. Cross," Davis said with a tip of his hat.
Buck nodded in his direction, "Nice to meet you, Sheriff." He cast a sidelong glance at Jimmy before addressing Davis again, "Sheriff, just how long has Tompkins's daughter been in town?"
"About three weeks."
Jimmy looked at his friend in concern, "Somethin' wrong. Buck?"
"She's not Jenny."
The girl behind Tompkins' counter was, indeed, not Jenny. Her hair was brown, her eyes green. She was tall and thin and though her hair was smooth and her dress clean there was a certain roughness to her that could not be denied. She eyed them warily as they walked in. Jimmy had seen the look a thousand times, the look of someone afraid of being caught.
She finished wrapping a length of gingham for a pretty woman and then waved at them. "Hello, Sheriff, somethin' I can get for you?"
She was gutsy, Jimmy would give her that. She wasn't bolting and she wasn't giving anything away.
"Miss Tompkins, sorry to bother you but Marshal Hickok and his friend here seem to think they know you," Davis carefully positioned himself by the door, blocking escape.
"They do?" she asked brightly.
Jimmy cleared his throat, "Actually, we know Jenny Tompkins, and you, pardon me, don't look much like her."
The girl stared back, sizing them up and then sprinted for the back door. Jimmy drew his gun and followed her, Buck and Davis on his heels. The girl ran fast, no shame in lifting her skirts as high as needed to gain speed. Jimmy watched her disappear in a blur around the corner of the building.
The three of them followed her up to the chaos of the main street and unable to see her, separated. Jimmy went north, running hard up the street, thought he could see her dart down another alley beside the livery and pursued. The alley emptied out onto nothing but the plains and there was no sight of her. The man at the livery hadn't seen anyone. Jimmy supposed Buck or Davis had had better luck. He was happy to give up the chase, after all he had other things on his mind.
Jimmy sat down wearily on a bale of hay, barely noticing the red-head that walked into the dank livery. Her gown was brightly colored and seemed to light the space up. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she paused in front of him and Jimmy looked up at her in a less than friendly way. "Mr. Hickok," the unflappable red-head said, "I've been hoping to speak with you. Can I interest you in a round of drinks, on me?" She raised one eyebrow and smiled at him. Jimmy thought that was about the best offer he'd had all day.
He re-read the letter at the saloon, whiskey in hand.
"I try to put things into perspective. Look at my time out west as Ambrose would, as an adventure. But the truth is often less glamorous than any adventure. I can only hope that in one respect, Ambrose was right. I hope you are a hero - because I am in desperate need of one."
Jimmy drank down another swig from the bottle. He never liked the word hero being applied to him; it was an ideal he could never live up to. If he had stayed, if he'd been there when Beth arrived, he might have been the hero she was looking for. But he hadn't been there. He'd been in Virginia, getting Kid the hell out of there.
"What I don't understand, is if Beth didn't die, why didn't she go for her?" He took another drink, trying to quiet the fury that was building in his chest. He pretended his anger was aimed at Beth, but knew he held equal blame. "And why was my name pinned on Rose's dress? That wasn't Beth's style. Hell, she wouldn't even right out admit she'd had my baby in the letter. Not sure that I coulda figured out what she was getting at had I received it."
The redhead rolled her eyes. The subjects of Beth and Rose had long ago been exhausted, but Jimmy was still going strong. She smiled at him; it was a charming smile, one that was used to getting what it wanted. "Mr. Hickok, it's not that I'm not sympathetic, but my liquor budget is gettin' low and we ain't discussed business yet. Now, what I'm proposing is a three month tour, you headlining as a trick shooter-"
Jimmy interrupted her, "She's in Waderville now. Her and her husband, and probably their kids. It don't warrant another trip away from Rose, not for a mother who doesn't want to be a mother, right? I ain't goin' to exhaust myself lookin' for her."
The red-head sighed and patted his hand. "Alright, honey, I can see we're not gettin' anywhere tonight. Poor thing, you're going to have one helluva headache tomorrow and still no answer to all your questions. Well, you just remember who you had this little heart to heart with, alright? Agnes Lake. Now here's my card, and I'm going to find you tomorrow and we'll try to have our little talk again." She pulled a card from her décolletage and put it in his jacket pocket.
Jimmy suddenly looked at her, "Ah, Agnes, don't go, don't go."
She laughed, "I got to, honey. Don't you worry, we'll be seeing each other again. I promise you that." She sauntered out the bat wing doors and Jimmy watched her go, her handsome figure sashaying its way towards the blue and yellow tent across the way. He turned back to his bottle.
Jimmy was not drunk enough to ignore the sudden chaos, the screams and the men running out of the saloon and down the street. He went to the door and looked down the street, following the crowds with his eyes. The circus tent was burning, the bright colors suddenly obscured by thick rolling smoke. He sobered up quickly and joined the crowds with buckets and pitchers running towards the fire.
He turned away from the smoke. There wasn't any point in going in. The screams of the horses still inside was tearing at his heart, but Jimmy knew that saving them was impossible. The children were out, that was what mattered. He'd just seen Buck come stumbling out with a girl in his arms and a few older children clinging to his legs. A woman had been helping him and as they weren't going back in, he assumed they'd gotten the last of them. He finally managed to get close enough to yell at Buck over the rumble of the fire and the shouts of the gathered crowd. "Anyone left inside?"
"Just the animals," Buck shouted back and turned to verify with the stranger who had helped him. But no one was there. His head whipped around for a moment and then he took off running, shouting back at Jimmy, "She went back in for the horses!"
"Don't!" Jimmy shouted, knowing his voice was drowned by the flames, his throat already raw from the smoke. He should have known he could count on Buck to do something heroic and awfully stupid. He didn't hesitate; he started forward to help the two of them back out. The center pole of the tent began to sway in the wavery heated air. The wind buffeted the heavy tent, made the flames dance higher. A quarter pole came crashing down, like a tall tree, knocking one of the tent walls slack to fold into the fire.
Jimmy knocked the flaming tent flap and stepped inside. The horses were silent now, the smoke thick and acrid, pulling him in and holding him close, smothering him. "Where are you?" he tried to call, but it was useless. There was no air and the smoke seemed to steal his voice before it left his lips. He fell to his knees, coughing. The letter in his pocket fell into a pile of glowing cinders and without thinking, Jimmy grabbed for it, hardly aware of the pain in his hand as he patted out the smoldering edges.
The air was clearer down there and squinting, his eyes stinging, he managed to make out a face, contorted by pain staring at him with watery, pleading eyes. She was pinned by a pole not three feet from him. Buck was kneeling next to her. "I'm not leaving you," he called out hoarsely, his voice foreign and frightening.
Jimmy crawled over to the two of them, his lungs spasming with the desire to cough until the air ran out. "Well, we ain't stayin' here," he shouted at them.
"I can't move the pole." Buck answered.
Jimmy nodded and moved to the other side. The air had gotten too thick to speak but he didn't need to. Buck eased his hands under the pole and together they heaved upwards. The pole was heavy and though it wasn't burning yet it still radiated heat. Jimmy felt the rough wood biting into his already burnt hand, felt slivers pierce skin. The pole didn't move and his arms felt strained to the breaking point, his eyes were screwed tight against the smoke, his lungs fighting to breathe and to avoid the acrid air at the same time.
"Get out of here!" The woman snapped, "You're gonna get yourselves killed if you stay."
The two of them didn't move. "I'm not leaving you," Buck repeated and silently Jimmy cursed the noble streak in his friend that prevented them from running the hell out of there.
At last the pole started to rise, and involuntarily with the strain Jimmy gasped for air, choking as the smoke filled his lungs. The woman scrambled her way out from under the pole, and Jimmy and Buck grabbed her arms, helping towards the exit. They had to half crawl, and it was only through a miracle that Jimmy could even find their way back to the outside world.
The outside air was cold and sweet and felt like shattered glass in their lungs. They collapsed on the ground and Jimmy closed his eyes. The wind was cool across his skin which felt tight against his bones. He wanted to look and be sure Buck was okay, but a darkness other than the smoke began to cloud his vision and he had no strength left to fight it.
Jimmy woke up to the antiseptic smell of a doctor's office. He could hear Buck and Davis quietly talking, but found it hard to concentrate on what they were saying; he was too distracted by the redhead, as she sat on the edge of his cot. Her face was turned away and she hadn't noticed he'd woken, one cool hand rested reassuringly on his shoulder. He found it easier to focus on what she said when she joined the conversation.
"She came out of hiding to save those children, doesn't quite seem right to take her in for it." Her voice had a musical quality to it, bright and brisk.
Jimmy listened as Davis answered, "Can't see as she took anything. Ran the store honest while she was here. I don't know what for sure I'd even be bringing her in for."
Jimmy started to speak up but choked on his effort. Buck turned his attention to him, "Hey, Hickok, how you feelin'?"
"Been better," Jimmy choked out, "How's the girl?"
"We were just talking about that," Buck said, his own voice sounding rough and pinched, "She disappeared."
Jimmy mulled over that information but found his own aches and pains were taking precedence over any logical thought. He found it impossible not to cough, his throat was raw, his eyes felt like dried out sponges, and every muscle ached. "Water?"
The red-head gave him a glass and Jimmy drank it greedily, though it felt like gunpowder going down. "Do you remember me, Mr. Hickok - it was my circus that put you in such danger."
"Agnes," Jimmy sighed, enthralled by the paleness of her skin and the brightness in her eyes. Either the smoke and the whiskey were getting to him or she was a heavenly looking woman.
"Uh, Jimmy," Buck said, an amused eyebrow raised at Jimmy's smitten look, "You think we need to ride out after that girl?"
Jimmy felt like he was missing something. "What girl?"
Buck smiled, "Don't you remember? The girl, at Tompkins. She risked getting caught to help out at the fire." Jimmy was only half paying attention to Buck, the majority of his thoughts being occupied by Agnes as her hand patted his shoulder. Buck kept right on talking, "She didn't do anything too awful, Jimmy, and she did save those kids -"
"She do any damage to Tompkins' store? Take anything?" Jimmy tried to focus on Buck, but found himself staring up into two sparkling blue eyes of infinite sympathy.
Jimmy missed the bemused look that passed between Davis and Buck. "Doesn't seem that way," Davis cleared his throat, barely avoiding an audible chuckle.
"I'm not going to bring her in." Jimmy mumbled, still staring up into the eyes of Agnes, watching the stars that seemed to dance there. She was bent over him, pushing the hair back from his face, her white skin framed by her dress in the most appealing way. Jimmy smiled.
The ride back had been torture. Buck wouldn't let up for even a second about Agnes Lake, and Jimmy found he couldn't do much to defend himself but blush and mumble. He felt like a schoolboy, and though it was an embarrassment, he was also enjoying it. He even let himself forget for awhile his real reason for the trip and let his fury at Beth Merriweather slip into the ether.
When he finally got home, Rose did not run to greet him and jump in his arms, chattering brightly and smacking his cheek with sloppy kisses. She hugged him but it was out of obligation and she seemed in a hurry to get back to the book she was reading. In a way, Jimmy was relieved. He did not want her to ask about his trip, because he did not want to answer those questions; he was afraid he might tell the truth. She was even taller, he thought, wondering if Emma had let down her dress again.
But Rose wasn't entirely grown up. She found him after dinner as he brushed down Sundance and gave him an earnest hug. Jimmy felt his heart warm. Whatever Beth had done, she'd given him this. Maybe it was selfish, but Jimmy was thankful she hadn't kept Rose to herself.
His daughter looked up at him with concern in her eyes. "Was your friend alright, Poppa?"
"I think everything worked out for her."
She nodded, seemingly pleased to know that everything was resolved. She talked about school and the puppy Sam had brought home. Jimmy liked to listen to her cheerful chatter, so unlike anything he remembered from his own childhood. He didn't pay a great deal of attention, rather just let the words swim in one ear and out the other, leaving a general feeling of happiness in their wake.
"…and in two weeks a circus will be here! Danny Wright says he's been to one and that they have Italian men who fly through the air in their long johns, which I think is ridiculous…"
Jimmy chuckled to himself, wondering what else the circus might be bringing.