Rose peered around the corner and scoured the street for any sign of Emma. The small dog at her feet yipped excitedly, not understanding why they were slinking around the back alleys. Rose looked down sternly at the little once-white dog. The two of them were coated with mud, and Emma did not like mud. Not spotting the tell-tale head of red hair, Rose and her dog, Scout, sprinted madly for the office across the street, bursting in through the door in a spray of mud and breathless laughter.
Sam barely looked up from where he was napping behind his broad oak desk. Scout jumped on his lap with an enthusiastic squeal, and Sam's attention was rapidly focused on the muddy mess being made on his vest and trousers. "Gol darn, it, Rosie, how'd you git Scout so all-fired dirty?" Sam said with irritation, picking the dog up at arms' length and depositing Scout on the floor. Sam did not spare a glance for the breathless girl, as he made his way to the wash basin. Rose Hickok, after all, was not the only one who worried about Emma's hatred of mud.
"We're just a little muddy is all," Rose started uncertainly, joining him at the wash basin.
"We?" Sam asked sharply, finally looking at his charge and seeing the splash of mud from her boots up to the waist of her dress. Rose wriggled uncomfortably under his scrutiny, pulled a handkerchief out of her handbag and started to wipe off the toes of her boots.
Sam stared down at her, his arms crossed, his eyes hard. Rose focused all her attention on getting every speck of mud off her shoes and refused to meet his gaze. It was a battle of wills almost as old as she was, and as always she lost. Finally she stood up and looked him in the eye, her jaw clenched and her eyes glittering with pride just like her father's. "I just wanted to see the stage come in," she cried defensively, "it wasn't my fault they drove through a mud puddle."
Sam smelled a rat. He looked over Rose's shoulder and onto the dusty, bone-dry street outside. "Where did you see the stage?" he asked.
Rose shrugged and picked at the larger globs of sludge on her skirt. "Potters' Creek," she mumbled.
"Rose!" Sam tried to keep his voice level, but the girl had the strange ability to make him shout. "What were you doing down there?"
"Just the same as everybody else. It's a thousand dollars! Do you know what we could do with a thousand dollars?" < p> "Return it to the bank in Seneca, that's what we could do with it," the lawman answered. Sam turned back to his desk and fished in his pocket for a cigarette, finally coming up empty. "That money's not there, Rose, and if it is - "
Rose cut him off, "What do you mean, it's not there? There's witnesses! Danny Wright says he saw three men taking five strong boxes into the caverns, and one of the horses was pearl white with a cross brand on it, just like the one they said Jesse James was riding in Seneca!"
Sam rummaged through the top drawer of his desk, still searching out a cigarette. "I'm not going to argue with you about what Danny Wright said he saw. If there was money there, I woulda found it when I went out there and searched the place. And even let's say I didn't - you don't rob a bank so the money can sit in a cave. If it was there the James gang already took it again, or if they didn't, they will. Don't be fooled, Jesse and Frank James are hard men and you'd do best to stay out of their way." Having heard no argument from Rose and at last finding a cigarette and his last match, Sam leaned back in his chair, inhaled deeply and watched Rose ruin her handkerchief trying to get the mud out of her dress. Sam smiled and shook his head, "It's gonna take more than a washbasin to fix you up, Rosie. The only way you're gettin' that mud off is if you took a swim with a lot of soap."
Rose stopped what she was doing and headed towards the back door. "Rose, I weren't for serious. Emma ain't gonna like you soppin' wet anymore than she'll like you dirty!" but Sam was shouting at Rose's back.
The Kerricher farm was haunted. The story was complex and varied with the teller and Rose didn't believe it. The house was overgrown with lilacs gone to seed and weeds that stretched to the sills of the broken windows. The barns and sheds were caving in on themselves and the little pond was ringed by cottonwoods and grass as high as Rose's knees and far past Scout's eye. The stories kept most everybody else at a distance but Rose had been coming to the pond to daydream and swim for years; she'd sat and daydreamed of adventures when she was little and now, older she did the same. The adventures had changed, had become less outlandish, less tinged with danger and more likely to include handsome and dashing men, but Rose relished them the same. After eighteen years, Rose had found little in real life that lived up to the splendid things she could imagine.
The day was not really warm enough for swimming, but the sun was shining and Rose felt confident that she would be only moderately damp by the time she went home for dinner. She would swim just a little before washing her dress. Rose undid her buttons and slipped out of the filthy dress, before letting out a shrill whoop and leaping into the water. She never heard the snort of a startled horse coming from the house. In an instant, Scout had joined her, dogpaddling towards her excitedly, showing off the marvelous stick he had found. After a few chill-inducing splashes, Rose let herself float across the top of the water, watching the clouds chase each other across the sky. She felt the goose bumps prickle all along her skin. Summer was over, she realized with a sigh.
Before long, Rose climbed, shivering, onto the bank. She sat on a tree root at the water's edge and started in on her dress. Miraculously, she was able to get most of the dirt out of the blue dress itself; it was the white sash at the waist which stubbornly clung to the brown splotch left on it. She scrubbed assiduously at the remaining spot until she noticed a tiny rent in the white lawn - now it was dirty and torn. "Damn!' she exclaimed in frustration, slapping the water with her palm, sending up crystals of water to sparkle in the sunlight. Behind her, she heard a chuckle.
The man was fairly tall, slender with black hair slicked back from his hollow cheeks and intense eyes. His dress was dapper if dusty. He held his left arm stiffly against his torso and stood tensed from toe to smile. He lifted his right hand to his nonexistent hat, "Good afternoon, Miss."
Rose stood in shock for a moment too long in her soaking under things, which clung to what curves she had and left her strong pale legs and freckled neck and décolletage on display. Then she whipped the still sopping dress up and clutched it in front of her chest. "You're hurt," was the only thing she managed to say, sounding indignant and outraged in tone if the actual words were more solicitous.
The man seemed surprised by that, but only for a second, "My shoulder is feeling poorly alright." He crouched down awkwardly and made friends with Scout. "A little cold for swimming, ain't it?"
"No more so than for spying I'd imagine," Rose answered haughtily, turning away, not thinking that from the back he could see the graceful line of her freckled shoulders, the curve of her waist, the way water dripped from the long, silvery braid of her hair down to the small of her back.
The man, however, could not help but notice. She was so careless with herself that he had to wonder just what sort of woman she was. But something about her made him think it was more likely the innocence of a girl who was unaware of her own possibilities than a lack of virtue. "I wasn't spying," he said firmly - though at the moment as his eyes wandered down her legs he wasn't so sure. "I heard noises - thought I should investigate. You might've been a member of the James gang, you know." There was a hint of humor to his voice.
Rose, keeping her back to him, wriggled back into her dress. "Well, you'll pardon me, but as I'm not, I'll be going," she picked up her boots off the ground and set out marching purposefully away from him, Scout scampering at her heels. The overall effect was lessened somewhat by her wincing and muttering as she walked across stones and sticks. She could only imagine the state of her stockings and Emma's reaction to them. The man watched her go with ill-concealed humor.
Rose shivered fiercely, dropped a shoe and bending down for it felt herself begin to lose her balance before a steady arm found its way around her waist. "Oh," she whispered when confronted up close by those dark blue eyes. He was older than she was, and though he was smiling there remained something frightening and strong in his eyes.
"Let me," he said and it sounded like a command as opposed to an offer. He knelt at her feet and unlaced her boots. Rose obeyed and slid her feet into them and watched as he nimbly tied them up again. "There," he said as he stood up and the flush on Rose's cheeks made it clear he was standing too close but he did not step back. "You're going to catch your death of cold, and I can only imagine whoever you're going home to isn't going to be pleased to see you in your current state." Rose's teeth chattered in response. "I'm staying at the farmhouse. Come in and dry out, alright, Miss…" he paused and looked at her, "This is where you tell me your name. Miss…"
"Hickok," she answered back, shakily taking his offered arm, "Rose Hickok." The man's mouth opened to say something, and Rose knowing what was coming shot back an answer before the question, "Yes, that Hickok, and if you want to grill me about my father then I'll have to chance the reception I get at home."
"No," the man answered back quickly, "I'll keep my curiosity in check," he paused and added, "if you promise to do the same."
Rose stared at him, her mouth agape. She was very curious about this stranger, and after the cold it had been her chief reason for accepting his invitation. As they stepped out of the weeds and brush that concealed the pond she agreed, "Alright, but how do I know you're not a member of the James gang?"
"You don't," he answered with what had to be a very wicked grin, and they walked to the little house in silence.
For Jesse James the day was turning into an accumulation of surprises. First there was a pretty girl only half-clothed at the dilapidated old house he'd picked as a hide-out. Second that she was Jimmy's daughter. As they walked to the house he found himself studying her features for signs of Lou or Rosemary. He came up empty-handed. She was indefinable. The freckles that flecked her face and shoulders like cinnamon were her own as far as Jesse knew, and he could think of no one with the same ash blonde hair or wide smile. His thoughts wandered to the way her freckles made a trail across her shoulders and down her neck, disappearing down the neckline of her dress. He gulped.
In the house she graciously accepted a seat in a dusty, broken-down caneback chair next to the hearth. She pretended not to notice the clutter of papers and money on the table or the shotgun by the door. Jesse stirred up the fire and threw on another log so that it crackled and sparked. "Would it be too curious if I asked your name?" Rose said, eyeing him warily.
Across the room, Jesse shoved the clutter on the table into his saddlebag. "It might be," he answered, trying to sound as if he were playing a game instead of refusing to name himself. Rose didn't ask again, just sat there staring awkwardly at him across the dusty furniture. He looked at her, "Do you live with your mother, then? Now that your father's, well, gone."
Rose arched an eyebrow at him, "Curiosity killed the cat they say, Mr. - this is the point where you tell me your name or alias."
Jesse pulled a chair up across from her and sat straddling the back of it, "Hunter," he said after a long moment, "Mr. Hunter." He did not volunteer more.
Rose looked as if she did not believe him, "Well, Mr. Hunter, I believe that asking about my family is breaking the rules, isn't it?"
Jesse shrugged, "We have to talk about something." He rubbed his left arm; he had jerked it painfully when he'd kept her from falling. On his shoulder a dime-sized spot of blood bloomed. Rose stared at it with horror and fascination.
"You've been shot," she cried, jumping up and examining the spread of blood on his shirt tenderly.
"Don't prod at it!" Jesse snapped, turning sharply away. He let out a groan as the movement made his arm throb more insistently.
"Here, let me see it," Rose said matter of factly, as though he were a child with a splinter. Jesse studied her face as she pushed his vest off his shoulders and started to unbutton his shirt. He couldn't tell if she was knowingly pushing them into a dangerous situation or if she was innocently unaware.
"How old are you?" he asked, something other than pain twisting his voice. He knew whatever her answer, it was too young.
"Nineteen - almost." she answered. She looked up and caught his eye; by the way she blushed, Jesse guessed she hadn't realized the forwardness of her behavior. But her pride prevented her from backing up and she slid the shoulder of his shirt away from the wound, her hand making his heart beat faster as it moved across his skin.
His shoulder was bandaged but the day's movements had reopened the wound and the dark spot was spreading imperceptibly from the center of the dressing. It was not the worst wound he'd ever had, but recent heat on the gang had meant they couldn't risk a real doctor, and with big plans in the offing he didn't dare leave Frank in charge while he sought friendlier territory. Kid and Sam were dangerous lawmen and Jesse didn't like spending so much time in their jurisdiction; on the other hand, better to keep your enemies close.
"This needs to be tighter," said Rose, leaning to peer beneath the bandage. She spoke with authority and Jesse looked at her quizzically. "I help out Doc Hanes," she said in answer to his unasked question. "Well," she amended, "I keep the office clean, anyway. But don't worry, Sam's been shot lots of times; I know just what to do."
"Sam?" Jesse asked, lifting his arm with a grimace as she unwound the bandage.
"Marshall Sam Cain," Rose thought it prudent to mention her affinity to the law, "I live with him and Emma."
. "What about your mother?"
A shadow crossed over her face and her brow furrowed, but she spoke lightly, ""I didn't know her, and my dad wouldn't talk about her. I thought, after he'd died, that I'd find her. I have a trunk in my room, with all his things in it. I went over and over every single thing in that trunk, thinking I might find a picture, a letter, anything. Nothing. Do you have a clean bandage somewhere?" She asked, looking over the wound, even bending forward to sniff it tentatively. Jesse shook his head. "You have to keep it clean or you're liable to get it infected."
Jesse wasn't paying attention. It didn't sound like Jimmy, somehow, to keep the mother of his daughter a secret. Jesse stopped thinking and looked at her when she froze halfway between him and the pitcher of water on the table. She stared at him, eyes narrowed, his wet handkerchief dripping on the floor. "You knew my father?"
Jesse realized he'd been thinking out loud. He mumbled incoherently, trying to fix his mistake.
"Are you related to Teaspoon?" she was keeping her distance from him, suddenly on guard, more than even when she'd been half dressed and defenseless.
"You know Teaspoon?" It hadn't occurred to him that she might know any of the others.
"Do you?" she asked harshly, gauging him carefully.
"I did once," he replied, his voice heavy with regret, "When I was younger."
"Well, that's alright then," she said with a sigh, relaxing, "I just don't want it getting back to him that I've been acting so foolishly today." She walked to him again and gently washed the wound on his shoulder. It was, in fact, healing quite nicely and did not, perhaps, warrant her ministrations.
"Teaspoon's still alive?" he couldn't believe it, and at the same time couldn't imagine the tough old bird giving up the ghost.
"Oh, yes," Rose chattered happily, "He can't see past his nose, and everyone says he's not as spry as he was before his illness in at the beginning of the war, but other than that he's as rascally as ever. He and Uncle Buck live in Sweetwater."
"Buck," Jesse interrupted, "How is he?"
Rose paused and looked at him. "You know Buck too? Did you ride with the Express?"
Jesse shook his head, "No. Wanted to. Teaspoon thought I was too young."
Rose nodded knowingly and Jesse though she must have heard the same thing a time or two. The bandage was wrapped tighter now and she slipped his arm gingerly back into its sleeve. "You should have your arm in a sling," she paused, looking at him and again Jesse was struck by her nearness and almost brash attitude. She looked away, "It's getting dark; Emma will worry."
She turned to step away and he grabbed her arm, pulling her back to him. "Rose," he let her name hang in the small space between them. He found himself staring at her strawberry lips. He only just brushed his lips across them, pulling back because he felt a duty to be a gentleman towards Jimmy's daughter. Her hands were on his shoulders, her eyelashes rested on her freckled cheeks and she leaned up towards his face inviting a stronger kiss. Jesse sighed and gently pushed her away.
"You best get on home," he muttered turning away and walking to the fireplace, busying himself with the flames. "You're dry enough." He didn't turn around to watch her leave and she said nothing as she went.
Sam was preoccupied at supper so it hardly registered that Rose had somehow managed to appear clean and dry at the table. He tapped the telegram Kid had sent him against the table nervously.
"Bad news?" Emma asked as she sat down.
"Huh? No," Sam answered quickly, knowing better than to make her worry. So the Union Pacific had decided to give the James Gang a chance they couldn't pass up. Pinkertons and hired guns flocking to the bank in Centerville like vultures to carrion and Kid was going along with it. Sam did not care for traps. They were unsportsmanlike and what's more usually ended with a lot of blood.
And he didn't like that rumors had the James gang sticking close to Lincoln. Sam had been around long enough not to believe everything he heard, but to recognize that every story started with a truth. And Danny Wright had seen something. There was no money by Potter Creek but there had been traffic in and out of the caverns and if Sam's guess was right, some rudimentary doctoring had taken place. And if someone was wounded enough, they might not have gotten too far away.
"Did you see anything unusual out at Potter's Creek today, Rosie?" Sam asked, looking for some small clue he might have missed.
Rose looked at him fiercely - here eyes gleaming with anger. Sam realized, belatedly, that he'd just sold her upriver. While Rose and Emma debated the wisdom and propriety of Rose's visit to Potter Creek, Sam thought glumly of Centerville and the James gang. Sam was of the mind that Kid would find it tricky to shoot at the boy he'd once known and looked after like a younger brother. Loyalty was a virtue of the Kid's and also his chief weakness. Sam found it hard to believe a bank robbery could snap those ties. Strain them certainly - but could Kid really watch Jesse James get trapped in a bank with guns on every side and bury his body when the shooting ended? Sam doubted it. When push came to shove, Kid was likely to forget his anger and do something noble and that was dangerous. Sam decided he'd better send a telegram over to Buck in the morning. Buck was sensible, he'd figure someway to keep Kid out of it and if he couldn't, Teaspoon could.
Feeling relieved at the notion of Buck and Teaspoon, Sam's attention shifted to the two lively women before him. They had lapsed into an energetic silence. Sam felt a little guilty at getting Rose in trouble. Sure, he didn't like the idea of his girl, for he did think of her as his, out there; not with the possibility, however slight, of the James Gang returning. But during the day the creek's caverns were overrun by treasure seekers, some verging on the respectable, and Sam doubted Rose could have gotten into too much trouble. Surely not enough to merit Emma's fierce scolding. Sam noticed that Rose's plate remained full. The food had been pushed around but not eaten. "You don't eat enough, Rose," he grumbled. Sam worried about her eating enough.
For a day and a half, Rose did admirably well. She cleaned Dr. Hanes' office and sent out orders for bandages and gauze. She picked apples from the trees that lined the drive to the house and made a pie because she knew it was Sam's favorite. She wrote a long letter to Teresa McCloud wherein she referred to "a brief encounter with a mysterious if only fairly handsome stranger. He, of course, pines for me, but I remain aloof."
She thought once of writing Teaspoon and asking about Mr. Hunter, but Buck had to read Teaspoon his letters these days and he was always doing the sensible thing. If Teaspoon had anything interesting to say, Buck would be certain Sam knew it as well as Rose and then she would have to explain about her chance meeting.
That Sam would disapprove of Mr. Hunter, Rose had no doubt. The stranger was dangerous. He was staying in an abandoned farm house; he had a gunshot wound he was avoiding having treated and a very wicked, if very attractive, smile.
Late on the afternoon of the second day, Rose took a walk, pretending to herself that she was just wandering without destination, Scout by her side. Her steps just happened to lead her back to the farmhouse with the broken windows and the smell of lilacs. His horse looked up from where it was staked as she approached. It was pearl white with a cross brand. Rose stopped, her heart in her throat.
From the porch came the sound of a heavy step, a gruff shout, and a shotgun being cocked. "This isn't a safe place to wander to, friend."
Scout barked in recognition and scampered up the stairs to whine at Jesse's feet for attention. Rose followed her dog. Unafraid she took the gun from his hands, "Put that down, you'll hurt your shoulder worse."
"Rose, you shouldn't have come here," he whispered, his eyes looking frightened. She was standing too close to him, and this time, she meant it.
Jesse James, who rarely found himself caught off guard, was entirely at a loss. That her lips tasted faintly of cinnamon did nothing to clear his head. He tried to remember what they had done with the gun or the dog, but nothing seemed to come to mind. He tried to focus on the pain on his shoulder or conjure the disapproving face of Jimmy but failed at both. Somehow his shirt had come off. She whispered his name, which she should not have known, sending faint alarms off in Jesse's mind but he pushed them away.
Scout did not bark at the pinto horse or his rider because Scout was a friendly dog. He wagged his tail and licked the young man's pant leg as he stopped on the porch stairs. At the sound of an embarrassed cough, Rose froze. She was suddenly all too aware that Jesse James' hand was pushing her dress from her shoulders. A young voice just barely avoiding a chuckle came from the steps, "Uhhh, boss?"
"Damn it," Jesse muttered, letting his forehead fall against the wall above Rose's shoulder. He turned around to face the intruder, putting himself in front of Rose as she fixed her dress and smoothed her hair. "What is it McSwain?"
McSwain was taller than his boss, with broad shoulders and a pleasant face topped by reddish hair troubled by cowlicks. He was not as well-dressed but he had a nice, fresh-scrubbed look. "Beggin' your pardon, boss, but Mr. James wanted to know if you're feelin' well enough to meet."
Jesse glanced back to see that Rose had composed herself and only then moved away to put on his own shirt. "Frank still camped out by Loft's Canyon?"
"Yes, sir," McSwain nodded politely at Rose as she came into view, as though she had just walked out.
"I'll ride out to meet him right now," Jesse answered.
"But-" Rose started to protest but stopped herself and blushed, feeling twice embarrassed. To be caught being less than a lady was one thing; for a stranger to see how naïve she was was another.
Jesse fiddled with his collar, "McSwain, I need you to make sure Miss Hickok gets home safely. She's staying with Marshal Cain and his wife - the big yellow place with the apple trees. Make sure you provide a ladylike excuse for her prolonged absence."
Rose forgot her embarrassment in the temper that awoke in her, "I can see myself home, thank you very much."
Jesse grabbed her shoulders in such a brotherly way it made her shudder. "Rose, they were probably worried before you even got here. Do you know how late it is?"
Rose looked at the dusky purple evening. It was later than she'd thought and she realized he was right. She'd said she was going for a walk but that was hours ago and if she went back on foot she'd not make supper. She doubted this McSwain fellow could come up with an excuse that would satisfy Sam and Emma; but she'd be more than happy to share their anger with him.
"Catch up with us at Loft's Canyon when you can," Jesse said to McSwain once he could tell his point was made. McSwain nodded curtly and left to saddle the boss' horse. He understood that they didn't want an audience for their goodbye. Rose started to flounce after him, but Jesse grabbed her arm. "Don't be so angry at me. I owe your father a great deal, Rose, and I would be giving him short shrift if I dallied with his daughter." Rose pouted and might have argued but he was having none of it. "C'mon," he said, guiding her down the steps, "David will take you home and in a few days you will hardly remember me."
David McSwain thought Miss Hickok was lovely. He didn't have much use for lovely girls himself, but he could admire the boss' taste even if it wasn't his own. David's mother had been as hard as nails and he'd always looked askance at women who had the time to be lovely, certain that it indicated a lack of character.
As well as being lovely, at the moment Miss Hickok was sulky too. She had not spoken to him since the boss had left and was now sitting behind him on his horse like a lovely rock. Scout ran behind them, barking at the early evening fireflies.
David spoke respectfully (he never judged the boss' acquaintances, no matter what state of undress he met them in). "That farm for sale?" he asked as they trotted down the drive to Sam and Emma's.
"I think so. The bank foreclosed on it years ago but no one wants it because it's haunted."
"Who runs the bank?"
"Are you thinking of robbing it?" Rose asked sharply but got no response. She sighed. "Mr. Peer."
"Thank you," David replied and they rode into the yard.
Emma was standing on the porch, just barely frantic. It was not unlike Rose to come in late. It was entirely unlike Rose, however, to arrive on the back of a horse with an attractive young man; Jimmy, and then Sam, had been pretty effective deterrents to suitors. This was so unusual, in fact, that it drove all the worry out of Emma's head, replacing it with curiosity. Sam joined her on the porch at the sound of the horse. "Well, I'll be damned," he muttered.
David swung off his horse in an easy, fluid motion. He offered his hand to Rose and seemed neither embarrassed nor offended when it was ignored. He took off his hat, "Ma'am, Marshal." Rose scrambled onto the porch and stood behind Sam's shoulder. "I 'spect I owe you folks an apology. I've been talking to Mr. Peer about buying that farm south of town. Miss Hickok was nice enough to help me find the place, and I'm afraid I insisted she wait while I poked around a bit so I could give her a ride back. It's a long walk for a lady."
Sam thought this explanation was flimsy at best, but Emma seemed charmed. "That was very gentlemanly of you, Mr.?"
"David McSwain, ma'am"
"McSwain?" Sam repeated and glanced at Emma.
"Well," David said, plopping his hat back on his head and nodding in Rose's direction, "Thanks for your help, Miss. I best be going."
"Mr. McSwain you'll stay for supper won't you?" Emma asked.
David was surprised by the invitation. "Uh, no, ma'am. I won't trouble you."
"You stayin' at the hotel, then?" Sam asked suspiciously and David nodded without missing a beat. "The restaurant'll be closed by the time you get there and we got plenty." There was just enough threat in his voice to make David agree. Rose bristled visibly when he accepted the invitation.
David recognized Sam's questioning as more than polite conversation. "No sir," David answered honestly, sopping up gravy with a thick slice of bread, "My pa died 'fore I was born and my ma took in laundry mostly."
"And where was that?"
"Blue Creek, Marshall. Since my ma died a few years back, I've been more or less wanderin', doin' odd jobs here and there."
Emma smiled wide and looked at Rose, "And now you're looking to settle down."
David nodded, "Wouldn't mind it, ma'am. Always liked workin' with animals and truth be told a man gets tired with no place to call his own."
Emma squeezed his hand in a motherly way and refilled his plate, "How old are you, David?"
"Well, then I'd say it's about time you settled down," Emma said sweetly. As she and Sam exchanged looks, David hazarded a glance at Rose where she sat glowering at the end of the table. He winked at her. She huffed back angrily.
"Blue Creek, huh?" Sam mused later over apple pie. "What'd your Pa do out there before he, well, you know."
David knew Sam was still sounding him for a liar. It was sheer luck that the marshal was stuck on questions about his family, because that was one area in which David didn't have to lie. "According to my mother, he rode for the Pony Express out of Rock Creek." David watched perplexed as this statement caused a grin to spread across Sam's face and tears spring up in Emma's eyes.
"Oh, he did not," Rose said angrily, rolling her eyes. "My father rode with the express and we know everybody from the Rock Creek station."
David did not care for her tone, "I don't think my mama lied, Miss Hickok."
"You're a good enough liar yourself, why should your mother be any different?" Rose spat, only half remembering that his lies were keeping her out of trouble.
"Rose Hickok!" Emma exclaimed, "That is enough out of you, young lady. Ike McSwain was a good friend of your daddy's and a brother to Buck."
David choked on a bit of pie, "'Scuse me, ma'am, but are you sayin' you knew my father?"
"Yes, son, we did." Sam said, Emma being too choked up to speak. "And he was a fine man too."
By the time David had left the house, he'd smoked one of Sam's cigars and promised to stop by again. He was trying to figure a way he could too. After the Centerville bank next week, the boss would have them lie low. Why not lie low here, under Sam Cain's very nose? Heck, the boss might even want someone to keep an eye on Miss Hickok.
Such was Sam and Emma's trust in David McSwain that they left the two young people alone on the porch to say their goodbyes. "Miss Hickok. I'll tell the boss you made it safely home," David said coolly with a tip of his hat.
Rose didn't reply at first. When she did her voice was softer than it had been all evening. "Will your boss be back this way?"
David looked her over then with more attention than he'd previously spared. The boss had had one or two lady friends since David joined the gang three years ago and none of them were like Rose. They had been hard women who expected nothing and had no hearts to wear upon their sleeves. For a moment, he felt for her. "I wouldn't presume to guess, Miss," he answered softly before adding, "I'm thinkin' of stoppin' back by in a week or so - I'll be sure to bring you any message he sends."
"You?" Rose's temper flared up again, "Why would you come back?"
"I promised the Cains I would."
She stared at him, "But you can't mean it! You're an outlaw with the James gang, you-"
"Hush up," he whispered, "Emma said I could visit anytime and I wouldn't mind getting to know folks that knew my Pa. But I wouldn't want my presence to trouble you. I could just as easily visit your Uncle Buck in Sweetwater."
"Are you insane? Sam's a marshal. Kid's a marshal. Teaspoon was a marshal. And Buck's worse than all of 'em. No, you can't." Rose stated with finality.
David turned away and climbed onto his horse before he lost his own temper, "Look, Miss Hickok, you don't get to tell me what to do."
"And you don't know what you're getting yourself into. These people won't let you just eat dinner and go your merry way. They're going to worm their way into your life. They'll want to tell you what to do, when to do it, and they will find things out and then you and Jesse will end up hung."
"Don't worry your pretty little head about me. And the boss can take care of himself; he took care of you well enough." David regretted what he'd said the moment he said it. "Look, Miss Hickok, I didn't have any call to say that. And I don't wanna overstep my place but," here he paused because she'd turned her head to hide her tears and the soft glow of lantern light lit her profile with a fuzzy golden light; David reminded himself to breathe again. She looked back at him when the silence stretched too long and David forced himself to continue, "but you are young and pretty enough and I imagine you could get yourself another marshal instead of foolin' around with the boss. It might be easier on ya."
It was the wrong thing to say and Rose's face turned red with fury. Her fists clenched and unclenched and she even went so far as to stamp one small boot on the porch. "I will thank you, Mr. McSwain to keep your advice to yourself." And she turned on her heel, stomped inside and slammed the door.
The James brothers were arguing when David rode into Loft's Canyon. The rest of the gang was indifferent, idly playing cards by the firelight. David caught enough to know the argument was over Centerville. Jesse appeared to be on the losing end.
"Ye're lettin' old friends get in the way of new business here, Jesse. You ain't ever wanted to pull a job in Cain or McCloud's territory, and we been understandin' 'bout that, but things been getting' too hot in Missoura and that's a payload we can't pass up." Frank raised his voice enough to be heard by the entire camp. David knew the brothers well enough to know that was a calculated move on Frank's part, an attempt to get the boys backing him up. But no one was there for Frank, everyone was loyal to money first and Jesse second; Frank was somewhere after their mothers and their horses.
"David," Jesse interrupted his brother when he spotted the young man, "You get Miss Hickok home alright?"
Frank's eyes went big, "Miss Hickok?"
Jesse ignored him, "Now look if we're gonna take Centerville then we gotta lay low until then. Best if we split up. All you boys got somewhere to go?" Jesse looked around and everyone nodded. "Alright, then we'll meet up in Carter, just a little north of there on the first to plan things out." Jesse gave out a few more orders, ignoring his brother completely. The gang was uneasy, as fights between the brothers always made them, and it was a while before they started to settle in for the night.
"McSwain," Jesse approached David as he spread out his bedroll. "You got a place to go? There's room on that ranch I've been stayin' at if-"
"It's alright, boss. Think I'll check out Sweetwater; I, uh, I got family there."
The ranch was well kept. The white house with its green shutters looked a little bare, a little severe, the bunkhouse seemed vacant, but the stable was impeccable. The doors were open to let the warm spring breeze through and the smell of hay sweetened the air. A paint colt was running in the corral as two men watched in silence. David contemplated the two of them. The younger one leaned against the fence, one leg propped up on the fence's lowest rail. The older one was seated in a wheel chair, the side of which had been drawn up against the fence, so that he too could lean on a rail, peering at the colt through the gaps in the fence.
Now that he was there, David was unsure how to announce himself. He suddenly felt very silly. He started to pull on the reigns to turn around.
"You gonna say somethin' son, or just stand there staring at us?" the older of the two said without turning. His voice was slurred and slow but deliberate.
"Uh, sorry, I, uh, I'm looking for Mr. Cross and Mr. Hunter," David stuttered.
"Well, you found us," the older man muttered as the two of them turned around to face him.
David dismounted and stuck his hand out to them, "Pleased to meet you, I'm-"
"David McSwain," said the one who had not yet spoken. "Emma wrote she'd met you. Not that you'd be visiting though."
David shook Buck's hand, "I was passing through and Mrs. Cain had mentioned the two of you lived around here and - well, to be honest I'm a little curious to meet folks what knew my parents."
Teaspoon smiled and gestured towards the house, "Neither of us are much of a hand in the kitchen, but come on in and we'll see what we can rustle up for lunch."
Rose had no intention of ever returning to the Kerricher farm. She was certain Jesse would never return and the very thought of how she'd behaved with him made a well of shame, black and sticky as tar, rise up inside her. She'd have to forcibly shove the memory down and to the back of her mind. She was a fool. Danny Wright had tried to get her to sneak down to Potter's Creek again but her interest in the James Gang treasure had waned.
So she sat on the front porch steps in her drabbest dress, with a melancholy look on her face, Scout and an unnoticed book in her lap. She sighed as though the earth would shatter.
"It's not that bad, is it?" a familiar voice asked.
Rose started. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought I should stop by and apologize."
Rose stood up, abruptly dumping Scout and her book to the ground. She grabbed Jesse's shoulders and hustled him into the barn, chattering frantically. "What if Sam came home and found you? You'd be dead! What if Emma came home? I'd be dead!"
He chuckled, "But Emma went shopping and Sam never comes home before dinner."
Rose slammed the barn doors shut and set the bar. She hauled him back into the farthest, grimmest stall, folded her arms and glared at him. "How dare you show up here! I realize I'm nothing to you but a schoolgirl you can dally with but if you think you can do it twice-"
"I don't think that, Rose."
"Save it," she spat, "You should go."
"You should be careful; I'm known to be a dangerous man," Jesse winked and waited for his charm to work its magic. Rose continued to glare. At last with a shrug, he gave up. "I wanted to give you something, Rose." He pulled an envelope from his vest pocket. "There's this hotel owner up in Deadwood who's been making a pretty penny selling what belongings Jimmy had on him when he died. Now don't ask how, but I got this letter and I think you should have it." Jesse put the envelope firmly in her hand. "Your father meant a great deal to me, Rose. I owed him a lot and I repaid that debt by…disappointing him in every way. I can't make it up to him now, but I will do what I can for you. Maybe this can help you find your mother."
Rose took the envelope gingerly in her hands. It seemed heavy with the weight of secrets. She stared at her father's name on the front of it, written in small, rounded script, maybe in her mother's hand.
"Thank you," she whispered, forgetting her fears of Jesse getting caught. She hugged him impetuously and kissed him without thinking.
Jesse pushed her away gently, and held her at arms length. "None of that now. I almost made a mistake the other day; don't put me in the position of repeating it."
"So I'm a mistake."
Jesse sighed, "You're Jimmy's daughter."
Rose shook his hands off angrily. "So what if I am? I'm not a little girl and I - I feel something for you and I know you feel something for me too. I don't expect a ring or anything; I know how these things work."
"You don't even know me, Rose." Jesse fiddled with his watch fob, refusing to meet her eyes. "But you're right. I do feel something for you. I feel a lot of things - some of which are at cross purposes. I'm old, Rose. Too old for you, and I'm an outlaw, and you deserve better than that."
She turned away from him, her lips pressed together in a thin and furious line. Jesse chuckled to himself and kissed her cheek softly. "You'll grow up, Rose. You'll grow up and you'll see that I'm right."
"I am grown up," she muttered.
Jesse knew there was no point in arguing and so he left. He whistled jauntily as he opened the door and walked out into the sunlight, leaving Rose alone with her arms folded and a sixteen year old letter clenched in her hand.
There were two bedrooms upstairs and Teaspoon's room downstairs off the parlor. David offered to stay in the empty bunkhouse but they wouldn't hear of it. Buck led the way up the stairs and across the squeaking floorboards to a door across from his own room. He carefully lit the lantern inside it and David looked around the sparse but clean room. The bed was made neatly with a green and white quilt. An oak wardrobe was against the wall, its door ajar to reveal a dark green calico dress like a ghost in the shadows. On the dresser was a rose colored bowl and pitcher of cut glass and a worn pack of cards that Buck picked up self consciously.
"Sorry, this is uh, Joss' room when she's here," he stuttered, shutting the door to the wardrobe with a blush. David nodded as if he knew who Joss was and Buck offered no more information. Buck made as if to leave, and paused at the door, his face creased with concern. "There's something you should know, David. Half of this ranch - well a third, I guess, considering Joss, is yours."
David just stared at Buck, unsure what to say. "How do you figure that?" he asked when his voice had returned.
"Half of the money that bought it was Ike's. I didn't know about you and Emily hadn't left word about where she was going." Buck sighed with the memory, 'But it was your money, really. So I figure it's partly your ranch now." David let out a low whistle and pushed a hand through his gingery hair. Buck continued, "A few years back horse thieves hit us pretty bad, and Joss put up the money to rebuild the stock, so she's a full partner too - when she wants to be."
David sank down onto the bed. "I didn't come here for charity, Mr. Cross. If that's what you're worried about, I've been supporting myself for awhile now."
"I know that. If Emily had stayed in Rock Creek that money would have been hers and yours anyway." Buck inhaled deeply and looked at David, a great sorrow etched across his face. "There's something else, I…I wasn't very kind to your mother. I guess I blamed her for Ike's death and I made that clear to everyone. She might have stayed if I hadn't been so selfish, and both your lives might have been easier."
David shook his head, "Ma was a pretty tough lady; I don't think she'd have let you bully her out of town if she wanted to stay. And to be honest, Mr. Cross, I can't really imagine you being too awful to anyone."
Buck smiled, a little sadly, "Thank you, David, I'd like to think you're right. At any rate, you're more than welcome to stay as long as you like; forever if you want. There's plenty of land if you wanted to build your own place even."
"I don't know- I mean, you don't even know me. Isn't it a little risky to be offering me part of this ranch?"
"It's the right thing to do," Buck said with a shrug.
David rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "It's a generous offer, sir. But umm, I'm gonna have to think about it some, if you don't mind."
"Take as long as you need. There's always a place here for you." Buck smiled at him and stepped into the darkness of the hall. David listened and heard Buck's own door open and close. At last, David exhaled.
Rose sat on the edge of her bed. The quilt was mostly black, with some squares of blue, and a few with white stripes or even white dots. She'd made it from her father's old shirts. In one hand she gripped the letter Jesse had given her, with the other she traced the edges of the quilt squares. She missed her father.
She remembered the last time she'd seen him, the fight they'd had. She had been stubborn and, she admitted, so had he. She had only wanted to know who her mother was. Just one scrap of information, something to hang on to, and Jimmy had refused to give it to her. She was fourteen and tired of hearing, "when you're older", she wanted answers right then. He wouldn't tell her anything. He couldn't tell her anything. She wondered if he could even have been certain she was his. She looked at the letter again.
May 8, 1865 Dear Mr. Hickok,
Several months ago a three year old girl with the name "Rose Hickok" pinned to the front of her dress arrived on the east bound stage. The stage driver, being somewhat the worse for drink, was unsure where he may have picked her up and seemed startled by her very existence. She is a lovely, healthy child and appeared clean and well fed. The circumstances that led to her arrival here are unknown but she seems to have been cared for and loved.
We felt a moral obligation to alert you of her presence here, lest you wish to resume your paternal responsibility, or perhaps we are not too presumptuous to suppose you were unaware such a responsibility existed. Fortunately, your notoriety allowed us to locate your current whereabouts. We are happy to care for Rose here, but know she would be happier with her loving father.
Sister Mary Grace
Saint Joseph's Orphan Home
St Joe, MO
Rose smoothed the paper of the letter across the quilt. She felt the elaborate daydreams she'd constructed regarding her mother - the tragic illnesses, the disapproving father, the thwarted love affair - melt away under the harsh facts. The truth was a lonely stage ride, and an over imaginative nun connecting dots that may have had nothing in common, and her unknown mother in the grip of some deadly fever, a real illness that lacked romance but instead was unforgiving and ugly. Rose imagined her mother writing a name on a dirty scrap of paper and sending her daughter out into the world alone. Rose sighed and flopped face down onto the bed, breathing in the quilt's smell of worn cotton. As always, the reality was far too cold to provide comfort and she let herself drift into a daydream about Jesse James and daring robberies and stolen kisses until she fell into a numbing sleep.
A/N: Thanks to my beta, Ellie, for spending literally months giving me invaluable feedback on this series!