A few months earlier and Jimmy would have stopped to see if the young woman needed help. She seemed lost in the rougher part of town. She was tall and graceful, her dress fine and neat, altogether out of place among the hard cases that kept company at the south end of Rock Creek. Jimmy watched her ignore the lecherous stares and comments of one of the drunks outside the saloon. By the end of the day she might feel a little offended, but Jimmy thought she seemed capable enough to keep out of trouble. Still, she might have appreciated a helping hand, and briefly he let his mind wander as to how she might thank the gentleman who came to her aid. He sighed; he didn't have the time. He pushed the idea out of his mind and hurried home to the station, where responsibility waited impatiently.
There were moments when Jimmy's temper got the best of him and he secretly cursed the other boys for not being there. In reality, he knew he couldn't blame them. Kid had already left when Teaspoon had his episode. Buck had offered to stay, but at first Teaspoon's recovery had been going so well and Red Bear was in dire straits, they'd all told him to go. They hadn't heard from him since, and there was no way to get word to him that Teaspoon had stopped getting better. Cody, at least, was around now and again but he refused to acknowledge how much help Teaspoon needed. And Teaspoon's pride made Lou and Rachel all but useless. The weight fell on Jimmy to hurry home from the Marshall's office at lunchtime and dinner to cut Teaspoon's food, help him grip his fork, and translate his garbled speech.
And there were times - nights when there were dances, days when he had to send Davis (a good deputy but too young for the job) after someone Jimmy should have faced himself, that Jimmy couldn't help but feel angry at Teaspoon too. On nights like those, Jimmy would lie awake torn with guilt and anger and the overwhelming fact that things would never change.
Today's lunch would be the same as the day's before and the same as tomorrow's. Jimmy played the whole meal over in his mind as he walked the rest of the way to the station. He'd help Teaspoon to his seat at the table. The old man would try to joke and speechify like he used to before getting frustrated and falling into a grim silence. Rachel's teeth would be gritted but she would smile. Lou was usually too exhausted by the odd jobs that came her way now that husbands and fathers were fighting the war to make much conversation. They would eat, and Jimmy would return to work, until seven when Davis came in and the lunch routine repeated itself as dinner.
True to his expectations, lunch started on a grim note as Lou had received another letter from the Kid. It did not sound encouraging, a bullet to the shoulder which was turning to infection, and no doctor to speak of. Teaspoon tried to comfort her, but the effort overwhelmed him. Rachel's teeth ground to dust behind her smile. The clock chimed noisily in the silence. And then there was a knock on the door.
There was no reason to expect anyone. Jimmy answered the door warily. He looked out into the clear eyes of the girl he'd noticed earlier. Jimmy was too stunned to do anything but stutter vaguely in her direction.
"Son, when there's a beautiful woman at the door, you should ask her in." Filtered through Teaspoon's slack jaw and slow tongue, the comment made Jimmy cringe. He waited for a look of scorn to cross the girl's face, and started hating her in advance.
But the girl reacted as girls the country over had always reacted to Teaspoon, with a giggle and a blush. "I don't want to be a bother," she said, when Jimmy still hadn't asked her in, "I'm looking for someone and I was told I could find him here. A Mr. James Hickok."
So that was it. She was there to gawk at Wild Bill. Jimmy didn't hide his irritation. "You found 'im," he said gruffly, feeling only marginally bad that she looked daunted by it.
"Oh. Mr. Hickok, I've come a long way to see you. I believe you knew my brother, Ambrose."
Jimmy didn't find it easy to like people, but he was finding it impossible not to like Beth Merriweather. It wasn't just that she was beautiful - though certainly that was part of it. It wasn't just that Teaspoon had taken an immediate shine to her, though Jimmy had left that afternoon with a very tickled Teaspoon ordering Rachel to feed Bulldog's little sister. Maybe it was only because she never let on that the little station house, its rough made furniture, or the company in it, were not what she was accustomed to. But even if he liked her, Jimmy couldn't quite trust her. She did not say why she was in Rock Creek, or why she was looking for him, specifically, and though Jimmy would have liked to pretend those things did not matter, to let himself get swept up in the feelings bubbling in his blood, he would not let himself. He was balanced precariously as it was.
By dinnertime, he was resolved to get to the bottom of things. He had thought it over, and whatever she was there for, he could not give her. He was worn out. He was stretched too thin. It was taking everything he had to hold the four of them together, to keep their world spinning; he had no money, and what little heart was left in him, he could not spare. When Jimmy got home, Lou was on the porch. "What are you doing out here, Lou?" Jimmy asked as he climbed the steps.
"I needed some air," Lou answered with a nod at the door. The unusual sound of laughter and chatter came out the windows with the glow of the lantern light.
"She been here all day?"
"She say why she's here?"
"Nope," Lou lowered her voice, "But she ain't just some rich girl sight-seeing. She's traveling alone and for as fancy as her dress is, it's also plenty patched and worn. She's here because she needs something."
Jimmy nodded. "I was afraid of that," he muttered as he walked inside.
During dinner, Teaspoon held court, something he had not done since his shock. Beth laughed at his jokes and made some back, and Jimmy smiled. But when silence momentarily over took them, and Beth fidgeted nervously with her hands, Jimmy asked bluntly, "What are you doing here, Miss Merriweather?"
She answered politely, but, Jimmy noticed, without actually answering at all, "I am in the enviable position, Mr. Hickok, of not being tied down anywhere at the moment."
"Meaning your homeless," Jimmy needled back.
Beth Merriweather did blush at that, "You could say that. You see, I had been working at a boarding school. Father took ill with influenza earlier this year; I had to leave the school to tend to him, and eventually to straighten out his affairs when he passed. When I returned, my position had been filled."
Teaspoon nodded and Rachel patted Beth's shoulder comfortingly, but Jimmy still couldn't see how that string of events led her to Rock Creek. "Weren't there any other schools you could work at?" he needled.
"Yes," Beth paused, "But I wanted to see the West. It had been mine and Ambrose's dream since we were little. He wrote me letters while he was here, telling me all about the great adventures he had. He spoke very fondly of his time in Sweetwater," she looked at Jimmy, "and of you, and since I didn't really have anywhere else to go I thought I'd like to visit. I was in Sweetwater last week. I was told that the Pony Express station had been moved to Rock Creek and that possibly some of the riders who had known my brother would still be here, and for lack of anything better to do, here I am."
"And we are so glad you are," said Teaspoon, clutching her hand and smiling as best he could. For the time being, Jimmy left it at that.
Jimmy told himself he was walking Beth back to the hotel because it was his gentlemanly obligation. He tried not to leave the house once he was home for the night and Deputy Davis had taken over at the office. Teaspoon got lonely when Jimmy wasn't around. There was, of course, a very tiny thought in Jimmy's mind that it was actually rather nice to be walking on a clear night arm in arm with a pretty girl.
He found himself unabashedly staring at her as they started out. Her skin was milky pale with golden freckles splayed across the bridge of her nose. Her lips were pink, her eyes big and gray, and her hair a soft ashy blonde that looked ghostly in the infrequent light of lanterns. She was self-possessed in that way girls who know they are pretty have, but she was also gentle in a way that was unlike anyone Jimmy had ever known. His mother had been a weak woman, prone to crying and unable to stand her ground, and since then Jimmy had found himself drawn to women of strength, brassy types, bold types, Lou for instance. But Beth was different. She was not showily stubborn or willful; she did not argue or disagree; she was amiable and polite, not because it was expected of her but simply because she chose to be.
He caught himself staring and cleared his throat as he looked away. If Beth had noticed his scrutiny she didn't let it show. "Mr. Hickok, I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding of sorts," she slowed her pace and looked at him directly, "I am not staying in the hotel. I have a place at the edge of things. Right down this street." She pointed down a dimly lit alley and Jimmy pulled up short. "I didn't want to mention it in front of Mr. Hunter as I was afraid he would make Mrs. Dunne put me up for the night, and she's already gone to so much trouble-"
Jimmy's suspicions returned full force, "Look, Miss Merriweather, I don't have the time or the inclination for this sort of pussy-footing around. Why are you here? Ain't none of us got any money to spare. I can't think Bulldog would've told you different."
There was a flash in her eyes and Jimmy thought perhaps he had made her angry, but her voice continued in it's polite and pleasant way if perhaps a shade cooler than it had been, "I don't know why I am here, exactly, Mr. Hikock. I haven't anywhere else to go." She paused and looked at him, her brow anguished only for a moment and then with a smile that was more of a grimace she continued, "But to answer your unasked but implied question, I have no intention of asking any of you for money or anything beyond friendship. I can arrange my affairs myself, but since Father died, I haven't had anyone in the world and it would be nice to have friends. Especially out here."
Jimmy let guilt soften his tone a little, "Don't you think it might be easier to arrange your affairs back East? It's tough out here and a woman alone…you'll forgive me, but you don't look like you're used to much work."
Beth laughed, "No, I'm not. But I can't go back home. Father made mistakes in who he trusted and…and if I were to stay there I would have paid the price."
Jimmy caught at her arm, his chivalric instinct kicking in, "Are you in some kind of trouble? 'Cause that I can help with. You just tell me who it is and what they're doing and I'll straighten them out."
"You're too kind," she answered with a bemused expression on her face, "but I am afraid I must decline your offer. I'm afraid the trouble I'm in is quite legitimate. I've run out on more than one loan back home…well, it's probably inappropriate for me to share so many family secrets when we've just met." They stood in silence, watching each other until finally with the slightest blush, she lowered her gaze.
"I'll walk you the rest of the way," Jimmy said gruffly.
"Oh, no, that's not necessary," she answered, "I'll be fine from here."
"I'll walk you the rest of the way." He guided her down the filthy alleyway, feeling personally embarrassed by the garbage they tread underfoot and the rat that skittered past. "Where is it you're staying, exactly?"
"Bick's Boarding House, right here," her voice had lost some of its usual polish, and Jimmy understood. The sign that was tacked rudely outside said "Beds: 3 cents a night, Dime a week" a dirty old woman with teeth missing sat on a stool outside.
"Miss Merriweather, you can't stay in a place like this. Rachel has room -" Jimmy was interrupted by the toothless woman who stood up and cackled once she saw them.
"The lady's back! You'll have to pay extry for your friend, princess, and you musn't be too loud about it neither."
Had the old woman been a man and one with teeth, Jimmy would have knocked them out of his head. As it was he could do nothing but glare at the woman's sneer, and marvel at the grace with which Beth Merriweather took the situation. "Thank you for walking me back, Mr. Hikock. I appreciated my evening with you and the others very much."
Jimmy only nodded. He turned to go, before thinking otherwise, turned back, "Miss Merriweather," he said, ignoring the hostile look from the old woman, "if you are staying in town for awhile, will you stop by and visit with Teaspoon during the day? Lou and Rachel have such a hard time understanding him and you may have noticed that he likes to talk."
"I would be pleased to."
Jimmy stepped closer to her and leaned in to whisper fiercely, "You don't have to stay here; Rachel will put you up. It's no trouble."
The look on her face said clearly that the subject was closed and she answered in a firm but still polite voice, "This will do fine for me. Thank you all the same." Jimmy found it difficult to turn away, but finally he did.
The days kept passing, and though he looked for her, Jimmy did not see Beth, nor did she stop by and visit the station. Jimmy would not let himself pass too closely by Bick's, nor inquire about her directly with anyone. For three days he woke up, saw to Teaspoon, and headed in to the Marshal's office. He posted Wanted posters, gave the Reynolds boy a good talking-to about filching candy from Tompkins, explained patiently to Widow Brown that he couldn't lock anyone up for bad manners. At noon, for three days, Jimmy returned to the station house, ate lunch, and pretended to misunderstand Teaspoon when he asked about Beth. He returned to work, asked around town about jobs appropriate for a lady and found none, hauled in a few drunks, lectured Davis on being too careless with his gun; and finally, at the end of the day, weary and with nothing to look forward to but more of the same, Jimmy went home.
On the fourth day he was in the office staring blindly at the pile of paperwork on his desk. He kept putting it off. His reading wasn't up to the task and he was ashamed to ask Lou for help. He shuffled the papers around until he found the latest bunch of Wanted posters. As always he tossed the one that announced a handsome award for any renegade Kiowas or their leader, Red Bear. Maybe he could get a bounty hunter to find Buck and bring him home. It had been Jimmy's experience that if you gave some men enough money, they could find anyone. Jake Coulter, maybe; and if he stated clearly that Buck had to be brought back alive… Buck could read. And Buck would be more suited to playing nurse maid with Teaspoon than Jimmy, who was all too often impatient and irritable.
The bell above the door rang out cheerily, interrupting his moody thoughts. "Ye're late," he growled, thinking it was Davis. He looked up from under his brows to give the boy a good dressing down, but Davis wasn't there. "Oh," Jimmy grumbled, "It's you." He hadn't thought to see her again. He was acutely aware of how little she belonged there. It was in her bearing and the immaculately white trim on her dress, in the elaborate way her hair was pinned and curled. He felt grubby and coarse.
Beth fidgeted with the cuff of her sleeve, "Good afternoon." She looked over the office as if she were interested, as if it were a parlor in a fine house. Jimmy watched her as she wandered towards the wall and looked at the wanted posters tacked there. "So many women," she murmured.
"The war," he explained, getting up and standing behind her. "Look, Miss Merriweather, I told you before I don't got, none of us got, any money we can see to part with, so I'm sorry, being that your Bulldog's sister and all, I'd like to be able to do something for you, but -"
"And I told you before that I wasn't looking for anything from you other than friendship."
"Yeah, well," Jimmy mumbled, cowed, "Been askin' around, ain't no jobs for a lady around here; don't know what we can do for you."
"I've found a job," she said, "That's why, I'm afraid, I couldn't stop in and visit with Mr. Hunter, I had several interviews and trying to get things in order to leave - "
Jimmy looked at her, "Leave? Thought you'd found a job."
Beth nodded , "I have. There's a party heading out in the next few days for Oregon. There's several families and they just got word that the teacher at the settlement they're headed to has gotten married, and so…They'll take me across to Oregon with them on the condition I take the position when we arrive." She paused, looked from one poster to the next, as if they were family photographs and the faces familiar.
Suddenly Jimmy felt as if he could not last through the interminable days that stretched out before him.
Through the greasy window and the holes in the curtain, early morning sunshine fell in splatters and spots across Beth's face. Last night the room's torn wallpaper, the chipped and worn furniture went unnoticed. Jimmy looked over at Beth, clean and sweet against the graying sheets. The sunlight flecked across her skin, blending in with the pale freckles that dotted her shoulders and chest. Jimmy gently traced the line of a delicate blue vein down her neck until she awoke with a shiver. She saw him and Jimmy watched as a blush spread out from her cheeks to the tips of her ears and down to where the sheet was haphazardly draped across the rise of her chest. They looked at each other and considered the million things to say and settled on none.
At last, Jimmy pulled back the covers and started to dress. Beth sat up, clutching the sheet up to her neck, "You have to go?" It wasn't really a question, and the wistful sound of it made Jimmy pause.
"Got to." He went to her, pushed a few strands of hair away from her face and kissed her forehead. "Sorry," he said with a shrug. She held one of his hands in hers and looked at him until he spoke again. "I ain't ever been gone this long since Teaspoon... They'll all wonder where I've been."
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, "Ambrose was right, Jimmy, you are a hero." He brushed off her praise with a shake of his head. "Not in the way folks think, not like Wild Bill, in a quieter way, a better way." It was Jimmy's turn to blush.
"I ain't any kinda hero, Beth." He let himself sit next to her knees on the bed, let his hand stay in hers. "Your brother had a lot more in him for hero stuff, than I did. Ambrose saved my life, when he -" Jimmy paused, "And I guess I ain't repaid him too well, fooling with his sister when she was in trouble." He tried to disentangle his fingers from hers, but she held on. "I wish I could figure a way for you to stay 'round here. Then I could court you the right way. Maybe when the war's over and Kid's home again, or if Buck gets the chance to come back, I could come out to Oregon, but I can't leave Teaspoon just now -"
Beth leaned forward to rest against his shoulder, "I don't expect anything more from you, Jimmy, and I don't have any regrets."
He chuckled and looked at her with a wry smile, "I just can't figure you out. I keep thinkin' you're just as innocent as your brother, and then you surprise me."
She sighed and leaned away again. He watched her as she turned to stare out the window. "Father was a lot like Ambrose, naive, dreamy. Mother died when I was twelve and suddenly there wasn't a grown-up in the house anymore. And that was it for playing innocent." She looked back at him and smiled. He kissed her softly and began to lean forward, his hand snaking around her shoulders, his work-roughened palm passing over her smooth skin. She put a hand on his chest and broke her lips away from his, "You have to get home to Teaspoon," she whispered, playing with one of the buttons on his shirt.
"Damn it," he grumbled, standing up. "I'd rather stay," he said helplessly.
He smoothed his hair back behind his ears and picked up his hat. "You'll stop by today to say goodbye to him, won't you?"
She nodded and he paused for only a second before he left her.
At breakfast, the ticking of the clock was oppressive. No one asked where he'd been. They all smiled slyly and their eyes twinkled knowingly. Teaspoon managed a minute long wink, using all his energy to move his eyelid. "What are you all so cheery about?" Jimmy snapped.
"Why ain't you?" Lou answered.
"Nothin' to be cheery 'bout. Leastways not enough to be grinning like the rest of you."
Rachel pretended to be casual, helping Teaspoon to more spuds. "We were worried when you didn't come home for dinner. Lou went in to the office looking for you."
Jimmy leaned back in his chair with a sigh, "Sorry, I had some things that needed taking care of." The other three exchanged a knowing glance, and Lou smothered a giggle. "What?" Jimmy knew exactly what they were thinking, and that they were right did little to make him feel better. The clock ticked on amid the clatter of forks. When nobody ventured another comment, Jimmy set back to eating, warily glancing from one face to another.
"Suppose we'll ever see Miss Merriweather, again?" Teaspoon asked, with effort, as though she were completely unrelated to the previous volatile subject. Again Lou began to giggle
"She'll be by today to say good-bye to everyone," Jimmy stated flatly.
"Good-bye?" the good-natured glint was gone from Rachel's eye and instead she looked concerned by the news.
"She's got a job with that wagon train headed to Oregon. She's going to teach school when they get there."
"Oh," Rachel whispered. The clock could still be heard, ticking, tocking, and no one spoke.
Jimmy came home from lunch to find Beth sitting on the porch with Teaspoon. Their heads were tipped towards each other conspiratorially and Jimmy could hear Teaspoon saying his name. Beth laughed, a deep horsey sound that did not match her looks, and when she spotted him she laughed harder. "What's so funny? You two look like you're up to more mischief than a fox in a hen house."
Teaspoon smiled, "I was telling Miss Merriweather about the shenanigans you and the others used to get up to."
Jimmy rolled his eyes and shook his head, "Whatever he's been telling you, you shouldn't believe it." His foot was on the step and he leaned down on his knee, looking up at Beth with eyes that made her blush and look away.
Teaspoon smiled again, half his mouth familiar, the other half a crooked grimace. He patted Beth's hand and with a great deal of effort, stood up. Jimmy scrambled to offer assistance, but Teaspoon waved him away, relying instead upon the slender but steady arm of Beth. He began the laborious path to the front door, his left leg like an anchor holding him to the earth, halting his progress.
Jimmy moved towards him, reached to steady him. The older man gripped Jimmy's elbow, as usual, to steady himself as he moved from his seat on the porch to his chair inside. It was a scheduled migration. Every day, rain or shine, from the house to the porch in the morning, from the porch to the table and back again every afternoon, until night fell and one final excrutiating trip back into the house to stay until the morning came and life repeated. This time the pattern altered.
Teaspoon's hand squeezed Jimmy's arm, vice-like and slowly let him go, "I don't need your help, Jimmy. Might move slow these days, but I'm still movin'. You two young people ought to enjoy an afternoon like this; I want to see if I can't bother Rachel for a bit."
"It's getting chilly, Teaspoon; Beth and I don't mind going inside."
Teaspoon stopped and fixed Jimmy with the sort of stare that had quelled mobs. "Son, when you're choosing between an old codger and a pretty girl, you don't never pick the codger." And that closed the subject.
Jimmy stood at the rail and leaned back, watching Teaspoon struggle with the door and walk into the house. He shook his head and looked at Beth, "He wasn't ever so unruly until you showed up."
"I don't think you can blame me. I get the feeling that Teaspoon was never exactly tame to begin with." She stood up and joined him at the rail, leaning forward and looking off at the horizon. He did not move, except to tuck his thumbs in his belt and turn his head to see her profile, limned in the sun's golden light. "He feels guilty," she said seriously, only glancing at Jimmy once as she spoke, "he thinks you're ruining your life for him."
"Nope, ain't nothin' else for me to do, but this."
She looked at him, "Teaspoon told me you were engaged. He said she left because you wouldn't fight in the war." Jimmy swallowed, his adam's apple bobbing nervously up and down. Beth looked back out at the world, "You must miss her."
Jimmy chuckled bitterly, "Rosemary? No. I did for awhile, maybe, but she wasn't, we weren't…it was complicated."
"Did you love her? I know it isn't my business, and you don't have to answer if you'd rather not."
Jimmy sighed deeply and studied the windowsill in front of him. "I don't think so."
"Have you ever been in love?" She waited for an answer and none came. She looked over at him; he was studying his boots with a grimace. "Louise?"
"Can't love Lou; she's married to my best friend. Hell, the Kid's almost my brother."
"Doesn't mean you can't love her. You just can't do anything about it."
Jimmy turned again to study her. She stood straight, her hands rested on the rail softly, her eyes never wavered downwards but took in the world straight on. For the first time since he had known her, Jimmy realized the immense effort all of that took. "What about you?" he asked, "you must've had lots of beaus."
She thought it over, "One. He was a school chum of Ambrose's"
Jimmy fidgeted with his belt buckle, "You were in love with him."
She shook her head, "I hope not. It certainly didn't seem like love. He was very sweet and well to do; at the time I wasn't asking for much more. But when Ambrose left for Saint Joe, he stopped calling. I didn't really mind that much."
"But you and him, you, uhhh, you were," Jimmy felt his cheeks begin to flush, "I mean the two of you -"
She looked at him, having the decency to blush, the poise to look him in the eye, "You noticed."
"Enough to be surprised," he said, remembering the night before.
"Well, then you don't have anything to worry about. You haven't stolen my virtue and when I leave tomorrow, you don't have to write or think about me again." She said it without malice or bitterness. She let silence slip between them for a moment, before putting her hand softly over his and turning to face him, "But I would like it if you did, write me or thought about me fondly from time to time."
Jimmy turned to face her, aware of how little air separated them. He gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Can't make any promises."
"You don't need to," she whispered.
Their final kiss was soft, his lips barely pressing hers. Rachel interrupted it to call them into dinner, and they went in together, but apart, nothing betraying what had passed between them.
When Beth left for Oregon, Jimmy stood outside the Marshal's office to watch the wagon train go by. He gave her a stoic wave and watched her until the wagons were obscured by dust and the traffic of the town. He went into his office and sat at his desk, looking in frustration at the paperwork that would never be done. He crumpled still another poster offering a reward for Red Bear and his followers. In a few hours he would go home to the station house to help Teaspoon make the trek from the porch to the table and back again. The next week would be the same and the one after that, until Jimmy would feel like one of the prisoners that passed through Rock Creek's jail.