He watched in silence as his wife quietly padded around the bedroom. The lamp had been blown out and he could only see the bright white of her underthings sharply, the rest of her remained ill-defined, the curve of her neck or the length of her leg occasionally outlined by starlight before melting again into the darkness. The day had been unseasonably warm, but now the night was cool and crisp and through the open window a chill breeze blew in, fluttering the sheets.
He was half lying down, waiting expectantly for her to join him in their bed, and still she puttered about. Brushing her hair and tidying up, pausing at the window to lean out and smell the pines that stood watch over the town. She moved away from the window and he knew she shivered slightly at the bracing air. He heard her open the door, watched the glowing white ruffles of her drawers walk out the door and down the hall. He waited for her to return, and she did, carrying an extra quilt, which she laid out at the foot of the bed.
With a contented sigh he leaned back, expecting her to slip in beside him, to feel the mattress give as she settled into the blankets and cuddled against him. She bent low smoothing the quilt and he could faintly smell the scent of her skin. Through the dim light he saw her white teeth as she smiled at him and heard her giggle softly.
And in an instant she was gone from sight and the mattress had shifted with her weight. A cool hand found its way to his chest and the rest of her nestled in beside him. She stretched to press a feather light kiss on his temple. "Something sure has you pre-occupied, tonight," she whispered.
In the dark he shrugged. He covered her small hand with his own and let his thumb pass over her skin back and forth. "I read in the paper today that Wild Bill Hickok was killed a few months ago."
"Oh? Did you know him?" She murmured sleepily against his neck, her hot breath making his nerves buzz.
"I rode with him for awhile during the Express."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He shook his head against the pillow. "Don't be. I always thought he was more trouble than he was worth." He took his hand from hers and tilted her chin up so that he could kiss her lips. He stroked her black hair as she settled back into her space beside him. Eventually Jimmy slept, and his dreams were untroubled.
THREE YEARS LATER
"What the hell is Tompkins doin' out this way? And who the hell is with him?" asked Buck, jumping off the bunkhouse porch to meet the wagon, Teaspoon a step behind him.
Tompkins' buckboard rattled to a halt. Sitting next to him was a young woman, dressed in purple taffeta with a fidgety three year old girl beside her. The woman was beautiful, as Buck's stare made clear and Teaspoon stepped to the other side of the wagon to speak with Tompkins leaving Buck to help the lady down. "What'd you bring us, Tompkins?" Teaspoon asked good naturedly.
"Mrs. Butler came in on the stage this morning; someone had to bring her out here."
Teaspoon grinned up at the irritable store-keep. "And we appreciate it. Don't we Buck?"
Buck only nodded and reached back up to the wagon for the little girl, who grinned at him and jumped into his arms. "Hi!" she chirped.
"Hi," Buck answered and tried to set her down, but the little girl wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs securely around his waist. She looked utterly at home in his arms.
"Emmie," her mother chided softly.
"She's fine, ma'am," Buck said.
Tompkins looked at him with irritation. "There's baggage in the back."
Teaspoon and Buck exchanged looks as Teaspoon unloaded the wagon. "You plannin' on stayin' awhile, Mrs. Butler?" Teaspoon asked.
Tompkins grunted in annoyance. "You all weren't expecting her?"
"I can't say I've had the pleasure of making Mrs. Butler's acquaintance." Teaspoon said.
With a sigh of resignation, Tompkins made a move to get out of the wagon. "Maybe I should stay awhile, in case you need a ride back to town. When you said you were lookin' for the breed I assumed you knew these folks."
"My husband knows Mr. Cross," Mrs. Butler said in a clear but tired voice. For the first time the three men noticed how wilted and weary she was. "I don't honestly know where I'm staying. My husband wrote a letter - " her voice broke.
The little girl reached out to her and the woman took her from Buck's arms. Her daughter hugged her tightly. "It's okay, Mommy."
Teaspoon cleared his throat gently. "Maybe, Buck, you could show our guests to the parlor to discuss the situation. Lou won't mind and the bunkhouse ain't nearly comfortable enough for ladies." Buck nodded and led Mrs. Butler into the house. "Tompkins," Teaspoon continued, "You can head on back to town. We'll see Mrs. Butler back to town if she needs it."
Tompkins muttered grumpily and helped Teaspoon unload the back of the wagon before leaving. Teaspoon stacked the few bags outside Lou's door and peered into the parlor window to see Buck reading a letter, his brow furrowed and his lips pulled in a grim frown. Teaspoon shook his head with a sigh. Whatever Mrs. Butler was bringing with her, it wasn't good news.
Buck read over the letter a second and then a third time. Jimmy was putting a lot on his shoulders. He looked over to where Mrs. Butler sat daintily on Lou's sofa. Emmie had fallen asleep with her head on her mother's lap and the woman's hands stroked her daughter's brown sugar hair with a soothing rhythm. Her face was pale and drawn and dark shadows pooled beneath her eyes. Buck wasn't sure where to begin. "How has Jimmy been?" he asked at last.
Startled out of her reverie, it took a moment for her to answer. "Happy, I hope." She smiled wryly. "We've been very happy. I know that he left some troubles behind him when we met but they haven't followed him. Even this thing now, I don't think it has to do with who he was before. Does it?"
Buck shook his head. "I don't think so. So you know about Jimmy's past then?"
"Some. He wanted to put things behind him and I never asked questions. I know he got into more than his fair share of trouble."
Buck sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Lou won't mind you staying here. She was, is, a friend of Jimmy's too. But we all thought - we'd heard Jimmy was killed three years back. So this - I'm not sure how to tell her or Teaspoon the truth. Just for tonight, if you wouldn't mind, maybe we shouldn't mention Jimmy."
She nodded and Buck exhaled with relief. He looked at Emmie as she squirmed in her sleep and without thinking he picked her up. "Let's get her up to the guest room, where she can nap in a bed."
Mrs. Butler smiled and stood up, swaying gently as she did so. "If it's no trouble, I could use a little rest myself," she said, resting her hand on her stomach. For the first time, Buck noticed her barely rounded belly.
"No trouble at all," he answered leading her to the stairs, tightening his jaw against the fury that was climbing up his throat. Jimmy was leaving him with another mess to clean up.
"Our guests stayin' then?" asked Teaspoon when Buck finally left the house and joined him at the corral. Buck nodded, and crammed Jimmy's letter into his pocket. "You know her husband?"
"He's an old friend," Buck said quickly. He knew it was useless to hope that Teaspoon wouldn't ask about it any further, but he at least hoped his curt reply would delay the old man awhile.
The ploy worked and Teaspoon changed subjects. "She in trouble?"
Buck clambered up the fence to perch on the top rail. He feigned an intense interest in the new stock and continued his visual inspection of the horses while he answered. "Might be. Mr. Butler is a sheriff in Colorado. Brought in a fella with a lot of friends awhile back; he sent his family here until things cool down. According to his letter he didn't think anyone would try to follow her."
"You think he'll make it through?"
Buck laughed, but the sound was bitter. "He's beat worse odds." Buck sighed with irritation. Far off he could see Lou riding in fast. "Damn it," he muttered, just thinking of how mad Lou was going to be at Jimmy when she found out. How could he tell her that Jimmy had chosen to let them all believe he was dead? Jimmy had to have known the pain he was causing. It was bad enough that he'd refused to write or let them know where he was for years, but occasionally his name popped up in the papers and it had been some comfort to know he might still come home.
Buck hopped off the fence to slow Lou's horse and hold the reins as she slid off. He could still feel the dead weight of her in his arms when she'd collapsed at the news of Jimmy's death. How many months had he held her hand, endured her temper, run the ranch single-handed until at last she laughed again? He wasn't strong enough to do it again, couldn't stand the thought of watching her endure that kind of pain again.
He didn't realize until he felt Lou's tiny hand on his arm and heard her ask what was wrong that his face had contorted into a mask of fury. He tried to shake the feeling off. "Nothing's wrong, I was just thinking about something. Uhh, Lou, hope you don't mind, but I told a friend of mine that she and her daughter could stay at your place for a while. Her husband's in some trouble and he just wanted her someplace safe until he can get everything straightened out."
Lou nodded. "Any friend of yours is welcome, Buck, you know that." He could tell she was curious but she didn't ask any questions. She'd spent the day riding the fence line looking for downed rails, cut wire, and her cheeks were flushed, her hair tangled in a long braid down her back, and her big dark eyes glittered up at him. Just looking at her Buck felt his earlier anger slip away and he wasn't even conscious of the grin beginning to spread across his face. Teaspoon cleared his throat and the two of them startled away from each other. Lou tucked a loose hair behind her ear nervously, "Guess I ought to get supper on then, if we've got guests."
"I can help," Buck offered, "you're probably tired after riding all day."
"Alright," Lou agreed. "I think he's just trying to protect his friends from my cooking," she muttered at Teaspoon as they passed him on their way up to the house.
Teaspoon just shook his head and smiled, watching the two of them walk up to the house, saw them share a laugh and Lou cuff Buck on the shoulder playfully. Teaspoon waggled his eyebrows at a palomino on the other side of the fence. "Everything in its own time," he said and the horse nickered in reply.
It was hard to say what Lou had expected of Buck's friend, but it wasn't the beautiful, elegant woman who wandered down the stairs some time later. Lucy smiled nervously at the three of them gathering around the dinner table. Her small daughter wiggled away from her and bounded down the stairs. She launched herself into Buck's arms with a smile and a happy, "Hello!"
"Hi," Buck answered over Lucy's gentle scolding. "Uh, Lou, this is Mrs. Butler and her daughter, Emmie."
"Pleased to meet you," Lou said coldly, eyeing Lucy with evident distrust. She brusquely pointed out their seats at the table and sat herself at the head of the table with an imperious air. "Mrs. Butler, Buck didn't mention how he knew you," she commented as she savagely tore a drumstick from the chicken in front of her.
"Oh, we don't know each other. My husband knew…um, knows, Mr.Cross." Lucy fidgeted nervously with her fork. "We are so thankful for your hospitality, Mrs. McCloud. It's a relief to be off the road at last."
"Buck says you came all the way from one of the Colorado strikes," Teaspoon ventured.
"Yes," Mrs. Butler nodded. "My husband is the sheriff in a little town called Mabel, up in the mountains."
Lou sniffed contemptuously and loudly tore a piece of chicken off the bone. "How in the world did you ever get to be friends with a sheriff in Colorado, Buck?" Lou asked, not caring who saw the half-chewed food in her mouth.
Lou saw the furtive look that passed between Lucy and Buck. At last Buck answered quietly, "I knew him before he started working up there. A while back."
"A long while back," Lou mumbled under her breath. She and Buck had spent the better part of seventeen years together and she didn't know any Sheriff Butler.
As a pervasive chill settled over the dining room, Emmie tipped over her milk, splashing it across the table and onto Buck's plate. "Oh, I'm sorry!" Lucy jumped up immediately and attempted to clean the mess. "Mr. Cross, your dinner! You can't eat that, here take mine."
"There's plenty left for me, ma'am," Buck protested.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. McCloud. I really didn't intend for us to be so much trouble," Lucy's voice sounded strained, and all of them could see the tears starting to squeeze out from the corners of her eyes. She tried to mop up the spilt milk with trembling hands.
Buck stilled her hands with his own. "It's okay."
Lucy slowly returned to her seat, still spouting apologies. Teaspoon and Buck managed the mess and Lou made a thorough inspection of Mrs. Butler. Her hair was black and glossy in a hairstyle too elaborate to be quite stylish. Her dress was smart and simple, but the color was garish, a lavender that had too much pink, too much sheen. She had all the manners of a lady of quality, but something else too, something in the way she moved, an unguarded way of looking at the strangers around the table. It was familiar to Lou and as she picked at her meal she realized what Mrs. Butler was or had been. Lou glared at Buck across the table but he would not meet her eyes. It was too much to watch him talk and joke with Emmie. More than once Lou had thought that Buck would make an excellent father, but to watch his easy rapport with another woman's child was making her blood run faster and her jaw tighten. The little girl was familiar and Lou was determined to see Buck in her eyes or her smile.
At last the meal had ended and the Butlers disappeared upstairs to make an early night of it. Lou stood up abruptly and let out a snort of hot air as she fixed Buck with a vicious stare. "Do you think I'm stupid, Buck Cross? Now you better tell me the truth about that woman you let into my house, or so help me God I'll make you wish you had."
Buck pushed his hair behind his ears nervously. "Like I told you, Lou, I knew her husband - "
Lou wouldn't let him finish. "Don't lie to me, Buck! A woman like that doesn't have a husband, unless he's a mighty tolerant man."
"Keep your voice down, Lou. They'll hear you," Buck whispered harshly and Teaspoon cleared his throat loudly before attempting a graceful exit.
"Sit down, Teaspoon," Lou practically shouted, "there's pie yet." Teaspoon knew better to argue, even if it was obvious that pie was going to be a long time coming. Lou fixed her glittering eyes back on Buck. "I thought better of you. I know the others all spent time in the company of workin' girls, but at least none of them would have brought one back to my home. How could you do this to me?"
"Do what to you?" Buck asked.
"Flaunt your…your…your woman in front of me like I was just one of the boys."
"Are you jealous?" asked Buck, hardly believing the words as they left his mouth. He watched in awe and terror as Lou's eyes turned to him. He could almost feel the sharpness of her gaze against his skin. Her small frame was tensed and coiled and he had the unnerving sensation that he was stuck in a small room with a very large barrel of gunpowder and he'd just dropped a lighted match.
"I," said Lou clearly and coldly, "am not jealous. I am surprised that you would bring a woman like that into my home." Her voice rose and she gestured violently into the air with her fork. "And then that you've cooked up this cockamamie story about her husband. I can smell a rat, Buck, especially when it's sitting at my kitchen table."
The veins in Buck's neck swelled and moved with the bobbing of his Adam's apple. He wasn't keen on losing his own temper, it was one of the reasons the ranch worked, because Lou's tirades seemed to roll off him like butter on a hot skillet, but he felt for the woman upstairs. When Lou knew the truth, if Jimmy returned, it could leave both Lucy and Buck at loose ends; they could become extraneous. He tried to keep his voice even. "Lou, it isn't a story, it's the truth." He took a moment, steeling himself for her reaction when he said Jimmy's name, but Lou didn't let him continue.
"The hell it is! That little girl acts like she's known you all her life and she sure looks familiar and it doesn't take much to put two and two together."
"What are you insinuating?" Buck said loudly, his own fuse burning perilously short.
Lou crossed her arms across her chest and glared at him. "You know what I'm insinuating! You've been dallying with this woman and now you want to be one big happy family."
"Lou, that's absurd! When have I had time to dally with anyone? When am I anywhere but here? When am I with anyone but you?" Buck's sudden outburst seemed to cow Lou and throwing his napkin on his plate he rose with a sigh. "Maybe Emmie does look familiar, I won't argue that, but she sure doesn't look like me." He didn't wait for Lou to respond before he left the house, slamming the door behind him.
Buck's mood was much the same several hours later when Teaspoon finally retired to the bunk house. "Seems like the arrival of Mrs. Butler's got you a mite jumpy there, Buck. You want to talk about it?"
"No," Buck spat out the word, immediately realizing his curt reply was likely to cause more suspicion than just holding his tongue.
Teaspoon raised his hands in defense and said, "Just makin' an observation, son, no reason to get upset." Teaspoon kept quiet for a moment and Buck was keenly aware of being observed as he packed his saddle bags. "You plannin' on goin' somewhere, Buck?"
Buck sighed and kept his eyes on what he was doing, straining to keep his voice natural. "Going to ride out and see if I can be of any help to Lucy's husband."
"You think he's in real trouble, then?"
Buck flung his full saddlebags onto his bunk and let his body sink down onto it as well. "He isn't someone who scares easily, Teaspoon, and if he felt it necessary to send his family here, then he's in something he can't handle alone."
The old man nodded in understanding. "Lou know you're going?"
"Not yet. Thought I'd let her know after breakfast."
"Probably best for all of us if she don't lose her temper before the cookin's done." Teaspoon stretched his arm out to the stove to refill his cup with coffee. He took a sip and smacked his lips in appreciation. "You oughta drink some of this, Buck, it'll put hair on your chest." He looked up at the ceiling with a philosophical twinkle to his eye. "That Emmie is cute as a button, ain't she? I gotta agree with Lou though, she sure looks familiar to me, too. Can't quite place who she looks like, but I reckon I'll figure it out sooner or later."
Buck exhaled in a gust and rubbed his face with his hands. When he looked again at Teaspoon his face was twisted and anguished. "It's Jimmy, Teaspoon. James Butler is Jimmy."
The old man's face paled and the hand that held his coffee cup trembled. With great effort he set the cup down on the table and stared across the room at Buck. "You sure about that?" he asked, his voice rough.
Buck nodded. "He said enough in his letter for me to know it's him."
"He ask you not to tell us?"
Buck shook his head.
"Can I read it?"
Buck pulled the letter from his pocket and took the few steps across the floor to hand it over. "He doesn't offer any explanations, Teaspoon," Buck said weakly, watching as Teaspoon carefully read the letter.
At last Teaspoon looked up, his eyes brimming with tears. "No, he doesn't but he does apologize and that'll have to do."
Lou did not take the news of Buck's departure well. She muttered grumpily at Teaspoon as they sat on the front porch after breakfast. Buck was checking his tack and mount before leaving and Lucy had retired for a brief rest. Little Emmie, never shy, had clambered onto Teaspoon's lap on the porch swing and was enthralled by twisting and snapping his faded suspenders. "I don't understand, Teaspoon. Who is this Mr. Butler anyway? I've never heard of him; Buck's never mentioned him, and it's not like Buck has a lot of friends out there that I don't know. And he's so important Buck has to ride off and put himself in danger? It's ridiculous."
"Maybe Buck feels an obligation to Mr. Butler."
"C'mon, Teaspoon," Lou muttered darkly, "He's going because of her ."
"Don't go jumpin' to conclusions, now," scolded Teaspoon. "There ain't no reason to - "
"No reason!" Lou interrupted, throwing her hands in the air. "Teaspoon, all you got to do is look at her to know what sort of business Mrs. Butler is in."
"Louise, little pitchers," warned Teaspoon with a pointed look at the little girl on his lap. Lou sighed and collapsed onto the swing next to them making it sway wildly and the chains rattle.
"Louise is my middle name!" Emmie piped up happily, oblivious to any of the subtleties of the conversation.
"And a right purty name it is too." Teaspoon pulled a coin from behind Emmie's ear and the little girl giggled with delight.
"Emmie," her mother's voice called softly from the doorway, "don't bother Teaspoon and Lou." Emmie glowered at her mother, looking like a small indignant version of her father.
Teaspoon cleared his throat in the tense silence and looked uneasily from Lou to Lucy. "Emmie," he said with a grin, "you seem like a young lady that likes kittens, is that right?" The little girl nodded enthusiastically. Teaspoon beamed back at her. "We got a barn cat around here that had a litter and I think I know where she's hiding them, what do you say we try to find them?" She squealed in delight and Teaspoon swept her up in his arms and hastily left the porch, glancing back at the two women with something like fear in his eyes. Sometimes, he knew, discretion was the better part of valor.
Lou did not look back at Lucy to speak to her. "Buck is leaving to help your husband."
"I know," Lucy answered evenly. She took a breath and stepped out of the doorway to stand in front of Lou. "I didn't ask Buck to go after James; I wouldn't have asked him to put himself in danger."
"I know," Lou said with a sigh. "It's just in Buck's nature to be helpful." She seemed to consider staying silent after this, but her temper got the better of her. "It's real strange that I don't know your husband, have never even heard of him in fact. Buck and I have been friends for a long time; we don't have a lot of secrets."
Lucy leaned back against the porch railing and fought the urge to tell Lou what little she knew of the truth. She shuddered slightly as Lou regarded her with blatant disdain. She'd been getting looks like that from good church ladies and upstanding citizens for most of her life. "I hope you haven't gotten the wrong impression, Mrs. McCloud. Buck is a friend of my husband's, nothing more. I'm afraid I can't tell you more than that; maybe you should ask Buck."
Lou recognized a challenge when she heard one and she tried to size up the women in front of her carefully. "I don't mean to be ungracious, Mrs. Butler, I have a temper is all."
"And a jealous streak."
Lou blushed. "Buck's just a friend."
"Mm-hmm," Lucy answered back with a knowing look at Lou. "I don't think you're naturally a hateful person, Mrs. McCloud, so I would assume your judgment's a little clouded by something other than friendship. A woman could do a lot worse than Buck Cross."
Lou fidgeted with the end of her braid. "I've been in love too many times before. It isn't worth it. And Buck and I have been friends for a long time, we're family now; I couldn't risk losing that."
Lou saw the tears that glittered in Lucy's eyes as she answered with a sad smile, "That's the problem with having things, you can lose them."
Lou felt keenly the memory of her own heartbreak as she looked at the other woman. Without thinking she reached out and squeezed Lucy's hand. "Buck'll bring him back to you, Lucy. He's never let anyone down."
In the afternoons, Lucy and Lou sat in the parlor in uncomfortable silence. Lucy was working on a blanket for the baby and Lou did her dogged best attacking the mending basket. But as the days since Buck had left passed, both women found it harder to concentrate, their eyes always drifting to the windows and their thoughts drifting farther. One day Lucy had sat staring at nothing in particular for several minutes before a sharp kick from the baby had startled her back into consciousness. She got up and left her crocheting behind to study the picture she'd been staring at without seeing it. It was a simple pencil sketch, and she recognized a young Lou and Buck, and more importantly James. Without thought she extended a finger to stroke the outline of his jaw. How strange that she should recognize him, when it seemed he was a stranger to her.
Lou came up behind her. "That's Jimmy," she said wistfully, "you recognize him?"
"No," answered Lucy, startled. "Should I?"
"Some folks do. A lot of stories were written about him. Maybe you heard of Wild Bill Hickok?" Without thought Lou traced the same line along Jimmy's jaw.
"Is that who he is?" Lucy asked.
Lou nodded. "Well, it's what Marcus and the papers called him anyway. To us, he was just Jimmy. We all rode together for the Pony Express. Me, Buck, Jimmy, Kid, Noah - " she sighed. She hadn't looked at the picture in some time and she was nearly caught off guard with the weight of loneliness that pressed in against her at the thought of her friends.
"Where are the rest of them now?" asked Lucy, wondering if she might tell Lou the truth now. It had never been clear to her why Buck had wanted the secret kept in the first place.
"Well, Ike died only a few days after he drew this. And Noah passed not long after. Kid," Lou said, feeling his name stick in her throat like a hidden sob. "Kid and I were married when the Express ended and then he left for the war and didn't come back. Cody's busy having adventures and acting on the stage. He writes now and then. And Jimmy - " She found she could say nothing more and her silence and the catch in her voice as she'd said his name hung heavy in the air, revealing more than any words could.
For the first time Lucy understood what Buck must have feared from the beginning. When Lou learned Jimmy was alive, when Jimmy came face to face again with Lou, would either of them remember anyone else?
"I imagine you got questions you want ask, or a scolding you want to give," Jimmy grumbled.
Buck kept his attention on the tracks in front of him, tracing a hoof print with his finger and then looking over the terrain ahead of them. The mountains were rough going and the dense forest could be hiding a horse and rider ten feet away as easily as ten miles. He didn't answer Jimmy till he'd swung back up onto Warrior and started slowly in the direction their quarry had gone. "I'm not the one you have to explain to, Jimmy," he said almost carelessly, and he didn't spare a glance for Jimmy but kept his eyes on the forest ahead.
Jimmy scowled and let a few moments pass before saying anything. "Lou could have died because of me. I didn't think that was a fault worth forgiving. I didn't want anyone's sympathy or kindness; I just wanted to be punished for what I'd done."
"But you weren't. You got married, had a life, while the rest of us mourned our brother."
"Didn't know it would happen that way." They pulled their horses up again and both dismounted to study the trail. "Lucy came as a surprise to me, Buck. She pulled me out of a dark place."
Buck forgot about the trail for a moment, and turned to stare at Jimmy. "What about Lou?" he shouted angrily. "I was there, Jimmy, I watched her fall apart when you disappeared and I saw her break when she thought you'd died."
Jimmy sighed in exasperation. "And me suddenly showing back up again would have made that better? It would have just hurt her worse. You should know that. How'd she take it when you told her?"
"I didn't," Buck muttered, hanging his head and pushing a hand through his dark hair.
"What do you mean you didn't?" Jimmy asked.
Buck shrugged and knelt down to study the trail. "Why do you think I'm here, Jimmy? You're already dead; I've already mourned you. But I'm not going to face Lou's temper when she learns the truth; you're going to tell her and you're going to deal with the consequences. I've been doing my best to fill your shoes for years now, but I'm not doing that."
Jimmy leaned back against a tree with a chuckle. "No, I guess it wouldn't be fair for you to get shot on my account." He watched Buck as he wandered part way down the hill, staring at the blanket of wet pine needles for some sign of the man they were tracking. "Tell me," Jimmy said, "Lou know how you feel?"
"What?" Buck whirled around and Jimmy laughed out loud at the color that was rising in his cheeks.
"She got you good," Jimmy said with a grin. "So tell me, what's goin' on with the two of you?"
"Nothing. You and Kid didn't leave much for anyone else," Buck mumbled as he turned away, as though he hoped Jimmy wouldn't hear.
"I find that hard to believe. Lou's a tough woman, Buck. Take more than a fool like me to break her." The sudden crack of gunfire drowned out anything else Jimmy might have said and Buck looked back just in time to see him sliding down the length of the tree, his shirt already turning red with blood.
Lou saw Buck coming, saw the slow plod of his horse and the travois behind it. She didn't shout his arrival; it was obvious he was bringing bad news and she wanted to delay it as long as she could. She remembered all too clearly the day Jimmy had rode in that slowly, to tell her that the telegram had finally come, that Kid was dead. Time had split into two from that point on; there would forever be a before and an after. She did not know Lucy Butler well, but she did not wish that sort of pain on her. She snorted in irritation at the tears that were gathering at her eyes at the mere memory of that terrible grief.
Teaspoon came out of the barn and taking one look at her face looked off to the west, where Buck's horse continued to plod ever closer. "My God," the old man whispered and Lou noticed that his face paled. Keeping his eyes on Buck, Teaspoon joined Lou on the porch, putting an arm around her shoulders and squeezing her arm affectionately. Buck was closer now, the measured gait of his horse seemed to grow even slower and Lou's nerves felt as though they might snap.
Behind them, the front door creaked open and Lou turned her head to see Lucy peering around the door. "Is someone here?" she asked, hope evident in her voice. "I thought I heard - " Her words faded away as at last Buck rode into the yard. The sound of Lucy's cry tore like a knife through Lou, calling to mind her own mindless scream so many years before.
Lucy had run from the porch to the travois before Buck had even the chance to dismount. She knelt by the motionless figure, her pale hands dancing like fireflies through the dusk before tenderly stroking her husband's face. Buck looked up at Lou and Teaspoon, his face taut with exhaustion. "How bad is it, Buck?" Teaspoon croaked.
Buck shook his head. "Bad enough. Took a shot to the chest. Doctor got the bullet out but didn't have much hope for him making it. He should've rested, but he made me bring him here. He wanted to see his family one more time."
Lou's eyes filled with tears. She hadn't had the opportunity to say goodbye. Not with Kid, not with Jimmy. She looked again at Lucy kneeling in the dust, holding her husband's hand against her chest, sobbing. "Lucy," Lou started, moving toward the young woman. She would need comfort, a shoulder to cry on, someone who understood the sort of hole that was being ripped out of her heart.
Buck grabbed Lou's shoulders and stopped her. "Lou," he said urgently, trying to move her attention from the heart-breaking spectacle in front of them. "Lou," he said again. At last she looked at him and he took a deep breath, looking into her eyes with an expression she recognized. It sent faint alarms ringing in her, but she could not understand why he should pity her. It was not her husband lying near death. "There's something you need to know," he said softly. Buck gulped and adjusted his grip on her shoulders, as though he feared whatever he was about to say would send her running from him. Lou was afraid now and she nibbled at her lower lip with anxiety. "It's Jimmy. He's been alive and - "
"He what?" Lou felt the blood drain from her face. She couldn't understand what he was saying.
Buck glanced at Teaspoon for assistance but for once the older man had no wise words and Buck just blundered on. "Jimmy has been alive, Lou. He lost his guns at a card game and he's been going by the name Butler ever since."
Buck said more but Lou had heard all she needed to. The pieces clicked together and she shook off his restraining hands, running to collapse beside Jimmy. It was him, there was no mistaking. Without thought, she brushed his hair away from his face, berated him in a soft voice for leaving her, never writing, disappearing. He said no word in his defense, only breathed in and out in ragged gasps, his eyes closed. Lou softly kissed his cheek, whispering, "Don't worry, you're home now, Jimmy." She did not notice as Lucy let go of his hand and slowly backed away choking on her own tears.
It was Lou who sat at Jimmy's bedside, dabbing at his forehead with a cool cloth, holding his hand and whispering through her tears. Lucy stood in the doorway, feeling like a stranger intruding on a private moment, watching without expression as another woman told her husband she loved him. Buck returned with the doctor and showed the man into the room, sparing a sympathetic glance for Lucy and then turning his attention back to Lou as she looked up anxiously to greet the doctor. He slammed his hand against the door jamb loudly, making Lucy jump but not at all disturbing the scene within the room. He stomped off down the hall and a few moments later Lucy heard the front door open and slam shut.
Lucy ran her hands over her round stomach, feeling the solid bulk of the new life growing within her. She couldn't spare anything for the way her heart tightened as she saw Lou press a kiss to Jimmy's forehead and push his hair from his fevered face, she had to focus on her children and how she was going to care for them if in the end she was left alone. With such thoughts wearing on her mind she left the house quietly, unnoticed by Lou or the doctor. Teaspoon was in the yard playing with Emmie and he watched her as she passed by and disappeared behind the barn.
"You doin' alright out here?" asked Teaspoon cautiously as he peered around the barn to where Lucy had perched on an overturned trough. The night wasn't too dark; the summer stars twinkled gently in a hazy purple sky. The air was warm, the crickets loud; it would have been lovely if one had the inclination to notice.
"I'm fine, Teaspoon," she answered, her voice crackling with an attempt to match the sound with the words.
"Lot of junk out here," Teaspoon commented, picking his way past a rusted pail and a crumbling wagon tongue to rest his hand on her shoulder. "Should get this stuff cleaned away sometime. But there's never the time." He stood beside her in silence, watching fireflies flicker on and off as they went about their mysterious evening errands.
"Will you tell me the truth, please, Teaspoon? I need to know where I stand."
Teaspoon sighed, a great upheaval of air, and tugged anxiously at his suspenders. "You stand the same as you did yesterday and the day before. Jimmy's your husband. Lou and he, well, they'd been real good friends and when Kid died they became somethin' more. But trouble had a way of following Jimmy and Lou had a way of gettin' in the middle of it. Six, seven years ago, Lou got shot by a fella lookin' to settle a score with Jimmy. He stayed long enough to see she was alright and then one night, he disappeared. Beyond that I'm not sure I know the truth, Lucy. Think only Jimmy rightfully knows what he's been doin' these last years. Scoot over there." He nudged Lucy and then settled down beside her before continuing. "I'll tell you straight that the man I knew wouldn't have used you. But he ain't the man I knew anymore. You know him better'n me, what do you think?"
Lucy didn't answer for a long time. She looked at her hands and twirled the cheap band around her finger. "I know that James Butler loves me. But I've never met Jimmy Hickok and I'm not sure which of them is going to wake up. I knew he had secrets. I had mine too. I just guessed wrong about what they were. I assumed he was hiding something awful and I understood that, I could let that pass. But now...I don't know him, Teaspoon. I was so happy with him and now I just feel foolish." She hastily wiped away her tears, but just as quickly others took their place. Teaspoon put an arm around her shoulders and let her sob against him. There were no words of comfort for him to share. The man that lay bleeding in Lou's house was a stranger to the both of them.
Buck was furious. He nearly broke the bunkhouse door off the hinges as he slammed it behind him. He paced the room warily, every muscle taut, every nerve jittery with rage. Lou had left a bowl of wildflowers on the bunkhouse table, just a reminder that the two bachelors who lived there were cared for. Buck seized the bowl and flung it across the room with a roar, feeling pleased to see it shatter against the wall and the bent and bruised flowers flop to the ground. He paced again. It wasn't sustainable, the hot blinding anger that seemed to choke up his throat, blur his eyes, make his blood and his breath race. Without a moment's hesitation he grabbed the saddlebags he'd tossed on his bed and walked back out the door.
He almost ran into Lou on the stairs of the porch. She grabbed his arm and her fingers dug into his skin. For a moment the anger abated. "The doctor says there's nothing he can do," she said. "Do you know any Kiowa medicine that might help him?"
He jerked his arm from her grasp and pushed past her toward the barn. "No."
"Where are you going?" she cried after him, her voice tiny and pathetic.
"I don't know," he shouted back.
"You can't leave," Lou yelled, "Jimmy needs your help."
Buck spun on his heel and came back towards her, stopping when he was close enough for her to feel his breath as he spoke. "Jimmy needs to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, Lou. He didn't ask to come here for you."
Lou shook her head furiously at his words. "He got scared, he was worried that being Wild Bill would put me in danger, but he's home now and we'll work things out."
Buck threw up his hands in frustration and let them fall with a loud slap against his legs. "Are you really just going to forgive him? He left, Lou, disappeared, let us think he had died. He left and he found someone else and had a life with her and you are just going to forgive him? You still want him? Maybe you can forgive him; but I can't. I still remember how he hurt you." Lou couldn't answer, she only looked at him with big eyes brimming with tears and her lower lip trembling. Buck grabbed her arms and stared at her, his own anger beginning to crumble into pain. "Lou, he should never have hurt you like that. I would never do that to you. I've been here all the time…" he gulped and looked away. "I can't stay here and watch you do this. He has a family…and so do you." He stomped away, ignoring Teaspoon and Lucy where they stood peering around the barn. He heard Lou sob, felt her shadow pass as she ran back to the house and he didn't turn around.
Lucy made supper for Emmie and Teaspoon. She tried to choke down a few bites herself, but found that she had no appetite. She put Emmie to bed and returned to the doorway of the room where Lou sat next to Jimmy, his hand wrapped in both of hers and held close to her chest. Exhausted, Lucy could do nothing but cry silently in the doorway. Her heartache wasn't loud enough to stir either of them and after a moment she turned away and saw Teaspoon watching her. The older man did nothing but open his arms and Lucy felt herself all but fall into his embrace. He let her cry, rubbing her back and muttering "It's alright," again and again, until her eyes were gritty with tears. Teaspoon walked her slowly to the room she and Emmie were staying in and said, "You get some sleep now. There ain't nothin' you can do for him tonight and you got to think of the little one." Lucy nodded at his words, mostly because she was too weary to do anything else. Teaspoon held one trembling hand in both of his and looked at her with kindness. "I promise you, Lucy, I ain't gonna let him go tonight and tomorrow morning you'll get your chance to talk to him. I should've reined Lou in a helluva lot sooner, but I got a blind spot when it comes to her."
"It's alright, Teaspoon," Lucy assured him.
Teaspoon shook his head at her vehemently. "No it ain't. Lou's got obligations elsewhere and your place is by Jimmy's side. I ain't never liked to meddle but sometimes it's your family's obligation to tell you when you're actin' selfish and bullheaded." He patted her hand one last time and added, "And just so you know, Lucy, I consider you and Emmie and that little one on the way part of my family too. And that ain't gonna change, whether Jimmy makes it or whether he leaves us."
"Thank you, Teaspoon," she whispered and kissed his cheek before disappearing into the bedroom behind her.
Teaspoon stood staring at the closed bedroom door until the rustle of clothes and the soft padding of feet was replaced by gentle snores and then he plodded down the hall and peered into Lou's room, where Jimmy still lay unconscious. The lamp had burnt low and he could only see Lou in silhouette as she sat beside the bed, one arm stretched out so that she gently cupped Jimmy's face and the other clutching his hand. He listened for only a second to her as she whispered before he gruffly cleared his throat from the door.
She whirled around, her face strangely animated. "Fever broke, Teaspoon. Doc said if we got the fever down he'd stand a fightin' chance."
"Glad to hear it," he said walking into the room and standing beside her chair.
She smiled widely at him and turned back to Jimmy, gently caressing his cheek with the back of her hand. "He's going to be fine now that he's home."
"Lou," Teaspoon started, but one look at her hopeful face and he softened his tone. "Lou, I think it's about time you got yourself some sleep."
"I can't sleep now, Teaspoon; he could wake up anytime, and I want to be here."
"Lou, honey, that ain't your place," Teaspoon said gently as he guided her up from the chair, carefully disentangling her hand from Jimmy's. "He's married now. His wife and daughter should be by his side."
"But Teaspoon - " Lou protested, trying to squirm away.
"But nothing. He's married." Teaspoon repeated.
Beside them Jimmy stirred. He moaned and mumbled, "Lou…" His voice was weak and could hardly carry the sound.
Lou pushed Teaspoon's restraining arms aside and sat down on the edge of the bed, leaning far in towards Jimmy and kissed his lips softly. "I'm here, Jimmy, I'm here."
Jimmy's brow furrowed in his sleep. "Lou..."
Lou looked up at Teaspoon with tear filled eyes. "See Teaspoon? He wants me here."
Jimmy's expression looked pained. "Lucy. Lucy."
Lou stumbled back away from the bed, stepping into Teaspoon, who steadied her wavering figure. "Go on out to the bunkhouse and get some sleep, Lou."
He knew she wouldn't cry in his arms. Lou wasn't the type to admit her hurt easily and the only person she'd knowingly let see her cry had ridden out hours earlier. "Teaspoon," she whispered uncertainly, seemingly thrown off balance.
"I'll sit with him until Lucy wakes up. And in the meantime you get yourself into bed. You got a long ride ahead of you tomorrow."
She let one sob slip out. "I've messed everything up, Teaspoon."
"You ain't done nothin' that can't be fixed. Now, git," he ordered and watched as she numbly left the room. Sitting down in her recently vacated seat, Teaspoon regarded Jimmy with exasperation. "Looks like you haven't changed, Hickok, still causin' trouble."
Teaspoon was only at his post a few hours before an exhausted Lucy appeared in the doorway. "How is he?" she whispered, never taking her eyes from Jimmy's still frame.
Teaspoon got up to guide her to his chair. "He's still breathing. Fever broke and he seems to be resting alright. Been asking for you." Teaspoon left her then to stand her own vigil and excused himself to catch what winks he could before the sun rose.
The rain had started. Teaspoon walked down to the living room feeling every creak in his bones as he went. The front door was open and the rain was puddling inside. Outside, on the porch Lou stood getting damp from the drops that made their way past the over hang. "I told you to go get some sleep," he said sternly as he stepped out the door and joined her.
"Cain't sleep, Teaspoon."
Teaspoon put an arm around her shivering shoulders. "Well, you can't stand out here all night neither. Night like this, you're bound to catch somethin'."
"Buck's out in this," she answered and a shudder ran through her at the thought.
"Yes, he is, but he ain't fool enough to be spendin' the night in the open. Likely he found cover somewhere. He'll be alright."
Lou sighed, "Why'd I have to act like such a fool, Teaspoon?"
"Who said you were foolish?"
Lou wriggled out of his embrace and flopped onto the swing. "I guess that's what I'd rather be than the sort of woman that tries to claim another's husband."
"Well, you had reasons. Though I'll admit to bein' surprised. Time was Jimmy pulled a stunt like this you would've shot first and forgiven later," Teaspoon mused. "'Sides, I was getting' the impression you might have found someone else you wanted instead."
Lou didn't answer. The rain pelted down in fat drops and slid off the shingles in a steady stream. They looked out into the darkness through a curtain of water. The house stood silent behind them, while on all sides the storm roared steadily on. Lou kicked at the floor and sent the swing swaying awkwardly back and forth. "I can't believe Buck really left, Teaspoon. I didn't think he'd actually go."
Teaspoon scratched his brow and thought for a second. "Well, I expect he'll be back."
"Couldn't rightly say."
"How could he just leave like this, now, when everything's falling apart?" Lou grumbled.
"Lou, I don't recall you askin' him to stay," Teaspoon said gently. "Now go on and git some sleep. You got a long ride tomorrow mornin'."
Lou looked at him in confusion. "I do?"
"I reckon you do. At least as far as Green River, I'd guess." Teaspoon settled his thumbs in behind his suspenders and contemplated the storm for a moment. "You are plannin' on goin' after him, aren't you?" he asked.
"Do you think I should?"
Teaspoon chuckled. "I think that's exactly what the boy needs. For you to come ridin' in and sweep him off his feet."
Lou peered into the doorway and looked at Jimmy where he sat propped up in bed. He was turned away, looking out the window and she took a moment to stare. She might not have recognized him if she'd passed him on the street. His face was hidden behind a dark mustache and beard, and his eyes were surrounded by heavy creases. Lou knew she'd changed to, the long braid that hung down her back had a few strands of gray and she'd seen the faint lines on her own face, badges from past tears and smiles. "I know you're there, you know," Jimmy said with a smile as he turned his face towards her. His face froze when he saw her. He looked at her for a moment before dropping his eyes. "Didn't know it was you, Lou."
"Well, it is." She stepped into the room and sat next to the bed fidgeting with her fingers.
"Ah, Lou, I'm sorry," he said hoarsely. For all his outward changes, it was clear apologizing still didn't come easy to him.
"Sorry for what?" she snapped; she might have changed some since last they met, but her temper hadn't. "For disappearing? For lettin' us all think you were dead? Or for showin' up again?"
"For all that."
She glared at him for a moment and then shifted her eyes back to her hands in her lap. "You had to know how that would hurt me, Jimmy," she whispered.
"No, Lou, I don't think I did," he murmured. "Thought you'd be so mad at me for leavin' that you'd be over me pretty quick. By the time I heard about that fella goin' by my name in Deadwood, figured you'd probably forgotten me." He paused and with a wince acknowledged a passing bit of pain. "Or maybe I was just a coward about comin' back and facin' you."
Lou sighed. Too much time had passed, too many things had changed. There was no reconciling the somber man before her with the boy who'd hurt her. "Jimmy, when you got here, I wasn't mad. I was just happy to see you again. Made a fool of myself over you in fact. Even though I've come to my senses now, I guess I could see my way to forgivin' you, if you promise not to pull anything like this ever again."
"I think I can promise that," he said with a chuckle and reached his hand out to softly touch her cheek. There was nothing to the gesture but affection and friendship and they sat in companionable silence for a moment. "Where's Buck?" Jimmy asked at last. "Figured he'd be comin' back with you."
"He was comin' up to see you too but he couldn't get past Emmie. Kids got a soft spot for Buck."
"I hope they're not the only ones," Jimmy said with a wink. Lou blushed pink and avoided his gaze. Jimmy laughed softly. "Knew I didn't break your heart permanent."
Lou looked out the window. It was threatening to rain again, steel gray clouds creeping in from the west. Emmie's laugh floated up from downstairs and Lou heard footsteps on the stairs. "Lucy is a good woman, Jimmy. I'm sorry - I'm sorry if I wasn't as kind to her as I should have been."
Jimmy shook his head. "I'm the one that hurt her, Lou, not you." He smiled. "Looks like she'll forgive me, though."
Lou nodded in agreement. She didn't jump at the proprietary hand that suddenly settled on her shoulder. It was familiar and welcome, a steady presence in a continually spinning world. Jimmy looked over her head. "Buck, looks like I owe you for savin' my bacon out there."
Buck shrugged. "Wasn't the first time, Jimmy."
"Probably won't be the last," Lou added.
"Well by God I hope it is," Jimmy said with a laugh and a grimace as the pain hit again.
"You should rest," Buck admonished.
"So should you by the look of it," Jimmy shot back.
Buck arched an eyebrow. "I'll admit I haven't gotten much sleep lately." He grinned widely and Lou blushed pink.
Jimmy laughed again. He grunted at the pain and stared at the ceiling. Sweat was starting to bead along his upper lip. "Don't think I got much conversation left in me," he mumbled.
Lou squeezed his hand as she stood up and then bent over to kiss his cheek. "We're all here if you need anything," she whispered. Buck put his hand against the small of her back and guided her out the door, quietly shutting it behind them.
Jimmy closed his eyes and out of instinct raised his hand to rest gingerly over his wound. He'd had to do a lot of healing in his life but he'd never be used to it. Not the dependence on others, not the weakness nor the embarrassment of being helpless. The bedroom door creaked open and closed and he turned his head to see who it was. He wasn't in the mood for anymore visiting. Talking wore him out; especially when the talk centered around the foolish mistakes he'd made.
He smiled as his wife walked in, her brow wrinkled with worry. "You need anything, James?" she asked.
He nodded and reached out his hand. "Will you sit with me awhile?"
"Of course," she answered and settled herself on the chair beside his bed. She placed her hand in his and he drew it against his chest to hold it against his heart. The rain started as he let himself fall asleep to the gentle rhythm of her breath.