1 August 1876
Music: I'm Yours, The Script (Buck)
Buck collapsed forward in the middle of the prayer circle. They had set up this medicine wheel shortly after moving here, back in '65, after the war was over and the rest of his Express family had come home. It was the one part of their home they didn't share with Dawn Star. It was the one place he still felt close to her. How? How could she have done this to him?
He'd known, when the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers had ridden onto their ranch last spring, that something bad was going to happen. Against his better judgment he'd agreed to act as negotiator for them with the Army. He'd known then it wasn't going to work. It hadn't.
He'd known when he rode away from the Cheyenne camp, and she'd insisted on staying to help, that it was the last time he'd ever see her.
He'd known when her father had ridden up to the big house at the ranch two months ago. He'd known then what had happened, that she was gone forever. His father-in-law hadn't had to say a word. It had taken only a look and he'd known.
What was he going to do now? She'd been not only his wife, his lover, but also his best friend and partner in life. He didn't know how to go on without her.
"Why?" Buck whispered, one last prayer in a long string that summer morning. "Why did you have to take her from me? How will I go on without her? What am I supposed to do? What about me!"
A soft hand gently touched his shoulder. Buck looked up into the eyes of her sister, his second wife, Dawn Star. Tears tracked down her cheeks matching the course they marked across his.
"You're supposed to raise your family," she said sadly. "You're supposed to love those who love you. They too are a gift from Ma'heo'o, the Great Earth Creator, just as she was."
Buck stared long into the eyes of this woman who'd begun as nothing more than an inconvenience, a duty to fulfill. He'd married her only to provide a home for her and her orphaned children. He'd loved only her sister.
Yet, as the years had passed and their relationship had deepened, he'd found a love in his heart for Dawn Star, too. It wasn't the same, all consuming passionate love, as he'd had with her. It was softer, gentler, yet, he suddenly found, just as strong. Strong enough to give him the will to move on. Looking deeply into Dawn Star's eyes, he saw the understanding there. She, too, had lost the love of her life too early, too young. Yet, she'd found a way to move on. And, eventually, she'd learned to love him.
I'm yours, he thought inanely to himself. For so long he'd been torn between the love he'd felt for both sisters. Always feeling guilty that he couldn't love one of them all-consumingly. He'd had just a few short months with her as his only wife, before Dawn Star had joined the family. He'd never had a time when it was just him and Dawn Star. It won't be perfect, he promised mentally, but I'm all yours now.
Reaching out his hand, Buck brushed the tears from Dawn Star's face.
Hoarsely, he breathed, "We'll do it… together."
She nodded in agreement, reaching down a hand to him. "Together."
He took her hand and stood. They slowly walked back to the house, arm in arm. It was time to get the children ready for school. Together.
"Alright, boys, hurry up and finish these chores," Kid said, setting aside the pitchfork he'd been using to toss hay down to his three sons who were busily mucking out the horse stalls. "I've gotta go check on yer Ma and sister and get supper started."
"Sure, Pa," ten year old Jamie said. "I'll make sure it gets done right."
Kid smiled at his eldest son. Climbing down out of the hayloft, he paused next to the stall where Jamie was helping seven year old Willie. Leaning against the stall door, Kid sternly warned, with a smile, "Just don't turn into a bossy know-it-all, young man."
"Yes, Pa," Jamie drawled with a put upon grimace.
Nodding, Kid turned and headed for the barn doors, his eyes moving to the last stall by the tackroom. There his middle son, eight year old Jed, had set aside the shovel he'd been using to clean the stall. He was cuddled up next to his horse, Quasimodo, whispering in the gelding's ear. Kid smiled. That horse was Jed's best friend right now. The boy was the quietest of the three, but felt things much more deeply than the other two. He reminded Kid of the way Lou'd been when they'd first met. Kid chuckled. Lou swore Jed was just like Kid, always having to think things to death.
Kid cleared his throat to get the boy's attention. "Better get a move on with this, young man," he smiled, with a gently chiding tone to his voice. "I'm headed in to get supper ready. You wouldn't wanta miss out just 'cause you were still working out here."
Jed looked up, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. He nodded as he stood and wiped his palms on his pants before reaching for the discarded shovel.
Kid shook his head and continued to move out of the barn toward the house. Looking around the yard, he marveled at all he had. They had. He, Lou and Buck had built a thriving horse ranch over the last decade. Between contracts with the Army and cattle ranches scattered from Texas to Wyoming, they'd become the most prosperous citizens in Rock Springs. He almost couldn't believe their good fortune. As that preacher in Davenport had told them, oh so long ago, they were blessed.
Walking up the front steps of the porch, Kid paused to peer in through the window. The small cabin he and Lou had built with their own hands, and a little help from their friends, back in '66 had grown over the years, even as their family had grown. It now stood two stories tall, with the boys sharing a large loft room upstairs. The downstairs was made up of the living room, kitchen/dining room and the master bedroom. They'd have to add on again in another year or so, Kid thought with a rueful grin.
The three boys had come along fairly quickly, within a four year span. But, after Willie's birth, Lou'd had three miscarriages. She'd started taking something Standing Woman gave her to prevent pregnancy and they'd given up on having any more children, contenting themselves with corralling the three hellraisers they'd already produced.
Catching sight of Lou sitting in her rocking chair near the fireplace, Kid smiled. This last pregnancy had come as quite a surprise to both of them. And their newborn daughter had been an even bigger surprise. After three boys, they'd just naturally assumed this latest child would also be male. But little Mary Margaret, named for both their mothers, had become the center of all their lives in the scant two weeks she'd been on this earth.
Pushing the front door open, Kid sauntered into the living room. Lou looked across the room at him, smiling that special smile she had only for him, even as she put their daughter to her breast. "Supper time?"
"Yes," he smiled. "How're my two ladies doin'?" She'd had a lot of difficulties with this last pregnancy and had ended up taking the last month off from her job as Marshal. In fact, Kid would be going into town tonight to check on her deputies for her. He could see the dark circles under her eyes and knew she was weaker than she'd been after the boys' births.
"I'm gettin' stronger," she said quietly, reaching down to gently stroke Mary's round cheek. "And this little one is certainly doing her best to let me rest up. We've never had a better behaved baby."
"That's 'cause she's savin' all her troublemakin' fer when she gets older," Kid joked, walking across the room to press a soft kiss on Lou's upraised lips. Reaching out, he cupped a hand around Mary's head.
"Just like her Ma," he whispered in Lou's ear before skedaddling out of the room while the getting was good, accompanied by the sounds of Lou's sputtering outrage.
Kid spent the next several minutes assembling leftovers into sandwiches for them all. He smiled as he heard Lou start humming an old Irish lullaby to little Mary Margaret. A short time later, he stepped back into the living room to tell Lou supper was ready, only to find her asleep in the rocker, her head tilted to the side.
Smiling, he tiptoed over to her and picked her up, baby and all, and carried her to their bedroom, where he lay her on their bed. She needed her sleep. Taking a softly snoozing Mary Margaret in his arms, he covered Lou with a quilt and slipped out.
With Mary in one arm and a basket full of sandwiches and lemonade in the other, Kid strode out to the barn.
"Boys, supper!" he announced. "What do you say 'bout a picnic tonight?"
The boys erupted with cheers, hooting and hollering their joy.
"Shhhh!" Kid warned. "We don't wanna wake yer Ma. She needs her sleep."
This instantly quieted all three youngsters.
"Why don't we take this young lady and the food down to the creek," he suggested. "That way, after you eat, you can get in some swimming." And get cleaned up at the same time, he thought smiling to himself.
In no time, the three tumbleweeds he called sons were rushing down the well-trod path to the creek. Watching them run and play, Kid once again marveled at how well life had turned out. His beautiful wife at his side, helping him raise this wonderful family. A ranch that was doing well, allowing them to provide everything the children needed. Four healthy children who would never know the troubles he and Lou had survived growing up. Life was good.
"You've got some nerve, Mr. Cody," she hissed at him as she stomped up the stairs to their room. "Thinking you can drop in and out of our lives on a whim! Leaving me to do all the hard work of raising our children on my own! Then expecting me to be a wife to you? When you even remember you have a wife!"
She whirled around, her skirts flying around her legs, eyes sparking fire, as she paused in the open bedroom door. Still keeping her voice quiet, so as not to wake the girls, she glared at him. "You can just go back downstairs and sleep on the couch. Or better yet, why don't you head out to the saloons and find yourself some whore to take comfort in. You'll get none from me tonight."
With a sob, Louisa slammed the door in Cody's face. He sighed, dropping his forehead to rest against the door that was supposed to bar the world from their love but instead was barring him from her.
"I miss him, too," he whispered. Cody slowly slumped to the floor, leaning back against the bedroom door, trying to figure out how he'd gotten to this point. Things had been going so well. They had three beautiful children, Kit, his beloved son, and the two girls, Arta and Orra. He was just starting to get his Wild West Show, his lifelong dream, up and running. But, Louisa hadn't liked the travel, so he'd bought this house in Rochester for her and left her behind.
That had been his mistake, he thought grumpily. Standing he started to stalk back down the stairs. Soon, he was in the small stable behind the house saddling up his horse. He didn't know where he was going or what he was going to do. He just knew he needed to get outside, feel a horse underneath him and the wind in his hair.
Soon, he was galloping down the city street, his horse's hooves pounding against the cobblestones as he headed out of town. He rode for hours, thinking and grieving.
He'd barely made it back to Rochester in time. He'd gotten the telegram from Louisa that Kit was deathly ill and headed straight for home. He'd arrived with just minutes to spare, rushing up the stairs to Kit's room, only to gather his beautiful boy into his arms as the six year old breathed his last.
He'd wanted to shake him, slap him, demand that he wake up, much as he had with Noah, all those years ago. You'd think death would get easier as the years went by. In some ways it had. He'd lost many friends during the War and had gotten used to dealing with it. But, Teaspoon had been right, losing a child, a son, was different. It was a whole separate magnitude of pain.
After Kit's death he'd stayed with Louisa, letting his partners handle the Show for him, as they'd grieved. Yet, the closer he'd tried to get, the more he'd tried to comfort her, the more she'd gotten angry at him. He just didn't know what to do.
She saw him laugh or smile at something the girls said or with friends and neighbors and thought he'd moved on, forgotten the pain. Even after all this time, she didn't truly understand him, he thought. His joking, smiling façade was just that, a front put on for the world to mask just how much he cared about things. Only his Express family had ever truly understood him.
At that thought, Cody pulled his horse to a sudden halt. He sat there thinking for a moment. It had been years since he'd seen them. Oh, they wrote regularly, especially Lou, Emma and Rachel, but that wasn't the same. He always felt so calm, so centered, after spending time with them. Maybe it was time to head West again. He could do some work for the Show, gather performers and animals, and visit his family at the same time.
Nodding to himself, Cody decided, yes, he'd head West. And, like it or not, he was taking Louisa and the girls with him. A little fresh air and exercise away from the city would be good for the girls and, maybe, getting away from the site of their pain would be good for him and Louisa.
Turning his horse around, William F. 'Buffalo Bill' Cody finally knew where he was going from here. He was headed home.
A small whimper near her ear roused Lou from her deep slumber. Blinking in the dark, she wondered for a moment where she was and how she'd gotten there. For an instant, she was back in the days when waking up in a strange place meant bad things. Then a belovedly familiar arm tightened around her and she realized she was at home, in the bed she'd shared with Kid for a decade now. That sound was her precious baby girl.
Lou smiled and reached down to grab Kid's hand, resting at her waist, and bring it up to her mouth for a quick kiss before slipping out from under it and out of the bed. Leaning over, she gathered the waking infant from the cradle. Holding her daughter close, Lou walked over to the rocker in the corner of the room and sat down, slowly unbuttoning her nightgown.
As little Mary Margaret latched on with the ferocious hunger of a newborn, Lou leaned her head against the back of the rocking chair. She smiled and ran a hand along the worn finish of one arm of the rocker. Kid had made both this one and the identical chair in the living room when Jamie had been born. She'd used them with all three of the boys but had avoided sitting in them for several years now, trying to accept there would never be any more babies, never be a little girl for her to raise.
Lou laughed quietly to herself. It was hard to imagine now that that tomboy of so many years ago would spend so much time longing for a daughter, but that was exactly what had happened. She'd changed in so many ways. Ways that had once scared her so much she'd found herself running as far and fast from Kid as she could. She'd run until the pain of separation had become worse than the fear of losing herself in him.
Looking out the window at the sound of hoofbeats, she saw Buck riding in. He must've switched shifts with Kid, who was supposed to be in town tonight at the Marshal's office. She shook her head in worry. Poor Buck was grieving so hard and she didn't know how to help him. It was just like the way he'd been after Ike's death and, to an extent, Noah's. Time and a loving family were all they could offer him. Especially as they all were feeling their own pain over the loss.
So much had changed, yet so much stayed the same. She'd been a little girl, afraid of everything when she'd come to the Express. Once she'd found her family there, she'd been unwilling to let any of them out of her sight for an instant. She'd been so afraid of what might happen to them if she wasn't there to protect them.
When Kid had asked her to marry him and she'd accepted, her biggest fear had been losing herself in him. That she'd cease to be her own person, the Express rider who could fight and ride and play just as hard as any of the boys. That she'd become some wheyfaced woman without a name of her own, known simply as Mrs. Kidd, who did nothing but keep the house clean and the kids fed and well-behaved.
Switching Mary from one breast to another, Lou smiled down at her daughter.
"You'll never have to worry about that, my dear," she whispered. In the years since marrying Kid, she'd learned she could still be herself. The things that made Louise 'Lou' were still there, even if how she expressed some of them had changed over the years.
After changing the baby's diaper and putting her back to bed, Lou found herself once again drawn to the window. Standing there, she looked out over their ranch, thinking about life and how the more things changed the more they stayed the same.
"Everythin' alright," Kid asked, wrapping his arms around her from behind.
Lou leaned back into his embrace, even as he sleepily nuzzled her neck. "Just thinkin'."
"Now there's a dangerous thing," he teased. "You thinkin'. So, what weighs so heavy on yer mind tonight?"
"How I've grown up over these last few years, both of us really, but I'm still me." She turned in his arms, wrapping hers around his neck. "You know that was the thing that scared me the most 'bout marryin' you? But, I'm still Lou McCloud, that young 'boy' who rode for the Express."
"Prettiest rider Russel, Majors and Waddel never knew they had," Kid whispered in her ear, his growing whiskers tickling her. "Come on. You need yer sleep, Lou. Ya've got a 'run' in the mornin'."
With a smile, she let him lead her by the hand back to their big bed.
Jimmy sighed as he picked up the pen and looked at the blank sheet of paper in front of him. He squinted for a moment, trying to make the sight before him clear up. When that didn't work, he reached over and turned up the wick of the nearby kerosene lamp, shedding more light on the desk. Rubbing his eyes, he bent and put pen to paper.
He'd only left Agnes a couple months ago to come north to the Dakota Territory to get a grubstake for them. Oh, she had money but he couldn't handle living off his wife. It just went against the grain. But, if he'd realized just how much he'd miss her, he might never have left.
Sighing again, he paused in his efforts to survey what he'd written. If it weren't a letter to Agnes, he'd just scrap the whole thing. It was full of mush and love, when it wasn't all maudlin 'I miss you' sentiments.
Gunshots outside his window caught his attention. He looked out to see what was going on, but again the world turned too blurry for him to make out details. He was seriously considering using another name, as Emma had suggested when the doctors had diagnosed his eye problems as incurable. He was very worried about some gunslinger calling him out now. For the first time in his life James Butler Hickok truly knew what it was to fear. Not only for his life, but for those he'd leave behind him. He couldn't win in a gunfight anymore, except by luck.
Looking back down at the letter, Jimmy decided to add one more paragraph.
"Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife - Agnes - and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore."
He just hoped she'd remember the good things about him, not all the things he'd screwed up with her over the years.
With a flourish, Jimmy signed his name and slowly blew the ink dry. He'd post the letter in the morning, he thought, then head to the saloon and find a good poker game. With gunfighting and lawkeeping no longer a means to an honest living, the card table was his only option left.
Blowing out the light in the kerosene lamp, James Butler Hickok lay down on the hard boarding house bed and closed his eyes in sleep.