Topic #38: Phrase - "Two of Hearts"
|With a Deck of 51
||Heartbeat by: Lori
|Puppy Love by: Lori
||Two of Hearts by: Karen
|The Winning Hand by: Cindy
||Afternoon by: Paris
|What Lies Ahead by: Raye
||The Call Home by: Tracy
“Whatcha’ doin’?” Lou asked as she opened the bunkhouse door letting in a cold burst of air.
Ike and Buck made an unsuccessful attempt to keep the cards from blowing off the table. Ike made a less than welcoming gesture toward Lou and dropped to the floor to retrieve the cards.
“Sorry, let me help.” Lou joined Ike on the floor while Buck retrieved the cards left on the table.
“Ike was just showing me a new card game he learned, you play against yourself.” Buck chuckled at the scowl on Ike’s face. “We were playing against each other and he’s too good a teacher. I’ve beaten him three times in a row. He was finally tied with me when the cards blew away.”
“Oops, sorry Ike. You’re not making sense, Buck. I think that’s all of them. How can you play against your self and still beat Ike?” Lou asked tossing her coat on the bunk and returning to the table.
Ike looked at his two friends and smiled *It’s easy, we each play a game and the one who finishes with the most games wins.* Ike sat down and motioned for Buck and Lou to do the same. *I’ll show you.*
Ike shuffled the deck and dealt seven cards in front of him, the first face up the others face down. Next he dealt six cards on top of the cards that were face down, again he left the first of the six face up and the rest face down. This continued until all the piles had a card face up, the pile at the end had seven cards, the last face up. The third pile had an Ace on top and Ike lifted it up and placed it in a separate pile above the original seven.
*Buck explain what I’m doing so I can just play. It will be quicker if I don’t have to keep putting down the cards after every move.* Ike nodded to Lou. *You’ll figure this out fast. I want to see you beat Mr. Smartypants over there.*”
Lou giggled knowing she’d been forgiven for disrupting the earlier game.
“OK, the whole idea is to build four piles, one for each suit, from the ace to the king in order. See he’s already got the ace of clubs out so the next card he can put there is the two of clubs. The cards in his hand are the ones you can play with as well as the ones face up.”
Ike turned over a couple of cards and placed them in a new pile on the table near his hand. Finally he turned over the eight of spades and placed it on the nine of hearts in the fifth pile.
“Those piles you put cards on that are one lower and a different color than the one that’s face up.” Buck pointed to the cards.
Ike turned over the jack of diamonds and placed it on the queen of spades. “See what I mean?” Buck asked Lou.
Ike found another ace and put that on top, starting another pile. He finally turned over the ten of clubs and put it on the jack of diamonds. He quickly picked up the nine of hearts and the eight of spades and placed them on the ten of clubs.
“See he can move those cards in the piles like that and get to the cards that are face down.” Ike turned over the two of clubs and put it on the ace he’d put aside earlier. “That empty space can only be filled in with a king so it may stay empty for a bit.”
Ike continued the game until he ran out of new cards to play. He’s scored a total of six cards in the top four piles.
*OK, Buck your turn.* Ike gathered the cards and handed them to Buck.
“Is this making any sense Lou?” Buck took the cards and began to deal his seven piles. He continued until he’d run through all his cards ending with a score of eleven.
*That’s not fair, Lou kept pointing out moves to you.* Ike pouted.
“Your turn Lou.” Both men watched as she managed a score of fifteen.
The three riders continued to play the afternoon away and were still at it when Rachel came in with their dinner. “Klondike! That’s fun but it’s addictive. You all can go back to that after you eat but for now pack it up!”
“Rachel, do you know how to play?” Lou asked as she cleared the table.
“Sure I do. Has anyone gotten the whole deck up top yet?”
“No, but we’ve all come close!” Buck laughed as he looked at the face Ike made.
The next few days all the riders were taking turns to see who’d get all four suits complete, no one did.
“You sure you got all 52 cards in that deck?” Teaspoon asked after he’d failed yet again to get more than Cody’s twenty three. “That ace of hearts has been lonely all day. Come to think on it I don’t think I’ve seen the two ever pop up.” Teaspoon quickly counted the deck and came up a card short.
“The deck got scattered a couple of days ago when I came home during that wind storm. They were all over the floor, maybe we missed one.” Lou said as she dropped to the floor and began looking under the bunks. The other riders followed while Rachel and Teaspoon watched, barely hiding their amusement at seeing the riders crawling around on the floor.
“Maybe now ya’ll learn what a broom is for.” Rachel laughed as some coins were found.
An odd collection of lost items emerged as the riders pulled everything out from under the bunks as well as an impressive collection of dust bunnies!
All eyes turned toward the sound and Kid crawled out from under his bunk rubbing his head. “I found it!”
Held high was the Two of Hearts!
“Anyone up for a game?”
The room was dim when she opened her eyes. Soft light, soft voices, soft footsteps. Same as it always was when this happened. And it lanced through her, even more than the pain in her middle.
She wondered if the doctor was still here, or if he’d left already.
She wondered if the woman she’d come to consider a mother was still here. She probably was. Emma never left before she woke. She always stayed to offer a few words, tend to her, and love her the only way she’d allow her to.
She wondered if her husband was still here, or if he’d left when the doctor did. He’d been gone when she woke up the last two times. The first time, Sam had drug him home, the smell of whiskey on his breath and clothes. The last time she told Sam not to bother. He didn’t come home until the next morning.
She didn’t need anyone to tell her what happened. She knew. She knew by the silence that her baby hadn’t lived.
She’d foolishly allowed herself to hope this time. She’d done everything the doctor said, even though it chaffed her to spend all her time in bed once the doctor had confirmed she was with child once again. She didn’t even complain when the foot of the bed had been raised and placed on blocks, all in an effort to help her. But as she made it past three months, then four, she began to let hope bloom in her heart that maybe this time it would be different.
The last three attempts she hadn’t made it past three months.
Then she began to feel the baby move. Solid kicks were delivered to her sides and Kid had lay beside her, his blue eyes full of tears when he placed his hand over her swelling stomach and felt their child move. Slowly they’d crept through the fifth month and into the sixth. Kid treated her like a princess. Emma brought meals in and sat and told stories to keep her mind off the fact that she couldn’t get out of bed.
She had just entered her seventh month when it all went wrong.
The pain suddenly started and wouldn’t abate. She clutched at the sheets, held Emma’s hand and screamed in pain and sheer frustration and anguish. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She’d done everything right. She’d prayed and pleaded with the Lord to let her and Kid have this child. If she could just have this child she’d never try again; she’d never ask for anything again.
But it hadn’t worked. And she should have known better than to hope.
Silent tears streaked down her cheeks and she closed her eyes to stem the tide of pain. Her sniffle must have carried in the room because she heard the rocking chair creek and soft steps shuffle across the rug.
Emma. Oh how she just wished Emma would go away. She didn’t want the kind words, the sympathetic looks and know that when this was all over Emma would go home to her children and hug them tight, getting down on her knees and thanking her maker for her healthy children.
She turned her head away when Emma touched it, knowing she wasn’t being fair and not even caring. Emma had suffered miscarriages; she’d buried her first baby before the Express even began. But right now Lou felt such burning hatred and jealousy rush through her that she wanted to scream at the older woman to leave. But she stayed silent because she didn’t have the energy to give into the emotions. Once that dam was opened it would be too much to ever feel right again, so she swallowed her words, she swallowed her hate, and she allowed herself to focus on the pain.
“Was it a boy or a girl?” she asked, her voice cracked and dry. It was foolhardy to ask such a question, it would only make the pain worse, but she asked anyways.
“It…it was a boy,” Emma said softly, her own voice thickening with tears.
A boy. The son Kid always wanted. Their first child, born with the cord wrapped around its neck when she was only six months along had been a boy. That had been the only child developed enough for them to know. Until now. Two sons that they’d lost. She knew better than to ask if Kid was here. She knew he’d be coping with the pain the only way he could right now.
Then Emma stood and smoothed her hand over Lou’s hair. “I’ll go tell Kid you’re awake.”
“He…he’s here?” she asked, turning to look at Emma for the first time.
“He’s trying to break through the frozen ground to dig a plot,” Emma shook her head in anguish. “He wanted to know when you were awake. Should…should I go get him?”
She could only nod as tears welled up and overtook her once more. Tears of sorrow for the loss, tears of despair for her husband, and tears of relief that he hadn’t left. That he’d stayed and wanted to know when she awoke.
Emma closed the door softly behind her and Lou sighed into the empty room. The room that would never be filled with the sound of a baby’s cry or a child’s laugh.
But maybe there would be just enough love for her and Kid to survive this.
“Oh, they’re beautiful.”
Jimmy’s ears perked up at the dulcet voice that carried down the street on the wind. He looked up, his eyes – and therefore his gaze – shielded by the low brim of his hat. Beside him Cody kept yammering on about the latest knives Tompkins had just received, and Noah was chuckling heartily at their friend’s repeated exclamations of buying the one with turquoise laid in the handle.
Jimmy shifted slightly; separating himself just a bit from the group gathered in front of Teaspoon’s office and leaning against the support post. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the scene down the street. Widow Richardson and her daughter Christine were stopped in front of the blacksmith’s shop, looking at the eight week old puppies Wilson had put out this morning to sell. The little girl giggled when one of the puppies began licking her hand and her enjoyment was clear as she gazed into crate containing the squiggling bundles of energy.
“Oh could we please, momma?” He watched as Mrs. Richardson took a deep breath, and then let her shoulders droop as she slowly shook her head. Immediately little Christine’s chin wobbled. Jimmy could tell it plain as day, even from his distance away. The mother knelt down in front of the little girl, her hands resting lightly on the slender shoulders. Jimmy was too far away to hear what the young widow said, but he could imagine.
Mr. Richardson was a no account thief who had somehow won the affections of a sweet farmer’s daughter years ago. Her parents were dead now, and when Mr. Richardson had been knifed to death while trying to cheat a poker player from St. Louis the whole town had simultaneously breathed relief at the man’s death, and mourned for the widow. She knew what kind of man her husband was, she took small little jobs while he’d leave to chase down the next big thing and then she’d hide that money, paying back debts to merchants in town and buying food to keep their little girl fed.
After her husband’s death, she took a job at the hotel’s restaurant, cooking for the town while little Christine went to school. Several store owners had offered to forgive her husband’s debts, but she insisted that even if it took her until she was a grandmother she would pay back every dime. And she was making good on her vow. So Jimmy knew she was probably telling her little girl that they just didn’t have the money for a puppy. Two dollars was a lot of money for them.
Mrs. Richardson stood, and took Christine by the hand, and headed across the street to their rented rooms. The little girl wiped her face with her hand and Jimmy jammed his hands down in his pockets as he watched them go. His normally grim disposition had turned sour, and when Cody and Noah nudged him and said they were going to head back over to Tompkins’ store, he just shook his head and declined their invitation to join them.
He looked back over at the puppies and then across the street where Mrs. Richardson and her daughter had disappeared to. Standing there, he chewed the problem over for a while and then with a determined nod he straightened and headed down the street.
“Rachel wants us outside,” Buck said as he stepped into the bunkhouse.
The riders looked up, but when their friend had nothing further to add to his earlier statement, they stood and slowly shuffled outside. Jimmy was the last out of the bunkhouse and closed the door behind him, then leaned against the weathered building as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Hey, Rachel, got a new friend?” Cody chuckled as the station mother stood before them with a little brown haired girl.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Christine Richardson. You’ve probably seen her around town. Her mother works over at Mr. Jarvis’ restaurant, and she just started school last year. Christine’s going to be spending her days with us.”
The riders looked at each other, then back to Rachel, sure the older woman had more to say. “Christine’s going to be helping me with some things around here, but mostly she’s going to be helping out with Skipper. So I expect everyone to watch their behavior around Christine.”
Which meant watch your language and remember there was a six year old amongst them. The riders murmured a chorus of “Yes, Rachel” and then headed off before she could assign them a new slurry of chores to do on top of their regular ones. It was a danger whenever they were congregated too long that she or Teaspoon would find something for them to do. So they quickly dispersed, affecting the appearance of busy while Rachel and Christine stood in the yard.
The little girl dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around the puppy’s neck, then stood and grabbed hold of the rope tied to an old bandana around his neck. She followed after Rachel when the station mother said it was time to get started on the laundry, and Jimmy stood there for a minute watching them go.
“That was a mighty nice thing you did there, Jimmy.”
He turned, startled to find the piercing eyes of Teaspoon directed on him. “Hey, Teaspoon.”
“I was a bit surprised when Rachel announced the other week that she wanted to buy one of Wilson’s puppies. She seemed to have enough to do trying to keep you boys in line without having to worry about a puppy bounding under foot.” Teaspoon sat down and leaned back in the chair, tipping the front legs a couple of inches off the bunkhouse porch. “Then it all made sense when she said she was going to offer to look after Christine for Mrs. Richardson so she could keep her job during the summer. ‘Specially when I’d seen you disappear into the blacksmith shop the other day after watching that girl and her momma cooing over the puppies out front.”
Jimmy just cleared his throat and buried his hands in his pockets as he crossed one ankle over the other and looked over at the corral. Teaspoon merely chuckled. “It was a mighty nice thing of you to do, Jimmy. They don’t have the room, or money, to keep a dog, but Mrs. Richardson confessed to me this morning when she dropped Christine off that she was glad her little girl would get to play with a puppy for the summer.”
The marshal stood and closed the distance between he and Jimmy. Reaching up, he clapped the young man on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, son, I won’t tell anyone your secret. I don’t think Cody would ever let you live it down.”
Relieved that this seemed to be the end of the conversation, and for Teaspoon’s silence, he turned towards the older man. “Thank you, Teaspoon.”
“You’re welcome son,” he said, and stepped off the porch. “Just remember though, if you want me to keep that secret, you better help out Rachel as well. She was ready to skin your hide when you told her you wanted her to buy a puppy. Said the last thing she needed was puddles on the floor and piles in the yard. Have a good day, Jimmy.”
Jimmy dropped his head as he shook it. As long as Christine Richardson got to keep smiling like she had today, helping Rachel out would be the least he could do.
He sat staring at the card – the two of hearts – unable to wrap his mind around what it meant. He’d given it to her when he’d decided to leave. “If you ever need me, send this and I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he’s promised. Then he’d quickly kissed her forehead, mounted his horse, and ridden out of her life.
That was the last time he had seen her. He’d heard that she’d died. In fact, he’d visited her grave. He’d seen the place where she was buried; left her flowers and shed tears at her passing, yet he held this item solidly in his hand.
He looked from the card to the boy who had brought it to him. “Tell me the message once more,” he instructed. The boy repeated his words from a few minutes earlier.
He nodded. “You can go,” he said flatly, tossing the messenger a gold coin. He pushed back from the table and addressed the men he’d been playing poker with. “Deal me out. Something’s come up.”
He stood and wandered out of the saloon back toward his office. He had some important things to tent to before he left. There was a good chance he wasn’t coming back so all his affairs needed to be in order. He didn’t plan on losing her again – once would have been enough, but he’d already done it twice. The first time he’d lost her to his rival suitor; then he’d lost her to death. He wasn’t going through that a third time. This time he planned on staying with her.
He got his affairs in order, wrote a letter explaining that he’d left, took his badge off and placed it on top of the letter. Then he strapped on his guns, and headed toward the stable.
By morning he was standing outside the kitchen door of the boarding house in Tucson, where the messenger had said she’d be. He took off his hat, smoothed out down his hair, shuffled his feet nervously, knocked softly, and waited.
A few seconds later, the door opened and there she stood – a vision of loveliness. She stared at him a short while before she realized who he was. She smiled.
“I got here as soon as I could,” he said.
Teaspoon stared at the cards in his hand, trying to will them to become a winning combination. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be working. With a sigh he tossed a couple of cards onto the table. “I’ll take two,” he said, watching as Tompkins dealt out the new cards.
Well, the new cards hadn’t really helped much, he decided. In fact, they hadn’t helped at all. And there was no sense at all throwing more money into the pot on this round. With another sigh he tossed the whole hand face-down. “Fold.”
Teaspoon sat back, sipping at his beer, as he watched the rest of the round play out. It was a lazy, late October afternoon. Inside of Polly’s saloon, things were quiet. There were three card games going on, all of them of the small-stakes variety. The professional gamblers preferred the other saloon in town – noisy, raucous, with more whiskey and beer being served. That’s the place that drew the men who came to town just to gamble and carouse. As Marshal, he’d probably have his hands full there again tonight. But Polly’s saloon tended to draw the men, and a few women, who wanted a quieter place to have a drink, play some cards, or just talk.
Outside, the sun was shining brightly, though the brisk wind from the north hinted at the winter soon to come. He could see leaves swirling outside the window, tossed to and fro by the unsettled wind.
A lot of things were unsettled right now, he mused, as Jake Porter won the round. He watched as the cards were gathered, shuffled and dealt again. This hand wasn’t good either – not likely he’d win with a pair of threes, but at least it was better than the last hand. He tossed his nickel into the pot and sat back again, thinking.
So much had happened in these last few months – some good, some bad. The whole gang had moved from Sweetwater to Rock Creek, and in the process they had wound up much closer to the war that had erupted to the east. Places like Fort Sumter and Manassas were now discussed knowledgably by people who couldn’t have located either one on a map a year ago.
Rock Creek wasn’t far from Missouri, and that state’s border wars had spilled well beyond the border. One tragic result had been Noah’s death, something still so recent that just thinking about it seemed to touch a raw, open wound inside of him. Coming not so very long after Ike’s death made it even harder to handle.
He took two cards again, got no help for his lonely pair of threes, and so he folded. This just wasn’t the kind of day, or the kind of game, where he felt up to trying to bluff his way through.
So many changes, he mused. Right now, Kid was off on a mail run, one of the last that the Pony Express would handle. After a bright, but brief, existence, the courier service was being replaced by the telegraph wire. Rock Creek was already wired, and word was that the trans-continental line would be finished this week or next.
And what did that mean for his riders – the people who had become his family as sure as if they had been related by blood? Kid and Lou were married, and as far as Teaspoon knew, they were still debating their future plans. For better or worse though, he thought he recognized something of his younger self in Kid’s eyes though when the rider heard news about the war. And if he was right, and if Lou couldn’t change his mind, Teaspoon figured they’d be heading to Virginia before the winter set in.
Jake won another hand, and he ordered a round of beer for the table to celebrate. Teaspoon finished the bit that was left in his mug, then picked up the fresh one, raising the mug in a friendly toast of thanks to the man who had bought it. And then the cards were dealt again.
Teaspoon kept his face carefully neutral as he saw the two jacks in this hand – there might be some possibilities this time. He tossed his nickel in again as the play resumed.
Jimmy had taken Rosemary Burke back to Kansas following Noah’s funeral. The rider had said he planned to return to Rock Creek, but Teaspoon wasn’t so sure. If Jimmy did, in fact, return to Rock Creek, Teaspoon figured to offer him a position as deputy – to try and keep the younger man safe, for however long he could. But he could feel the pent-up frustration in the younger man, and going back to the hotbed of abolition that surrounded Rosemary might be enough to set the future path of one James Butler Hickok. With Cody already in the Army, that would be two of his riders fighting for the Union.
Rachel had decided to stay in Rock Creek and continue as the town’s school teacher. It had turned out to be a good fit, both for her and for the town – despite a bit of a bumpy beginning. He’d managed to work out a deal with Russell, Majors & Waddell to continue to use the house and the bunkhouse as a layover spot for the stage, so she wouldn’t even have to move.
He took two cards again, picking up a four of spades to match with his four of clubs. With two pair in his hand, he raised the bet, waiting as play went around the table again.
The wind rattled the window and Teaspoon looked up, seeing the Marshal’s office across the street. That led him to thoughts of his own future. The town certainly wanted him to stay on. When a rumor had circulated that he was considering leaving for Texas, a group of Rock Creek’s leading citizens had come around, handing him a pay raise as enticement to stay.
He saw the bet, and raised a nickel as play continued. Of course, staying on as Marshal in Rock Creek wasn’t just about the money. He had experience in enough areas to know he could find a job just about anywhere. And he’d never really needed much anyway. He did have to admit, however, that Texas had been on his mind a lot recently. There were a lot of reasons to go home.
The sound of laughter from outside the door reminded him that there were a lot of reasons to stay as well. Buck was helping repair the roof before winter set in, and Polly had gone out to supervise. He could hear their voices, raised a bit to carry above the wind, but he couldn’t make out the words.
He often wondered about Buck’s plans for the future too, of course. So far, the rider hadn’t said much, except to confirm that he didn’t feel that he would be welcome to rejoin his brother’s Kiowa band. Teaspoon planned to offer Buck a position as a deputy too when the Pony ended its service, but he wasn’t at all sure if Buck would accept. Maybe if Jimmy did come back, and decided to stay. Buck and Jimmy made a good team, Teaspoon thought, balancing each other well. But if Jimmy didn’t stay? And with Teaspoon’s own future plans still undecided? Would there be enough to keep Buck in Rock Creek?
He could see her now, standing just off the boardwalk, looking up at the roof and pointing at something. He lost all track of the card game, his attention focused on Polly. She was smiling, hands on her hips, in a pose he found very familiar. As he watched, she gestured again, and then laughed at something Buck said in reply.
“Hey, Teaspoon, you gonna play or not?”
The question brought his attention back to the game, at least momentarily. He called the last bet, watched as Jake and Larry Frost folded, and then grinned as his hand beat Tompkins’ set of cards.
As the next hand was dealt, Teaspoon’s thoughts returned to Polly. She was out of sight now, but he could still hear her voice, so she must be right around the corner. After the trouble with Jarrod Randall, he’d been afraid she was going to leave. But true to her heritage as the daughter of a fearless Texas lawman, she’d bent but refused to break. Repairs had been made, and Polly was deep into planning for the future of her saloon – a future she, herself, deemed to be very bright.
His hand this time included two aces – definitely something to build on. He tossed the ante into the pot.
Yes, Polly definitely seemed to be intent on making her home here in Rock Creek. She had started quilting with the women at church, she had organized a bake sale just the week before, and she had even made arrangements to buy an empty house at the edge of town. Tired of living in a small room behind a saloon, she’d said.
He took two cards again, but he didn’t pick them up right away. There was something about Polly . . .
Polly had made her choice. Most of her life savings was in this saloon, and she was making plans for the future – a future here in Rock Creek.
He picked up one of the new cards, adding a third ace to the two already in his hand.
If Polly was staying here, why was he still hesitating about making a decision?
She came into view again, and this time Buck was standing next to her. They were laughing about something, and she was brushing sawdust off of his back as he shook more sawdust out of his jacket. And then they turned toward the saloon.
He caught his breath as she stopped in the doorway. The sunlight caught her hair, seemingly giving her a golden halo. But even that wasn’t nearly as bright as the smile she sent in his direction.
How could he ever have been so stupid as to leave a woman like that behind? Well, he’d been young and foolish back then, and anxious to prove himself . . .
She was behind the bar now, handing Buck a sarsaparilla. They were still laughing about something, and the sound of her laughter reached his ears like the finest music.
He’d proven all he needed to prove, Teaspoon decided – both to himself and to others. He’d fought his wars. And he definitely wasn’t young any more. So that just left the question of being foolish . . .
“Teaspoon, are you in?”
He dragged his attention back to the game, picking up his last card – the two of hearts.
Two of hearts . . .
No, he wasn’t foolish any more either.
The betting ended and he laid his cards down, three aces and a pair of twos. The hand easily won the round.
As he pulled the winnings toward him, his hand brushed one of the cards, bringing it along. When he glanced down, he wasn’t surprised at all to see which card it was.
Teaspoon picked up the card, running his finger lightly over the two red hearts. And then he looked toward the bar, his eyes meeting Polly’s.
Nope, definitely not a fool.
“Deal me out boys,” he said, pushing his chair back and getting up. He dropped the card onto the table, and it landed face up. He took one more look at the two hearts, and then he looked back at Polly. If her future was here in Rock Creek, then so was his.
He walked toward the bar, no hesitation in his step. He still had two hearts on his mind – his and Polly’s. Like a fool he’d lost her heart before.
It was a mistake he wouldn’t make again.
Cody sat in the rocking chair on the front porch with his feet propped up on the railing, feeling no desire to move. Even if he had felt like moving, he couldn’t have anyway what with Buck’s newborn son curled up on his chest and Lou and Kid’s son sound asleep in his lap.
From his vantage point see his new bride, Louisa walking across the field on her way back to the house. Kid ambled along beside her, nodding in agreement at whatever she was saying. She was probably filling him in on the latest book she’d read about farming or breeding horses or some other nonsense. Lately she been reading everything she could get her hands on, regardless of whether or not she was actually interested in the subject. The war was over and luxury items like books were becoming easier to find. No one could begrudge her the extra treat. Behind him, he could hear Lou as she waddled through the house, busily preparing supper. Cody briefly considered calling her outside so he could comment on the late pregnancy waddle, but reconsidered when he realized that his wife was within hearing distance.
He’d met Louisa almost four years earlier, as a new army recruit during a stopover in St. Louis. Charmed by her long blond hair, delicate manners and dimpled smiled, he’d made a point of visiting her whenever he got the chance. In the beginning, the war didn’t affect people like Louisa. Rich, sheltered and privileged, she had listened for hours with rapt attention as he told her stories, a few of them true, about his days with the Pony Express. Later on, when the fighting got worse and the bodies of her father and brothers returned home from the battlefield in pine boxes, she became frightened and despondent. When her home had been commandeered by the army to be used as a makeshift hospital, he’d finally taken her away, not to marry her, but to ensure her safety. He hadn’t wanted to admit it at the time, but looking back, he knew it was because he loved her.
He’d brought her to Kid and Lou’s ranch to stay out the war. By then Kid had gone off to fight and Cody was sure that Lou was probably lonely and in need of company. However, when he’d arrived he’d found a very capable, though obviously worried Lou firmly in charge of her home, a toddling son and Buck’s new wife, a remarkably exotic looking girl with the unlikely name of Becky.
Over the next two years he’d come and gone as he pleased, writing when he felt like it, keeping his plans to himself. He loved Louisa, but he didn’t know what to do about it. And besides, there was a war going on. He never knew if he’d show up at the ranch and find one of the girls widowed (if Buck wasn’t being dragged away to scout for the army, he was helping some Indian tribe to relocate away from the violence). In his worst moments, he stayed away for fear that some sickness, like the ones that plagued the army camps had struck one of them down. Times were tough, but Louisa had persevered. Slowly, the cultured city girl had begun to disappear, only to be replaced by a formidable, independent woman. The last time he’d been here, just before the war ended, he’d found her mucking out the stalls in the bam.
“Geez,” he’d said, catching her unawares and narrowly evading a pitchfork to the head. “I didn’t even to that when I worked for the Express!” She had burst out laughing and tartly offered to show him how.
Now, she was standing at the fence between Buck and Kid, nodding at something Becky was saying, wearing one of Cody’s shirts and a pair of pants she’d obviously borrowed from Lou. She constantly surprised him and he loved her for it.
“Do you want me to take one of them?” Lou whispered from over his right shoulder, gesturing at the sleeping children.
“No,” he told her. “Why don’t you sit for a minute. All your walking around is probably making Kid worry.”
He watched as Lou slowly lowered herself into the rocking chair beside him and heaved a long sigh.
“I’m restless.” She told him, closing her eyes and slowly rubbing her huge belly. “I think it’s almost time.”
Cody couldn’t help but think how cute she looked pregnant. It was still the same tiny, petite Lou, but only now with a big, watermelon-like belly jutting out in front.
“Two babies and a wedding…it’s been a busy year.” Cody said, catching his wife’s eye and smiling.
“I have to admit, Cody.” Lou said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I never thought you’d go through with it.”
“Marrying Louisa, you mean?” He never thought he’d go through with it either. Lou just smiled at him. How many times had Louisa cried on her shoulder, wondering if Cody would ever come back for her?
“I’d been thinking about you and Kid a lot.” He told her. “You two were meant for each other. No matter what life throws at you, you always manage to pull through together. Buck and Becky are like that too. Every time I thought about the future, Louisa was there. Whenever I came up with a new idea or a new dream, Louisa was there. When the war ended, I thought about coming back here to get her, but every time, I’d end up talking myself out of it.”
“So, what changed?” Lou asked quietly, watching her husband as he made his way across the yard to come and see her.
“Nothing really,” Cody said. “I ran into her back in St. Louis and it just felt right. One night we were playing cards and we weren’t talking much, just playing. I was thinking about how nice it would be just to be with her all the time. Anyway she threw down the two of hearts and said, ‘You win.’ And I thought, damn right, I do and said ‘Want to get married?’”
“That’s very romantic,” Lou said, pursing her lips together to hold in the laughter.
“You got proposed to in a graveyard, Lou.” He said, looking at his wife and ignoring Lou’s muffled giggles. “Don’t judge.”
It was romantic after all.
“What makes you come to my wagon?”
Lou’s gaze flickered to the old woman’s face, guilty, furtive.
“You may leave when you want. I hold no one against their will.”
Wringing her hands together, Lou looked about the interior of the wagon. It was dark, but the wavering lantern light played off of the old woman’s belongings and revealed them to be old, but expensive. “I know... I’m sorry if I seem afraid... I’ve just.. it’s just that I’ve never...”
“Had your fortune told?”
Lou nodded, wondering how much of her life was an open book to this woman. “I have the money,” she placed two bills on the table top, drawing her fingers back over the worn tablecloth, “two dollars, just like the sign says.”
Nodding, the woman folded the bills into her hand and they were suddenly gone.
Perhaps it was the pungent odor of incense in the air that clouded her thoughts, but Lou had not seen were the money had gone. There was something captivating about the woman’s eyes... like she could see right through to your heart... your soul.
“Now, I choose a card to represent you,” looking deep into Lou’s eyes the woman hissed out a long sighing word, “yesssssss.” Her eyes now held a twinkle of light and without looking through the deck of cards that had appeared on the table, she turned over the top card, identifying it without looking. “The Page of Swords.”
Peering down at the card there were a few obvious reasons for the comparison. They both had brown hair, but any number of people in town did, and even the appearance of masculine clothing on a delicate body seemed to fit Lou’s own double life, but she wanted more. “I... I find this very interesting, but-“
“You have little patience, but I have decided that it is not of importance. Sit still and you shall hear what the cards have to say.”
Lou pressed her lips together and sat back against the chair.
The woman turned ten cards over onto the table. “I see...” she blinked her eyes rapidly, “many men in your life, brothers, friends.. perhaps even a father or two. Dark men in your past and a choice in the future.”
“Dark men.” Lou’s throat seemed to constrict, silencing her voice for a long terrible moment.
“Your path can not be easy,” she continued, “for you choose a life that most would fear. You give yourself little chance for joy and yet, you will blossom... even in this desert.”
“Will I... leave the past behind me.. for good?”
For a moment, there was a smile ghosting across the old woman’s lips. “Even the most beautiful gem can not be formed anywhere but within the darkest part of the earth. Look forward to what lies ahead.”
The words were starting to register, but it was hard to hear truth through fear. “What about this card... the one with the cups?”
Aged fingers picked up the card and held it up in the light. “This card is the two of cups.” She looked at it for a moment and continued on. “It could mean friendship, affection, love-”
“Love?” Lou couldn’t stand the way that word sounded in the stark confines of the wagon. It seemed like something odd.. intangible... impossible, even to her.
“It could also mean harmony... settling the differences between opposites.” She turned the card over so that the people in the image were upside down... “Read the other way, it means misunderstandings... quarrels, even betrayal of love.”
She reached the card out to Lou, but she didn’t take it.
“There is nothing really to fear, child. A card, like a leaf is easily changed from top to bottom.. like the waves of the sea churning over and over themselves, so is the future. What can happen.. possible... what will happen.. changeable... fate, merely the wind in the mountains...”
Lou nodded, but there was a bleak question in her mind. “Then what’s the answer?”
The aged and wrinkled skin stretched taut across her face as laughter, warm and full, spilled from the older woman’s lips. “You did not come and ask me for answers.. you asked for a reading. I tell you only what I see.. only what you asked.”
“But.. I paid for-”
“A reading... and a reading is what I gave.”
“Really, I don’t understand-“
“Hey, Lou?” The curtain at the edge of the wagon parted and Kid looked into the wagon, blinking his eyes to adjust to the dim light inside, “you almost done?”
Looking at the gypsy woman, Lou could hear her words echoing in her mind. “It could mean friendship... affection.. love...”
Kid disappeared out of sight.
“...even betrayal of love...”
Lou felt her stomach rise into her throat, then plummet down to her toes. She had tried to ignore men.. tried to make herself into something to small for anyone to notice.. instead she done everything she had vowed not to do.
She stepped into the light, blinking to adjust her eyes.
The riders were talking, grouped in a small circle their laughter infectious. Ike caught site of her standing alone... awash with questions and called her over with a friendly gesture.
Looking from one face to another, Lou wondered which meaning the card had intended, what fate had been dealt to her. Then, Kid turned back, smiling, his eyes calling her over.
She tucked her worries away, set them aside, and walked into the circle.
He almost ran through the streets. His steps light and his head giddy with joy. He felt 18 again. Not with the same brash boldness that life had felt the need to knock out of him but with a warm self-respect that came from knowing he was worthy. That she had weighed all her thoughts and feelings where he was concerned and made a favorable judgment for him.
It had taken her four years. Four long years. Dark years for both of them. She because she had to deal with the death of her husband. A loss that had almost ripped out her soul and spilled it on his grave. He because she would not allow him to stay by her when he could see she needed him most. She was stubborn that way. A stubbornness that had been set in her as a child and had grown with her into adulthood. A will of iron. She was determined not to fall back on him. To give him false hope in her feelings until she was past her grief and ready to take and return his love as she thought it deserved to be. But she hadn't been able to tell him if she would ever be able to do this. She was too confused and lost in the horror of death to see into her future.
Of course he could do nothing but what she asked. He had left.
But he waited.
He felt as if he had spent his whole life waiting. These last four years had been the hardest. He spent them in a bottle. The sides were slippery and if he ever came close to crawling out, the memory of those devastated, haunted and beloved eyes sent him falling back in. But no more. She had made up her mind. She did want him. She needed him, loved him. The evidence was tucked into the left pocket of his jacket. There had been no letter. Words were not required between two hearts that spoke directly to each other across any distance. She just sent the sign.
Jimmy pulled up short when he got to the general store. His face compressed into a frown when he saw the 'Closed for lunch' sign hanging at an angle on the doorknob. 'It's about time that Silas got some help to run this place,' Jimmy mused.
Silas was a man of habit. He would go to lunch at exactly midday and return precisely one hour later. As much as Jimmy wanted to head straight to Sweetwater, he wasn't going to leave town without proper provisions. He stood outside the store for five minutes thinking about his future. His life was about to change in the most extraordinary way. He was loved, truly loved, by the one woman he had never been able to forget. She had sent for him. Called for him. His whole body started to tremble as if it couldn't contain the emotions that barreled through him. His feet couldn't keep still. His breathing was erratic. His eyes went to the saloon across the street.
'Maybe just one drink. That'll settle the nerves,' he decided.
The saloon was busy. Several card games were in progress. The barkeeper poured him a whiskey without being asked. Jimmy grimaced. The drinking would have to stop. He wouldn't go to her with alcohol on his breath. He reached into his left pocket and took out the card that had called him home. It was the two of hearts. He laid it next to him on the bar where he could look at it. The corner was wrinkled and the stiff paper had started to peel and reveal its layers.The details on the card were faded slightly, a testament to the number of times that she had picked up the card and held it. Maybe she had kissed it before she sent it on its long journey to find him and bring him back to her. He would ask her when he saw her. After he was done kissing her.
"Hey there, Jimmy. Come join us for one last round before you leave." Charlie's squeaky voice rose easily above the noise of the saloon.
Jimmy smiled and thought he might as well since he had a good thirty minutes before Silas was back.
"I believe I will," Jimmy said, but he frowned down at Charlie as he approached the table. "You're in my chair."
"You said you're leavin' for good, so I'm layin' claim to it," Charlie said with a grin. "Might even go down the land office and register it permanent-like."
Jimmy shook his head and sat in the nearest chair. "Deal me a good hand, Charlie. It's my last in Deadwood."