Authors Note: This story takes place ten years after the conclusion of Deceptions and two years before Legacy of Love.
Jimmy wrapped his arms around his wife’s expanded mid-section. “I should be back middle of next week.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Hannah murmured into his chest.
“The baby ain’t due for another two months.”
“I know,” Hannah said softly. But she didn’t go on. How could she explain it? It was just a feeling, a bad feeling, she tried to convince herself once more, nothing else. “I’m gonna miss you something awful.”
Jimmy laughed softly. “You always get like this when you’re expecting.” For each of their three children, Jasper, Ellie and Olivia, Hannah had worried. She worried about him, worried about the baby coming while he was away, worried about the children, she even worried about the weather. But he enjoyed the feeling of her needing him, sometimes she seemed so capable that he felt positively useless.
“Can’t someone else take him?” Hannah asked.
“Who? I’m marshal now. It’s my job,” Jimmy replied. Teaspoon had retired over five years ago and since then Jimmy had taken over the job of marshal. He frowned slightly. The only other people he trusted enough to take Luther Collins to Lincoln for trial were Teaspoon, Buck and Kid.
He couldn’t ask Kid. The summer had been rough on him, as the drought had cost him almost his whole herd. He now was busy scrambling to get his hands on more cattle. Plus he had three kids of his own to manage. He was certain Lou would not appreciate him asking her husband to do his job so Jimmy could stay home with his wife.
And Buck, how could he ask him? Poor Buck could barely manage anything. Jennifer had died two years ago, after giving birth to Lilly. Since then Buck had done little but care for his children. Now that Emma was gone and Rachel had moved back to her own place, he was on his own.
Teaspoon too had stepped in after Jennifer died, running the day to day operations of the Cross ranch, but he was gradually backing away from his assumed responsibilities. Teaspoon had told Jimmy that he sometimes regretted his eagerness to help Buck. When he stepped in, it was though he gave license to Buck to crawl deeper inside himself. That was the reason why Teaspoon had offered to accompany Jimmy on his trip to Lincoln.
“I won’t be gone long,” Jimmy assured his wife. “‘Sides you got Jasper here to help you out.”
Hannah snorted. Her son was ten years old and sometimes he still acted as if he was five. Half the time he forgot to do his chores and when he did remember to do them, he often had to redo his work as it did not meet with his parent’s expectations.
“I’ll talk to him,” Jimmy said.
Hannah nodded, but she did not meet her husband’s eyes. “We’ll be fine,” she said, feigning brightness, not wanted her husband to worry about her. She wanted all his attention on Luther Collins. Jimmy was going to have his hands full taking that man to Lincoln.
Jimmy kissed her. “Where is that boy?”
“Where else? He’s at the pond with Sally.”
“Line ‘em up,” Jasper ordered his little sister Ellie.
Ellie scowled at him as she picked up the tin cans and placed them in a straight line across the rock.
Jasper saw the scowl and said, “I told you if you came, you’d have to do what I told you.”
Ellie continued to stare angrily at her older brother. “I picked ‘em up, so quit your bossing.”
Jasper grinned broadly. He picked up his father’s colt and aimed the pistol at the cans, firing three times, managing to hit two of his intended targets.
“See if you can do better,” he said, unable to keep the pride from his voice.
Sally Cross tossed her head at him. As soon as Ellie set the cans up, she picked up her slingshot and fired. Then she fired another time and yet another, every pebble she placed in her slingshot hitting its target.
“Line ‘em up again!” Jasper bellowed at his sister.
Ellie scampered to the cans and as she placed them back on the rock, she flashed Sally a grin.
Sally smiled back at her. She knew her aim hurt Jasper’s ego, but honestly did he expect her to hold back? Miss the cans on purpose so Jasper could win their little contest? She lowered her eyes then; no, he didn’t. Jasper took great pride in her skill with the slingshot. She had heard him brag about her to his friends. He just wanted to be as skilled with a gun as she was with a slingshot. Jasper’s father had taken him out a few times to teach him how to shoot and he was pretty good, but not as good as he wanted to be, not as good as his father.
Sally watched as Jasper took aim once again, musing on his relationship with his father. She knew Jasper loved his father, but it was hard on him, being the son of a legend, not knowing if he should follow in his father’s footsteps or carve his own path. She used to wish he would just make up his mind, one way or the other. It was hard watching him struggle with this decision. But lately she was afraid that he had decided, and she didn’t like the choice he had made.
“Jasper,” Jimmy shouted.
Jasper whirled around and immediately lowered the colt behind his back upon spying his father there. “Hey, Pa.”
“Don’t hey me,” Jimmy growled. “Who gave you permission to take my gun?”
“Well you weren’t going to work today,” Jasper began.
“So you decided to borrow it?”
“I was gonna put it back.”
“And hope that I never noticed it was gone?”
Jasper scowled at the ground.
“It’s getting late,” Jimmy said less angrily. “We best be heading home. You too, Sally.”
“I will. ‘Night, Uncle Jimmy,” Sally called back before she began hurrying away.
As Ellie, Jasper and Jimmy began their trek home, Jimmy put an arm around each of his children’s shoulders. “You know I’m leaving tomorrow morning, right?”
“Yeah,” Jasper and Ellie chorused.
“I want you to make sure you help your ma out,” Jimmy said.
“But we do,” Ellie interrupted.
“I know,” Jimmy responded. “It’s just she’s kinda skittish now, with the baby and everything.”
“So don’t go then,” Jasper muttered to no one in particular.
“I gotta,” Jimmy said. “I don’t trust anyone else to take that Collins fella to Lincoln for trial.”
“He’s a slippery one,” Ellie added, parroting her Grandpa Spoon’s words.
Luther Collins had robbed more banks in Nebraska and with each successive robbery the death toll grew. It was as if he and his gang took pleasure from killing the innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“That he is,” Jimmy agreed.
“Can’t I go with you and Grandpa Spoon?” Jasper asked, his voice pleading.
“I’d like you to stay here. When I’m gone, you’re the man of the house,” Jimmy replied. “I want you to make sure your ma don’t do too much. Do all your chores and do ‘em right the first time,” he said, giving his son a pointed look. “Don’t put ‘em off, do ‘em without her asking you to do ‘em. And maybe take Olivia with you when you go somewhere, give her a break.”
“Pa,” Jasper protested. That was all he needed. He frequently left his house to get away from his sisters and now he was being asked to taken them along with him.
“Just till I get back,” Jimmy said soothingly.
“We will, Pa,” Ellie told him, silencing her brother with a look.
Jimmy squeezed his children against him. “I knew I could count on you.”
Edgar Collins wiped the barrel of his rifle clean. He closed his eyes, imagining the look on Marshal Hickok’s face when he realized that he had done it. That he had been the one to kill his wife.
Stupid marshal, thinking he could just arrest his little brother then take him to trial and not pay for it. The marshal of Red Oak, Iowa certainly paid for it and still was paying, if the rumors were true, that his daughter was now in a family way. After Edgar was arrested in Red Oak, his little brother Luther had kidnapped the marshal’s oldest daughter and only returned her after the marshal finally agreed to let him ‘escape’. But kidnapping and rape just weren’t his style, Edgar preferred a more impersonal approach, like murder.
No, Hickok wasn’t stupid. He would figure out who had killed his wife. And he would know that none of his family was safe, that he would have to figure some way to get his brother free, especially if he didn’t want to see his children start dropping like flies. If Luther wasn’t released, Edgar would kill each and every Hickok child, and each death would be more gruesome than the next.
Then he saw her, the red-haired woman. She was shouting at a boy and a small girl, while another girl, more dark skinned than the others stood by. Hickok’s wife was obviously pregnant, a fact that made Edgar smile even wider. Losing a wife and child in one fell swoop would hurt. God, he hoped it would hurt.
He lifted the rifle and placed it on his shoulder, taking careful aim.
“You pest,” Jasper shouted at Olivia. He picked up the cans and began lining them up again. He had missed more than half of them. It was that stupid gun, if he had his father’s colt he would have hit each and every one of those blasted cans. Jasper wished his father would have left behind one of his colts rather than this old thing.
“You promised,” Olivia wailed. “You said we could swim.”
“It’s too cold,” Sally said, trying to calm the small girl. When Jasper wasn’t at the pond, like he promised, she came over to see what was holding him up. She found Jasper hanging laundry, with Olivia by his side. So she had helped him finish his chores and then he wanted to practice shooting again.
“I didn’t say we would swim,” Jasper snapped. “I just said we could go to the pond.”
“Jasper is a liar, Jasper is a liar,” Olivia began to chant rhythmically.
“Shut up!” Jasper bellowed. How was he supposed to concentrate with all that caterwauling? He was sure Ellie would appear any minute and start trouble too, even she was supposed to be inside helping their mother let down the hem of a dress she had outgrown.
“Jasper Hickok,” Hannah chided her son, as she came out of the house. “Don’t you speak to your sister like that.”
“You finish your chores?”
“Yes ma’am,” Jasper answered. “And I was just about to take Olivia to the pond, get her out of your hair.”
Hannah smiled slightly at her son’s words. “So why are you here?”
“Just doing a little target practice, ‘fore we go,” Jasper explained.
Hannah shook her head. Jasper was obsessed with becoming as good a shot as his father. She just hoped he understood what that meant, especially with the name Hickok. “You remember what your pa told you about using guns.”
“I remember,” Jasper replied wearily. How could he forget? His father had drilled the rules into his head, rules about shooting when other people were around, rules about putting the gun away once he was done. Rules, rules, rules.
“And don’t be all day with those cans, supper will be ready soon. I don’t want Livvie upset ‘cause you didn’t do what you promised,” Hannah continued.
She heard Jasper mutter something, even though she couldn’t make out the words, she heard the tone and she didn’t care for it, not one little bit. Hannah turned back to her son, prepared to give him a sound scolding when she saw it. A glint of metal in the sunlight. Maybe it was nothing or maybe it was something. Maybe she had spent too many years living under the shadow of Wild Bill Hickok or maybe her nagging feeling meant something. Irregardless of what it was, her chest automatically tightened.
Swallowing the fear, Hannah squinted her eyes, trying desperately to make out what the glint was. Then she saw him, a figure shadowed by the overhang of a tree limb. The man was raising a rifle, taking aim.
In a blind panic she began to shout. “Get in the house!” Hannah began to run to Olivia who had stumbled in her haste to reach her mother’s side, falling to her knees. Hannah lifted her skirts and ran even faster. “Go, Jasper, go! Take Sally and get in the house.”
Jasper ran to Sally and took her hand, prepared to do as his mother asked. He stopped when he heard the shot. He spun around and saw his mother fall, clutching her leg. “Ma!” he shouted. He quickly scanned the area behind his house and then he saw the man. He was on his feet and was taking aim once more.
Jasper lifted the gun which was still in his hands and fired. He knew he had missed, when the man simply looked at him and continued to aim. The man was still aiming at his mother, who had gotten up and continued to run until she had reached Olivia’s side and scooped her up. Hannah was still running, in spite of the fact blood was pouring from her leg.
“Do it, Sally,” Jasper hissed.
Sally nodded, knowing immediately what Jasper wanted. She placed the stone in her slingshot and fired. It was crazy, there was no way a rock from a slingshot could travel that far, but she had to do something and distracting that man was something. So Sally put a rock in her slingshot and fired. But as she expected, her rock fell well short of its mark. The man simply looked disdainfully at her. Much to Sally’s despair, she didn’t even distract the man. He had already fired another shot. This time the shot hit Hannah in the mid-section.
Hannah collapsed then, dropping Olivia.
When Jasper saw the man still on his feet, he fired again, pleased to see the man’s shoulder jerk back. The man then disappeared down the hill.
Jasper and Sally ran to Hannah’s side. She was bleeding profusely from her belly and leg. Sally pried Olivia away from her mother and hurried to the Hickok house with the little girl in tow. Jasper sat by Hannah, cradling her in his arms. “Ma,” he whispered.
Hannah whispered, “go inside,” once more before her eyes closed.
“Ma,” Jasper said again, his tears flowing freely. He held his mother tightly, not noticing that Ellie had just come out of the house and began to run down the street. He didn’t notice that Sally was inside his house, trying to calm his younger sister. All he noticed was the blood, ribbons of blood, rushing from his mother’s body.
“What happened?” Jimmy shouted, swinging down from his horse. Nick, Kid’s oldest son, took the reins of the lathered animal and began walking it, to cool the horse down.
“What happened?” Jimmy bellowed once more. All he had received was a telegram when he arrived at the Lincoln jail. The telegram told him to come straight home.
“It’s Hannah,” Rachel said quietly, taking Jimmy by the arm.
Jimmy leaned heavily again the wall of his home. “What?”
“She got shot.”
“Is she dead?” Jimmy asked tonelessly.
“No,” Rachel whispered. “But she lost the baby.” Tears began to stream down her face as she recalled what happened two days ago. Ellie Hickok had come tearing into her house, screaming. It was all Rachel could do from screaming as well when she understood what was happening. Hannah had been shot. Luckily Ellie had her wits about her and had gone to the doctor before she came to Rachel.
It was then the nightmare truly began. Rachel had entered the Hickok home, where Olivia had been huddled in a corner, sobbing. Sally had been trying to comfort the girl, but to no avail. Jasper was sitting on the couch beside his mother, clutching her hand. He wouldn’t let go, even when the doctor ordered him to do so. He only released her when Sally asked him to and only after Rachel promised she would stay with his mother.
Sally had then taken the Hickok children to her home while Rachel sat with Hannah. The doctor had already sutured and wrapped Hannah’s leg. He told Rachel that the bullet hadn’t hit bone. But the belly wound, the doctor had closed his eyes when he told Rachel he couldn’t do anything. The bullet had pierced the womb, causing Hannah to go into labor and there was nothing the doctor was able to do about it.
“She was a little girl,” Rachel continued. “A beautiful little girl. She had red curly hair just like her mother.” When Jimmy looked at her, she added. “She was a fighter too. Tried so hard, but the doctor said she couldn’t breathe, she was just too small.” When Jimmy dropped his head, Rachel put her arms around him. “We buried her yesterday.”
Jimmy closed his eyes at the words. Why hadn’t he been here for his family? What happened to all his vows? When they needed him most, he had been gone, basking in the glory of being marshal and capturing a desperately wanted man.
Ever since Cody had asked Jake Colter to pose as Wild Bill Hickok for his show, the threats had diminished. Jimmy suspected that Cody knew more than what he told him, but he didn’t question it. If Jake was running around posing as Wild Bill, Jimmy was willing to let him do it. So far Jake hadn’t done anything to besmirch his name and his deception kept his family out of the line of fire, so Jimmy stayed quiet. But to let his guard down? Words couldn’t even describe the desolation that filled him. He let his guard down and someone else paid the price. But wasn’t that to be expected? There was always a price to loving him.
“Go inside,” Rachel ordered him. “She needs you.”
Jimmy walked to the door and put his fingers on it, stopping once more. How could he ever face his wife? She must hate him.
“Go on,” Rachel said, giving him a shove.
Slowly Jimmy opened the door and entered his home. Everything looked normal. Dishes were stacked beside the sink, books were laying on the kitchen table, while a number of dolls lay under it. A basket of folded laundry sat by the stairs, waiting for someone to take it upstairs. Jimmy could almost believe it was just another ordinary day, if it wasn’t for the quiet. The silence was positively deafening. There was almost always a child shrieking somewhere in the background or laughing, and always there was someone arguing. It was the noise of a happy, healthy household, but today all had been silenced.
Without thinking, Jimmy picked up the laundry basket and went upstairs. Quietly he put it down outside his bedroom door. He pushed the door open and saw his wife lying on their bed, she was barely visible amongst the layers of blankets she was wrapped in.
Jimmy sat down beside her, smoothing her hair back from her face. She looked horrible. Her hair was unwashed and matted in knots, her face was pale and drawn. And when she opened her eyes, it was even worse. There was no life, barely even recognition that her husband was home.
Jimmy wanted to hold her in his arms, but he couldn’t. He had let her down.
Hannah silently turned over, her slow movements were the only thing that belied the pain she was in.
She couldn’t even bear to look at him, Jimmy realized. The numbness that gripped him since the moment he got the telegram filled his whole body. There was nothing he could do for Hannah. Not here, not now.
Suddenly Jimmy rose to his feet. He walked down the stairs and left his house.
“Where are you going?” Rachel called out, as she ran from the barn to catch up to him. She had just seen Nick off and was shocked to see Jimmy re-appear so soon.
Jimmy didn’t answer. He just saddled a horse in the corral and swung onto it.
“Jimmy!” Rachel said sharply. She knew that look. It was the same look he wore before he left for Regrets. “What? You still think you’ve been pretending to be something you aren’t?”
Jimmy laughed bitterly, recalling a similar conversation he had so many years ago. Too bad he didn’t remember it earlier. If he had, he could have spared a lot of people a lot of pain.
“Jimmy,” Rachel beseeched him. “Your family needs you.”
But Jimmy didn’t answer, he just rode away.
“You think he went after Edgar Collins?” Buck asked, clearing away the last of the dinner dishes.
“Yep,” Teaspoon answered. He had just arrived a few hours ago. After Rachel filled him in, he had gone to the McClouds to see how the Hickok children were doing. When informed that Jasper was at the Cross home, Teaspoon had come here as well.
Buck sat down, lost in thought. He knew what it was like, to lose a wife. He would give anything for Jennifer to still be here with them. But would he give up Lilly? Because that’s exactly what had happened to Jimmy, he still had a wife, but he had lost a child. It was different though, he knew Lilly and loved her. The still unnamed Hickok child had only been in this world for a few hours, the baby never had a chance.
“What makes Jimmy so sure it was him?” Buck asked finally.
Teaspoon shrugged, “who else?” The Collins brothers’ methods were notorious. But Luther was known as the vicious one, not Edgar.
Buck met Teaspoon’s eyes. “What are we going to do?”
Teaspoon smiled, pleased to see Buck showing an interest in something. “We are gonna wait a few days, see if he comes to his senses by himself.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“We’ll go after him.”
“Jasper,” Sally hissed at the figure sitting on the stairs.
Jasper waved his hand, trying to silence her. Sally gave him a hard look before she ran back upstairs. A few minutes later, when it was quiet downstairs, Jasper quickly scrambled up as well.
Once he got to her room, he threw himself on the floor, where he was staying for the night. Buck had put him in Sally’s brother, Ike’s room. But as soon as Ike was sleeping, Sally and Jasper had switched Lilly into Ike’s room while Jasper had moved into Sally’s.
Sally leaned over the edge of her bed and prodded Jasper in the back. “What were they talking about?”
“How would I know? You were pestering me the whole time.”
Sally gave him a warning look and Jasper sighed loudly. “‘Bout my pa. He’s gone.”
“Gone!” Sally exclaimed. “Gone where?”
“After the fella who shot my ma,” Jasper whispered. He wasn’t sure if he should be happy, sad or afraid at this turn of events.
“To make things right, I guess.”
“But your ma is gonna be alright,” Sally said. “That’s what Grandpa Spoon told us.”
“And they always tell us everything, don’t they?”
Sally lowered her head. This was all too eerily similar to the night her mother died. Various members of her family coming and going, people sitting at the table, staying up late drinking coffee and whispering. And everyone telling her it would all be okay. But it hadn’t been okay. Her whole life had changed that night.
Jasper got to his knees and pulled a bag from under the bed. He began checking then re-packing the things that Rachel had sent for him. He then stuck the pistol he had brought along with him in the bag.
“What are you doing?” Sally asked softly. When Jasper didn’t answer, she added, “you can’t do it.”
“I have to,” Jasper replied. “I can’t let...” he stopped then.
“He won’t die,” Sally finished Jasper’s thought.
Jasper looked directly at her. “Not if I can help it. My ma needs him.”
“Your ma needs all of you Hickoks.”
Jasper gave her a strange look and continued packing. He didn’t know how to explain it. But he knew if he went with his father, he would be alright. It was as though his father only lived because his family willed it for him. He knew his father had been called out in the past and was still fast enough to walk away from his challengers. And every year the threat grew less and less, dulling his family to the threat of losing him.
His parents had always shielded him and his sisters from the violence that accompanied the persona of Wild Bill. In fact, Jasper could only remember one such incident clearly. It had been a while ago, long before his sister Olivia was born. His mother and father had been quarreling that morning about the only thing that made both of them truly angry, the Lawtons. Hannah had received an invitation to a wedding and wanted to go and Jimmy forbade her. For the better part of an evening and the morning, they had argued. And when Jimmy left to go to work, nothing had been settled.
It was sometime after lunch when Teaspoon came to the house and told Hannah that Jimmy had been called out. Hannah had just stared at him, dropping the glass of water that she had been holding. Without thinking, Hannah began to scoop the shards into her hand. But Teaspoon stopped her. He grabbed her by the wrist, leaving the broken bits on the floor and lead Hannah to a chair at the table. He then proceeded to pick out the pieces of glass embedded in her palm.
Teaspoon had just been bandaging the wound when Jimmy appeared. It was strange, Jasper recalled. His mother just smiled and acted as if nothing had happened. So did his father. Jimmy took both Ellie and him to fly the kites they had made the other day and when they returned, Hannah was still sitting at the table, talking to Teaspoon. They had done nothing but talk and when it was time for supper, they all ate apple pie, as Hannah had not cooked anything else. Baking soothed her mind, she always said.
It was only after Jasper was sent upstairs that he saw it as he sat on the stairs, spying, much as he did today. He saw his father draw his mother into his arms and his mother begin to cry. And a few days later, his parents went to see the engaged couple, to give them their gift and wish them well. However, they did not stay for the wedding or the reception.
It was after that day that no matter what his parents had been doing, they always kissed each other before they parted ways. It was downright embarrassing, Jasper decided, the way his parents carried on. But he didn’t mind so much anymore, not after Sally said her parents used to be the same way.
But Jasper knew this situation was different, this time his father was the one doing the hunting instead of being hunted. And there had to be something else going on for Jimmy to leave his mother. It was all anyone could do to pry Jasper away from his mother. He knew something had to be terribly wrong for his father to leave his mother in such a state.
“I’m coming with you,” Sally declared.
“No you ain’t.”
“Try and stop me.”
Jasper ignored the challenge in her voice and shoved the bag back under the bed before he laid down.
“You need me,” Sally continued, before she too lay down. Just try and leave me behind Jasper Hickok, she thought. Just try.
The next morning Sally was awakened by the morning sun and raised her head. If she and Jasper were going to go, they had better make it quick, before her father was up. But when she looked around for Jasper, she found he was gone.
Cursing Jasper for his pigheaded behavior, Sally jumped out of bed and packed a bag. He couldn’t be too far ahead. And even if he was, she would find him.
Slinging a bag over her shoulder, Sally ran down the stairs and out the front door, running smack into her father.
“What’s the hurry?” Buck asked. It was then he saw the bag his daughter was carrying. “Going somewhere?”
“Jasper’s gone,” Sally said, looking at her feet.
“Gone? Gone where?”
“I dunno,” Sally answered, still evading her father’s eyes.
“And what? You’re gonna go after him?” Buck asked, realizing then what the noise he heard on the stairs last night was. Obviously little pitchers had big ears.
Sally raised her eyes then. “Yes.”
Buck shook his head. “No, you aren’t.”
“This isn’t your business. Jasper is going after his father.”
“I have to!”
“Sally, don’t be ridiculous. You’re nine years old. You think I’m just going to let you go gallivanting around the countryside, helping another child find his father, a man who is hunting a cold-blooded killer?” Buck asked incredulously. What was his daughter thinking?
“She has to,” Teaspoon said, coming down the stairs, still buttoning his shirt over his long johns.
“Then you both must think I’m crazy,” Buck declared with an air of finality.
“If something happens to that boy, she’ll never forgive you,” Teaspoon told Buck.
“Listen,” Buck said, quelling his anger. “This is a matter for the Hickoks, not us. It’s one thing for you and me to be helping Jimmy. But this,” Buck continued, waving his arm, “is something else. I’m not letting my little girl risk her neck for some boy.”
“Some boy!” Sally spat out the words.
“I know Jasper is your friend,” Buck said patiently. “But he is trouble. And I’m not about to let him drag you into one of his messes.”
Sally glared at her father. “You can’t stop me.”
“I’m your father, I can and I will stop you. And you,” Buck turned to Teaspoon, “aren’t helping matters.”
“If you don’t let her help him and something happens, she’ll die,” Teaspoon responded. It was as plain as the nose on his face. Sally was in love with Jasper. He knew Buck saw it and probably dismissed it as puppy love. But he knew better.
“She’s nine years old. She isn’t going anywhere by herself,” Buck said, glaring at his daughter who was once again staring at the floor, looking like she wished the floor would open up and swallow her.
“Sally, get upstairs,” Buck roared.
Sally met her father’s eyes once more, daring him to be the one who looked away this time. “I’m going.”
Not this again. “I mean it Sally.” He had already lost too many people that he loved, there was absolutely no way he would endanger his daughter.
“He can’t do it alone, Pa. He needs me.”
Teaspoon nodded. “He does.”
“Teaspoon, butt out,” Buck said in exasperation.
“Butt out?” Teaspoon sputtered. “For the past six months I’ve been the one making most the decisions for these children and before that it was Rachel and before her, it was Emma. Now you tell me to butt out? If you’d been paying attention to your children, you’d see that. Sally loves Jasper and he loves her.” Teaspoon gave Sally a warm smile. “He just don’t know it yet.” He looked back at Buck. “And Jasper won’t let nothing happen to her neither. The only way someone would hurt Sally would be over his dead body.”
“That’s just perfect, so we could end up with a few more bodies around here,” Buck shouted. But he regretted his words before they even left his mouth. Sally looked even more determined than before.
Buck sighed softly. He knew exactly what Teaspoon was getting at, his daughter did love Jasper. He had dismissed it as puppy love, but it wasn’t. It was what he felt for Little Bird, but unlike him, his daughter would never let someone she loved walk away from her, not without a fight. That she inherited from her mother. Jennifer might walk away, but she would never be walked away from.
“Go upstairs, Sally,” Buck ordered her. And this time she complied. She picked up her bag and ran angrily up the stairs.
“She’s just gonna sneak out,” Teaspoon observed.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Buck snapped. “She was going to go anyway. I just couldn’t give her my blessing. What she is doing is wrong.”
“No it ain’t,” Teaspoon grinned. “C’mon get your bags packed.”
“You don’t think I’m fool enough to let a couple of kids go off by themselves, ‘specially with a hardened criminal on the loose, now do you?”
Buck smiled then. “I did for a minute.”
“One thing I ain’t is stupid,” Teaspoon said dryly. “Now let’s get going, we need to leave your young ‘uns with Kid and Lou ‘fore we can hit the trail.”
It took Sally till nightfall to find Jasper. He was curled up by a tree, his horse tethered, grazing a few feet from him. Sally dismounted and did the same with her own mount, then she walked toward Jasper. He didn’t even raise his head when he heard footsteps. When Sally sat down beside him, he simply said. “I lost him.”
“He must know you’re after him,” Sally replied. “He doubled back and is going north again.” It was an old trick. Jimmy had led his horse one direction, leaving a few droppings behind and then had gone the opposite way. Sally too had fallen for the trick, until she remembered one of her grandfather’s stories. It was the one about her father and her uncle Jimmy following their Grandpa Spoon and he used the same technique on them, with the very same results.
Sally put her arms around Jasper tentatively. He didn’t mind her affections when they were alone, but he could be so prickly sometimes. She wasn’t sure if she should hold him or just keep her distance. But he looked so lost and afraid that she couldn’t help herself.
Jasper tightened his arms around Sally as she lay her head on his shoulder. “How do you do it?” he asked.
“Go on and live without your ma?”
“You ma ain’t gonna die, Jasper.”
“You don’t know that.”
Sally didn’t answer. Aunty Hannah certainly looked better, in the physical sense. But she didn’t get out of bed or speak or eat or even smile. She just lay there. And Sally was scared that she wished she was dead, like her mother would wish if she had lived. It was one of the many conversations she wasn’t supposed to hear, but had. Her Aunty Lou and Rachel had been whispering. They said that maybe what happened was for the best because a mother would gladly give her life for her child. And so it had happened for her mother, but not for Jasper’s.
“I wonder what being an orphan is like,” Jasper remarked and Sally wanted to slap him for that comment. It was spoken so callously. How could he talk like that, knowing what he knew? That so many of their Pony Express family were alone until they found each other.
“You think Grandpa Spoon would take us in?” he continued.
In spite of her anger, Sally’s heart stiffened with fear. If the Hickoks didn’t make it, what would happen to their children? She knew Jasper had aunts on his father’s side. They would probably go and live with them. And she couldn’t stand the thought. Ellie was like a sister to her and Jasper, well she loved him.
“They won’t die,” Sally assured him, trying to sound much more confident than she felt.
“I’ll miss you,” Jasper whispered.
It was then Sally sat up and looked directly at him. This was the closest Jasper had ever come to admitting he needed her.
“And Ike,” he went on. “And me and Nick were gonna build a tree house in the old oak by his place next summer.”
Sally stared at him.
Jasper gave her the tiniest of smiles. Sally realized then that he was teasing her. He pulled her close once more and said, “get some sleep. We got a lot of ground to cover if we plan on finding my pa any time soon.”
“They’re sleeping,” Buck said, coming back to join Teaspoon by the fire. Buck rubbed his hands together, as they were warmed by the flame. He sat on his haunches, lost in thought. It was deeply disturbing to know how close the two bodies he saw were, nestled against the tree they slept by.
“They’re just children,” Teaspoon responded quietly, as Buck gave him a disconcerted look. Teaspoon smiled to himself. He hadn’t spent so much time in the Cross household without learning a thing or two. He knew exactly what Buck was worrying about. “Ain’t nothing going on, but two people trying to comfort each other.”
Buck shook his head slightly. “You’re telling me one minute they’re in love and now it’s just comfort.”
“It’s comfort,” Teaspoon told him firmly. “Nothing to fret about.” He smiled again. But in a couple of years, he knew Buck was going to have his hands full.
Jimmy flung a handful of coins on the bar. He didn’t even bother to acknowledge the bartender who had shoved a bottle of whiskey his way. He just grasped the bottle and took a long swig, grimacing as the liquid burned his throat.
“We have rooms upstairs,” the bartender told him. “And girls to keep you warm,” he grinned. “A lot warmer than that whiskey.”
“How much?” Jimmy asked.
“For the room or the girl?”
“The room,” Jimmy said, narrowing his eyes at the bartender as he finally looked up. He found the rotund brown-haired man studying him, much more seriously than his jovial tone had indicated.
The bartender placed his hand on the coins Jimmy had carelessly thrown. “This should cover it.”
Jimmy nodded. He picked up the bottle and walked up stairs, briefly recalling a time he had stayed in such a place with Hannah after they had first been married. God he missed her. Part of him wished he would find Edgar Collins tomorrow, so he could just go home. But another part of him wished the exact opposite. At least now he had a purpose, hunting Edgar Collins. But then what? After he was done with Collins, what would he do? Go home, look after a woman who looked like she wished she was dead? Hannah must hate him. And she had every right, but still he couldn’t bear the thought. Maybe she would forgive him, maybe after he found Edgar Collins and made him pay. Maybe.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he pushed the first door he saw open, quickly closing it when he saw it was occupied. He walked slowly down the hall, pushing doors open and closing them, as the same scene occurred and re-occurred.
When he pushed yet another door open, he saw a small blonde girl sitting in the corner. Jimmy frowned, wondering why the child was in such a place.
“Sorry, Mister,” a young brunette said, pushing her way past him. “Girl, why ain’t you asleep?”
“Cookie,” the little girl said, her voice quavering.
The brunette reached a hand out, as if to slap the child. Jimmy caught her by the wrist. “She’s just a baby,” he told her. The little girl looked to be just over a year old.
The young woman scowled. “She’s nothing but a brat.” The brunette then batted her eyelashes at Jimmy. “You looking for a room?”
“Just a room,” Jimmy replied firmly. He took a step backwards, ready to leave and continue his search for a place to sleep. But he couldn’t help but ask, “she yours?”
“Mine?” the woman squealed. She shook her head. “No. Her mother died a few months ago.”
“So why’s she still here?”
“Where would you have her go?” the woman asked. “An orphanage? Most of us grew up in those kinds of places. We wouldn’t send her there.”
“It’s better than this place,” Jimmy muttered to himself. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he had said those words out loud. The brunette was now ignoring him, picking up the little girl and putting her in the bed, ignoring the child’s continued protests of hunger.
Jimmy shook himself mentally before he left. He went back down the stairs and ordered a sandwich. Several sandwiches. And when he got them, he went back up stairs and give the little girl two of them.
The brunette gave him a quizzical look, before he left once more, finally finding a empty room. He finished the last sandwich as he settled himself in the bed for the night. But before he fell asleep, he wondered what the little girl’s name was.
They had been traveling for a day and a half and it showed. Both Sally and Jasper were dirty and exhausted. But they continued to push themselves in spite of the blisters and the hunger because they finally spotted Jimmy’s horse. It was tied up outside a saloon. They had discovered it there last night and Jasper had been furious at the thought. His father in a saloon, he had sputtered indignantly, while his mother was dying. Sally had tried to reassure him, but she didn’t know what to say except, wait and see. And that’s what they did. They waited until almost noon, their stomachs growling angrily at them while they watched the saloon. It was then Jimmy came out. He squinted at the sun which was now high in the sky and got on his horse. Then much to Sally and Jasper’s astonishment he began riding in the direction he had come from, back to Rock Creek.
“You think that Collins fella is heading back to Rock Creek?” Jasper asked, his eyes filling with bewilderment.
“He’s going home,” Sally said confidently. She saw the look in her uncle’s eyes. It wasn’t defeat or desperation. It was the look she always saw, the look of a husband and father.
Jasper eyed her skeptically. “He rode all this way just to turn around and go back home? Without finding Collins?”
“Yes,” Sally replied. She pulled Jasper to his feet. “Let’s go, we’re gonna lose him if we don’t move.”
The two of them leapt onto their horses and began racing towards home.
Rachel threw the last of the feed down on the ground and ran from the chicken coop upon hearing the hoof beats. It was a rider and he or she was coming fast. When she reached the front of the Hickok’s home, she was astounded to see that the rider was Jimmy.
“What happened?” she cried. “You get Edgar Collins?” She hadn’t heard any word of Edgar Collins being killed or brought to jail. Lord knows Collins’ activities were the talk of Rock Creek. She would have heard something if Jimmy had gotten to the man.
“No,” Jimmy responded, handing Rachel the reins of his horse. “Mind taking care of him?”
“No,” Rachel answered. “Jimmy, what happened?”
“I finally figured out where I was supposed to be.”
Rachel smiled. “She’s upstairs.” She cleared her throat. “She ain’t been out of the bed since...” her voice trailed off.
“Since the baby,” Jimmy finished for her. He studied Rachel’s face, realizing she was trying to tell him something. “Not even to the grave?”
“She didn’t even name her. Poor thing still doesn’t have a gravestone.”
Jimmy frowned. He spun on his heel, leaving Rachel standing there and bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time. When he reached his bedroom door, he pushed it open. Hannah lay on the bed, unmoving, just as he had left her.
He walked to the bed and laid down on it, moving the covers aside, so he could touch his wife.
Hannah mewed a protest. “I’m cold.”
Jimmy pulled her close. “I’m sorry.”
Hannah’s eyes flew open upon hearing her husband’s voice. “Jimmy?”
Jimmy ran his hands down Hannah’s arms. Suddenly making up his mind, he pushed the blankets to the floor and lifted his wife off the bed.
“What are you doing?” Hannah shrieked.
“You’re getting dressed.”
“Put me down!”
“We’re gonna go see our baby,” Jimmy announced.
“No!” Hannah shouted. She began to cry, “put me down.”
Jimmy set her in a rocking chair and began pulling clothes from the drawer.
“I’m not going,” Hannah declared firmly.
Jimmy didn’t answer her, he decided that getting Hannah dressed was just too much trouble at this point in time and he was just going to throw a coat over her. When he draped Hannah’s cloak over her shoulders, she pushed it to the ground.
“I look a sight,” she yelled. “I can’t go out like this!”
Jimmy stepped into the hallway and called down to Rachel. “Rachel, you mind heating up some water so Hannah can take a bath?”
“No,” Rachel called back.
Jimmy moved back into the room and removed a dress from the closet, along with the appropriate underpinnings.
“What are you doing?” Hannah cried.
“You’re getting dressed,” Jimmy informed her.
Hannah glared at him and Jimmy smiled. That was the first sign of life he had seen in Hannah’s eyes since the day he left to take Luther Collins to jail. He began moving about the room, laying out clothes and towels, strips of cloth for fresh bandages; everything he needed to get his wife dressed.
“It’s ready,” Jimmy heard Rachel shout. He picked Hannah up once more and went down the stairs. When he reached the tub, he dumped his wife in it, briefly wondering where Rachel had hidden herself and his children.
“Are you crazy?” Hannah sputtered. She pushed the sleeves of her now soaking wet nightgown up to her elbows. When Jimmy poured water on her head, she began to sputter once more. “Quit that, you’re gonna drown me.”
But Jimmy continued to ignore her. He began to shampoo Hannah’s hair. When she leaned back against the tub, Jimmy felt her begin to relax. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you buried her.”
Hannah shrugged, noncommittally, “I wasn’t there either.”
“Least you had an excuse. You were hurt.”
“Not that bad,” she whispered. “It’s just...”
“What?” Jimmy asked, rinsing her hair once more.
“I couldn’t face her.”
“This ain’t your fault,” Jimmy said softly. “It’s mine.”
“I should have taken better care of her,” Hannah continued speaking in a hushed tone. “Of all of ‘em.” She began to cry once more.
Jimmy picked up the towel lying beside the tub and wrapped Hannah in it before he picked her up once more. He then carried her back up the stairs. “No Hannah,” he said quietly. “This one is on me.”
“She was my baby and I let her die.”
“She was our baby. And I let both of you down.” Jimmy sat on the bed and put Hannah in his lap, while she nestled her head under his chin.
“You had a job to do.”
“I know. But I could have assigned a deputy to the house. Or left Teaspoon behind with you.” Jimmy swallowed hard. “And what I regret most of all is not being here for you after you were shot. I didn’t have any business tracking Edgar Collins down. My place is with you.”
“I wish you could have seen her,” Hannah whispered.
“So do I. Rachel told me she was beautiful.” Jimmy set her on the bed while Hannah obediently raised her arms, allowing him to slip the wet nightgown over her head. He changed the bandages covering Hannah’s wounds, slipped her shift on and proceeded to dress her, layer by layer. He smiled slightly when he saw Hannah begin to cooperate. She was running her fingers through her hair, untangling and braiding it at the same time.
He was just tying her shoes when Hannah said, “I can’t have any more children.”
Jimmy raised his head and looked solemnly at her. “I know you’re scared, but I swear to you, I’ll never let anyone hurt you or our children again.”
“I can’t,” Hannah whispered.
Jimmy smiled up at her and with a small leer said, “sure you can. I’ll be happy to give you all the young ‘uns you want.”
“Go away.” She wasn’t up to this right now. She wanted to lie back down in her bed and wallow in her misery. Rachel let her, so did everyone else who came to visit. So why wouldn’t Jimmy?
“Hannah,” Jimmy whispered, his voice filled with hurt as he clasped her hands in his. “I know I let you down, but-”
“This ain’t about you!” Hannah screamed. “The doctor told me I can’t have any more children. Not ever.” She pushed Jimmy away from her. “Go find some pretty young thing who can.”
“I don’t want some pretty young thing. I want you,” Jimmy retorted, glad to see that his statement caused Hannah’s eyes to flash at him. He knew what he had said, but he had to. He had to make sure she didn’t retreat inside herself again. Focusing Hannah’s anger on him was the only way he could think of at this time.
“Did you hear me? I can’t have any more children.”
“Did you hear me? I want a wife, not a broodmare,” Jimmy told her. He rose to his feet and picked Hannah up.
“Now what are you doing?” Hannah asked. She just lay in his arms, the fight in her draining away.
“We’re going to see our daughter,” Jimmy replied. “We’re gonna pick out a gravestone and give her a name. I got a good one too.”
Hannah made a rude noise.
Jimmy smiled slightly as he descended the stairs and exited his house. He hadn’t named any of his children and certainly didn’t expect to name this one either. But it just seemed like the only way to keep Hannah talking was to keep needling her. “And what’s wrong with Hester?”
Hannah ignored the question and said, “I can’t ride.”
“I know,” Jimmy replied. He tightened his arms around Hannah. “I was gonna carry you.”
“The whole way to the cemetery?” Hannah exclaimed.
“The whole way to the cemetery,” Jimmy answered.
Hannah lifted her arms and put them around his neck. “I’m glad you’re home.”
Hannah shivered as Jimmy took the cup from her hands. The soup had felt good, warming her tremendously as the trip to the cemetery had chilled her to the bone and not just because of the temperature. Knowing her little girl was there, so alone, it had been too much. She had fought Jimmy, but he bodily set her next to the grave and sat down next to her. Then much to her amazement, he cried.
Seeing her husband break down like that had given Hannah pause. Ever since her, no their baby, had died, she had thought of nothing but herself. How she had failed her child, how much it hurt knowing she wouldn’t have any more children. Then Jimmy came and went and Hannah had convinced herself that he was gone for good. That somehow he must have known she was barren and left her. She had imagined all sorts of things then, she saw Jimmy with a new wife and new family while she tried to make a life for herself. She had even come up with a scenario which involved her finding Jimmy a new wife.
But when Jimmy came back, for good, she realized she wasn’t the only one hurting. If possible, Jimmy hurt worse than she did. Hannah finally understood, what Edgar Collins had done, he had done to both of them. And her other children, they must be terrified, losing a sister and not having her there to help them sort out their feelings.
It was then Hannah put her arms around her husband and the two of them sat beside their daughter’s grave, holding each other tight and crying. And when they finally stopped, they left, promising their little girl that she would never be alone, that they would come every day to see her.
Then they had gone to the undertaker, where they met with the stone carver. Cecilia Hickok would have her gravestone tomorrow, the carver had promised.
Jimmy set the cup down on the bedside table and sat down on the bed, while Hannah reached her arms towards him. He still didn’t trust himself to speak. Seeing that grave, knowing his child was in it, it had been too much to bear. A parent should never outlive his child, he thought, wrapping his arms around his wife.
As he sat close to Hannah, he momentarily lost himself in the comfort of her embrace before the wave of guilt washed over him once again. What he wouldn’t give to do it all over again? Let his deputy take Collins to Lincoln, assign a guard to the house, and most of all he wished he would have been there for his wife, as she was there for him now.
But he couldn’t change any of it, so he simply held Hannah tightly. They were there for each other now and that had to be enough.
Rachel covered the casserole that just came out of the oven. It should feed the Hickok clan for at least a meal or two. She then picked up her bag and left the house. She hoped that Jimmy and Hannah would understand, a note was all she had left. She didn’t want to interrupt them upstairs. They were finally connecting and she certainly did not want to be the one to break that up.
As she hitched her horse to the buckboard she wondered when the children would arrive. She had sent word to the McClouds to send Olivia and Ellie home. And of course there was Jasper. If he really was tracking his father, he would know where Jimmy was now.
Sally dismounted her horse, staring at her empty house. She had planned on picking up a few things and then going to the McCloud home. She knew they would let her stay until her father got home. They had crossed paths on the journey back and her father had been overjoyed to hear that she was going home. He had been ready to ride back with her and Jasper, until her Grandpa Spoon announced that he would see them later, that he intended to continue tracking Edgar Collins until he found him.
With a quick hug, Buck had once again let his daughter go. He couldn’t let Teaspoon go after Collins alone. Sally was safe now, he could turn his attention to someone else for a while.
“C’mon,” Jasper said, swinging off his own horse, as he came to stand beside Sally.
“I was just gonna get some of my things and go,” Sally said as she turned to face him.
“The McClouds,” Sally whispered, tearing her eyes from Jasper’s. Why was it always so hard to leave him? They were almost always together, at school, at each other’s homes, meeting at the pond but no matter how often, it always was.
Jasper took her hand in his. “You’re coming to our place.”
Sally shook her head. “You need to be with your family.”
Jasper squeezed her fingers gently. “You are my family.”
Jimmy felt Hannah jump as the front door slammed shut. He pushed himself off the bed where he had been dozing, close to his wife’s warm body. “I’ll see who it is. It’s probably Jasper.”
“Jasper?” Hannah asked. “Just Jasper?” she continued, her suspicions growing. “Wouldn’t he come home with the rest of ‘em?” Rachel had told her that the children were staying at the McClouds, she assumed that meant all of them.
“He was following me,” Jimmy replied.
“What was her name?” Hannah asked, shifting to a more comfortable position. Ellie had her by one arm, trying to help her, while Olivia had the other. Hannah winced at her daughter’s ‘help’, but she didn’t want to push them away, not again. As soon as she was leaning back, both girls sat beside her, one under each arm.
Jasper took the dinner plate from where it lay in front of Hannah. “Whose name?” he asked.
“Your father met a little girl,” Hannah explained.
Jasper looked suspiciously at his father. He knew exactly where his father had been and couldn’t believe that he had met a little girl. Little saloon girl was more like it.
“I don’t know,” Jimmy answered, taking the plate Jasper handed him, dipping it into the warm, sudsy dishwater. After he rinsed the dish into a tubful of clear water, he handed it to Sally, who began drying it.
“I wanna go,” Hannah announced suddenly.
“Go where?” Jimmy asked in a puzzled voice.
“To get her.”
“The little girl.”
“We’re going tomorrow morning.”
“We ain’t going nowhere. You ain’t in no shape to be traveling and I sure as hell ain’t carrying you all that way,” Jimmy roared.
“We’re going,” Hannah declared firmly.
The next morning, Jasper ran back from the schoolhouse where he had delivered the note his mother had written to Rachel Dunne, his teacher. The note had informed Rachel that Jasper and Ellie would not be in school for a few days as the Hickok family would be out of town and Sally Cross would be going with them.
Rachel had given Jasper the strangest look when she read those words, almost as if she suspected he had written it himself in order to get out of school for a few days. But it wasn’t his writing and even he wouldn’t write something as crazy as that. Hannah could barely walk, so how could anyone expect her to travel anywhere?
“The wagon ready?” Hannah called out to her son. Ellie and Jasper were fidgeting by the door, both of them perplexed by the day’s happenings. Their mother was still planning on traveling and their father still refused to accompany them. It was early this morning that Jasper, Sally and Ellie had agreed, they would go with Hannah, irregardless of what Jimmy said, and they would be prepared for anything.
“Yes Ma’am,” Jasper answered.
“Ellie,” Hannah continued to shout. “You get Olivia and your things together?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Ellie responded.
“Where’s Sally?” Hannah asked loudly.
“She’s in the wagon with Olivia,” Jasper replied.
“Good. Ellie, go start loading everything in the wagon. Jasper get my bag from upstairs. And don’t forget the blankets,” Hannah said, pulling her shoes on. She leaned over to tie them, wincing in pain from the small movement. How was she going to do this? Travel with four young children and come home with a baby? Everything still hurt. But she had to, she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the little girl Jimmy had described in that place. Maybe it was God’s plan, for her to adopt that child. After all, if she hadn’t lost Cecilia, Jimmy would never have seen her.
Hannah sighed to herself as she continued to struggle with her laces. She had no idea if God even planned such things, but she had to believe it. It was those kinds of thoughts that kept her sane.
She had been rather shocked when Jimmy told her about the baby in the saloon. A child in a saloon, who would do such a thing? But Hannah was also surprised that Jimmy even told her about the girl, knowing what she had been through. But she understood why he had. Jimmy no longer kept things from her. Their relationship had grown a great deal over the years. Even though the news might hurt her, Jimmy would no longer keep it from his wife.
Hannah also realized that the baby was the reason her husband came home. Seeing that child must have reminded him of what he had lost but also of what he still had. So how could she leave the girl there? She owed that baby a home, because that child had helped save hers.
Jasper scampered upstairs and grabbed the bag sitting on the middle of his parent’s bed. He pulled all the blankets off the bed and began dragging them out of the room, while his father watched, glowering at him from where he stood by the window.
When Jasper ran back down the stairs, Jimmy followed him. He found his living room empty of children, Hannah was still on the couch struggling to tie her shoes.
Hannah lifted a leg up and dropped it on the couch. “Can you tie it for me?” she asked her husband.
“No. A person should be able to tie her own shoes if she plans on traveling.”
“The wagon is all loaded,” Jasper yelled, running back into the house.
“Jasper, will you tie my shoes?” Hannah asked, ignoring the dirty look Jimmy shot her.
Jasper eyed his parents uncertainly before he crouched down in front of his mother, tying the shoe which was still on the ground.
“You don’t even know where to go,” Jimmy frowned.
“Jasper, you know where that saloon your father stayed at is?” Hannah asked.
“Think you can find it again?”
“Yeah,” Jasper replied, looking warily at his father. He finished tying his mother’s shoes and helped her up. Slowly, with his arm around her waist they walked out of the house and to the wagon.
Jasper put his shoulder against his mother’s side, prepared to help her climb into the wagon. But instead of pushing her up, he found himself wrapping his arms tightly around her. “I won’t let you get hurt again, Ma.”
Hannah looked down at her son’s worried face, once again she was filled with a host of nagging doubts. What was she doing? But she pushed them aside and said, “oh baby, this wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes it was,” Jasper said, a mulish expression crossing his features. “But it won’t happen again. Not ever.”
“No son,” Hannah replied quietly. “You got it all backwards. It’s my job to keep you safe, not the other way around.”
“But-” Jasper protested. It was his job. His father said he was the man of the house while he was gone; if he hadn’t been so absorbed in his target practice he would have noticed the man in the trees; if he had better aim, his shot would have killed that man before he shot his mother again.
“It’s my job to keep your ma safe,” Jimmy interrupted. He ruffled Jasper’s hair and leaned down, whispering in his ear, “I’ll do a better job of it from now on, I promise,” before he pushed his son towards the back of the wagon. He lifted Hannah into the seat. “I’ll be back in a minute.” When Hannah smiled at him, he added, “Just gotta pack my bag.”
“It’s already done,” Hannah informed him, continuing to smile.
Hannah rolled over, trying desperately to find a comfortable position. Her whole body ached, as she was not used to traveling or sleeping on the cold, hard ground; she was used to lying in a warm bed. She moved to a sitting position, glancing furtively at the bodies strewn about the fire. Olivia and Ellie were facing her, as was Sally, all of them obviously sound asleep. Jasper had his back to her, but from the soft sounds he was making, Hannah was sure he was sleeping as well. He had made those small noises ever since he was a very small child. Hannah then glanced at her husband, Jimmy appeared to be asleep. His eyes were closed and his breaths were slow and steady.
Hannah slowly pulled the hem of her skirt up, unrolling the bandage that covered her leg wound. She smiled slightly when she saw that it was closed. Quickly she re-wrapped it and then pulled her blouse up. She swore to herself when she saw the red spot on the bandage that covered her belly.
“Lemme see,” Hannah heard Jimmy say, pushing her hand away.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Jimmy replied, removing the bandage. He didn’t bother to hide his disgust at the sight. Hannah’s injury was bleeding freely.
“You can’t do this,” Jimmy told her, shaking his head. He reached for a bag, pulling more bandages out, as well as a cloth to wash the wound. Hannah put her head in his lap, letting him remove her many layers of underpinnings. She lay quietly, listening to the fire crackle and the crickets chirp as she felt Jimmy move the cloth gently from side to side, bathing the wound with the water he had brought in earlier from the nearby stream.
As Jimmy re-wrapped the injury, lowering Hannah’s blouse, he added, “This is crazy.”
“Why are you doing this? Coming out here, dragging all the children with you when you know you should be at home in bed.”
Hannah smiled weakly at him. “Just a feeling.”
Suddenly Jimmy buried his face against her neck. “I should have listened to your feeling before.”
Hannah raised her arm, putting it behind Jimmy’s head. “Don’t.”
“Blame yourself. What happened was that Collins’ fella’s doing, not yours.”
“I should have been there for you.”
Hannah smiled up at him, “you gonna quit your job, stay home full-time with me?”
Jimmy returned her smile. “Maybe.” He pulled her against him with both hands. “I can’t lose you.”
“I almost did.”
“But you didn’t.”
Jimmy laid on the ground, helping Hannah adjust herself, so her injury was not pressing against his hip. She was soon settled, resting her head on his shoulder, absently playing with the buttons on his shirt. “He was out to get me,” Hannah said quietly. “Even if you were in Rock Creek, same thing would have happened.”
Jimmy hugged his wife against his chest. “You used to have more faith in me,” he whispered, his voice filled with an obvious pain. He meant it as a joke, but it just didn’t come out that way.
Hannah studied his face intently. “I have all the faith in the world in you. But even you can’t watch over me twenty-four hours a day. That man was gunning for me.”
“How do you know?”
“He could have shot Jasper or Sally or Olivia, but he didn’t.”
Jimmy stroked Hannah’s hair, moving it away from her face, frowning as he saw the pieces fall into place. “I should have seen it earlier. It’s the Collins brothers’ way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Killing you was a warning to me,” Jimmy replied softly. “If I didn’t do something about his brother, he’d come after the children, one by one.”
Hannah clutched at Jimmy’s shirt, fear filling her eyes. “He’s still out there.” What had she done? Nothing but drag her whole family out in the middle of nowhere, out in the open with a madman on the loose.
“So am I,” Jimmy replied, his voice dangerously quiet. “He ain’t coming near you, any of you.”
Hannah slipped her hand down Jimmy’ leg, feeling the colt strap to his leg. Then she moved her hand to the other side, searching for its mate.
“You best quit that,” Jimmy grinned at her. “Or else you might end up with something you ain’t ready for.”
When Hannah ignored his words and continued to run her hands along his body, he cupped her cheek with his hand, “it’s under here,” he said, patting the blanket he had fashioned into a makeshift pillow. “If he comes,” Jimmy paused, “and I can’t get to it, you use it.” If Hannah had to use that gun, he would make sure her shot would be an easy one.
Hannah didn’t answer, she just held Jimmy tightly. There was only one reason she would have to use that gun. She would have to use it if something ever happed to her husband. Sometimes she forgot who she was married to; Jimmy Hickok her husband was something very different from Wild Bill Hickok or even Marshal Hickok. But what they all had in common was the willingness to die for what they loved.
“Let’s go home,” Hannah whispered. The risk was too great, they would come back for the baby later, once she was feeling better, once Collins was in jail.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jimmy whispered back. “We’ll be there tomorrow. What’s one more day?”
Hannah shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Jimmy kissed her lips. “‘Sides, we got some help out there, Buck and Teaspoon are tracking Collins.”
Hannah knotted her fingers in Jimmy’s hair, suddenly feeling more afraid for him than for anyone else. “Don’t leave me.”
Jimmy carried Hannah into the doctor’s office. She shivered violently, “I’m sorry.”
Jimmy didn’t answer, he just ran his finger’s over her flushed cheeks, making note of her glassy eyes. Sometime during the night, Hannah had developed a fever. “Apologize later,” he murmured. “Get better now.” He quickly straightened up as the doctor entered.
After the doctor made his cursory examination, he looked sternly at Jimmy. “She shouldn’t be traveling.”
“You try telling her that,” Jimmy retorted. He pulled the doctor away from Hannah and asked softly, “is it serious?”
“No,” the doctor shook his head. “I don’t think so. But I’d like the chance to make sure.” He glanced out the window where four children were standing. “You got someplace else to visit for a while?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied, following the doctor’s gaze. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.” He needed to tend to those children.
The doctor nodded. “That should be fine.”
Jimmy quickly left the doctor’s office and with four children trailing after him, he marched into the saloon. The barkeep gave him a startled look. “Listen, Mister,” he began.
“Four cheese sandwiches,” Jimmy ordered, ignoring all the befuddled looks he was receiving.
“And something to drink,” Olivia piped up.
“Four sarsaparillas,” Jimmy added.
“Mister, are you crazy?” the bartender asked. Children in a saloon, his saloon! It just wasn’t done. He took another look at Jimmy face and decided this wasn’t the time to be enforcing his no kids rule.
“Just give ‘em their food, okay?”
The bartender shrugged and proceeded to make the sandwiches, while a saloon girl placed four drinks on a tray and brought it to the table where the children sat.
“Listen,” Jimmy began. “You remember me?”
The bartender studied his face for a long moment, then nodded. “You were here a few nights ago.”
“I was talking to a little brown-haired girl, she was taking care of a baby,” Jimmy continued.
“Betty, yeah sure. What of it?”
“She’s at the store,” the bartender informed Jimmy, gesturing to a building across the street.
“Thanks,” Jimmy replied. “Let’s go,” he barked at the wide-eyed children. Jasper couldn’t take his eyes off the saloon girls, while Ellie and Sally gaped at him. “Let’s go,” Jimmy shouted once more, noting that the children hadn’t budged from their seats.
At Jimmy’s loud tone, all four children jumped out of their seats, grabbing their sandwiches from where they sat on the bar, as well as their drinks and ran after him. When he entered the store, Ellie immediately began begging for some money to buy candy. Absently, Jimmy handed her few coins, his eyes still scanning the store for Betty.
Then he spotted her, the small child was clinging to her skirt, while the woman dickered with the store owner. “Listen, Betty,” the storekeeper was saying. “You ain’t made a payment in weeks.”
“I will,” Betty assured him. “Next week.”
“It’s always next week with you.”
Betty fluttered her long lashes suggestively at him. “I can pay you back in other ways.”
Jimmy grasped Betty’s arm firmly, pulling her away from the store owner.
“Let go of me,” Betty hissed. She regarded him for a few seconds, then asked, “finally came back to take me up on my offer?”
“No, I’m here to make you an offer.”
“Oh yeah, what is it?”
“I wanna adopt that girl,” Jimmy said, nodding at the disheveled baby who stared up at him.
“What?” Betty exclaimed, not noticing that the baby had wandered away from her side, drawn to the squabbling children who had exited the store. Jasper, Ellie, Olivia and Sally were now sitting on the front steps, finishing the candy they had bought, ignoring their lunches which were beside them.
“The baby,” Jimmy repeated patiently. “My wife and I want to adopt her.”
“Ain’t you got enough young ‘uns of your own?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy answered slowly. “But my wife wants her.”
“What?” Jimmy said, startled by the girl’s words. He expected a fight, not an auction.
“How much you willing to pay for her?”
“What do you want?”
Betty laughed scornfully. “More than you can give,” she said, observing the clothing Jimmy and the four children wore. It suddenly occurred to her that a lot of people may be interested in adopting a child, a lot of wealthy people, especially such an uncommonly beautiful child. When the baby wasn’t running around with a runny nose and stained clothing, many a person commented on how pretty she was, that is before they found out who and what her mother was.
“Listen,” Jimmy said contemptuously. He grasped Betty’s arm once more, dragging her to the window. He pointed to the doctor’s office. “My wife is in there, sick as a dog. She got shot and lost our baby. But she’s still here, wanting this one.”
“She can’t just go around replacing babies like they were spare parts,” Betty sneered, trying to yank her arm away.
“That ain’t what she’s doing. There’s other children in this world, hell you know better than me. Orphanages are full of kids. But she didn’t want any of them. She wanted this baby, sight unseen. She couldn’t stand the thought of a little baby, growing up in a saloon, growing up to be nothing but a whore.” Jimmy’s head jerked back when Betty slapped him across the face.
“Shut up! You ain’t got no cause to talk to me that way.”
“I got cause. You’re trying to sell this baby.” Jimmy caught the hand that reached up to slap him once again.
“So, what’s wrong with trying to make up for all the money I got invested in her? Taking care of a baby ain’t cheap, you know.”
“We’ll give you some money, to pay you back,” Jimmy told her.
But Betty wasn’t listening. She was watching the baby who had toddled up to the children Jimmy had brought along with him. The baby stood awkwardly, watching. She had never seen so many children up close. The townspeople usually kept their own children far away from her.
“You’ve been taking care of this baby, ain’t you got any feelings for her? Don’t you want a better life for her? To have what you never did, a chance at something better?” Jimmy asked, watching Betty’s expression soften as she watched the child.
Olivia reached into the bag and pulled out a peppermint stick. “Want one?” she asked the baby. The small child took the candy, but she didn’t put it in her mouth. She just held on to it tightly, almost as tightly as some people held on to their wallets.
It was then Betty saw some of the other town children approach the store, some of them pausing to speak to the Hickok clan. She couldn’t hear the words being exchanged, but she could imagine. She pulled her arm free of Jimmy, prepared to pick the baby up and promise that she wouldn’t bother the children, as she had so often in the past. But much to her astonishment she saw the sandy haired boy, who had come in with this arrogant man, stand up. He was talking rapidly to one of the town’s children. Words quickly turned into pushes, which became punches.
“Not again,” Betty heard Jimmy mutter. She trailed after him, watching as he pulled Jasper off the other boy. “Go home,” he ordered the other child. He then directed his full attention to his son. “What happened?” Jimmy asked irritably.
“I didn’t like his tone,” Jasper scowled, sounding rather like his mother.
“I said, go on,” Jimmy told the other boy, who had stopped in his tracks, watching Jimmy. When the boy finally left, casting an angry look at Jasper, he shook his head and turned back to Betty, prepared to start the negotiations once again.
“Does that happen a lot?” she asked.
Jimmy regarded her quizzically, picking up something in her voice. “Yeah.”
“For all of ‘em?” Betty asked, waving her arms towards the three girls.
“For all the people he loves,” Jimmy answered. It made sense now, Hannah’s feeling, why they all had to be here. They had to show this woman what the baby would have and oddly enough having Jasper around to protect this child might be the most important thing of all.
Suddenly Betty picked up the baby who returned to her side and thrust her into Jimmy’s arms. “Take her.”
“But what about the money?”
“Just take her, give her a good life,” Betty implored him.
“She’s yours, ain’t she?” Jimmy asked quietly.
“No, I told you before she ain’t mine,” Betty said.
A sudden wave of guilt enveloped Jimmy. He couldn’t take a child from its mother. Taking an orphan child was one thing, but this was something else. “Come with us, we can help you start over again in-”
“No!” Betty half-shouted. She didn’t even want to know where they were going. The baby had a chance now. As the man said, a chance she never had. “Just take her, Mister,” she continued tearfully. “Take her and when she’s old enough to ask, tell that her mother loved her.”
“Betty-” Jimmy began.
“Take her,” Betty interrupted him. She looked at Jimmy and the children. Her baby would have a mother, a father and siblings. Her baby would have more than she ever had. “You know what I am, right?”
“You know that most of us in this profession don’t live very long,” Betty continued. “If I die, ain’t no one gonna take care of her. So you have to.”
“I will,” Jimmy responded. He understood what Betty was asking. He may not like it, but he understood it. “What’s her name?”
“Name her whatever you want.”
“What do you call her?”
“It don’t matter.”
“It does,” Jimmy said softly.
Betty regarded Jimmy for a long moment. “Bonnie,” she said finally.
Hannah rolled over, touching the baby’s blonde hair once more. She couldn’t believe Jimmy had gotten her. “She’s so beautiful.”
Jimmy slid into the bed, the bedsprings squeaking their protest at yet another body was added. Hannah was lying down, Olivia on one side, with Ellie and Bonnie on the other.
“Can’t these girls sleep on the floor?” Jimmy asked irritably. Jasper was sleeping on the floor, as was Sally, their fingers touching one another.
“No,” Hannah whispered back. “Bonnie’s taken a shine to them. It makes being in a strange place with a bunch of strange people easier when she is with them.” She looked up at Jimmy, removing her hand from Bonnie’s hair to touch his face. “Thank you.”
Jimmy broke into a smile. “Didn’t I promise you all the children you wanted?”
“That you did.”
Jimmy reached over Bonnie and Ellie’s sleeping forms to feel Hannah’s forehead. It felt much cooler to the touch than it did last night. “Get some sleep. We’ll head for home tomorrow, if you’re up to it.”
“I’m up to it,” Hannah answered. More than anything she wanted to return home. She was still nervous about being there, but her nervousness was much reduced when she thought about having her husband home with her. Jimmy would not return to work until Edgar Collins was found.
Buck pulled Teaspoon from the horse and carried him into the doctor’s office. Using one hand to prop Teaspoon against the wall, he used the other to pound on the door. He kept on pounding until the doctor, wearing his night clothes and carrying a lantern finally opened the door.
“What is it?” the doctor muttered, his voice still thick with sleep. He glanced at the older man, whose body had begun to sag. “What happened?” he asked again, quickly becoming more alert.
“He got shot,” Buck whispered. When the doctor pulled the door of his office open, Buck gathered Teaspoon in his arms and carried him inside.
When he laid the older man on the table, the doctor cut away his shirt, poking and prodding at the wound on his shoulder. Buck let out a small sigh of relief. It was only a flesh wound, nothing more serious, as he had initially feared. Teaspoon must have passed out because of blood loss.
“Bullet passed clean through,” the doctor proclaimed. He reached for a few bottles, painkiller and antiseptic, proceeding to cleanse the injury. He raised his head and looked at Buck’s ragged figure. “Mister, you need any help?”
Buck shook his head, running a hand through his disheveled hair. He must look as bad as Teaspoon did. Both their clothes were torn with smatterings of dirt and blood everywhere.
He and Teaspoon had tracked Edgar Collins to a small canyon. They had been positive that this would be it, that this would be Collins’ last stand. They split up, with him going to the mouth of the canyon while Teaspoon climbed to a ridge where he could keep an eye on Collins. Their plan was to have Teaspoon fire, hopefully causing Collins to run and run straight into Buck.
Unfortunately, it had not worked out as they designed. Collins had spotted Teaspoon and shot him, causing him to tumble down the ridge. Buck immediately abandoned his plan to capture Collins and went running to where Teaspoon’s body lay, sure that the old marshal must be dead, if not from the shot then surely from the fall.
But much to his relief, he wasn’t. Buck then gathered Teaspoon in his arms and headed straight for the closest town, relieved to find that it had a doctor.
“Mister,” the doctor said once again. “You look like you need some taking care of. Why don’t you head home, have your wife tend to you and get some rest. I’ll send word to you ‘bout how he is doing.”
“I’m from Rock Creek. You’d have to send someone quite a ways if you wanted to get word to my home,” Buck answered. “And my wife is dead,” he whispered to himself.
“Rock Creek,” the doctor exclaimed. “You’re the second patient I’ve seen from Rock Creek today.”
“Second?” Buck frowned.
“I just sent a woman and her family to the hotel,” the doctor replied. “She told me she was from Rock Creek.”
No, it couldn’t be, Buck thought to himself. Hannah couldn’t be that crazy, Jimmy went home right? There was no need for her to drag her whole family out here to find him. “A red-haired woman?” he asked cautiously.
The doctor nodded his head vigorously. “They’re staying at the hotel.”
Buck’s frown deepened at those words. “Thanks. I’ll go see if I know them.” He paused for a moment. “You mind not being so free with that information, should anyone else ask.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me and my friend,” Buck said, gesturing to Teaspoon. “Or the red-haired woman to anyone else.”
“You running from the law?” the doctor asked, his voice changing from concern to suspicion.
Buck laughed tiredly, “no.” He once again motioned to Teaspoon. “He used to be marshal of Rock Creek and the red-haired woman is the wife of our current marshal.”
“Ah,” the doctor interjected. “You’re tracking someone.”
Buck nodded. “And I’d rather not have him track us.”
“Will do,” the doctor said. He gave Buck a gentle nudge towards the door. “Go see your friends and get some rest. The marshal should be ready to travel in the morning.”
“Thanks,” Buck replied. He gave Teaspoon a concerned look before he finally left. As he stepped out into the cold night air, he spotted the hotel and made his way towards it. It didn’t take much to find out which room Jimmy and Hannah were in, just a cursory glance at the guest book. He smiled slightly when he saw the name Jimmy was using, Merryweather, Ambrose Merryweather. At least Jimmy still had enough sense not to use his real name.
He took the key the clerk handed him and ran up the stairs. But he didn’t go to his room, he went directly to the Hickok’s room. When he knocked at the door, a very sleepy-eyed Jimmy clutching his colt, opened it. “Buck.”
When Jimmy opened the door wider, Buck stepped inside. He looked towards the bed, and saw Hannah and the Hickok girls lying on it, while Jasper and his daughter were on the floor. “What is she doing here?” Buck fumed, jerking his head in Sally’s direction.
“You wanna drag your own kids out here, then do it,” Buck continued to rage. He and Jimmy’s battle of words had been continuing for a while now, furious words being exchanged in the softest of tones. “But leave my family out of it.” Hadn’t he lost enough people in his life?
“You think I would let anything happen to her?” Jimmy retorted, quickly becoming angry.
“Well she isn’t one of yours,” Buck snapped.
“You really think that makes a difference?” Jimmy asked slowly.
Buck ignored him and pushed his way into the room. He picked Sally up and proceeded to leave.
“Pa,” Sally mumbled.
“Shhh,” Buck said soothingly. “Don’t you worry. We’re going home now.”
Sally didn’t answer. She knew what he was planning. She had been awake since her father arrived, just listening quietly to the harsh words.
“Buck,” Jimmy began.
“Teaspoon is at the doctor’s office,” Buck said curtly. “Can you bring him home with you? If you plan on going home soon. Otherwise I’ll take him with me.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Jimmy answered. “We’ll take him.”
“Thank you,” Buck replied, his voice taking on a sarcastic tone.
“Where are you going? Stay here with us tonight,” Hannah asked, raising her head from the bed. “Then we can all go home together.”
“No,” Buck shook his head. “We’re leaving tonight.” He just couldn’t risk anything or anyone else.
“Buck,” Jimmy began again. But he silenced himself when he saw Hannah shoot him a warning glance. He looked to where his wife’s eyes indicated and saw Sally. She looked horrified.
Sally began to struggle in her father’s arms. “Let go of me!” she shouted. At her words, all the children, in the bed and on the floor awoke, their eyes first filling with fear then confusion at the angry faces which surrounded them. Jasper leapt to his feet and when Buck dropped Sally he placed himself between her and her father.
“Let’s go, Sally,” Buck said impatiently.
“No! You go, I’m not.”
“Don’t speak to me like that, I said we are leaving.”
“I ain’t going with you.”
“You never listen,” she yelled, moving out from behind Jasper’s back to glare defiantly at her father. “You never listen to me and now you ain’t listening to Uncle Jimmy.”
Didn’t he understand? Sally fumed, the Hickoks needed her. That night in the woods made it abundantly clear. They needed her because as Jasper had said, she was family. And Sally had pitched in, just as family should. She had cleaned the hares Jasper had caught and set them above the fire her Uncle Jimmy had made, after he had checked the woods for anything out of the ordinary. Ellie had watched the meat so it didn’t burn, all the while keeping an eye on Olivia. They were all working together so her Aunty Hannah could rest
In the beginning of the trip, Hannah had sat in the wagon seat, pressing her lips together tightly whenever the wagon hit a rut. Eventually she had moved to the back where she could lie down, her head in Ellie’s lap. But it was Sally’s hand she had held on to, gripping it tightly whenever the pain became too much for her. Because Sally understood. Sally understood what Hannah was doing, hiding the worst of her suffering so her family wouldn’t worry. Why couldn’t her father see that?
“Mind your tone,” Buck snapped automatically.
“You don’t care about anybody. Not the Hickoks. You haven’t even asked once how Aunty Hannah is feeling since you got here. You don’t even care about me or Ike and Lilly. All you care about is Ma and she’s dead!” Sally cried.
Suddenly and much to his surprise, Buck found his hand reaching out and slapping his daughter across the face. When he stared at her, his own eyes began to fill with tears, as did his daughter’s.
“You don’t care how we feel, what we like or don’t like. You don’t ever ask us anything, except where we’re going,” Sally managed in between sobs. She wanted to stop the words spilling forth from her lips, but she couldn’t. But all the hurt and anger she had felt towards her father had been building in her for too long. She couldn’t stop it this time.
“Sally,” Buck whispered, anguished
“I wish you would have died instead of her. At least she cared about us,” Sally whimpered.
Buck stood, his body sagging against the wall at his daughter’s statement. Sally cast one last look at her father, her palm pressed flat against her cheek, before she turned and ran away. Jasper immediately chased after her.
Buck felt Jimmy’s hands help him up. “She didn’t mean that,” Jimmy told him. Buck allowed Jimmy to lead him to a seat by the window. “She’s just upset.”
“She right,” Buck whispered. “All I care about is if they’re alright, physically.” He couldn’t even remember the last time he asked how his children’s day at school was or what games they had played at recess or even how much homework they had.
“Jasper will bring her back and you can tell her,” Jimmy said softly.
“That’s she’s right?” Buck laughed mirthlessly.
“That you love her,” Jimmy answered.
Jasper found Sally in the almost completely dark lobby of the hotel, sitting on the blue chintz sofa. The only light came from a lantern, sitting on a clerk’s desk in the corner, the clerk appeared to be sleeping, as his eyes were closed.
Sally had her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, rocking slightly. “You okay?” he asked.
Sally shook her head.
Jasper sat down next to her. “I ain’t never seen you so mad at him.”
“I’m not mad,” Sally whispered. “I just...”
“I know,” Jasper grinned. “Sometimes they just don’t listen.”
Sally smiled through her tears.
Jasper leaned his head against hers and asked softly, “you want me to go and get you some cocoa?”
“I bet I can find some in the kitchen.”
“You’re crazy,” Sally laughed, her heart suddenly lightened. It was the middle of the night, the kitchen had been closed for hours. But here Jasper was, volunteering to rummage around in a strange, dark kitchen for cocoa. She didn’t even like cocoa, but she knew how much Jasper did.
Jasper rose to his feet and patted her arm. “You stay here, I’ll go fetch you some.”
“Okay,” Sally said, continuing to smile.
Jasper walked to the kitchen, lifting the lantern from the still sleeping clerk’s station. He made his way to the kitchen, opening and closing every cabinet. He couldn’t find any of the fixings for cocoa, but he did manage to find several cookies, which he promptly snatched up and placed in his pocket.
He hurried back to the lobby and placed the lantern back on the desk, pleased to see that the clerk had not stirred.
“Sally,” he said. “I didn’t find-”. Then he stopped. Sally was gone. He began searching the lobby frantically, but still there was no sign of her. He ran to the clerk and shook the man by the shoulder. “Mister,” he hissed. “You seen where that girl I was sitting with went?” When the man did not answer, Jasper shook him harder. “Mister!”
But the man remained silent, only slumping so his head hit the desk. It was then Jasper noticed that the man had a large wound on the back of his head.
Jimmy and Buck went down the stairs. Jasper and Sally had been gone for almost an hour. So they had come down to check on them.
“Where are they?” Jimmy grumbled, more to himself than to Buck.
“Don’t know,” was Buck’s reply. He made his way to the clerk and as Jasper had done, he shook him, hoping to rouse the man. But he too soon discovered that the man was dead.
“Jimmy!” Buck shouted, motioning his friend toward him.
Jimmy swore softly. “It was Collins.” The anguish on Buck’s face caused Jimmy to falter, but only for an instant. “We’ll get him, Buck. I swear it.”
Buck could only nod.
“We’ll get some supplies and head out now, before the trail gets cold.” Jimmy snapped his fingers in front of Buck’s face. “You hear me?”
“Yeah,” Buck whispered.
“Go get Teaspoon from the doctor’s and I’ll tell Hannah what’s going on,” Jimmy commanded him. Buck didn’t bother to answer, he simply hurried from the hotel and when Jimmy looked out the window, he could see his friend running to the doctor’s office.
Jimmy bounded up the stairs and flung the door of his room open.
“Where are they?” Hannah asked, her eyes filling with fear. Why hadn’t Jimmy brought the children back with him?
“The clerk downstairs has been shot.”
“Collins?” Hannah whispered.
Jimmy sat down beside her, holding one of her hands in his, while placing his other arm around his girls, who had gathered close to him. “I’ll find them.”
“He’s got both of them?” Hannah began to cry.
“I’ll get them,” Jimmy promised. “While we’re gone, you stay here, in this room, okay? Don’t leave for nothing.”
“But-” Hannah began to protest.
“Buck is gonna bring Teaspoon back here. If you need something, he’ll get it for you. Don’t open the door, don’t leave the room.” He looked sternly at his daughters. “You mind your Ma and your Grandpa Spoon.” Teaspoon, even in his weakened state, still carried all of Jimmy’s faith. No one would hurt his family with Teaspoon Hunter around.
“But what if we have to use the facilities?” Olivia asked, in a high, thin voice.
Jimmy smiled then. “Don’t go alone. When you need food, bring it up here to eat.”
Hannah nodded. And when Jimmy rose from the bed, she pulled him back, hugging him tightly and kissing him. “Be careful.”
Buck stared numbly at the tracks in front of him. “It’s Collins.” He had been following those tracks long enough to know whom they belonged.
“So we’re on the right trail?” Jimmy asked.
Buck nodded, swinging back onto his horse. “But someone else is following him.” It bothered him that Collins didn’t make any attempt to hide his trail. It was almost like the man wanted them to find him, but based on what he had just seen, maybe he wanted someone else to find him first.
“Probably some other lawmen,” Jimmy replied. Wanted posters for Collins hung all over Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
Buck shook his head. “The tracks aren’t very deep, like when a man is on a horse.”
Jimmy frowned as the meaning behind Buck’s words hit him. “Like a child?”
“Like a child,” Buck repeated. “A barefoot child.”
“Jasper,” Jimmy hissed. He kicked his horse, urging the animal into a trot. “C’mon, we gotta find Collins first.” Collins did not need any more advantages. And holding Sally hostage, knowing his son was plotting something was advantage enough.
Jimmy saw it first. In the first light of dawn, He saw Collins trying to drag Sally onto a horse while she screamed, kicking and clawing at him. Jasper was hanging on to Collins’ arm, trying desperately to free Sally.
Buck gestured to Jimmy and soon melted into the woods while Jimmy rode straight ahead, right at Collins. But as he approached the area of the struggle, he saw Sally fall to the ground, finally free of Collins tight grip. He then saw Jasper pull out a gun and aim it at the man, his hand shaking. Jimmy saw his son hesitate and he kicked his horse again, urging it to run even faster.
It was during that moment of hesitation that Sally flung herself at Jasper, knocking them both to the ground. And Jimmy raised his gun, taking the time to make sure his shot would hit Collins and Collins alone. But before he could fire, the outlaw pointed his own weapon at the two children lying on the earth.
“Don’t even think about it,” Collins sneered at him.
“Let ‘em go,” Jimmy yelled. He dismounted his horse and threw the colt in his hand into the woods. “I’ll throw the other one too, soon as you let those children go.”
“I don’t want you dead,” Collins said, his eyes glittering with merriment. “I want you alive. I want you to get my brother out of jail.”
“I can’t!” Jimmy shouted. “He’s already bound for trial.”
“Oh come on,” Collins said. “You can’t do anything? I don’t believe that. I think you’d do just about anything to keep your children alive.” He aimed his gun at Sally. “Maybe I’ll just kill that one as a warning and keep the boy to make sure you don’t forget about my brother.”
“Let ‘em go.” Jimmy was practically begging now. But even as he pleaded with Collins, he kept his eyes and ears open. Buck, he thought, hurry up. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep Collins busy. But even as he watched for Buck he removed his other gun from his holster and pointed it at Collins.
“Boy,” Collins said. “Get over here.”
“No!” Jasper shouted.
“Get over here, before I kill the girl.” Collins glanced at Jimmy and saw the gun. “You can kill me, but not before I kill one of those kids. But I’m a generous man. I’ll let you pick. Which one will it be, the girl or the boy?”
Collins looked at Jimmy again and laughed, enjoying the pain on his face. He pulled the hammer of his gun back and pointed it at Sally once more. But his laugher died on lips, as a moment later a knife pierced his throat. Jimmy turned his head and saw Buck, an expression of hatred crossing his face before his features relaxed. He ran for the children, still on the ground, as Jimmy did.
“I’m sorry,” Sally cried. She held her father tightly, almost as tightly as he held her. “I didn’t mean it. I love you, Pa. I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” Buck whispered. He vowed then to pay more attention to his children. He never realized how much they needed him, how much he needed them. He always assumed that a mother was all a child really required, but he was both now, mother and father to his three children.
“You alright?” Jimmy asked Jasper, who held himself stiffly in his father’s arms.
“Where did you get the gun?” Jimmy said, not entirely surprised by this interaction. Jasper always treated him with a degree of wariness. Hannah told him it was natural and in time, he and Jasper would be close. She told him about some stupid Greek play and how boys resented their fathers. Jimmy didn’t understand the whole story, but he believed Hannah. She understood Jasper better than anyone.
Jasper looked at the weapon at his feet. “It was the clerk’s. I found it in a drawer.” Jasper raised his eyes then. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Jimmy asked in surprise.
“I couldn’t kill him,” Jasper whispered. But he was sorry for more than that. He was a complete disappointment as a son. He couldn’t protect his mother. He couldn’t save Sally. And he couldn’t kill the man who had hurt them both.
Jimmy laughed then. But it wasn’t a laugh of happiness. It was relief. And when Jasper heard it, he gave his father the strangest of looks, wondering what was wrong with him.
Jimmy held him tightly. He had never been prouder of anyone in his whole life. He wanted his son to be what he was, not him. “It’s a lot harder to walk away sometimes.”
Jasper rested his head against his father’s chest, sure that his father was just saying what he was saying to make him feel better. There was no way the son of Wild Bill Hickok should hesitate the way he did. But right now he did feel better. He felt almost like a small child again, his father’s arms sheltering him, making him feel like nothing would ever hurt him.
It was a long time before Jimmy and Buck could release their children. But when they finally did, Jimmy turned to Buck and asked, “you ready to head home?”
Buck smiled. “Yeah. Let’s go and get that family of yours first.”
Jimmy tiled his head at Jasper and Sally who had run straight into each other’s arms after their fathers’ let go of them. He heard the soft questions and the murmured reassurances and smiled. “Our family,” he said.