Monday's Child is fair of face,
Tuesday's Child is full of grace,
Wednesday's Child is full of woe,
Thursday's Child has far to go,
Friday's Child is loving and giving,
Saturday's Child works hard for a living,
But the Child that is born on the Sabbath Day,
Is witty and wise and good and gay! (1)

October, 1876

Prologue

He slipped quietly into the opulent room, his footsteps unheard, muffled by the thick carpeting. He moved cat-like into the shadows and hid behind the tapestries, watching. The old man was holding a daguerreotype, rubbing the glass that covered it. It was almost pitiful, he decided, the way the old man had gone soft. But it was too late.

He stepped out and deliberately let the old man see him before he shot him once in the head. A perverse sense of pleasure filled him when he saw the surprise on the old man’s face.

Quickly he snatched up the picture studied it, then let it fall to the floor with a soft thud. Then he disappeared. No one would ever know he had been there. No one ever did.

Chapter One

Constance Potter rolled off the bed and began gathering the clothes strewn about the floor.

Jimmy propped himself on one elbow, watching.

“Don’t give me that look,” Constance laughed. She glanced quickly in the mirror, fixing her light brown hair before she began dressing.

“What look?” Jimmy asked, trying his best to appear innocent. But it was hard. There was nothing innocent about this relationship. He had been sleeping with Constance for two months now. It had started out as something meaningless for him, a way to fill the evenings. For Constance it had a little more meaning. She wanted revenge on her husband, Stanley Potter, who in her opinion was ignoring her. But much to her dismay, Stanley hadn’t even noticed what was going on right under his nose. Yet Constance had continued this affair. Sometimes Jimmy was glad that she did. When she was with him, he felt a little less alone. But lately, he wasn’t so sure. Even when he was with Constance, he realized he was still very alone.

He didn’t even know who he was right now. Wild Bill Hickok had been killed two months ago. But he was still alive. Who was that man? No one he knew. How long had that man been pretending to be Wild Bill and why? So many questions but no answers. Jimmy had even gone to Deadwood and found a whole bunch of people mourning a man they all called friend. This man even had a wife who was obviously grieving for him. But yet they didn’t know who he, Jimmy Hickok, was. He didn’t have a wife, he didn’t have a family, and he had very few friends.

It was odd, the persona of Wild Bill had dogged him for so long, he should be glad it was dead and buried. But instead he felt lost. He wasn’t a legendary gunfighter anymore, a man who commanded respect simply by walking into a room. Lately people had even taken to mocking his appearance. Hence the changes. His hair was now much shorter, the clothes much plainer but the guns remained. Even though he wasn’t half as fast as he used to be and his accuracy had diminished as well, he still felt as though he needed them. For what, he wasn’t quite sure. But those colts had been with him for a long time and they had served him well. Leaving them behind would be like losing a limb.

Constance finished buttoning her dress. She leaned close and kissed Jimmy. “It’s been fun, like always,” she whispered before she quickly stood upright and left, leaving the door only half closed.

Sighing wearily, Jimmy rose from the bed and slammed it shut. He should leave. He should leave this hellhole and go straight to Rock Creek. Teaspoon, Polly, Kid, Lou and their children would be glad to see him, or at least he hoped they would. It would be nice if Buck, Elsa and their family came to visit. And it might even be good to see Cody again. He missed that loudmouth’s friendship.

Cody has asked him to be part of his show so many years ago and he had agreed to help his friend. But things didn’t go as planned and Cody had fired him. Nothing seemed to go right after that day and that incident in Abilene had sent him into such a deep decline he still hadn’t stopped sliding. When he realized it was his shot which had killed his deputy Mike Williams, it was as if the world stopped spinning.

He always told himself he tried to do what was right. But was it right to use the law to pick a fight with that man, Coe, over a saloon girl? Sometimes when he looked in the mirror he didn’t even recognize the man in it.

Maybe that was why he had stayed away from Rock Creek for so long, maybe he couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in Teaspoon’s eyes. But right now he wanted to see those eyes so badly he didn’t care if all he saw was disappointment reflected back at him.

Suddenly Jimmy turned to the closet and pulled out his bag. He was going home. He dressed, packed and then jogged down the stairs and threw a wad of bills in the saloon owner’s direction.

Tony grunted at Jimmy as he counted the money.

Jimmy picked up his bag and pushed the saloon door open, almost running into a young man.

The young man stepped inside the saloon and gave Jimmy an assessing look. “You look familiar.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” Jimmy responded irritably, moving past the young man.

The young man stepped outside as well, his eyes following Jimmy as the gunfighter walked toward the livery. “Didn’t you used to be somebody?” he yelled.

Jimmy didn’t even bother to turn around. No, he thought. Nobody.

Chapter Two

“Well as I live and breathe,” Teaspoon said slowly, moving to a standing position. He rubbed his eyes. “Jimmy?” he asked, certain his eyes were deceiving him.

Jimmy gave him a wan smile. The very fact Teaspoon had a question in his voice hurt. Did the marshal really believe he would never come home again?

“I thought you were dead.” Teaspoon sat down heavily, the shock of seeing his boy again took the legs right out from under him.

Jimmy’s eyes grew wide as he understood. “It wasn’t me,” he said quietly.

“No kidding.” A fist struck Jimmy from behind. “Well you should have told us,” Lou snapped, her hands on her hips. When Jimmy turned around, he found her glaring at him.

“Sorry,” Jimmy muttered. Well this homecoming wasn’t quite as warm as he had hoped. Maybe he just should have stayed away.

“I thought we were gonna lose him when he heard about the shooting,” Lou paused, taking a breath, trying to calm herself so she could continue. Part of her was so glad to see him, to know that he was alive, it was all she could do not to hug him. But part of her was very angry. How could he let them believe he was dead? Was he really that selfish?

Teaspoon’s reaction to the news had frightened them all. Lou was grateful he was still with them. He was far too old and fragile for the job of marshal. Polly had tried to convince him to retire, along with Kid and Lou. But Teaspoon refused.

For a long time, it seemed as if Teaspoon had hung onto the job so Jimmy could have the position once he retired. But with each passing year, Teaspoon’s hopes dimmed. Jimmy was no longer the same person who had ridden with them for the Express. He was a gambler, ladies man and a legendary marshal who could find work anywhere, if he wanted.

But even then there was always a glimmer of hope that Jimmy would return. Until that day, August 2nd. That was the day Teaspoon aged right before her eyes.

“How could you not tell us?” Lou shouted.

Jimmy didn’t answer. He never really thought about it. He hadn’t returned home or kept in touch with any of his Pony Express family for years. He just assumed they thought as much about him as he thought about them. Of course their lives hadn’t taken quite the twists and turns his had.

“I’m sorry,” Jimmy began.

“Sorry?!” Lou continued to rage. “We thought you were dead!” Then she burst into tears and pulled Jimmy into a tight embrace. “But you’re alive,” she whispered.

As Jimmy hugged her back, he felt Teaspoon’s arms around him as well. Lord, it was good to be home.

Lou finally released him after a long while, as did Teaspoon. Teaspoon beamed at both of them. “Didn’t I tell you he was too ornery to die?” The Jimmy Hickok he knew would never leave his back to a door. He recalled what Jimmy had told him after his stint in Regrets, how he had been warned by the man in black never to leave his back to a door. Teaspoon remembered the haunted look in Jimmy’s eyes as he told his tale. Thus he clung to the sliver of hope that Jimmy was alive, that it was an impostor buried in Deadwood. And he was right.

Teaspoon moved toward the door. “Let’s go home,” he told Jimmy.

Chapter Three

One week later...

“What are you so nervous about?” Kid asked, coming in from a hard day on their cattle ranch. His wife had been acting skittish since sun up and here it was sun down and she had only gotten worse. She had prepared a feast, scoured the house and now had their ten-year-old twins, Natalie and Noah, setting the table, while seven-year-old Mary sat on the couch, ordered by her mother not to move, lest she muss her clean clothing.

Kid leaned over, ready to give his wife a peck on the cheek.

“You’re filthy,” Lou chided him. “Go wash up before you track dirt everywhere.”

“Lou,” Kid said slowly. “It’s just Jimmy.” But he did as his wife requested. He washed up and even donned a new shirt for the occasion. Jimmy was here!

And a few minutes later, he really was there, embraced by the whole McCloud clan. All during dinner Kid and Lou chattered happily, trying to catch Jimmy up on their lives. He had been such a big part of the beginning; they hoped that he would once again be a part of their family. In fact, they were both so glad to see their friend that neither one of them noticed that in spite of their cheerful conversation, Jimmy grew steadily quieter.

It wasn’t until the children had gone to bed that Kid finally asked, “something bothering you?”

“No,” Jimmy mumbled.

Lou took a seat next to Jimmy on the couch and handed him a cup of coffee. She kissed his cheek. “You should have come back years ago.”

“Yeah,” Kid chimed in. “I could have used the help,” he added, his eyes twinkling.

When Jimmy finally looked at him, Kid was shocked to see no laughter in his eyes. All he saw was anger.

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied grimly. “That’s pretty much all I was good for, wasn’t it?”

“Jimmy,” Kid said quickly. “I was just joking.”

“Yeah,” Lou said with a nervous smile. “We needed you for more than that. Maybe a babysitter?” she laughed uneasily.

“Why?” Jimmy asked coldly. “Just ‘cause I don’t have a place of my own, don’t mean I would have liked to have been your slave. They freed the slaves you were so fond of years ago, Kid.”

“Jimmy!” Lou said sharply. “You know we were only joking. We missed you. You are like a brother to both of us.”

“A brother?!” Jimmy said. He gave Lou a hurt look. “You didn’t seem so sisterly on that trip with Elias.”

Lou sat frozen, staring at her hands in her lap.

“Elias?” Kid said slowly.

“Your wife kissed me,” Jimmy told him, running a finger across his lips. “I got the impression that if I had wanted her, she’d have given me whatever I asked for.”

“Shut up!” Kid said, his voice taut with rage.

Jimmy stood up. “Oh come on, you knew it. Why else would you pick so many fights with me?”

Lou rose to her feet as well. “He told you to shut up.”

“That’s right, Lou,” Jimmy said slowly. “Stand by your man.”

Lou moved to Kid, who was also up. She hooked her arm through one of his. “You think I kept that from him?” she asked, her voice hard. “I told him. I told him even before we were married.”

“So what hurts more, Jimmy?” Kid asked, his face contorted by fury. “That she turned to me when Elias got hung or that you never got the chance to prove how much better you were for her than me?”

It was Jimmy’s turn to feel shock now. That was the one thing he had hung on to during some of his darkest days, imagining the life he could have had with Lou, imaging how happy she would have been with him. It was only now that he realized she wouldn’t have been happy with him. No woman would have been happy married to him. “Shut up, Kid.”

“No, you shut up!” Kid shouted. “Get the hell out of my house.”

With that Jimmy turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.

But a few seconds later, as Jimmy swung a leg over his horse, he heard the door open. “Lou,” he began. How had it gotten so out of hand? He knew he shouldn’t have said it, but he had to. It was like he was suffocating or something, the way Kid and Lou went on and on about their perfect lives. And with each happy story, Jimmy’s anguish grew. They had accomplished so much while he, in the very same span of time, had accomplished absolutely nothing. No home, no wife, no family. Even his reputation wasn’t his anymore. There was a legend buried in Deadwood, but it wasn’t him.

So he had struck out. At least seeing the hurt looks had made him feel something. He just hadn’t expected it to be guilt.

“You want to know why I kissed you back then?” Lou said, her face furious.

Jimmy couldn’t look at her, certain that this time he had gone too far.

“Because back then I really believed you were a good man,” Lou finished, her voice changing from anger to sorrow. She turned away, ready to step inside her home. But then she stopped.

“Why?” Lou asked quietly. “You got a second chance, why are you wasting it?” She didn’t know this man before her. He wasn’t Jimmy Hickok, he wasn’t Wild Bill either. He was just a shell, a hollow, empty, pathetic shell. And he had made it perfectly clear, he didn’t want their help, no matter how desperately he needed it.

She realized that as Jimmy sat silently on his horse. It was then that Lou opened the door and went inside while Jimmy simply rode away.

Chapter Four

One month later...

“Marshal,” Hal Logan, the saloon owner, said, bursting into Teaspoon’s office. “You got to do something. He’s gonna drive away all my business if he keeps swindling folks the way he is.”

“What are you talking about?” Teaspoon grumbled, sitting straighter in his chair. He was not sure if he really wanted to hear what Hal had to say.

“It’s Hickok,” Hal explained.

“You saying Jimmy is cheating?” Teaspoon asked in surprise. It was true that Jimmy spent most of his days and nights at the saloon and a number of men had complained about it. Jimmy was either starting a fight or finishing one. And now Hal was saying he was double dealing? He knew that Jimmy earned more than enough money to survive as a result of those card games. Teaspoon couldn’t imagine Jimmy cheating. But if he was....

“I don’t know if he’s cheating,” Hal admitted reluctantly.

“Then what are you accusing him of?” Teaspoon demanded loudly.

“Nothing,” Hal muttered. He moved away, in the direction of his saloon. What was he thinking? The marshal would never do anything about Hickok. But still, he had to say what was on his mind. “This fella ain’t the same fella who used to be your deputy,” he said before finally leaving.

“I know,” Teaspoon said softly.

Teaspoon turned his head and watched Jimmy stumble out of the saloon and stagger off to his home. It was actually the old Pony Express way station refurbished to function as a home and Teaspoon owned it. He had never bothered to sell it for purely sentimental reasons. And when Jimmy announced he was here to stay, Teaspoon quickly offered it to him.

It worried him, the way Jimmy wasted time, wasted his life really. He had rejected Teaspoon’s offer to become a deputy. Actually Jimmy had ridiculed the notion. A deputy? I’ve been marshal in half a dozen towns, why would I want to start down at the bottom again? Jimmy had laughed.

Because that’s the only way anyone would ever hire you to be marshal, Teaspoon had seethed silently. But he kept those thoughts to himself. What good would it do to voice them? Nothing except drive a bigger wedge between Jimmy and everyone else. Polly seemed only to be concerned with her husband, if Jimmy made Teaspoon happy, she was happy. If Jimmy upset Teaspoon, she was upset. Rachel tried to include him in her life, but Jimmy didn’t make it easy on her. He showed up for dinner when he felt like it and when he wasn’t coming, he couldn’t be bothered to tell her. That was the very reason, Ryan, Rachel’s husband disliked Jimmy. Kid still regarded his old friend with a great deal of wariness; Lou on the surface appeared to be thrilled that he was back, it was underneath the surface that worried Teaspoon. She didn’t trust Jimmy anymore, and he was sure Jimmy could see it; probably part of the reason Jimmy acted the way he did. He had lost his family. What else really mattered to him anymore?

Teaspoon wished Buck was here. Buck understood what it was to be lost. But Buck wasn’t here. Just too much going on in his life. Elsa was expecting and due any day now and life on the reservation was very hectic as well. Buck didn’t feel right in leaving it.

So he had wired Cody and gotten a frosty reply. Cody said he would come to see Jimmy soon. And that was it. No dates, no how is he, nothing. Teaspoon fervently hoped that the two men could renew their friendship. Jimmy needed all the friends he could get.

Suddenly he straightened his shoulders and marched to the way station. That boy needed a swift kick in the pants and he was the only one still willing to give him one.

When he reached the way station, Teaspoon knocked loudly. Nothing. Then he knocked again. Still nothing. Feeling rather panicked, Teaspoon tried to open the door. And with some degree of difficulty, he pushed through something and peered inside.

Teaspoon sighed loudly. What happened to the tidy way station he had given Jimmy? The reason the door wouldn’t open was because there was a pile of garbage blocking it. As he looked around, he saw that the room’s condition only grew worse. There were clothes strewn all over the floor, dishes on the table, in the sink and Teaspoon was certain he could see some under the bed. There were half-open bottles of whiskey on the table and some had tipped over, spilling liquid that was still spreading on the floor. There were even piles of dollar bills, just laying about. Teaspoon wrinkled his nose. And what was that ungodly stench?

“Jimmy!” he shouted. Silence. “Jimmy!” he said as forcefully as he could. Still silence. Teaspoon stepped inside the place and looked at the bed in the corner of the room. There he saw Jimmy, lying fully clothed and snoring loud enough to wake the dead.

“@#$%^&!,” Teaspoon bellowed. But somehow Jimmy managed to sleep through even that.

Enough was enough! He wasn’t about to put up with this nonsense any longer. This wasn’t the boy he once considered as close to him as any man did about a child. This idiot in front of him was a drunken wastrel. He was through with this nonsense. Jimmy had been in Rock Creek for almost a month and he wasn’t trying, hell he wasn’t even pretending to try. Why had he come home? Just to aggravate his family?

Teaspoon sagged onto the couch, sitting on something sharp. He pushed a fork out of the way and sunk deeper into the couch, his head in his hands. Never, never would he send Jimmy away. But something had to be done.

Teaspoon raised his head then. This place was disgusting. He still had no idea what he was going to do about Jimmy’s behavior of late, but he knew one thing, he was going to hire someone to clean this place. It wasn’t sanitary.

Chapter Five

Abigail Morton stepped into the marshal’s office. “You asked to see me,” she said carefully.

Teaspoon quickly pushed out a chair. “Sit down, please.” And once the woman was seated, he asked, “Are you still looking for a part-time job?” Polly had told him that Abby had stopped by, looking for extra work.

“Yes.” Abby worked mornings until school let out at the hotel as a maid and helped out in the kitchen from time to time. The job kept her busy but she still needed more money. However it was difficult finding a job where she could bring Claudia along.

Abby had recently purchased a house for herself and her six-year-old daughter, Claudia. After her husband had died, three years ago, they had wandered from town to town. Both Abby and Claudia were longing to put down roots somewhere. They both hoped Rock Creek would be their final stop.

“Are you looking for a person to work here?” Abby asked hopefully. Maybe the marshal needed someone to tidy the cells and bring meals to the prisoners.

“No,” Teaspoon answered regretfully. “But I was hoping you might be able to clean up the old Express station.”

“Is somebody moving in there?” Abby asked, fearing that this was only a one day job.

“Somebody is already living there,” Teaspoon said and Abby looked at him uncomprehendingly. “Listen,” he began. “I’ll be honest. Jimmy Hickok is living there and he don’t seem able to wash a dish. I’m worried about him. No one should live in that kind of mess, plus I don’t think he’s eating right. I was hoping you could clean the place and make dinner for him.” Teaspoon had decided that maybe Jimmy would shape up a bit if his place was at least habitable. And a few decent meals wouldn’t hurt either.

“Every day?”

“Every day,” Teaspoon replied.

“He wouldn’t mind if I brought Claudia?”

Teaspoon didn’t think Jimmy would even notice Claudia. “I doubt it.”

Abby nodded. “I’ll be happy to clean and cook for Mister Hickok. When should I start?”
Yesterday, Teaspoon thought. But he said, “today would be fine.”

“Fine. I’ll head straight there after I pick up Claudia from school.” Abby rose and went to the door, stopping before she opened it. “I was wondering about pay,” she said, feeling a little awkward. She had been so happy to find extra work that it completely escaped her mind to ask about money.

“Five dollars a week,” Teaspoon said quickly, perhaps a bit too quickly. It was more than generous, but Abby might want more once she saw the mess and met Jimmy.

Abby paused, as if sensing Teaspoon’s unease. “Should I come here then for the money?”

“Yes,” Teaspoon replied softly. He would take one of the piles of money Jimmy left laying around and pay Abby with that. He just might take more than one pile and put some in the bank as well.

“He doesn’t know that you’re hiring me, does he?” Abby asked.

“No,” Teaspoon admitted. “He’s been through a lot and . . .” he let his words drift away, unsure of how to explain Jimmy.

“We’ll all manage,” Abby smiled. No one could be worse than her late husband. No one.

“Wait,” Teaspoon said and Abby stopped once more. “I think I should tell you ‘bout him.”

Abby nodded and went back to her seat. She hoped what the marshal would tell her would ease her mind, because he was acting so jumpy it almost made her regret taking this job.

Chapter Six

Jimmy opened his eyes and raised his aching head. What the hell was going on? He saw a woman, bustling about his kitchen, moving things about, loudly.

He let his head fall back, hoping that this was all a bad dream. But the noises continued. Finally, he shouted in exasperation, “are you trying to kill me?”

Abby dropped the pot in her hands and let out a small shriek.

“She didn’t know anyone was here,” a child said, her hazel eyes fixed on Jimmy as she stared at him from beside the bed.

Jimmy flew out of bed then, grabbing his clothes as he raced out the back door where he pulled on his pants and shirt over his longjohns. He then threw the door back open and demanded loudly, “who are you?”

“You must be Mister Hickok,” Abby said as pleasantly as she could. He was obviously startled and had reason, but still she did not like him shouting at her.

“I know who I am,” Jimmy fumed.

“I’m Claudia Morton,” the girl piped up.

“Yes, this is Claudia,” Abby said, twisting a dish towel nervously.

“I get that she is Claudia,” Jimmy began shouting once more. “But who are you and why are both of you here?”

Abby took a deep breath. “Claudia, do you mind taking this trash out?” she asked, lifting up a bag.

Claudia scowled but took the empty bag of grain her mother had stuffed with, bottles, papers and who knows what else and went out.

Abby then turned her attention to Jimmy. “Marshal Hunter hired me -”

“He what?!”

“To clean your house and leave you with some dinner,” Abby continued as if Jimmy hadn’t spoken.

Jimmy drew himself up to his full height and glared at this woman. She was a small woman, the top of her head only reaching his chin. She had black hair pulled back into a tidy knot and large, hazel eyes which stared angrily at him, unfazed by his own fury. She also had the palest complexion he had ever seen. Did she ever go outside?

“Well who asked him to?” he asked irritably.

Abby looked at Jimmy quizzically. “It’s obvious he cares for you and didn’t want you to live like this.”

“It’s my business how I live,” Jimmy growled.

Abby merely shrugged. “Marshal Hunter hired me. I’ll leave when he asks me to.”

Jimmy stared at her. Was she serious? She wouldn’t leave?

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Abby said, turning back to the pots. “I have a lot of work to do here.”

Jimmy threw his hands into the air and stormed outside. He was going to give Teaspoon a piece of his mind. But as he stepped onto the road, he felt himself falling forward, face-down into the dirt road.

Struggling to right himself, Jimmy found that he was tangled with the bag of garbage that child was supposed to be responsible for.

“Oh gosh,” Claudia exclaimed, rushing to Jimmy’s side and pushing the bag out of the way. “I’m sorry.”

“What’s wrong with you people?” Jimmy yelled. First the mother tried to shatter his head by her racket then the child tries to break his neck.

“There ain’t nothing wrong with me,” Claudia answered matter-a-factly.

“Then why didn’t you get rid of the trash?” Jimmy grumbled as he stood up and began brushing the dirt from his trousers.

“Don’t know where I’m supposed to put it,” Claudia replied, nonplused by Jimmy’s anger.

Jimmy sighed and picked up the bag.

“Where you going?” Claudia asked.

“The dump.” The dump had been started during his express days by an eccentric old man, who kept piling his failed inventions there. It wasn’t long before the rest of the town joined him in placing things there they couldn’t dispose of otherwise.

“Can we take your horse?”

“My horse?” Jimmy repeated, feeling rather stupid. It was that word - we - why was she saying we?

“Percy Sutton said you hired him to exercise it. I saw him putting it away in the barn.”

“I what?” Jimmy exclaimed, his face clouding over once more. Obviously Teaspoon was meddling both inside his house and out.

“We can ride it,” Claudia said, her voice rising in excitement. When Jimmy looked at her, she saw the word no forming on his lips and began pleading with him. “Oh please, I ain’t never been on a real horse, my ma took me once to the fair and I got to ride some ponies because we had to sell our wagon, ‘course the only team we had was all broken down, not near as nice as your horse, and she wouldn’t let me ride those nags anyway, she said they were too mean for a little girl.”

Jimmy stared at the girl. Did she ever take a breath? She was a tiny replica of her mother, except she had some color to her. “If I say yes, will you hush up?” he asked irritably.

But Claudia didn’t answer the question. She simply squealed with delight and began running to the barn. Jimmy hoisted the bag over his shoulder and followed her. His horse did need exercise.

Chapter Seven

Jimmy threw a sofa cushion across the room. Where the hell was his money? He wasn’t quite sure how much he had, but it was certainly more than the three dollars he held in his hand.

He shoved an empty plate across the counter, a satisfied smirk crossing his face as he saw the plate fall and heard the glass shatter.

That woman deserved it. She was the one who was stealing his money. She had to be. Who else came here every day?

Abby had been coming to clean for little over a week now. Jimmy for the most part managed to avoid her, probably because she did make his life easier. His clothes were clean and he didn’t have to eat in the saloon anymore.

But if she was stealing from him . . . Jimmy’s lip curled upward in some semblance of a smile. Then she would have to pay for it.

“Afternoon, Mister Hickok,” Claudia called out cheerfully as she entered Jimmy’s home. She briefly wondered if she should ask him where he had been of late, but whenever she brought up the subject of Mr. Hickok’s activities, her mother scolded her, so she said instead, “Haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?”

Jimmy ignored the child’s prattling and fixed his eyes upon her mother as she walked in.

Abby gave him a disdainful look, as she set about her business, picking up after Jimmy.

“Well I see you’ve been making yourself right at home here, haven’t you?” Jimmy asked Abby.

Abby raised her eyes and frowned. She didn’t like the way that man was looking at her, he looked like a cat who had a mouse by the tail. “If you’ve got something to say, why don’t you just spit it out?” Abby was tired. Unlike Mr. Hickok she had already worked a full day.

“Fine.” Jimmy spat out the word. “Where’s my money?”

“What money?”

Jimmy’s eyes widened as he feigned innocence. “You mean you didn’t see my money on the dresser?”

“I saw it,” Abby said succinctly.

“And?” Jimmy tapped his foot impatiently. He was tired of this game. There was a poker game waiting for him in the saloon and he wanted to get there. Unfortunately he had to deal with this woman in order to play in the poker game. “Where’s my money?” he shouted.

Abby scowled at him and walked to the bureau. She pulled open a drawer. “Here’s your money from Saturday,” she said, her voice deliberately sweet. Then she opened the drawer right next to it. “And here is your money from the first few days I was here.”

Jimmy stalked over the dresser. And when he peered inside the drawers, he saw his money, neatly stacked rows of bills along with several handfuls of change.

“Is that all?” Abby asked, her mouth set in a thin line.

Jimmy counted the dollars quickly. He was still short, he could feel it in his bones but he could not be sure by how much.

And Abby seemed to read his thoughts. “If that’s not all of it, well, I...” she stopped then, taking a breath, trying to calm herself. This man was accusing her of being a thief. Abby suspected that the marshal had taken the money and was using it to pay her, but she wasn’t about to tell Mr. Hickok that.

“Well, I don’t know,” she finished. “Maybe someone stole it.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Jimmy shot back.

“And it wasn’t me,” Abby retorted. “The first day I came here, I saw a whole bunch of money just lying around. Do you lock your doors? Do you put away your money? Any idiot with half a brain could see how careless you were with your money and could have just walked in and taken it.”

Jimmy stood quietly. He supposed what Abby was saying was possible.

“Why couldn’t you even give me the benefit of the doubt?” she shouted.

“Why should I?” Jimmy yelled. “I don’t even know you.”

Abby was about to place the sofa cushion back on the couch but instead she threw it at Jimmy. She was tired of all this nonsense. She just wanted to finish her work and go home. “You know, I don’t like you! I’d quit this lousy job if I didn’t need the money, but I do. So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk to me anymore.” Silently, Abby walked to the sink and began washing the dishes.

Jimmy sighed loudly as he stepped outside. He really didn’t feel much like talking either. Seemed like all he did was argue with people and it was beginning to take its toll.

“You aren’t a very nice man,” Claudia announced as soon as she saw Jimmy.

“Never claimed to be,” Jimmy replied easily.

“My ma ain’t a thief.” Claudia had overheard Jimmy’s accusations before going outside.

And Jimmy backed down. He wasn’t about to get into a fight with a six-year-old. “No, she ain’t.”

“So why’d you say she was?”

“I couldn’t find my money.”

“My ma put it in the bureau, I saw her. Next time you can’t find something, you should ask her, nicely.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes. Now he was being lectured by the midget.

“It was the marshal who took your money,” Claudia continued.

“Who?” Jimmy yelped in surprise.

“The marshal. He comes here once in a while and takes some of your money,” Claudia explained. “I heard him tell Missus Hunter that he was using it to pay my ma.” She looked at Jimmy to see if he was paying attention and she found Jimmy’s eyes riveted to her. “He puts some in the bank too. He worried about you something powerful.”

“He’s a meddler,” Jimmy muttered. But at least the mystery of the missing money was solved. He should have known it was Teaspoon.

“I like him,” Claudia declared. “He’s a nice man.”

And Jimmy grimaced. He didn’t like the feeling of a child telling him he wasn’t nice. Claudia must regard him in the same light as he used to regard Tompkins. “Sorry.”

“You should say you’re sorry to my ma,” Claudia retorted.

“I will.”

“When?”

“When we come back.”

“Come back? From where?” Claudia’s eyes lit up. “You’re taking me somewhere? On your horse?” She loved that animal. “Yep,” Jimmy answered, enjoying the warmth of Claudia’s smile. “Go ask your ma first. I don’t want her to yell at me anymore.”

Claudia ran into Jimmy’s home, shouting the whole way and when Abby appeared, she gave Jimmy a quizzical look before saying okay to her daughter.

Chapter Eight

“Get out!” Ryan MacCallister roared. He wasn’t going to put up with this any more.

“Settle down, little brother,” Douglas MacCallister said easily. He raised both his hands in an effort to placate Ryan.

But Ryan was not easily calmed, he was absolutely furious. His wife, Rachel, was in the bedroom, crying as she held their one-year-old son in her arms. His sixteen-year-old daughter, Carrie, was upstairs sobbing as well. Seems all his brother did was make the women in his family cry.

Rachel was upset because Douglas had implied, once again, that Ryan had married her out of pity only. Carrie had burst into tears after Small Knife and Ethan Mathews, the doctor’s son, left. The young men had come for a visit but left as soon as Douglas started his blathering.

Douglas had first implied that Carrie was interested in Ethan, something both Ryan and Rachel knew to be untrue and second, he had insulted Small Knife. The epithets he had used, well Ryan wasn’t sure if Carrie had ever even heard such words.

It was then Ryan lost his temper. His wife and children shouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense. This was HIS home!

“Get out!” Ryan bellowed once more. He threw his brother’s suitcase out the door and took the pile of clothing Anna Stigell, who was now working in their home, held out to him. Anna was beaming.

Ryan flung the clothes out the door as well. “You’ve worn out your welcome.”

Douglas sighed loudly as he stepped outside. He began placing his now filthy clothes back into the suitcase. His little brother didn’t seem so little anymore. He didn’t need him to fight his battles. But it still hurt. How could Ryan forget that he was here, running the hardware store because of him? Douglas had left Rock Creek to open another store in Council Bluffs, leaving the business to Ryan.

Douglas had expected Ryan to fail, but much to his surprise, Ryan had succeeded and wildly so. Now his little brother was married, had children and a life. A life which Douglas did not approve of, associating with Indians, foreigners and cripples. What kind of life was that?

*~*~*

Jimmy paused at the door of his home, watching as he spotted Abby scurry from the bank. She was now talking to Douglas MacCallister who was in town visiting his brother.

For a while, after he accused Abby of stealing his money last week, he made a point to stay home as little as possible, probably because he couldn’t stand to see her look at him. He hated the guilt that filled him, even though Abby seemed to have forgiven him. Jimmy was sure he was in her good graces once more because he took Claudia on a horse ride every day. Little did she know that those rides were the bright spot of his day. That little girl genuinely liked him.

But lately, he found himself sticking around, more than what was necessary and Jimmy couldn’t understand why. Yeah, Abby spoke kindly to him, but she obviously had not forgotten his accusation as she went out of her way to make his life miserable. She still cooked and cleaned, even he couldn’t complain about the state of his house or the meals he ate. But Abby found other ways to torment him. First, she short-sheeted the bed, then she made it backwards causing Jimmy a great deal of frustration in his alcohol filled haze.

And lately she had taken to moving things into the most unlikely of spots, just so he couldn’t find them. She had put his hat under his bed, his socks in a pot and his gunbelt in the outhouse. But what was truly strange was the way he had started looking forward to these games.

Once Jimmy found the hidden object, he would place it on the kitchen table for Abby to see. And when she saw the gunbelt there, she had smiled and Jimmy, much to his horror, discovered himself smiling right back.

*~*~*

Abby hurried from the bank, her eyes filling with tears. Short. She would be short again this month. Now what? Where was she going to get enough money for this month’s mortgage?

It was then she ran into Douglas MacCallister, probably because she really couldn’t see where she was going through the tears. But when she realized whom she had stumbled into, she drew a sharp breath of dismay. Abby did not like that man, the way he looked at her made her skin crawl.

“Excuse me,” Abby said formally, trying to move to her left, so as to avoid that man. But the instant she moved, so did he. And for a few moments, Abby and Douglas MacCallister performed their odd little dance in the middle of the street.

Douglas grabbed her arm. “I couldn’t help but overhear your problem.” He paused. “At the bank.”

Abby didn’t answer, she simply tried to free her arm without causing a scene.

“I can give you the money,” Douglas added.

Abby held herself still then, listening.

“I’m staying at the hotel,” Douglas continued. “If you are interested.”

And Abby blushed furiously at the implication. “Please release me.”

Douglas leaned close, his fingers tightening their grip. “Pretty little thing like you, well I’d be honored if you’d pay me a visit.”

“Please,” Abby said once more, pulling futilely on her arm.

“Let go of her,” Jimmy said. Abby turned her head and saw Jimmy right behind her. She wondered how long he had been there and how much he had heard. But regardless of what he might now think of her, she was grateful for his presence.

“Didn’t think you were a deputy anymore,” Douglas said slowly.

“I’m not,” Jimmy half-growled. He moved his jacket back, giving Douglas a glimpse of his colts.

And much to Abby’s relief, Douglas let go of her.

“Wasn’t anything,” Douglas said, quickly losing his bravado. “Just discussing business.”

“Didn’t look like Abby wanted to discuss business with you,” Jimmy told him.

Douglas shrugged. “I’m at the hotel, in case you change your mind,” he said to Abby. But he ended up saying those words to Jimmy, as the gunfighter had placed himself in between Abby and Douglas.

‘Thank you,” Abby said softly once Douglas was out of sight. She clasped her hands together so Jimmy wouldn’t see them shake.

Jimmy nodded at her, his eyes still on Douglas’ back.

“I have to get back to work now,” Abby said. She turned, stepping in the direction of the hotel. She gave Jimmy a quick smile. “Thank you.”

“Ryan just kicked Douglas MacCallister out,” Teaspoon informed Jimmy as he came to stand beside him. He had taken in the whole scene from the window of his office. At first he wondered if he should help Abby, as he was unsure what was happening initially. Then he wondered if he should help Douglas. And he didn’t really feel like helping Douglas, so he had stayed inside, watching Jimmy in action.

Jimmy didn’t answer. His eyes were still fixed on Douglas.

“Is she okay?” Teaspoon asked. “Abby looked a mite shaky to me.” “I hope so,” Jimmy said quietly. He gave Teaspoon an acknowledging nod of the head before he began walking away.

Then it was Teaspoon’s turn to stare. Was that Jimmy Hickok caring about someone? “Best be careful, son,” Teaspoon whispered. “Once you let one person in, it’s hard to keep everyone else out.”

Chapter Nine

It was later that evening when Jimmy quietly approached Abby as she bustled about the kitchen, trying to finish up his meal. Claudia was sitting at the table, finishing her schoolwork.

“So you gonna tell me what that was about in town?” he asked.

Abby didn’t lift her eyes from the dough she was kneading. “It was nothing.” She didn’t even feel like pretending that she didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Really?” Jimmy raised a brow at her. But Abby ignored him, busying herself with the bread she was making.

“Abby!” Jimmy said sharply, yet she continued to ignore him.

In an effort to gain her attention, Jimmy took her flour-covered hand and held it. “Why was he bothering you?” He still remembered what Douglas MacCallister had done to Jensen.

“He’s just that kind of man,” Abby answered. She recognized it the minute she saw it. Douglas MacCallister was a cruel and selfish human being who wouldn’t hesitate to use anybody else’s misery for his own gain.

When she realized Jimmy would not release her hand until he was satisfied that he had heard the whole story, she spoke once more. “He overheard my conversation with the bank owner,” Abby finally admitted. She blamed this lack of discretion on Mr. Hickok’s fingers which were now caressing her palm and wrist, making it difficult for her to think clearly. “He said there wasn’t enough in my account for this month’s mortgage,” Abby said softly, not wanting Claudia to overhear and worry.

“What does Douglas MacCallister have to do with that?”

Abby shrugged. “He offered me money.”

Jimmy looked at her skeptically. “Out of the goodness of his heart, I’m sure.”

Abby let her eyes settle on her hand which was now sandwiched between Jimmy’s own, oddly comforted by the security his touch gave her. “You know him?”

“From when I was a deputy,” Jimmy replied. He squeezed her hand gently. “Now this is about you, not me, so quit stalling,” he said with a grin.

Abby gave Jimmy a quick smile that soon faded as she began to speak. “He said he’d give me money for visiting him.”

“At the hotel?” Jimmy hissed.

“Don’t worry.” Abby tried to smile once more. But she couldn’t. It was too hard. Every time she thought she was finally settled, something would happen and she would have to leave. Maybe she’d have at least one more month here. And maybe she could sell the house herself rather than have the bank seize it. At least that way she would have a little cash.

“I’m not that desperate,” she finished. Not yet anyway.

Jimmy finally released Abby’s hand and went to his dresser while she watched him, a puzzled look on her face.

Jimmy strode back to Abby’s side and handed her a stack of bills. “Is that enough?”

Abby’s eyes grew wide. “What? Just because I’m here, don’t mean -”

“I don’t have to pay women,” Jimmy interrupted. And even though the words were harsh, the tone wasn’t. “It’s a gift. A loan,” he amended hastily when Abby began to sputter indignantly.

Abby swallowed her pride. She didn’t want to leave Rock Creek and start over. She was happy here. And more importantly, so was Claudia. So she took the money and clutched it tightly. “I’ll pay you back, I swear. As soon as -”

“Does it look like I’m hurting for money?” Jimmy laughed.

“I will pay you back,” Abby said firmly. “With interest. The bank may not think I’m good for it, but I am.”

“I never doubted it,” Jimmy said softly. The bank may not consider Abby a good risk, but he did.

Abby hugged him. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Chapter Ten

Teaspoon leaned back in his chair and watched. Seemed like he was doing a lot of that lately.

And a few minutes later, Polly was crowded next to him. “What’s he doing now?” she asked. This appeared to be their new hobby, spying on Jimmy Hickok. For a few days they had watched Jimmy give Claudia horseback riding lessons and then one day he put Abby on the animal. It had been almost shocking, Jimmy was laughing and Abby had been hanging on to him for dear life. But it wasn’t long before Abby was laughing as well.

Then it got even stranger, Jimmy dropped by to sit with Teaspoon. And now it was becoming a regular habit. Jimmy stopped by around lunch, played a few games of checkers with Teaspoon and lately the two men had been stopping by the restaurant to join Polly for lunch after their game. Once in a while Kid would join them as well.

Sometimes Jimmy even went to the hardware store to catch up with Rachel and acquaint himself with Ryan and their two children. When Lou heard about this, she made it a point to stop by on occasion. She claimed she had to see this with her own eyes, but Teaspoon was positive that she just wanted to be a part of this. Jimmy was coming back to them, on his own terms.

He never spoke about the past. And when they tried to bring it up, he listened and made an effort to learn what had happened in their own lives, but never brought up his own. It was a compromise at least.

Polly leaned down and squeezed Teaspoon’s arm. “Wanna play too?” she asked.

*~*~*

Claudia leapt up into the air, but she missed the ball, again. It wasn’t fair. The big boys were so much taller than she was. Both she and Mary McCloud found themselves quite frustrated by this fact. Carrie MacCallister was in the middle as well, but she was no help. She was too busy making cow eyes at Small Knife.

Ethan Mathews flung the ball into Small Knife’s hands, chanting, “monkey in the middle, monkey in the middle.” He knew he was far too old for this game. But he was enjoying it, all the same. It was worth it just to see Small Knife try to ignore Carrie and Carrie try to flirt without being obvious about it. Yet it was all obvious to him.

“Looks like you need some help,” Abby yelled happily. She picked up her skirts and ran. She managed to snatch the ball away from Small Knife when he was looking at Carrie, who happened to be lifting her own skirt ever so slightly.

“Carrie,” Abby shouted, throwing the ball. And Carrie for the first time in the game paid attention. She caught the ball, held it out to Small Knife for just an instant, then quickly flung it back into Abby’s arms.
Abby soon passed the ball to Claudia, who rapidly returned it as soon as she saw Ethan fly at her. Abby once again threw it to Carrie, who soon recognized the value of taunting a male. And just before Small Knife leapt at her, she threw it to Mary. Mary squealed loudly and threw the ball up in the air, not wanting Ethan to tackle her.

Abby saw the ball fly upward and ran for it. But before she could catch it, Jimmy grabbed it out of the air.

“You ladies ain’t playing fair,” he told Abby and Carrie.

Abby jumped, trying to snatch the ball back. But Jimmy held it out of reach. “Using your feminine wiles against these helpless boys,” he continued.

“Boys,” Ethan and Small Knife sputtered.

Jimmy grinned and just as he was ready to throw the ball, Abby slapped it away, right into Claudia’s waiting arms.

Jimmy saw that Claudia was ready to return the ball to her mother and grabbed Abby, pinning her arms against her side.

“Let go,” Abby squealed. Jimmy simply picked her up off the ground and held her firmly against his body.

But Abby had the last laugh. Polly had just run outside, waving her arms. And Claudia tossed the ball right to her.

“Don’t you worry, boys,” Teaspoon called out, ready to join the game as well. “I ain’t gonna let you be outnumbered.”

*~*~*

Polly nudged Teaspoon in the ribs. Kid and Lou had just left the Hunter home with their children, as had Rachel and Ryan. It had been an impromptu dinner, but satisfying all the same. Teaspoon had been so happy seeing all his children together, once again.

Teaspoon’s eyes followed Polly’s slight head movement. Jimmy and Abby, they were still standing so close, touching each other whenever possible, passing a plate, dropping a napkin, anything.

“Did you hire her on purpose?” Polly whispered. It was so obvious how those two felt about each other.

“No,” Teaspoon replied quietly. But it had worked out, even if it wasn’t the way he had planned it.
“Should I give Jimmy a hint to take her home?” Polly asked.

“No,” Teaspoon said quickly. “Not yet.” If those two went home together, well, he was pretty sure what would happen. “I’m gonna take her home myself.”

“Why? I thought you liked her.”

“I do,” Teaspoon answered.

“Then?” Polly looked at her husband expectantly.

“Romance has five ingredients,” Teaspoon told her. “A strong hero.”

“Check.”

“A spunky female.”

“Check.”

“Sparks.”

“Oh they got that in spades,” Polly laughed. The way those two looked at each other even made her blush.

“And anticipation,” Teaspoon announced.

“What?”

“Let ‘em wait till they can’t stand it no more.”

“I know what it means, sugar lips,” Polly said sweetly. “It’s just I don’t think I can stand to wait.”

Teaspoon chuckled.

“But now hold on,” Polly continued. “You said five ingredients. That’s only four.”

“The last one is a happy ending,” Teaspoon told her.

Chapter Eleven

Abby stepped into Jimmy’s home the next day and glanced around. He wasn’t here and she found herself quite disappointed over this fact. She had been so hoping last night that it would be Jimmy who would be the one to take her home. But instead it was the marshal. He was a kind man, yet he wasn’t the one Abby yearned to touch. And that was all she seemed to think about nowadays, touching her Mister Hickok. She had been catching herself all day, imagining his arms around her, his lips pressed against hers, his . . .

Oh good Lord, she was doing it again. Jimmy hadn’t even kissed her yet, but in her mind he had and so much more. She hoped they would be past this stage soon, the awkward phase where people who were deeply attracted to one another made do with longing glances and accidental touches.

She still could not believe she had fallen for him, but she had. She had always been attracted to him, right from the start. But the way he had treated her, it was obnoxious and that was putting it kindly. Abby smiled slightly. He was different now, more caring, easier to talk to, even playful. She had missed that, the warmth and laughter two adults could share.

Abby’s eyes were drawn to the doorway when she heard a sound. Her earlier disappointment soon dissipated as Jimmy appeared.

“Hey, I wondered if you were in here.” Jimmy called out. He had seen Claudia outside and hoped Abby was inside.

“She was waiting for her ride,” Abby smiled at the floor, trying to hide her pleasure in seeing him. Jimmy made it a point of letting Claudia ride his horse every day.

Jimmy moved close and tipped Abby’s chin up, gazing into her eyes for a moment before he kissed her. Abby moved back a fraction of an inch, as if she were surprised, but when Jimmy leaned in even closer, Abby held herself still, afraid that anything she might do would break the spell.

Jimmy stopped kissing her and asked, “something wrong?” He was startled by her lack of response. They’d been moving in this direction for a while now.

“No.” Abby hesitated and once again it struck her how similar her late husband was to Jimmy, both men were considered hotheads, both men acted first and thought later and both men possessed an almost unhealthy sense of adventure.

And the attraction she felt for Jimmy was just as powerful, maybe even stronger than it was for Richard. And things had ended so badly with her and Richard, Abby didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. But when he smiled at her, well the butterflies in her belly turned into birds with wildly beating wings.

“Shy?” Jimmy guessed.

“Shy!”

“Nervous?”

“Maybe.”

“Afraid you can’t control yourself around me?” Jimmy leered at her.

Abby began to laugh. Jimmy swept her onto his arms and kissed her once more and this time Abby kissed him back.

“You wanna take a trip with me?” Jimmy asked, pulling Abby into his lap as he sat on the sofa.

Abby gave him a quizzical look.

“There’s a poker game in Hastings, pretty high stakes too,” Jimmy explained. He didn’t really have the heart to go, not now. He would like nothing better than to stay here. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. If his luck held and he won, he just might be able to pay off the note on Abby’s property.

Abby shook her head.

“I know,” Jimmy said regretfully. “Claudia. I just figured I’d ask.”

“I’m sorry,” Abby began. He shouldn’t have to be stuck with her and her daughter. He was free, he deserved to live his life the way he saw fit.

Jimmy moved quickly and Abby soon found herself lying down. “Don’t you ever apologize about Claudia, you hear me?” He loved that little girl. And he was pretty sure he loved her mother too.

Jimmy lowered his mouth to Abby’s once more. She felt herself begin to relax against him as his lips teased hers into responding. And as she felt herself held so tightly, her own kisses became more demanding.

Jimmy paused for just a moment as he gazed into her face. Now this was the way he had pictured it, save one thing. He pulled the pins from Abby’s hair, watching the strands tumble over her shoulders. But he didn’t have much time to savor the moment as Abby pulled him back to her.

It was with great regret Jimmy finally rolled off her, as they were interrupted by Claudia.

Chapter Twelve

Jimmy glanced around the crowded saloon. The gambler that he had heard about was here, easily identifiable by his sleek black suit, something that looked quite out of place in this dusty saloon.

Jimmy soon took an empty spot at the table. Seems as if the gambler, Bertram Davis, kept cleaning people out, thus the faces sitting at the table changed quickly.

For a while Jimmy kept pace, but then he found himself starting to lose. He just couldn’t keep his mind focused on the cards, his thoughts kept drifting back to Abby. He just should have stayed in Rock Creek with her. He already missed her and Claudia.

Jimmy threw a few coins in the pot, hoping his luck would change. He saw a small brown horse in town that was for sale. That horse, Cinnamon, would be perfect for Claudia. But at the rate he was going, he would lose more money than he would win. And the strange thing was, he really didn’t mind. He just wanted to go home.

Jimmy threw another losing hand on the table.

“Out so soon?” Davis inquired.

“You cleaned me out,” Jimmy said, but unlike the other departing card players, there was no rancor in Jimmy’s voice, a fact which caused Davis to look twice at him.

As Jimmy stepped outside, he smiled. He was going to forget about this lousy poker game and go home.

“You,” a voice whispered.

When Jimmy looked at the owner of the voice, he saw a small woman. She was older than him and her dark hair was curled in front and pulled into a bun. She looked vaguely familiar.

“Do I know you?” Jimmy asked.

The woman slapped Jimmy across the face. As she raised her hand to strike him again, Jimmy caught her by the wrist and pushed her backward.

“It’s you who should be dead, not him.” The woman turned away from Jimmy, covering her eyes.

It was then Jimmy recognized her. Agnes, Agnes Lake from Abilene. Didn’t she own a circus? “I’m sorry, Missus Lake, I didn’t recognize you.”

“Shut up!” Agnes shrieked. “It was you who should have died in Deadwood, not him.”

Jimmy grasped Agnes by the arm and dragged her around the corner. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You don’t even remember him, do you?” Agnes cried. “He worshiped the ground you walked on. Don’t you even remember the way you and your friend Mike made fun of him for the way he dressed like you?”
“Neil?” Jimmy frowned as he tried to remember. He recalled a rather tall man who wanted to be deputy, but at the time Jimmy had no need of one. “Neil O’Day was out there, pretending to me?” he asked, trying desperately to regain his equilibrium as the shock hit him.

“Yes!” Agnes shouted.

“And you have the nerve to hit me! He’s the one who stole my life from me,” Jimmy yelled back.

“He gave you a life,” Agnes snapped. “You should be grateful.”

“Grateful? I didn’t ask him to do anything.”

“But he did it anyway. He thought you were a great man and when you crawled up inside yourself, he said he wasn’t going to let Wild Bill Hickok be remembered as a man who gave up. He said he knew you were better than that and until you realized it yourself, he would just make sure the legend wasn’t tarnished.”

“You’re blaming me for that?”

“Yes,” Agnes sobbed.

“Mama,” a very small boy said, coming into the alley.

“Johnny,” Agnes whispered, pulling the boy close.

“He had a son?” Jimmy asked softly.

“We,” Agnes corrected him.

“I don’t understand why’d he do that, with a family and all,” Jimmy whispered.

“Because you are like poison,” Agnes bristled. “You get in a person’s blood and kill them. How many people who cared about you have gotten hurt?”

Jimmy didn’t answer, he was flying back in time, seeing the faces, ghosts really. So many people had suffered because of him and now this child too. He never asked for O’Day to help him, but he had and now he was dead. Dead because of that reputation. No, this time it wasn’t the reputation, this time it was because of him.

Still reeling, Jimmy mumbled another apology and hurried away. He no longer wanted to go home, but he had nowhere else to go.

Chapter Thirteen

Jimmy groaned when he heard the noises. He struggled to raise his aching head from his kitchen table, his hand brushed against a bottle, sending the whiskey crashing to the floor.

Abby entered, placing a hand on her chest. “You’re home,” she cried out happily, rushing toward Jimmy. “You scared me with that racket. I thought someone had broken in here.”

She stopped when she saw Jimmy’s condition. His hair was disheveled, his clothes were filthy as if he had been wearing them for days. And judging by the smell of him, that’s exactly what Jimmy had been doing. But the worst thing was his eyes. They were sunken and bleary, and they refused to look at her.

Abby crouched beside him, her hand on his arm. “What happened?” she whispered. When Jimmy didn’t answer, Abby cradled his head against her shoulder.

“Ma?” Claudia asked. She was about to ask if Mr. Hickok was here. But she saw that he was and he looked just awful. “Is he sick?”

“Yes, baby,” Abby answered. “Why don’t you play outside for a while?”

Claudia nodded, scampering away.

Once her daughter was gone, Abby helped Jimmy to his feet and led him to the bed. She kissed his forehead. “Get some sleep. I’ll fix you something to eat.”

It wasn’t until several hours later that Jimmy finally opened his eyes. He found Abby sitting beside him, hemming a dress he assumed was Claudia’s.

“Head hurt?” Abby smiled.

His head, his throat, but mostly it was his heart that ached. It was all he could do not to reach out and pull her close. She could make him forget all the ghosts. He imagined himself with her, lying in the bed together, her body so soft and warm. Yes, with her it would all seem like a dream. Trouble was, what he was imagining with Abby was the dream. If he stayed with her, she would be miserable, just like the rest of them.

He realized that now. It was he, never Wild Bill Hickok, which inflicted so much pain on others. Always him.

Abby leaned close and brushed his hair back. “You feel like eating anything?”

She had to go. Now, Jimmy realized. He had to make her go before he begged her to stay.

Jimmy grabbed her arm and pulled her into the bed, covering her mouth with his. I’m sorry.

“Jimmy.” Abby pushed at him, trying to slow him down. “What’s wrong?” This wasn’t the way he had kissed her before. This man was cold and passionless.

Jimmy didn’t answer. He began yanking at the buttons of her dress.

“Jimmy!” Abby said sharply. “Stop.”

“Stop, start, hot, cold,” Jimmy hissed. “What is it with you women?” I’m sorry.

Abby put her head against his neck, holding him close. “Just slow down, okay?” Maybe he had been thinking about her as much as she had been thinking about him. They could go to her home, get Claudia who was now sleeping on the couch and put her in her own bed and -

Jimmy once again began pulling at her clothing.

“Stop I said!”

Jimmy rolled away from her.

“What’s wrong with you?” Abby cried. He was hurting her and he didn’t even care.

“Just thought you’d show me a warmer homecoming,” Jimmy replied, his voice hard.

“Claudia’s here.” Abby moved off the bed, righting her clothing. She couldn’t understand his behavior.

Jimmy gave Claudia’s sleeping form a disdainful look. I’m sorry.

“Please.” Abby saw the look and winced visibly. But she had to know what was causing this behavior. So she moved close once more. “Please tell me what happened. Why are you acting like this?”

“Did you ever think it might be because of you?” Jimmy snapped.

“Me?” Abby whispered, stopping her forward movement.

“You and that kid of yours.”

“But you said . . .” Abby began then clamped her lips shut. She had forgotten the fights. This was exactly the way she and Richard fought. Everything was her fault, the many meatless meals, the gambling losses, even the drought, they were all her fault. How could she have forgotten? The things that attracted her to Jimmy were the same things that had attracted her to Richard. Yet she had conveniently neglected to remember the bad parts.

She should be thanking Jimmy for reminding her, but the pain in her chest was too big for that now. She didn’t even think she could speak if she wanted to.

Jimmy grasped her arm and led her to the door.

“At least let me get Claudia,” Abby said, trying desperately not to cry. She would not let him see her cry.

Jimmy stalked away, watching with his arms crossed as Abby lifted Claudia and walked to the door. They were going to have to walk all the way home. I’m sorry.

As Abby stumbled into the street, she felt Jimmy behind her. She turned to look at him. Was he drunk? Why was he doing this? “Jimmy.” She had to try, once more at least.

Jimmy ignored her, striding away in the direction of the saloon.

Abby adjusted Claudia and hurried after him. “Wait, just one minute, please.”

Jimmy stopped. “What?”

“Where are you going?” She didn’t even know why she asked that question. But right now, it was probably the only one Jimmy would answer.

“The saloon.”

Abby recoiled visibly.

“Well,” Jimmy drew out the word. “You weren’t willing.”

“That’s all I was? Just a warm body?” Abby cried.

Jimmy kissed her hard. “You weren’t very warm now, were ya, baby?” I love you

Abby fled into the darkness and Jimmy could hear her sobs.

He turned and walked slowly back into the house. Sinking down into his bed, he picked up the dress Abby had been sewing and pressed it into his face. It smelled like both of them.

Chapter Fourteen

Teaspoon threw the door of Jimmy’s home open and began bellowing. “What in tarnation is wrong with you?” Teaspoon glanced at the table, which was littered with half-empty bottles. But other than that, Jimmy’s place was in reasonably good shape. Of course, it hadn’t been that long since Abby had been here.

Jimmy groaned, turning over so as to block some of the sunlight streaming through the open door. He had been in his bed for a day and a half now, drinking himself sick. The last thing he needed was the bright light and Teaspoon’s loud voice.

“Abby just told me she can’t work here anymore! And when I asked her why, she started crying. What the hell did you do to her?” Teaspoon yelled.

“I showed her what I was,” Jimmy shouted finally sitting up. He soon regretted that action as his head began spinning so wildly he thought for certain he would be sick.

“What’s that, a good-for-nothing jackass?” Teaspoon shouted right back. Then he stopped his tirade, realizing that was exactly what happened.

The marshal moved to the chair next to the bed and sat in it. “Something happened, didn’t it?” he asked. “Did you get called out in Hastings? Did someone recognize you?”

Jimmy laughed bitterly. “Someone recognized me alright.”

Teaspoon took off his hat, depositing it on the nightstand and settled back in his chair, prepared to listen. “And?” he said expectantly.

“I never should have started something I couldn’t finish,” Jimmy said. He wasn’t capable of having anything even close to resembling a normal relationship with a woman, let alone a woman with a small child.

“What happened in Hastings?” Teaspoon asked impatiently.

“I ran into Agnes Lake,” Jimmy said finally as he saw the marshal would not be leaving soon. And truth be told, he wanted to tell someone what had happened. He needed to. The short time he had spent with Abby and Claudia had made him realize how alone he was. Maybe he always knew it and that was what prompted his return to Rock Creek. He hated what he had become. Change was never easy for him, but knowing he was finally at the bottom made it a little easier to want to climb up again.

Lashing out at his family was one thing. They knew him and they had other places to turn to. But Abby. . . Jimmy winced, knowing how badly he had hurt her.

“Who is Agnes Lake?”

“A woman from Abilene.”

“You were involved with her?” Teaspoon hazarded a guess.

“No.”

“You had it out with her husband?”

“I killed her husband.”

Teaspoon didn’t flinch at the words or the bitter tone. “Why?”

“She was married to a man named Neil O’Day. He’s the one buried in Deadwood,” Jimmy said softly.

“I don’t understand this one bit.”

“After my deputy, Mike Williams, was killed, I kinda crawled into a hole,” Jimmy explained.

“Well I’m shocked,” Teaspoon announced, quickly silencing himself as Jimmy looked at him, annoyed. “Sorry.” He had thought a little levity might help, but apparently not.

“And this O’Day fella went around saying he was Wild Bill Hickok. His wife said he didn’t want the reputation of a famous lawman to be tarnished,” Jimmy continued.

“And she is blaming you for his death,” Teaspoon concluded. He raised a brow at Jimmy. “You buying into that crap?”

Jimmy flopped back down onto the bed. “She’s right.”

“How do you figure that?” Teaspoon asked, his voice beginning to rise in anger once more.

“How many people have been hurt on account of me?” Jimmy yelled, instantly regretting the loudness of his voice.

“How many people have you helped?” Teaspoon bellowed. “Don’t that count for nothing?” He lowered his voice and continued. “We all have done things we regret. We all have hurt other people, but you keep doing it on purpose. And you know who that hurts most of all?” He didn’t bother to wait for an answer. “You!”

“If I,” Jimmy stopped, his voice breaking. “If I married Abby, she’d be miserable.”

“Yeah, so you keep saying. But tell me this, you think she’s happy now?”

“She’ll get over me.”

“She probably will,” Teaspoon agreed readily, a little too readily for Jimmy’s liking. “But will you get over her?”

“Does it matter?” Jimmy whispered.

Teaspoon rose to his feet and started to make some coffee. “It matters to me, son.”

Chapter Fifteen

“Supper is ready,” Lou announced. She began laying the plates. “Why don’t you go clean up?”

Jimmy glanced around the McCloud home. He had moved in this afternoon. Kid had come by and packed up all his clothes and ordered him to come with him. Ordered him! But Jimmy had meekly followed Kid to his ranch, his gut too twisted with both relief and rage to fully object. When he got to the ranch, he had dug holes and split wood for the rest of the afternoon.

As Jimmy washed his hands, he smiled. The aching muscles, the blistered palms, the tired feet, they all felt so good to him.

“Uncle Jimmy,” Noah McCloud shouted, pushing out a chair as he saw Jimmy enter the dining room. “Sit here.” And Jimmy complied.

“Hungry?” Kid asked, passing Jimmy a plate of biscuits.

“Starved,” Jimmy admitted.

It felt good here, the arguing, the laughing and teasing. This was what he craved, normalcy, a home, a family. It was also what he so desperately needed and this time his family was giving it to him.

It was late that evening Jimmy laid down in the guest bedroom, his bedroom now, and stared at the ceiling. It was difficult sleeping most nights, but tonight he was certain he would sleep like a baby.

Lou opened the door and poked her head in. “Can I come in?”

Jimmy sat up. “Sure.” He briefly considered pulling up the bedsheet, but then decided it didn’t matter. Lou had seen him in his longjohns a thousand times before.

Lou, wrapped in a robe, sat on the edge of the bed. “I just wanted to say how glad I am that you’re here.”

“I’m the one who’s glad, grateful, really,” Jimmy said.

“Hey,” Kid popped his head in. “Can I come in, or is this private?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Come on in, it’s your house.”

Kid sat in a rocking chair, near the window. “It’s your place too, for as long as you want it to be.”

“You’re family, Jimmy. Don’t you ever forget that,” Lou declared. “I’m just sorry we did.”

“Sorry?” Jimmy frowned. “No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for that night at dinner.” He straightened his shoulders, knowing he should have done this a long time ago. “I never meant to throw that in your face, about what happened between me and Lou.” He fixed his eyes on Kid. “It was all me, not Lou.”

“Hush up, Jimmy,” Lou chided him. “I was grown then, I knew what I was doing. You didn’t force me to do anything.” She gave Kid a small smile. “You helped me make up my mind, about a lot of things.”

Kid watched his wife for a moment. They had come a long way since then. But even now the spectre of Lou and Jimmy could make him see red. “I was ready to kill you that night,” he admitted with a small chuckle.

“And I deserved it,” Jimmy said smiling. Kid didn’t have to make this easy on him but he was and for that Jimmy was grateful. “I was just feeling sorry for myself. You and Lou, well you done good. You made a life, you have three terrific kids and a ranch. You worked hard and it shows. I was just jealous.”

Kid clapped Jimmy on the shoulder. “You know, that’s probably the nicest thing you ever said to me.” “It’s the truth,” Jimmy said, turning serious. “You should be proud. Hell, I should be proud. Lou was right, we are family. Family don’t turn on one another.”

“We left you and you left us,” Lou interjected. “But that’s behind us now.”

“We’re in this together,” Kid added.

“Together,” Jimmy whispered.

Chapter Sixteen

Abby pressed her hand to her forehead. She only had a few hours until she had to pick up Claudia from school. So she had to decide quickly. Actually she had already decided, she just had to work up the nerve to act on her decision.

The bank owner had been generous enough to give her another week. But she knew that wasn’t enough time for her to raise the money. Even when she was working at Jimmy Hickok’s place she was barely breaking even. Now that she had quit, she was simply unable to pay her mortgage. The bank would seize her property and once again both Claudia and she would be homeless, forced to leave and try to start all over.

Abby couldn’t bear another move. Claudia was in school now, she had friends and Miss Hughes was a kind and caring teacher. A bit of a flirt, Abby decided, but then again it didn’t matter. She was good to Claudia, good to all the children, that’s what really mattered.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. How could she look in the mirror at herself? But then if her house was seized, how could she look at Claudia? She had no one to turn to, no one.

Abby slowly removed her apron and set it on the counter. She had finished cleaning the rooms and starting the preparations for dinner. This was normally the time she would use to prepare for tomorrow’s work or talk to the cook, an entertaining older woman. But not today. Today she had something else to take care of.

She took each step up slowly and deliberately. How many women were reduced to this?

She paused at the door and knocked.

“Missus Morton,” Douglas MacCallister smiled. And Abby shuddered at his smile.

“Mister MacCallister,” she managed.

“Come in,” Douglas said smoothly. “Can I pour you a drink?”

“Yes, please,” Abby whispered. A drink might make things easier. *~*~*

“Why don’t you go lie down?” Lou said, patting Jimmy on the shoulder. She grinned at him. “You just ain’t used to hard work.”

“Hard work!” Jimmy sputtered. Kid was merciless. He worked Jimmy harder than most men worked their mules. But when he was herding cattle or hammering nails, he didn’t have time to think and Kid knew that.

“Get some rest and I’ll wake you ‘fore dinner,” Lou said. She considered asking Jimmy to go to the school with her, get him used to the idea of going to town, but then dropped it. He might run into Abby and she didn’t think either one of them were ready for that.

Jimmy fell into the bed, his eyes closing. He was exhausted. *~*~*

Jimmy stirred, someone was slipping into bed with him. He opened his eyes, unsure of where he was then.

A slender body wrapped her limbs around him. Jimmy tried to sit up quickly, pushing in vain at the woman. And when he realized who she was, he let out a loud yelp. “What the hell?”

“Heaven, actually,” Jensen said smoothly.

Jimmy stared at her. She hadn’t aged a day. She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But she was dead. Dead!

He rubbed his eyes. He was dreaming. Yeah that was it. He was dreaming.

“You’re not dreaming,” Jensen said.

“But you’re dead!”

“I still am.”

“Then how, how can you be here?”

“Didn’t Buck tell you I visited him once?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. Jensen had come to Buck to help him, not take him with her. “So what, it’s my turn now?”

“I want to show you something,” Jensen answered.

Chapter Seventeen

“I don’t understand why you won’t even talk to me,” Abby cried. She took a step backward, moving toward the door of Jimmy’s home at the way station.

“Talk? You wanna talk?” Jimmy saw himself then, raising a glass in Abby’s direction.

“Yes.”

“Fine. Tell me, did you make your mortgage this month?”

Abby froze.

“I can give you the money,” he continued. “If you visit me.” The meaning behind his words was abundantly clear.

“I... I...,” Abby stammered.

Jimmy ran a finger down her cheek. “I ain’t near as old and as ugly as that MacCallister fella, now am I?”

“Don’t touch me,” Abby cried.

“You still need money, now don’t you?”

Abby’s eyes darted wildly. She stared at the floor, the door, the window, anything but Jimmy.
“You didn’t used to mind my kisses,” he continued.

Abby fixed her eyes upon him. “How much?”

“Ten dollars.”

“A hundred,” Abby countered.

Jimmy laughed. “Fifty.” He took her by the hand and pulled her into his bed. He saw it, he felt it, as if was happening to him. Jensen’s vision was relentless. He saw himself making love to Abby, he felt the warmth of her body, the sweetness of her breath, the softness of her hair. And he felt his love for her.

He was lying beside her, on top of her, underneath her. He gazed into her eyes, his fingers playing with her long hair.

Abby looked up at him. “I love you,” she whispered.

Jimmy saw himself hurry off the bed. “Is that gonna cost me extra?”

“Shut up!” Abby shouted. She jumped off the bed and dressed rapidly. Then she held out her trembling hand.

He saw his hand place the money on Abby’s palm.

Abby clutched the money tightly then ran out the door, sobbing.

“Wait,” Jimmy called out but the Jimmy in Jensen’s vision remained silent.

He saw time pass. He saw himself still at the old way station. Still a gambler, still alone.

He saw Abby then. In another town, with another man. The man was beaming, holding Claudia’s hand as they walked through the street. Behind them was Abby. She was scolding a little boy for being too slow, but she was smiling at the child, her eyes filled with love. It was then Jimmy saw the boy. The boy was his spitting image! Abby had his child. And she never told him. She had left town, left him and started over. She looked happy with this other man, obviously her new husband. But as he looked closer, he saw that Abby’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. Then he saw the man scold Claudia sharply when a young man tipped his hat to her. Claudia was beautiful, any father should be proud. Jimmy wanted to shout at the man. There was no reason to be so harsh.

Jimmy sat upright, he couldn’t take any more of the dream. “What the hell does all this mean?”

“It’s the future,” Jensen answered calmly.

“The future?” Jimmy yelled.

“One possible future,” Jensen replied. “Nothing is set in stone. One event changes the next. Lizzie’s presence led to my death. And you leaving Rock Creek with Buck created a whole new chain of events. Then you changed things again.”

“By not going to Deadwood?”

Jensen nodded.

“But why would I do that to Abby?” Jimmy whispered. Would he really sink that low?

“You still want her,” Jensen said. “You want her so badly you would do anything to have her.”

“Not like that,” Jimmy grumbled. “She ain’t a saloon whore.”

Jensen laughed at him. “You think you can hurt me? I’m dead, remember? Nothing can hurt me, not anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” Jimmy said. “I wouldn’t do that to her. It was MacCallister who offered her money in the first place.” He frowned, feeling uneasy. There had to be a reason Jensen had shown him this vision. Besides making him realize how much he still loved Abby.

“One event can change everything,” Jensen replied. She kissed his forehead as her form grew more blurry. “Remember that.”

Chapter Eighteen

Jimmy ran down the stairs of the McCloud home. He had to get to town. He wasn’t really sure why, but he had to see Abby. That vision would not leave him. Something was very wrong with her, but he didn’t know what and seeing her was the only way he could think of stopping his stomach from twisting into knots.

Noah and Natalie rushed into the house, diving into the cookies on the counter, Mary slowly brought up the rear. Lou quickly followed her children in.

“Three,” Lou said loudly. “Three each then go outside and finish your chores.”

Noah raced outside, his pocket bulging with what Jimmy was certain more than three cookies. Natalie ran upstairs and Mary sat down at the table.

“What’s wrong with you?” Lou asked her daughter, studying her hangdog expression.

“You promised that Claudia could come over today,” Mary said, her lower lip stuck out.

Jimmy stopped in his tracks, as his ears pricked up.

Lou handed Mary one more cookie and gave Jimmy a push out the door.

“What?” Jimmy asked quickly as Lou followed him out.

“Claudia was supposed to come over to play,” Lou told him.

“So?”

“Abby changed her mind at the last minute.”

“‘Cause I’m here?” Jimmy said slowly.

Lou shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “No.” She paused. “I don’t know what happened, she wouldn’t say much, but there was a big red mark on her cheek and she was holding her arm funny.” Lou knew someone had hurt her and the expression on Abby’s face had frightened her most of all. It was the same look she saw in the mirror after Wicks had attacked her.
Jimmy swore under his breath. Then he tightened his gunbelt and ran his fingers over his colts. He was too late.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” Lou said quietly. “But Abby don’t need those guns of yours.”

“They’re not for Abby.” They were for Douglas MacCallister. Jimmy understood the vision now, and he kicked himself for being too late.

“Can’t that wait?” Lou asked. “Can’t you put her first, for once?” When Jimmy looked away, Lou touched his arm, understanding. It was easier for him to go after MacCallister than deal with whatever happened to Abby. But if he wanted a life with her then he was going to have to start getting used to putting his family first. But maybe he wasn’t ready for that yet. “I could go see her, if you want.”

“No,” Jimmy said harshly. Far more harshly than he intended. “No,” he said softly this time. “I’ll go.” He stepped off the porch. And when he turned back, he saw Lou smiling at him.

“Um, Lou,” he said. “Where does she live?”

Chapter Nineteen

Jimmy followed Lou’s directions to a small house with a large plot, probably for vegetables in front and a ramshackle barn to the side.

“Afternoon, Mister Hickok,” Claudia called out when she saw Jimmy gallop into her yard. She was struggling with a bucket, the water sloshing over the sides.

Jimmy dismounted and walked his horse to the house. “Afternoon, Claudia. How was school?”

“Alright, I guess.”

“How’s your ma?” Jimmy asked carefully, tying his horse to a tree, then taking the bucket from Claudia’s hands.

“Ma’s sick. She came home and went straight to bed,” Claudia said softly. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and Jimmy saw then that her eyes were red. Claudia had been crying.

He put the bucket down and sat on his haunches, so he could see her, face to face. “People get sick all the time.”

“She ain’t never sick,” Claudia said and seeing her normally joyous face so sad caused Jimmy’s chest to tighten.

“I’m betting she’s gonna be just fine,” Jimmy said.
Claudia just nodded and Jimmy could plainly see that she didn’t believe him.

“Come on, maybe I can fix you both something to eat,” Jimmy told the girl, straightening up. He took Claudia’s hand and began leading her to the house. But he had to turn around and pick up the bucket when he remembered it.

“You can cook?” Claudia asked in disbelief.

“I make a mean porridge,” Jimmy smiled.

Suddenly Claudia flung her arms around his legs. “I’m glad you’re here.”

As Jimmy reached down to hug the little girl with one arm, he whispered, “so am I.” And he held onto Claudia until she finally let go of him.

As the two began walking once more, Claudia asked, “can you really cook?”

Jimmy pushed the door of the house open. “Just wait and see.”

As he glanced around, he realized that this was exactly what he pictured Abby’s home to be like. It was just like her, small, neat, and full of character as she had framed Claudia’s pictures and placed them on the wall and there were vases full of flowers everywhere adding color to the room so as to disguise the lack of furniture. There was one couch and one table, both pieces of furniture had obviously seen better days. In the kitchen there was a small square table with four chairs crowded around it.

“Why don’t you go wash up,” Jimmy told Claudia. “And I’ll go check on your ma.”

“Okay,” Claudia said, rushing to the sink.

Jimmy watched her for a second then made his way into the living room. He saw a door just off the side and assumed that was Abby’s bedroom. When he pushed the door opened, he knew he had guessed right.

He saw Abby lying in the bed, fully dressed, cradling her left arm against her. Her face was deathly pale, except for the bright red mark on her cheek.

“What happened?” Jimmy asked, hurrying to the bed.

Abby opened her eyes then closed them once more.

Jimmy touched her cheek. The mark felt hot to his touch.

“Is she gonna die?” Claudia whispered, standing in the doorway.

“No,” Jimmy said softly. “Can you go get me a cold washcloth?”

Claudia nodded and quickly left the room.

Jimmy then turned his attention to Abby’s arm. He pushed the sleeve of her blouse up and examined it. But the instant he tried to turn it, Abby cried out in pain.

Jimmy’s fingers explored her arm and found that her elbow was dislocated. He cursed loudly. Why didn’t she go to the doctor? How could she even walk from town to here?

“Abby,” Jimmy said loudly. “Listen.” And when she opened her eyes, he continued. “Its gonna hurt like hell, but I have to do it. I’m gonna pull your arm so I can pop the joint back into place. Okay?”

Abby simply closed her eyes.

Jimmy set one foot on the floor and braced the other against the wall. He grasped Abby’s forearm and began to pull.

Abby screamed, but the second the joint popped into place, her face relaxed. The pain was gone.

Claudia came running into the bedroom and handed Jimmy the cloth. “Is she okay?”

“She will be,” Jimmy replied. He placed the compress on her cheek and bent down and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be right back. I’m gonna get Claudia something to eat.”

Chapter Twenty

Jimmy finished washing the last of the dishes. Claudia was already tucked in bed. He was certain she had fallen asleep before her head had hit the pillow, she was so worn out from worrying.

Jimmy felt his anger grow. Abby shouldn’t put her daughter through that ordeal. Any sane person would have gone to the doctor. But no, not Abby. She didn’t need anyone. She could buy a house, raise a daughter, work two jobs and still come out smiling.

Throwing the towel on the counter, Jimmy hurried into the bedroom. But before he even reached her door, his anger dissipated, replaced by worry. What had MacCallister done to her?

As he stood by the bed, he saw the bowl of porridge sitting on the floor, uneaten, probably untouched. He had asked Claudia to bring it in to her as he wasn’t sure if Abby wanted to see him. He stood awkwardly beside the bed, watching her, as he had no place to sit.

Abby opened her eyes then. She had been awake the whole time. Sleep never came easy to her and tonight it was clear that it would not arrive at all. “You can sit,” she said, scooching over on the bed to make room for Jimmy. He made her nervous, towering over her like that.

Jimmy sat down, placing his hand on her elbow. It felt right. “It’s gonna hurt tomorrow.” He stroked her arm and then asked, “you wanna tell me what happened?”

“No.”

Jimmy nodded.

As Abby struggled to sit up, using her bad arm, she winced in pain. Jimmy gathered her against him, holding her close.

“But I should,” Abby continued. “I owe you that much.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I do. You came in here, took care of Claudia.” Abby paused. “Of me.”

“I owed it to you,” Jimmy whispered. “What I said . . .” He didn’t even know if he could explain his behavior after his return from Hastings to her. “What I did . . .” His voice broke. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t,” Abby shook her head. She didn’t want to hear the apologies and the promises. She had heard them all before, from Richard. This time she was older and wiser, she would not be sucked into that world again. “It’s done.”

She took a deep breath, hoping Jimmy would sit quiet and listen to her story. “I didn’t have enough for this month’s mortgage.” She tucked her legs against her as Jimmy slid over, draping an arm around her. She placed her head on his shoulder and held her injured arm against her. Jimmy put his own hand over her elbow.

“So I decided to take Mister MacCallister up on his offer,” Abby said simply. “I went to his room. He gave me a drink. He took off his pants.” She stopped. Waiting. But there was no reaction from Jimmy, at least none she could discern. He was holding himself utterly still, except for his jaw. Jimmy’s jaw was clenched tightly.

“It was then I knew I couldn’t do it. It was so stupid, selling myself for a house. So what if we had to move? We could move into the boarding house, we don’t need to live here. I just wanted Claudia to have a nice house. I grew up in a nice house with a mother and a father. I can’t give her a father. But if hers was anything like mine she’d be better off without one.” Abby glanced at Jimmy, who pressed his cheek against her hair. “My mother and he fought like cats and dogs, day and night. They should have never gotten married.”

“Mine neither,” Jimmy told her.

Abby flashed him a brief smile. “So I told him I was sorry and I tried to leave. That’s when he slapped me, hard.” She touched her cheek, hoping she wouldn’t have a shiner tomorrow. “I pushed him away but he grabbed me. I guess that’s when he hurt my arm.”

“Why didn’t you go to a doctor?” Jimmy whispered.

“I was in shock, I guess,” Abby said. “I don’t even remember going to the school and getting Claudia. I couldn’t feel anything.”

“Did he hurt you?” He couldn’t bring himself to say the words - Did he rape you?

“No,” Abby shook her head. “Cook came in.” Abby suppressed a hysterical giggle. “She knocked him out cold with a frying pan.” Abby began laughing then and no matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to stop. Thank heaven for Cook and her suspicious nature. When Abby didn’t show up for her usual chat, Cook went looking for her. And when the clerk told her that Abby went upstairs, Cook put two and two together. Apparently that lech had even made a pass at her.

Jimmy wrapped his arms around her even tighter then. He didn’t know this cook person, but right now he would have gladly kissed her.

“She dragged me out of that room and told me to go home. So I went to school, got Claudia and went home,” Abby finished, her laughter turning to tears. And for a while she was content to lay in Jimmy’s arms and cry.

When she had no tears left to shed, she raised her good arm and brushed her fingertips against Jimmy’s face. “And now you’re here.

“I’m so sorry for dragging you into this whole mess. You’d think I’d know better by now,” Abby said with a sad smile. “But I never seem to learn from my mistakes.”

“We all make mistakes,” Jimmy said quietly.

“But I’ve pretty much done everything wrong. I ran off and got married when I was just sixteen. And then to top it all off, I married a man who never should have been saddled with a wife.”

“You’re blaming yourself for getting married?” Jimmy asked incredulously. “If he didn’t wanna get married, he never should have asked you.”

She looked at Jimmy. “It’s not so simple. He married me ‘cause I was expecting.” She rubbed her eyes wearily. She realized she was being awfully free with this information, but she didn’t think Jimmy would look down on her. He wasn’t looking down on her for her willingness to sell herself for money. Plus she was simply too tired to try to pretend.

She was so young and silly, thinking that the sun rose and set on Richard Morton’s broad shoulders. And it was this infatuation that made her jump into bed with him without a backward glance. He came from a wealthy family but had left them to make his own fortune, something that made Abby swoon with the romance of it. Richard was handsome, exciting and he wanted her. What else was there to think about?

“I thought he was just as happy as I was about that baby, then I lost it,” she said. Maybe it was Jimmy’s silence or maybe it was just a way to remain in his arms or maybe she just plain wanted him to know, whatever it was, it gave Abby the courage to continue. “And Richard really didn’t seem to mind, I just didn’t see it, not till later.

“After that we started moving around. Richard tried prospecting for gold, gambling, working in saloons. All kinds of things that sounded so exciting to him. And then I told him I was expecting again. So he gave it all up and bought a little farm.”

Abby shook her head. It was still so hard to even imagine, she could scarcely believe it when she saw it. Richard a farmer! “He was a terrible farmer.” It had been Abby who was the farmer and she wasn’t any good at it either. It was just too much for a woman with a small child in tow. Richard tried or at least he gave the pretense of trying. But when the crop failed, it had all been her fault. And for a while she had believed him. She went to work in town and they made it through the winter.

“And then he died. He was fixing the plow, something spooked the oxen and he got tangled and somehow got dragged to death,” Abby continued. “Richard always wanted to be well known, but he died before he got a chance to do anything noteworthy, and now no one remembers him, except me.”

“It’s not your fault. We all make bad choices once in awhile,” Jimmy told her. Jeeze, now he was quoting Teaspoon, not once but twice. But the old man was right. “And you weren’t the only one responsible for making that baby.”

“I know,” Abby said slowly. “But I just keep on making mistakes.” She had to try thinking about the consequences of her actions. Buying a house, MacCallister, thinking she could have had a relationship with this man, the man who was holding her so tightly now. All of these actions could have adverse consequences. She couldn’t be the silly girl she once was, always ruled by her heart. She would use her head from now on.

“I know the feeling,” Jimmy said softly, so softly that Abby didn’t hear him. He touched her shoulder. “Why don’t you get some sleep?”

Abby nodded.

“I can stay here, if you want,” Jimmy offered. When he saw her hesitate, he added, “on the couch.”

“Thanks,” Abby said, yawning. It would make her feel safer. She gave Jimmy a small smile. “For everything.”
Jimmy rose from the bed and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re welcome.” And for one brief instant he felt Abby cling to him, but then she released him, her eyes fixed on his back as he walked slowly from the room.

Chapter Twenty - One

Abby sat straight up in her bed upon hearing voices. It was then she realized that Claudia was awake and Jimmy was with her

She leaned on one arm and winced. The pain in her arm brought it all rushing back to her. But she didn’t have time to dwell on that now. She had to get Claudia to school and get herself to work.

Jumping out of bed, Abby dressed quickly and rushed from the bedroom. She saw her daughter sitting at the table and Jimmy at the stove, stirring something, wearing her apron.

“Ma,” Claudia cried out happily. She jumped up from her seat at the table and hugged her mother. “You feeling better?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Mister Hickok made eggs,” Claudia informed her leading her to the table. And when Abby stood by the table, Claudia whispered, “his eggs are worse than his porridge, but I didn’t tell him.”

“I won’t either,” Abby whispered back. “Where did you get the eggs?” she asked Jimmy. She knew she didn’t have any.

“He stole them,” Claudia giggled. “We snuck over to the Brand place and took ‘em right out of the henhouse.”

Abby stared at Jimmy.

“I’ll pay the Brands for ‘em,” he told her, sheepishly. Jimmy set a plate full of eggs and toast in front her. Abby’s cupboards were bare and he was hungry thus he decided to make a quick trip to the Brand place.

“I don’t have time,” Abby began.

Jimmy stared at her. The lunatic thought she was going to work. “Sit down and eat,” he ordered her.

“I can’t.”

Jimmy gave her his very best gunfighter stare, but Abby didn’t even notice, she was too busy trying to get Claudia out the door.

“Claudia,” Jimmy said. “Can you wait outside?”

“She’s gonna be late,” Abby protested.

“I’ll take her on my horse,” Jimmy said. “She’ll be early.”

Claudia let out a squeal of delight and rushed outside.

“Thank you for everything,” Abby told him. “Setting my arm, listening to my sad stories, and the eggs.”

“You need to stay at home and rest that arm,” Jimmy informed her.

Abby laughed. “You know it might be easier to take you seriously if you weren’t wearing my apron.”

Jimmy jerked the apron over his head and threw it on the table. “Do you even remember what happened to you yesterday?”

Abby immediately grew silent. “Every detail.”

“Then how the hell can you even consider going to work?”

“I have bills to pay.”

Jimmy raked a hand through his hair, his face filled with frustration. She really thought she could go back to work. She could barely straighten her arm and he was positive she wouldn’t be able to carry anything with it. And then there was MacCallister.

“I have to face him some day,” Abby said, reading his expression.

“I can take care of you,” Jimmy said softly. He was shocked when Abby slapped him.

“Just ‘cause I went with MacCallister, don’t mean I’d do the same for you,” Abby snapped.

Jimmy recalled the words from Jensen’s vision. I ain’t near as old and as ugly as that MacCallister fella, now am I?

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Jimmy said quickly. “I meant... I mean... I um... I wanna marry you.” He stopped then. Abby was laughing.

“Marry me? You gonna become a farmer too?” Abby was holding her sides now. She tried hard to stop the giggles from escaping. “I know you mean well, but you ain’t suited for marriage, anymore than Richard was.”

She thought she knew him so well, Jimmy thought irritably. She had no idea who he even was. Once upon a time, he had been a respected member of the community, a Pony Express rider, a deputy, a marshal.

Jimmy stalked away from her. He grabbed his hat and his gunbelt and moved toward the door.

Abby put her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed. It’s just I can’t do this again. You and I are in very different places. I have a child to consider. You have only yourself. You can do whatever you want, go wherever you please, live your life just for yourself. I can’t.” And she was foolish for ever thinking they could be together.

“But I want us to be friends.” She rested her head against his shoulder. “I need all the friends I can get.”

“Will you take my money then?” Jimmy asked quietly, now regretting his impulsive proposal. What Abby was saying was logical, but why did it hurt so much?

“I can’t,” Abby told him. “I haven’t even paid back your last loan to me. I’m gonna sell the house.” She stood straight and spoke quickly to silence Jimmy’s protests. “It’s foolish to keep this place. I can’t afford it. I’ll sell it and move into the boarding house. It makes perfect sense, it’s closer to work, closer to school and I can afford it with just one job.” Just because she loved this little house didn’t mean she should live here.

“Will you at least let me take you to work?” Jimmy asked.

Abby smiled. “No thanks. I’ll walk.” Her arm did ache and she didn’t want Jimmy to know it. And if she sat on that horse, he would. “You can take Claudia though.”

Jimmy raised a brow. “Thanks.”

*~*~*

“You gonna do anything about MacCallister?” Kid asked. Jimmy had returned to the ranch late that morning, throwing himself into his work. It was only now the two men had a chance to talk as they sat under a tree, eating the lunch Lou had packed.

“Don’t know what,” Jimmy admitted glumly. Going to the law would force Abby to tell Teaspoon what she had been doing in MacCallister’s room. And much as Jimmy would like to call him out, he couldn’t. Douglas MacCallister was still Rachel’s brother-in-law, Ryan’s brother, Carrie and Adam’s uncle. Whether he liked it or not, the man was family.

“All I can really do is make sure he stays away from her,” Jimmy added.

“How ‘bout Abby?” Kid asked. He knew Jimmy had fallen and fallen hard for Abby. But things just didn’t seem to be working out the way his friend had hoped.

“She said she wants us to be friends,” Jimmy said softly.

“Friends,” Kid said, shaking his head. What an awful phrase - let’s be friends- was.

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