The old homestead looks the same. The same as it did last winter, when I told myself I’d never return. And the same as it did the summer before that, when I’d made the same promise.
Now it’s summer again, and a riot of wildflowers has sprung up against the fence, almost covering the busted wagon wheel still slumping against the crooked slats. The freshly white-washed boards of the house gleam in the early afternoon sunshine, and the dust kicks up in gritty clouds and hovers around my boots as I tether my horse near the *water trough* and swing open the gate and enter the yard. The gate still squeaks, too.
Then the porch door thumps open and a whirling dervish streaks across the sandy ground, launching herself into my arms in a flash of red gingham and rosy cheeks and scarlet ribbons. I toss Molly into the air, her braids flying behind her, and catch and hug her close as Becky winds her way around my legs, giggling, crying out “Unky Jimmy! Unky Jimmy!“ impatiently, chubby arms outstretched, anxious for her turn.
They smell of gingerbread and untouched meadows and fruit fresh from the vine.
I raise my head at the squeal of un-oiled hinges to see Lou on the porch, wiping her hands on a flour-splattered towel and watching me silently. I put Molly on the ground and skim my fingers across Becky’s mop of shaggy hair and wait.
“Jimmy,” Lou finally says.
Strange how a man can practice what he’s going to say for a hundred miles, and when it comes down to it all that comes out is “hey Lou”. But no stranger than a man undertaking a 100-mile journey and denying that he’s doing it the whole time, I guess.
“Well.” She shakes out the cloth, squinting down at me standing in the sunlight with her children scampering at my feet. “Well,” she says again. And then she smiles. “What are you waitin’ for? Come on, and get washed up. It’s almost time for supper.”
I grin back and let the girls take my hands and lead me inside.
It’s good to be home.
Trail dust has got a way of burrowing into a man’s hide, and nothing but a good, long, hot soak in a tub was going to erase all traces of it from my skin. But I do the best I can with the little washtub in the spare bedroom, and take a few extra minutes to slick back my hair and shave off the straggly growth that’s covered my face. When I’m done, I almost don’t recognize myself in the mirror.
I blink away the water dripping into my eyes from my hair as I study my reflection. Almost a stranger. But of course, that makes sense. Because it’s Jimmy looking back at me now.
Then Lou’s calling me for dinner, and I don’t have time to think about that any more.
The table is filled to bursting with food, and I load up my plate without embarrassment. First, Lou and Kid are family. Second, a man spends as much time travelling as I do, he learns to take advantage of a nice home-cooked meal when he gets it.
The table is filled to bursting with chatter, too, and I sit back and shovel food into my mouth and just let it flow around me like water from a crystal clear stream. Molly talks about her role in the school play, and Becky about the cookies she helped to make, and the baby squirms for her own bit of attention amidst the hustle and bustle. Kid teases Teresa about her crush on the new bank clerk, and I bite back a laugh when Teresa darts a look at me from under long lashes and turns bright red. She’s got to be 14 or 15 now, and pretty as a willow tree. Not much younger than Lou was when she joined the Express, and if that’s not a sobering thought I don’t know what is. Only Jeremiah doesn’t partake in the conversation, watching me instead with dark eyes and lips set in a grim line. Probably he remembers what happened last winter. Probably he heard the raised voices and knows one of them was mine.
“That’s what you need, Jimmy,” Kid says.
I glance up to find Kid grinning at me, and realize the conversation has gone on around me while I’ve been dwelling on the past.
Kid snorts in exasperation at my blank expression. “A woman, Jimmy! Somebody to put you in your place when you need it, and hold you at night when you need that too.”
Kid looks over lovingly at Lou, and she meets his eyes with a soft, tender smile. He reaches over to stroke her hand, and Jeremiah makes that noise of disgust that’s particular to young men seeing their parental figures acting like love-struck kids, and even the baby stops squishing peas between her tiny fingers to watch the display. I duck my head to my plate, my fork skating over the mashed potatoes, and try to pretend that the last woman who shared my bed wasn’t a two-dollar whore with bad teeth who wanted me to sign her copy of “The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok” when we were through.
Kid’s looking at me expectantly, so I shrug. “Maybe someday, Kid.”
It’s the answer he wants. But my eyes meet Lou’s before she gets up to start clearing the plates, and we both know that it’s a lie.
“Stop fussin’ over me, Kid!”
Lou, spirited as ever, swats at Kid’s hands, but the Kid wouldn’t have survived this long in the marriage game without learning his way around that. He resolutely leads her to the rocking chair and gives her a teeny push, plopping her backwards into the chair before dusting his hands in front of him, as if he’s just completed a particular loathsome chore. He rocks back on his heels, only slightly favouring his left leg, and I remember him riding back into town in the spring of ‘62, looking gaunt and pale and lurching from his horse like he was half-dead. He probably was. Looking at him now, lean and muscled from working the fields, with just the hint of grey starting to creep into his hair, and you’d never guess he almost didn’t make it.
“Now you know what the doc said, Lou,” he begins, and I feel my eyes get wide.
“Again?” I squeak out.
Lou laughs at my dumbfounded expression, and for the first time I notice the little marks around her eyes. Crow’s feet, is what my mama used to call them. Seeing them on Lou makes my stomach flip a little. She’s getting old. Hell, we’re all getting old, and I know she’s got children of her own now, but in my mind’s eye she’s still the pretty little girl who danced with me in the streets of Willow Springs. Guess that won’t change.
Lou pats her flat stomach. “Again! We just found out last week.”
“Well, I’ll be. Guess I’m goin’ to be an uncle again. Bet you’re hopin’ for a boy this time, huh Kid?”
Kid smiles down at Lou before crossing to the fireplace and taking a seat in the other chair. “Naw. I’m happy with another girl.” Then he repeats the mantra of all prospective parents, the one I’ve heard three previous times from him now. “As long as the baby is healthy--”
“That‘s all that matters,” Lou and I chorus along with him.
Kid laughs along with us, and the talk turns to what I’ve been doing. I falter, grasping for something to tell them. I figure they don’t want to hear about the gunfight in Reindeer Falls, or the time I had to shoot that card player that drew on me at the table in Virginia City. I figure they don’t want to hear about the musky hotel rooms or grimy saloons in which I live my life.
“Got up to Montana this spring,” I finally light on something to say. “Buck’s doing well.”
Kid laughs. “I never figured Buck for a rancher, that’s for sure.”
I close my eyes, picturing the snug cabin, the green grass swaying in the breeze, the sheep milling about doing whatever it is that sheep do, and shrug. “He’s making a name for himself up there. He’s even goin’ courting.”
I open my eyes to meet Kid’s gaze evenly. “White woman. People don’t care so much in Montana, he says. It’s hard enough just to make ends meet and get by, why give your neighbours more trouble? It’s live and let live, he says.”
The mattress in the spare room is lumpy and smells faintly of liniment, but I snuggle down into it all the same. I stare at the ceiling overhead, puffing lightly on a cigar, and try to shut my mind off long enough to get some shut-eye.
But the craving started after dinner, and it’s steadily worming its way from my gut to my head to my chest. Giving me a headache and stealing the breath from my lungs till it’s all I can think about. I try to concentrate on the moon hanging outside my window, the cool breeze waffling the thin lace curtains, the lingering scent of lavender on the hairbrush on the table, the laughter and smiles of Lou’s daughters as I helped tuck them into bed.
None of it helps, and after an hour of tossing and turning I slither from beneath the cover and slink down the stairs, careful to avoid the third riser from the bottom with the tell-tale squeak.
It takes some stealth, but I find the whiskey bottle hidden behind the strawberry preserves at the back of the pantry. I upend it and swallow and sigh in relief as the tremors subside. I replace the bottle, pretend I never found it, and if she checks it in the morning, Lou will pretend that it’s not three-fingers emptier than it used to be.
I’ll ignore the guilt, and she’ll ignore the pain.
I fall asleep thinking of Willow Springs, and JD Marcus, and wedding dresses, and a little log cabin surrounded by bleating sheep.
Live and let live, he’d said.
“You want to give me a hand out in the fields today, Jimmy?” Kid asks around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
It’s a courtesy he gives me every time I visit, even though he doesn’t have to. We both know my working in the fields -- hauling in crops, sweating in the heat, getting blisters on top of blisters -- is the way I pay Lou and Kid for letting me stay in their home and eat their food and bond with their children. But Kid does me the courtesy of asking, just the same.
“Can’t,” I tell him, just for the fun of watching his mouth drop open in shock. The cooking noises Lou’s been making behind me at the stove stop abruptly, and the only sound in the sun-drenched kitchen is the hiss of bacon sizzling in the pan. I glance over my shoulder and smirk at Lou. “Better get that ‘fore it burns to a crisp.”
Her movements are jerky as she tugs the frying pan away from the fire. I stride over to the counter and nab a slice of bacon before Lou can swat me, feeling a little bit ashamed for playing with them, but feeling pretty darned smug just the same.
“I ain’t stayin’ this time,” I tell them, crossing my arms at my chest.
“Oh?” Lou’s voice is cool, her eyebrows raised to a sharp point on her temple.
Lou and Kid exchange glances, communicating in that creepy way that married couples do. I decide to put them out of their misery.
“I’m goin’ back to Montana,” I say. “See if Buck can use a hand on that sheep farm. Figure there’s always need for a good hand or two. Granted, I don’t know nothin’ about raisin’ sheep, but it can’t be much different from horses.”
Kid snorts out a laugh. I glare at him, but he only laughs harder.
“Kid!” Lou scolds before laying an hand on my arm. “You sure about this, Jimmy?”
It’s the mama in her coming out, sure enough, little worry lines creasing her brow. It isn’t that she don’t believe me, I know that. If I say I’m going to Montana, she’ll believe I’m going to Montana. It’s the stuff she figures I’m not telling her that makes her bite her lip and press her warm, calloused fingers into my forearm.
I wish I could explain it to her. Explain how I woke up this morning, the clouds passing over the sun and making dancing patterns of sunlight on my quilt, and how I just lay watching the shapes form into fanciful animals and strange faces. How it felt, waking up for the first time in a long while and discovering that my first thought wasn’t “whiskey”.
I wish I could make pretty pictures with words, to describe the place where Buck lives. The stubby green grass everywhere, and the red clay in the mountains, and the ruts in the soil that gave the only indication where a road should be. It was a hardscrabble life, a hardscrabble place, a place that “civilization” had only grazed, and the people there eked out a living through hard work, long hours, and relying on each other.
It was a place where a half-bred Kiowa could pay court to the miller’s daughter, and nobody gave it a second thought. It was a place where Wild Bill Hickok could die, and Jimmy Hickok could be reborn.
But I don’t have the words. So I just close my hand over her fingers, and squeeze. “I’m sure, Lou,” I tell her. “I’m sure.”
Molly and Becky wend their way through my legs, holding up tiny faces for good-bye kisses, and even the baby tucked onto Lou’s hip manages to get enough slobber onto my cheek to constitute a kiss. Teresa lets me peck her chastely on the cheek, blushing as I do so, and Jeremiah shakes my hand, and Kid pulls me into a rough bear hug. Finally, Lou hands off the baby to Kid and cradles my face in her hands.
“You take care of yourself on the trail,” she begins.
“I will, Lou.”
“Stay out of trouble.”
Lou smacks my arm before pressing her lips quickly to mine. Then she quicksteps back to Kid, retaking the baby as his arm snakes around her waist.
“You come back and visit us,” Kid says.
“I will.” I duck my head and grin up at them, looking so happy together, and try to fix the image in my mind so I can describe it just perfect to Buck. “I’ll have to come back to see my new niece, after all.”
I heave myself into the saddle and turn the horse in the direction of town, my head already working on what supplies I’ll need to pick up for the trip. I head out at a brisk pace, but I keep looking back over my shoulder until the old homestead is nothing but a speck in the distance.
Yeah, I’ll be back. That’s one promise I intend to keep.