Actions

Work Header

Lost in the Woods

Work Text:

Alma Garret is watching from her window the morning they ride into town. The young man clinging to his saddle, head down; the girl riding more easily, hips shifting loosely with the gait of the horse, looking around her with mild interest. They're dressed unlike most who ride into this town; as if only recently fallen, splattered with muck like they're still trying to climb up out of the hole, instead of wallowing like the rest of them. The widow smoothes her hands over the stiff, black fabric encasing her belly, feeling the fine stitching against her palms.

Later, Seth comes to see her, and the dance they step around each other is less awkward, now; she feels the softness of her own smile, his direct gaze no longer holding only raw honesty. He touches her hands briefly where they rest in her lap when they're sitting, and speaks of her claim, of Charlie Utter's burgeoning business venture, of the recently-left cavalry. The pin on his breast shines dully in the dim light of the room; she imagines he moves more easily with it, sits more comfortably; as if it's a crutch instead of a wound.

"They're a pair," he says, when she mentions the two she saw ride in that morning. "Brother and sister. From the north."

New York? she thinks Chicago?, but doesn't ask, remembering the girl's open stare, her loose, uncombed hair and her slip of a dress; the boy's obvious unease and the way his knees clung to the horse. "Not looking for their father, I hope?"

There's a hint of irony in her tone, but she's careful to keep the humour out; Seth looks away for a moment. She smiles at Sophia, tracing a blonde lock of hair behind the girl's ear. Sophia smiles; uncomplicated, genuine. Alma wonders, not for the first time, just how much of their speech the girl can understand.

"A doctor, apparently," Seth continues. "Though you wouldn't have known it, to look at him. Not sure I'd trust someone without a few years under his belt to see to my well-being, but apparently Doctor Cochran seems convinced."

"And the girl?"

"Touched in the head, it seems. Though I didn't get much of a close look at her."

Alma nods, a slight inclination of her head. "And has Mr. Farnum offered his renowned hospitality yet?"

Seth's mouth quirks a little, and he shakes his head. "Wouldn't know. They headed straight into the Belle Union upon arrival; I haven't seen her since. Only reason I know about him is from the Doctor's rantings; the boy's already about camp with him, or so it seems."

"A strange pair," she muses, and smiles when Seth winks at Sophia, drawing an unexpected puff of laughter.

*

"Good morning Mrs. Garret," Farnum simpers when she descends in the morning for breakfast. The restaurant is already crowded, despite the early hour, and Ellsworth takes off his hat when he sees her, eyes crinkling up in a wide smile as Sophia wishes him good morning also.

"Touched, I would say," Ellsworth confesses after their usual conversation on the claim has reached its natural conclusion. "Though not crippled, or mad as such, as the Reverend was." Ellsworth pauses for a moment. "I ain't seen no doctor, ma'am, but I confess that I lost at least a week's worth of prospectin' at the craps table in a matter of minutes last night."

Alma blinks, tilts her head a little. "To the sister?"

Ellsworth nods earnestly. "If I hadn't been their and seen it with my own eyes, I'da think Tolliver'd done it to boost his business, but..."

"Why would they let a girl at the craps table?"

"That's just it, ma'am. I'm sure if she weren't such a ... a natural hand at it, as it were, she woulda been outta there faster than Mr. Tolliver could tap his nose. The way things fell, I'm sure she got 'em more business in there from her audience than they lost to her winning throws."

"How intriguing," she murmurs, setting down her cutlery.

"That it is, ma'am."

"Where is she now? Not still at the Belle Union?"

"I ain't so sure of that," Ellsworth takes a swig of his coffee, then looks down at his mug, face softening. "Though the mistress, Joanie, took a liking to her almost straight away."

"I see."

*

It's not quite noon when she sees Al Swearengen stride purposefully from the doors of the Gem, through the mud, and into the Belle Union from her window. Not long after, he re-emerges, looking more thunderous than before, if at all possible. She tells Sophia to stay put, smoothes her skirts, and goes downstairs.

Farnum is no where to be found; no doubt in attendance at the Gem Saloon. "Are you well, madam?" asks the sunken-faced attendant, and she squares her shoulders subtly, tilting her head back a little.

"I am, but the child is ailing. Will you send for the doctor?"

"At once, ma'am."

*

It's half an hour before there's a hurried knock at her door, and Dr. Cochran enters, shoulders hunched and brows pinched, a bundle of anxious and purposeful energy. "Mrs. Garret," he greets her, and moves forward. "The girl. Is she--?"

"I..." Alma says, closing her mouth after a little too long a pause, realising she hadn't really thought far enough.

Tipped off by Sophia's somewhat joyful greeting, the doctor presses his lips together and turns from the girl to face her. Alma resists the urge to flinch, though does lower her gaze in a degree of apology. "I see," Dr. Cochran says, keeping his tone light for the sake of the girl, who's grinning and watching his face expectantly, ready for it to break out in another unexpected expression. "Honestly, Mrs. Garret, I don't know whether to be relieved or..." he presses his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, stands again from where he's crouched before Sophia. "... Tremendously irked at the number of phantom symptoms I've been called out to examine this morning."

"It's just..."

"The air outside the hotel is not contaminated, Mrs. Garret, I assure you it is possible to leave this room and seek out those who have piqued your curiosity so intensely."

"Thank you doctor, but it's the sister I'm interested in," it comes out in a rush, as he's walking toward the door again, and he pauses to turn.

"I'm concerned for the well-being of a child in the camp, the idea of an innocent in need left vulnerable."

The doctor blinks. "Looking to add to your flock, then," he glances to Sophia, pokes out his tongue and widens his eyes. "But don't go getting the wrong idea." He turns back to the door. "She's hardly indefensible." He turns back from the now-open door. "I'll send the brother, then." There's a hint of a smirk at the edge of his mouth. "You two ought to be acquainted."

*

"Dr...?"

"Tam," the young man completes as she steps aside for him to enter the room. "Simon Tam. Please, call me Simon, Mrs. Garret."

She smiles. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Simon."

He grips her hand briefly, and stands awkwardly with his hands behind his back until she's seated. He's clothed differently to when she saw him ride in, his shirt slightly whiter, vest made of a fine fabric she hasn't seen outside her own wardrobe for many months; the cut of his jacket straight and dark. Sophia peers at him owlishly. "Hello," he says to her, and she answers the same in her clear, high voice.

"I saw you ride in yesterday," she says once they are both sitting and pleasantries are past. "Your sister--is she well?"

"Well enough," the doctor dips his head. "But she's not…" he seems to struggle for words for a moment. "… whole of mind, as it were."

"Was she…?"

"It was an accident," he says, as if he's suddenly decided on that conclusion himself. "She was hurt."

"Is that why you became a doctor?"

He pauses for a moment, expression unreadable. His lips quirk a little in a smile. "Yes, I suppose it is."

"Are you… seeking your fortune in Deadwood?" she asks, and he shakes his head mutely. "Then I suppose you fit into the other broad category," she smiles as she says it, making obvious her jest.

"Which category might that be?"

"Escaping the law," she smiles wider, and continues as his expression stills before joining her smile, "It's the only category, really."

"Yes, I suppose we are," he says. "And you? Do you place yourself in this broad category also?"

She set herself up for it, really, even if she hadn't expected the parry, her wits worn dull by the base anxieties she'd been constantly exposed to in the recent past. "The law holds many definitions beyond a magistrate or marshal," she says carefully, and he nods once in acknowledgement.

"Would you join us for dinner this evening, Dr. Tam?" she asks. "I would like to meet your sister." He's silent, so she continues, though carefully; wary of out stepping her place. "There are few… tasteful places to stay within the camp, and I am aware of the long waiting list for a room at this hotel. However, I would be glad to provide a safe place for your sister should she need … somewhere to stay, while you see about aiding Dr. Cochran around the camp."

The doctor is silent for a little longer, then he nods, slowly. "Thank you, Mrs. Garret. We would be glad to join you for dinner," he says at length, tone still polite, neutral. He glances to where Sophia's still staring at him. "I do hope that Sophia is coming." His lips curl into a genuine smile, and he meets her gaze again. "River loves children."

"River," Alma repeats, thinking of Ellsworth, of prospecting, of tiny twisted nuggets squeezed between teeth. Of Brom's body tied and drifting, preserved for the trip to New York he'll never take. "That's a lovely name."

Seth joins them for dinner, and Sol, and Alma and Sophia sit with them in the restaurant at six, making polite conversation, waiting. It isn't long before the young doctor enters, sister in tow, his answer to Farnum's greeting somewhat harried before he sees them, smiles tightly, and approaches. Seth and Sol stand, but the girl is looking up and around the eaves of the dust, rough-hewn room. The doctor shakes hands with the men, and they sit.

"I apologise for our lateness," the doctor begins, hesitates.

"Not at all, Dr. Tam," Alma reassures him. "We only just arrived ourselves." Sol makes noises of agreement, Seth just stares from across the table, appraisal clear behind his heavy brows. "And it's lovely to meet you, River," she speaks up a little, angling her head to catch the girl's gaze.

River blinks, looks up at her, looks away. "Black widow," she says. She has something in her hands, a string loop, and she twists it around her fingers to form an intricate web. Sophia peers at it, both of them leaning forward in fascination as River twists it around again. "Gossamer corset."

"I'm sorry," the doctor says immediately. "She--"

"It's quite alright," she smiles again, not looking at Seth. "I understand."

They eat, and Seth relaxes somewhat, questioning the doctor at length, appearing to be satisfied by his polite -- if somewhat vague -- answers.

"Simon," the girl says, after a long silence from her corner of the table, interrupting another carefully-wrought and --aimed question from Seth. "Can Sophia and I play?"

The doctor frowns a little, swallows his mouthful, looks to her. "After dinner, River," he says. He looks at her plate; the food is nearly untouched. "Please finish your meal."

River scowls. "But it's so boring," she says. "And Sophia's bored too." Alma glances surreptitiously towards Sophia; the girl's head is down, fingers moving jerkily, tensely, amidst the tangle of River's string. "She hasn't had anyone to play with since her sisters died."

Seth clears his throat a little pointedly, and the doctor's glance is drawn away towards him for a moment. Alma sets her cutlery down. "My," she says. "I didn't realise you two were so deep in conversation over there. I've had difficulty encouraging Sophia to converse at all, let alone in English."

River hangs her head a little lower, mouth twisting in another scowl. "We weren't conversing," she mutters, and picks at the grain in the table with her fingernails. "Flower for Marta," she says, sing-song. "Flower for Ingrid," she peers up at Alma from beneath her brows. "No flower for Brom."

"River," the doctor's voice is sharp, firm, then, "I apologise again, Mrs. Garret, really she's just--"

Alma nods silently, dabbing imaginary crumbs from her mouth before lowering the napkin to her lap again.

"River," Seth says abruptly, and River looks up, lifting heavy eyelids a little in question. "Are you enjoying your stay in the camp thus far?" It seems like an incongruous question, obvious in its diversion, but they all look to her as she shrugs, slowly.

"Is it a stay?" she says. "Or am I to stay?" she directs the second statement toward the doctor, who dips his head and wipes at his mouth with his own napkin. The girl drops her head, looks up briefly from behind a curtain of loose hair again. "I got work."

Alma's breath stops for a moment, thinking of Joanie, of Trixie, of what Ellsworth had told her of the night before. "Where?" she asks before she can stop herself.

"At the Gem Saloon," River continues, as if making idle conversation. Alma glances to the doctor, but he's staring at his sister, possibly more agape than the rest of them.

"River," he says, voice low. "What happened?"

She shrugs. "The owner came to the Belle and asked me."

"Asked you…"

"And I said no," still conversationally. "And then I went there. And then I kicked him."

There's a quiet choking sound from Sol's corner of the table, cut off abruptly.

"You--"

"And then I kicked Jimmy," she continues. "And then I kicked Dan."

"And then--"

"And then Swearengen called me a fucking cocksucker."

There's another choking sound from Sol's end of the table, followed by the sound of swift kick being delivered under the table and Seth apparently very abruptly feeling the need to dab at his own mouth with his napkin.

"River," the doctor appears to be finally startled out of his stupefaction. He turns suddenly to Alma "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Garret, I--"

"Not at all," she says automatically, struggling to school her features for a number of reasons.

"Then he offered me a different job," River continues, looking up to meet Simon's gaze finally, her expression taking on something Alma can't decipher. "And he was laughing. So I said yes."

"Is she safe?" she asks later, when her thoughts have been able to slow and she can pick through each of them carefully, and Seth is slow and quiet too, but a different kind of silence than his usual; his hand tracing the defined curve of her waist, focused.

"From what she said," Seth murmurs. "And from the very fact that she seems to be physically whole and… well, alive," his touch tightens into a brief grip. "I'd say she's safer than most in this camp."

"I'd never have thought-- Oh--"

Seth stiffens and draws away instantly, drawing himself up alongside, not in direct line of, the window Alma had been gazing out of. On the muddy street below, River gazes up at them, directly at the window, and it takes a moment for Alma's heartbeat to slow again, despite the fact that there's no way anyone could see clear into the room with no lamps lit inside, and the deepening night on the dimly-lit street. Dr. Tam appears from one of the shadowy tents nearby, glancing up in puzzlement at the dark hotel before taking her arm.

"A strange pair," Alma murmurs, drawing close to Seth again.