A/N: This is A/U to my own Gunsmoke canon -- sort of meta fan fiction. I have no beta. All my fubars are belong to me. This is a work in progress.
Gunsmoke belongs to CBS. Original characters and creative content belong to me.
Gunsmoke belongs to CBS. Original characters and creative content belong to me.
After the Wolves
I winced at the glare from the sun and from the bright pain that scored my throat with hot iron nails. I coughed hard, each spasm as painful as a pistol shot to the chest. I had dug a bullet out of my own leg two days before and it hardly bled. Now, if I didn’t get some broth in my belly and a good night’s sleep by a warm fire, I was going to die from an ague that started as a light case of the sniffles when I rode out of Dodge ten days ago.
I shielded my eyes with one hand and squinted through the haze of my fever. A pack of wolves growled over a large bloody patch in a vast meadow of clean white snow.
I checked my ammunition. I had four bullets in my pistol and two shells in my rifle. I watched the beta wolf face down the others while the alpha ate his fill. If I could pick off the alpha, the rest would scatter and I could take a piece of their kill. They would be wary of me only temporarily -- hopefully, long enough for me to get beyond their territory. If I missed, I would be only a loud noise and harmless – and easy prey.
I heard the thick crackle of cartilage being separated from a large joint.
“What do you think, Buck?” I murmured. The horse flared his nostrils and kept an ear turned to the wolf pack, but he was otherwise silent and still.
We moved slowly along the tree line until the pack was downwind. The alpha wolf lifted his head and sniffed the air. I raised my rifle, aimed and fired.
The shot rang in my ears and seemed to reverberate all around me. Buck stamped a foot and nodded sharply. The wolves ran into the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. I heard a distant rumbling -- perhaps the sound of a storm closing in.
As I approached the kill, I could not, at first, make sense of what I was seeing. A bloody boot. A leather poke with its contents strewn about. Torn dungarees. A clenched fist stood straight up out of the snow.
The wolf kill was a man.
I dismounted and knelt by the body. The man was young, a teenager. I pressed my fingers against his cheek. He was cold but not frozen, his half-open eyes not yet clouded over. He’d been dead an hour, maybe two. I searched him and pulled out a worn buckskin wallet from his coat pocket. Inside was a manumission stamped with the crumbling seal of a deed office in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. The boy’s name was Lucien Lemieux, he was nineteen years old and he was the son of a freed man.
I sighed and felt a tug in my heart. Even after Emancipation, Negroes carried proof of their status as free people. They were right to be distrustful of white men. The war had been over for twenty years but former slaves were still being abducted and sold to plantation owners in Cuba and Panama. But freedom papers were a flimsy shield against determined slavers. Free men and their families fled to these mountains where they were less likely to encounter whites.
I tucked the document back into the billfold and pushed it deep into my coat pocket. A finely wrought metal cross on a silver chain was embedded in the gore on the boy’s chest. I lifted his head and eased the necklace from around his neck. I dropped it into my coat pocket with the manumission.
I stared sadly at Lucian’s face. His skin was fair – lighter than my own skin when tanned in the summer. He could’ve passed for white if he wanted to. My guess was he didn’t want to, when members of his family perhaps could not. His half-open eyes were gray and flecked with bronze, like granite stone and fool’s gold. I reached down and gently closed them.
Light, wet snowflakes began to fall and the icy wind picked up. The wolves paced along the tree line. It was time to go. The ground was too hard to dig and even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have the strength to bury the body. I had no choice but to leave him.
“I’m sorry, son,” I said.
I heaved myself onto my horse and watched the wolves. I thought about shooting another but the pack was not advancing and I needed all the bullets I could save. There was a trail of blood and drag marks leading from the trees. I spurred my horse and followed them from force of habit, even though I knew I had little time to spare before I had to find a place to make camp.
The trail led into the trees and to the bottom of a steep, rocky slope. The snow was churned with wolf tracks, and the hoof prints of a horse. A large rock jutted from the ground, a clot of blood and hair pasted to one jagged edge. It was easy for me to reconstruct the scene. The slope was nearly sheer and the footing treacherous. A horse could not make it up the slope with a man on his back. Lucien had gotten off his horse, slipped on an icy patch and hit his head on the rock. There was blood, but not a lot. He died here, hitting his head hard enough to stop his heart.
The wolves had not hunted the boy, only scavenged his dead body.
I turned my horse in a circle, searching the ground. Fading hoof prints went up the slope and into the low clouds. Horses are creatures of habit and usually ran straight home if left to their own devices. I looked back at the wolves. They were cautiously approaching their fallen alpha. There was no shelter for me as long as I was in their territory and there was nowhere else for me to go but up the slope. I had nothing to lose by following that horse home. Hopefully, his home wasn’t far.
I burned with fever and was lightheaded from lack of food. I dismounted and swooned, nearly falling myself. I wrapped the reins around my saddle horn then cinched them under my arms and around my back. If I slipped or lost consciousness, I would not fall to the ground. Buck was used to tracking other horses and often picked up sign that I had lost. He would drag me along until he found the horse or I told him to stop. I hooked my arm around his neck.
“Let’s go find him, boy,” I said.
We stumbled up the incline, leaning on each other like a couple of drunken bums.
By the time we reached the summit, I was literally at the end of my rope. I hung off Buck, my shins and knees barked and bruised, the arm I tied to my saddle, numb and cold. I was going to send Buck on, with a note and my identification and hope that he found the horse’s farm – if not to come back for me, but to put him up so he wouldn’t freeze to death. I pawed through my saddlebags with frozen fingers.
I had paper but no pencil.
I sank to the ground. I resigned myself to dying here, alone, food for the wolves. I tried to shy Buck away but he only took a couple of sidesteps and stood waiting for me. I slipped into unconsciousness. I don’t know how long I was out but fortunately, Buck woke me with a nicker and a burst of warm horse breath straight into my face.
I rolled to my side. I looked down the slope. A small valley sparkled in the last rays of the sun like a jewel box filled with emeralds and gold coins. A cob house was built on a stone shelf at the base of the cliff on the far side of the valley. There was a corral, a barn with an arched door and a garden surrounded by a sapling fence. A small field beyond the barn was divided in half by a low rock wall. In the center of one half was a snow-dusted haystack. The other half held the remnants of a corn harvest. Three goats and a tiny burro grazed in patches of green grass among the broken stalks and melting snow. The little farm was neat as a pin, the ground as clean as if it’d been swept by a broom.
I was pretty sure that I was hallucinating. Or that I was dead and that was where I’d live out eternity.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes but the little farm was still there. Smoke puffed from the chimney in one perfect ball of cotton. I sat for a few minutes and waited for the feeling to return to my arm. I felt faint disappointment that I wasn’t in Heaven.
I mounted my horse and started carefully down the incline. It wasn’t as steep as the slope we just climbed but there were more trees and the ground was padded with slippery pine needles. It was slow going. By the time I was within shouting distance of the house, sun had sunk behind the cliff. Someone stepped onto the porch and lit a lantern by the door.
The light was as warm and soft as a sigh of relief.
A short-legged, but heavily built dog charged toward us, barking furiously. He circled us, growling and nipping at Buck’s ankles. He stopped me in the dooryard, placing himself between me and the house, his head down and his teeth bared. The goats and burro trotted over, stood in a bunch and watched the scene silently.
A boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen stood on the porch. He leveled a shotgun at me. He was bundled in an oversized coat. On his head was a battered felt hat that came down over his ears. I would’ve been amused were it not for the buffalo gun he pointed unwaveringly at my head.
“Drop your guns on the ground, please,” he said.
“I’m --,” I started.
“I will send you into the Hereafter without a second thought, sir.”
His eyes were steely under the brim of his ridiculously large hat. I fumbled with the buttons on my coat.
“Slowly,” said the boy.
I held up my hands.
“My -- .” I swallowed painfully. “My fingers are frozen,” I said. I pushed at the lapel of my coat with a clawed hand and showed my badge. “My name is Matt Dillon. I’m a U.S. Marshal out of Dodge City.”
“You are a very long way from Dodge City.”
“I was hunting a murderer.”
“Did you capture him?”
“Where is he?”
I let the silence hang in the air.
“How can I know that you are telling me the truth?” the boy asked.
“You can’t,” I said.
“Keep your hands up.”
He walked over and tugged my pistol from its scabbard and tossed it onto the porch. He took my rifle and stepped back, cracking the breach and flipping out the cartridge with his thumbnail, while he held his own rifle tucked in the crook of his elbow -- and aimed at me. In spite of the fact that he might yet decide to shoot me, I was impressed. He handled the weapons as well as any experienced gunman.
“Your rifle is recently fired,” he said.
“I shot a wolf this morning,” I said.
His eyes traveled over my face. He lowered his shotgun slightly. “Are you ill, Marshal?”
“I’d be obliged if your Pa can spare some grain for my horse and I could spend the night in your barn. I’ll be on my way by morning,” I said, but was seized by a long, ragged bout of coughing that nearly toppled me from my saddle.
The boy regarded me with raised brows. “If you spend the night in our barn, you will be dead by morning,” he said.
“The barn will be fine. I can pay.”
The boy leaned the shotguns against the porch rail. “I will not have your death on my conscience.”
“You just threatened to shoot me without a second thought.”
“That was, perhaps, hyperbole.” He stepped forward and reached up to help me. The dog barked a warning. “Quiet, Mortimer,” said the boy. “Let’s get you inside, Mr. Dillon.”
I looked him over. His wrists were thin at the end of his sleeves and I could tell that the bulk of his upper body was mostly coat.
“I can manage,” I wheezed.
"You are going to fall over, Marshal," said the boy.
The boy stepped back. "As you wish."
I swung my leg over Buck’s rump. My limbs felt weightless and disconnected from my body. I could see the ground coming up to meet me but was helpless to stop myself falling. I lay on my back, blinking at the sky. Mortimer the dog ambled over, sniffed at me then sneezed. The burro and his chorus of goats seemed to confer with each other for a moment then turned and walked away. The boy stood by with his hands folded behind his back.
“Pride goeth before a --,” he said.
“I get it,” I snapped.
I held out my hand and let him haul me to my feet. I swayed a little and he turned to support me with his arm around my waist. He was stronger than he looked. We staggered up the porch stairs and into the house. The boy half-carried me to a chair. He searched a shelf and selected a jar filled with brown powder. He tapped a big spoonful into a tea pot and poured in hot water from a kettle over the fire. He rushed back to help me out of my coat.
“Your fingers are not frozen but very near,” he said, massaging my hands. “I see you also have a bullet wound in your leg.” He pressed a wrist to my forehead. He poured from the teapot into a cup. “Drink this.”
I tried to scoot closer to the fire but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
“I know you feel cold but your fever is very bad. I need to keep you cool a little while longer.”
“You’re a little young to be doctoring,” I said, shivering.
“Hippocrates was practicing medicine at nine.”
“So, a couple of years older than you, then.”
“You are free to bed down in the stall with the other ass on this farm.”
I hid my grin in my cup and choked down a sip of the bitter tea. I looked around the room. There was a kitchen at one end and two other doors. Through one I could see one narrow bed with a battered poppet propped against the pillows. A throw rug on the stone floor was faded but clean. There was a large pair of boots lined neatly by the front door but there was only one place set at the table.
“Are you here by yourself?” I asked.
“The tea will quiet your cough,” he said, gently urging me with two fingers on my wrist, to lift the cup to my mouth. He gazed thoughtfully out of the window. “I thought the shot that you fired was my brother,” he said. “He is to return from Fort Hardy today.”
“Fort Hardy?” I asked. I peered blearily into my cup.
“Less a fort and more a trading post with a couple of fat Calvary men to guard it,” he said. “It is thirty miles northeast from here. We pick up our mail and some supplies there. My brother is late and there is a storm coming.”
My brain sluggishly turned over this information. “Where are your folks?” I asked.
He swung the kettle back over the fire and stood with his back to me. “My parents are dead,” he said, after a moment.
He turned and peered into my face. I blinked once, slowly.
“I believe you’ve had enough of this tea,” he said, prying my cold fingers from the cup. “I had to guess the dose because you are the largest man I have ever seen.” He handed me another cup. “This is only warm water but drink it down, too. You are dry as paper.”
“Your brother -- .What is -- ,” I began. I swallowed thickly.
“I must get your horse and our animals into the barn. Can you manage getting undressed on your own? I need to look at that bullet wound in your leg.” He refilled the kettle from a bucket of water and poked up the fire. He buttoned his coat and headed for the door.
“Wait,” I rasped. I struggled to get up.
“We can talk later, Marshal. I’ll be back shortly. Stay away from the fire,” he said, going out and closing the door firmly behind him.
I slumped back into the chair. I could feel myself sinking into a well of exhaustion. All I wanted to do was lay down by the fire and sleep.
I got as far as toeing off my boots.
“Marshal? Mr. Dillon?”
I felt cool fingers pat lightly against my cheeks.
“Wake up, Marshal.”
I blinked awake. “Doc?” I croaked.
“It is James.”
Everything -- my headache, my sore throat, my burning lungs –seemed blurred around the edges. I was clammy with sweat. I sat up and leaned forward with my head down, propping my forearms on my thighs.
James pressed his cheek to the space between my shoulders.
“Wha – what’re doing?” I asked.
“Listening to your lungs rattle like pebbles in a tin can,” he said.
“I just need a couple hours of sleep,” I mumbled.
“You need much more than that. You are going to get worse before you get better.”
He tugged at my vest, trying to work it off my shoulders.
“Why are you pulling on me,” I asked, querulously.
“Your horse smells better than you do.”
I ran my fingers through my hair and held my hand against the back of my neck, suppressing a frisson of irritation. All of this fussing was not necessary. A good, hard sleep was usually all I needed to set me on the mend.
“Sleep,” I rasped.
“You will have a bath first. And you will have more water and then some broth.”
“I could knock you out and strip you myself.”
I waved a hand. “Settle down, cowboy,” I said. I rose slowly and the room tilted. I reached out and gripped James on his shoulders to steady myself. I could feel his collar bones under my thumbs, hard and thin as a wooden hanger. His fingers worked at the buttons on my shirt.
“I can do it,” I said.
“Let me,” said James.
“You don’t even know me.”
“Really, Marshal. You must learn to allow others to do for you.”
Maybe he did know me.
I stood with my hands on his shoulders and gazed at his face as he undressed me. He had thick, upswept brows and a high, clear forehead. His mouth was soft and his jaw was strong and delicate at the same time. His eyes were large and set far apart – and they were the exact shade of Lucien Lémieux’s. In fact, he was the spitting image of Lucien except his skin was smooth and dark as a plum.
This skinny kid was the reason Lucien Lemieux refused to pass for white.
I’ve done my share of informing people that their loved one is dead. No lawman worth a damn ever gets used to it. With his brother gone, James was a Negro boy without family, without protection, easy prey for animals that were worse than wolves.
I opened my mouth to tell him that his brother was dead but what came out was another long bout of wrenching coughs that nearly brought me to my knees. I could taste blood and the infection that filled my lungs. I leaned heavily on James, breathing through my mouth in ragged gasps. The boy murmured something in French as he wiped my nose and chin with a warm, damp cloth. I don’t speak French but my mind translated whatever he said into an endearment. I pondered that while he peeled off my undergarments then led me to a cut-down barrel the size of a large bucket in front of the fireplace.
“I can –,” I began.
“We have to do this standing up, Marshal. I wouldn’t be able to get you out of a proper bath tub.”
“But -- .”
“Stop protesting, Mr. Dillon. You can hardly see straight. It will go quicker if I do it,” he said, manhandling me into the barrel.
I stood with my head down while James dipped a small pitcher into another bucket then poured the warm water over me. Once again, the boy was right. The water felt good and I my chest loosened minutely from the steam. I braced my hands on the mantle and let him scrub my body with a rough sponge and wood-scented soap. He cleaned the crusted blood from my leg and remarked about my other scars, suggesting that perhaps my fool-headed stubbornness was a result of the amount of lead that had been shot into my body over the years. I found his scolding chatter to be soothing, much in the way that I felt when I heard the same from Doc. I was too tired to be embarrassed when he got to my privates. He moved them around gently, using the back of his hand the way Doc did, washing them thoroughly. I stood obediently while he dressed me in a linen nightshirt that was about a foot too short.
I was trembling with fatigue when he finally allowed me to sit in a large rocking chair by the fire. He wrapped a quilt around my shoulders. I immediately began to nod off.
“Stay awake, Marshal,” said James. “It is better to be up upright when you cough.”
I watched him with half-closed eyes as he dragged a side table to my chair and went about his tasks. He moved with grace and economy, his hands sure, quick and steady. He would make a good doctor someday. Or a good gunman.
He set a small bowl of broth and another cup of the bitter tea before me. I held the bowl in my trembling hands and took a sip. The broth was hot and salty and thick with fat. It was delicious and I was starving but I barely had the strength to swallow. James stood beside me and alternated between hard thumps and gentle stroking on my back as I doubled over with coughing between sips. When I finished about half of the broth, he made me take a few swallows of the tea.
I leaned back in the chair with my eyes closed, gathering the strength to tell the boy that his brother was dead.
“It’s time I let you sleep,” said James.
He helped me into one of the other rooms and tucked me into a narrow bed, covering me in a feather-stuffed quilt that was five inches thick and felt like it weighed twenty pounds. James bent over me and pulled the quilt to my chin, his face close to mine. I could’ve told him then that his brother was dead but fatigue turned me a coward. I stared into his eyes.
“Granite and fool’s gold,” I murmured.
He smiled indulgently – the way a physician would with a delirious patient.
I didn’t even try to stay awake. I was asleep before James left the room.
Pressure in my bladder woke me some time later. It was dark. My throat was painful again. I heard voices and warm laughter. I swallowed, frowning. I heard James laugh again. Maybe his brother was home and Lucien Lémieux was just some poor drifter who died alone. I was glad that I hadn’t told James that his brother was dead. I struggled out of the bed and shuffled to the bedroom door. I held myself up with a shoulder against the doorframe.
The main room was lit by the fire and one lamp. Mortimer lay on his side with his back to me. He acknowledged my presence with a twitch of his ear, apparently deciding that I wasn’t worth more of his attention. A sound drew my attention to the fireplace.
My eyes traveled from the dog to the cut-down barrel, up a pair of long, slender legs, over the curve of a buttock, the fullness of a breast and the strong column of a neck. Soapy water slicked smooth, dark skin.
“James?” I croaked.
James whipped his head around. “Mr. Dillon! You startled me,” he said. He snatched a sheet off a chair and clutched it to his chest. Water soaked through and clung to his flat belly and full breasts.
Her full breasts.
“Did you need something, Marshal? You’ve only slept for three hours.”
“I uh…I have to--.” I stood there, ogling her breasts. “I have to --,” I said. “I mean -- .”
“There is a pot in your room.” James stepped out of the barrel. “Would you like me to help you?”
“I – Am I-- ? Are you --?”
“I’ll help,” she said.
“I can manage.”
“That is your favorite thing to say, “I can manage”.
James came over and wrapped a damp arm around my waist. I looked down at her.
“You’re a girl.”
James gave an exasperated sigh. “Stop being so provincial, Marshal. It is wasted on me. All I read these days is medical books. I am familiar with male anatomy. And, I’ve already seen yours – up close. Besides, you are falling off your feet. Now come along. I’ll hold it for you.”
“Uh – .”
“The pot, Marshall. I’ll hold the pot.”
“I know what you meant,” I snapped.
James held the pot in one hand and waited. When I fumbled a bit, she captured my wrist in her other hand to steady my aim. I made the mistake of looking down – right into the deep cleft between her breasts. In spite of my fever, I felt my shaft thicken. My stream faltered and my face burned. James gave no indication that she noticed, distracting me with threats to exile me to the barn for being such a difficult patient. She eased me onto the edge of the bed, brought me more tea and pounded my back while I coughed.
I lay back on the pillows and drifted on the drugged tea. When James came back, she was dressed in the baggy pants and oversized jumper again. She smeared a pungent salve on my chest and neck, laid a clean cloth over it and pulled the heavy quilt up to my chin.
She pressed her wrist to my forehead before retrieving the pot and going out.
I had no sense of how much time passed. I’d wake, coughing, struggling to draw breath, my body hot as if I lay on a bed of coals. James was there each time, to pound my back and force tea and broth on me or to roll me to my side, to keep me from drowning in the fluid that filled my lungs. I was seized by terrible stomach cramps and what I eliminated from my gut was watery and foul. James took it in stride, patiently washing the shit and sweat from my body and holding a folded towel between my legs when I became too weak to even use the chamber pot properly.
I woke when my fever broke. I lay naked atop damp sheets with my hands folded on my chest. My eyelids and lips seemed glued shut and I was thirstier than I’d ever been in my life. I couldn’t swallow. I felt empty and cool. I heard a woman’s quiet sobbing. I felt a moment of panic because I thought I was dead. But dead men don’t need a piss and their stomachs don’t growl with hunger.
And, as far as I know, they don’t have erections.
I lifted my hands and rubbed my eyes until I could open one. James sat in the chair next to the bed with her hands covering her face. She was the source of the crying I heard.
“I’m not dead,” I croaked.
James stood and turned to me, quickly wiping her eyes with the flat of her fingers.
“Yes, Marshal. You are very much alive,” she said, pouring a cup of water for me. She handed me the cup and tested my temperature with the inside of her wrist again. “You are still warm but much less so than last night.”
I took a sip of water. It still hurt to swallow but the pain was more of a dull ache in the glands under my jaw, versus the searing rake that clawed my throat before. I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. My entire body felt tender and fragile. My breath rattled in my lungs but it was no longer the alarming gurgling sounds of a drowning man. I coughed gently, experimentally. That hurt, too. But I didn’t feel like my next cough might turn me inside out. I was on the mend. I looked at James. She was dressed like a boy but her hair billowed with soft ringlets down to the middle of her back. Her over-sized shirt hung off her shoulders such that the two buttons she’d left undone revealed a hint of her cleavage and the fullness it promised.
I pulled the sheets over my lap.
“How long?” I rasped.
“Six days. You were delirious until yesterday afternoon then you were nearly comatose for the last eighteen hours. I couldn’t rouse you -- which, I must say, was actually more frightening than your thrashing and punching,” she said. “Three days ago you walked out into the storm while I was sleeping. Barefoot and naked, you nearly made it to the barn before I discovered you gone.”
I rubbed my hand along my jaw. I had less than two days’ beard and I was clean and smelled faintly of James’s wood soap. Six days was a long time to tend a man you didn’t know.
“Five days, now.”
“James -- .”
“Jimmy. Everybody calls me Jimmy.”
“Jimmy. I have to tell you -- .”
She held up a hand. “Wait. I have a clean nightshirt for you.”
“I’d rather have my pants.”
“No,” said James, shaking her head. “You are better but you are not well. You may walk around a bit so you can cough and help clear your lungs but other than that, it’s bed for you for the next couple of days.” She frowned, staring at me intently. “Your recovery is nothing short of miraculous. Any other man would be dead. Still, you need to convalesce. Do not argue, Marshal.”
“I won’t,” I said. Truth be told, I felt weak as wet newsprint. “James?”
She turned in the doorway. “Yes, marshal?”
“How’d you get me back inside? You said I wondered out into the storm.”
“Who is Pruit Dover?”
I blinked, startled. “What?”
“You were calling for him. I pretended to be him and you followed me back inside.”
“Huh,” I mused.
“Who is he?”
“Someone I used to know.”
“Well, he is your guardian angel, now. Another minute and I would have lost you in the storm,” she said.
“James. I have to tell you --.”
“Our mule found his way home. He was standing outside the barn when I retrieved you from your walkabout,” she said. She inhaled deeply through her nose and held her breath for a moment. “I’d hoped that Luc either stayed at the Fort or found shelter in the old prospector’s shanty.”
She covered her mouth with a trembling hand and hiccupped a sob into her palm. After several long seconds, she straightened, squaring her shoulders and swallowing hard.
“Clyde’s legs and hindquarters are covered in bites.” She said. “Wolves must have....” She stopped and gazed at me. “You shot a wolf that morning.”
“I found Lucien. I should’ve told you sooner.”
Her hand fluttered to her neck. “Was he – did he –?” Her voice broke.
“He didn’t suffer,” I said quickly. “He dismounted to climb the slope, slipped on a patch of ice and hit his head on a rock. In my opinion, he was ... gone right then. The wolves came after.”
“But Clyde was bitten very badly.”
“A horse would’ve run but a mule will fight first. To the wolves, Clyde wasn’t worth the trouble. I mean... I’m sorry.” I should have spared her that detail. “If you’ll look in my coat, I have his billfold in the inside pocket.”
When she returned, she stood in the doorway with her hand at her side and the billfold dangling from her fingertips. In her other hand she held the cross necklace in the cup of her palm, her eyes round with horror. The chain was bunched and caked with dried blood. I cursed myself silently. I’d forgotten about the necklace.
She clutched the bloody necklace in her fist and pressed it to her chest. She slid down the wall next to the doorframe, coming to rest with her legs drawn up. She laid her cheek on her bony knee, her body quaking with silent sobs. Her ankles were thin under the rolled cuff of her pants. They seemed somehow vulnerable, even covered with the thick socks she wore. She gulped for air, breathing in quick shallow bursts.
I should’ve waited until I had all my wits about me before I told her about her brother. I had fucked this right and proper.
“You need to breathe, James,” I said.
I wrapped the sheet around my waist, slipped off the edge of the bed and sat next to her against the wall. After a moment’s hesitation, I pulled her into my arms, drawing her across my lap. As weak as I was, she still felt light as a feather pillow to me. She stiffened at first then collapsed against me and wailed like a heartbroken child – which was what she was, in spite of her protestations that nineteen years old was all grown up.
Lucien’s was about as sad and lonely a death that I’ve ever seen. I’ve come across dead men on the prairie. While sad, most of those men had no one and nothing to return to. Lucien had a home and family. He had this girl and this farm with its odd menagerie; he had this warm little house.
It was more than what I had.
I held James, rocking her a bit and rubbing her back. She turned her face into my neck, making mournful crooning sounds. But her breathing had slowed and I no longer feared she would swoon. My chest was wet with her tears. I shivered and started to cough again. James sat up and gazed sadly into my face.
“I’ll get you a fresh nightshirt,” she said, finally.
I convalesced over the next few days. The storm had stopped abruptly, the sun came out and the two feet of snow that had accumulated melted down to six inches of granulated ice. The air warmed enough that you could be comfortable working in shirt sleeves. James worked non-stop over those days before the real winter storms moved in and snow got too deep to navigate. I knew she just needed to keep moving.
She worked quickly and efficiently, preparing the farm for the long winter. She came in well after dark each day, made my dinner and medicated tea then collapsed into bed. I watched from the window as she dug the haystack out and stowed it in the hay loft using a platform pulleys and ropes tied to the burro and one of the goats when Buck refused to cooperate. Clyde the mule limped around the corral, looking on guiltily while the other animals did his job. James shooed all of the chickens into their barn roost after closing the coop for the winter then plucked twenty in one day to hang them high in the barn rafters for freezing.
I woke from an afternoon nap to see her leading my horse out of the trees with a 3-point buck slung across his rump. The next day, she gutted and skinned the buck, kneeling on the ground like an Indian woman, scraping the fat off the hide with a flat, sharp rock. In my current state, I couldn’t do much to help – not that James would allow it – but she let me sit outside for a bit and bring her firewood, one stick at a time, while she dried strips of venison over a smoky fire in the yard. Mortimer sat at my feet and gnawed happily on the deer’s amputated ears.
I kept her talking, asking innocuous questions, gently drilling down to the answers I really wanted.
“James is a boy’s name,” I said, handing her another piece of wood.
“Luc and I are twins,” she said.
“He came feet first. I came head first, two minutes later. Father named me James when I was only half out. My mother wrote my second name in the Bible but I never knew it until I learned to read.”
“What is your middle name?”
“Anna,” she said softly, looking embarrassed.
“James Anna,” I said. I liked the feel of her full name in my mouth. There was no way I was calling her Jimmy.
“It’s Jimmy, Marshal,” she sighed.
She took off her battered hat and wiped her brow with the back of her wrist. Her hair was coiled in a bun at the nape of her neck. Some had escaped and curled in wispy ringlets around her face. It was the first time I’d seen her face, without the hat, in full sunlight. I had thought she was pretty in lamplight. Standing in the sun, dressed in a man’s trousers and shirt, she was beautiful.
I immediately felt guilty. Many women were already married with a couple of children by the time they were James’s age but at nineteen, she was too young for me -- and too young for me to be thinking what I was thinking.
It was my curse to fall a little in love with every woman I met -- my impulse to protect, Doc tells me.
She rolled the kinks out of her neck and loosened another button on her shirt. I dragged my eyes away.
“How long have you lived on this farm?” I asked.
“Since I was an infant. My father brought us here as soon my mother, Luc and I were well enough to travel.”
Her eyes filled but didn’t spill over. I hadn’t seen her cry since the night I held her on my lap.
“It’s a pretty little valley,” I said. “A smart place to build a farm.”
“Life in Louisiana was untenable, even with the Emancipation,” she said, attacking the deer hide with the scraper. “New Orleans had a prosperous community of free people of color but it also had typhus, cholera and yellow fever. There were kidnappers and brigands everywhere else. We were luckier than most. My father could pass for white. My grandfather was a wealthy plantation owner. He loved my grandmother and indulged her lavishly. Freed her, bought her a house in the French Quarter. He sent my father to Paris to be educated – and to protect him from his grown sons, who would’ve killed my father or sold him into slavery if given the chance.”
I’d heard about the families of plantation owners murdering or selling the master’s mulatto children to keep them from receiving an inheritance. It got worse when people thought that freed slaves could file a claim against their father’s estate – what was left of it after the war.
“I’m sorry to say that it hasn’t got much better for Negroes,” I said.
“I have not been beyond Fort Hardy since my mother died. We tried to get her to Denver but the baby came early. It was beyond the doctoring my father could do,” she said.
“I’m --.” I closed my mouth. I could tell she didn’t need to hear “I’m sorry” again. I watched her grimly grind out an ember beneath the heel of her boot.
I looked around the orderly dooryard. It was a small farm but would need more than one person come planting and harvest season. The valley was isolated but more and more families were putting down stakes before they reached the California coast. There were competing railroad companies blasting through the mountains, now. Small towns built up around railroad trading posts. And with them came the killers and the spoilers.
This place would not stay hidden for long.
“You can’t stay here,” I said gently.
Her jaw hardened, a stubborn line appearing between her brows. “This is my home.”
“James Anna --.”
“I will not leave it,” she yelled.
“You’ll never be a doctor if you don’t.”
“Go to hell,” she screamed, chucking the scraping stone at me. It grazed my ear, stinging, like a wasp. “You go to hell!”
She leapt at me, connecting with enough force to knock me off the stump. I landed hard with her on top of me, flailing and kicking and pounding me with her fists. The fall knocked the wind out of me and in my weakened state, I was momentarily paralyzed. When I got my breath, I tried to grab her wrists. I finally just enveloped her in a bear hug. She was lightweight but strong. She kicked and bucked and bit me hard on the flesh above my heart. I was going to have bruises on top of bruises and even got cracked a good one in the balls.
But I held on to her, letting her scream and beat her grief out on me.
“Shh, honey,” I soothed. “Shh. I know.”
Mortimer circled us, whining and letting out distressed little barks.
She finally calmed enough that I let her go. She scrambled to her feet, snatched up her rifle and sprinted into the trees. Mortimer ran alongside her.
I waited in the cabin an hour or so for James to return. It was late afternoon, the temperature was dropping rapidly and she’d left her coat draped on the porch rail. I was shrugging into my own coat to go find her when she walked into the cabin. Her braid had uncoiled and there were pine needles in her hair. There was a long, shallow scratch that followed the curve of her jaw. She stood at the threshold, shivering. I reached around her and closed the door. She ducked under my arm, flinching away from my touch. She sat down hard in the chair by the fire. I watched her for a moment then put on my hat and went out to put up the animals for the night.
Dark, fat clouds with flat bottoms hung heavily over the valley and seemed to sink toward me as I watched. This was the blizzard that would snow us in for the winter. I had hoped that the sunny weather might hold. A couple of days of that and I could make it down these mountains. But I was still too weak to ride very far. It was mid-December. I’d not get out of these mountains until the spring thaw. At this elevation, spring came as late as May.
My people in Dodge would think I was dead. My people. Doc, Chester, Quint, a new friend named Festus and … Kitty.
Doc was a practical man. After a reasonable amount of time, he’d accept the fact of my death, mourn my loss, perhaps, and move on. Chester would never give up hope. He’d die an old man, still waiting from me to ride down Front Street. Quint and Festus might come looking for me. When they didn’t find me, they’d stop looking and get drunk in my honor once a year.
Kitty and I had a terrible row before I left -- the same one we’d had for the past seven years. My last words to her were, “If I wanted a wife, I’d go out a find one.” Kitty reared back like I’d struck her. It was a nasty thing to say. But I’d needed to end it with her and she needed a life without the hope of …me. Her hope was a burden that grew heavier and heavier as the years went by – for both of us. When I left Dodge, I rode by the Long Branch without a glance.
With me “dead”, there was nothing holding Kitty to Dodge, not even the Long Branch. She could sell it today and retire to anywhere else in the world a wealthy woman. She could marry. She was still young enough to bear children, if that’s what she wanted. She could be happy. I did love Kitty and I wanted the best for her.
What was best for her never was me.
I puttered around the barn until after dark, mucking out the stalls, oiling the tack and scrubbing the water troughs. I still had a bad cough but I was tired of inactivity and I wanted to give James some time alone in the house. I even stacked the hay in the loft and sharpened the tools. I lit a lamp in the barn and walked around the outside to see if any light shone through any holes that needed to be patched or loose boards that needed nailing down. The neat little barn was snug as a new boot. I looked at the house. James had lit the porch lamp. I figured that was my signal that it was safe to come back in.
Buck rumbled and fluttered his lips at me when I went in to snuff the lamp. I walked over and scratched his ears. The burro and goats crowded into Clyde’s stall with him even though they had their own pen in the opposite corner.
“Looks like this is home for now, boy,” I said. Buck turned in a circle then lay down on the hay and soft sand in his stall. He lifted his tail and broke wind. “Okay, then,” I laughed. “Don’t get too comfortable. We might be sharing that stall.”
I climbed the porch stairs but hesitated at the door, not sure if I should knock or just go in. I decided to split the difference, rapping the door twice with my knuckles as I opened it. James sat with her back to the fire, reading a book. She’d cleaned herself up and now wore a simple brown dress made of heavy wool. Her hair was loose on her shoulders, damp but drying into a thicket of spirals. In spite of my earlier hesitation, I found myself closing the door and hanging my coat and hat next to it as if I’d lived there my whole life.
James didn’t look up as I entered. I walked to the fireplace and stood at a careful distance, not wanting to crowd her. Mortimer ambled over and used my leg as a scratching post. Something simmered aromatically in a Dutch oven set over some coals. I stifled a cough.
“I hitched up the guide ropes,” I said.
You could get lost in your own dooryard during a blinding snow storm if you didn’t string up guide ropes. The ropes were fastened at each end to rings embedded in the walls of each of the outbuildings. There was a smaller rope with circle clamps on both ends – one for the guide rope and one for the belt of whoever needed to go to the barn or to the woodshed.
“Thank you,” James said quietly.
“I think this will be the storm that snows us in.”
I sat down in the other armchair. James looked up at me sharply then ducked her head and frowned severely at her book.
“What is it,” I asked.
She gave a tiny negative shake of her head.
Since she had her back to the fireplace, we were facing each other. I reached over and rested my fingertips briefly on her knee. She didn’t pull away.
“Talk,” I said softly.
“That’s my father’s chair,” she whispered. “He --. He was a big man. Not like you but still very broad. It was the only chair in the house in which he was truly comfortable.”
I flinched internally. To my great shame, the last way I wanted her to think of me was in a fatherly way. I changed the subject.
“You have a large collection of books,” I said.
Her chin started to tremble and she blinked back tears. Well, shit. That was the wrong thing to say. Those were probably her father’s books, too.
“Yes,” she said. Her breath hitched in her chest.
I leaned back in my chair which started a coughing fit. It was like magic. James’s mood changed instantly.
She set aside her book, reached out and pressed the inside of her wrist against my forehead. She went back to doctoring, chiding me, fussing with medicated tea and soup and bullying me into bed early.
“You must obey my orders, Marshal. You could still have a set-back that might kill you this time,” she scolded.
I protested weakly, just to make her angry at me. Truth be told, I might have over-done it by stacking the hay in the loft. The other tasks were light work. Pitching hay and breathing in dust and chaff was probably not a good idea.
“I can manage,” I grumbled.
She slapped my hands away because, apparently, I couldn’t manage taking off my own boots. She straightened the bed and beat the pillows into shape while I undressed. I was pulling the nightshirt down over my head when she turned back to me.
“Give me your johnny,” she said.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Your undergarments need washing.”
“Oh,” I said. I have no idea why I thought she meant something entirely different.
She stood watching me expectantly. I turned my back, even though I was sufficiently covered by the nightshirt. James made an exasperated noise.
“I know you’ve already seen me,” I snapped. I turned back with the “johnny” in my hands. “Someone has to maintain a sense of decorum around here,” I said.
“You are being ridiculous,” said James. She snatched the garment from me and pointed sternly at the bed.
James bustled around, in her element when she was caring for someone else. I grumbled and harrumphed just to keep her going. I lay back on the pillows and let her rub the pungent salve on my chest. She pulled up the heavy quilt and tucked it under my chin. The warm weight of the quilt and the drugged tea turned my limbs to jelly. James left and came back with a pan of steaming water that she placed on the bedside table. She leaned over me to adjust the pillows. I fancied that I could smell her, even over the sharp odor of the salve.
Her scent was warm and sweet like a cedar wood fire.
“You must stay in bed tomorrow, Marshal.”
“Whatever you say, cowboy,” I said.
She pressed the inside of her wrist against my forehead.
“Your face is very flushed,” she said.
I was feeling slightly feverish. Some of it was from pushing too hard doing chores; the rest, from the feel of her hands on my body.
I woke the following morning feeling very weak and almost as sick as I did before my fever broke. It was a pretty bad set-back but the fever didn’t get high enough to send me into a delirium and my cough was quiet if I rested propped up on pillows.
James declared that I would live – unless she shot me for being such a bad patient.
She was in and out over the next two days, busy with the last of the winter chores and checking on me. She’d rush in and press her wrist against my forehead in that way I was beginning to love. I found that she would linger if she thought I was sleeping. Once, she gently brushed my hair from my forehead with her fingers.
There was something happening beyond the intimacy forced upon us by my illness and our isolation. There was a growing tension, a pleasant anticipation, like watching train approach with your lover on board.
In the evenings, we’d start to read in front of the fireplace but after a few minutes, we talked to each other, our books abandoned in our laps. We talked about everything, her family, my people, her life in the valley, my life in Dodge City. I marveled at the ease with which I told her things that I never told anyone before. She listened intently, her eyes roaming my face as if she were memorizing every line and wrinkle. I was making my own memories of her – the way she chewed her bottom lip when she was thinking, her slightly over-sized ears and those eyes so startling in a dark face.
I had a lot of time to think on it while I lay in bed. I meet women all the time that I’m attracted to. Most times, I shut it down. Other times, depending on the circumstances, I let it happen. If there was a time to shut it down, this was it. James was half my age. She was grieving and all alone in the world. Add to that, I was probably the first man she’d ever known, outside her father and brother. A man with less integrity would take advantage of that. I heard her muffled sobs at night. I wanted to go to her but I didn’t. It was bad enough that I was the one who found her brother. I did not want her feelings for me to become intertwined with her feelings of grief.
She needed time and I was willing to wait.
I wondered what Doc would say of me actually thinking about the future of – with – this woman. I couldn’t bring James to Dodge. I would not leave her all alone in this valley. “A skinny Negro girl? You can’t do anything the easy way, can you?” Doc would say. Being the practical man that he is, he would then advise me to shut it down.
I couldn’t shut it down. This was going to happen. And like the time I fell off my horse and landed at her feet, I was helpless to stop it.
I was making a pot of coffee when James burst into the house, practically flying in on a blast of snow. She was wet to her knees and furred with ice crystals. I put down my cup and helped her close the door. The wind pushed heavily against it like a giant hand. James stomped and puffed and shivered as I helped her out of her coat and muffler. She clomped to the fire and sat in her chair.
“Mr. Dillon, if you could help me with my boots?” she said, lifting her feet. “My fingers are too stiff.”
I knelt at her feet and propped her boot on my thigh. I worked the laces free and tugged off the boot.
“These are nearly frozen solid,” I said. “What were you thinking tramping around for so long?”
“There’s barely a foot of snow on the ground in the fields. I needed to spread the compost on the corn field before the snow got too deep. We have been saving manure and leavings for a year. Seemed a shame to let it go to waste.”
I tugged off her other boot.
“It’s not worth losing toes over, cowboy. Your socks are wet.”
“I might not get to the barn for a week. I had to --.”
“I get it.” I peeled the soaked socks off her feet. I warmed her cold toes in my hands. “Next time, come in and dry off at some point. You don’t want to get as sick as I was.”
“Being cold does not make you sick. That is a myth. In fact -- .”
I gave her my most severe U.S. Marshal frown. Her mouth snapped shut. The smell of compost rose as the ice on her pants began to melt. I stood and filled the large kettle with water and swung it over the fire. I shouldered into my coat and headed for the back door.
“You just told me to stay indoors,” said James.
“I’m just going to the woodshed,” I said, ignoring her protests. The shed was only a few feet away from the house. When I went to fetch more wood earlier, I saw a tin tub propped against the wall. I paused at the door for a moment. The wind blew the snow almost horizontal. I could still see pretty well but soon, visibility would be zero and the guide ropes would be needed even to go to the few yards to the wood shed. Fortunately, I had stocked the large wood box in the anteroom off the kitchen while James worked in the field. I retrieved the tub, went back inside and set it close to the fireplace.
James watched me with an arched brow. “I don’t need the tub, Mr. Dillon.”
There were three large barrels of water for cooking and drinking in the anteroom with the wood box. It was enough to last two weeks if we got snowed in but washing would be limited to sponge baths. I picked up the bucket and walked through to the front door.
“It’s not too late for me fetch a couple buckets of water, James. You’re still shivering and you stink.”
I opened the door. Mortimer stood on the porch with a huge snow rabbit in his mouth. He dropped it at my feet and pushed it toward me with his nose when I didn’t immediately pick it up.
“Thanks, Mortimer. Looks like dinner and maybe a new hat,” I said. He wagged his tail vigorously and looked up at me with merry eyes, now my new best friend.
It took two trips to fill the tub and re-fill the kettle. When I came in the second time, James was undressing. I averted my eyes as I refilled the kettle and poked up the fire.
I went to hang my coat and hat. I stood by the door with my back to her. I heard a small splash. I breathed deeply through my nose.
“Do you have a curtain or...something?” I asked.
“I usually do this in my bedroom,” she said.
“Oh.” I turned and focused my attention on the far wall. “I’ll wait in my room until you’re done.”
I stopped. “Why not?” I asked the far wall.
“That rabbit needs to be prepared now.”
“It can wait.”
“Have you ever skinned and gutted a cold and stiff rabbit, Marshal?”
The gentlemanly thing to do was just shut myself in the room until she finished her bath and deal with a stiff rabbit later. I took another deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips.
“Ok,” I said.
I walked into the kitchen and began sharpening a knife.
The wind swirled violently around the house, rattling the shutters and whistling under the eaves, searching for a way in. We had a day, maybe two that we could get to the outbuildings with relative ease. After that, it would be a once-a-week expedition using snow shoes and the guide ropes.
James Anna and I would have a lot of time in close quarters, free from distractions.
It had only been three and a half weeks since I arrived here. I wasn’t quite myself yet but I could feel my strength returning – and with it, my libido. There were things I could do to help re-gain my strength and blow off steam – push-ups, calisthenics that I learned in the army. As far as my other urges, there were things that could be done about that, too. The problem was, I hadn’t been with a woman for several months, which made … things a lot harder to deal with.
I realized with a pang that in all of our long conversations in front of the fire, I’d never mentioned Kitty to James.
Over the years, my relationship with Kitty waxed and waned. There were times when I visited her rooms every night and often came back for more during the day. We tore at each other in a fever of lust, barely taking time to remove our clothes. Other times, it was meals at Delmonico’s or drinks and conversation at the Long Branch. The last couple of years, the times we were lovers shortened and the time we were “just friends” lengthened. The sex, if we had it, was perfunctory and empty and left me feeling a little lonely.
On occasion, if I happened to be in Wichita or St. Louis, I took lover. I kept these encounters to myself but if there was one thing Kitty knew, it was a man who had just fucked another woman. She seemed to choose to ignore it but I was fooling myself if I believed that, if it meant nothing more than a man’s release to me, it would mean the same to Kitty.
Being with the Wichita or St. Louis women began to wear on me, though. I didn’t like the feeling that I was sneaking around. I liked even less the feeling that I was using these women to stave off the inevitable with Kitty. On top of that, I repeatedly told her that we couldn’t be together. At the same time, my actions held her to me. It was dishonorable behavior and I needed to start thinking with the head on my shoulders and not the one hanging between my legs.
In the months leading up to our big row, I kept myself to myself and my cock in my pants. I thought celibacy might lend me some clarity.
A wise old man once said to me, “Pray to God but send for a doctor.” What I believe he was trying to say was, ask and it shall be answered – just not in the way that you think. The Lord will give you what you need. You have to get out of your head, see it, take it -- or leave it. I lay on that ridge above this valley preparing to die when James Anna Lémieux stepped out unto her porch and lit a lantern. The Lord provides.
But here I was -- a man who claimed to be unafraid of dying -- cleaning a god damned rabbit with my back to the most beautiful and unlikely future I could ever imagine, my body braced like I was about to take a bullet, rather than go all-in with a nineteen year old, one hundred and fifteen-pound black girl.
I sat at the kitchen table while I cleaned the rabbit with James bossing me from the bath tub about how to properly prepare it. She kept up a steady stream of chatter and questions to which I half-listened, responding with grunts and monosyllables, trying to keep my mind on not severing my thumb instead of the thought of her body made soft and warm from her bath.
“Give the feet and ears to Mortimer,” James said.
“Sure,” I said.
“But not the whole head. He should not eat the brain.”
“One of the chickens laid an egg. It is far past egg season.”
“Do you think it will hatch?”
“Remind me to fetch the snow shoes from the woodshed.”
I chopped the rabbit into parts and placed it in a pot. I gave the liver and heart to Mortimer and minced the entrails for chicken feed. I decided to finish the job and sliced onions and carrots for stew. I rummaged through the cupboard opening jars and sniffing the contents. I found some laurel and dropped a couple of leaves and a few peppercorns in with the rabbit.
“Where’d you learn to cook, Marshal?”
“Picked it up here and there.”
“You’re pretty skilled for a bachelor.”
“I’ll wager you have left a trail of heartbroken, doe-eyed shop girls with ruffled skirts and flowing golden hair.”
“Never had much luck with blonds.”
I picked up the pot and carried it to the fireplace. I set it in some coals off to the side. I added a log and jabbed at it with the poker. I stared into the flames.
“There’s no one waiting for you back in Dodge City, Mr. Dillon?”
Right then, with that question, I made my decision. I have been told by everyone I know that I think too much but after all my mental contortions, it ended up feeling as easy as turning a page in a book.
I finally looked at James.
“I have a first name, you know,” I said.
She gazed at me with her head cocked. She raised a hand to swipe a strand of hair from her cheek, briefly revealing her breast above the cloudy bathwater that hid the rest of her body. I lifted the kettle from its hook over the fire and added more hot water to her bath. I put the kettle back and pulled a chair to the side of the tub.
“You side-stepped my question,” she said, watching me with narrowed eyes.
I scooped the sponge out of the water.
“Sit up, cowboy” I said.
Without hesitating a single second, James leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her knees, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I dipped the sponge back into the water and began to wash the smooth brown skin on her back with slow circular strokes. James bowed her head and sighed deeply.
“There was someone waiting for me back in Dodge,” I said. “I told her to stop.”
“Did you love her?”
“I always will.”
“Then why did you leave her?”
“Lawmen make a lot of enemies. It's not always safe for the people close to me.”
“Outlaws bent on revenge?”
“That and -- .”
“And what, Matthew?”
“Always some young buck looking to make a reputation,” I said. I squeezed suds from the sponge and watched them slide down her back. “Always another man to kill,” I murmured.
"Do you think about quitting?"
"Then why don't you?"
"Never had a good enough reason."
"What's a good enough reason?"
I hooked a finger under a long ringlet of hair that had escaped her bun, pulled it straight and released it.
"Don't you want a family? Children?" she asked.
"I'd need to disappear. Live somewhere far away, where people don't know me. It’s a lot to ask of someone to do that with me."
She gazed at me for a long moment then looked away. She stood and stepped out of the tub. She tugged a sheet off the chair wrapped it around her body. She turned her back to me. Her neck was slick with water and steam curled off her shoulders. I walked around the tub so we faced each other. I stood close and looked down at her bowed head.
"I'll bet there are plenty of women who would go anywhere with you, if you asked,” she said, her voice a near whisper.
"Maybe you could introduce me to a couple."
"I don't know any white women. In fact, I don't know any women at all."
I lifted her chin with my knuckle.
"I guess it's just you, then,” I said.
“Do not pity me, Marshal,” she said, her eyes flashing.
“That’s the last thing I feel for you.”
She stepped out of my reach and wound the sheet more tightly around herself. She frowned down at her feet.
"You would stay here for me?" she asked.
I was done. I felt everything I thought I knew about myself come apart in my chest. This girl had roped me in and set her brand upon my heart.
“I might jump off a cliff if you asked me to,” I said.
James stared up at me; I stared down at her.
I wanted to touch her, to draw my finger along the line of her jaw, down her neck and over the rounded muscle of her shoulder but I didn’t want to spook her. I couldn’t stop my eyes from roaming over her body. Her breasts were heavy for such a slender woman and they were clearly visible through the wet sheet she used as a towel. I squeezed my hands into fists then flexed my fingers, keeping my arms stiff at my sides. I took a step back.
“Let’s talk after you put some clothes on,” I said.
I waited until she disappeared into her room then found my saddle bag. I fished around in the small hidden compartment at the bottom. I took out what was in there and slipped it into my pocket. I took a deep breath then blew it out slowly through pursed lips, feeling more nervous at that moment than I did when kicked in a door to a room full of armed outlaws. That was just facing death. This was facing ... the rest of my life.
I picked up James’s smelly pile of clothes and sank them into her bathwater to soak. Mortimer scratched at the door and I let him out to his snug little house on the porch. I fussed with the coals under the pot of rabbit stew. I toyed with the thought of making apple biscuits. I pictured Doc watching me in that keen way he had when he thought I might be sick with something. I finally settled into my chair in front of the fire with a cup of coffee.
James stepped out of her room and stood close to the wall next to the doorway with her hands in the pockets of yet another pair of baggy dungarees. Her hair was fashioned in a loose queue draped over her shoulder. A pink ribbon was tied in a bow at the end. I sipped my coffee and waited for her to speak.
“You really would stay?” she asked.
“If that’s what you want,” I said.
“You have a life outside of this valley, I do not.”
“I’m prepared to beg,” I said and I wasn’t kidding.
James was silent for so long that I wavered for a moment, thinking that perhaps I should get down on one knee. I began to believe that I'd made a mistake, that I’d misread her. That it was too soon. That her silence was her reluctance to hurt my feelings. Even if she said yes, did she love me? She was so young and innocent. How could she know what it was, anyway?
“Listen, James -- ,” I began.
“I always thought I’d be a doctor, not a … wife,” she said, finally.
“I don’t mind doing the cooking," I said.
James blinked. “You would let me be a doctor?”
“Since when have you ever asked my permission for anything?”
“It’s illegal for a white man to marry a Negro.”
“Not in Kansas.”
“I thought you wanted to be far from there.”
I stared into my cup of coffee. My reflection was faint and dappled with firelight.
“I have to go back,” I said. “I need to take care of some business, say goodbye to my … people. But after that, we can go anywhere you like. In San Francisco, people tend to mind their own business. Doc tells me there's a good medical school in Mexico City.”
“What about the woman in Dodge?”
“You -- you said you love ... Kitty.”
“Not like this.”
“Does she know?”
“It’s a fight we had for seven years.”
“I doubt Kitty thinks so.”
I stood and faced her.
“I can’t make Kitty stop loving me, James. The truth is, she will always be close to my heart. But I’ve only ever felt this way about one woman and I let her die in my arms without telling her. I vowed that if I was lucky enough to find another, I would tell her every day so I could die with those words on my lips.”
She regarded me for a long moment then raised a wry brow. “You’ve been reading too much Byron,” she said.
“I thought that was pretty good.”
James laughed. “It was very nice.”
“It occurs to me that you haven’t answered my question,” I said.
“You haven’t actually asked me one.”
I reached into my pants pocket and fished out a ring. The plain gold band was slender but felt heavy in my palm. It seemed to glow in the firelight.
“Doc won this in a bar game. He carried it around for a year then gave it to me as a joke. Now, I’m not so sure he was joking.” I took her hand. “It will be a while before we can stand before a preacher but I’d be proud if you’d wear it now.”
I slipped the ring on her finger. I took a step back. I didn’t know what to do with my hands so I hooked my thumbs through my belt.
“Be my wife, James Anna.”
She flung herself at me. I caught her, stumbling back. She pecked hard kisses all over my face, her fingers wringing my hair.
“I guess that’s a yes,” I said, fighting to stay upright.
I hiked her up so that I held her full length against me. She leaned back. She held my face between her warm hands.
“Yes. Yes! I love you, Marshal. I’ve loved you since you fell off your horse and landed at my feet.”
“It was over for me when you pointed that big old rifle at my head.”
“But you thought I was a boy.”
“Obviously, part of me didn’t.”
“It’s very strange,” she said.
I chuckled. “I know a couple of people who would not disagree with you.”
“I felt as if … as if I knew you were coming. Does that make sense?”
I shrugged with a tilt of my head. “Makes as much sense as anything else. I put that ring on my mantle and forgot about it. Before I rode out of Dodge, I actually went back into my house to get it.”
“This farm will become yours,” said James.
“I don’t believe in that. What’s yours is yours. I don’t have much but what’s mine, is ours.”
“We are a family, now.”
We gazed at each other in the low light. I set her back on her feet.
“It won’t be easy,” I said quietly. “Once we leave the valley -- .”
“What happens next?” James asked.
“Well, we go to Dodge after the thaw.”
“I mean, now.”
“That rabbit needs another hour or so before the potatoes go in,” I said. “I thought I’d make apple biscuits. I’ve got a craving for something sweet … What?”
“In the Bible, a betrothal is as lawfully binding as a marriage,” said James.
It finally got through my thick skull what she was talking about. All the blood from my brain rushed to my sex. I put my hands in my pockets and made a minor adjustment in the position of my cock.
“Do you know what you’re asking?” I said.
“We will be in this cabin together for months.”
“Don’t you want to uh, wait?”
Her expression was so earnest that I turned my face to the side and tried not to grin.
“Okay. Sure,” I said. “I guess we could ... not wait.”
“You needn’t worry that you might injure me. I know what to expect. My anatomy book says that if you -- .”
“All right, all right. It’s not surgery,” I laughed, wrapping my hands around her waist. “I may not know much else about women but trust me when I tell you that I don’t need any anatomy book.”
“I may have questions,” said James.
I pulled her close. “I don’t think you will, cowboy,” I murmured.
~~ Chapter 11
I hooked my fingers into James’ waistband and pulled her to me. I chuckled.
“What is funny?” she asked.
“I never thought I’d be taking somebody’s pants down for ... this.”
James frowned, confused. “What does it matter?” she asked. “I am a woman.”
“What I mean is – I know you’re a woman – never mind,” I said.
I leaned down kissed James deeply, lifting her with my hands on her buttocks. I felt her lips part beneath mine and I waited, letting her lightly explore my mouth with her tongue. After a moment, she moaned softly and her legs came around my waist. Butterflies beat a hurricane in my belly. I staggered a little -- not because of the weight of her in my arms.
“Whoa,” I gasped. “I need to put you down before I drop you.”
“I’m so sorry,” James exclaimed. “You still haven’t got your strength back.” She gripped both my forearms and started tugging me toward the bedroom.
“I’m fine, James.”
“You lie down and take a nap first.”
“Now you’re just making me feel old.”
“If you’re sure,” she said with a worried frown, pressing the inside of her wrist against my forehead.
“I haven’t been this sure about anything in a long time.”
I walked James backwards into her bedroom and sat her on the edge of the bed. I got down on one knee and brought her fingers to my lips. I gazed at the gold band and stroked across it with my thumb. The ring felt warm and solid and ... permanent.
Permanence – something I chased since I was four years old.
I’d wanted to make Dodge my home but a part of me had always been restless. My sense of duty and need for justice compelled me to make Dodge a safe home for other people. Somewhere deep down, I knew that my peace had to be found somewhere else.
I knew then that that somewhere else was here with this woman, on my knees, like a man praying.
I felt disoriented for a second, as if the world had somehow shifted. The pieces of myself that I earlier felt come apart in my chest drew back together. My heart seemed to stop for a moment then began to beat again in a different rhythm – slower and steadier than it was before. I sat back on my heels and pulled her into my arms with her legs straddling my lap. I held her tightly.
“I love you, James Anna,” I whispered.
James ran her hands over my shoulders and into my hair. The ring scratched bluntly against my scalp in a way that made me shiver. Her lips traveled from my ear, across my cheek to my mouth, her tongue no longer tentative. She leaned back and began to unbutton her shirt. I covered her hands with mine.
“I know you read your anatomy books but there are some things that they probably don’t write about.” I said.
“Such as, well, we might not be able to ... you know, the first time,” I said.
James gasped and captured my face between her hands. “I knew it,” she cried. “You are over-tired. I told you -- .”
“That’s not what I mean, James. Sometimes, if a woman has never been with a man, it might take a couple of ... tries.”
“I believe I understand what you’re saying. Not to worry,” she said firmly. “I have already explored using my fingers and a hand mirror and –.”
“You don’t have to explain,” I said.
“I could show you.”
“You are right that my books do not depict female genitalia as meticulously as they do male genitalia,” said James.
“I can probably fill in some of the details for you, cowboy,” I said.
“Are you sure you’re not too tired, because you seem to be taking a long time to get down there.”
“What? I’m not --.” I sighed. “Let’s just start over, here.”
I lifted her off my lap and unto the edge of the bed, gripped the hem of her pants and dragged them down her slim hips, peeling off her long jonny in the process. The bed was narrow so I remained kneeling on the floor.
I gently opened her legs with my hands on her knees. Her skin was soft from the oil she’d rubbed into it after her bath. Her slender legs were firm with muscle, as sleek and dark as polished wood. I started from her knee with kisses, little licks and nips, up to the tender hollow where the inside of her thigh met the mound of her sex. I ran my fingers through the sparse soft curls that were so different from Kitty’s, whose bush was bright and dense and covered her sex entirely.
I lifted James’s knees to her chest so that she was completely open to me. I could see the center of her, wet and startlingly pink amid the dark folds.
I looked up at James. She was propped on her elbows and staring down at me with intense curiosity. I knew she was going to watch everything I did so to forestall the inevitable questions, I figured that I would just explain everything as we went along.
“I’m going to – it’s like a kiss,” I said. “It feels good. It will make you ... ready for me.”
James exhaled softly. “Okay,” she breathed.
I stroked my tongue lightly along the length of her sex, and then pressed my lips softly against her bud. I lifted my eyes to James and asked a question with raised brows.
James nodded, shivering a little.
I got down to the business of meticulously educating her on various parts of “female genitalia” using my lips and tongue and fingers. I don’t know how much time passed. I barely remember taking off my own clothes. I sat back on my heels after leaving her trembling and gasping for the third time. I rubbed the back of my head.
“I think you pulled out a chunk of my hair,” I said, grinning.
“I didn’t know that would happen,” she gasped. “I felt like I was falling and falling! Does it feel like that for you?”
“I guess it does feel like falling, more or less, depending.”
“A lot of things. If I’m hungry or tired or sick.” I brought her foot to my lips and kissed her instep. “Who I’m with.”
“Will it be good with me?”
“It will always be good with you.”
“What you did to me…what is it called?”
“I won’t repeat what I’ve heard it called,” I said. I paused. Incredibly, I felt a blush bloom on my cheeks. “In Pawnee it’s ‘ta tsa’paat kiit’su --roughly translated into “to lap from the spring like a doe.”
“You did not lap me like a doe, Matt.”
“I’m not Pawnee,” I chuckled.
“We have not officially ... consummated.”
“I think this counts.”
“I shall like you to do it every day.”
I gazed with amusement at her very serious face. “I’ll do my best,” I said.
I stood from my kneeling position at the side of the bed. “Right now, I’m going to add those potatoes to that rabbit stew.”
I pulled on my pants and padded barefoot into the kitchen. As I tended to the stew, I found myself thinking that sandier ground would yield bigger potatoes than the pitiful ones I dropped whole into the pot.
I was also softly singing run Rabbit run/the dog’s gonna catch ya/run Rabbit run/you better get away.
I lit a lamp and opened the door to see if the snow was getting too deep to walk in without snowshoes. Mortimer stood stiffly on the porch staring intently into the trees.
I blew out the lamp and blinked into the darkness. It had stopped snowing but I couldn’t see much beyond the tree line, twenty yards away. I watched Mortimer sniff the air. He cocked his head at the trees, chuffed low in his chest then sniffed again. He looked up at me then turned with the dog equivalent of a shrug and ambled into the house. I peered into the dark. After a full minute, it came to me that I wore neither shirt nor shoes in the freezing wind and would incur the wrath of James should she see me. Also, even with the lamp out, I made a large and clear target, silhouetted by the light inside the house.
I closed the door and watched Mortimer drink from his dish of water by the fireplace. He was a good farm dog – protective of James and the other animals. He’d marked a territory in a wide semi-circle around the farm that James said even the wolves wouldn’t cross. If he wasn’t concerned, maybe I should not have been either.
But my years as a lawman told me to trust my senses and to always err on the side of caution. I barred the door, placing the thick, rough-hewn board in the heavy iron hooks embedded in the stone wall. I strode into the bedroom.
“Get dressed, James – in pants.”
“What is it, Matt?”
“Probably nothing. And hide your hair under your hat.”
James slipped of the bed and did as I said, watching me with wide eyes as I shrugged into my shirt. We both jumped when Mortimer barked loudly, twice.
“Quiet,” I hissed. James flinched and blinked up at me. “Stay here,” I said more gently. “If things get … rough, go out the window, run to the barn.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“You take Buck ride to Fort Hardy.”
“No,” said James.
She had that steely look in her eyes, like the time she pointed the buffalo gun at my head. She was as calm and still. Here was the gunman I saw in her that first day.
I went into the other room and came back with her rifle.
“Go to the pantry and stay there,” I said. “Hide behind the water barrels.” She could still slip out the back if things went sour. She nodded once but didn’t move.
Mortimer snuffled at the crack under the door, whining softly. He didn’t bark again.
“I’m going to be plenty embarrassed if it’s just a snow hare,” I whispered.
A horse whinnied in the dooryard. James raised her brows.
I eased over to the door and got my gun. There was the muffled thud of boots on the porch stairs.
There was a long moment when the only sound was the wind in the eaves and the snap of the fire. Mortimer reared up and put his paws on the door. His tail was up and his ears were pricked but he was quiet.
“Who’s there?” I called.
“Please. Could I trouble you to put up me and my horse in your barn?”
An outlaw would ask to come in the house.
“How many are you?” I asked loudly.
“Just me. I’m alone.”
Even through the thick door I could tell he spoke through chattering teeth. The voice was not that of a young man. I felt some of the tension leave my body but I cocked my gun and pressed against the wall when I lifted the door bar. I cracked the door. Mortimer stuck his big head through, his tail wagging.
“Hey, fella,” said the man. “I never met a dog that could talk.”
I swung the door open. The man on the porch was swaddled in blankets secured to his body with a thin rope around his shoulders. His hat was held low on his head by a tattered wool muffler knotted under his chin. He shivered violently. I stepped back so the light would fall on his face. Blue eyes sparked under bushy brows. My mouth actually dropped open.
“Doc?” I croaked.