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The Road Less
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Chapter Two...coming soon!!
"Can ya believe it? Wild Bill -- dead!"
"Shot in the back of the head they say...."
"Heard it was all over some woman the two shared."
"Nah, that man was jus' tryin' to make a name fer hisself. Everyone knows that there's no chance of gettin' a gal when Wild Bill sets his eyes on 'er."
"....mostly women there at the funeral...."
"....best marshal the West's seen."
The voices came almost like gunshots as he passed through the crowded saloon, like his gunshots, the gunshots the man had heard so often coming from a pair of Ivory handled Colts in his youth. The saloon was abuzz with news that was already almost two weeks old by now. Wild Bill Hickok was dead and buried now, but somehow his legend had continued to grow even with his death. Figures that Jimmy'd go out with as much notoriety as he'd lived with, Kid thought bittersweetly.
The jealousy that had once destroyed his friendship with the man who'd become the legend had long ago dissipated, leaving a kind of bittersweet admiration behind. Many was the time when Kid longed for his old friend so that they could maybe patch things up and renew their friendship. That longing, though, had been tempered by the belief that neither of them were the same men they'd been before. Somehow, Kid had known that there was no way that they'd ever run into each other again this side of eternity, but he'd followed Jimmy's career anyway through the articles in papers, the exaggerated stories he'd hear as he traveled of Wild Bill's feats.
The man was constantly surrounded by women all the stories said. As he listened to some of the outlandish tales, Kid strained to hear something, anything of a certain woman who should be with Hickok. He'd hear about Jimmy traveling with a sister or a mistress whose name no one could quite agree on. Seems the marshal had many a woman on his arm who looked strangely like a mistress of another name from another town. What it boiled down to was that Wild Bill had fewer mistresses than everyone thought and one in particular, a petite woman with auburn hair and large brown eyes, had a recurring role in the production of James Butler Hickok's life. Where had she gone after his death? What had happened to her?
God, you're pathetic! Kid told himself. Fifteen years, a war, and several lovers later he was still obsessed with her, the one woman he'd ever loved who'd rejected him and married his best friend. He'd often wondered what he'd do if he ever saw her again. He still dreamt about her at times, about loving her, marrying her, and raising a family with her. Those dreams were even more torturous than the ones he'd had after the war because his dreams of her had never and would never happen. You can't even say her name in your mind, he berated himself.
The sound of his name tore Kid from his reverie. He looked up at Hank and couldn't help but grin. The bartender was in his element, pouring drinks almost as fast as he could take the money the ranchers and farmers would toss his way. Torrence wasn't a large town, but it grew on the weekends as the men came in from the ranches and farms in the area to spend their money on entertainment. During the week, Hank worked for Kid on his Southern Rose Ranch. On weekend nights, though, he tended the bar at what had been his daddy's saloon, the Last Rattlesnake.
Kid leaned against the bar, ignoring the slight jostling he was getting from the inebriate man next to him. "Busy night Hank," he commented.
"Sure is, Gabe," Hank replied with a grin.
Another customer down the bar was hollering for another draft. Hank turned to him. "Ya've had three already, Jones. You'll wait fer the next one. And I'll thank ya not to be hollerin' at me in my own place here! Damn farmers. They come in here one night a week and they're gettin' sloppy drunk within the first ten minutes. No restraint in these men," he muttered to Kid. "Well, what brings ya in tonight, boss? Little Katie finally chatter your ear off?"
Kid chuckled as he thought about his three-year-old niece. She'd started talking when she was twenty months old and hadn't stopped since. She was constantly firing a barrage of questions at her beloved uncle and Kid had come to tremble when he heard the word, "Why?" But he loved her and her siblings Susannah and Michael with a passion he'd thought long dead and so he tried never to do anything that would discourage their interest in learning about the world. If he couldn't answer their questions, then he'd do his best to find out. No, a darker reason brought him to the saloon that evening -- a darker reason everyone else chatted up as gossip.
"Set me up, Hank. The usual," he said quietly.
Hank's eyebrows came together concernedly, but he didn't hesitate. He walked into the room behind the bar and returned a scant few minutes later with a rather large bottle of brandy -- the good stuff he didn't usually sell to just anyone. First off, it was expensive. Secondly, being from good stout Irish drinking stock, Hank had a fine appreciation of spirits and he hated to see someone drink an excellent bit of alcohol without appreciating the beauty of it.
However, Gabe Davis was not like the others in the saloon that night. He rarely drank and when he did, well, you knew the man was hurting something awful. The watered down stuff that passed as the whiskey and rotgut most of the area men drank were not for Davis. Brandy was his vice and for a man who drank rarely, he could certainly pack it away. Hank guessed there'd been a time when Gabriel Davis had taken to drinking more frequently, as had many of those who'd returned from the war. That was not a time Davis ever discussed, however.
Hank poured a generous amount of the amber liquid into a sifter as Kid watched. Across the bar, Hank's dealer, Charlie stood up on a table holding his shot glass and calling for order. As the patrons settled, each feeling the importance of what the dealer had to say, Charlie looked around the room. "Everyone, got a glass?" he said.
The saloon's patrons nodded or voiced their assent.
"Good," Charlie said with a smile. He held the glass in his hand high. "To Wild Bill Hickok -- legendary marshal, gunfighter, and just plain legend. May you have a good horse, good liquor, and many lovely ladies to entertain you in Paradise. Rest in peace."
"To Wild Bill."
As the patrons went back to their
talking and card games and drinking, Kid lifted the glass of brandy.
"Rest in peace, Jimmy," he whispered and then drank the entire glass.
He was riding hard over the plains, the tall grass waving in the breeze. Ahead on the horizon, shadowed by the low sun was the outline of a man and a horse. Pulling on the reins, he slowed his horse. For some reason, it didn't faze him that he was riding Katy, his old pinto, even though she'd died two years before.
"I was wondering when you'd get here."
Kid dismounted and looked at the man, now that the sun wasn't in his eyes. Jimmy stood, holding Sundancer's reins and playing with a long piece of grass he held in his gloved hands. He looked the same way he had fifteen years earlier. There was no mustache, no blood or bullet hole in his head where he'd been shot. Again, it struck Kid that he wasn't surprised or afraid, knowing he was seeing a man who was supposed to be dead. "Where is here?" he asked. "Am I dead too? I knew I shouldn't have had that last drink."
Jimmy laughed good naturedly. "No you're not dead. At least not yet, anyway. This is just a crossroads between the worlds," he said. "We may meet here again when it's your time, but that's not yet."
"Then what am I doin' here, Jimmy?"
"You're dreamin'. I got special permission to meet you here, but I don't have a lot of time. I need your help, Kid. Lou needs your help," he said quietly, seriously.
Kid shook his head. "Lou doesn't need anyone. I learned that lesson a long time ago, Jimmy. You should know that considering you were the one who benefitted from that little lesson," he replied, trying not to let his bitterness show.
"Things ain't always what they look like, Kid, you oughta know that -- especially when it comes to one Louise McCloud," Jimmy said with a grin. When Kid didn't reply, the smile faded from Hickok's face, to be replaced by a worried frown. He took two steps forward and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I need a favor, Kid. It's the last one I'll ever ask and it's real important."
He didn't have much time, he'd said and suddenly, Kid felt an urgency to get on with whatever business, he'd been called here for. When Jimmy touched his shoulder, it was as if he could feel everything the former gunfighter felt. He could hear the whispers of hundreds calling for them to hurry. "What is it, Jimmy?" he asked, looking up into the man's face with concern.
"I need you to take care of Lou for me," he said in a voice that seemed to echo in Kid's head.
"What?! No, I can't. Anything but that, Jimmy," Kid said. His heart pounded at the mere mention of her name, but the passion he'd once felt for her was now replaced by fear. It had taken him years to get over the way she'd torn his heart apart. Years of despair and suicidal tendencies during wartime had finally taught him that for some reason, Fate refused to comply with his wishes for death. Slowly, he'd found reasons to go on each day. He was self-aware enough to know that all that work would be for naught with one glance from her.
Hickok smiled sadly at his friend. "You know that little connection you feel between us, well it goes both ways, Kid. I know you still love her, I know you're scared to let yourself fall for her again, but you're all I've got. I can't tell you everything, because that's her job, but I can tell you that you really have no idea what it was like for us. All those images you have in your head about her being this wonderfully happy wife and mother, this little perfect world you think we had, it's all wrong," he said firmly. "We had our reasons for doin' what we did and none of them included deliberately hurting you. Yes, I loved her. Hell, we all did, but things weren't the way you think."
"Then how were they, Jimmy?" Kid asked angrily. "I was there that day. I watched the two of you coming out of the church smiling and looking so very happy and in love. Three weeks after I left, she'd moved on!"
Jimmy's eyes hardened. "You're right, it was three weeks later. Three weeks after you ran away without a word. Three weeks with no idea if you were ever coming back. Three weeks of Lou crying herself to sleep every single night and watching the horizon every single day hoping and praying you'd come back. After those three weeks we had no more time left to wait for you to come to your senses!"
"This is a waste of time," Kid muttered. "It's my dream and I don't have to stand around and listen to this." He turned away and began to stalk back to Katy.
"Kid, wait!" Jimmy shouted. When Kid stopped, but didn't turn back around, he continued. "Look, I can't change what happened back then or since. I can't tell you everything, because the whole story is Lou's to tell. All I know is that I took care of her for you and now I need you to take care of her for me. She's not the same woman she used to be. There's been too much grief and hardship that I couldn't spare her from. I'm afraid this might be too much. You've got to save her!"
The tone in Jimmy's voice, the rising despair and desperation, spoke to Kid's heart more than anything else. He turned back to face his friend. "Save her? From what?"