Summary: It's been four long years of war and separation. But now the hostilities are over. But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them. Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Sorry to see you two going so soon,” Sam Cain, Territorial Marshal, said, pushing his hat back on his head to get a better view as he watched Kid hand a still sleepy EmmyLu up to Lou, already mounted on Lightning. “Sure y’all can’t stay through Christmas? We’d love to have you.”
“You know we can’t do that, Sam,” Lou smiled down at him. “Barnett could never hold the place together that long. We’re pushing things as it is.”
Sam laughed knowingly. His old deputy had fit in well, and happily, as their main, and only, ranch hand. But he hadn’t made any great gains in competence since he’d worked for first Sam and then later Teaspoon.
“We’ll miss you,” Emma said, hugging Kid one last time before he mounted up too.
“We miss you, too, Emma,” Kid said quietly as he pulled her tight against him. “Stay safe, you hear?”
“I think that’s supposed to be my line, young man,” Sam laughed, putting an arm around Emma’s waist as she stepped back from Kid’s embrace.
“I know…. it’s just….” Kid paused and stared off into the distance. “I know this ain’t been the visit everyone’s been wantin’,” he continued, carefully not looking at Lou, “but there’s too many folks missin’ right now. And I just can’t stand the thought of anythin’ happenin’ ta those what are around, ya know?”
“I know son,” Sam said softly, putting a hand on Kid’s shoulder. “I know.”
“They’ll be back, Kid,” Emma added. “Just as soon as they can. You know that?”
Kid nodded jerkily before turning to mount his horse so they wouldn’t see the tears welling in his eyes. What if they couldn’t make it back? What if they’d died in that infernal war? Trying to shake off the fear that wouldn’t quite leave him alone, he leaned down to take Noah from Sam. Cradling his son in his arms, he swore he’d try to get back to being the Pa and husband his family needed him to be. He didn’t know how, but he’d find a way. He couldn’t desert them, too.
Nudging Katy into motion, he turned her nose westward and began the journey home. Lou followed behind him, a packhorse attached by leadlines to Lightning. A chorus of goodbyes and merry christmases followed them down the street and out of the fort.
Fort Riley, Kansas
The young man with long, curly, light brown hair that hung below his shoulders, rode his horse with a relaxed ease that belied his tense watchfulness of the streets around him as he entered the fort. He’d been told there might be work for him here as a scout. He’d spent some time in the regular army during the war, but it hadn’t been for him. All those rules and regulations had more than chafed. So, he’d gone his own way, spending much of the war working undercover south of the Mason Dixon line. Since the end of hostilities, he’d slowly been working his way west again. He might not care much for Kansas but it was more his home than Virginia or Georgia would ever be.
Turning his palomino toward the first saloon he came to, James Butler Hickok slid off its back and tied the animal’s head to the hitching post.
“Don’t worry,” he muttered to it. “This won’t take long. I’m just gonna grab a bite ta eat, then find the commander ‘round here.”
Without a backward glance, he sauntered toward the batwing doors through which light, heat and laughter floated out to assault him. Pausing outside the entrance, he pulled the collar of his coat straight up, as much against the stares of passersby as a protection against the frigid, cutting prairie winds.
Putting one hand out in front of him, he pushed his way through the doors and strolled smoothly up to the bar. He slammed that same hand down on the dark, rich wood of the bar to get the barkeep’s attention.
“Got anythin’ ta warm a man on a cold night?” he asked bruskly.
The barkeep pointed at a handwritten sign perched against the mirror behind him. “Chili’s a dollar a bowl. Steak’s’re two. Or ya kin head over ta Ma Turner’s place down tha street and take yer chances with her slop. I wouldn’t recommend tryin’ the army food.”
Jimmy laughed derisively at the thought. “Had ‘nough of that durin’ the war,” he muttered. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a couple wrinkled bills and placed them on the bar. “I’ll take a bowl of the chili and whiskey.”
“Comin’ right up.”
The food may not have been the best, but it was hot and the whiskey burned. Good enough for a cold December day on the prairie, Jimmy thought to himself. It’d been a long time since he’d had any better.
Using the biscuit that came with the chili to sop up the last bit of juice in the bottom of the bowl, Jimmy let his mind wander back to those days when he’d been assured of a truly good meal after a long, hard ride. The pay hadn’t been the best in those days, but there’d been so much more to compensate.
He sighed. Better to just forget about it. Four years and a nasty war were too much to overcome. There was no going back. Especially not after the way he and the Kid had fought so bitterly at the end. Better to let them have their happily ever after while he got on with his ever after.
A wild, raucous laugh from the other corner of the saloon yanked the tired man out of his reverie. Looking up curiously, he wondered who it was. There was something oddly familiar about that sound. But all he could see was a bevy of saloon girls clustered around a table, avidly watching whatever was going on. Then one of them moved.
The face was older, the hair longer, the beard and mustache new. But it was him. His brother. The one who’d tried so hard over the years to remind Jimmy of the fun in life. But he’d been wrong, Jimmy thought. There was no fun. Just survival. He sighed and began to turn his back on his past, physically as he had symbolically so often. But just as he moved, the man looked up from his cards and met his eyes.
“Hickok?!” he gasped so loudly Jimmy could hear him all the way across the noisy saloon. Cody’d never been one for discretion, that was for sure. “Jimmy Hickok, is that you?”
“Damn it!” Jimmy muttered, slamming his whiskey glass down on the bar and pushing away from it, heading toward the saloon door. But he wasn’t fast enough.
Cody jumped out of his seat, throwing his cards down on the table. “I’m out,” he said absently, his eyes glued to his brother’s disappearing back. Hustling out into the cold Kansas night, he hurried to catch up. Slapping a hand on the other man’s shoulder he swung him around to get a good look.
“It is you!” he exclaimed, pulling Jimmy into a fierce hug. “By God it’s good to see you again. Ain’t none of us would’ve even know if you was dead or alive if it hadn’t been for that duel with Tuttle you got into over in Missourah. What are you doin’ here?”
“Lookin’ fer work,” Jimmy shrugged, pulling away from Cody and turning to check the stirrups of his saddle. Anything not to meet the other man’s eyes. “Heard the 7th Cavalry needed scouts.”
“Sure do,” Cody nodded, smiling. “Especially since I quit this morning. But you can’t join up yet. Wait ‘til after the holidays.”
“Whatever for?” Jimmy asked, exasperated already with his still too talkative sibling.
“’Cause ain’t none of us seen you in four years,” Cody said, the smile slipping from his face as he reached into the pocket of his coat to pull out a handful of letters. “And Emma and Lou’ve both been after me for months now ta come home and visit. They’d’ve written you, too, if they’d known how to find you. And I ain’t standin’ for the hidin’ they’ll both give me if I show up without you, now that I’ve found you!”
“Leave it alone, Cody,” Jimmy growled. “You ain’t changed a bit have you? Always stickin’ yer nose in. They don’t want ta see me. Don’t need ta see me. Not after all this time. After the way I left.”
“Rosemary? Is that what this’s about?” Cody guessed. “You oughta know they ain’t still holdin’ a grudge over that biddy. You dropped her fast enough once you got ta seein’ what she was really like.”
“We all know damned well he’d’a found some way ta get himself killed in that war,” Cody spat. “Wasn’t he the one introduced himself to ya as ‘born ta hang’? No, they ain’t holdin’ no grudges.”
“Then there’s the Kid….” Jimmy tried one last protest, pulling his coat tighter around him, whether to protect himself from the winter wind or from his own conscience even he couldn’t say.
“Jimmy, give it up,” Cody demanded, almost angrily. “Why do you think Emma and Lou have been so persistent? He’s feelin’ all sorts of guilt fer lettin’ us go off ta war without him, even if it wasn’t his side. You gotta know he turned his back on the fightin’ fer our sakes, much as Lou’s. Now, he’s wonderin’ if we’re even alive. And you know how Kid gets when he’s feelin’ guilty. Good Lord, man, he’s even worse than you are!”
Looking into his brother’s eyes, Jimmy could almost feel the promised welcome home.
“You sure?” he asked, hating the note of uncertainty in his voice.
“I’m damned sure,” Cody said, smiling and slapping Jimmy on the back. “Now, let’s get back inside where it’s warm. We’ll play some cards. I’ll beat ya like I always did. Enjoy the pretty ladies and then hit the road for home in the morning.”
Turning back toward the saloon, Cody practically dragged his reluctant brother after him. He didn’t know what Jimmy’d been through the last few years, but could tell it had been hard on him, perhaps harder than the rest of them. Well, he was going to enjoy this Christmas season whether he wanted to or not, Cody thought to himself with a grin.