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?
Denver City, Colorado Territory
“Seems like forever since I been through here,” Cody murmured as he and Hickok rode down the main street into Denver City.
“Hmph,” Jimmy grunted. “Don’t’ look like it’s changed much.”
“Nope,” Cody grinned. He pointed toward the first in a row of saloons marching down the street. “Looks like Gahan’s Saloon is still up and runnin’. Wanta stop and wet our whistles.”
“Whatever,” Jimmy responded laconically.
Cody looked at his riding partner out of the corner of his eye. He sure wasn’t getting into the spirit of this trip, the younger man thought. Well, maybe a stop for some food, drink… and a little something else, might help change his mind.
“He always did have the prettiest ladies servin’ up the day’s special,” Cody smiled dreamily. “I wonder if Buffalo Rose is still there?”
“Nope,” the bartender answered, shaking his head sorrowfully. “She struck out on her own, oh… ‘bout three years ago. Got her a place down in Golden now. Does a real good business with miners and such, I hear.”
Cody lowered his head mournfully. “The place ain’t the same without her.”
“Why don’t you go introduce yerself ta Miss Sophie,” the bartender suggested. “She’s prettier than Rose was at her best. And, honestly, Rose was startin’ ta show her age a bit.”
Cody laughed as he followed the man’s pointing finger toward a group of miners, gamblers and men dressed in suits and top hats in the corner. A woman’s silvery laugh could be heard coming from the midst of the group.
“Shall we?” Cody suggested, sweeping his hat off to point the way for Jimmy.
“Sounds like sour grapes ta me,” Jimmy muttered, moving past Cody.
“Yeah, I just can’t see Rose suddenly getting grey and haggard! Now there was a woman what knew how ta keep a man’s attention, if ya know what I mean.” He dug an elbow into Jimmy’s side to emphasize his point. Jimmy grinned at him over the top of the whiskey glass he was lifting to his mouth.
“Keep yer savage hands off the wimmin!”
“I was just--”
“Don’t know what they’re thinkin’, lettin’ a wild injun in this place with civilized folk!”
“Shut yer trap, chief. Better yet, I’ll shut it for ya!”
Jimmy’s hand stopped it’s upward motion toward his mouth and he slowly lowered his whiskey glass as he turned in the direction of the commotion, just as the harsh words turned to the smacking of fists hitting flesh.
“Should we?” he asked abortively, tilting his head in the direction of the burgeoning fight.
“Looks like someone needs a bit of help,” Cody agreed, pulling off his gloves and tucking them into his belt before cracking his knuckles to limber up his hands. “Let’s go teach them some manners, Hickok.”
Moments later, the two tall men, one dark, one light, were wading into the fight, side by side.
“Catch!” Jimmy called, picking up a smaller man he’d already disabled with a solid punch to the jaw and tossing him back toward Cody.
“Why?” Cody grinned, stepping aside and letting the man crash into the table behind him instead. Turning, he slammed his elbow into the diaphragm of a burly mountain man coming up behind him with a chair lifted over his head. “Uh unh,” he tisked. “No fair bringing a chair to a fistfight!”
He followed up by slamming both his hands, hard, against the man’s ears simultaneously, sending him reeling away from the fight zone.
“Hey, Jimmy?” Cody called as he went after his third target, a tall man in a fancy frock coat and top hat.
“What Cody?” Hickok answered, slightly out of breath after tossing a short, fat trapper over the bar at the bartender, who was waiting with a billy club.
“Think he’ll thank us?”
“Do you really care?”
“Not so much,” Cody laughed. “This is almost as much fun as spending the night with one of the ladies… and don’t cost near as much!”
Suddenly, the two men stopped moving, standing back to back as they warily searched the saloon for more targets. But everyone was either watching the fight, skedaddling out the door or lying on tables, broken chairs or the floor moaning in pain. Slowly, Cody and Hickok lowered their fists.
“So, which one did we rescue?” Jimmy asked, looking around at the scattered bodies.
“I’m bettin’ it’s that one, there with the dark hair,” Cody pointed out a man lying on his stomach up against the wall. “He’s the only one what looks a little Indian ta me.”
Jimmy moved over to the man and bent down to wrestle him up and over his shoulder. With a grunt, he stood up and turned to Cody.
“So, what now?”
“Let’s get a room at the hotel across the street here,” Cody suggested.
“Lead the way.”
“Would you hurry it up!” Jimmy complained. “This gent ain’t exactly light.”
“I’m hurryin’,” Cody muttered, struggling to get the key the clerk had handed him into the lock of the room they’d just rented for the night. It had taken some doing to convince the clerk to rent them the room, what with dragging in an unconscious man and all. But a few menacing glares and casual dropping of names had done the trick. Finally, after a last jiggle, the lock gave way and the door swung open. “Got it!”
“About danged time,” Jimmy muttered, shuffling through the open doorway to the large bed that dominated the room. Turning to let the man hanging over his shoulder slide bonelessly down onto the bed, he added, “I hope you don’t snore like you used to. It’s gonna be bad ‘nough sharing this bed with two of ya’s. At least this one’s so out he won’t kick me.”
“Um, Hickok,” Cody gulped, paling. “I don’t think it’s my snoring you’ve gotta worry ‘bout.”
“What, ya think I’m gonna wake myself up snorin’?” Jimmy sneered.
“Uh, no,” Cody said. Pointing to the man now sprawled out on his back on the bed, he added, “But he might.”
Jimmy turned and looked down into the bruised and battered face of his brother, Buck.
“What the hell happened to you?” Lou nearly shouted.
Martha stiffened and quickly pulled the blankets back up around her shoulders. “No… nothin’,” she muttered.
“Don’t tell me nothin’,” Lou said sternly, walking up to the woman child and ripping the blankets away from her hands to get a better look at her back. “I know the signs of a whipping when I see one. What happened?”
“I… I was bad,” Martha nearly whispered, on the verge of tears.
“Ain’t nothin’ you coulda done ta deserve this,” Lou hissed between her gritted teeth as she realized Martha’s dress was literally glued to her back with the fresh and dried blood. “You got any other clothes in that wagon?”
Martha shook her head, practically in tears. “No ma’am. I only had the two dresses. The other was… ruined…. after.”
Lou nodded briskly as she stood up. Moving over to where they’d stashed their bags, she began to dig through one until she found what she was looking for and pulled out the blue, woolen dress she’d worn to go shopping with Emma just the day before. It felt like a year already.
“Can you walk to the creek yourself?” she asked as she kept pawing through the bags, looking for soap and the medicine kit they always carried. “Or do you need some help?”
Without answering, Martha began to try to stand up, but only made it to her hands and knees. Lou sighed as she rushed to the girl’s side.
“You know, it ain’t a sin ta ask fer help when ya need it,” she lectured.
“Don’t want no charity, ma’am,” Martha stubbornly insisted, trying to push Lou’s helping hand away even as she leaned on it to reach her feet.
“Ain’t charity,” Lou said. “It’s just bein’ a good neighbor’s all. Now, let’s get you down to the creek and cleaned up.”
Forcing Martha to lean on her, Lou led the girl to the creek, upstream of where Kid and Tucker had gone to wash up. Soon, she had the girl seated on a rock at the creek’s edge, her dress unbuttoned but still hanging to her back.
“This is gonna hurt some,” Lou said softly. “I ain’t got no choice but ta scrub a bit, ta clean the wounds and get the dress free of them, ‘fore I kin put the poultice on and bandage ya properly.”
“I kin take it,” Martha said stoutly, bracing herself by grabbing hold of the edges of the boulder she sat on. And true to her word, she took it. Lou never heard a sound out of the girl as she first used water to soak the dress free of the wounds, then cleaned them with soap and water. But, as she mixed water with salt, cornmeal and crushed thyme and oregano to make a poultice, she saw the grimace on the girl’s face and tears of pain slipping down her cheeks.
“We’re almost done,” she said more gently as she began to carefully spread the mixture on the girl’s back.
Lou sat next to Kid by the fire, watching as the flames danced merrily in the deepening depths of oncoming night. After treating Martha’s wounds, Lou’d managed to get her back to camp and into bed. Together, she and Tucker had wrangled some supper for the children. It had been nothing special, just some biscuits and beans, but you’d have thought it was manna from heaven the way Ellen, Albert and Tucker had wolfed it down. Then, they’d put the children to bed. Now, it was just the two of them.
“She wouldn’t tell you anything?” Kid asked.
“Nope,” Lou shook her head. “I’ve never seen anythin’ like it, Kid. She never made a sound. And I know it had to hurt like hell. Half the wounds were infected. When I pulled the dress free I re-opened even the ones that had started to heal already.”
“We’ll get her into see a doctor as soon as we get to town.”
Lou shook her head again. “I don’t think you’ll convince her to do it. She’s so skittish. I don’t know what happened. But that child is scared out of her mind.”
Kid pulled Lou closer to his side, resting her head on his chest, running his hand through her silky hair which had grown longer in the last few years and now reached her waist.
“Hopefully, by the time we get ‘em ta town she’ll be ready ta talk.”
Denver City, Colorado Territory
Buck groaned as he slowly surfaced. He wondered bitterly where he was this time. This wasn’t the first beating he’d taken just for being an Indian over the last few years. But it was the worst he’d had in awhile. He knew he’d be feeling this one for some time to come and wondered what he’d done to make the spirits so mad at him.
With steely determination, he started to roll over, intent on getting up and finding a place to empty his bladder, which was suddenly demanding all his attention despite his various aches and pains. The movement told him he probably had a broken rib or two, where his attackers had kicked him several times.
But his roll was stopped short by another body. What the hell? he thought. Had they thought they’d killed him and dumped him at the undertaker’s for burial?
Forcing his eyes to open against their will, he squinted into the early morning sunlight streaming through a nearby window. Alright, so he wasn’t at the undertakers. Turning his head slightly, he ran his eyes up the body of the man lying next to him until they came to rest on an all too familiar face.
“Cody?” he whispered.
“I’m here, too,” another familiar voice muttered from behind him. “Now, would ya shut up and let me get some sleep? It’s bad enough yer snorin’s fit ta wake the dead, ya gotta chatter at ‘em, too?”