High Plains Heartbreak
Garden City, Kansas 1884
“Jes…se?” A broken voice penetrated Jesse West's focus for a brief moment. He lifted his head. The rarest of commodities, a gentle breeze warmed by a kind, late-April sun seemed to kiss the tears streaming unceasingly down his cheeks. Then his gaze dropped back to the raw mound of earth at his feet. All around him, under the partial shade of wind-blasted oaks, other freshly dug graves – too many of them – clawed the earth apart. He dropped his eyelids.
Warmth penetrated the shoulders of his shirt. He did not react to the touch except to murmur softly, “Kristina.”
“Jesse, I'm so sorry. So sorry.” The grip of her capable musician's hands became a full-bodied hug as she crushed him from behind. She's so strong.
But not strong enough to stem the flow of tears, or to stop his heart from bleeding. Can a heart bleed to death? He wondered idly, staring at a furrow in the upended soil. Just bleed and die and leave a shell of a man who eats and breathes but isn't really alive? “I wish it had been me.”
“Oh, Jesse!” Kristina began to sob and her tears soaked into the back of his shirt.
Reluctantly he turned his back on the grave. Not like it matters. She's with the angels now, not in the cold ground. And it's not like I'll ever forget the sight. “Kris, I…” his voice broke. It was just as well, as he had no idea what to say.
“I'm so sorry,” Kristina sobbed again. “Lily was such a good girl. I was so happy for you both…”
Her words cut fresh lacerations in the bleeding wounds on his soul. The best girl, he replied silently. Every man's dream of a woman. How could this happen? Tomorrow was supposed to be our wedding day! The unfairness of life clogged Jesse's throat so badly he felt he could choke on it. I wish I would.
But here was one of his closest friends, standing five feet from her mother's equally fresh grave, trying to comfort him.
“I know, Kris. I…” He took a shuddering breath. “You're no better. Your poor mama…”
At his words she went completely to pieces, shuddering as she cried.
“Hey,” he said, lifting her face so he could look into her ocean-green eyes. She had been so ravaged by grief, every inch of visible skin between her heavy freckles had tear stains. Her snub nose ran unchecked. He handed her a handkerchief. She wiped without the slightest attention, her eyes locked on his. “Kris, I'm sorry about your mama. But at least you'll be away from all this grief soon. You'll be glad to get back to school, won't you?”
She shook her head. “I'm not going.”
Jesse's jaw dropped, the shock of her words cutting through his sorrow. “Kris, what?” His eyebrows drew together into a solid line. “You're the most talented musician I've ever known. How can you even consider not going back to the conservatory? How can you stay here in this gossip-factory of a town with all these memories?”
“I have to,” she replied, her lip quivering. “I can't leave Dad alone.”
“Cal can stay,” Jesse insisted. Let those two stallions battle it out. Cal can help at the general store.
“Cal left. When we woke up this morning, he was gone. Left a note on the table.” Her full lips, her prettiest feature after her eyes, twisted into a wry parody of a grin. “He said he'd had enough of Dad's bossy ways, and with Mom gone he was going to seek his fortune.” She sniffled.
Why that little… “I'm sorry, Kris.” This time the pain lashed her features. And rightly so. Poor Kris. With those freckles, who knows if she'll ever find a husband? And then to lose her career too. Life's unfair. At the thought of just how unfair, another tear escaped him, trailing down his wind burned cheek and moistening his stubble.
“You should go back anyway,” he told her with brutal honesty. “Go and live, Kris. You can't stay here. This town is a dead end. You'll never have a future here. Go and finish school and play your music all over. Don't let your dreams die.”
“I can't.” Desolate despair weighed down her pugnacious features into the caricature of a bulldog. “But at least I'll have my friends around me.” Her turquoise eyes seemed to plead. I know what she wants, what she'd never admit to, standing here over Lily's grave. But it won't be. I can't marry Kristina. I don't love her enough, and that's worse than being alone.
Slowly, his soul burning as badly as his eyes, he drove another nail into the coffin of her future. “Not me. I'm leaving in the morning. I don't think I'll ever come back.”
Eastern Colorado 1889
The San Juan Mountains thrust heavenward, snowcapped despite the uncertain warmth of March, clustered below a fiery sunset. In the waning light, the rocky peaks had darkened from their usual blue to nearly a purple tone. On the prairie below, a lone rider atop a silver horse galloped toward the massed rock formations of the foothills. Under his breath he muttered one prayer after another to a God he no longer respected, begging for time… more time… Please, God, let me be in time!
He crested the first hill at dangerous speed, his horse's iron shoes clattering and slipping on the loose gravel. Mercury snorted in protest, and despite his hurry the rider patted his mount's neck and reined in, slowing the pace. I can't do a lick of good if I kill myself and my horse along the way. And still the litany repeated unceasingly in the back of his mind. Please let me arrive in time. Please more time. I need a bit more time…
Time was against him, and every metallic clang of horseshoes on rock sounded like the ticking of a clock counting down the hours… the hours of his best friend's life. Death has been too hard on me. Jesse blinked against the sudden sting in his eyes. A crusty old bounty hunter like Clevis McCoy would not want to be remembered with tears. Most likely with a slug of moonshine and a pistol salute… I can arrange that. And Clev wasn't dead yet. Please. God, let him not be dead yet. Not before I say goodbye… and deal with the urgent business he mentioned in the telegram.
Mercury stumbled and righted himself again. Jesse reigned in a bit tighter. The sun had slipped further behind the mountains, under which Jesse now struggled to see enough to move forward safely. Damned old man. Why did he wait until the last minute? I came as soon as I could… couldn't turn loose a bail jumper… not even for this. He knew that. Hell, he taught me that. No time. No time.
From over the next hill a skinny finger of smoke rose towards the burnished and cloud-clustered sky. Those look like thunderheads. Damn it, the last thing I need is rain too.
But Jesse had no wood to knock, and the unwanted rain obligingly began to pour over him, sluicing out of the folds of his black hat in a stream that could hardly obscure his vision more than sudden veil of droplets between him and his destination. Mercury whickered a complaint as the soil under his hooves transformed into mud.
“Sorry, buddy,” Jesse muttered. “Sorry. We'll be there soon. Few minutes is all.”
Mercury, it seemed, was unconvinced by Jesse's reassurance. He continued to mutter and sulk in his equine displeasure with every step.
The slow trek over the hill and into the shaded valley seemed to take a hundred years, what with the rain and the growing darkness, and the horse's tendency to balk, but in the end the man and mount clattered up to the front door of a stone cottage nestled between two fat pines at the base of a cliff.
Wrapping the reins around one of the pillars that supported the roof of the porch, Jesse stomped up the wooden stairs, water sloshing uncomfortably inside his boots, and knocked on the unfinished pine door. A thick splinter embedded itself in his hand, but he ignored the sting, focused on gaining entry into the house as quickly as he could.
Slowly the door swung inward and Jesse strode forward, scarcely taking in the slight, high-cheekboned, red haired female form beside him, but offering a cursory tip of his sodden hat, more by rote than out of any sense of courtesy.
The familiar structure spread out before him, illuminated by a crackling golden fire which served to dispel the chill of the early spring rain. The large room consisted of a stove and table to his left, wooden-armed sofa and rough-hewn rocking chair to his right. Beside the rocker, a closed door led to an addition which contained only Addie's single, tiny bedroom. And beyond the sofa, behind a curtain, the sound of fitful wheezing filtered through to Jesse's straining ears. He released a shaky breath. Not too late.
“Mr. West?” A soft voice, its normally soothing tone stained with grief and stress, emerged from the figure beside him.
He glanced. The fiery-haired young woman regarded him with a look he recognized in her big brown eyes. I know that look of impending grief all too well. “Yes, Miz McCoy?”
“Want me to stable your horse?”
Normally Jesse would have declined the offer. He preferred to care for his horse himself, being a meticulous type. Besides, Mercury could be unpredictable, though Adeline McCoy seemed to have inherited unusual horse sense–along with her striking cheekbones and dark eyes–from her deceased Kiowa mother. And now she's about to lose her father, too. Poor little mite.
Jesse wondered, not for the first time, how old the girl was. While tiny in stature, a hint of curves under her homespun calico dress hinted at growing maturity. Fourteen? Fifteen? Surely no older. He shrugged. You're stalling. You nearly broke your neck getting here. Don't delay. She's a smart, sensitive girl. She can handle Mercury for a few minutes. Suppressing a twinge of guilt at sending the child out in the pouring rain, Jesse answered her, “I'd sure appreciate it if you would, Miz McCoy.”
She nodded, relief in her eyes at the thought of something constructive to do, wrapped a shawl over the bright beacon of her auburn hair and slipped out the door. Her feet, bare despite the cold, made no sound on the floorboards. Jesse gulped, took a deep breath and moved across the room to the curtain. With every step, reality seemed to fade until he could have sworn he was floating. His feet felt numb. His breathing grew shallower with every step until lack of oxygen contributed to his overall dizziness. Reaching the rear wall of the cabin, he laid a hand on the board. The sting of his un-dealt with splinter served to wake him up with a jolt.
“Clev?” he called through the curtain.
The response was a tortured groan. Jesse pulled back the curtain and his heart clenched. The man who lay prone on the stained and foul-smelling bed bore little resemblance to his years' long friend. Only the gunmetal grizzle on the sagging jowls and the intelligent blue eyes revealed the man who had once been Colorado's most successful bounty hunter. The rest of him had been rendered unrecognizable by the slow, agonizing process of the disease on his body. Consumption. The deterioration of the lungs, accompanied by sweating, weight loss, and eventually coughing up blood. I'll never forget the day he told me. He stood as strong as ever, but there was fear in his eyes. He'd stared down the barrel of a gun, and into the maw of a rattlesnake, and never flinched. But it's no surprise. It wasn't the death he feared, but the dying.
“Jess…” the man wheezed. Then his attempt to speak dissolved into a fit of coughing that ended in a mouthful of red saliva being deposited into a filthy handkerchief. Jesse swallowed so he wouldn't gag at the sight.
“I'm here now, Clev,” Jesse told his friend. “I made it, like I promised.”
Clevis gasped, trying to draw air into what was left of his lungs. His face turned even paler and his lips took on a bluish tint. Jesse watched in alarm, not sure what, if anything, he could do to help, and whether his friend was going to expire on the spot, without uttering another word.
At last, the gasping subsided. Clevis gave a tremendous wheeze and fell back, exhausted, against the pillows. “Jesse,” he whispered at last. “I'm glad you're here. Won't be… long now.”
Jesse nodded. There was no point in denying the obvious. “You said you needed me to do something for you. What was it?” Jesse cringed. If merely articulating his name had nearly brought about Clevis' demise, how could he explain what kind of favor he wanted? But instead of speaking, Clev waved toward his bureau, set at the foot of his bed. Jesse noticed a slip of paper sitting on top.
Glad for something new to concentrate on, he retrieved the scrap, trying hard to ignore the pinkish fingerprints in the margins, and read.