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Dierks Bentley: Long Trip Alone CD - Prodigal Son's Prayer

Title: Prodigal Son's Prayer
Fandom: The Young Riders
Characters: James Butler Hickok, Belle
Word Count: 4079
Rating: PG
Summary: Coming home isn't always easy.


Belle looked into the mirror and tried not to cringe from the vision. The early morning light outlined each and everyone of her twenty six years on the earth, the worry, the pain, the longing… it was written like an old army map across her skin, deep furrows from the heavy hand of a man.

She lifted her hand to touch her cheek, wondering what it felt like to someone else, hard, weathered… or would someone find her skin soft, welcoming. The tear was unexpected; she’d thought she’d cried them all years ago, but there it was shimmering in the light, hanging just above her finger.

It would have been easy enough to wipe it away, a fingertip would have been enough to dash it away, but it didn’t seem to matter. She had too much on her mind. Too much to consider and her head was fairly bursting with her thoughts.

When Carrie had returned to the Saloon a few days ago Belle could tell that she was still hurting. She was a mess, covered in dust and brambles along the edge of her skirt, but she could meet Belle’s eyes when she walked in the door and for that, she was grateful.

Since that day and Emma’s visit, life went on as normal for the others at the Saloon, but for Belle, her mind had been consumed with her own thoughts, with the past… and with the future. So many unanswered questions so many wishes gone awry.

“Mrs. Kingston?” The query was muffled through the door and barely audible.

“Yes? What is it?”

“There’s a man to see you.”

Standing up from her table, she crossed to the door and opened it quickly. “Who is it?”

“He said,” Kitty looked at the toes of her shoes as she tried to remember what it was exactly, “that you were waiting for him.”

*****
She opened the door to her office and froze, her gaze directed at the man standing before the window. His face and expression were shrouded with light; the late morning sun bathed everything on that end of the room in a blinding white wash and she watched him move. “What are you doing here?”

He looked up quickly and stepped into the shadows, moving toward her across the room. “I brought the papers you asked for, the deed to the Saloon and the homestead outside of town.”

“Oh, Mr. Garvey,” she laughed a bit, a little nervous giggle that belied her shock. “I’d almost forgotten that I asked you to stop by.” She sat down in her chair as he held it out from her desk. “Thank you.

He opened the folder and placed the papers before her, indicating with his fingers the locations where she’d have to sign. “It’s not the first time I’ve had someone change their name, I just didn’t realize,” he caught her measuring look and smiled reassuringly, “that your name… wasn’t your name after all.”

She picked up the pen from her desk, dipping it into the well and signing her name with a flourish. “Well, it was a bit of vanity on my part, I guess. I wanted a new start when I opened my business and there were so many new people coming into town at the time and pretty soon everyone called me Belle.

“Now, years later I had a realization,” she smiled, remembering the tearful hug she shared with Emma when she’d left, “it’s not the name that can make things different. I just needed to turn a corner and make the decision to move on with my life.”

Mr. Garvey blotted the ink and slid the document back into the folder. “I’ll file these at the courthouse and you’ll be… well, you.”

Belle stood and extended her hand to the solicitor. “Thank you so much for your help, Mr. Garvey. I hope,” she gave him a winning smile; “you’ll join me at the Saloon tonight as one of my guests.”

He waved off the idea. “I shouldn’t… it probably wouldn’t do to… uh,-”

“Be seen at the Saloon?”

The solicitor blushed to the roots of his hair. “I don’t mean any offense Mrs. Ki-“

“None taken, Mr. Garvey… and I’ll give your best to the Mayor when he stops by to play a few rounds of Poker this evening.”

“The Mayor?” The round lenses of his spectacles flashed as he turned to the window in surprise. “He plays poker? I play a little myself from time to time.”

“Good, I hear that he’s looking for a reliable fourth at the table… if you’re interested.”

“If?” His expression brightened in the dark room. “I dare say I would be honored to play… what time should I arrive?”

She filled him in on the details as she walked him to the door, her arm tucked lightly in his, her face free from lines for the first time in days.

*****

Jimmy reined his mount at the edge of town and fought with himself over the misgivings that threatened to turn him around. Threatened to make James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok turn tail and run.

Wild Bill didn’t run from ornery gunmen… he didn’t run from slavers… he didn’t run from insurmountable odds in a gunfight… but he could and had run from happiness. In fact, it had become survival for him. If you didn’t like your life too much… if you didn’t feel the overwhelming joy that could suck you under into contentment, then you didn’t hurt so much when the moment past. When the very thing you wanted more than life itself belonged to someone else.

“Coming or going?”

The voice startled Jimmy and he had to stay the movements of his mount as the tension of his own body leaked downward into the mare. “Mrs. Biddle, how are you?”

“It’s gettin’ cold and my back’s threatenin’ to turn into a pretzel if’n I have to keep at the woodpile any longer.”

“What happened to Willy Foster?”

She waved off the mention, her face puckered in frustration. “The boy ran off with one of Belle’s new girls… oh, she was fit to be tied. Had the whole place in an uproar… and the Marshal was running hither and yon tryin’ to find the two.”

“She didn’t want them to be happy?” He said the words, but he didn’t quite believe them… couldn’t. Not with her.

Mrs. Biddle poked his leg. “I didn’t say anything of the kind, Mister-gone-a-missing. What I said was she had everyone tryin’ to find them.”

“Yes?” The woman talked in circles even when he could understand her words.

“She wanted them home and safe; weren’t much more than that to the story. Didn’t matter what they wanted to do with their night-time, she wanted to know they had money to provide… couldn’t do much of that if’n they were missin’… now could we?”

“Yes… yes… I suppose.”

She shook her head, “Suppose. Humph, seems like all you young folks do is suppose.” Hoisting her shopping basket higher on her arm, Mrs. Biddle gave him a dismissive wave. “Suppose that you come home, suppose you want a life, suppose that a woman moves on… I can’t keep up with all the supposin’ goin’ on around me.”

*****

The door fairly flew off the hinges. “Jimmy you’re back!” That was all it took to empty out the entire saloon, or so it looked to a man worried over his reception. Eager hands grabbed at his saddle bags, nagging voices competed over the chance to tell him all the news and comings and goings since he’d left.

Carrie took his arm and steered him through the group and safely up the stairs to the door. Swinging them both around she gave the assembled group a moment to quiet down when they protested her actions. “He’s tired. Give him a few moments to get settled and then you can descend on him like the bunch of magpies we are.”

Jimmy had to laugh with them as they conceded Carrie’s point. Mrs. Biddle’s niece swung the door open and held it for the rest as they marched up the stairs to deposit his things. “Well, you certainly have them in control…” he turned to her and looked at her face, noting the dark shadows beneath her eyes. “What happened?”

“I was dead set on bein’ stupid.”

“And then she stopped you.”

Carrie gave him a look that was more amazement than confusion. “Did she-”

He slung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “You know better’n that.”

“Are you home to stay?” They walked up the stairs, heading to his room with her head on his shoulder. “Or are you going to leave again?” She stepped away from him when they reached the landing, folding her arms across her chest and lowering her gaze.

“That’s something I can’t answer yet.”

“Then when?”

Carrie started when the kitchen door slammed shut on the floor below. Jimmy leaned over the rail and smiled at the familiar voice that sounded through the house. “Where is everyone? We’re goin’ to have a busy night and there’s no one on the floor? Want a job?”

“Ummm yes, Miss Belle, I like my job.”

“Then get out there!”

Pushing away from the rail he gave Carrie a smile. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” An unintelligible shout came from below the stairs. “I’ll need some water.”

*****

A bath should have been a quick matter of a cloth, a cake of soap and a little splishing and splashing. Unlike other members of their Express family, Jimmy had never been one to sit and prune in a tub. Until tonight.

It had to be a combination of the long ride and the warm water that Carrie and a few other girls helped him carry up from the kitchen. He knew it wasn’t the overwhelming wafting perfume of lemons coming up from the water, he didn’t even like lemons. So it had to be the fact that he’d finally admitted the truth to himself, at least in some teeny little part of himself, he was home.

Leaning his head back on the raised edge of the tub he ignored the niggling doubts that worried the back of his mind and closed his eyes just for a moment.

*****

*BANG*

The explosion of sound had Jimmy scrambling for his gun, his sleep saturated brain forgetting for a moment where he was and what he was wearing.

“Jimmy!”

Or rather, what he wasn’t wearing.

“Holy sh-”

“Jimmy!” As he grabbed for a towel he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye. He’d startled her, probably more than she’d startled him, if he were to trust the flush coloring her skin. “What are you doing?”

Reaching over, Jimmy picked up the towel he’d laid over the back of a chair. “Well if it’s alright with you, I was-” he took his time wrapping the towel around his waist, “bathing!”

He knew by her sour expression that she didn’t like the wide wolfish grin he was sporting, and by the way she had her eyes glued to his forehead she wasn’t planning on admitting it. “So did you come in here for a reason? Or did you just plan on standing there with the door open so everyone can see the show?”

“What? Oh!” Belle turned around and slammed the door shut with nearly as much force as she’d banged it open. “I didn’t mean to, it was… you just…”

“Startled you? I’d say the same, but you’d just go and tell me it’s my fault so let’s just get the niceties over with and say you missed me.” He stepped over the edge of the tub, and resisted the urge to dry off, the towel around his waist being the only one he had.

“Missed you?” He heard the rise of color in her voice so he didn’t have to see it on her face, but the way her knuckles turned white around the doorknob made him laugh. “Don’t you mock me, Hickok.” She whirled on him and he could see the spit of fire in her eyes. “Don’t you dare… not after… not when…” her fingers dug into her skirts, messing up the fancy drapes at the sides, “I can’t believe you… standing there… just standing there…” she pointed at his… feet, “dripping on my carpet.”

Jimmy looked down and wiggled his toes against the carpet. “Well, I could towel off,” he lifted his gaze , barely able to make out her figure between the wet strands of hair that fell from around his ears, “you wanna stand there while I do, or-“

She reached back and pulled the door open to step out, but whirled around at the last minute to give him a look. “Get dressed… we’re havin’ a full house tonight and you’ve been shirkin’ your duty long enough.”

Belle closed the door behind her, leaving him standing there, dripping and wondering if he should have kept riding.

*****

The noise was deafening in the Saloon by the time Jimmy came down, dressed up in his best suit. He’d left it thrown over the footboard of his bed when he’d left. He’d have to remember to thank Mrs. Biddle for the fine care she’d shown his things.

Passing through the door way, Jimmy tipped his hat toward the gentleman at the first table that nearly fell over himself to stand up in his presence. “Welcome, have yourself a good time tonight… just mind your manners with the girls.”

Nodding a little too quickly, the man sat down. “Yes sir, Mr. Hickok. I will."

Jimmy repeated the greeting as he walked around the room, earning himself the grateful smiles of all of Belle’s girls as they followed in his wake. The mayor offered him a seat at his table and Jimmy was sorely tempted when he caught site of the deck of cards laid out on the green felt. “Game night, Mr. Mayor?”

The older man chuckled and lifted his glass. “It’s Tuesday night, Hickok. You know its poker night on Tuesdays.”

“Maybe later, sir. I’ve got my job to do.”

Tipping his hat to the men at the table, Jimmy turned away so that the Mayor wouldn’t see the smile on his face. ‘Tuesday. Hell, for him every night is poker night.’
Charlie Akers paused and reached for his glass after he finished the last note of the song he was playing. “Long time no see, Hickok.”

“Not long enough if you’re still here, Charlie.”

That got a laugh. Charlie didn’t like it much. “I thought we made our peace, Hickok.”

“We’ll make our peace when you stop bein’ a man.”

Charlie hit his knee and pounded a sour note on the keyboard. “That ain’t never gonna happen, Hickok.”

“Sounds like the same answer that I’d give you, Charlie… so you just keep playin’ them pretty songs of yours, keep your hands off of the women, and I won’t break your fingers.”

Carrie walked up, putting a hand on his arm. “He’s been good since the last time, Jimmy. He ain’t never bothered us since then.”

“Good… just make sure you keep it that way, Charlie. These girls tell me everything.”

Jimmy turned offering Carrie his arm, which she took gratefully. As they stepped away, Charlie piped up. “When you’re here.”

Ignoring the steadying pressure of Carrie’s arm, he turned around and gave Charlie a look that had sent better men riding home to mama. “I’m here, Charlie, don’t you make the mistake of thinkin’ I’m gonna turn my back ever again.”

Charlie’s eyes flickered like he was considering where to go… if he needed to.

Jimmy saw that he’d made his point clear. “Then you go right on back to playin’ and earn your keep. I’m watchin’.”

Swallowing a bit hard, he turned back to the piano. “Anything you’d like to hear, Mister Hickok?”

“Just play us something pretty, Charlie… something we can dance to.”

“We? Jimmy, are you askin’ me to dance?”

His attention was drawn away from Carrie as Belle stepped in through the door way. “I think Mrs. Kingston wouldn’t like me takin’ up your time, Carrie.”

“Oh, fine.” She gave him a glare but gave a smile to the next man passing by. “Have it your way, Jimmy.” The cowboy stopped and gladly took her arm from Hickok and Jimmy without a look back moved toward the door.

Belle had a way of quietly standing by and watching the world when she wanted to. There wasn’t much anyone could do to spot her when she was of a mind not to be seen. Still, Jimmy could see her. Had seen her from the moment she stepped off the stairs and into the doorway, and if he thought about it he was sure he could have sensed her on the second floor landing. She was always there, on the edge of his thoughts.

She stopped a step inside the doorway and met up with one of her girls, pausing to listen to a whispered comment before disappearing again.

He should have let it go. Should have let her go, but he couldn’t. Jimmy Hickok didn’t have enough sense to let stay, so he followed her down the hall and nearly ran into her coming out of the kitchen.

“Whoa, there.”

“Oh God, Jimmy,” she barely managed to keep the plate from ending up flat against his coat, “what were you thinkin’?”

“I was thinkin’,” he took a plate in one hand, “that you had something big on your mind and I should help.”

She grudgingly gave him the other plate and a half a smile. “With the exception of dirtying up your coat there, that was a great idea. Thank you.” She darted back in the kitchen and popped back into the hall with another couple of plates. “Saves me the trip.”

Jimmy stepped to the side and let her walk by him; figuring he would need to follow her to find out the destination. “’sides, if you got food all over my jacket, I guess I could sweet-talk Mrs. Biddle into launderin’ it for me.”

“Really?” She looked back over her shoulder, “why her?”

Focusing his gaze on the curve of her hip, he nearly ran into the coat rack by the door. “Cause she, whoa… ‘cause she did such a nice job with this coat the first time.”

Belle paused with her hip against the door and a wicked twinkle in her eye. “You can thank Mrs. Biddle all you want, but all you’d most likely get from her is a blank stare and an order to get out of her kitchen.”

She pushed the door open and stepped through into the Saloon; Jimmy following quickly behind her. “What are you talkin’ about?”
Belle offered a greeting to the man at the head of the table and set a plate down in front of him. “Mister Mayor, here-”

“Belle, I thought we’d gotten past all of that. Yes?”

“Bob,” she smiled as she set down the other plate, “Chet. Good to see you all here.”

She took the plates from Jimmy and set them down on the table. “Mr. Garvey, I trust that you are enjoying yourself?”

Before the solicitor could answer, the Mayor gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Oh, he’s fittin’ right in. If I’m not careful, he’s going to take a lot of my money.”

“Just don’t get into any fights, now,” she cautioned, “or Mr. Hickok here will have to display his skill at breaking heads and busting jaws.”

She turned and walked away from the table leaving Jimmy to amend her statement. “That’s bustin’ heads and breakin’ jaws… I really ought to get a calling card.” Tipping his hat, Jimmy left the table.

He trailed her through the mob of patrons milling about on any available foot of floor. “Hold up.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bronson… you’re more than welcome, come again.” She moved on, nearly swallowed up by a bunch of soldiers taking their leave seriously. “Hello… thank you for coming.”

“Hold up!”

She came to a stop just inside the hall. “Are we going to make this a habit, Jimmy?”

“What?” He was frustrated with her, avoiding his question. “A habit of what?”

“Nearly running into each other ever five steps? When you were gone I didn’t have to worry about the tips of my shoes.”

Jimmy took hold of her shoulders and pulled her into a corner by the door. “Then just answer my question.”

She looked down at one of his hands and then back up into his face. “If I knew it was bothering you so much, I’d have answered it right then in the middle of the Saloon.”

He stared down at her and waited.

And waited.

And waited again. “Well?” He leaned closer.

She leaned closer, too. “Well what?”

“The answer?”

Belle smiled wider. “I forgot the question.”

He growled and stepped back, flexing his hands over and over. “The coat… Mrs. Bi-”

“Oh!” Belle moved closer, stopping just behind him. “I did it.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know how to do laundry. I’ve been doing it for years. You too for that matter.” She ticked the years off on her fingers and held them up for him to see.

“Yeah, but I’ve gotten out of the habit and usually Mrs. Biddle-”

“Yes, but I was there and you weren’t… and someone has to pick up your messes.”
She froze, her shoulders shrinking a bit as she stood there. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Yeah, you should. You have every right.”

She shook her head. “I shouldn’t… I’m sorry, can we start again?”

Jimmy gently nudged her chin to get her to look up at him. “Again? Really, I-”

A creak of noise from the staircase gave them ample warning that they weren’t alone. She turned away and he let his hand drop to his side as two of the girls descended the stairs and disappeared into the main room of the Saloon. She moved to follow them, but Jimmy’s hand caught at her arm.

“Wait.”

She shook her head. “We’ve got a full house tonight and those folks expect me to make my rounds.”

“They’ll live.”

“Not my business… Jimmy, I’m glad you’re back. It’s been… different with you gone.”

“Different?” He lowered his hand when he heard the sour disappointment in his tone, but it paled in comparison to the knot in his middle. “I guess I deserved that. You’ve had your fill of people leavin’, Belle. Why should you feel any different about me?”

He could see her twisting with emotion, her face momentarily lost all color. “You never made me any promises, Jimmy. You never needed to. It’s not my place to ask, and-”

“You’d never ask me to stay.” She looked wounded, she looked tired. And he hated himself for it. “So what if I asked?”

“Asked? For what?”

“Can I stay?”

She looked like she was the recipient of the business end of a hornet. “This isn’t a joke, Jimmy. You can’t play with my mind like this… you can’t-”

“I’ve been playin’ up ‘til now, darlin’ and it’s got to stop sometime. I figure it’s gotta be me. If you want. I’ll get down on my knees and beg… I’ll do it.”

“Jimmy, don’t.”

The door at the end of the hall swung open and Mrs. Biddle poked her head out. “Make him get down… show he means business, ‘cause I’m gettin’ an earful over here in the kitchen and it’s startin’ to make me sick.” She stared past Belle at Jimmy. “You know you got a place here, boy, don’t make her heartsick over this whole thing… or the next time you be wantin’ a warm bath, don’t come askin’ me.” The door swung shut, leaving them in relative silence again.

“We’ve got to talk.” They both said it… and they both waited for the answer. Eyes locked in a curious battle of wills they finally broke away and headed back to the main room. Truce or avoidance… one rarely knows at times like these.

Tell me there's mercy for the wanderin' soul
I lost my way but now I'm on my knees
If it's not too late won't you tell me please
You gotta place for me, a little grace for me


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