Summary: It was supposed to be an ordinary trip into town for the Cartwrights, but dying wasn’t on anyone’s list. (Part of the Ties That Bind AU series)
Rating K+ (2090 words)
Ties That Bind Series
No Ordinary Day
It had the beginnings of an unremarkable, ordinary day— a weekly trip into town, like so many others, with no hint that this one might be any different from the ones before.
The Cartwright family arrived in Virginia City that morning with a list of sundry errands and items of business, mixed with a little pleasure—stops at the mercantile, the bank, Hiram Wood’s law office, the post office, the dressmaker; a few social calls; perhaps a beer or two in the saloon before finishing up with a meal at the hotel—in other words, the usual stuff of any given Friday. With no particular urgency, the five parted company in front of Cass’s General Store, each with their own agenda of things to do and people to see.
It would be fair to say that dying was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The thing that surprised Jilly the most was how easy it was. In fact, the thing so many people held in mortal terror was practically a non-event. In all honesty, it was probably because she hadn’t seen it coming and didn’t have even a second to think about being afraid. It was over before she knew it was happening.
In those last moments, she had been walking down the main street, on her way to somewhere she would never arrive. Her brain had no time to process the stray bullet that pierced the soft flesh at the base of her skull, and she didn’t feel the rough boards of the sidewalk driving splinters into her cheek as she fell. The world faded as she was swept away from all sensation into a soft darkness where she was hardly more than a breath of air.
The darkness slowly swirled into gray, and then light, revealing a frantic, seemingly impossible tableau unfolding before her. People were crowding and shouting; a woman was crying. A disheveled drunk in the grip of two cowhands slurred a tearful apology as they dragged him toward the jail. A man wearing a badge lifted her up from the sidewalk where she lay, and she saw the blood spreading across the back of her dress. How could that be? Find her Pa and her brothers, he barked to someone as he rushed her into a house.
Her Pa and her brothers—she had only a vague memory of them. Would her father keep her picture in a frame on his desk along with his three dead wives? It seemed an odd thing to recall with everything else so quickly slipping away. She thought of all the things she would never do. She would never be sixteen. She would never fall in love, get married, or raise a family. In a few years, there would be no one to remember she had even existed. Not that any of it mattered.
Four men were running, pushing into a room where a sad-faced doctor met them, shaking his head. I’m so sorry, he said.
The man with the silver hair made a gut-wrenching sound and seemed to crumple like a paper doll. The biggest one caught him and guided him to a chair, steadying him there with one hand on his shoulder, while he covered his eyes with the other and choked on a sob. The youngest put a fist to his mouth, stifling a cry, then turned his face to the wall and wept openly, while the one in black clutched his hat in front of him, streaming silent tears.
Their grief was a crushing weight in her chest, as if all the air had been sucked out of the room, and for the first time since it happened, she felt afraid.
Someone spoke behind her. “Come away, cherie. This will do you no good. You must leave them to their sorrow.”
The voice resurrected an ancient memory, etched in her brain the day she was born, buried but not forgotten.
“Don’t be frightened.”
Her mother was beautiful, exactly the way she had always pictured her. She rushed into her arms.
“Oh, Mama, something terrible happened.”
Her mother stroked her hair, murmuring softly, “It’s all right. It’s over now.”
“Those men—I think I’m supposed to know them, but I can’t remember.”
“You will, in time. For the moment, it’s better this way.”
She looked into her mother’s eyes, wise and dark yet full of light at the same time. “Are you really here?”
“What happens now?” The question sprang from curiosity, not fear.
“For how long?”
“Not long in the way you think. Here a thousand years is like a day.” She took her by the hand. “Come, I want to show you something.”
They were standing high on a hill overlooking the lake she recognized. It was bluer than she had ever seen it, framed in stunning contrast by the trees and matched only by the sky.
“A sight that approaches heaven itself.” The words formed on her lips without any recollection of where she’d heard them.
Her mother smiled. “Your father used to say that. He couldn’t have known how right he was.”
“Do you remember?”
“The good things, yes.”
“Did you ever wish you could go back?”
“Not really. One quickly learns to let go of that life. We all die sooner or later, and though the timing wasn’t my choosing, I have no desire for the troubles of the living.” She touched her daughter’s cheek, and her smile seemed sad. “Time doesn’t matter here, but in the world, it’s everything, and not one minute is truly ours. From the moment we’re born, it’s only borrowed. It can be a friend or an enemy, depending on how it’s used. Even a few seconds can change the course of many lives, and the burden always falls on those left behind. Your father knows that too well.”
She couldn’t remember her father. The world seemed years and miles away as she gazed over the water with her mother’s arm around her. She closed her eyes and tipped her face toward the streaming light, unbound from all that once was, at peace with whatever would be.
She opened her eyes to Joe regarding her with an amused look on his face.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Were you asleep just now?”
“I was just enjoying the sunshine. Maybe I did doze off for a few seconds, I don’t know.”
“Did you visit the Fordhams?”
“They weren’t home when I stopped by, so I just came back here to wait for you.”
“Well, I still have to pick up the mail. You want to come with me or would you rather stretch out in the wagon for another forty winks?”
“Aw, you’re cute when you try to be funny. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll walk down to Mrs. Henderson’s to see if my dress is ready. She promised it by this afternoon.”
“Suit yourself. Adam said Pa wants us to meet him at the International House for lunch so maybe you should go straight there when you’re finished.”
“All right, I will.”
She headed off in the opposite direction down the main street. Stepping onto the sidewalk, a peculiar sense of the familiar struck her, as if she had experienced the moment before. The feeling was strong enough to slow her steps until she stopped and looked around. Nothing seemed amiss or unusual, and the feeling left her as soon as it came. Scolding herself for her unfounded apprehension, she started to move on but found her heel caught between one of the boards. She was attempting to extricate it when Sheriff Coffee came up behind her.
“Hello Jilly, looks like you might have a problem there.”
“I do seem to be stuck.”
“Let me see if I can help.” He took out his pocket knife and knelt down, prying the board up just enough to free her. “I believe that does it.”
“Thank you very much.”
He stood up. “My pleasure,” he replied, smiling. “I hear you’re gonna be leavin’ us again soon.”
“Yes, I’ll be going back to San Francisco in a few days.”
“Your Pa sure was happy to have you home for the summer after all these years. Hope you won’t stay away too long this time.”
“I’ll try not to.”
She thanked him again and promised to stop by his office next week to say goodbye. She had only taken a few more steps when the first shot rang out, freezing her in place. The sheriff ran ahead of her to the spot where two men were disarming a drunken cowboy.
The commotion drew a crowd of onlookers. “It’s all right, folks. Trouble’s over,” the sheriff assured them. “You’re lucky you didn’t kill somebody,” he scolded the man as he escorted him to the jail. Jilly watched them, beset once more by that same unsettling feeling. Her hand unconsciously went to the back of her neck, and she shivered.
Hoss hurried toward her. “You all right, Little Bit?”
His use of her childhood nickname made her smile. “I’m fine.”
Joe was at her elbow, his earlier mocking grin replaced by a look of concern. “I knew you were headed this way, and for a few seconds I had an awful feeling.”
She met his eyes gravely. “For a few seconds, so did I.”
They crossed the street to where Pa and Adam were waiting.
“Nothing like a nice, quiet morning in town,” said Adam.
“I suppose all’s well that ends well,” said Pa. “Is anybody hungry?”
“Ain’t nobody gotta ask me twice,” said Hoss.
“Me neither,” said Joe.
“Wait for me.” Adam followed them around the corner.
“Boys—when are they ever not hungry?” Pa chuckled. “Well, young lady, may I escort you to lunch?”
On impulse, she answered his invitation with a hug.
“What was that for?”
The look of happy surprise on his face brought an unexpected lump to her throat. “Pa, does a girl need a reason to hug her father?”
“No, not in my book.” He smiled and planted a tender kiss on her forehead. “Come on; let’s catch up with your brothers.”
The day ended as predictably as it had begun, with Joe and Hoss hunched over the checkerboard, Adam ensconced in the blue chair with a book, Pa nodding in front of the fire with the newspaper in his lap. Jilly watched them from across the room, absorbing the scene as though from a great distance, and it made her want to smile and cry at the same time. She would soon be leaving them, and this time it was by her own volition. It had seemed an easy choice at first, but as the day drew nearer she had the niggling thought that she might never return. There was no reason for it—at least none that she knew, yet the feeling persisted, along with others she could not explain, like the one she had that morning in town. It was enough to give her pause, to take a closer look at the things she had taken for granted and store them up in her heart, just in case. Come what may, this would always be home. Moments like these were what she would remember after she was gone.
Leaning against the desk, her hand brushed the gilded frame perched at the edge. She picked it up and studied the portrait. Maybe it was because she was growing up, but lately she felt drawn to the mother she had never known, empathy for the woman who had loved these four as she did now.
A triumphant whoop from Joe signaled the end of the game and a defeat for Hoss. Adam closed his book; Pa rose from his chair and stretched. As the clock struck nine, ticking away the time they had left, Jilly concluded there was really no such thing as an ordinary day. Each one held something precious and extraordinary if you were willing to look for it.
She set her mother’s picture back in its rightful place. Glancing up, she caught her father watching her, and she returned his smile.
Sometimes you didn’t have to look far at all. Sometimes it was there in plain sight, right in front of you.
“Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
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