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Keepin' Company

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Calamity frowned, squinting as she looked down the hill. The last thing they needed was visitors while she was trying to figure out what the hell was going on in her head. She’d made her excuse to Katie, taking off up behind the cabin as though going to visit Herb Potter, but now Katie had made to fetch water. Visitors were not part of the plan, especially when they were as tenacious as…

“Bill,” she muttered to herself. He was familiar as he jumped off his horse and let himself into her cabin. A moment later he re-emerged. His voice came floating up the hill – he was calling her name and Katie’s, obviously looking for them both. She almost moved towards him, then froze as Katie emerged from the curve of the creek, bucket in hand.

They spoke for a few moments, and even Calamity could tell Katie was trying to make Bill understand something. It wasn’t until another horse arrived – Danny Gilmartin, she’d know him anywhere – their conversation ended. Something happened, something Calamity didn’t understand, and Bill came storming up the hill.

“What the…?” she said to herself. She took her eyes off Bill for a moment and was stunned to see Katie and Danny standing close, too close, their hands entwined.

Something inside her cracked.

“Dammit,” she heard herself say. What was happening? Was she crying? Her face was wet, and was she sitting down now?

“Oh, dang,” she said. Here she was bawling like a girl, like a weak female, just because Danny…and Katie…

Looking down the hill, it was obvious they were smitten with each other.

How could she compete with that?

“Oh, dang,” she said again, dropping her head in her hands.

“Calam?” she heard.

“Go away, Bill,” she said without raising her head.

“Calam…”

“Go away, Bill,” she repeated. She felt him sit down beside her.

“You saw them,” he said.

“Yeah,” she replied stuffily.

A hand landed on her shoulder and she jerked automatically, snapping, “Get your hands off me!”

To her surprise he pulled away. To her greater surprise, she wasn’t entirely pleased about it.

“I know how you feel,” Bill’s voice came.

“You don’t know nothin’, Bill Hickok,” she said. Sniffling, she raised her head, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “You don’t know nothin’ about me.”

“I know you fancied yourself in love with Danny Gilmartin,” Bill said. His words could have been fighting words, but they lacked the fire of their usual exchanges.

Calamity looked at him. His voice was gentle, and why hadn’t she noticed how kind his eyes were before now?

“I thought I was, once,” she said carefully, leaving out mention of Katie. “But I was lookin’ for somethin’ that weren’t there. He ain’t never been in love with me.”

“No,” Bill said. “I don’t think he was.”

Calamity felt her eyes fill with tears again, and she leaned forward against her knees as she bawled.

He wasn’t…and neither was she.

One of those thoughts hurt a hell of a lot more than the other, she realised.

“Oh let it out,” Bill’s voice sounded in her ears. “It’s a hell of a shock, ain’t it?” he sighed. “Katie’s pretty gone on Danny, too.”

“You was…in love with Katie?” Calamity sat up and looked at him in amazement.

“I thought I was, but Katie had her say, and she showed me…well. Funny, ain’t it?” Bill said. His voice was less than convincing as he waved one arm toward Danny and Katie, still standing at the cabin below them.

“No,” Calamity said. Bill’s eyes were compassionate, and she found herself saying, “No, it ain’t.”

“You and Katie gonna be okay?” Bill asked. He pointed one hand down the hill towards her cabin. “Looks like she and Danny are gonna get pretty cozy.”

“Yeah,” Calamity said, frowning. “I mean, it’s gonna be strange, being alone in my cabin now. I’ve got used to havin’ her around.”

“You and her’ve been good friends,” Bill said.

“Good friends,” Calamity repeated. “Yeah.”

Bill looked at her, waiting.

“What?” Calamity said. Bill knew her better than anyone, and she knew him too – and that was the look of an ornery old coyote who wouldn’t let a thing go.

“Good friends?” Bill said. The smirk on his face was clear enough. “Are you sure that’s all there was, Calamity Jane?”

“Yeah,” Calamity said, knowing she sounded defensive. “O’course. Katie is a lady, Bill Hickok. She’s lookin’ for a husband, not…” She cleared her throat, unable to even form the words.

“So she wouldn’t want to be anything but friends.”

Ouch. Hearing it said out loud hurt more than she thought it would.

“No,” Calamity said firmly. “She wouldn’t.”

“But you ain’t,” Bill said pointedly. “You ain’t no lady, Calam.” His implication was clear and for once, she didn’t deny it. No-one knows me as well as Bill.

“No,” Calamity replied. “I don’t guess I am.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. Calamity didn’t know why Bill didn’t just go away, but the idea of being alone was somehow less appealing than having him there, so she kept her mouth shut.

“I reckon Katie and Danny’re gonna get married soon,” Bill said, his tone pushing her again.

“Yeah,” Calamity replied. “I reckon they are.” She sighed, and this time when Bill’s hand settled on her shoulder she found herself leaning into it.

“You’ll get over him,” Bill said. “And her,” he added even more quietly.

“You’re a good friend, Bill,” Calamity said. “Don’t reckon I’ve told you that before.”

He was quiet so long Calamity would have thought he’d gone if it wasn’t for his hand on her shoulder.

“I don’t reckon we’d have been such a good match,” Bill said at last. “Katie and me.”

“No?” Calamity said. It was distracting, sitting so close to Bill. Her heart was beating faster – why was that? She’d thought only Katie could do that to her…but she’d never sat with Bill like this, having an actual conversation.

“Not sure I’d get used to a proper set up house,” Bill said. “I’m more used to roughing it, truth be told.”

“I don’t know what I was thinkin’, hankerin’ after a Lieutenant,” Calamity said. “I don’t know nothing about keepin’ house.”

Bill’s hand was warm on her shoulder and Calamity found herself leaning further into it until it slid across to encircle her shoulders.

“You could learn some,” Bill said.

It was strange to feel his voice vibrating so close to her. Strange but not bad, she admitted to herself. He was warm too. Another plus she hadn’t anticipated.

“I guess I could,” Calamity allowed.

“Katie’d teach you, if you’d let her,” Bill said carefully. “Just ‘cause she’s gettin’ married don’t mean she ain’t wantin’ to be friendly no more.”

What is he talkin’ about?

“Yeah,” Calamity said distractedly.

Hard to concentrate with Bill so close.

“You should ask her soon, before she and Danny get all settled bein’ married.”

Before everything changes.

“Not much point,” Calamity said, “learning all those fancy bits just for me.”

“Oh?” Bill’s arm tightened reflexively.

“I mean, I don’t need…” she sighed. “I don’t reckon I’d figure all them things out good enough for someone else.” Calamity tried to laugh but it wasn’t convincing, even to her. She pulled at the leather wrapped around her wrist, toying with the end of it. What was goin’ on with her?

She’d thought she and Katie might have something between them, but Katie had made it clear she was looking to get married. Calamity’d swallowed the pain, wondering if she’d ever feel the same again. And now, sitting with Bill, almost the same thing was happening, and their conversation was making her realise how similar they really were. So if Katie was determined to get married, to marry Danny from the look of it…

“I don’t know,” Bill said, “I reckon you could learn anythin’ you put your mind to.”

“You really do believe in me, don’t you?” Calamity said, frowning. “Why is that, Bill?”

“Who else’s got my back like you?” Bill asked. “And I’ve seen you, Calamity, there ain’t a mule out there as stubborn as you.”

Calamity glanced at him, pulling unconsciously at the leather strips again. “How come you can say that without gettin’ my back up, Bill Hickok?”

Bill didn’t speak, but turned to look at her. Calamity felt him shift and unconsciously matched him, not realising how close they were sitting until his face was so close she could almost…

“Bill?” Calamity said, hearing the question in her voice without really understanding it.

When he leaned closer, relief flooded through her – closer was better – and when they kissed, it was clear in her mind.

Finally.

It wasn’t Danny, it was Bill.

“Bill,” she gasped, when the kiss broke.

“You reckon you get it now, Calam?” Bill asked. His voice was strained, she thought; it was hard to tell over the thumping of her heart in her ears.

“Yeah,” she said. “I reckon I do.”

Her mind was racing, a muddle of emotions swirling – relief, joy, and something very close to regret.

Katie’s face rose in her mind, and she frowned. Regret?

Before she could really ponder that, Bill spoke.

“I don’t reckon it’s worth getting a preacher out here twice,” Bill said. “If he’s comin’ for Danny and Katie, might as well…” he trailed off, eyebrows raised in a clear question.

“Are you sayin’ we should get married, Bill Hickok?” Calamity asked him in astonishment.

“If you’ll have me.”

“I will,” she replied, and suddenly they were kissing again, and it was as right as it had been the first time. Calamity could feel the smile on her face when they parted, her hands on his chest as he spoke.

“And Katie?”

“What about her?” Calamity replied, caught off guard by Bill’s question. She sat up a little, waiting for him to explain.

“Do you think she’d want...what do you think she’d want, if you talked to her?”

“What…what do you mean?”

Bill sighed. “You and she…shouldn’t have to give up your friendship, just because you’re getting married,” he said, and the look he was giving her told Calamity how carefully he was choosing his words.

“Is that what you meant…”

“I don’t reckon it matters who makes you happy, Calam, as long as you’re happy,” Bill said. “And if you and Katie make each other happy sometimes, I ain’t one to stand in the way of that.”

Calamity looked at him, shock and hope writhing together in her chest. “I’d have to…see what she says.”

Bill nodded. “So go and talk to her.”

“What, right now?”

“Yeah,” Bill shrugged. “The Lieutenant’s gone, so Katie’s down there on her own.” He smiled at her, the expression shockingly intimate from so close. “Go on.”

Calamity looked at him, trying to read his expression. Why was he encouraging her to do this? Was it a test? Was he checking to see if she would do it or not?

“You don’t…you wouldn’t mind…”

“Go,” Bill said.

Impulsively, Calamity kissed him again before standing and striding down the hill.

+++

“So you talked to Katie, then,” Bill said, later.

Calamity had been astonished to find his horse still tethered out the front of their cabin when she’d emerged an hour later, intending to head into town to find him. Instead she turned, scanning the hill until her eyes settled on the same patch of ground he’d been when she left.

He spoke as she made her way up the hill to him.

“Yeah,” she replied, knowing her smile was visible.

“And? You gonna tell me what happened?” he asked.

She sat down beside him, recalling the hesitant words she and Katie had exchanged. “We’ve agreed to…keep each other company. Sometimes. When Danny’s away on a scoutin’ expedition or somethin’. Don’t want her gettin’ lonesome.”

Bill nodded, a smirk growing on his face.

“Are you sure this ain’t a problem?” Calamity asked him. “It ain’t exactly what people do, ‘s far as I know.”

“And what would you know?” Bill asked. He raised his hands as Calamity straightened indignantly. “Easy, easy. I just mean, folks tend to keep themselves to themselves, especially if they’re doin’ somethin’ people might get funny about.”

“Right,” Calamity said guardedly.

“And if you and Katie keepin’ each other company makes you both happy,” Bill said, “it don’t bother me a bit.”

“Really,” Calamity said.

“Calamity Jane,” Bill started, then stopped, grinning at her. “You are as stubborn as a mule,” he told her, stepping in and pulling her close. She felt herself stiffen, then relax into it.

“Maybe I am,” she admitted. “That gonna be alright by you?”

“Absolutely,” he replied. “Ain’t nothin’ about this I got a problem with.”

“Even me and Katie keepin’ company?” she asked.

“Nope,” he said. “No problem at all.”