Herb Potter was an excuse. Calamity knew he was fine, but after the confusion inside with Katie, she needed some thinking space. She walked blindly outside, but it was only a few paces before she stopped.
“I gotta know,” she muttered to herself. She took a deep breath and turned to go back inside, only to run directly into Katie.
Something clattered to the ground, but Calamity’s world was full of big brown eyes, wide and staring right at her.
This is not helping…
Calamity blinked, pulled back enough to recognise that she’d reached out automatically to steady them both, and she was holding Katie close. She felt warm and right…just like before.
“Sorry,” she said, stepping back automatically.
“I thought you were going to see Herb?” Katie asked.
“Yeah,” Calamity said. “I was, I just…” she trailed off.
“What?” Katie asked.
“How come you changed your mind,” Calamity blurted, “before?”
“Changed my mind?” Katie repeated. She looked confused.
Calamity twisted the leather tied around her wrist, rolling it nervously between her fingers. “I thought…but then…the thing about the baking,” she said awkwardly.
Please understand, don’t make me say it.
Katie’s face changed. “Oh, Calam,” she sighed. She bent down, righting the bucket that had dropped from her hands earlier. “I didn’t change my mind,” she said, her eyes full of regret. “But we can’t…”
“We can’t?” Calamity said. “But why can’t we?” She had the idea Katie was trying to explain something she didn’t quite understand.
“Two women living together, ignoring the interested men, in a town like this…” Katie’s eyes tried to explain.
“Oh,” Calamity said finally. She still had questions, but the message was clear.
We can’t be more than friends.
“We can still be friends,” Katie said.
“Friends. Sure,” Calamity replied, bundling her disappointment up tight inside.
We’ve already had this conversation. How could the same thing hurt again?
“If things were different…” Katie murmured.
“Yeah,” Calamity replied gruffly.
“You know, Bill’s a good friend of yours,” Katie started a few moments later.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Calamity replied with a snort. Her mind was still working on ignoring the sting of Katie’s gentle rejection, but Katie’s suggestion was ridiculous enough to register.
“The rest of the town would,” Katie retorted. “He’s always got your back, hasn’t he?”
Calamity’s mind cleared, and she levelled Katie with a stare that had been known to run men out of town. “What exactly are you sayin’, Katie Brown?”
To her surprise, Katie put her hands on her hips and returned the look without flinching. “That even though he might fancy himself in love with me, Bill Hickok spends an awful lot of time defending you, Calamity Jane.”
Calamity blinked at both the words and the confident tone. “Really?”
“Really,” Katie confirmed. “He barely knows me, Calam – I’m pretty sure he’d be happier with a woman that could shoot and ride like you.” A smile played around her mouth. “And with the ball coming up, it might be the perfect chance for you to remind him you are actually a woman.”
Calamity felt herself snort again. “Not sure that’s somethin’ anyone around here’s ever noticed.”
Katie smiled into her eyes. “I did.”
“Yeah, you did,” Calamity murmured, her heart skipping a beat. “You looked closer. Closer’n anyone.”
“Maybe not quite like this,” Katie indicated Calamity’s newly acquired gingham dress, “but in a ballgown, you’ll show every man in town you’re a lady.”
“And Danny?” Calamity said automatically.
“Danny?” Katie said pointedly.
Calamity nodded, but she was surprised to realise after a second that Bill’s reaction was more important to her than Danny’s. She chewed absently on the leather strip again, mulling the idea over.
When’d that changed?
“You don’t fool me, Calamity Jane,” Katie said, pinning her with a stare. “You and Bill Hickok are as thick as thieves and stubborn as a pair of mules. If you’d both just be honest, you’d make a right well matched pair.”
“Don’t talk foolish,” Calamity said. “Everyone in Deadwood knows I’m,” she felt herself colour, “soft for Danny Gilmartin.”
“Yes, because you let them see it,” Katie retorted, and her eyes saw right through the front Calamity showed the world. “But you know he’s not interested. So he’s a safe bet.”
Calamity looked at Katie, feeling her face set as she fought the urge to confirm the truth Katie had uncovered so deftly. She lasted all of one minute before her shoulders sagged in submission.
“How’d you learn to know all this?” Calamity demanded. “I ain’t never told nobody this!”
“A woman’s touch?” Katie said with a slight grin.
Calamity grunted, thinking. “So what now?” she asked. “I don’t even know what’s what no more.”
Katie shrugged. “You go to the ball with Bill, I’ll go with Danny.”
“And then what?”
Katie smiled at her. “A double wedding, maybe?”
Calamity felt her eyes widen. “Wedding?”
“Well what else would we be talking about?”
Calamity stared at her, heart thumping, unanticipated excitement coursing through her. “So what do you suggest I do, Katie Brown?”
“You need to go and talk to Bill,” Katie said, and somehow it sounded easy when she said it.
“Right,” Calamity said. She wondered if Katie could hear how little idea she had about what to do next.
“Oh Calamity,” Katie said with a smile. “Go and tell him Danny and I are getting married. Trust me, the conversation will work itself out.”
“What, now?” Calamity said. “Wait, what? You and Danny?”
“Yes,” Katie said. “I have to speak to him, too.” She pointed to the horse tied up at their place. “Bill’s down there.” Her finger moved to the approaching horseman, recognisable even from here as a tall Lieutenant. “And if I wait out the front, we’ll both get our conversations.”
“Right,” Calamity said, taking a deep breath. As she watched, Bill came out their back door, calling both their names. As soon as he disappeared back inside, Calamity started down the hill.
“Bill?” She stepped inside, watching as he replaced the photo of Katie to the mantelpiece.
“Calam,” he said in surprise. He opened his mouth to speak, noticing her dress, then stopped before blurting, “Cabin looks different.”
“Yeah,” she said, half distracted by his attention. Bill didn’t look around the cabin when he mentioned it – his eyes were locked on her.
He don’t never look at me like that.
And when had his eyes become so fascinating? She’d never really looked. Too busy defending herself. “Katie’s been helpin’ me fix the place up a bit.”
“She’s a great gal,” Bill said, turning suddenly to point at Katie’s picture.
“That she is,” Calamity replied. Why was this so awkward? There were usually more words than they needed, talking over each other; today they’d barely said anything and she felt as clumsy as a newborn foal.
“Is she around?” Bill asked. “Kinda wanted to ask her somethin’.”
“She and Danny are gettin’ married,” Calamity blurted.
“What?” Bill turned to look at Calamity, the shock clear in his face.
Calamity could feel her eyes prickling. “They’re gettin’ married,” she whispered, and goddammit if her voice didn’t crack on the last word.
“Katie and Danny?” Bill repeated. He started pacing, looking back and forward to Calamity.
Calamity nodded, pressing her lips together. She watched Bill, marvelling at how expressive his face was now that she was actually taking notice. To her surprise, she could read his face.
Upset, frustrated. Not angry. Worried?
“Are you in love with Katie?” The words slipped out before she knew where they came from.
Bill stopped pacing, facing Calamity, the confusion on his face clear. “What if I am?” he said defensively.
“But you barely…” Calamity trailed off. She stopped talking and looked at him.
Without speaking, Calamity watched the expression shifting on his face, biting her lip to keep quiet and just concentrate.
Finally, comprehension came. She’d never really tried to see it before. So busy talking, and fighting, she’d never just…looked. Tried to understand.
“You’re not,” she said with sudden certainty.
Bill opened his mouth to disagree, but she cut him off.
“Nobody knows you better’n me, Bill Hickok,” Calamity said fiercely, “so don’t you lie to me.”
Bill’s mouth snapped shut.
The cabin was silent.
“I ain’t,” Bill said. He cleared his throat. “I ain’t in love with Katie.”
“Right,” Calamity said. She frowned. “But...”
“Sayin’ I was in love with Katie was easier than…than bein’ in love with you,” he interrupted crossly.
“What?” Calamity said.
She stared at him. His words were ringing in her ears.
“Oh, come on, Calam,” Bill said, pacing again. “You’n me’re better matched than…than anybody.”
“We are not!” Calamity said automatically. “We fight like a pair o’ pole cats, you an’ me!”
Bill snorted. “That don’t mean we ain’t the same, Calamity Jane.”
Calamity crossed her arms, turning away from Bill. Her head was whirling – was Bill telling the truth? She knew he wasn’t in love with Katie – his lie was as obvious to her as the tracks of a wounded ruffian – and her eyes told her he was telling the truth.
But how can that be right?
When his hand landed on her shoulder, she jerked it off automatically, turning, feeling her shoulders tense. He was standing close, his face oddly vulnerable as she looked at him.
“I don’t think we’ve ever actually had a conversation without cussin’ at each other,” he said quietly.
“Prob’ly not,” Calamity replied. She managed half a grin through her thundering heart. “Don’t know if I’ve ever had a conversation that’s gone that-a way, if I’m honest.”
“Honest?” Bill grinned back at her, still a little wary. “Not sure I’ve heard such a thing from you.”
She felt herself tensing up, but the slight smile told her he was teasing.
“Well,” Calamity said, “things around here have been a mite different lately.”
“That they have,” Bill replied. He dropped his chin, staring at her intently. “So, Calamity Jane.”
“Yeah?” Calamity replied. Why was her throat so thick? And she was swallowing – her mouth was awful dry. Heart racing, fingers shaking…just like when Katie’d touched her cheek like tha-
“Bill,” she whispered, amazed at what she had just recognised inside herself.
Bill was no long just Bill.
There must have been something in her face, because he stepped forward, raising his hand again. This time when it landed his fingers brushed her cheek, tucking her hair behind her ear. Like Katie.
And not at all like Katie.
Hesitantly, she stepped closer, not entirely certain what she was doing. Bill’s eyes were brown, kinder and more open than she remembered, not to mention far closer than she’d ever seen.
What the hell am I doing?
They both moved at the same time, closing the gap between them. She was kissing Bill – or he was kissing her – it was hard to tell through the sudden rush of movement, hands and lips, bodies pressing together.
It was surreal, and exhilarating, and right.
And just as suddenly, she was breathing hard, fingers twisted into Bill’s coat as she met his shocked gaze, close enough to feel his breath on her cheek.
“Well…” Bill said breathlessly. “That’s different.”
“Yeah,” Calamity said. She felt her coat draw in and realised Bill’s hands were clenched in its fabric. The knowledge that they were holding onto each other was somehow reassuring.
The silence stretched out between them.
“So, does this mean…” Bill trailed off.
“It means we need to get hold of a preacher,” Calamity said.
“We do?” Bill replied.
“Well now I know that I love you, Bill Hickok, I ain’t lettin’ you get away,” Calamity said defiantly.
Was that a stupid thing to say?
Before Calamity could complete the thought, Bill was kissing her again, and the answer was evident.
No. Not stupid.
Not stupid at all.
Two weeks later, Calamity was frowning at the window boxes outside her cabin. She’d watered the seedlings like Katie had told her, but still nothing was growing.
“Dang it,” she muttered. Tempting though it was to give up, she wanted to show Katie she could do at least this one thing. Lord knew her cooking was as terrible as it always had been, not that Bill seemed to care.
Just as the thought of Katie – who she hadn’t seen since their double wedding the previous week – brought her down, the reminder of Bill made her smile. Her, Calamity Jane, with a husband, for goodness’ sake. Who would’a thunk it?
Shaking her head, Calamity turned towards the sound of a horseman coming up the track. It wasn’t Bill – he tended to a slower gait, never being in much of a hurry; this was the crisper step of a soldier. The figure astride the horse was unmistakable.
She watched him approach without moving, unsure why he would be visiting. They hadn’t spoken much since she’d fixed him up after the ambush at Eagle Ridge, and fair enough. She’d made a right fool of herself, and he’d more or less fallen for Katie right after. They’d exchanged best wishes to each other at their weddings, then gone off to set up their respective homes.
And now he was visiting here, when Bill had gone over to Valley Falls to see about some trouble they’d been having.
“Lieutenant,” she said, as he dismounted and tied his horse up.
“Mrs. Hickok,” he replied, a smile playing over his face. He took off his hat, playing with the brim as he looked at her.
“What?” she asked him.
“Nothin’, Calam,” he replied. “I just ain’t used to seein’ you quite so…” he waved his hand at her dress.
“Oh, this,” she said. “Just somethin’ new Katie suggested.”
“Right,” Danny replied.
“How is she?” Calamity asked. She hoped the question sounded casual. She plucked at her wrist, forgetting she’d taken her leather strings off with the rest of her deerskins.
“Happy,” Danny said, and Calamity’s heart dropped until he added, “most of the time.”
“Most of the time?” Calamity repeated. “What’s the matter?” She straightened. “You treatin’ her right, Danny Gilmartin?”
“Of course I am, Calam!” he said indignantly.
“Well then?” Calamity asked, still a bit worked up at the idea of Katie not being happy. She was just married, she should be happier’n anyone in this town…
“She’s lonesome,” Danny admitted.
“Ain’t you been around?” Calamity said.
“When I ain’t workin’, yeah,” Danny said. “But that’s not what I mean.” He scuffed one boot in the dirt. “She’s lonesome for you, Calamity. You’re her only female friend out here.”
“Right,” Calamity said slowly. “So you think I oughta ride over an’ see her?”
“I reckon,” Danny said. He stepped closer. “I”ll be out at the fort until tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Calamity said.
“Me and Katie talked,” Danny said, “and she’s…we’ve…” he pulled up straight and blurted, “whatever she says, she’s right. We’re right, it’s fine.” With a final nod, he spun on his heel and strode back to his horse.
Calamity watched with confusion as he rode away. What the hell was that about? Danny had been very strange.
“Katie,” Calamity muttered to herself. She glanced down, considering getting changed into her deerskins – far easier to ride in – but her impatience won out. It wasn’t like too many people would see her between here and Katie’s place anyway. Danny and Katie had picked a place this side of Deadwood, so there was no need to ride through town; it was close enough to the fort while giving them some privacy, and with a stream running behind it too.
It wasn’t long before she was pulling her horse up in front of Katie’s cabin. It looked good; fresh paint and a new roof had turned the old shack into somewhere quite homey.
“Like my place,” Calamity murmured to herself. Katie sure did have the touch.
“Calamity!” Katie came bursting out of the cabin, and Calamity was pulled back into the moment. With a grin, she swung down from her horse, still a little awkward in her petticoats.
“Katie,” Calamity managed before Katie dragged her into a hug.
“It’s so good to see you!” Katie said. “And in a nice dress, too.”
“Yeah, well, Bill don’t seem to mind, so I’m…” Calamity trailed off when she realised Katie was teasing her.
“I hope you didn’t get rid of your deerskins,” Katie said, clasping Calamity’s arm as they walked towards the front door.
“O’course not,” Calamity replied. She smiled, the unfamiliar affection washing over her, and she added, “Could hardly go with the stage in a dress, now could I?”
“Never,” Katie replied. She waved one arm around her cabin. “What do you think?”
“You’ve done a wonderful job,” Calamity said. She glanced around the room, but her eyes were drawn to Katie. “Danny stopped into my cabin this mornin’.”
“Did he?” Katie replied.
“Said you and he’d had a conversation. Wouldn’t really tell me what it was about, though,” Calamity added.
“We did,” Katie said. She was twisting her fingers together, watching Calamity guardedly.
“He said you were lonesome,” Calamity told her.
“I’m not used to bein’ on my own,” Katie said. “Danny’s had some nights up at the fort, and it gets awful quiet here.”
“Yeah,” Calamity replied. She loved the quiet, the solitude, but Katie’d come from the city, where there were always people around and the noise never stopped. Must be strange.
“Danny said he’d be up at the fort tonight,” Calamity said. “I could keep you company. I mean, if you want.”
“What else did Danny say?” Katie asked. She didn’t look as relieved as Calamity thought she would have at the offer of company.
“Er,” Calamity said, thinking. “Some stuff about…you not bein’ happy. And that you’n he’d talked, and things were…fine?” She huffed a laugh. “Not sure I was followin’ that bit o’what he was sayin’.”
“Danny suggested you might come and keep me company when he’s at the fort,” Katie said.
“Right,” Calamity replied.
“He didn’t know how…close we’d been,” Katie said. She stepped closer to Calamity. “I told him.”
“You told him?” Calamity repeated. “What exactly did you tell him, Katie Brown?”
Was it stupid to hope…
“Katie Gilmartin,” Katie corrected with a smile. “I told him…I love him dearly, but that it didn’t mean I couldn’t love someone else, too.”
Calamity’s heart thumped against her chest.
“What?” Calamity whispered.
“If you wanted to…keep me company,” Katie said carefully, easing closer, “while Danny’s away, or I could come to your cabin, Danny…understands.”
“He does?” Calamity managed. Her voice didn’t seem to be able to go above a bare whisper.
“Do you think Bill…” Katie trailed off.
“I think if anyone knows what it’s like to love someone without sayin’ anythin’, it’s Bill Hickok,” Calamity told her.
“So, you’ll stay tonight?” Katie asked.
“Yeah,” Calamity said quietly. “Reckon I’d like that.”
Not stupid at all.