Dear readers, This was not the story I sat down to write but it was a story bound and determined to be told.-J
The sun was beginning to set and Jimmy was cursing the late start he had gotten on the day. It wasn't entirely his fault, he'd had to wait for a special package before he could head out for home but still, if he'd been able to start out at first light like he'd wanted, he would have been home already. He wasn't that far off and could still make it before it was full dark. He fully planned on doing just that. If nothing else went right today, he was going to finish it by sleeping in his own bed with a belly full of whatever Rachel was cooking. Somewhere in his mind he was probably still paying attention to where he was going and nudging his horse in the right direction but the majority of his thoughts were lost in how good it was going to feel to get home, clean up and eat a decent home cooked meal before turning in for the night.
Those thoughts and any others he might have been entertaining were quickly pushed aside by gunfire ringing out in the distance. Gunfire and screams; that was never a good sign and a part of him wanted to do what Teaspoon had told them all to do their very first day on the job: run. He wanted to go home and forget he heard anything but it wasn't in his nature any more than it was inherent in any of the young men he'd come to know like brothers. And as much as Teaspoon rolled his eyes and chastised them when they got involved in things they could have walked away from, he knew he saw a glimmer of pride in the older man from time to time when he saw these boys take a stand for someone that needed it. He pulled up on the reins and steered his horse in the direction of the shots.
Before long he came upon a small farm. It wasn't much and Jimmy didn't figure these people did a lot of farming for the purpose of selling their produce. It looked more like they farmed purely for their own survival. Riding up, he saw bodies. A man and woman looked to be a husband and wife and then two boys looking around thirteen or fourteen. What Jimmy couldn't figure out was what possible gain there was for anyone to hurt these people. They had nothing. From the corner of his vision he saw movement in the barn. He slid off his horse drawing one of his pistols and walked cautiously toward the barn, hoping that he'd only find the family cow agitated from the flurry of violence that had transpired. Instead he found a girl, a young girl. She was maybe ten but he thought more likely as young as eight and her straw colored hair had once been in braids, perhaps as recently as that very morning but now more closely resembled a bird's nest than the tidy plaits that her now deceased mother had mostly likely made. She wore a simple shift of a blue that matched her eyes. The dress was torn and there were scratches on the girl's face and arms and there were angry purple finger print shaped marks appearing on her wrists and, Jimmy discovered with anger, her neck. She sat against a stall in the barn, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth with a blank stare forward.
"Hey," he called softly, not wanting to startle someone already frightened, "Hey, are you alright?"
She didn't turn her head or give any indication that she'd heard him other than to echo his words.
Her voice was flat and emotionless and it sent a chill up Jimmy's spine. He crouched down next to her but she made no move toward or away from him. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps she was blind but wouldn't she have felt the heat from his body or heard his footsteps? Then she did turn her head, but not toward him, she turned toward a cat that wandered near, obviously convinced that the threat was passed. The girl even held her hand out in the direction of the cat.
"Marmalade," she said in that flat, creepy tone, "Here kitty, Marmalade."
The cat came over and sniffed at the girl's outstretched fingers and then rubbed against them with a purr. Jimmy thought maybe if he tried interacting with the cat, he could get the girl to acknowledge him. He held out his hand too and called the cat's name, and a pretty good name it was as the cat was the very color of marmalade. Marmalade came over and sniffed at him and the girl looked at his hand but if he hadn't known better, he would have thought she was not seeing it. Not only did she see, she took his hand and petted the cat with it.
"Marmalade is a nice kitty but must pet gentle."
"She is a nice cat." Jimmy agreed.
Jimmy was thinking he wasn't going to ever get used to that emotionless tone of voice.
"Listen," he began, "I'm real sorry about your family."
"Right." He sighed, "What's your name?"
'Did you really think she was going to answer you, Jimmy?' he thought to himself.
"Are you hurt?"
"Yeah, hurt; let me look at those scratches."
He reached out and touched her arm and she screamed like she had been set afire as her arms flew at him. He pulled back from her quickly but not before one of her blows landed and split his lip. He was starting to see how she ended up with those bruises, not that he condoned hitting or strangling a little girl but he could see the temptation. He sat back and waited for the girl to tire herself out. When she was calm again, he crept back over to her, but did not touch her. He worked to speak as gently as he could to her.
"It's dark, we should go inside."
She stood and walked toward the house. He followed. Once inside, she went to a chair in the sitting room, a rocking chair with a ratty blanket sitting in it. She picked up the blanket, which had certainly seen better days and found a ribbon on it; she sat there rocking back and forth running the ribbon between her fingers. Jimmy was relieved that she was quiet but wasn't at all sure what to do next. He searched the kitchen and found a can of beans to heat for their dinner. He still wasn't much of a cook but he could handle that, at least. He grabbed two plates from a cupboard and when he went to set them on the table, he saw a pad of paper there. As he flipped it, he saw in detail, the faces of the dead laying in the yard. For as detailed and perfect the drawn renditions were, the writing underneath each was a child's scrawl. Mama, Daddy, Joe, Tom…names to go with the faces he had never met in life and yet the drawings were so detailed, he almost felt they could move off the page and converse with him. The next page was the one that stopped him cold. There, in perfect rendering was his new friend and underneath the picture read, "Me Susan."
"Susan," he read and then heard the little girl respond.
"Susan. Me. Me, Susan."
As she spoke she came out to the kitchen and without being told or reminded, she went to the sink and pumped the water to wash her hands.
"Susan is me."
"Yes," Jimmy couldn't help but smile, "Yes, you are Susan. He sat across from her and she looked at him, but she still did not meet his eyes. In fact, he was sure she was staring at his mouth. Slowly her mouth tried to mirror his in a smile. It wasn't a natural expression for her, he was sure but it was such a genuine attempt that he smiled all the wider.
"You have a very pretty smile, Susan."
He found himself less unnerved by her expressionless voice as time went on.
"Did you make these drawings Susan?"
Her hand groped at the table landing on the pad of paper and pulling it to her, then reaching again. Jimmy caught on and handed her the pencil that had been next to the pad.
She was silent and ate her food but between bites, she took up the pencil and drew. He didn't try to look while she drew, he just studied her face and how placid it was when he was drawing. It lacked expression most of the time but was still strained. When she drew, however, her face became peaceful, serene. She was really a pretty little girl and someday, would probably be a beautiful woman. He wondered if her appearance would ever matter as there was obviously more wrong with her than just shock from losing her folks. At last her tapping drew him from his thoughts. She was tapping the pencil on her drawing. He looked and saw his own face looking back at him, smiling at him from the page.
"That's real good Susan."
She kept tapping and after a moment he realized that she wanted him to take the pencil, she was tapping where the names had been on the other pictures. He sighed. He could read now but had never really gotten comfortable with writing. But he took the writing implement anyway and did what he could to form the letters. He almost laughed at the confusion on her face when she tried to read what he had written.
"I'm sorry Susan, I don't write very good. My name is Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
Jimmy hadn't the slightest idea what to do next with this girl but he didn't have to. She cleared her plate to the sink and went off to her room and when she reappeared she was wearing a nightgown. Jimmy had already washed the few dishes from dinner at this point and really wasn't paying a great deal of attention to Susan. Until she tapped him on the leg. He looked down to see her holding a brush up to him. Did she honestly expect him to brush her hair? Well he surely hoped she didn't expect for him to braid it too. He'd learned as a younger boy to keep his hair short enough that his sisters couldn't braid it but that was about all he'd ever learned of braiding. He took the brush and Susan marched over to a small footstool in front of another chair and sat down with her back to the chair. Jimmy sat behind her and first tentatively took her ties out that had held her earlier braids. This was no easy task with as tangled as her hair had become but he somehow managed without pulling too much. Slowly he set to trying to detangle the mess of yellow hair in front of him. Susan began to sing.
"Michael row the boat ashore Hallelujah."
For as emotionless as she was when she spoke, her singing was anything but, in the midst of her clear young tone was feeling, real and true feeling. She stopped singing and patted his knee. Jimmy figured he was supposed to sing too. Well, she asked for it.
Together they sang and Jimmy figured out why her parents had been killed. This song was one usually sung by slaves in the fields. His suspicions were confirmed when her next tune was "Wade in the Water".
"So, your mama and daddy worked the Railroad, huh?"
He tied her hair into pig tails, it was the best he had to offer, and patted her head.
"I think that's time for bed now Susan."
The girl stood but did not budge.
"It's late Susan," he said, "You need to go to bed and get some sleep."
Still she just stood there. Finally she took his hand with her tiny one and pulled, beckoning him to follow her. She led him to her room.
"You need me to tuck you in?"
"Tuck in, night-night."
She climbed into her bed and Jimmy pulled the blankets up around her. He turned to leave but she yelled at him stopping him in his tracks.
"No, what? Am I supposed to do something else?"
Susan simply pointed to a small table at her bedside. There was a book there with a piece of yarn as a place marker.
"Well, I guess it won't hurt to read a bit to you."
He soon found himself swept up in the tale of Gulliver finding himself in a land of tiny folk. He read one chapter and then marked the spot and put the book down. Before he could stand and leave Susan wrapped her arms around his neck. She clung to him for a while and Jimmy could not resist but to return her hug. When at last her grip released, she spoke softer than he had heard from her thus far.
"Night-night Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Good night Susan."
He tucked her back in and then could not fight the urge to kiss her lightly on the forehead. He cringed not knowing if that would bring about another tantrum but she just sighed sweetly and closed her eyes. Jimmy darkened her lamp and then sighed himself. He had work to do. Tomorrow he'd take her with him to Rock Creek but he couldn't leave her family laying dead in the yard.
Morning came far too quickly for Jimmy's liking. He'd spent most of the night burying the family, what family he did not know for he could find nothing telling of a surname for these people. He finally finished and cleaned up a bit and then fell asleep in the chair where he'd sat to brush Susan's hair. He felt like he had barely fallen asleep when he felt a patting on his chest. He forced his eyes open and there was Susan climbing up on his lap.
"Is it morning already Susan?"
"Are you hungry?"
"Well, I don't know how to make much but I think I can manage some breakfast."
After breakfast Jimmy saddled the horse and packed a few of Susan's things. He was securing everything when Susan walked up and tugged on his jacket.
"Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."
"Susan, just call me Jimmy."
"Right, I'm almost ready to go now."
Susan ran in the house and when Jimmy went in to collect her, he found her in the rocking chair with her worn blanket rocking and running the ribbon between her fingers.
"Susan," Jimmy called, "I'm ready."
Susan didn't look at him at all.
"Jimmy go away. Jimmy leave. Mama leave. Daddy leave. Joe leave. Tom leave. All go away. All leave Susan."
Jimmy squatted down in front of her.
"Susan, I'm not leaving you. No one left you on purpose, your mama and daddy and your brothers didn't want to leave you. They loved you, Susan. I'm sure of that."
"Yes, I know they must have. I've known you less than a day and you're growin' on me."
"That's right. And I want you to come with me now."
"To my home, Susan. Will you come with me?"
"Susan go home with Jimmy."
Jimmy secured Susan in front of him in the saddle where he could make sure she stayed on. He wasn't sure how much she had ridden and he didn't trust that she'd not fall. He set off for home knowing there would be a barrage of questions when he rode up with this little girl and he hoped his well meaning friends wouldn't scare her. He still didn't know what was wrong with her but he knew she was not like other children. He wasn't sure what would become of her but he knew he couldn't just leave her to her own devices. On they rode; Jimmy kept one hand protectively around his young charge while she went along with her blanket wrapped around her and drew. Every once in a while Jimmy would look down at the pad of paper and saw her pictures of the scenery they passed. There was even one drawing of the two of them as they must have looked riding along the trail back home.
Finally home came into view and Jimmy slowed even more as he tried to figure out how to introduce little Susan. He heard the call of "Rider coming" and looked up to see Rachel on her porch. He waved and tried to signal to the others to hold back but they didn't catch on and soon Susan was shrinking back into his chest.
Rachel was the first to reach up and touch the girl, just a light touch on her arm.
"Hey sweetheart, what's your name?"
Susan screamed and started thrashing and it was all Jimmy could do to keep her on the horse with him and keep the horse steady.
"She doesn't like to be touched," he hollered at his friends while holding onto the young girl protectively, "Her name's Susan. Just back off and she'll calm down."
"She doesn't like to be touched, huh," Cody began, "She seems okay with you."
"She's better once she gets to know a person and I don't think she likes being crowded."
Jimmy slid off the horse bringing Susan with him, he tried to put her down but she clung to him so he just kept her in his arms.
"I'll take care of the horse," Lou said seeming to understand that Jimmy had his hands full in more ways than one.
"Thanks Lou," Susan repeated flatly.
The others looked at Jimmy and then at the girl in his arms.
"That's how she talks. Rachel, I think she's probably getting hungry. Do you have anything?"
"I think I made plenty of lunch for us to share." She said with a smile, "Can you get her cleaned up for lunch?"
"Cleaned up for lunch." Susan parroted.
Jimmy nodded and then looked at Susan, "Alright then, you want to come with me and get washed up."
"Go with Jimmy. Go home with Jimmy."
Jimmy put the girl down and led her to the bunkhouse. The others looked after the unlikely pair and marveled at how the young gunslinger was shortening his steps to allow his young friend to keep up.
"That looks like Jimmy Hickok," said Cody, "But I think maybe it's some imposter."
Lou rejoined the group.
"You know there's always more to people than you can see, Cody," she said, "I'm not surprised at all. She's an odd child though."
The others nodded and then went to get cleaned up themselves and ready for lunch.
Soon they were all seated around the table and it was impossible to not take note of the way Susan leaned into Jimmy.
"It's okay Susan," Jimmy reassured, "They're friends."
"Right. See there is Lou."
Lou and Kid each waved at the girl. Jimmy went around the table introducing Susan to the others. Once during the meal, Rachel moved to take the pad of paper from Susan while she ate but Jimmy interceded.
"It's best to let her have it. Seems to soothe her to draw and she needs a lot of soothing right now."
After lunch the others left Jimmy alone with Susan. The girl yawned.
"Maybe you should take a nap Susan."
"Yeah, that's my bunk right there. You can lie down. No one will bother you."
He got Susan to lie down and pulled a blanket over her and then got up to leave.
The one word was soft and he almost didn't hear it but he did feel her fingers digging into his arm nearly drawing blood.
"Okay, I guess I can stay a little bit. If you wake up and you don't see me, I'll only be outside the door. You're safe here Susan. No one's going to hurt you."
"No," his voice was barely above a whisper, "No hurt. I promise you. No one's ever going to hurt you."
Her wide eyes stared up at him and he felt desperate to somehow make her feel safe. He looked around and made sure he was alone before he started singing softly.
"Michael row the boat ashore…"
Once Susan was asleep, Jimmy made his way outside the bunkhouse and sat down. The rest of the riders and Rachel were waiting along with Teaspoon who had happened by and was filled in on the visitor to the station.
In fact, it was Teaspoon who started in with the questions.
"Where's her family Jimmy?"
"Dead." Jimmy spent a while relating the story of hearing gunshots and discovering the girl in the barn.
"I don't know what's wrong with her, besides probably watching her family killed I mean," Jimmy went on, "But she's not like a normal little girl."
"That stare," said Rachel with a chill seeming to go up her, "And how she only talks by repeating everything. And she has no expression or emotion when she talks. It's almost creepy."
"It is," agreed Cody, "And the way she reacted to being touched. Just odd. She always like that Jimmy?"
"How do you think I got the fat lip?"
"Is she retarded?" asked Kid and Lou elbowed him in the ribs, "What? I can't be the only one thinking it."
Ike stomped his foot to get Kid's attention.
'Just because someone can't talk well doesn't make them retarded.'
"I know that Ike, I just—"
Buck saved poor Kid.
"There's a difference between not being able to talk and not being able to communicate Ike."
"She can communicate," Jimmy piped up, "You just have to be real patient with her. Once she warms up a bit, she comes out of her shell a little."
"But Jimmy," said Rachel earnestly, "She doesn't seem to have any emotions. Does she even understand what happened?"
"She has emotion Rachel but I just don't think she feels them or thinks about them the same way."
Jimmy snuck back in the bunkhouse and grabbed the pad of paper from the table.
"Here," he said, showing the pictures to the other riders, "I don't know what to call what she is but she's not retarded."
In just the short time the riders had been assembled for lunch, she had been able to draw two pictures. One was of Rachel and her warm, full smile leapt off the page. It was so much like looking in a mirror that Rachel actually gasped. The next page held a picture of Cody and somehow Susan had captured the near transparent quality of Cody's eyes with only a pencil.
"Damn," Cody said when he saw it, "What could she do if she had paint?"
Beneath the picture she had written the words, "William F. Cody Friend."
They flipped back to Rachel's picture where "Rachel pretty" was written.
"I guess you were right," Buck began, "She communicates just fin—"
His words were cut short by a piercing scream from inside the bunkhouse and Jimmy jumped up in order to be the first one to Susan. Jimmy covered the ground from the door of the bunkhouse to his bed in two huge strides and soon had the screaming child wrapped in his arms.
"Susan I'm here. It's a dream honey, just a dream."
She blinked and looked around.
"That's right. Can you tell me what your dream was about?"
"I figured that. Can you tell me more than that?"
Susan was silent but her hand groped and Jimmy handed the pad and pencil to her. Cody came over to see what was happening. He spoke to Jimmy in a hushed tone.
Jimmy nodded but looking over at her he noticed her left hand, the one not drawing was flapping wildly. Without thinking he took up her blanket and found the ribbon that was barely attached still and placed it between her fingers. Susan's breathing became very even and relaxed as she ran her fingers over the worn fabric.
Rachel was the first to take note of how naturally Jimmy took care of this child.
"How did you know to do that?"
"It's what she does when she gets upset."
Jimmy looked over at Susan when he heard the pad fall to the floor and the girl whimper. Instinctively he placed his arm around her shoulders. Kid picked up the tablet. There were three pictures she had drawn and under each were the words: bad man, no friend. He crouched down and tried to look the girl in the eye.
"Right, I'm Kid, that's right. Did these men hurt your family?"
"Hurt Susan; kill Mama, Daddy, Joe, Tom!"
She was screaming and thrashing and the other riders pulled back, except for Jimmy who had learned earlier trying to keep her from falling off the horse that hugging her tightly worked, at least for him. He didn't try to talk to her, just held her tightly enough to immobilize her, not allowing her to thrash out of control and slowly she quieted. He petted her hair and looked up at the others.
"One of you get the doctor please."
"I'll go," Buck offered as he ducked out.
Once he was gone, Lou stepped forward.
"Why the doctor, Jimmy?"
Jimmy lifted the girl's sleeves revealing the scratches and bruises and then pushed her hair aside so that they could see the marks on her neck as well.
"She's prone enough to tantrums that I thought maybe she did at least some of it to herself but I think we need to know what happened, what they did to her."
If it's not obvious to you, dear reader, little Susan is autistic. There was no such diagnosis until the early 1900's so there will be no mention of autism in the story. But just because something hadn't been named yet, doesn't mean it didn't exist. And I will also say it nearly killed me to write the word 'retarded' because I hate that word and its frequent misuse but it is what would have been used at the time. Please do not hold it against Kid that he said the R-word. It was even harder for me to use the word in reference to an autistic person. My own child is autistic, though much more high functioning than Susan and without the blatant savant skills. I don't know what will ultimately happen to Susan but I am glad to have you along for the ride. My heart is breaking right now because I know the doctor's examination of her will be very traumatic and I really want to comfort her. But I don't think she'd take a hug from me. Autistics are very picky about who is allowed to touch them. Perhaps she'll let Jimmy comfort her. and why was it Jimmy that stumbled on her? Well, it was obvious to me from the start that Jimmy had a fondness for children and a tender heart but he often lacked patience...I thought if the need for patience came in the form of a small child, he might work harker to master the lesson. and her being a girl...well we know how protective he is of the women folk. I knew he's see a glimmer of his sisters in little Susan. So, all of that said, please let me know what you think. I shouldn't be writing this, I should be working more steadily on my book. But this is what the voices in my head want written. Darn them. Darn them all to heck!-J