Jake watched intently as Lucy opened her bright grey eyes. She stretched her arms parallel to her sides and yawned daintily. Although, Jake noticed her flinch with a slight pain in her nose, he said nothing. It wouldn't do to frighten the child. He watched her as she took his hand and wrapped her own around his long fingers. She pulled his palm up to her face so she could trace the lines and creases with the tip of her index. Seeming to be lost in thought she sighed hugging his wrist like a doll. Then her head lulled from one side of the bed to the other searching for a figure that was no longer there.
"Where's Momma?" she asked clutching at his hand.
"She's comin," he replied dreamily enjoying the sound of her voice.
Once again, the noises from the street climbed up the balcony and into the room. There were shouts of agony and chaos that stung with familiarity at Jake's ears. He wiggled free from his daughters arms and walked out to the shaded rail. Watching with increasing interest and alarm, his hand gripped the rail tightly.
Below the crowd hummed like a murderous beehive. A cluster of them buzzed around Sully as he attempted to rush into the clinic. In his arms a woman's lifeless body. Her dress was covered in the red clay dust of the unpaved street. The edges of the collar of her dress were caked and crusted with angry blood. Her head dangled over Sully's dirty blood stained arm cold and limp. Jake strained over the edge of the balcony rail to see the woman's face; however, it was lost in the tangle of long ebony tresses. There was no doubt that she was dead.
As Sully passed through the clinic door with Michaela in tow, a short stub of a man threw himself into the cluster of people gawking outside. He thrashed at their clothes prostrating himself before them. The town's people either turned away in disgust or kicked him away with their feet.
This wasn't happening Jake shouted within himself. What color was Teresa's dress? Why couldn't he remember? The man was yelling up to the people now, but against the roar of the chaos, it was almost inaudible. His voice was slurred and there was an awkwardness to his gate that was something more than fear and remorse. Jake knew it all to well. The man was drunk.
"I didn't see her!" he shouted. "If I'da known I'da stopped!"
Mathew broke through the crowd which was quickly becoming a mob. He grabbed at the drunkard's muddied collar and took to dragging him away towards Daniel who was rushing to meet them.
"When ya saw she had fallen why didn't ya stop?" Daniel demanded lifting him up nearly off the ground. "The wagon wheel nearly cut her head off!"
Mathew stood between them now trying to keep Daniel from killing the man. Jake turned numbly back, walking at a dead pace to where his daughter lay. Mechanically, he tucked her into the bed.
"Stay put," he raked his fingers through his hair.
"I gotta," his voice cracked as he gulped down his sob. "Be back."
His boots felt like boulders as he dragged them out the door. Staring down the hallway he wondered if it had always looked so long and narrow. Reaching the top landing of the stairs, he froze. Just beyond the bottom landing through that door was a means to an end. His beautiful wife who had given him his beautiful child. Jake's heart and mind wouldn't allow him to finish the sentence.
The muffled rushing and panic was subsiding from the other side. An empty finalized silence had filled the space behind the door. Michaela's voice vibrated through the wooden panels slamming the nail into the coffin of his fears.
"She's gone," there was a pause then.
The light swishing movement of skirts and the clapping of boot heels against the wood floors, permeated through the walls. Michaela's voice reached Jake's tired ears once more.
"Jake is still upstairs with Lucy. . . Sully help me with this sheet."
Deliberate footfalls came thudding to a stop at the door. Jake found himself turning away looking back up the stairs, that he couldn't recall stepping down. He heard the metal of the knob clinking as it turned releasing the latch. The heavy wood creaked ominously against the doorframe. He heard the quick swish of her skirts and the fast thud of the door locking back into its chamber.
"Jake?" her feet ate up the steps bringing her to him in seconds. A small slender hand rested on the small of his back and slowing wrapped around his waist.
"Jake? Did you see what happened? It was horrible. That poor woman," Teresa walked around him on the stairs bringing her to his eye level.
His steely gray eyes engulfed the vision of her before him. Hands flying up to frame her face he inched them around to the back of her head bringing her in for a kiss. Her arms momentarily stunned fell like liquid to her sides. Releasing her, he held her before him by her shoulders.
"I thought it was you," his grip was like iron on her slight frame.
Shock subsiding, Teresa's face softened. She smiled sadly down into her frighten husbands face. Softly, she caressed the side of his cheek with her hand.
"We must go home," was all she said leading the way up the stairs to their daughter.
Jake sighed deeply with relief as he planted his foot into something soft and hollow on the step. Bending down he picked up his ruined Stetson. He looked back at the closed door and thought of the pain behind it, which he knew so well. Sending up a prayer for the poor broken woman, he sighed guiltily. Death had released its tendril hook on him and latched on to another soul. It had taken her viciously and without discretion. Tomorrow it would be his job to ready her for her family.
Ascending from the shadows of the stairwell, he felt the lightness that had been robbed of him. Jake would take his girls home. He would laugh with his daughter. He would admire his beautiful wife. And the next day, he would be all the more grateful.