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not yet past mending

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"I declare," Alma said into the mirror, "I don't think anyone made such a fuss over me at my wedding. Surely I look fine."

 

Trixie kept fidgeting around her, pushing another pin into her hair, brushing a speck of white off the shoulder of her black dress. She must have known Alma's words for what they were, Alma thought, nothing, nonsense, simply a way to test the steadiness of her voice. Alma thought she sounded fine. She was ready.

 

"I'm ready," she said, and her voice sounded true and clear as a church bell, in a place where they had churches.

 

Trixie must have heard her but she didn't stop her fidgeting, and she didn't stop the mumbling low soliloquy she had treated Alma to since the moment she walked in. "Don't know why you got to do this to yourself, parading out in front of the town when you should be in your fucking bed, or away somewhere with the child. You think Ellsworth, God fucking rest him, you think he ever wanted a fucking thing but for you to take a care for yourself? You think if he was standing here right fucking now he'd let you go down there, throw a party for a bunch of damn fools, most of them not worth the half of him, nor you for that matter. For no point nor fucking purpose --"

 

"There is a point," Alma said, and her voice swung loose from her, ringing out so that the child looked up from the window where she sat.

 

"It's nothing, Sophia," Alma called before she reeled her voice back into a whisper. "There is a point, Trixie, and you know it's so. The point is to pay our respects. The point is that there are men whose passing is marked by neither word nor tear, so unnoticed did they make their way through life. And there are men whose passing is marked only by the cessation of the tears they caused so incessantly in their lifetimes. Of those men the only Christian thing to do is bow our heads and bite our tongues. But there are men, Trixie, and I will not deny that I have doubted it in my life, but there are men, there was a man, whose journeys have been such that they have blessed the lives of every soul they met, and those men, Trixie, that man, Trixie, his passing will be marked by every one of those souls. And his friends will expect to pay their respects to his widow, Trixie, and I will accept them, for that man. I will accept them as his wife, which is what I am."

 

The child looked up again and Alma caught her breath. Trixie put her hand on Alma's arm. "Which is what you were," she said. Her eyes met Alma's in the mirror.

 

"Which is what I was," Alma said. "And whatever some may think or say, I never forgot it."

 

"None fucking think that." When Alma shook her head, Trixie said, "At least none would dare to fucking say it in my hearing. Nor in his, and you know it's so."

 

"I was not the wife I would have wished, in his life," Alma said. She raised her head high and tied her veil around her head. She'd spent the previous night dying her white lace scarf to suit, as there'd been no black fine enough in the town and no time to order new. She had two mourning veils in her trunk already but she would have waded into the river with a chunk of charcoal to dye her whole wardrobe black before she wore anything but new for him. "I have poor gifts as a wife, but as a widow, I am without equal."

 

"Foolish fucking words," Trixie said, "and I say it for him who's not here to tell you so, as he would have in life, though I don't doubt he'd have left out the fucking for your ears."

 

"Enough," Alma said. She pulled away from Trixie's hands and stood. "Sophia, we have dawdled long enough. Are you dressed, darling?"

 

Sophia turned away from the window reluctantly as Alma walked toward her. She gestured wordlessly to her stockings and shoes, scattered beneath her on the floor. So many of Sophia's hard-learned words had abandoned her over the past few days that Alma had consulted the doctor.

 

"She has always been a quiet child, but she speaks so little now," Alma had said. "She speaks so little, but you can see in her face how much she feels. It's a heartbreak to see her."

 

"She'll speak more again," the doctor had said. "It's almost a good thing that she feels it so, that she can feel it, after all that's happened. It's a natural reaction, if anything can be called natural that has so much pain behind it."

 

"In my experience, Doctor, everything natural has so much pain behind it."

 

"If you truly feel that," the doctor had said, his voice crusted over his kindness, "then I pity you." Then his tone softened and he put his hand over her own. "This too shall pass, I promise you."

 

"I have always wondered," Alma said, "at those who think that to be a consolation."

 

"No consolation," Dr. Cochran had said, "but just the truth. Whether we try to throw it from us or clasp it tight with both hands, it shall surely pass."

 

"It shall surely pass," Alma reminded herself now, not a consolation but just the truth, as her child looked up at her wordlessly from the window seat. "Shall we put your stockings and shoes on, darling? Sit up so I can help you." She knelt in front of Sophia, careless of the dress she had chosen so carefully, and slid her hand inside the child's stocking to ready it for her foot. "Oh, my, look at this. We must get you some new stockings. You must tell me, dear, when your stockings are torn, so that I can be sure to buy you new ones. But for the moment, I suppose we must make do."

 

"It's not past mending," Sophia said in her small birdlike voice. She took the stocking from Alma's hand and traced the rent with her finger. "You mend it, and then turn the stocking and wear it wrong side out." She pushed her own hand inside the stocking and then turned it inside out neatly. "Turned once and no money spending, turned twice and it's past mending."

 

Alma glanced over her shoulder at Trixie, who shrugged. She turned back to Sophia. "What, dear?"

 

"Mr. Ellsworth told me that. He had to mend his own stockings out on the claim when he was on his own for so long, because his feet were so big they'd push right through the stocking and he couldn't just get new ones because stockings didn't grow on trees, nor money, you know, so he would mend them. Some people think that's just for girls to do but those people didn't have big feet on a cold night on the claim, he said. You can mend it and turn it and when you walk you won't even feel the seam you made. But when you have to turn it twice you'll get a blister, so then it's past mending. Mr. Ellsworth told me that."

 

"I see," Alma said weakly. She put both hands down on the floor next to her, bracing herself, then stood. "But I'm afraid we have no time to mend your stocking today, so why don't you go look for a new one? Run now, darling, be quick."

 

When the child had gone to search for her stocking, Trixie took Alma's arm. "I know you," Trixie said. "Don't you be fucking reading something into a simple story the poor child told you about Ellsworth. He was -- in his life I'd call him a cheap fucking bastard and he'd admit it cheerfully, but things being as they are I'll tell you he was a frugal man. Don't you be reading anything into that, to torment yourself on what's already a long fucking day."

 

"It's no torment to me," Alma said. "It's almost a consolation, to admit that there are some things past mending. It saves futile effort in the long run."

 

Before Trixie could scold her again Sophia ran into the room. "Let us go down to the reception now, my darling," Alma said. "It's time to pay our respects to Mr. Ellsworth."

 

Alma held Sophia's hand loosely as they walked down the street to the bank, Trixie hovering behind like a shadow at noontime, lapping closely at their heels. Like everything about this day, the site of the reception had been the subject of much debate. Alma had intended to welcome callers in her home, but Trixie had strenuously objected. "Half the town tromping all over your fucking carpets, dragging in dirt and bugs and God knows fucking what so you'll be scratching yourself for the next month and cursing me for letting you do it."

 

Alma had not relented, however, until Mr. Star had said, with an apologetic cough, "There may be folk who'd like to pay their respects to the departed who wouldn't feel comfortable calling on a lady in her own home, especially if she's living on her own."

 

There had been no choice but to bow to his wisdom, but Alma never liked to go down without a fight. With her eyes carefully lowered, she had suggested, "I suppose Mr. Swearengen would allow me to use the Gem?"

 

Mr. Star had had a coughing fit then, although Trixie only narrowed her eyes and said, "Don't you go causing fucking trouble just to cause it."

 

So the bank was to host the last gathering of Mr. Ellsworth's friends in this life. "Dignified, but still your own place, and with the benefit you can leave when you -- the child tires," Mr. Star had said.

 

The choice was right, Alma was forced to admit, when she saw the mix of people gathered inside, drinking lemonade and nibbling awkwardly at the tiny sandwiches she'd had set out. She'd been almost shocked at the idea of a wake without alcohol, but again Trixie had raged and Mr. Star had reasoned. "Can there not be one place in this fucking town where a cocksucker's expected to stay sober for three minutes at a fucking go? The drunks'll drink in the gutter on the way in and on the way fucking out again, but can we not expect them to shake your hand and speak a word without shoving whiskey down their fucking throats?"

 

"There will be less chance of an incident," Mr. Star had said.

 

Avoiding an incident was more of a concern than she'd thought it would be, now that she saw the group of people Mr. Ellsworth's name had summoned. A stranger combination than she'd expected, and larger, too, she thought with a filling heart. She sat down behind her desk, a little apart from the group, so that people could come up to her on their own and say their piece.

 

Mr. Star came to her first. Trixie had sent him ahead that morning to get things settled, and Alma could see that much of the success of the gathering could be attributed to him, and his quiet way of making people comfortable without ever presuming to put himself forward as host. "Thank you, Mr. Star," she said, "for your help today, and for lending me Trixie."

 

"I've been wondering if you'd thank me for that, hearing some of the things she's had to say."

 

"I long ago learned not to confuse Trixie's heart with her words, Mr. Star. A lesson I'm sure you've learned as well."

 

"Hard learned," Mr. Star said ruefully. Then he leaned in and said, more softly, "I'm sorry for your loss. Our loss. He was a fine man."

 

"None finer," Alma said, and even as she said it she felt something, like the opposite of an echo, the foreknowledge of how many times this day she'd say those words. She didn't tire of them, though, through the long afternoon as folk approached her to press her hand or share a story of the man. She was often surprised by the words she was offered, though none were sadder or stranger than those of one of Mr. Swearengen's men. She'd heard his name, she knew, although she couldn't recall it. He was slow, the poor soul, and drunk, and she couldn't help shying away when he let his hands fall heavily on the desk in front of her.

 

"I'm sorry," he said, loudly, and Alma started to murmur a reply when her words were drowned by his. "But he's in heaven now, in heaven where they're looking down on us and they're not sad nor scared anymore, they're in heaven and they can see us down here and they know what we're thinking and how we didn't want to hurt them, we didn't want them hurt ever, but some things there's no mending and now they're in heaven they know that, they know we didn't mean the things we did sometimes that we wouldn't have done if we'd have known, if only we'd have known --"

 

"All right, Johnny," Mr. Swearengen's barman said, smoothly slipping an arm around the drunken man. "Time for us to go." He looked at Alma and said, "But he's sorry for your man. I am too. He was a fine man."

 

"None finer," Alma said again.

 

Mr. Swearengen came as well, his suit and his face pressed sober for the occasion. "A fine man," he said as he bowed over her hand. "You'll feel his loss, I'm thinking."

 

"Yes," Alma said. She raised her head and looked him straight in the eyes, but she saw nothing there but a calm acceptance and perhaps even a calm kindness.

 

Mr. Swearengen said, "It's a hard thing for a woman to be without a protector in this wanton world," and perhaps it was something new Alma heard in his voice or something in the way his mouth quirked quickly before he smoothed it away, but she looked up suddenly to see Seth Bullock and his wife walk in the door.

 

"Yes," Alma said again, and again she met Mr. Swearengen's eyes steadily. He bowed his head as if in a salute. Alma wasn't sure if there was something deliberately mocking in the gesture, or if the mockery were second nature to the man, or if she was simply overwrought and overcome by the day (and why not all fucking three, Trixie whispered in her mind).

 

"Perhaps you would say a few words to those assembled, as a man who appreciates the importance of a woman's protector?" Mr. Swearengen looked at her suddenly, warily, and this time Alma bowed her own head in a mocking salute.

 

There was no catching this man out for more than a moment, though. "Madam," he said easily, "it would be my pleasure." He nodded to her when she looked up at him, though, and there was nothing mocking in his eyes.

 

Mr. Swearengen moved to the center of the room as if he were taking a stage, and without a word from him the room fell silent. "Friends," he said, "to say it's a hard day in Deadwood is to say that another day has dawned, but this one bears a heavier weight than most, when we think of the man the town has lost. I will not press your patience with platitudes, and the Lord knows I am sadly short of words suited for the sensibility of ladies, so I will simply say, Ellsworth, more are sorry to see you go than are glad to see the back of you, and that's more than will be said for most of us when we meet our maker." He picked up a glass from the table beside him and took a swig. Grimacing, he lifted it and said, "To Ellsworth!"

 

The room echoed his call, and Alma turned away for a moment when she saw that even Sophia had lifted her glass of lemonade. When she turned back the sheriff and his wife were making their way toward her.

 

Not the sheriff, Alma reminded herself. He was not the sheriff any longer. He was Mr. Bullock, to her and to everyone now. Alma had neither right nor reason to think of him as anything else. "Mr. Bullock," she said, and offered him her hand. He took it but did not shake it.

 

"Mrs. Bullock," she said, and Mrs. Bullock said,

 

"We are sorry for your loss."

 

Alma murmured something, her hand still held up by Mr. Bullock's. Mrs. Bullock said, "This will help her, the child, as much as anything can. To hear Mr. Ellsworth spoken of so highly, it will help her, to know that people will continue to speak of him, to know that she may continue to speak of him."

 

"Yes," Alma said. "Yes, that is why I wanted this. For the child, so that she might have some comfort."

 

"To see the care the town has for her at this time, that will be a comfort," Mrs. Bullock said, as her husband held Alma's hand. "And for you as well."

 

"Yes," Alma said, and Mrs. Bullock took her leave to find Sophia.

 

When Alma looked up at Mr. Bullock, she found him angry. It was no surprise.

 

"Swearengen -- he had no right to take the lead like that, to say the words over -- it was not his place."

 

"I asked him to do it," Alma said. "Words were needed, and I find I have no stomach for speeches myself this day."

 

"You need not have asked him," Mr. Bullock said, his voice low and hard. "I would have --"

 

Alma drew her hand away from his. "Will you truly reproach me, that I did not ask you to eulogize my husband before the town?"

 

"No," Mr. Bullock said. He spat the word not at her but at the floor. He looked at her, and still he was angry, but with himself, not with her. That too was no surprise. "I would have spared you, if I could have, I would have spared you --"

 

"It has passed," Alma said, opening her empty hands out to him. He did not take them. "This too has passed, and there was no need to spare me --"

 

"I would have spared you this, and not only this, but all of it, this pain, Hearst, and even before it, the marriage -- I would have spared you -- "

 

"There was one man in this world from whom I had no need of rescue," Alma said coldly. She closed her hands into fists as she watched the words strike him, as his head bent beneath them.

 

"One man," Mr. Bullock said finally. "He was a fine man."

 

"None finer," Alma said, and the words were thick and dark as ash in her mouth.

 

"None finer," Mr. Bullock echoed. He took a step back as if to take his leave, and Alma caught her breath. Then he turned back toward her. When he spoke his voice was soft, though not his words. "Still," he said, "still I would have spared you."

 

"Enough," Alma said, and again her voice swung out away from her. Over Mr. Bullock's shoulder she saw Mr. Star glance at them. She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them. Mr. Star was still watching, and she was sure he was not the only one. She looked at Mr. Bullock.

 

"Can we not say," Alma said, "that both of us would have spared the other any hurt, were it in our power, and pass on as friends?"

 

"If that is your wish," Mr. Bullock said, and Alma nodded.

 

"Friends, then," he said, "and as a friend may I ask what you will do now?"

 

"I will stay where I am," Alma said, "and live quietly with my child. That is all I want now."

 

Mr. Bullock's lips twisted. "I would not doubt your word," he said, "but neither would I be surprised if a year's time finds you a wife again."

 

"No," Alma said. "I find I have little gift as a wife. That part of my life is over, past and past mending."

 

"I never found you in need of mending," and there was warmth in his voice such that Alma had to lean back to keep from bending toward it.

 

"We are all of us in need of mending," Alma said crisply. "If you read your Bible, Mr. Bullock, you will see that it is so."

 

"And if you read your Bible, you will see that we are none of us yet past mending."

 

"Will you take away my only consolation?" Alma said. "It is a comfort, at last, to find myself past mending and finally -- finally spared the struggle." Mr. Bullock looked at her and Alma looked down at her fingers as she wove them together carefully, letting her nails bite lightly into her skin.

 

Finally Mr. Bullock said, quietly, "No." She looked up at him. "I would not take away your only consolation."

 

"Thank you," Alma said. She offered him her hand and again he took it but did not shake it. His hand was warm and hard against hers. Her hand felt light inside his, lifted up. She felt as if her whole body was lifted up by his hand.

 

"I am sorry for your loss, Mrs. Ellsworth," he said.

 

"Thank you, Mr. Bullock," Alma said, and took her hand away.