Hetty absentmindedly rubbed her thumb over the bas-relief shell rose that graced the cameo pinned at her throat. She loved the feeling of the raised image against the smooth, dusty-blue agate background. She held the cameo between her thumb and forefinger to feel the ornate silver filigree setting. It was her most cherished possession.

“Hetty dear, did you hear what I said?”

She vaguely heard her father’s question as she continued to stare out the window just as she had almost six years earlier. A small smile curled her lips.

*~*~*~*~*

Hetty cautiously pushed aside the curtain and peered out her bedroom window. There were so many people gathered in her backyard for her special day; too many people if anyone had asked her, but they hadn’t. Her father wanted to make this the best birthday she’d ever had. Henrietta Hogge was turning thirteen and it was her first birthday here in their new home in Sweetwater. She nervously pushed her glasses up, a constant habit since they had a tendency to slide down the thin bridge of her tiny nose.

Looking at the people milling about (probably waiting on her), she saw all the riders gathered around Teaspoon. She smiled, touched that they had come to her party, especially since Teaspoon, Cody, Jimmy, and Kid should still be in Rock Creek getting the station ready. But, when Teaspoon had found out that they’d be gone for Hetty’s birthday, he’d begged, bartered, and bamboozled a way back to Sweetwater, even for a few days. Hetty had become very attached to them, so much so that they were an extension of her family. Teaspoon was the best grandfather she’d ever had. And the friendships had begun with Lou. Hetty had realized Lou’s secret soon after meeting the petite rider but had vowed to keep that secret, and Lou had become like a sister to her.

>As close as she and Lou were, the boys were her protectors; like big brothers, all sticking up for her whenever she was picked on by the other children in her class. Being shy and pudgy, as round as she was tall, she was the victim of relentless teasing. In the beginning, she’d endured it every day for months; that was until the riders had made it a point that the other students knew she was their friend. She grinned as she thought of how Jimmy had all but made Vernon Ledford wet himself and faint when Jimmy had caught Vernon calling Hetty names. The look in Jimmy’s eyes as he’d talked to the boy was priceless but not compared to the look in Vernon’s eyes.

And Jimmy wasn’t the only one. The others had defended her many times until the taunting had stopped. At least most of the children had stopped, but not Vernon and a small group of girls. Hetty felt her face flush as she thought of how just a few girls, four at most, kept everyone else away from Hetty and stopped them from being her friend. And as if her thoughts had come to life, Hetty grimaced to see her worst enemy, the leader, Priscilla Ledford, or as most people knew her, Prissy. Hetty again adjusted her glasses.

A half-hour late, Prissy had just arrived with her father, mother, and dear brother, Vernon in their elaborately decorated carriage. Everyone in Sweetwater considered Gordon Ledford, Prissy’s father, a successful and wealthy rancher. However, not long after the Hogges had arrived in Sweetwater, Hetty had overheard a conversation her father had with Marshal Cain and Teaspoon about some inconsistencies in Mr. Ledford’s ranch and his deposits into the bank. Hetty hadn’t listened long because she knew it wasn’t for her to hear but she had secretly hoped that something would happen to the Ledford wealth and put the hateful Ledford children in their places. Not long after that, thought, Sam had been promoted to territorial marshal and, unfortunately, he and Emma had left Sweetwater. It was fortunate for them since they had gotten married. Hetty had missed Emma dearly but had soon found another sister in the new station mistress, Rachel Dunne.

Hetty watched Prissy look around, and knew she was searching for her. She smiled smugly because Prissy had wanted, as always, to make a grand entrance after everyone had arrived and to take the attention off Hetty. But Hetty’s nerves had prevented that and Hetty giggled as she watched how Prissy’s otherwise smooth skin was marred by her very deep frown. Regrettably, Prissy’s displeasure didn’t last long as she recovered and glanced around at the crowd, smiling and waving like the day was for her. She walked up to each group and chatted, laughing and preening. Hetty hated her so much but couldn’t take her eyes off her. Prissy made it look so easy to make small talk and act like the best hostess. Suddenly, the color drained from Hetty’s face as she watched that loathsome girl get the one man in her sights that Hetty wanted so badly for her own.

Buck Cross.

Prissy and her friends had been particularly nasty regarding Buck and Ike. They thought Kid, Jimmy, and Cody handsome but they’d said such awful, degrading things about Buck and Ike that Hetty had finally had enough and stood up to Prissy and her group. Unfortunately, Prissy had easily discerned that Hetty cared a great deal about them, especially Buck, and from that point on, Prissy had made it a point to be extremely nice and flirtatious with him and sometimes Ike. The one bit of information that Hetty had to laugh about was that Prissy also thought Lou was rather cute, but a little too scrawny.

So, unable to do anything but watch, Hetty saw Prissy sashay right up to Buck’s side and take his arm as if she owned him. She joined in the conversation that Buck was having with Jimmy and Kid, throwing her head back and laughing at something witty Buck had said. Prissy leaned into the Kiowa and whispered something to him. Hetty watched as Buck seemed to blush, ducking his head and smiling. Hetty’s insides shook with rage but again, she was unable to do a thing.

Sighing miserably, she turned and walked slowly towards her bed. She sat down and ran her hand over the dress that was on top of the quilt. It was a simple blue dress. But then nothing was simple in regards to clothes and her figure.

Her father had suggested buying her a beautiful new gown for her party, but she’d balked. She didn’t want anything frilly and expensive. When they’d first arrived in Sweetwater, she’d pleaded that he buy her some plain clothes because she felt uncomfortable wearing what she owned around most of the people in Sweetwater. Of course Prissy always had the very best looking clothes, and enjoyed flaunting the fact that she did. Prissy would sometimes even say scathing things about her own friends’ clothes. But Hetty was the opposite, the plainer the better. Not just because she didn’t want to show their wealth but mainly because she wanted to blend in as best as she could.

>So when her father had tried to get her to order some lavish dress, she’d begged that he buy her something from Tompkins’ store. Her father had agreed and had enlisted the help of Rachel, who brought Lou along under the pretense of getting supplies. Unfortunately, the store didn’t have anything that really fit her. Embarrassed by this and that Tompkins had announced that fact and that they’d have to order something to fit, Hetty was on the verge of telling her father to call off the whole celebration when Rachel and Lou had come to the rescue. They’d offered to make her a dress and had picked out some beautiful material Tompkins had just received that day. For the bodice and outer skirt, they’d bought a deep gray-blue with a light gray floral pattern and the underskirt was a solid, darker blue. The outer skirt would scallop at the bottom to show the underskirt. It was a beautiful contrast.

Pleased with the idea, Hetty had loved watching the two women sew. They’d put together some designs that would show off Hetty’s strengths and hide her weaknesses. A fuller skirt than most young girl’s dresses had, tapered sleeves from a wider armhole, and a loose-fitting bodice with a slightly squared neckline. They’d measured twice before cutting, verifying everything to get it perfect. But somehow, the measurements for the underskirt had been off by two inches. It fit her, but it was like a glove.

Rachel and Lou had felt so badly they’d wanted to buy more material to fix it but when the three had gone back the bolt was gone. Tompkins had told them that someone had bought the remaining few yards. Rachel had chastised herself for not buying all of it. They had with the floral material to be on the safe side but she’d figured they didn’t need it with the underskirt so they’d left the small amount on the bolt. To calm Rachel, Tompkins had explained that even if the person hadn’t bought it there wouldn’t have been enough for another skirt for Hetty. Hetty didn’t think he was being mean; he actually seemed to be trying to make Hetty feel better. It just hadn’t worked.

Hetty’s eyes widened and, jumping off her bed, she rushed back to the window. As she scanned the crowd, she found who she was looking for. What was Prissy doing wearing a homemade dress? She always ordered her clothes from the East. But there was Prissy and she’d used that very same blue for her entire dress. There hadn’t been enough for Hetty’s skirt but there was for Prissy’s dress. A mournful sob escaped Hetty. What was she going to do? She couldn’t wear the dress now because she knew what she looked like, a blue ball. And there was Prissy looking beautiful. Her pretty auburn hair fell in curls across her shoulders and her light complexion glowed. Hetty wasn’t going out there; she was staying in her bedroom.

A knock at the door pulled her quickly from the window. “Yes?” she asked hesitantly, once more fixing her glasses on her nose. She figured it was her father wondering where she was.

“Can I come in?”

It was Lou and Hetty pondered what to do. She wasn’t too sure Lou coming in while Hetty was undressed was such a good idea, even if Lou was a girl. Mr. Hogge didn’t know that. “Um…”

“Your pa is with Teaspoon outside. He was wonderin’ if you’re okay so Teaspoon sent me in to find ya’,” Lou explained quickly.

“Come in,” Hetty said, heaving a huge sigh and plopping back down on her bed. Lou walked in and came immediately to stand by Hetty. Hetty didn’t look up, her raven hair hung down covering her face.

“They all want to know why I’m not out there yet, don’t they.”

“Well yeah,” Lou said, pushing the dress over so she could sit down. “But it’s your party so take your time.” Lou sat quietly by Hetty, and Hetty knew her friend was patiently waiting for an answer.

“I can’t go down there,” she said softly, “I look awful in anything I wear.” Tears threatened but Hetty quickly pushed her glasses out of her way and rubbed her eyes.

“That’s not true,” Lou said. “That color looks wonderful on you. It almost matches your eyes.”

“Yeah, but Prissy is wearing the same blue from my dress,” Hetty spat.

“I noticed that,” Lou admitted. “You’ll look much better. The blue matches your eyes, hers are a mossy lookin’ green, and,” Lou spoke over Hetty’s retort, “and, your hair looks much better with this color too.” When Hetty kept quiet, Lou pushed the hair from Hetty’s face. “What’s the real reason?”

Hetty glanced quickly over at Lou and smiled wistfully. Lou knew Hetty too well. Sighing deeply, Hetty looked at Lou. “Y’all are leaving in just days. Forever.”

“Hetty,” Lou said, and squeezed one of Hetty’s hands, “you can come visit ya’ know. Teaspoon’s talked to your pa and Rachel’s practically got a room planned for ya’. Besides, ya’ know we’ll miss ya’, ‘specially Buck.”

Hetty blushed at the comment and shook her head, staring down at her lap. “He doesn’t know I’m alive. I’m only a thirteen-year-old girl. I’m a child to him.”

>Knowing Hetty would argue any point Lou made regarding Buck, she took a different tack. “Well, then come down and see what we got ya’.” That did the trick because Hetty looked back at Lou.

“Y’all got me a present?”

“You’d best say ‘you all’ in front of your pa,” Lou chided, and Hetty giggled.

Philip Hogge was less than pleased with the dialect his daughter had picked up in the West and everyone knew it. He was constantly correcting her even in town. Hetty tried very hard to say everything the way she should but ‘y’all’ just flowed off her tongue so easily; it was the one colloquialism she couldn’t shake, much to her father’s chagrin.

You all got me a present?” Hetty laughed when Lou swatted her.

“Yep, and I wanted to keep it for myself. I think Rachel did too.”

Hetty stared wide-eyed, her curiosity piqued. “Really?”

“Yeah but Buck wouldn’t let us near it,” Lou said, grinning as she saw Hetty’s eyes get wider than Lou thought possible.

“Buck?” Hetty said in a hushed, almost reverent tone. “Why?”

“’Cause he bought it,” Lou stated proudly. “He had it all picked out and collected the money from us.” Lou nudged Hetty playfully. “He even did the wrappin’.”

Hetty blushed deeply. Buck had not only picked out her present and bought it, but he’d wrapped it with his own hands. Hetty stared dreamily at the wall, lost in thoughts of what the present could be, until Lou nudged her harder.

“So come on,” Lou said, as she jumped off the bed and started pulling Hetty to stand and get dressed.

The two friends were lost in giggles as Hetty got dressed for her party.

*~*~*~*~*

Hetty walked outside with Lou and squinted into the bright light. She held her hand up to shade her eyes as she acclimated herself to the sun. It was a crisp, cool, early spring day, absolutely beautiful out, but the only thing she felt was anxiety over all the people there and that she was to be the center of attention – or was supposed to be. Stunned, she stared at the scene in front of her. Fifteen tables for the guests had been set up surrounding the backyard in a large square. The main table was a few yards to the right as you walked out of the house and three food tables to the left. And there was Prissy, laughing and chatting as she held court, sitting in the center chair at the main table. The chair decorated for Hetty.

Swallowing hard, Hetty felt humiliated and turned to hurry back into the safety of her house. But Lou wouldn’t let her go. Lou grabbed her arm, gently but firmly, and walked her towards the group. Ready to plead her case, Hetty looked at Lou but the words died on her lips when she saw Lou’s expression. The anger that radiated from Lou’s piercing eyes, made even Hetty cringe. Hetty watched as Kid and Cody, reading Lou like a book, moved to either side of Prissy and practically lifted the girl out of her seat. Hetty giggled softly and Lou glanced over, smiling mischievously.

“So here’s the birthday girl,” Hetty’s father announced. “Come sit in your special seat.” By her father’s expression, Hetty saw that Prissy’s try at usurping Hetty’s chair wasn’t missed on the elder Hogge. However, the entire party had turned to look at Hetty, which caused Hetty to shrink away once more. But Lou didn’t let go until Hetty was sitting in her seat. Everyone cheered and Hetty blushed, bowing her head to stare at her hands folded in her lap.

“Thank you,” she said softly, and was relieved to hear Cody’s voice commanding everyone’s attention.

“So, I suppose we can start fillin’ the plates,” he said, rubbing his hands together as he moved towards the tables.

“That’s all you think about, ain’t it?” Teaspoon said, and shook his head reprovingly.

“And what have you been talkin’ about all this time?” Rachel teased. Everyone laughed and headed to the food.

Hetty was glad for the respite, and as people walked past her, they stopped and wished her a happy birthday. She didn’t mind actually, since it was only one or two at a time, and Lou didn’t leave her side. After a while though, Hetty started to feel embarrassed that Lou was sitting by her; people were pointing at the couple and whispering to others. She even saw a few smiles as if she and Lou were together.

“Go get some food,” Hetty whispered to Lou. “I don’t need a guard, I’m fine.” When Lou stayed seated, Hetty added, “People think we’re…you know….” At Lou’s sudden realization and startled expression, Hetty burst out laughing and Lou joined in as she got up and walked to the food tables.

After Lou left, Hetty sat quietly and watched everyone. It seemed like most of the town had turned out, and Hetty guessed the number was over a hundred at least. It was nice for her father to have this many people here because it showed how much the town respected him. Hetty knew it wasn’t for her. As she scanned the crowd, she noticed Lou wave at her and motion for Hetty to come over to where Lou and the boys were standing. Hetty just smiled politely and shook her head. She knew she wasn’t getting up anytime soon, unless she had help, because the skirt was tight around her hips and legs, causing some tingling. So she was stuck but that was fine with Hetty since she was alone.

“So, thirteen huh?”

Hetty’s body went rigid and she sucked in a huge gulp of air. She pushed her glasses up but couldn’t look as he sat down in the chair Lou had just been in. She looked back at where Lou was standing and saw her friend grin and wink. How had Hetty missed that Buck, of all people, wasn’t standing there too? Not trusting her voice, she just nodded.

“That’s a big age in my tribe,” Buck said.

“Really?” Hetty asked, turning to him. She’d been duped by her own curiosity. Here she was staring right at him. What should she do now? But her simple question was all he needed.

“Yeah, that’s when a young boy becomes a man and goes on his first hunt with the older braves,” Buck said. “I had just gone on mine before…” His voice trailed off. Hetty saw such sadness in his eyes that she didn’t understand but knew she didn’t want there.

“Well, I don’t think Daddy will be too pleased with me going on a hunt,” Hetty said, trying hard to sound light. Hetty was thrilled to hear Buck’s deep, rich laughter.

“I suppose not,” he said as his laughter melted into a soft chuckle and the sadness dissipated. He looked into her eyes for a moment and Hetty blushed, turning her eyes down to the ground. He cleared his throat. “Um, would you like some food? I could get you a plate.”

Hetty shook her head, looking down at the ground. Right then she was too nervous to eat, but normally she didn’t like eating in front of this many people. She always felt like she was being watched and that people thought she was a pig for eating anything with how big she was anyway. Buck leaned over so he could see her eyes.

“Or you can walk over with me and we’ll come right back here,” Buck promised. “We can even see if the others will come over here.” The hopeful look on Buck’s face was too much for Hetty and she couldn’t say no.

But she knew she needed help to stand and wouldn’t ask Buck outright so she pitifully shook her head. Buck stood, held out his hand, and nodded encouragingly. Hetty really wanted to go wherever Buck wanted so she took his hand, hoping she’d not pull both of them down like she’d almost done in Tompkins’ store the first day she’d met the Express family. With such a strong grip, Buck pulled her easily out of her chair without so much as a stuttered step. Smiling, he turned, tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, and escorted her slowly to the food table. He walked leisurely, allowing her to set the pace.

“Well, it’s about time. Ya’ gotta taste your own birthday food,” Cody teased as Hetty and Buck walked up. “I can recommend just about everythin’ here.”

“Yeah, since you’ve eaten just about everythin’ here,” Kid said, receiving a hearty laugh from his friends, including Cody.

“Not sure ya’ should take his advice anyway,” Jimmy added. He leaned towards Hetty and whispered loudly, “he’d eat just about anythin’.” This received even more laughter and a punch from Cody.

Hetty felt so safe and happy with this people, especially Buck, that she realized she wasn’t anxious at all. As long as she had Lou and the boys, she knew she would be happy, and all thoughts of their leaving had vanished from her mind. She laughed softly as Cody and Jimmy were arguing over what to put on her plate, and Kid and Lou tried to add their opinions. Rachel tried to pull the plate from Jimmy’s hand, insisting they didn’t know what they were doing. Ike just smiled and shrugged, rolling his eyes at them. Hetty covered her mouth to hide her giggle as Ike elbowed Buck.

*I think you should step in,* Ike signed.

“Ike’s right. I probably should’ve just done it,” Buck murmured, leaning towards her. “I’m not sure you’ll get it before your next birthday at this rate.”

Hetty’s skin tingled where she felt his breath brush over her cheek. She was in heaven and didn’t want to move. However, Jimmy and Cody had finally finished, and Buck removed his arm from her hold, taking the plate Jimmy offered. Buck had his as well and they turned to walk back to the main table. Hetty stopped, uncertainty clouding her happiness, and slowly pushed her glasses up so she could see properly. Prissy and her three friends, Agnes, Hannah, and Becky, were sitting at the main table. Hannah and Becky were flanking Hetty’s chair, and Prissy was sitting directly across from Hetty, with Agnes sitting across from Becky. All four were smiling and waving at Hetty.

Hetty followed as Buck walked to the table without slowing his stride. She glanced back and saw that the other riders weren’t following. Not wanting to be anywhere near Prissy and her friends but wanting to be with Buck, Hetty slowed her pace even more, unsure of what to do. Buck glanced back and smiled encouragingly at her. That was all it took and Hetty continued following behind him.

“Hetty dear,” Prissy murmured. Her tone was cloying but Hetty still heard the scorn, “do sit.” She pointed to the chair across from her as if giving Hetty permission to sit in her presence. “We haven’t had a chance to talk to you.” She looked expectantly at Hetty.

Hetty glanced warily at the chair and then at Buck. Buck again smiled and nodded towards the chair. With everyone looking at her, she blushed slightly but was still hesitant to sit. Buck was there with her and would stay near her, even if he couldn’t sit by her, so she felt safe to take the chair. She sat down and Buck leaned over, placing her plate in front of her.

“Buck,” Teaspoon said from the next table over, “would you come over here?” Hetty saw that Jimmy was over there and both men were laughing.

“Ignore ‘im Buck,” Jimmy said, “he ain’t gonna be happy to know you agree with me.” Teaspoon shook his head.

“Sorry,” Buck said, leaning between her and Hannah, “I probably should go over there and clear this up.” He laughed and patted Hetty on the shoulder. Hetty watched him walk away and suddenly felt panicked. He left her there with these horrible girls – alone. But Hetty thought about it and knew Buck wouldn’t do anything to hurt her so she allowed herself to relax.

Hetty turned back to see all four girls looking at her as if she was an interesting bug. Squirming slightly, she picked up her fork and poked at the small mound of mashed potatoes on her plate. She definitely wasn’t eating anything with these girls around her.

“Such a pretty dress,” Becky said from Hetty’s left, tilting her head. She ran her hand over the sleeve. Hetty’s face was hot and she felt self-conscious.

“So have you tried the punch?” Hannah asked sweetly. She was sitting on Hetty’s right.

“Um, no,” Hetty said softly, staring at swirls she’d made in her potatoes.

“Oh here,” Prissy purred, “do try some. It’s delicious.” She leaned forwards holding out a glass to Hetty.

Glancing suspiciously at each girl, Hetty hesitated taking the glass. But the smiles on their faces seemed to contradict her uneasy feelings so she rose up slightly from her seat and leaned forward to take the glass. Just as Hetty was about to touch the glass, Prissy pulled it slightly away and Hetty’s chest brushed against the food on her plate.

Startled and horrified, Hetty fell back on her seat. Her rear had just made contact when she felt the legs wobble. There was an awful creaking noise and the chair broke, dropping Hetty to the ground. Not able to brace herself because of her tight skirt, she fell flat on her back. Humiliated, she tried to get her legs up under her body but she couldn’t bend her knees. And to make matters worse, everyone was laughing hysterically.

“Oh Hetty,” Prissy said, covering her mouth coyly, “are you hurt?” Her concern was transparent.

The situation was bad enough but Hetty glanced over to see Buck looking at her and laughing. Mortified, she rolled over onto her stomach, the laughter ringing in her ears. She got her hands under her and pushed. She immediately felt her skirt rip up the side and the sleeves tear at the seams. Tears blurred her vision as she struggled to stand. Sobbing, she ran, her ears burning from the sounds of everyone laughing. Dimly aware that someone was calling her name, she still didn’t stop running. She didn’t know where she was running to but she had to get away from these horrible people.

*~*~*~*~*

“Buck!”

He had just been laughing at one of Teaspoon’s witty comments and turned to see Lou’s and Rachel’s heads bobbing from behind a bunch of people on the other side of the yard. He wondered why there were so many people around suddenly and saw that the women were pointing at something near him. They were also trying to push through the crowd to get to something. Still wearing the smile, he followed their fingers and saw, to his horror, Hetty sprawled out on the ground and looking straight at him, her expression seemed accusatory. He pulled his eyes away to look at the cause of Hetty’s distress. Prissy was standing and laughing as she pointed at Hetty on the ground. He felt numb and couldn’t move. How had he been so stupid to believe what Prissy had said? The sounds of Jimmy and Teaspoon shouting pulled Buck out of his stupor. Unfortunately, Hetty had pushed herself up and was running away.

The area was in chaos as those that had been in the vicinity were whispering amongst themselves and those that hadn’t been nearby were hurrying over to find out what had happened. Buck tried to push his way through the crowd but it was like trying to break through a stone wall. Finally, exasperated that no one was moving and watching as Hetty disappeared, he lashed out.

“Move!”

Shocked by his outburst, the people surrounding him quickly got out of his way and he took off to find Hetty. As he ran past the main table, he grabbed a small package and glared at Prissy, which stopped her laughter quickly. She actually looked uneasy and Buck was pleased but didn’t show it. He headed in the direction he’d last seen Hetty go, towards the barn, hoping he could find her.

*~*~*~*~*

“What happened here?” Teaspoon asked, as he eyed Jimmy who was standing away from the crowd with a hand on Vernon’s shoulder in what appeared to be a friendly discussion. That Teaspoon could see the entire whites of Vernon’s eyes led the man to believe that Jimmy’s chat was a bit less than friendly.

“We have no idea Marshal Hunter,” Prissy said, looking up at Teaspoon from her seat. “One minute she was sittin’ there and the next…” Prissy looked solemnly at the marshal. “It was awful.”

“Oh please,” Rachel growled. She opened her mouth to let those girls have it but was silenced by a soft but intense voice.

“Then why did you laugh?”

Teaspoon turned to see Philip Hogge standing there, and by the fury in his eyes, Teaspoon was pretty sure the man was holding onto his temper with every bit of will he had.

“It was nervous laughter,” Prissy said innocently, “we were caught unawares.”

“Come on now Hogge,” Gordon Ledford said from behind Philip, “they’re just children.”

The whole thing had happened so quickly that it had been difficult to react. And the fact that the townsfolk had moved towards the ruckus had hindered any of them getting to Hetty to help her. Teaspoon was furious. And that was one of the reasons for Jimmy’s talk with Vernon. The boy had tripped Jimmy and blocked his path. No one ever said Vernon was sharp but that had been downright suicidal.

“Excuse me Mr. Ledford,” Philip stated, he hated how the man used everyone’s last names. “I believe they are old enough to be responsible for their actions.”

Teaspoon saw movement from the corner of his eyes and watched Cody saunter up to the main table to stand by Prissy. Ike and Lou casually took positions by Hannah and Becky, respectfully, and Kid was off to the side. He figured they were planning to do something to these girls and it probably wasn’t going to be very nice. Grinning, he subtly nudged Philip and nodded in the same manner towards his riders. Other than a raised brow, Philip’s face didn’t reveal anything. As Mr. Ledford expounded on how his children were well disciplined and such, Teaspoon and Philip sat back to watch the show.

“Prissy, you need some punch?” Cody drawled, smiling the sweetest smile he could.

“Oh, no thank you Mr. Cody,” she said looking up at the blond rider. She batted her eyelashes demurely. “I have almost a full cup right here.” She pointed to the cup in front of her.

“Ya’ sure?” Cody reached over and brushed his knuckles against the cup, knocking the contents into Prissy’s lap. She was so surprised she just stared down at the stain on her dress.

“Now Cody,” Kid chastised, “look what ya’ done. Here let me get ya’ some napkins.” He reached forward and bumped his arm against Agnes’ drink, dumping it in her lap, and tipping another glass into Prissy’s. This time Prissy shrieked drawing attention to the group once more.

“Oh my, Prissy’s beautiful dress,” Prissy’s mother, Leticia, squealed.

“Hogge do something!” Mr. Ledford demanded but Philip didn’t move.

“But they’re just children,” Philip said, matter-of-factly. He smiled at the Ledfords as they were trying to squirm through to get to Prissy but people didn’t seem to be willing to move.

“Do you need any punch Ike?” Cody asked, completely ignoring Prissy screaming at him and Kid or her parents’ accusations. “Lou?”

Smiling, Ike shook his head and titled his plate towards Cody so his friend could see the ice cream on it. However, the ice cream had melted and the mess dripped onto Hannah’s head, and the largest clump fell into her lap. She jumped out of her chair so fast it fell over, screaming at the top of her lungs.

And Lou just smiled and poured her entire cup over Becky’s head. “Guess I do need some punch after all.” She and the boys burst into laughter.

Soon it was pandemonium, much worse than it had been when Prissy had tricked Hetty. As more people gathered around, the crowd started laughing at the amusing sight as Prissy, Hannah, and Becky jumped up and down, throwing tantrums, and screaming about their ruined dresses. Yelling at Philip and Teaspoon, the parents tried to push through the thick crowd, in desperation to get to their daughters.

“Hunter you’d best do something!”

“What ruffians to have among civilized people!”

“You’d better arrest those brutes!”

“Hogge! How could you invite the likes of those, those –”

“Those brutes are the only real friends Hetty has in this civilized town because of your daughters,” Philip said quietly.

A hush descended over the crowd and the whimpers of the soddened girls were the only sounds as their parents gathered around them. He looked at each girl’s parents, finally ending with the worst of them, the Ledfords. He kept his eyes glued to Gordon’s. Knowing he had an audience, Philip refrained from saying anything incriminating. Hetty was his life but he was also the owner of the bank and couldn’t discuss these people’s business in front of everyone. However, he was sure they understood him. “Now, I suggest all of you keep that in mind as you leave to discipline your daughters. Good afternoon.” Unable to look at the group any longer, he turned to Teaspoon.

“You okay?” Teaspoon asked, placing his hand on Philip’s arm. The two men had become very good friends. Rachel, the boys, and Lou walked up to show their support as well. They all loved Hetty and her father, and hated that this had to happen on her special day.

“Yes, I believe I am,” Philip responded, taking a deep breath. He looked around but when he didn’t see Hetty a surge of panic rushed up, and he grabbed Teaspoon’s arm. “Oh Lord, where’s Hetty?”

“It’s okay,” Teaspoon said calmly. “Buck ran after her as soon after the fracas as he could.”

Philip released the breath he was holding and smiled wanly. Patting Teaspoon’s arm he said, “If anyone can get through to her it would be –”

“Um, Mr. Hogge?”

Philip turned to see Reverend Neely standing there with what looked like the entire town behind him. “We are truly sorry for what happened here.” As a soft murmur ran through the crowd and many people nodded their heads, he put his hand out for Philip to shake.

“Thank you Reverend,” Philip said, taking the man’s hand. He looked around at everyone there. “I do know...” he glanced at Teaspoon and grinned, “that y’all,” everyone laughed as a feeling of relief passed over the crowd. He laughed and continued, “That y’all would not do anything to hurt Hetty. It unfortunately was just those four girls.” This time the murmur was louder. “Please go enjoy yourselves. There’s more food and…” he looked around, “where is Mr. O’Dell? He was going to –”

“Right here sir and we’re ready!” the older man hollered from the fringes of the crowd. He held up his fiddle, shaking it in the air.

“Excellent!” Philip said, laughing. “Get started.”

“Ya’ heard the man boys, let’s go,” Mr. O’Dell said, walking towards the small stage that had been set up near the corner of the house.

The crowd dispersed, some going for more food, others following Mr. O’Dell and the other band members for the dancing. Philip watched the townsfolk wander away but noticed that the reverend was still there. “Is there something else sir?”

“Well,” Reverend Neely said, looking around to make sure it was just he, Philip, and the Express family, “I wanted to just say that truly, those other girls aren’t as bad. Prissy seems to be a very bad influence. I know that one of them is very torn and hates how they are acting towards Hetty.”

“Then please tell that young lady to break away from those girls and become Hetty’s friend.” Philip and the reverend exchanged a knowing look and both men smiled.

“I will do that,” Reverend Neely said and turned to walk away. Thinking of something, he turned back. “It is a pity something can’t be done about the Ledford girl. Get rid of that influence.” Staring at the ground in silence for a moment, the reverend looked back up and smiled, winking in Rachel’s direction. “Off to get some more of Mrs. Dunne’s fabulous fried chicken.”

“Well, thank you Reverend,” Rachel said. “Have ya’ tried Mrs. Webster’s gravy on that?” When the reverend shook his head, Rachel curled her arm through his and said, “We will get you set.” Laughing, she and the reverend headed towards the tables.

“Ooo,” Cody cooed, “gravy and fried chicken. I’m starved.” He grabbed Jimmy’s and Ike’s arms and pulled them along following Rachel and Reverend Neely.

“Hungry?” Lou asked Kid. Kid grinned and practically dragged Lou with him, running to catch up to their friends.

Philip waited to make sure the reverend was out of earshot before he turned to Teaspoon. “Get rid of the influence…I believe the reverend is onto something. What do you think?”

Teaspoon smiled and nodded as they stood quietly talking of how to do just that.

*~*~*~*~*

“Hetty!”

She heard Buck calling her but refused to answer. She hated him, probably more than she hated Prissy. At least Prissy was what she was; Buck was supposedly her friend. She heard the barn door open slightly, letting in a beam of light.

“Hetty?” She watched as he walked inside and looked around.

“What do you want?” she demanded, thickly. She hadn’t stopped crying. She couldn’t and had taken her glasses off because they just kept sliding down her nose.

“Are you okay?”

“What do you care?” she threw back, walking away from him. “Why aren’t you outside with your friends?”

“Hetty,” he said softly, “they aren’t my friends. I was…I was taken just like you.”

“Meaning what?” she spat. He walked towards her and when he tried to put his hand on her arm, she violently shrugged it off and walked away.

“Hetty, please,” Buck pleaded. Hetty stopped but wouldn’t let Buck touch her. She crossed her arms over her chest, as best she could, and closed herself off from him. He sighed. “She said she was sorry for what they’d done to you in the past and wanted to be friends.”

“And you believed her?” she asked incredulously, tears still streaming down her face. “How could you?” She roughly wiped her eyes and face.

“I…I don’t know,” Buck said. Hetty heard the uncertainty in his voice.

She stared at him and he fidgeted. He ran his hand nervously through his hair and was gripping something in his other hand. He turned so he didn’t have to face her.

“Because of my pride.” When she didn’t say anything he continued, “She fooled me good Hetty. At first Jimmy, Kid, and me were suspicious when she walked up to talk to us but she sounded so earnest. She said she was sorry and felt like such a fool for being so mean to you.”

“Right,” she said softly. “I saw you, she was hanging on you and she even made you blush.” The last word was barely a whisper because she knew by saying it he would know she had been watching him closely.

He turned to face her. “You saw that?” She nodded bashfully. He smiled weakly and walked towards her. “That’s where the pride part comes in.” Hetty’s brow furrowed in confusion. “She told me that...that you must be smart since you had such good taste in men.” Hetty eyes widened as she watched him swallow hard.

She couldn’t handle this. Now Buck actually knew for sure that she cared very much for him. Cared? What is that? She was in love with him but she was only a silly, thirteen-year-old girl. She whirled around so her back was to him and said hoarsely, “Well go to her then and leave me alone.”

“Hetty, I –”

Suddenly a shriek was heard from outside, joined by a few more squeals and hollers. Not thinking, Hetty looked at Buck. “What was that?”

Buck quickly moved to the entrance and Hetty followed. He pushed the door so it was completely opened and they looked towards the party. They could only see the backs of the crowd.

“That was Prissy, I’m sure of it,” Hetty mumbled. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. At the sound of another shriek, Hetty added, “and that was Hannah…or maybe Becky.”

“I’m guessing the others got even for you,” Buck said, laughing. She couldn’t help but join him and they turned to each other. Suddenly, she was standing right beside him and looking up into his eyes, getting lost in their depths. No she was angry with him but she just couldn’t pull away.

“Um, here,” Buck stammered. He held out a small package. “It’s just a small, uh, just something to remember me, us by.” Hetty gazed at his hand, mesmerized. What could it be? “Hetty?” She looked up to see he was smiling and staring at her curiously.

“Oh sorry,” she said, softly. She hurriedly put her glasses back on and wiped her hands on her skirts. Slowly she took the small box and turned it over in her hands. He’d wrapped it. He’d used a pretty blue paper with a thin, white ribbon. She smiled as she ran the ends of the ribbon through her fingers.

“Are you gonna open it? There is more to it,” he said, chuckling.

She blushed deeply and giggled. The anticipation was great and she felt her nerves tingling. Taking a deep breath, she untied the ribbon and let the paper fall open. There was a black box and, carefully removing the lid, Hetty saw a dark blue velvet bag inside.

“Oh,” she breathed.

She looked up and was shocked to see that Buck was standing almost toe-to-toe with her. Smiling, he took the box and removed the bag. Pulling the drawstrings to open the pouch, he said, “Hold out your hand.” She clutched the paper and ribbon in one hand and did as he said. He held the bag upside down, dropping a cameo pin into her upturned palm.

“Oh my,” she murmured. It was beautiful and she knew immediately she’d cherish it forever. She had some expensive jewelry from her father but this cameo was special mainly because it was from her friends, but mostly because of Buck. Hesitant to touch it, she stood for a long while staring at the delicate pin sitting in her hand.

“I hope you like it,” Buck said, sounding a bit nervous. Hetty realized she hadn’t said anything.

“Buck it’s beautiful, thank you,” she said. “I love the colors.”

“Well, um, the blue matches your, uh, eyes.” Blushing, he hurriedly said, “And that’s why Rachel picked out that mater…” He looked down at her soiled, ripped dress and Hetty’s face fell remembering what had happened.

“Hetty, I’m really sorry.”

Hetty looked at him. Seeing the distress and anxiety on his face and in his eyes, and hearing it in his voice, she knew she didn’t hate him. She could never hate him; she loved him with all her heart. He was truly sorry and had been duped by Prissy just as she had.

“I know Buck,” Hetty said, still holding her hand out with the cameo.

“Would you like to put it on?”

Hetty heard the anticipation in his voice and nodded quickly. As he picked it up, his fingers brushed her opened palm and a shiver ran up her spine. He stepped closer and she felt his breath against her cheek. Again her body responded. “Are you cold? Do you want my coat?” Hetty bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She wasn’t cold, her skin was on fire. She just shook her head and he continued. As he reached forward, his eyes widened.

“Um, uh,” he stammered, “I have to, um, well, do you mind if I touch you?”

Hetty couldn’t stop herself and snorted. The giddy laughter that had been at the surface bubbled over and she bent over laughing. Buck joined though she knew he had no idea why she was laughing. And he proved that by saying, “Okay, so I figured it would be polite to ask.”

She stood up, taking a deep, cleansing breath and nodded. “Go ahead.” Buck curled his fingers over the edge of her neckline and Hetty clenched her fists to make herself stand still. Slowly, he put the pin through the fabric and clasped it secure. He took a step back and admired the pin.

“There,” he said, and looked up. “It does match your eyes.” Hetty saw the startled look on his face and almost laughed when he coughed and pointed towards the house, where the band had just started playing. “Sounds like your party’s back on.”

“We should probably go back,” she said, despondently. In just two days, Buck would leave her forever. But, she rubbed her finger over the cameo; she’d always have this memory. He gently picked up her hand and tucked it into the crook of his elbow, escorting her back to her party.

*~*~*~*~*

“Hetty, I said did you –”

“Sorry Daddy,” Hetty said softly. “I heard you. They’re coming home. The rest of our family is finally coming home.” She placed her hand over the cameo. And so was her heart.

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