The sun was shining high overhead and a cool breeze was blowing. The day was turning out better than Emma had expected. Before first light, as the excitement coursed through her, she'd awoken earlier than she normally did. Out the window she'd seen the dismal possibility of rain. It had seemed ominous so she'd prayed that the sunshine would push through. She hadn't wanted anything to ruin this moment.

Sitting on the porch, she shucked the corn for lunch, and watched her six new charges. Seven if you counted the odd but, from what she could see, deceptively intelligent Aloysius "Teaspoon" Hunter. Sam had brought the older man to her house, almost as if he were guarding Mr. Hunter. Not knowing whether to chastise the marshal for being so overprotective or to hug him for it, Emma had stilled the reprimand, and simply thanked Sam.

Sam. Her hands worked the husks by rote as she thought about the marshal. Not long after Sam had arrived in Sweetwater, he'd asked her to dinner. After many dinners and socials, they'd tried to connect, but something was in the way. She'd known there was a spark, but Sam had seemed restless, and he'd been unwilling to tell her why. So, as with all good things, it had come to an end but they'd remained friends.

Friends - her mind wandered to the look he'd given her a few days earlier when he'd escorted Mr. Hunter to her house. That wasn't the look of a friend to a friend. Or perhaps she was reading more into it because she wanted that spark to rekindle.

"Oh it's just too confusin'," she murmured, her fingers making quick work of the silk strands on the corn she was holding. "Maybe I should just leave it be." If she expected these ears to give her the advice she wanted, they were deaf to her plea.

All the things that had happened in her life, all the forks she'd come to, had forced her to pick one path or another even if they weren't the paths she wanted. But this path was different. She'd willingly picked it. And with it came seven new people in her life. People who had arrived in the days before, people she'd just met, but who would possibly be at her home for a long, long time. Each one had such different personalities and carried different demons. She could tell. Their eyes gave them away.

Of the many things her mother had taught her, the best was that a good meal made a fast friend. Each one of these seemingly lost, orphaned boys had broken bread with her. And through those simple circumstances, she'd learned more about them by what they didn't say than what they did.

Putting the last of the corn in her basket, she sat for a moment longer, watching each boy try to keep their masks in place. One hid behind a brash facade, a gun set low on his hip. Another covered his fear with wit and charm. There were two who were friends and that friendship, as well as the way they communicated, was their cloak. Her eyes moved on to the smallest of the group, the one that had the most to hide and the most to lose if found out. The last of the riders, sitting quietly by the barn, was a mystery, his name included. That was his wall, keeping the others at a distance. Emma hoped with her help, they'd come out of these shells and allow the others in.

Then there was the most peculiar of the group - the new station master. She glanced around but he was nowhere in sight. She didn't know much about him, other than he'd been asked directly by the company owners to head up this station. And he hadn't given up much in the past few days.

"Ya' must know what you're doin'," she said softly, as she looked around once more. Almost as if he'd heard her, Mr. Hunter came out of the barn and waved at her. She smiled and returned the wave. "I guess it's time for the trainin' to begin."

Sighing contentedly, she picked up her basket and stood. With one last look at the boys, who were now staring at their new boss with expressions ranging from amusement to caution to indifference, she chuckled and turned to go inside and start lunch.

*~*~*~*~*

'What have I gotten m'self into?' He finished buttoning his shirt. 'Or the better question is why.'

As he pulled on his boots and explained the Pony Express to these insolent boys, he'd already had it with the comments, the snide looks, the wary expressions, and the disinterested attitudes. The only reason he didn't just quit was there was nothing else for him. He felt as if he were standing at a precipice with just a thin, rope bridge for crossing. Unfortunately, this job was all that was on the other side.

At rock bottom just weeks before, the letter he'd received asking him to take this job had seemed like salvation to the ex-Texas Ranger. That he was an ex-Texas Ranger wasn't something he planned on sharing with these people. His past was his and no one needed to know.

He'd arrived in town a few days earlier to set up the station. After asking directions to Miss Shannon's, the marshal had suddenly appeared. Less than thrilled about Teaspoon's presence, the marshal had still provided an escort. It hadn't been hard to figure out why the marshal had reacted that way once Miss Shannon had come out to greet them. The fire in both their eyes had been enough of an indication why the marshal was so protective. Teaspoon had liked the woman from the beginning, relieved that he hadn't been stuck with a shrew. He'd especially enjoyed the meals she'd cooked, which was a definite bonus.

'Lord help me from smackin' this boy in the mouth,' he prayed silently, as he eyed the blonde, who was leaning casually on his rifle after yet another pert remark.

While walking by the group, Teaspoon hadn't missed the Colt hanging low on the hip of the second boy in line. Teaspoon Hunter wasn't a stranger to a gun like that but he also wasn't one to advertise that fact. The main problem was this boy seemed itching for a fight, so perhaps Teaspoon would give it to him. He sighed inwardly knowing that wasn't the way to reach the boy. For that matter, it wasn't the way to reach any of them. He had a group of ignorant, naïve, and extremely immature boys that needed teaching. And he had the tricks to help them survive.

Plus, by the look of them, they'd received more than their share of fights, most of which they probably didn't want or ask for. He eyed the half-blood standing at the head of the line. Finished with the basics, he decided that getting to know a little about these boys was the only way to get through to them. Besides, it would probably help him too.

*~*~*~*~*

'I shouldn't have let Ike talk me into this.' He grimaced as the strange man sat up in the water trough. 'No white man is gonna want an Indian riding for him.'

He eyed the older man suspiciously. Buck Cross' nerves were taught and his stomach rolled as he knew it wasn't his being an Indian that would stand in the way; it was the fact he was a half-breed. Hate filled the word whenever anyone called him that. Actually, hate filled anyone who even looked at him. Anyone but Miss Shannon, she seemed to be different.

Once he and Ike had arrived, showing up on her doorstep, she'd immediately invited them in - both of them and into her home. Confusion had been evident on her face when Buck had stayed on the porch as Ike walked inside. The sweet smile she'd worn had shocked Buck but not as much as when she'd waved him inside.

He'd been unsure about staying, despite the genuine kindness that Miss Shannon had shown them. Yet Ike had insisted they remain over night because he wanted to sleep in a real bed. The idea of bunking with strangers in such close quarters hadn't set well with Buck but he'd done it for his friend. The stories Jimmy and Cody had told were amusing, if not total lies, and the other two, Lou and Kid hadn't talked much but that hadn't mattered. He still wasn't sure about staying but it was funny how everything had turned out okay.

Startled by Mr. Hunter looking at him and asking, "Half-blood?" Buck clenched his jaw and answered.

The expected response, telling Buck to leave, didn't come. Instead the man picked up a quiver of arrows and tested him. With effort, Buck didn't laugh at the third arrow. Perhaps this wasn't going to be so bad, especially since Mr. Hunter seemed truly amused by Buck's reaction.

If later Mr. Hunter wanted him gone, Buck figured he'd cross that bridge when he had to. Otherwise, he'd take whatever came his way. A small smile appeared on his face, the first since Ike had suggested the Pony Express, and he relaxed.

*~*~*~*~*

James Butler Hickok. That's how he'd presented himself to the bothersome old man. He'd almost drawn his gun when Hunter had stood toe-to-toe with him. Jimmy didn't like people in his face. Simply put, he just didn't like people. They tended to dislike him first so why waste time. Like the old man said, "If it's trouble you want…." Well it seemed that trouble was all Jimmy ever got.

The Shannon woman had been a different story. No matter how much he'd tried to remain cocky and throw his weight around, she'd put a stop to it every time but with a smile. She'd actually laughed a few times. At first he'd been annoyed, thinking she was laughing at him, but then he'd realized she was just being friendly, and it had unnerved him.

Infuriated at how she'd demanded he not only remove his hat but also his gun, he'd still grudgingly obeyed without a word. For the meal she'd given him, he'd have stripped to his drawers. It was the first real food he'd had in months and it had been like a taste of heaven.

Work had been scarce after leaving the Enrights; money even less so. Mostly because all Jimmy knew how to do was use a gun - thanks to Judge Enright. The average farmer, rancher, or businessman didn't need to hire a gun and Jimmy wasn't much help in any other way.

Seemed he wasn't the only one that felt at odds with the world. As they'd gotten comfortable in the bunkhouse, or as comfortable as they could around strangers, it hadn't taken long for Billy to start talking, which wasn't a shock. Billy could talk anyone to death. For spite, Jimmy decided to trump the blonde's stories with bigger ones. Of course Jimmy had known his stories were lies, but he didn't care, he was just doing it to be mean. The more he attempted to throw Billy off, the more Billy's stories grew and got even better. Soon, Jimmy had begun to enjoy himself and noticed that so had everyone else. It had actually been fun. But in Jimmy's life what did that matter? What did any of this matter?

Half-heartedly he listened to Hunter continue talking. Jimmy doubted he'd still be there when the actual rides started. His goal was to get just enough money to get him to the next big town, spend it gambling and probably on women, wasn't that what everyone expected of him? But what did he expect of himself? He had no idea. The one thing he knew was he wouldn't go back to that life - ever.

Suddenly it dawned on him, he discovered he had complete control of what he would do. Even though Hunter was his boss, he still didn't control what Jimmy's destiny was. That was in Jimmy's hands now.

To Jimmy's great surprise, he felt lighter than he had in a long time. He smiled.

*~*~*~*~*

Teaspoon hit the hat off Ike's head and, as always, Buck came to his friend's rescue. Though he did appreciate Buck's help, Ike sometimes wished he didn't need the help. Really, Ike wished it all the time. Without a voice Ike was left without simple communication. Learning sign had helped but the number of people in the white man's world who knew Indian sign was few.

It was always Buck that felt isolated and scorned. Normally, when they'd first arrive in a town looking for work, it had been Buck that received the disdain and abuse. But as soon as people found out that Ike couldn't speak, the townspeople had enough hatred for both of them. It had taken everything Ike had to convince Buck to do this because his friend was always careful with new situations and particularly new people.

Things had been different with Miss Shannon. Until she'd treated them so nicely, Ike hadn't been sure Buck would stay. She'd opened her home to them and had fed them a wonderful meal. There'd been an immediate impression of warmth and family that Ike hadn't felt since meeting Buck. There wasn't any animosity towards Buck being an Indian. Neither was she displeased by Ike needing Buck to translate. Actually, she'd been interested in learning and by the time they'd finished their pie, she'd learned some basic signs. But this still hadn't been enough for Buck.

The one demand Ike had made when Buck had still wanted to leave, was that they stay overnight. He wanted to sleep in a real bed so Buck had given in. And they'd honestly had a good time. Even Buck had admitted that the others were nice, which made Ike very happy. Tired of moving from place to place, Ike wanted somewhere permanent. He was done with the wandering existence. And with Mr. Hunter's seemingly good-nature and Miss Shannon's kindness, Ike was sure that this was it, and that made him smile.

*~*~*~*~*

Dumbfounded that the man wasn't amazed with his marksmanship, Cody pursed his lips. The others naturally had been awed; even the one with the hair-trigger had begrudged Cody a smile and a nod. But that didn't matter to Cody. The man in charge was Teaspoon Hunter and that was the man Cody had to impress, even if Teaspoon said otherwise. This was the perfect job for Cody. It was where he belonged. The sign had said "Must be willing to face death daily." That was Cody exactly.

So he'd arrived the day before wanting to be the first person at the station. Show the station master what a good employee he'd be. But the others were already there and had claimed bunks in the bunkhouse. He was stuck with a bottom bunk, which he hated, below the one called Hickok; the one with the gun on his hip. That had just made Cody's day, nothing like the possibility of getting shot while you were sleeping.

He'd been tempted to leave but then the one shining light had appeared. Miss Emma Shannon. She'd fed him, listened to his stories, and fed him some more. No prying questions asked just a friendly ear. Knowing that a good night's sleep would help him make his decision, he hadn't figured the fun he'd have. That night had actually been entertaining. Always the showman, Cody had told some whoppers but Hickok had matched him. Irritated at first, the more stories they told the more fun he'd had. For a time, he was back to his belief that he was made for the Pony Express.

But when Teaspoon had smacked him in the face, Cody had been startled. It wasn't a hard smack but Cody had been embarrassed nonetheless. So when he'd shot the hay bale from the rope Cody was sure that his extraordinary feat would render Teaspoon speechless. Furthermore, Cody was sure Teaspoon would take back his "cowpies" comment. Not a chance and Cody had been flabbergasted that all the man had said was, "You do not stand and fight; you run like hell." Cody would never run. Ever.

Adventure was what he wanted and with all the publicity that this new mail service was getting, Cody was sure he'd get it hundredfold. In fact, he desperately needed this. He couldn't go home nor did he want to. This was his life now and he was sure he would be successful, his name would be legendary. A slow smile crossed his face.

*~*~*~*~*

If she kept her head bowed, her arms crossed over her chest, and her voice low, she thought she could do this. And since it was her last chance to make money and keep her dignity, she had to do this. The images of Jeremiah and Teresa floated in her head. It was for them and she wouldn't forget that.

The day before had been unbearable. The boys had lazed around the bunkhouse, Jimmy and Cody trying to outdo the other with tales of adventure. Unfortunately for her, they'd been really funny thus she'd tried to keep her jaw clenched so she wouldn't laugh too hard. Buck and Ike had quietly sat in a corner talking with their hands. And the one without a name just took everything in, calmly watching everyone. At one point, when she'd realized his gaze was on her, she felt as if he'd discovered her secret. The worst part of the day had been bedtime. Not only did the others just strip, she had the bunk above Kid. They'd stared at her when she'd climbed up with her clothes on but no one said a word. She'd ended up sleeping in her clothes.

The best part of the day had been when she'd arrived and Miss Shannon had invited her in to eat. The smells reminded her of home, when things were good, and a couple of tears had escaped before she brushed them away. If Miss Shannon had seen them, she didn't say a word. Though Miss Shannon didn't know that Lou was a female, it still had been nice for Lou, to talk to another woman.

Suddenly, Mr. Hunter was standing in front of her, quietly asking if she could do the work. He'd called her "puny." 'I'll show him.' And she handed him her glasses.

Moving fast, she sprang onto the trough, using it for leverage to vault onto the horse. A few fancy moves and she encouraged the horse to jump the trough, landing in front of Mr. Hunter. It was outrageous and she hoped he wouldn't be offended. She only wanted to prove she could do this job, just like any of the other boys.

Out of breath, she returned to her place in line. He held her glasses out and she took them. One look at his face and she knew she'd succeeded.

"Puny but spry."

She closed her lips tightly to stifle the giggle that bubble up inside. Excited at the prospect of this job, she prayed that her secret would stay just that, a secret.

*~*~*~*~*

"Need the work."

It was a simple enough statement but the truth behind it was immense. This place was the first where he'd felt comfortable. The first place that his name, or lack of, didn't seem to matter. Of course he'd come about as far as he could, getting away from that life and that name.

When Miss Shannon had asked his name and "Kid" was his reply, she'd smiled and invited him in. No other response or query for more. The lunch that Miss Shannon had provided put the meals that his mother had scraped together to shame. In a vain attempt to honor his mother's memory, he'd declined the offer, taking only the apple on the plate, but Miss Shannon had insisted. She told him that it was her job to feed him as one of her riders. Thus he couldn't refuse and had consequently stuffed himself. While he ate, Miss Shannon had asked him a few simple questions about himself but had mainly talked about what was going to be expected of the riders from her. The more she talked the more she'd reminded him of his mother. Instead of it making him sad, it had given him a warm feeling.

The bunkhouse and the others hadn't quite given him the same warm feeling. Not that he'd felt threatened or that he didn't like the others. It was that they all seemed to have something in their past that they were running from as well. In an odd way, he felt close to these people because of this. He'd watched them, enjoying Hickok's and Cody's banter, curious about Buck's and Ike's language, but it had been Lou that had him the most intrigued. He seemed to be the most on guard and the one Kid felt the most kinship with though Kid couldn't explain why.

Still not sure whether he was staying, Kid figured this would be as good a place as any to work and save money. And he needed money. There was someone back home that he was supposed to send for but after so many years, now all he wanted to do was pay her back the money he'd borrowed. That part of his life was over, and this part was just beginning. Would it be with these people around him?

As Teaspoon was finishing the rest of his speech; he said something that put Kid's doubts to rest.

"Boys, you gonna be ridin' a thousand miles, day and night. Not even the devil hisself gonna make no never mind. You gonna tie these United States together… and do yourselves proud."

Kid glanced around at the five boys standing with him against this fence and they too were looking around. His gut told him yes he would be here for as long as this Express would last. And he always listened to his gut. He'd crossed a bridge, as had all the others, and was starting something new.

A/N: I'd like to thank Ellie for helping me when I was drowning in the specifics of the lyrics and go simple w/ a look at the title. d;-)

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