A/N: This story is thanks to a word-list prompt Tracy gave me. The words are: bellows, sneeze, cinch, poppet, molasses and hatpin.
Wide-eyed, she took her father's hand, as she stepped from their private stage. This place was so different from the bustling city she and her father had left almost a month before. The first thing she noticed was the dust. It seemed to coat everything like a gritty veil.
"Take a deep breath, Henrietta," her father said, encouraging her with one of his own. "Smell that clean air."
Always the dutiful daughter, Henrietta inhaled. All this brought her was a goodly portion of that one thing this place had a lot of - dust. Without much warning, she was over taken by the urge to *sneeze*. Before she could get her handkerchief out of her purse, her body convulsed with the act. Apologetically, she looked up at her father as, handkerchief in hand, she wiped her nose.
"Sorry, Daddy," she said, embarrassed.
"Don't worry love, once you get used to the environment, you'll be fine," he smiled, reassuring her again, as he had through the whole trip. "You just wait and see."
Henrietta tried to return her father's smile but hers took on a more woeful appearance. She knew he was trying his best and that their move was partly for her and her health, though she didn't think she'd be happy anywhere. All she cared about were her books but people, especially females, particularly those her own age, didn't understand this.
Sighing, she watched as her father directed the driver where to put their luggage, trunks and various household articles. They'd rented two coaches to have enough room for all their necessary belongings. The remainder of their household would come in the next few weeks.
Once everything was on the ground, surrounding them, Mr. Philip Longwood Hogge III looked around the town where he would be the new bank owner. He'd been very successful in Chicago and life had been perfect: stable, prosperous, influential - perfect. Until six months ago.
His beautiful wife, Daphne, of just five years, had been ripped from his life. Taken ill by consumption only a few months before, she'd wasted away to nothing. She'd been so petite and frail to begin with, that the illness quickly devastated her body.
Philip missed her immensely, so, when he had found it impossible to continue the life he'd known, he came to the conclusion he needed to move. And once he had decided this, he wanted it to be far away. He thought the West would be the best place, believing a fresh start would be possible in such a new, exciting place. Plus, with Henrietta's respiratory problems, the doctors agreed with his choice.
The inquiries he made led him to this small little town called Sweetwater. From his many business contacts, news had come about the need of a bank owner due to the quick departure of the previous one, a man by the name of Devlin. The man had left with his daughter, Kathleen, under mysterious circumstances. The irony that it was a father and daughter hadn't been lost on Philip.
Though not sure of the specifics, he'd heard that it had something to do with Mr. Devlin and his assistant having trouble with the Pony Express. Philip found this rather odd but would never speculate on it, or on anything for that matter, it wasn't in his nature. He didn't like gossip and didn't put much weight on hearsay so he concluded he'd find out for himself.
Brought from his thoughts by Henrietta blowing her nose - again, Philip looked over at his twelve-year-old daughter. She was dressed in a simple three-piece outfit; an A-line skirt in a small paisley pattern of gray, navy, and crème, a short, drop-sleeved jacket in gray and a light blue blouse. She was pulling at the lace-banded collar of the blouse because, as with all her blouses, the neck was too tight.
To top the outfit off, she had a straw hat with a very wide brim. Daphne had thought skin any darker than milk looked common, so she had insisted that Hetty wear a hat at all times to make sure that no sun touched any of Hetty's fair complexion. Therefore, this style hat was the only one Daphne had allowed her to wear, and, thus, Hetty had many of them. He knew she hated these hats, the thin satin ribbons that tied under the chin cut into her neck since, unfortunately, she didn't have much of a chin for the ribbon to be tied under.
Philip, watching as his daughter tried very hard to blend in with the pole she was standing beside, was pained by how uncomfortable she was in new situations because he knew how she felt about, not only her health, but, especially, her appearance. Henrietta, or Hetty as her nanny called her, had been a product of his first marriage. Closing his eyes, Philip thought of Millicent, Hetty's mother. She was as beautiful, if not more so, than Daphne.
Millicent had been the opposite of Daphne in looks. Dark complexion, black hair and eyes that, though brown, looked almost black, where Daphne was very fair, and had flaxen hair and pale, blue eyes. It was their health and figure that was identical, very petite and frail. So delicate that a gentle breeze would blow them away. That is why Philip had been so worried when Millicent told him she was pregnant.
When the doctors expressed their confidence, about the pregnancy, to Philip, he had been so happy. The first five months were a bit uncertain. She'd had terrible sickness off and on, throughout the day, but all the doctors, as well as Millicent's friends, said it was normal. Thus, they fully immersed themselves in the planning, the decorating of the baby's room, and the shopping for the clothes, the pram, and the furniture. It had been a glorious time.
Glorious, except when it came to the child's name if it were a girl. It was easy if it were a boy, because it would, naturally, be named after him. But a girl, well, that was a different story. Millicent wanted her to be named for the child's maternal grandmother. Philip had been less than enthusiastic since the woman was a veritable harridan. It had taken Philip two years to convince the woman he was worthy of her daughter's hand. The difference between Millicent and her mother was astounding.
Therefore, he'd been against naming the poor child Henrietta to begin with, especially considering their last name. But Millicent was insistent. So, to placate his increasingly pregnant wife, he'd vaguely agreed, sure they could discuss it after the child was born. If they were lucky, he'd thought, it would be a boy, which is what he'd wanted in the first place. So, the pregnancy continued.
It was around six months that Millicent had the fainting spells, followed by the slight bleeding. The doctors had assured them that as long as Millicent stayed in bed until the baby was born, everything would be okay. Should be okay. But it wasn't.
Millicent had carried to term but once labor hit, she was in agony. It happened that Henrietta was a larger-than-normal baby. Philip hadn't understood what that meant. How could a baby be "larger-than-normal?" The doctors suggested a cesarean section but Millicent, fearing for the baby, had refused. As the pain racked her body, the force the labor put on Millicent was unbearable and she finally fainted.
Consumed by guilt and worry over his beautiful wife, Philip had insisted the doctors do something. The only option left, they said, was the cesarean. He'd ordered them to perform whatever surgery was necessary. Unfortunately, she'd lost so much blood trying to give birth naturally, the shock from the surgery caused her to hemorrhage. Though the baby was saved, all those high paid doctors that had been present throughout Millicent's care couldn't save her.
Philip closed his eyes, ridding his mind of these memories. When he opened them, he saw Hetty looking at him with such concern. His handsome, chiseled face broke out into the most radiant smile. He knew he'd wanted a son so desperately but he'd no more give up having Hetty than give up breathing. He loved that little girl so much. She was such an odd combination of her parents.
Hetty had her mother's raven-black hair, small facial features, and short stature, and her father's steel-blue eyes and pale complexion. Most would find these attributes breathtaking, and they would be, except for Hetty's figure. With the extra weight she carried, her cheeks were so round that they seemed to squeeze her tiny nose closed and purse her lips in a permanent pucker. "Larger-than-normal" is how the doctors still referred to the young girl. "Pleasantly plump" is how Mrs. Wainscott, Hetty's nanny, referred to her.
"Now, Mr. 'ogge," the older woman would say, in her thick cockney, "that 'etty's destined ta be a beauty. You mark my words. She's still a wee lass and it's right that she's pleasantly plump at 'er age. The swee' *poppet*."
Mrs. Wainscott had always taken care of Hetty, even after Philip had married Daphne, which was good, since Daphne and Hetty had never quite developed a friendship. The only part of moving Philip regretted was leaving Mrs. Wainscott behind. The older woman couldn't make the trip so Philip had supplied glowing references and made sure she was with a decent and deserving family.
Sighing, Philip walked over to where Hetty was standing. He noticed she was watching something so intently that her thick glasses had slid down her tiny nose. When he saw what it was, he realized it was not what but whom. She was observing a young man, really not much more than a boy, fixing his saddle. Hetty had never been around animals, much less something as big as a horse.
"Fascinating, isn't it?" Philip said, as he pushed her glasses up her nose. He almost laughed when Hetty jumped. The way she scrutinized things always made him smile. She'd make such a good teacher or, due to the books she read, a detective like Allan Pinkerton.
"Yes, Daddy," Hetty answered, blushing.
Hetty had been watching the young man go through all kinds of motions with his saddle. As she studied his actions, she came to the conclusion that something was wrong, but not with the saddle. Though it seemed the rider's attention was on his saddle, it was actually on what was in his saddlebag. And to Hetty, it appeared that he was only trying to make it look as if the problem was his saddle. Unfortunately, since she knew nothing of horses or saddles and was not the type to walk up to a stranger and offer help even if she could, she stayed put. Besides, something just didn't seem right about the man.
"Have you seen the marshal yet?"
"No sir," Hetty answered, though she really hadn't been looking.
"Stay with our bags and I'll see if I can find him." He cupped Hetty's cheek as she nodded her assent.
Just as Philip was about to walk off, someone called out his name.
Philip turned to see a grizzle-faced older gentleman. At first glance, when he saw the man's odd stride, Philip thought he might be the town drunk, but that impression quickly faded when Philip looked into the older man's eyes. There was a great deal of intelligence in those clear, gray eyes and Philip was sure they missed nothing, even as cockeyed as the old man seemed.
"Yes, I'm Philip Hogge." Philip took the offered hand, while he studied the man in front of him from head to toe.
On the odd man's head was a slightly out-of-date bowler that had seen its better days. Philip believed the hat to be black but, with the coating of dust, it looked chocolate-brown. The stranger was wearing, over what appeared to be his long johns, an opened-collared, blue shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and black pants with suspenders. Faded red suspenders that actually looked pink. Philip hid his smile.
"Teaspoon Hunter," Teaspoon said, shaking the gentleman's hand. He quickly gave the younger man the same once-over the newcomer had just given him.
There was no doubt this man was a gentleman, for one only had to look at his appearance. He wore a charcoal-gray frock coat with matching trousers, that brushed the tops of his black boots, and, over a white linen shirt, was a vest of blue and silver with a matching cravat, that Teaspoon would bet was Chinese silk. Completing the look, was a simple, but elegant, diamond stickpin and, in his left hand, he held his short hat. Except for the dust, he looked as if he'd just stepped from his house for a morning stroll.
"I'm the stationmaster for the Pony Express. Sam Cain, the marshal, asked if I'd mind meetin' you and your daughter, and showin' ya' around. He and one of my riders had to take a prisoner to Blue Creek."
"Oh, well thank-you," Philip said, unable to keep the curious tone from his voice. "I've been looking forward to meeting the many people of Sweetwater, especially the Pony Express riders that I've heard so much about...from my colleagues."
The two men were silent for a moment. Both digesting what had been said and what hadn't. Teaspoon made it known that he and his riders, not only were trusted to work with the marshal, but were also friends of his. Philip made it known that he was aware of the Pony Express and that they might somehow be connected to the sudden departure of Mr. Devlin.
"Well, now, who do we have here?" Teaspoon noticed the young girl trying very hard to hide behind her father.
"This is my daughter, Henrietta," Philip said, twisting his top-half to place his arm around Hetty so she was beside him and not behind him. "Henrietta, this is Teaspoon Hunter."
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Hunter," Henrietta whispered, keeping her eyes turned down as she performed a quick curtsy.
"It's a pleasure to meet ya', Miss Hogge," Teaspoon said, tipping his hat and bowing slightly.
The young girl was wearing a hat that looked truly too big for her but he assumed it was to shade her pale skin from the harsh sun. From under the wide brim he saw a few curly strands of jet-black hair. He was intrigued by the combination of her dark black hair and blue-gray eyes and saw a very pretty young lady, despite the weight that he was sure she'd grow out of.
Turning his attention back to Philip, since he noticed how Hetty squirmed under his gaze, Teaspoon continued, "Why don't we go on over there to Tompkins' store, that's where my boys are gettin' our supplies and waitin' for me to order 'em around."
Philip laughed, realizing that he really liked this man. He was beginning to think that what he'd heard about Devlin and this man's Express was a twisted rendition of the truth. Being a patient man, he'd wait until Mr. Teaspoon Hunter was comfortable around him and, only then, would he see about the real story. He was now sure it was much more than what he'd heard at first, about the insolent behavior the riders, particularly a Buck Cross, had shown toward Devlin and his daughter.
Philip was also very intrigued about meeting this Buck Cross. He wondered if it was true that the boy was an Indian. Of course, his friends had told him to be very careful, that this Cross character might do harm to Hetty. Philip shook his head, thinking of the narrow-minded individuals he'd left behind. He sobered at the thought that he was one of them since he couldn't completely say he was comfortable having Hetty in the company of an Indian.
Teaspoon told them to leave their belongings by the boardwalk and asked a towheaded boy of about eight to keep an eye on them. Philip watched as Teaspoon withdrew a shiny penny and placed it in the boy's hand and then promised another one just like it when they got back, but only if he was a conscientious guard. Philip really was impressed with this older man and followed willingly as Teaspoon escorted him and Hetty over to Tompkins'.
Once across the street, the older man stopped in front of the young man who had been, and was still, occupying himself with his saddle. Philip was amused that the boy still hadn't figured out the situation. He was also instantly curious as to who this boy was to Teaspoon and, glancing over at Hetty, he noticed that she seemed as interested as he was.
"Lou, what are ya' doin' still out here?" Teaspoon tried to peek around to see what his smallest rider was up to.
Lou quickly closed the saddlebag and, red-faced, turned to Teaspoon. "Um, nothin', I just, well, the *cinch* is, I mean, the problem is..." Lou mumbled, trying desperately to think of something.
"Never mind," Teaspoon said, waving his hand at the offending cinch. "Lou McCloud, this here's Mr. Hogge and his daughter, Henrietta."
"Do call her Hetty, most everyone else does," Philip said, offering his hand to the boy. He was amazed at how small the lad was and wondered if such a puny boy could do the arduous work of an Express rider. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance."
"Please ta' meet ya'," Lou said, gruffly, shaking Mr. Hogge's hand with as firm a grip as she could muster. She hadn't missed the dubious look in Philip's eyes. Lou was used to it and that was why she tried very hard not to stare at the young girl. She was amazed at how round Hetty was. Lou just nodded toward the girl.
Hetty blushed and, mumbling a greeting, performed another of her special curtsies. She hated being introduced and having to curtsy, so, since it was so hard bending her knees and lowering her body, her curtsy was more of a bob. An acquaintance back in Chicago, Hetty didn't really have friends, told her she looked like one of the apples that was bobbing in the water. This had been at a birthday party, in front of dozens of people, just another party where she'd been invited out of respect for her father. Hetty looked down at the ground, hiding the tears that formed from this memory.
"Are the others inside?" Teaspoon asked, looking around for the rest of his crew. He'd noticed the wagon was loaded and was sure, with the small amount they'd bought, it hadn't taken long. The main reason they were in town was to meet Mr. Hogge and Hetty and take them to their new home.
"Yep, they're just waitin' for ya'," Lou answered, glancing nervously back at her saddlebag.
"Good. Mr. Hogge -"
"Excuse me," Philip interrupted, smiling, "Please, sir, call me Philip." Philip wanted to embrace the simplicity that was here, to be informal and friendly, because he was tired of the pretentiousness of the society he'd come from.
"Well, then, Philip it is," Teaspoon said, returning the smile. "And, I've always been just Teaspoon. Mr. Hunter seems too respectable for the likes of me." Teaspoon slapped Philip on the back, laughing.
"Yes, I believe I'll enjoy that part of living here." Philip joined in Teaspoon's laughter.
"Why don't we go on in and see what mischief my boys are making."
Hetty watched in awe as Teaspoon and Philip walked away, chatting like old friends. She'd never been able to be that sociable and had never really seen her father act that way. Realizing she was alone with Lou, she thought she'd try to do as her father had done and get to know this boy. Gathering all her courage and smiling her best smile, she turned to where Lou had been standing.
"I'm ple-" Hetty began but stopped when she saw that Lou was no longer standing by his horse. Shoulders slumping in defeat, she decided to follow her father and Mr. Hunter into the store, until she heard a grumble.
"Stupid thing, don't know why I even bought ya'."
Hetty turned back and saw that Lou's horse had gained two, rather scrawny, legs. Her innate curiosity won over her normal anxiety with strangers and she walked around the animal to see what Lou was doing.
"Dang it all!" Lou slapped the leather flap down and turned to see Hetty staring at her. She wasn't sure how long the girl had been standing there so she didn't know how much she'd seen. Lou turned three shades of red, finally finishing with a wonderful magenta.
When Hetty came around the horse's head, she'd seen Lou trying to put something on some dark-blue, floral fabric. She didn't understand why a boy would have anything floral until she realized what had been bothering her when she was watching Lou from across the street. Lou wasn't a he, she was a she! Hetty's eyes grew wide and, before she had a chance to exit, Lou turned to find Hetty standing there.
"What are ya' starin' at?" Lou snapped, immediately regretting her harsh words when she saw Hetty's face fall.
"I'm sorry, I, I, I," Hetty stammered, walking backwards, not really knowing what to say. Just before she turned to leave, she thought of something that might help Lou.
Lou watched as Hetty reached to her wide-brimmed hat. She had no idea what the young girl was doing until she felt Hetty place something in her hand. Lou looked down and sitting in her opened palm was a *hatpin*.
"I don't know if that will help, but I think, um, I hope it might," Hetty said, quietly, the expression on her face showing how anxious she was to please.
Lou looked down at the pin. It was beautiful and small, smaller than an adult hatpin, only about six inches. Lou figured it was that short for a child. It was gold with a pearl the size of a ladies thumbnail wrapped in gold overlay. Under the pearl was a cloisonné bead the size of a pea, with a gold and blue etched floral motif. She was shocked at the offer. Holding out her hand, she just shook her head, not able to find the words to express her feelings.
"Oh, you don't want it?" Hetty asked, embarrassed that she'd done something wrong. Again, she was never fully versed in social graces, losing her mother at birth and then Daphne never cared to teach her anything anyways.
"No it's not that. It's beautiful! Anyone would want it, but it's not right," Lou said, trying to explain without hurting Hetty's feelings more.
Knowing Lou couldn't be caught talking about what was in her saddlebag, Hetty kept her voice low. "Well, what I could see of the pattern, the color would work and the blue and gold floral would look lovely." Hetty bit her bottom lip waiting for Lou to respond.
"Hetty, I can't accept somethin' this nice," Lou tried to explain. "It's just too expensive." Lou put her hand out to give Hetty back the pin. Smiling, she added, "'Sides, all I need it for is to secure the dress so it doesn't keep poppin' out of my bag."
Hetty didn't want the pin back. She'd finally done something spontaneous and out-of-character and, not wanting the gift back, she came up with a solution. Covering Lou's hand with her own, she shook her head.
"Lou, why don't you use it for that and then, when you can, give it back to me," Hetty suggested, knowing full well she wouldn't take it back. She actually smiled a small, true smile at the thought.
"Are you sure?" Lou opened her hand slightly to view the precious item. She'd never had anything this elegant, even temporarily. She traced the overlay with her finger.
"Definitely," Hetty said, "and hurry up because I think Mr. Hunter may came back looking for you."
Startled back to reality, Lou rushed over to her bag and quickly reached in, pinning the offending garment. It worked perfectly. Closing the flap, she let out a sigh of relief.
"We'd better get in there," Lou said, walking over to Hetty. She stopped in front of the girl and, her face serious, said, "Um, Hetty -"
"I know, your secret's safe with me," Hetty said in hushed tones. She turned to walk into the store but added, "You don't have to worry, I'm good at keeping secrets because I don't really ever have anyone to tell."
Realizing she would walk in first she ducked around Lou so the rider would enter first. Lou glanced at her curiously but didn't say anything. They were just in time to hear Teaspoon finish off his introductions.
"And, other than the Kid, who's with Sam, the only rider you haven't met is Buck Cross. He should be ridin' in soon from the station after helpin' Emma," Teaspoon said, catching the slight change in Philip's expression at the mention of Buck's name.
'Dammit, that idiot Devlin and his cronies have put Mr. Hogge off on Buck,' Teaspoon thought, angrily. He'd just have to set Mr. Hogge straight but that would have to wait until Mr. Philip Hogge was comfortable around him and, only then, would he see about telling him the real story.
"Ah, Hetty, there you are, I hope you and Lou got acquainted?" Philip smiled at Hetty.
Knowing Hetty wasn't normally that social, he was pleased to see she'd made a friend. He hadn't missed how the two had come in smiling. Lou was a puny boy and not at all what Philip would have for his daughter's future but as a friend, well, that was fine. He walked over to where Hetty was trying to move to the back of the room.
"Gentlemen," Philip said, formally addressing the boys, "this is my daughter, Henrietta."
Hetty was mortified. She couldn't believe her father had made such a spectacle of introducing her so, because of that fact; she threw the social graces out the window. She mumbled her greeting and wasn't about to curtsy. It was bad enough she had to see the glances exchanged among the riders. She recognized the looks; amusement, disapproval, scorn, they were all there. Quietly she worked her way to the back, standing slightly behind a table with a small display of glass jars.
As Hetty tried to blend into the surroundings and Teaspoon talked to Mr. Hogge, Lou looked over, toward the corner, where Cody, Jimmy and Ike stood. She knew immediately they were talking about Hetty because she saw the smirks and how Jimmy and Cody were whispering, chuckling behind their hands. Not wanting to draw Teaspoon or Mr. Hogge's attention, she strolled over to the boys. Facing them, she wore a deadly expression.
"If you mudsills don't hobble your lips," Lou growled, "I'm gonna' do it for ya'."
Thoroughly nonplussed, Jimmy and Cody were speechless. Ike tried to claim innocent by putting his hands in the air but Lou wasn't buying it. She gritted her teeth.
"Don't even try it Ike," Lou said, in a voice so menacing, the boys slowly shrank back. "Look, she's a young girl and is in a place where she don't know nobody. She's got people, like you all, makin' her feel bad." Lou saw that what she said was sinking in, but before the boys could say anything, Teaspoon and Philip walked over.
"Boys, Mr. Hogge here was askin' if I knew of any workers he could hire on to help him 'round his new place," Teaspoon said, grinning.
Though the other boys looked less than thrilled, Lou smiled as she turned to be the first to volunteer. Of course, she knew Teaspoon wasn't waiting for volunteers, she just thought it would be a friendly gesture to Mr. Hogge and Hetty.
"I'd be glad to help, Mr. Hogge."
Everyone looked at the speaker standing by the door. Buck had entered the store without anyone noticing. No one was sure how long he'd been standing there, listening to the conversations.
"You enjoy doin' that don't ya'?" Cody asked, the sarcasm apparent in his voice. He watched as Buck's lips twitched, refusing to release the smile that danced just at the corners.
"Buck," Teaspoon said, gesturing to the Kiowa to come closer, "it would seem you already know the man's name. How long were you standin' there?" Teaspoon winked at the boy. "Mr. Hogge this is Buck Cross."
Eyeing the young man, Philip accepted his hand to shake. He was disconcerted by, not only the easy smile that appeared on the Indian's face but by, his unreadable eyes. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cross."
"Pleased to meet you too, sir," Buck replied. He kept his smile friendly but was on guard when he noticed the scrutiny with which Mr. Hogge looked at him. It was as if the gentleman was looking for something. Buck, unfortunately, had a feeling that the 'something' had to do with Kathleen and her father.
"Now that Buck's here, we can go ahead and load up the Hogge's things," Teaspoon said, eyeing the boys in the corner, daring them to smirk at the family's name. No one did.
Hetty was on the verge of a panic attack. She'd been pleasantly daydreaming, one of her favorite pastimes, and concocting a mystery in her head. Mysteries were her true love. That was, until Buck Cross walked in the door. She'd seen him enter, slowly opening the door, not wanting to disturb the others in their conversations. He was so quiet it was unnerving. He politely stood by the entrance until there was an opportune time for him to make his presence known.
As he'd stood, calmly waiting, Hetty had taken the opportunity to really look at him. He was beautiful. He had the same raven-colored hair she had but his was shinier. His skin was like the caramels that the confectioners sold near her home in Chicago and his eyes reminded her of the dark chocolate truffles that were there, as well. Suddenly, her stomach growled. Embarrassed, she looked down as if that would silence it. When she looked up to resume her observations of Buck, she saw that he was returning her gaze.
Wishing the floor would open right then, she knew she looked like a frog, with her mouth opening and closing and her eyes bugged out, but she couldn't take her eyes off his. A small, hint of a smile appeared on his lips and she thought she would melt right there where she stood. As he nodded his acknowledgment, she was saved from further discomfort when he volunteered to help her father. Her sigh of relief was short-lived.
'Oh Heavens! He's going to be coming over to my house? I don't think I can take that,' Hetty thought, helplessly. She was mulling over this issue as everyone prepared to leave.
"Hetty, love, it's time to be on our way," Philip called to her as he followed Teaspoon to the door.
All the riders, save for Buck, were already out and heading toward the luggage. Buck waited for Teaspoon and Mr. Hogge to pass. He looked over at Hetty and saw she was deep in thought, her brow creased with concentration.
"I'll get her, if you'd like," Buck offered.
"I'd appreciate it. Once she's lost in contemplation, it's very difficult to bring her out," Philip explained, realizing that to refuse Buck's offer would have been blatantly rude. 'Besides, the boy couldn't really do anything with everyone around.' Philip gave himself a mental slap. He refused to have those petty thoughts even if he still wasn't sure whether to trust Buck or not.
Still in her own world, she hadn't heard her father or realized that Buck was coming her way, until she heard Tompkins yell at Teaspoon about their bill.
"Are ya' ever gonna' pay this thing?"
"Tompkins, we pay it on the first of ev'ry month, like we have ev'ry time, and, by my calendar, this ain't the first of the month." Teaspoon walked out the door, with Philip close behind, not waiting for an answer.
Teaspoon leaving hadn't stopped Tompkins ranting. The cantankerous man just moved it on to Buck who paid little mind. When Hetty looked up, she saw that Buck was just steps away from her, now with a full smile on his face. She had to get away, she couldn't talk to him, she wasn't pretty enough, or funny enough or...
The entire table, displaying glass jars of *molasses*, was knocked over creating a huge mess. The brown, sticky syrup was all over the place. Seeing what had happened, Tompkins tirade changed its course and Hetty became his target.
"You little..." Tompkins wasn't sure about continuing, since Hetty's father would be such a prominent man in Sweetwater. Looking around he saw that she and Buck were the only people in the store, so he continued, "didn't you see what you were doin'? Look at all that damage. You best start cleanin' it up."
Hetty couldn't breath; she felt all the blood that had rushed to her face when the incident occurred, rush back down, leaving her feeling light-headed. As she swooned, she stepped in the molasses, losing her balance.
Buck immediately caught her before she could collapse but wasn't ready for the weight, which almost knocked him off kilter. Using his upper body strength to hold her, he used his leg strength to keep them both standing. Once he gained his balance, Buck moved her to a clean spot and bent over, easing her down to the floor.
"Those jars were a special order and very expensive. I hope you know you're gonna' pay -"
Buck had had enough of the belligerent man's tirade and could see what it was doing to Hetty. Standing in front of her, he turned and, looking straight at Tompkins, interrupted, "Mr. Tompkins. It was my fault. I hit the table when I was walking to her. I'll clean it up and pay for the damages. Please get me some towels." Without waiting for Tompkins' to reply, he turned to Hetty and, squatting beside her, asked, softly, "Are you alright? Stay there and I'll get some help."
"No!" Hetty cried, grabbing Buck's arm. Quietly, she continued, "Please, I don't want anyone else to know. Especially my father, it would just upset him."
Seeing how distraught Hetty was, Buck assured her that he would tell no one. Satisfied that she was unhurt and safe, he walked over to the counter, picked up the towels and went over to clean up the mess. On his way back, he glanced out the window and saw Mr. Hogge looking in. Buck couldn't mistake the gratitude on the man's face. He nodded slightly to the man and the two exchanged a knowing look.
Philip smiled as he turned away from the window. He'd heard the commotion and, looking in to see Hetty in distress, almost burst through the door. Almost. Something stopped him and he was glad. He saw Buck, first save Hetty from a humiliating fall and then stand between her and that shop owner's venom. The young man had actually taken the blame and was going to shoulder the responsibility of cleaning it up and paying for it. Philip let out a self-satisfying breath. He now knew that the stories he'd been told about Buck were false, wicked rumors and that he could trust the boy implicitly. He'd seen the proof and didn't need Teaspoon to tell him so. He hurried over to help the boys load the wagon.
Cody grunted as they, for the fourth time, removed three of the trunks from the wagon, trying to maneuver the items to get them to fit. "Ya' know, Mr. Hogge's gonna' have to buy two houses to have room for all this stuff."
"Cody, just load the wagon!" Jimmy snapped, aggravated that his day had been planned without him.
"I apologize Mr. Cody," Philip said, as he bowed to the boy. "And I'll keep your suggestion in mind."
Philip laughed, joined by the others, as Cody's face fell and turned red. He was going to like it here and, looking up to see his daughter and Buck walk out of Tompkins' store, he knew Hetty would too. Feeling positively exuberant for the first time in a long while, he picked up two of the larger cases and carried them to the wagon.
"Um, Mr. Cross," Hetty said, hesitantly, not able to look Buck in the eyes so she kept her gaze focused on watching her father lift two cases. If she wasn't so enthralled with the fact that she was standing next to this handsome man, her father doing manual labor might have stunned her.
Not knowing how to talk to a man, much less how to apologize and thank him, Hetty drew in a deep breath. Regretting it the instant she did so, she felt the sneeze build. She didn't have her purse, where was her purse? Before she could completely fall apart, there was her purse in her hand. This action stopped the sneeze and she blushed. Buck had had it the entire time. She almost cried from this simple act of courtesy. She knew she had to pull herself together or this moment would be gone.
When she finally gathered her wits, she gazed at Buck with such an expression of devotion, she saw him squirm under the look. Diverting her eyes from Buck's face to the ground, she tried again, "I just wanted to thank-you for what you did. That man in there was so angry, it just, well, I didn't know what to do."
"That's Tompkins. He always *bellows* about somethin' and it usually has to do with us riders," Buck reassured her.
"Well, thank you just the same, Mr. Cross," she answered, biting her lower lip. She didn't want the time to end so she tried to think of something else to say. "Oh, I'll pay for the jars, I don't want you to have to do that."
"Miss Hogge, it's fine," Buck said, smiling. "And call me Buck."
"Alright. Then please," Hetty began. It was now or never. Remembering how her father had done this, she continued, "call me Hetty."
"Well, Hetty," Buck said, another small, slightly crooked smile appeared. "It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Buck!" Cody bellowed. "We could use your help here."
"Guess I'd better go help," Buck said. One last smile and he ran toward his friends.
Hetty stood there in a daze, as they loaded and unloaded the wagon, trying to get the luggage to fit. She really wasn't paying any attention to what was going on around her, because she'd just had the most glorious day of her life. Sighing, she realized that her beloved mystery-daydreams were about to have some serious competition. Her attention went to the new focus of her daydreams and the center of her wonderful day. Buck Cross.
"Mrs. Buck Cross," she murmured to herself.
She knew it was impossible in reality but everything was possible in daydreams - wasn't it?