A/N: Many thanks to my wonderful and patient beta, Miss Tracy! Love ya’ lots!

Prologue:

“If ya’ look back for the posse one more time, I’m gonna’ shoot ya’ myself.”

Ed Polk’s cool smile never reached his eyes as he placed his hand on his gun and looked over at the foolish boy that was now, unfortunately, his partner. An arrogant and self-serving man, Polk watched with malicious satisfaction as the color drained from the frightened young man’s face.

“Don’t go wettin’ yourself, Burt,” Polk berated. “Jus’ keep ridin’.” Sneering, he prodded his horse on knowing that his fearful companion would follow.

“Ummm, Mr. Polk, uh, don’t ya’ think they’re gonna’ show any minute?” Burt stammered, trying to keep the panic from his voice. When he received Polk’s normal silent response, he hurried his mount to catch up. As an outlaw Burt Douglas knew he was ignorant, however, he had complete faith in Polk and what he could learn from the experienced gunman.

Pulling up next to Polk, he glanced at the man he’d been riding with for the last few months. A man he both worshipped and feared. He knew that if Polk ever found out how much he idolized him, the older man would either laugh at him, as he always did, or kill him, as he always threatened, and Burt didn’t want either one to happen.

Annoyed at the looks the anxious boy was giving him, Polk took a quick glance back and agreed, “Yeah, they seem to be gettin’ closer every mile.”

Suddenly, Polk brought his mount to a halt so quick, that Burt continued for a few strides before noticing. Once he had, he turned to see Polk facing the opposite way, studying the direction they’d traveled. Just as he was about to question why they’d stopped, Polk broke the silence.

“We keep on this way, they’re gonna’ ride us down, fer certain,” Polk said thoughtfully, still staring at the trail. “But what to do about it?” He scratched his stubbled chin.

“Ya’ wanna’ stand and fight?” Burt cautiously suggested, even though he knew the question wasn’t really meant for him to answer.

Polk maneuvered his horse back around and looked at Burt with an expression that held both amusement and disgust. “Sure, we’ll take ‘em all on,” he barked. “You take the seven on the left and, hell, I’ll take the ten on the right!” Shaking his head, he rode toward the boy. “Ya’ idiot, what’re ya’ thinkin’? Oh wait, ya’ ain’t. So it’s left to me, as usual.” Grumbling, he reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a sack. “Here.” He held it out to Burt.

Burt looked at the bag in Polk’s outstretched hand as if both were on fire. “What’s that?”

Letting loose an irritable sigh, Polk threw the bag so hard that Burt barely caught it.

“What the hell does it look like, ya’ stupid sap? It’s my share of the hold up money. Take it and ride. I’ll handle the posse.”

Burt, who was staring at the moneybag in his hand as if it would sprout wings and fly, quickly looked up at Polk. With an expression of pure awe, he said, “Ya’…ya’ can’t do it alone…”

Polk had just about had it with the hero worship and was itching to get rid of the kid, so he decided to play up the admiration. Mustering up an easygoing appearance, he replied, “Look son, I’m an ol’ hand at this game. I know ev’ry trick there is and b’sides,” he chuckled, “even if they catch me, I’ll be clean.”

Looking back at the bag, Burt nodded in realization. He opened his mouth to speak but Polk hurriedly continued, “And remember, there ain’t nobody that’s got close enough to recognize us. At least nobody that’s alive.”

Adding to the pretense, Polk looked at Burt and grinned. Even though the smile held no warmth, in some bizarre way it put Burt at ease.

“Alright,” Polk resumed character, losing the smile, “listen to me good. In two weeks, we’ll meet up in Rock Creek. It’s about forty miles south a’ here and it ain’t too big that they’d think to look there but it ain’t too small that we’d be noticed.” He watched Burt, making sure the boy was paying attention to the directions. “Now, this is important. I want ya’ to take your time and head west for a few days then ride back for Rock Creek.”

“Why?” Burt looked confused.

Polk bowed his head and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he finally lifted his head and looked directly at Burt, the expression there startled the naïve young man.

“‘Cause it will help throw ‘em off the trail. Understand?”

Relieved that Polk hadn’t made good on his earlier threat and shot him and not wanting to push his luck, Burt was determined he would never ask any more questions.

“Yeah, Mr. Polk, sorry. Umm, I’ll see ya’ in Rock Creek.” But before he could turn his horse to go, Polk stopped him with one last warning.

“One more thing, boy. No man’s ever crossed me yet and lived.”

Burt swallowed hard. He’d heard about a couple of Polk’s other partners and what had happened to them. He also saw Polk’s hand again resting on his gun and knew he had to assure the man of his loyalty. “I’ll be there, Mr. Polk. Ya’ know ya’ can count on me.”

Polk studied Burt and knew the terrified boy didn’t have the guts to double cross him.

“Fine.” He turned east without waiting for a response.

Burt watched for a moment as Polk galloped off. Releasing the breath he’d been holding, he turned his mount west.

Chapter One

Lifting his feet to his desk, Teaspoon had just eased his tired bones into his chair to get his requisite afternoon shut-eye when Lou came barreling in, slamming the door against the wall. This abrupt entrance caused Teaspoon to nearly find himself flat on the floor. But having the agility of a man half his age, he caught himself in time. However, the half-eaten bowl of chili Polly had brought him for lunch wasn’t so lucky.

“Well, Lou,” Teaspoon sat forward, tipping his hat, “to what do I owe this pleasant visit?” He arched one eyebrow, looking at the door that now stood wide open. Looking back at his desk, he picked up the napkin and started to wipe up the mess.

“Oh, ummm, sorry Teaspoon, it’s just that, well, Sheriff Berger said this was extremely important.” Lou blushed and closed the door before handing Teaspoon the missive.

“Tom Berger in Oak Grove?”

Standing quickly, Teaspoon reached for the note, almost grabbing it out of Lou’s hand. He hadn’t heard from his old friend in quite a few months, especially since Oak Grove was usually a quiet town not quite as big or as wild as Rock Creek. Teaspoon sighed, ‘unless of course one of my boys has a run through there.’

He remembered the last note that came in from Tom was about Cody and Hickok getting into some mischief in the small bar there. Something about a loudmouth commenting that sarsaparilla and a cheese sandwich weren’t food enough for a young girl in pigtails, much less food for a man. ‘Hickok certainly changed his mind ‘bout that,’ Teaspoon smiled.

“Are ya’ thinkin’ about Cody and Jimmy?” Lou grinned.

“As a matter of fact….” Teaspoon laughed.

The note hadn’t been a complaint but a compliment to the boys and how they’d handled the man. Seems there were more than a few people in Oak Grove that appreciated the fact that the man wouldn’t be causing too much trouble for a while due to him not being able to open his mouth. Teaspoon never quite understood how and figured it was in his best interest not to ask too many questions. Besides, Tom had said that not only did the townsfolk laugh themselves silly, he had personally appreciated the laugh, so Teaspoon wasn’t too worried.

“Teaspoon! What’s it say?”

Lou was practically jumping up and down to know what the note said. The small message had almost burned a hole in her coat and she’d nearly killed Lightning to get back here. Though not normally a vindictive person, she was hoping that Cody was in trouble since he’d somehow conned her and Buck into doing his chores for the last week. She never understood how he did it. Shrugging out of her musings, she nudged Teaspoon.

“Well,” Teaspoon drawled.

He loved teasing the boys, especially this one. He still couldn’t quite connect the person in front of him, which by all appearances was a boy, with the beautiful young lady he’d seen in the blue dress at the last social. Chuckling, he opened the note only to have the laughter die in his throat.

Sitting down heavily, he looked back at Lou. “Seems Charlie’s been shot,” he paused looking back at the note, then added, “and they don’t know if he’s gonna’ live.”

Teaspoon dropped his head thinking of the old stage driver. The man was as big as a bear, but as playful as colt. He looked up to see tears in Lou’s eyes.

“Oh God, not Charlie,” Lou choked out.

A few months back, Charlie had caught Lou coming out of the barn that the Express used jointly with the stage line, not as Lou but as Louise. He’d recognized her immediately and Lou knew it. However, when riders from the Oak Grove station came up, Charlie had quickly covered by pretending to give her directions to the mercantile. She’d walked away, her identity safe. When she’d gotten home she’d shared the incident with the others and it seemed each one had their own ‘Charlie story.’

Finishing the note, Teaspoon sighed and looked at Lou. “Darlin’,” using the term of endearment he normally reserved for the privacy of the way station, Teaspoon patted her shoulder, “get the boys together. I’m gonna’ need to talk to all of ya’.”

Lou wiped at her eyes. “Who’s on a run?” She tried to remember the schedule, which was normally engrained in her memory, but she just couldn’t focus.

“Ummm,” Teaspoon too was having trouble. He gave his head a quick shake, which seemed to work. “Jimmy will be back ‘bout supper time and Buck’s due back tomorrow, early afternoon.” Teaspoon crumpled the note in his hand before shoving it in his pocket.

“Teaspoon, there’s somethin’ else, isn’t there?” Since Lou considered Teaspoon more of a father than her own, she was always alert to changes in Teaspoon’s attitude.

“Well, it seems that part of an army payroll was stolen from the stage Charlie was drivin’,” Teaspoon grimaced. “Ya’ better get over to the station. I’ll be along shortly.”

Teaspoon watched Lou from the window as she left to round up the others. With a heavy sigh, he turned and took his guns off the wall. Staring at the pistols, he spoke aloud, “Sometimes I hate this job.” Strapping them on, he walked out the door.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Grumbling to himself, Russ Cassidy walked out of his small, dilapidated barn, leading a swaybacked horse weighted down with packs. Heading toward the house, he looked around the farm, or the dirt that was trying to be a farm, and stopped, angrily kicking up a cloud of dust.

“Clara! Get out here!” He stared at the house with a sour expression as a petite woman and a young girl of about eight came out. “I’m leavin’.”

Clara slowly approached her husband. Once a beautiful and vibrant woman, the hard life and her even harder husband had combined to take all of that away.

“Here’s your food.” Handing the sack to him, she dully watched as he put it in his saddlebag. She still didn’t know what his plans were, so she tried asking again.

“Umm, when will you be back?”

He whirled around to face her. “Are ya’ stupid? What’d I say last night?” As she stepped back, he stepped forward, glaring at her. “D’ya have some plans? S’at why ya’ need to know mine?”

“No Russ. I was just wondering how long it might take you,” she quietly replied, “that’s all.”

He eyed her suspiciously but decided that she was probably telling the truth. “I dun’ know. A week, maybe two.”

“Do you plan to ride far north?” Though she was only making conversation, she realized she’d made a mistake.

Cassidy grabbed her arm. “Quit tryin’ to second guess me, woman! When you’re lookin’ for land with water on it, ya’ ride ‘til ya’ find it, got it?” He kept a tight hold of her.

She nodded but she decided that if she was this far in, she wanted to know the rest. Preparing herself for his response, she asked, “You’re sure you’re right about wanting us to move?”

Looking at the ground, he loosened his grip and shook his head. Thinking he wasn’t going to do anything, she relaxed. As quick as lightning he struck, slapping her so hard her head whipped back.

“Well, what’s your idea?” he snidely asked, gripping both of her arms and shaking her, “Sit here and pray for rain for the rest of your life?”

Russ pushed Clara away and, as she rubbed her cheek, she responded softly, “No, but….”

As her father yelled at her mother, something she was used to, Abby, walked over to his horse. She loved animals, especially horses, though she’d never actually ridden one, as her father wouldn’t let her. He said she was too stupid and would probably fall and break her fool neck. She didn’t think he’d be sad about her dying; it was more that her mother wouldn’t have anyone to help with the chores.

“I’m sick of this place! I’m sick of breakin’ my back for nothin’! I want land with water on it,” he turned toward his horse, just as Abby reached out to touch it, “and I’m gonna’…GET AWAY FROM THERE!” Pulling Abby away from the horse, he shoved her into her mother.

Clara hugged Abby and tried to calm her as the frightened girl clutched her mother’s apron. “Russ, you didn’t have to do that!” The one thing that Clara would stand up to her husband about was Abby.

“How many times have I tol’ that kid not to be foolin’ aroun’ all the time?” He glanced at Abby with disdain, regretting the daughter he had instead of a son. “Quit blubberin’.” As he mounted his horse, he looked at Clara, “Take care of things here. Keep her in line and see that she does her chores. And don’t go wastin’ time with all them books!”

As he turned to leave, Abby softly cried out, “Bye papa.” He kicked his horse into a gallop without acknowledging her farewell.

Clara hugged Abby again as they watched him ride off. “What do you say to baking some bread? Hmmmm?” Clara tried to turn the little girl towards the house but Abby refused, standing there quietly until she could see her father no longer.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Very good. Now spell Arkansas.”

As Clara pinned up the sheet she was holding, she listened as Abby spelled the state correctly. She believed in educating Abby even though Russ was against it. As with anything to do with their daughter, he felt it was just a waste of time since she didn’t need ‘book-learnin’’ to muck out the barn.

Born in Delaware, Clara was from a respectable family that made sure both she and her younger sister Elizabeth were educated. Clara loved learning so much, that she decided to become a teacher and what better way to use her talents than to come west to teach the children of a growing nation. It was on that trip west that she met and fell in love with Russ Cassidy. He’d always been a serious man, but back then he’d also been so full of hopes and dreams, planning a big farm with a huge family.

Clara sighed, wondering what had happened to those dreams and that man when, looking over the wash line, she spotted a rider approaching far in the distance. Since they were off the normal road to town, strangers never passed by and, due to Russ, the Cassidy’s weren’t friendly with the few neighbors within a mile or two, so they wouldn’t be visiting.

“What’s the next state Mama?” Abby asked impatiently from her perch by the washtub behind Clara.

She loved these games and it always made the awful chores go by much faster. Clara had promised that once they were done with the laundry they’d have a snack of bread and honey and the little girl couldn’t wait. When her mother didn’t answer, Abby glanced up to see her staring off in the distance.

“Mama?”

“Abby, I want you to do something for me,” turning to Abby, Clara tried to keep the fear from her voice. “I want you to go over and hide in that brush. Hide real well and don’t say a word,” glancing back to see how far the man was, she continued, “And don’t come out ‘til I call you. Understand?”

Praying it would be thick enough to hide the little girl, she gestured toward the prairie grass that grew around the one part of the corral fence that was still erect.

“What’s wrong Mama?” Standing, Abby walked dutifully toward the grass.

Again, Clara kept tight reign on her voice, not wanting to upset Abby. “Nothing honey. There’s a stranger riding in and we have to be careful. Now you hide.” She watched as Abby squatted down in the brush. When she couldn’t see Abby at all, she tentatively smiled in the little girl’s direction. “That’s a good girl.”

Taking a couple of deep breaths, she continued her chores as the stranger approached.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I can’t believe someone shot Charlie,” Cody was the first to utter the words everyone was thinking.

After Lou had finished telling the others what the note had said about Charlie and the payroll theft, they’d again recalled their stories about the old stage driver.

“Where is Teaspoon? Lou, I thought ya’ said he was right behind ya’? Are ya’ sure that’s what he said? It’s been over an hour.” Kid glanced out the bunkhouse window for the fifth time, hoping to catch sight of the stationmaster, before coming back to the table.

“Yes Kid, I’m sure. He said he’d be right over.” She loved the man but it irked Lou when Kid questioned her as if she were a child and didn’t know any better.

“Does Sheriff Berger think the outlaws are headin’ this way?” Since he didn’t know Charlie, Jesse was only interested in the robbery. He hoped they would come to Rock Creek, and then Jimmy would handle them. He couldn’t wait to tell Jimmy about this. ‘I’ll wait in the barn so I can help with Sundance,’ he decided. That way he’d be first to tell the story.

“Jesse, keep your pants on,” Teaspoon chastised the action-hungry youth as he walked through the bunkhouse door. Everyone, but the two he knew about, was seated around the table. He saw the sad expressions and wished he had some better news to report.

“Well, as callous as Jesse sounded,” Noah glanced over at the boy, “he’s asked a good question. Does Sheriff Berger think they may come here?”

Teaspoon sighed, “Well, first off. A rider from Oak Grove, who musta’ been on your heels Lou, dropped off another message from Berger’s deputy,” he walked over to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“So what’d it say?”

Patience was not something Cody was known for and, before he continued, Teaspoon gave him a look to indicate he realized this.

“Seems Charlie was able to give some information about the outlaws before goin’ in to the doctor. All we know is that one is young, no more than a boy, and the other is older and experienced with a gun. No descriptions ‘cause their faces were covered,” Teaspoon smiled at Lou, as he continued, “They’d brought Charlie in not minutes ‘fore ya’ arrived Lou, and by the way, Sheriff Berger was a might happy to see ya’ ‘cause he wasn’t too sure how to get word to me. He left with the posse right after givin’ ya’ the message.”

“Does that mean Charlie will be alright?” Lou asked hopefully.

“That’s not a lot to go on Teaspoon.”

Cocking an eye at Cody, Teaspoon commented dryly, “Thank ya’ for statin’ the obvious Cody.” Then turning to Lou, he softened, “I don’t rightly know, the note said nothin’ ‘bout Charlie’s condition and.…”

“Teaspoon, I’m real sorry about this Charlie person, but are the robbers comin’ to Rock Creek?” Jesse interrupted.

“If I didn’t know better, I would think ya’ wanted ‘em to.” Teaspoon gave Jesse a look that dared him to agree.

“Like Noah said, unfeelin’ as it may be, Jesse’s askin’ a good question,” Kid echoed Noah’s previous sentiment.

Wishing he could answer differently, Teaspoon nodded, “So it would seem,” sighing, he continued, “Tom thinks they may come this way so we need to keep an eye out. Why, I don’t rightly know, but Tom’s a good man and an even better sheriff, so I’m inclined to believe him. One thing I do know, he and his posse will track ‘em to hell if need be.”

The riders sat quietly, each one processing the news.

“Well, Teaspoon,” Noah broke the silence, “what are we gonna’ do?”

Sitting down at the table, Teaspoon looked around at his boys. Before discussing what course of action they should take, he smugly said, “I’m proud of all of ya’ and, well, if those robbers do decided ta’ come to Rock Creek, I’m kinda’ feelin’ a might sorry for ‘em.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Mornin’ ma’am.” The stranger tipped his hat and smiled. For some reason the smile sent a chill up Clara’s spine.

“Hello.” She kept her voice as even as possible and continued to pin up the wash.

“I was hopin’ maybe ya’ had some water ‘round here?”

Ed Polk eyed the woman. It had been a bit since he’d been with a woman. Planning the hold up and getting Burt up to speed had taken some time, so he was definitely feeling the need. Though this one was a bit plain for his tastes, she’d do. He glanced around, taking in the desolate place and the fact that there was a barn and an old harness but no horse. ‘Husband must be gone, if there is one,’ he pondered.

“There’s a waterhole about five miles south.”

Clara didn’t look up from the sheet she gripped, trying desperately to remain calm. She knew the waterhole was dry; otherwise they’d have taken advantage of it. However, she figured that when the man found there wasn’t water, he wouldn’t waste his time riding five miles back to do something about it. At least she hoped he wouldn’t.

Polk leaned over trying to get her to look at him. “Not for my horse, darlin’, for me.”

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re low on water.” Clara, avoiding his eyes, hadn’t missed the insinuation behind the endearment. She bent down to pick up the next item, purposely picking up one of Russ’ shirts. She concentrated on pinning up the garment. Not being happy with the answer, Polk climbed off his horse. Walking slowly toward the nervous woman, he taunted, “Well, maybe I oughtta’ talk to your husband about it.”

“He’s not….” Clara stopped herself but not soon enough, which was apparent by the broad smile on the stranger’s face.

“Not here, huh? Well, that’s alright,” Polk leered, his eyes dancing across her body. “Fact is, I don’t have much use for water,” he continued walking towards her, “but what I could use is a glass a’ whiskey. I’m sure ya’ got a bottle ‘round here somewheres, now ain’t that right?”

Polk stopped in front of her and Clara watched paralyzed as he picked up his hand to caress her cheek. She prayed that Abby would stay put. Jerking back from his touch, she pleaded, “Please sir, we don’t have any whiskey and I truly am busy. My husband will be home soon.” She tried to continue with the laundry but her hands were shaking too much.

“I think what ya’ need is a lil’ rest. A purty woman such as yourself shouldn’t work so hard.” He took her hand pulling her toward the house.

“Please, I really need to get these chores finished before my husband comes home.” She tried to free her hand from the man’s strong grip.

“Ya’ know, ya’ talk real nice. Ya’ schooled?”

When Polk felt the timid woman resist he pulled her harder. This caused her to trip and fall into him, allowing him to grab her around the waist. “Now that’s more like it. Come on, have a drink with me. I’ll be real good to ya’.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Clara forcefully pulled herself away and, collecting all her courage, commanded in her best teacher’s voice, “get back on your horse and….” Before she could finish he grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her.

“I ain’t some lil’ ol’ farm boy lady; I get what I want. Now ya’ gonna’ be nice about it or ain’t ya’?” He pulled her arm up, twisting harder.

Clara felt his hot breath on her ear and, terrified of what would happen to Abby if this man did anything to her, knew she wouldn’t win this way so she decided to try a different tact.

“Alright, I’m just nervous about my husband coming home with you here. If we hurry….” She couldn’t bring herself to complete the thought as bile rose in her throat.

Polk let her go. She was definitely not his type, being so meek, but again, she’d do. “That’s a good girl.” He slapped her on the rear as she started toward the house.

“You wait here for me.” Hurriedly, she moved.

“I don’t think so, darlin’. I’m not inclined to recline on the ground.” Mocking her formal speech, he was close on her heels, leading his horse to the porch railing.

Abby knew she wasn’t supposed to move, but she didn’t like how that man was treating her mother. She watched as he tied up his horse and followed Clara up the stairs. When she reached the top, for some reason, Clara pointed out towards the plain.

As the awful man turned and looked where Clara pointed, her mother lunged for the door and Abby almost cheered when she saw Clara get it opened. Unfortunately, the happiness was brief when Clara was unable to close it fast enough. As the man pushed his way in, Abby lost sight of them. Then she heard a gunshot.

‘Mama must have used the rifle.’ Relieved it was over, Abby stood up only to sit down quickly when the man came back out.

Polk looked back through the door as he holstered his weapon. “That was a fool thing to do lady.” Shaking his head, he whistled as he got back on his horse and rode away.

Abby sat as still as she could, peeking through the brush, and watched the man ride way. She stayed there until she couldn’t see anything more of the man or his horse. Then she stayed a while longer. Finally she did the only thing she could think of. She ran.

Chapter Two

Riding along at a slow but steady pace, Jimmy hummed. He wasn’t quite sure why he was in a good mood, but he was. It could be the beautiful day, barely a cloud in the sky. Or it could be the winnings weighing heavy in his pocket from the poker game he joined last night. Maybe it was the memory of the pretty little saloon girl that kept smiling his way as he played that game. ‘Pity she was against company policy,’ he laughed to himself. It could be any one of those things or something completely different, but whatever it was, he hoped the mood stuck around. It was a welcome change from how he’d been feeling.

The possibility of war was no longer just a possibility. Word had come in the spring of the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter. Jimmy still couldn’t believe this was happening, that the nation was turning on itself.

The situation at the way station wasn’t much better. The atmosphere was not only tense but there now seemed to be a dividing line. Kid kept saying he was going to leave to fight for Virginia, as Teaspoon spoke of leaving for Texas. Cody was thinking of scouting for the Union and Noah said he’d enlist if the army would accept him. All this worried Jimmy because he didn’t want to say goodbye to his friends, to his family.

When Kid talked of leaving, Lou avoided the subject. Though there was no question she would go, especially since they were planning their wedding, she never discussed the matter. Jimmy didn’t want to say goodbye to his two closest friends, especially to the young woman that had taken his heart. The one thing that truly worried him was whether his and Kid’s friendship would stand the strain. Many of the discussions about the conflict had almost resulted in all out brawls between them.

Which brought him to the one rider that remained quiet through every discussion and argument – Buck. Even though it had been many months, Ike’s death still weighed heavy on everyone’s mind. Buck seemed to be better but he still went off by himself a lot. It was almost like he’d gone full circle.

Jimmy noticed that Buck was acting the way he had when they’d first joined the Express, as if he was separate from the group, keeping mostly to himself. The difference was that Ike had been there then to pull Buck into the family. Now it was as if Buck was missing his link to the group. Jimmy knew that the arguments and disagreements amongst the riders weren’t helping Buck feel connected, so Jimmy made up his mind to try being that link. Sighing, he shook his head knowing that Buck would probably think Jimmy had lost his mind.

Looking up, he realized that if he kept this pace he should be in Rock Creek by dusk. That was very happy news for he was definitely looking forward to some of Rachel’s good cooking. He smiled at the thought of the beans he’d tried to cook last night and then again this morning. He was pretty sure they were glue by now. Laughing, he spotted what looked like a bundle of clothes under a tree a few yards up.

As he approached, he realized that it was a child lying there. He glanced around, looking for a wagon or some horses, anything that showed signs of other people or possibly trouble. He couldn’t believe that there was a child out here alone. He knew he hadn’t seen any homesteads for a few miles. When he finally reached the spot, a young girl jumped up.

Abby had been dozing and was surprised to see this man, dressed all in black, on a beautiful yellow horse standing right in front of her. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t heard them approach. Though she knew it wasn’t the same man that had hurt her mother, she still didn’t trust him.

Standing with her hands on her hips, she glared at the man and demanded, “Who are you?”

Amused by her brazenness, Jimmy formally tipped his hat and responded, “The name’s James Hickok, ma’am. But you can call me Jimmy.” Thinking this would put the young girl at ease, he smiled.

“Go away!” Abby crossed her arms over her chest and turned her back to the man called Jimmy. She thought this would make him leave her alone.

Jimmy was nonplussed. He couldn’t quite understand her attitude and blurted out the first thing he could think of, “Well, you go away yourself.” He realized that sounded childish but at that point it was all his brain had.

“I can’t,” Abby replied as the bluster left her. She looked around for the first time since she’d dropped down, exhausted, under the tree and realized she didn’t know where she was. She hung her head.

The quiet response softened Jimmy. He decided she needed help and he was going to provide it. “Well, why can’t ya’?”

“I’m lost.” Abby turned back towards Jimmy.

“Then how’d ya’ ever get way out here in the first place?” He needed to get her to talk some more, hoping to find out where she came from.

“I ran most of the way.” Abby thought about how she’d ran and ran after the bad man had gone. She wasn’t sure how far she’d come.

“Where from?” Now Jimmy was worried. He looked around again trying to spot smoke coming from a chimney or anything that would give him an idea of where this little girl was from.

“If I knew that I’d go back, wouldn’t I,” Abby said, looking at Jimmy as if he’d asked the world’s stupidest question.

Jimmy was speechless. He probably should be angry with the girl for being so disrespectful but as he thought about the answer he had to agree, “That’s a kinda’ smart-alecky way of puttin’ it, but I suppose your right.”

He looked at the girl and realized she was putting up a brave front, but was truly terrified. He needed to win her trust but first he needed to know her name.

“So, will ya’ tell me your name?”

Abby stared at Jimmy for quite a while. Though she wasn’t sure she should, he had given his full name freely when she’d asked so she figured it was okay.

“Abby. Abby Cassidy.” She even completed the curtsey her mother had taught her.

“Abby. That’s a real purty name.”

Feeling as if he’d won a major battle, he smiled again, hoping this would give her some sense of security. Though he didn’t receive a smile in return, she did seem to relax.

Knowing they couldn’t stay there, he urged, “Abby, we’re gonna’ have to find your home, so gimme’ your hand. I’ll help ya’ up and we’ll see if we can’t get ya’ found.” Jimmy reached his hand out toward Abby.

“No.” Abby simply responded as if Jimmy had asked if she wanted a piece of pie.

Again, Jimmy felt all thought leave his brain. What was it about this little girl that left him completely dumbfounded?

“Don’t be like that,” he replied, aggravated by this new turn. “I’m jus’ tryin’ to help ya’.” He reached out again.

“NO!” Abby took off running.

Even though there wasn’t a thing in the world she wanted more than to have a ride on that beautiful horse, she didn’t think she should go with this man.

“For the love of….” Jimmy turned Sundance to follow Abby.

He went as slow as possible trying to keep Sundance from running over Abby and Abby from spooking his horse.

“Where’s Cody when ya’ need him?” Jimmy grumbled, “He could rope the little devil.” He tried to get around her, but she dodged him. He gritted his teeth, “And I suppose I can’t shoot ‘er.”

Finally, Jimmy maneuvered the horse around front of Abby and scooped her up, placing her behind him.

As he tried to keep hold of her so she wouldn’t fall off, she proceeded to show her gratitude by hitting him on the back and arm. “I always said kids oughtta’ be penned up in corrals.” Every time he stopped one hand, she started with the other. Finally, getting hold of both hands, he gave her a small shake to stop her fighting.

“Stop! I’m gettin’ right tired of this game.” He turned to face her as best he could and, looking in her eyes, he did his best to reassure her, “I’m tryin’ to be your friend. We’re gonna’ find your home, okay?”

Abby quieted down and nodded.

“Now d’ya have any idea in what direction ya’ came from?” Jimmy hoped she could help at least a little.

Abby looked around. She pointed in the direction Jimmy had come. He looked at her closely.

“Are ya’ sure?”

Abby took a moment to reply, biting her lip as she thought, but then gave a resounding nod. Jimmy smiled at her and brushed his finger across her cheek.

“Good girl.”

For the first time since coming across her, Abby gave Jimmy a tentative smile. He felt another battle won.

Turning back in the saddle, Jimmy made sure each hand was holding onto his shirt before they started.

“Jus’ hold on tight, okay?” She wrapped her arms around Jimmy’s waist and nodded again.

“Amazin’ how a day can turn on ya’,” sighing, he rode off in the direction he’d come.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After about a two-hour ride, they came upon Abby’s home. Jimmy hadn’t been able to get much out of the frightened little girl. He did find out that her father had gone north to find land with water and she didn’t know when he’d be back.

As they rode into the front yard, Jimmy knew something was wrong even before he saw the front door ajar. Abby clutched at Jimmy’s waist.

“It’s okay, Abby, I’m right here. Your safe.” He hoped he was telling her the truth.

Jimmy dismounted keeping a hand on his gun at all times. When he motioned Abby to stay on the horse, she made a noise to protest. He gave her a look that said he would abide no complaints.

“I want ya’ to be able to ride if somethin’ happens, got it?” he whispered.

“I’ve never ridden a horse.”

“Sundance is a good horse. Like I said, if somethin’ happens, give him a kick and jus’ hold on. He’ll do all the work. Okay?” Abby nodded and took the reins from Jimmy.

Approaching the house, he heard Abby let out a small sob. He turned to see the little girl swallow, stopping herself from making another sound. Jimmy’s heart broke because, even though he hated it when women cried, he was sure he’d rather see the little girl show some emotion than hold it in. Turning back to the house he continued on.

Reaching the door, he looked inside. Not able to see since the light was so dim in the small house, he pushed the door open further, allowing sunlight to help. A few paces in, he kicked something on the floor.

Looking down, he realized it was a woman’s foot. Taking in the scene, he saw the blood covering the front of her dress and quickly went to the lady’s side to see if she was alive. As he knelt down, he heard a noise. With his usual sharp reflexes he pulled his Colt, aiming at the noise.

Abby let out a squeak when she saw how fast Jimmy drew. She’d never seen anything like it. Her father had guns, but he wasn’t even close to Jimmy.

“Abby! I tol’ ya’ to stay put!” Holstering his gun, Jimmy took a deep breath and stood, trying to block the view from the innocent girl.

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Abby stood at the threshold not wanting to come in.

“Yeah, darlin’, I’m sor…”

“Don’t call me darlin’!” Abby’s eyes filled with tears. She wiped them away as quickly as they appeared. There weren’t any more following.

“Okay, I won’t.” Jimmy walked over and guided Abby to sit on the steps, away from the sight. “Can I ask why I can’t call ya’ that?”

Abby hung her head. “That man called Mama darlin’ and he shot her.”

Jimmy thought that if this weren’t such a tragedy, Abby’s deduction would be almost amusing. Sighing, Jimmy put his arm around Abby’s shoulder and felt them stiffen. He hated bringing up the next topic but knew it must be done and soon.

“Well Abby, I know this is hard but we need to put her to rest. What d’ya’ think?”

Abby sat still, thinking. She knew Jimmy was right but it was hard realizing that her mother was gone. After a few minutes went by, she sat up and pointed towards a small hill with a tree on top.

“Mama used to like to go sit up there and read when Papa was away. That’s the only time she was able.” Abby stared at the tree. “I think that’s where she’d want to stay if she had to stay somewhere forever.” She looked at Jimmy.

“Alright,” Jimmy cleared his throat of the lump that had formed. He got up to find a shovel.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Thinking about what had just happened, Jimmy placed the shovel back against the house and walked over to sit by Abby on the steps. He’d learned her mother’s name and carved it the best he could on a piece of wood. Abby had read a poem out of Clara’s well-worn book of poetry, its pages showed the years of use. The little girl said that before coming west, Clara had received it as a present from her sister, Elizabeth. After a moment of silence, they had walked back to the house hand in hand.

“Abby, I think your ma would like the place ya’ picked out for her. It’s real nice.” Abby just nodded. Jimmy knew the little girl wanted to stay lost in her thoughts but they needed to make some plans.

“I’m real sorry Abby.” To which Abby continued staring at the tree and nodded.

“Ummm, I guess we should get your things together and leave a note for your pa.” Again, Abby nodded.

Taking the girl’s hand, Jimmy stood up and Abby followed mutely. Crossing into the house he felt her stiffen, but again, she showed no emotions. She walked over and retrieved a small bag from under a cot. Jimmy figured that’s where she slept. He took the opportunity to look around as she packed.

He found it strange that there were so few personal touches. Jimmy guessed he was used to what Emma had done, and Rachel still did, to the bunkhouse, both in Sweetwater and, now, in Rock Creek. There was always a fresh and homey feeling to both places, even though seven boys, one a girl in disguise, had lived there. Slightly taken aback, he realized it had been well over a year since they’d formed their odd family. The thought brought him back to Abby and her situation.

Jimmy was pulled from his woolgathering by the sound of silence. He looked over to see Abby sitting quietly on the cot holding her bag and watching him.

Smiling, he walked over to her. “Go ahead and write a note for your pa. Tell him you’ll be in Rock Creek at the Pony Express station. Let him know that the marshal, Teaspoon Hunter, is also the stationmaster. Hopefully that’ll relieve some of his worries.”

“He won’t be worried, just annoyed.” Abby stated matter-of-factly, sitting at the small table.

Jimmy watched as Abby wrote a simple note that said exactly what he’d just said. When he looked it over, he saw there was no ‘love, Abby’ at the end, for which Jimmy felt a great sadness. It was the same feeling he had when he looked around her house.

“Well, we better get started for Rock Creek.” He held out his hand to her.

“Jimmy?” Abby rose taking his hand.

“Yeah?”

Walking outside, he was thinking about what time they’d get home, figuring it would be very late, and he was sure there’d be some people worrying. Two in particular named Rachel and Lou. He smiled at the thought and how great it was to have people that worried after him.

“I’ve never been to Rock Creek. What am I going to do there?” There was a faint tremor in her voice.

“Well, you’ll stay there until your pa comes to get ya’. I’ve got some friends that can help.” Jimmy mounted Sundance and then helped Abby up behind him. “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay, I promise.”

“I’m not worried,” she wrapped her arms around Jimmy’s waist, “I’m with you.”

Jimmy tried to swallow past that same lump, ‘Dang thing won’t go away.’ He kicked Sundance into a gallop and headed for home.

Chapter Three

Jimmy approached the quiet station, slightly surprised at the complete darkness. Even though he was close to seven hours later than he should be, he’d expected someone to be awake. Turning Sundance a bit, he noticed that there was a light coming from the barn. Probably Kid or Buck and that gave him comfort. He looked down at the sleeping bundle in front of him.

Abby was fast asleep against his chest. A few miles from the station, he’d felt her jerking against his back and it dawned on him that she was dozing off and trying hard not to fall off the horse. He’d switched her to the front, covering her with his blanket, and she’d quickly fallen into a deep sleep. He smiled down at the small form, knowing she needed that rest.

Riding into the yard, he was greeted by the last person he wanted to see right then. Jesse. Grimacing, he knew the boy would be full of questions he was in no mood to answer. Jesse didn’t disappoint and started with them before Jimmy had even brought Sundance to a halt.

“Where’ve ya’ been? Everyone was wonderin’ why you were so late? Did ya’ run into trouble?” Jesse came running over to greet Jimmy. As he took the reins, allowing Jimmy to dismount, he saw the small shape on the horse.

“Shhhhh.” Jimmy jumped down and eased Abby into his arms.

“Who’s that?” Jesse peeked around Jimmy’s back trying to get a glimpse of what or whom he was carrying.

Walking toward the house, Jimmy called over his shoulder in a harsh whisper, “Jesse, look, I ain’t in no mood to talk. I’m tired. So if ya’d be so kind as to open up the door to Rachel’s, I’m gonna’ put my friend to sleep.”

He continued walking toward the house not waiting for Jesse’s response. Glancing back he added, “And be quiet. I don’t want ya’ goin’ and wakin’ ev’rybody up.”

‘That’s all I need,’ he thought wryly.

Jesse galloped forward, passing Jimmy to oblige. “Sure Jimmy, I was just askin’,” he didn’t try to hide the hurt in his voice as he opened the door.

Naturally, Rachel wasn’t about to sleep through the comings and goings in her house or on the property. She was descending the stairs as Jimmy walked in carrying a small bundle, followed closely by Jesse. Maternal instincts took over immediately as she rushed toward them.

“Jimmy, are you all right?” Following Jimmy, Rachel’s sharp eyes gave him the once over as he carried the bundle to the settee.

Gingerly, he placed Abby down, trying desperately not to wake her. “Yeah Rachel, I’m fine it’s just….” Then Jesse slammed the door. Jimmy turned and in two strides was in front of Jesse.

“Ya’ wanna’ try to be a bit quieter?” he growled.

“Jimmy?” Abby’s sleepy voice called from the makeshift bed.

Jimmy was by her side in an instant. “Hey honey, just go back to sleep.”

“Mmmmm, where are we?” Abby tried to open her heavy lids but couldn’t.

“We’re at my home, the station.”

“Mmmmm….” Abby laid her head back down and was soon drifting back to sleep.

Jimmy brushed the few stray hairs from her forehead and then pulled the blanket up to her chin. He stayed by her until he heard the steady breathing indicating deep sleep.

Stiffly, Jimmy stood. His body was aching and so was his head. He turned to be greeted by not the two sets of eyes he’d expected but those two joined by four more sets standing in the open door way. All of which were staring from six grinning faces. Walking over to them, he groaned knowing they’d seen his affectionate gestures.

“So, Jimmy,” Noah began, trying unsuccessfully to hide his mirth, “seems you brought home a friend?”

“Or wait, le’me guess,” Cody knew he couldn’t pass this one up, “she followed ya’ home.”

Everyone let loose the laughs they were trying to contain. What they weren’t ready for was Jimmy’s reaction.

Glaring at them, he snapped, “I don’t mind ya’ laughin’ at my expense but if…” he glanced over at the sleeping girl and suddenly felt such an overwhelming need to protect her. Not knowing what to say, he shoved passed his stunned audience and stomped off to the bunkhouse.

“Excuse me, I’m goin’ to bed.”

“What’s eatin’ him? It’s just a girl,” Jesse pointed out with his usual tact.

Ignoring Jesse, Rachel and the riders stood for just a moment before hurrying to follow the quickly retreating Jimmy, only to see him go into the bunkhouse and slam the door behind him. Before they’d reached the porch, he came flying out with his bedding.

“If ya’ don’t mind, I’ll be sleepin’ with Sundance. He’s much better comp’ny.”

Rachel put her hand on Jimmy’s chest, “Wait just a minute young man. Now, I’m sure you’re tired, which makes anyone a might ornery, but you know we didn’t mean any hurt to you. And you had better know we meant no hurt to that sweet little girl in there.” She paused, looking intently at the irate rider in front of her, then added, “Whoever she may be.”

All the fight left Jimmy as he leaned against the wall, clutching his pillow and blanket to his chest. He looked around at the earnest faces of his family, knowing they cared a great deal for him. He sighed and turned to Rachel.

“Sorry, Rachel…ev’ryone. It’s just been a very hard day.”

Knowing that the bad day had something to do with the small girl inside, Lou walked over to him, taking his pillow and blanket.

“Come on in the bunkhouse. Rachel kept some stew for ya’. All we have to do is heat it up.” She nudged him towards the open door, trying to make him move.

“Yeah, and ya’ know Rachel’s stew can always cheer up a bad day,” Cody added with a playful grin.

“Of course it was a might difficult to keep that stew for you considerin’…” Noah caught Jimmy’s eye and then looked pointedly at Cody.

Jimmy laughed a tired, but much needed, laugh.

“Sounds good, but I need to take care of Sundance first.”

“Jesse will do that, >o?won’t you?” Rachel, immediately volunteering the boy, deliberately pronounced the last two words.

“Yeah, you were stayin’ up to take care of Jimmy’s horse in the first place, right?” Lou followed Rachel’s lead.

“Alright.” Jesse shrugged walking unhappily toward the barn. He knew he was going to miss something.

Lou again nudged Jimmy forward.

Walking into the bunkhouse, he smiled down at the young woman he adored as she put his pillow and blanket back on the bed. He then turned to Rachel who busied herself at the stove.

“I appreciate the comforts,” and humbly he added, “and I’m sorry for wakin’ ev’ryone up.”

“That’s quite alright. I’m not sure any of us were really asleep. We were sorta’ worried about you.” Rachel set the table

Jimmy began putting his things away. Except for his twin Colts, he didn’t have much in material wealth, but when he thought of what Abby was left with, he realized how truly wealthy he was. Holding his Colts, he sat on his bunk, listening to the pleasant conversation going on around him, and was soon lost in thoughts of his family.

The others left him alone, letting him have a small amount of peace before explaining his whereabouts.

Jimmy hadn’t realized how much time had passed until Rachel announced the stew was ready. Seeing he still had his guns in his hands, he walked over to the pegboard.

“Now come over here and sit down,” Rachel ordered.

“And ya’ can tell us where ya’ got the girl,” Jesse announced as he walked through the door, once more opening his mouth when it should have remained shut.

“Jesse,” Kid groaned.

“Boy, sometime soon your gonna’ get your tongue shot off and I may be the one to do it,” Cody glared over at the loose-tongued youth.

“Now Cody, seems to me that many a time in the past, I could have done just that to you and your tongue,” Jimmy replied dryly from where he’d just hung his Colts.

“I ain’t never been that bad,” Cody complained, glancing to make sure his good friend was playing.

When Jimmy saw Cody’s worried expression, he shook his head, laughing wearily. “Cody, don’t worry none. If I haven’t shot the dang thing off by now, I guess I never will.” Slyly, he added, “’Sides, I ain’t got a carrot.”

Laughing, everyone sat down around the table. Rachel set a heaping bowl of stew in front of Jimmy. Cody eyed the food.

“Ya’ know, all this excitement seems to have given me a bit of an appetite. Think there’s enough for me?”

“When don’t ya’ have an appetite?” Lou just shook her head.

Jimmy dug into Rachel’s stew. He looked up at the woman that was more like an older sister than a mother, though she did play the mothering part very well.

“This is the best I’ve had to eat in days. Thanks.”

“You are very welcome,” Rachel said, smiling at Jimmy. Turning to Cody, she added, “If Jimmy doesn’t think he’ll want anymore, than you may have a bowl.” As the starving rider reached for a bowl, she shook her spoon at him. “But only if he doesn’t want anymore, understand?”

“Jimmy? I’ll waste away,” Cody begged.

“Give him a bowl. This is enough for me,” Jimmy relented, rolling his eyes. He quickly added, “But the bread is mine.”

“Alright,” Cody grumbled.

Jesse had been quiet since Cody had threatened to shoot his tongue off, but the curiosity had finally gotten to him. “So, who’s the girl?”

A collective groan went up from the table and Jimmy had to laugh. The boy wasn’t anything, if not persistent.

“Jesse!” Lou admonished.

“Look, if she’s here at our house, shouldn’t we know who she is?” Jesse wasn’t going to be dismissed so easily.

“Give the man a moment’s peace before ya’ start in on him,” Kid replied.

“Nope, Jesse’s got a point,” Jimmy said waving a piece of bread in Jesse’s direction.

“Yeah, on his head,” Noah cracked, receiving a ‘humph’ from Jesse and a chuckle from everyone else.

“I’m serious,” Jimmy said through a mouthful of food. “It ain’t right that I bring a complete stranger into this house and not provide some sorta’ explanation.”

“See?” Jesse smugly replied, quite pleased that Jimmy was the one agreeing with him.

“Only if your up to it,” Kid said.

Jimmy sighed, “Well, after I tell ya’, ya’d think I’d never be up to it.” As he ate, he told how he’d come upon Abby and about the day they’d spent together.

“So, there wasn’t anythin’ else to do with her but bring her with me.” Finishing the tale, Jimmy sopped up the last of his stew with the last piece of bread and popped it in his mouth.

“My Lord,” Rachel said as she put the dirty dishes in the water to soak, “that poor little girl. Losin’ her mama like that.”

“She not only lost her ma but she practically saw her shot.” Noah looked thoughtfully at the table. He could understand how the young girl felt.

Jimmy looked around, suddenly realizing who was missing.

“Where’s Teaspoon?”

Before anyone could answer, Jesse blurted out, “Ya’ think it’s tied to the robbers from Oak Grove?”

“Lord! We completely forgot about Charlie!” Lou slapped the tabletop. With the introduction of the newest stray to the family, the happenings of the day had been pushed aside.

“You’re the only one with such a mind that would link them two together,” Cody glared at Jesse.

“Charlie who? What robbers? And again, where’s Teaspoon?” Slightly confused but full and content, Jimmy sat back feeling the warmth of the stew and family wash away the trials of the day.

Rachel patted Jimmy’s shoulder and sat by Lou.

“Charlie Bellman, the stage driver from Oak Grove,” Kid said quietly, knowing how Jimmy would react.

Jimmy quickly sat forward, looking intensely at his friend. “What happened?”

Charlie had always been nice to the riders. He didn’t treat them like they were beneath him, which a lot of the stage drivers tended to do. Most thought that the Pony Express was a waste of money since they could deliver mail just a well. Not Charlie, he loved the riders.

Glances were exchange; each person wondering which one should break the news. Lou took a deep breath, knowing she would be the best choice. She started the tale from her delivering the note to Teaspoon.

“All we know is he was shot by a couple of robbers and they got part of an army payroll,” Lou concluded.

“And Teaspoon stayed in town in case there was word about Charlie or the robbers,” Kid added.

Slamming his fist down on the table, Jimmy rose and stormed out the door. Standing on the porch, he looked up at the night sky, ‘A wonderful ending to a wonderful day.’ After a few moments, he sighed and went back in.

Rachel had finished cleaning up and the riders were all in their bunks except Lou who was helping Rachel by wiping off the table. She looked up as Jimmy came in and gave him a warm smile. As always, that smile lightened Jimmy’s heart.

“Well I believe it’s bedtime,” Rachel said as she walked over to where Jimmy stood by the door. “Good night, you all sleep well.” She gave Jimmy’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “What you did was really sweet. I’m sure Abby will be fine once her father comes to get her.” She grabbed Jesse by the arm and dragged him out the door before the boy could open his mouth to ask Jimmy more questions.

“Rachel, wait up.” Jimmy went to his bunk and picked up his blanket and pillow again. “I’m gonna’ bed down on the floor next to Abby. I don’t want her wakin’ up in a strange house and the only face she knows ain’t there.” He gave her a shy smile, glancing down at the floor.

“That’s a good idea,” she smiled, adding, “Tomorrow morning you can take her to see Teaspoon. Maybe he can help find that awful man.”

Grinning, the others exchanged knowing glances. This little girl had worked her way deep into their friend’s skeptical heart. Jimmy, seeing the looks, grumbled ‘good night’, and followed Rachel and Jesse to the house.

Although Abby was still asleep she’d managed to kick all her covers off. Jimmy pulled the quilt up and tucked it under the little girl’s chin. The tired rider waved his good night to Rachel and Jesse. He knew Jesse wasn’t pleased at having the station mistress order him to his room, especially since he had so many more questions. Jimmy sighed, knowing he’d hear them all tomorrow.

Checking on Abby once more to make sure she was fine, he made up his bed on the floor right next to the settee.

Yawning, Jimmy pulled the blanket over him and was instantly asleep.

Chapter 4

As Abby felt released from the grip of deep slumber, she entered that hazy stage between dream and wake when her subconscious told her something wasn’t quite right. At first she wasn’t sure what, but soon she realized it was too quiet. The sounds of her normal morning were missing. The sound of Mama closing the door softly after she went out to get the wood for the stove or the stove door creaking shut and Mama sighing because Papa still hadn’t fixed it. She missed the slight metallic clink of Mama placing the pot gently on top to cook the porridge. The faint swishing of the hem of Mama’s dress brushing over the wood floor as she came over to wake Abby.

Where was Mama?

Like a landslide, Abby’s mind brought forth the images of the previous day’s events. The shock that had kept her going had worn off. Now only fear engulfed her. The bad man was still out there. What if he knew about her? Her stomach burned like she’d swallowed a hornets’ nest. Abby felt a surge of panic begin to rise until another image appeared. Jimmy. She could see him smile and hear him assure her that he’d stay with her. She wanted to trust him and something told her she should. Soon, the feeling of panic died down and the final veil of sleep slipped away.

The first thing Abby saw when she opened her eyes was Jimmy sitting in the chair across from where she slept. He was doing something with his guns.

“Are you going to shoot someone?” Abby sat up.

Jimmy looked over to see Abby wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Good mornin’ sleepyhead. I thought you were gonna’ stay in that bed all day.”

Abby blushed and looked down at her hands. She twisted the quilt and asked again, “So, are you?”

Jimmy wasn’t sure how to handle this. Before yesterday her question would have seemed innocent enough; in fact, she might not have thought to ask it at all. However, today was completely different. After spending most of the night waking up to her whimpers and softly stroking her head to calm her down, he didn’t want to ignore her so he decided that the simple truth would be best.

“No, I’m cleanin’ ‘em. It’s safer to keep ‘em in good condition.”

He put his guns away and walked over to sit on the settee with Abby. He really couldn’t believe how this little slip of a girl had worked her way into his normally guarded heart in such a short time.

“Honey?”

Not used to endearments from anyone other than her mother, Abby felt her face redden again.

“We need to go to town and see my friend. Remember the man I told ya’ ‘bout?” Jimmy brushed the hair out of her eyes.

“The marshal? Ummm, he has a funny name.” Abby bit her lip trying to remember.

“Teaspoon.”

“I would’ve remembered,” she insisted.

“Sorry, next time I ask you somethin’ I’ll wait ‘til you get the answer. Even if I’m waitin’ for weeks and weeks,” he laughed softly.

Abby looked thoughtfully at Jimmy. She liked to hear him laugh. It was odd, especially since she wasn’t used to hearing a male laugh. She and her mother laughed only when her father wasn’t around because he yelled and said they were being lazy. Suddenly, the thought of her mother brought sadness.

“You okay?” Jimmy noticed how quiet she’d become.

Abby didn’t like the feeling so she changed the subject.

“When are we going?”

“Well, as soon as you get your sleepy self outta’ that bed.” Jimmy pulled the blanket back. “Are you hungry?” He figured she had to be. He knew he woke up with a bear of an appetite and he’d had stew last night.

Abby’s stomach rumbled in response. Surprised, she looked down at her traitorous belly and then back at Jimmy and smiled shyly. Once more her stomach announced its emptiness, this time with a very loud growl. Scrunching her face up with embarrassment, Abby bowed her head, covering her face with her hands. Thinking she was upset, he was pleasantly surprised to hear a small giggle escape from the confines of her hands. He decided to take advantage of the situation and try to keep Abby laughing.

“Good grief! I’m sure the people at the other end a’ town heard that!” he said, feigning shock.

Abby did as Jimmy hoped and allowed another small giggle. This got Jimmy laughing which, in turn, caused Abby to giggle some more. Jimmy thought he’d broken through but, when she looked up at him, though she was smiling, he saw tears in her eyes. Jimmy picked her up and sat her on his lap and, with his arms wrapped around her, he held her while she cried.

“Let it out,” Jimmy rubbed her back. As much as he hated crying, he knew this was the best thing for her. He’d been worried that she’d done little to no grieving, especially when they buried Clara.

After a few moments, the crying subsided to a few sniffles and Jimmy leaned back to look at the little girl. Her eyes were red, as was her nose, but, when he brushed the hair away from her face, she treated him to a faint smile that touched his heart.

“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Abby said through a shuddering sigh. She wiped her eyes.

“What are you apologizin’ for?” Jimmy was startled by the apology. He handed her his bandana.

Accepting the offer, she wiped her face. “Well, Papa doesn’t abide crying. He gets really angry with me or Mama….” Abby stopped, realizing that he’d no longer be able to get angry with her mother. She sniffed.

“Well, I don’t much like it when women get to cryin’ but I do think it’s necessary at times and, well…” he didn’t know how to finish, so he just gave her a hug and continued holding her while she calmed down, which is how Rachel found the two of them.

“Well, are you two just gonna’ stay around here all day?” Rachel teased; unaware of what had just occurred. Receiving no response, she looked over and saw Abby’s tearstained face, eyes closed, leaning against Jimmy’s chest. Rachel looked up to see the sadness in Jimmy’s eyes; the only noise was the quiet snuffles from Abby.

Rachel had worried about how Abby would react when she faced the morning and she knew how worried Jimmy was, especially since he said the young girl hadn’t shown any signs of grief. Rachel smiled sadly at Jimmy and, giving him a sympathetic nod, began to prepare breakfast for the two.

When Abby realized someone else was in the room, she quickly quieted down because she didn’t want to get in trouble. She wiped her eyes for what she hoped would be the last time, but knew that was doubtful, and, smoothing her mussed hair, tried to get herself presentable. She looked up and saw a very pretty woman busy at the table. Abby never thought of herself as shy but then she wasn’t used to being around many people so, it took her a moment to move from Jimmy’s lap. Though she felt a bit apprehensive, she remembered what her mother had taught her and politely stood up to introduce herself.

“How do you do? My name is Abby Cassidy.” She then curtsied.

Rachel watched as, even with all she’d been through, Abby still had the courtesy to properly introduce herself. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she wanted to make Abby feel at home so she returned the thoughtfulness.

“Well, Miss Abby. My name is Rachel Dunne. And I’m delighted to meet such a well-mannered child.” She smiled encouragingly as she curtsied.

“Now Rachel, you ain’t sayin’ that the rest of us ain’t well-mannered, are you?” Jimmy grinned, winking at Abby.

“Ummm, Mr. Hickok, let’s just say it’s been a while since anyone has curtsied around here,” Rachel chuckled, eyeing Abby knowingly. She was rewarded with a grin and nod from the little girl. “So, what are you two plannin’ on doin’ today?”

“I’m tryin’ to get lazy bones outta’ bed so we can go see Teaspoon.” Jimmy nudged Abby playfully. Seeing her reaction to Rachel, he hoped the teasing would be accepted. He was rewarded with a small giggle that Abby quickly stifled. He reached over to tickle her.

Rachel walked over, swatted at Jimmy, and took the little girl’s hand. “You come on now, there’s still some bacon and ham and I’ve got some eggs fixed for you.”

Abby’s mouth watered at the thought of all that food. She was used to porridge in the mornings and very little meat at all. She didn’t want to upset anyone, especially the master person, or whatever it was Jimmy had called the Teaspoon person.

“Is that alright? I don’t want to make Mr. Teaspoon angry if I eat some.”

“Don’t you worry a bit. Mr. Teaspoon doesn’t have much say as to who eats what around here and, even if he tried, I don’t believe it would matter.” Rachel tugged gently to get Abby to follow her to the kitchen.

“Once you eat, we’ll go over to see Teaspoon.” Jimmy followed the pair.

“Um, Jimmy?”

“Yeah, sweet pea?”

Abby giggled at the pet name. “Do you and Miss Dunne live here alone?”

Jimmy blushed and glanced over at Rachel. “Uh, no. I live in the bunkhouse across the way.” He pointed out towards the building.

“Oh.” Abby pondered this information. She stared out the window at the small part of the bunkhouse she could see. “Who else lives there?”

“Well, why don’t you eat your breakfast and Jimmy and I will tell you all about the other boys.” Rachel placed a heaping plate of eggs, bacon, toast and ham in front of Abby. While the little girl ate, Rachel and Jimmy told her about the other riders.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Abby sat with Jimmy on the bench outside the marshal’s office waiting for Teaspoon to finish with his prisoner. She couldn’t stop fidgeting. She was worried. This Teaspoon man was an important person, especially since he was a marshal; at least that’s what her mother always told her. She let out a big sigh, catching Jimmy’s attention.

“You okay?” He’d noticed how she kept squirming beside him and turning to look through the office window like she was the next one on trial.

“Umm, yes.” She didn’t want him to think she was a baby so she decided not to say anything.

She’d just finished her curtsy after being introduced to Teaspoon when the deputy had brought in this very large man who was bellowing about how they had no right to ruin his morning stroll. The fact that he was taking it with a bottle of whiskey and singing at the top of his lungs didn’t seem to matter to him. Jimmy had removed Abby immediately to the bench outside.

Though she was amazed at some of the words coming from the man, she was in awe at how Marshal Teaspoon handled the whole mess. Especially when the deputy tripped over the chair, bringing him and the huge man down in a heap. She wasn’t quite sure what the marshal had said but he’d looked up when he’d said it, so she figured he’d been asking God something. Maybe praying that the deputy was okay because he was a lot skinnier than that other man.

“I ain’t running a hotel here, Nelson, so quit yer yappin’!” Teaspoon bellowed from inside, interrupting Abby’s thoughts.

Jimmy saw Abby’s eyes widen so he decided he’d best reassure her. He opened his mouth to tell her what a nice man Teaspoon was but she spoke first.

“Jimmy?”

“Yeah Abby?”

“Do you think he’ll like me?” she quietly asked.

‘So that’s what’s botherin’ her.’ Jimmy sat forward and smiled at her.

“I know he will. You’re a good girl, right?”

“Yes,” Abby stated with a definite nod.

“Well now, folks like good girls and Teaspoon, bein’ a marshal and all, ‘specially likes good girls, so you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about.” He figured that would set her mind at ease.

Abby sat pondering this new information. She suddenly looked over at Jimmy, realizing something important.

“Do you like good girls?”

Jimmy turned to hide his blush. Maybe that wasn’t quite how he should have handled it but it was too late now.

“Um, yeah, I sure do.”

“Is Rachel a good girl?”

Jimmy was amused at the questions her thoughts led her to.

“I believe she is.”

That seemed to set Abby’s mind at ease. Jimmy had noticed that during breakfast, the little girl had taken to the older woman, which made, not only Jimmy happy, but seemed to please Rachel immensely.

“You sure about him?” She pointed over her shoulder.

“How ‘bout we just ask him,” Jimmy suggested with a grin.

“Don’t you dare!” Giggling, she covered her face with her hands.

“I’m telling ya’ right now Nelson, one more complaint and ya’ get ta’ stay in here for a week on nothin’ but bread and water. Ya’ hear?”

Teaspoon walked out of the office, joining Jimmy and Abby on the boardwalk. He stretched his old muscles and turned to Jimmy. “I swear I think that’s the worst part of this job - bein’ a jailer,” Teaspoon grunted.

“Maybe we shouldn’t keep ‘em as prisoners once we catch ‘em,” Jimmy suggested with an insinuating smirk.

Teaspoon gave Jimmy his trademark look. “Well, that may be but, ‘til I’m told differently, we’ll keep arrestin’ ‘em and lockin’ ‘em up.” With a wink, he added, “‘Sides, if we ever come after you, you’ll be singin’ a different tune.”

“Yeah, but I’m a good boy, Teaspoon. Ain’t that right, Abby?” Jimmy laughed, looking over at the girl who was, by all appearances, trying to blend into the bench.

“Shhh!” Abby blushed.

“What’s that about?” Teaspoon looked questioningly at Abby causing her to blush deeper and stare at the ground. Teaspoon shook his head, smiling, “Anyway, Nelson’s just in here fer drunk in public. Though that’s the third time in as many days, the ol’ goat.”

Sighing, Teaspoon sat on the other side of Abby. Smiling at her, he began, “Alright now Miss Abby, why don’t you tell me what you know.”

After almost an hour Teaspoon was exasperated. They seemed no closer to the killer’s identity than before they’d started. As they took a break in the questioning, Buck came riding into town like he was racing himself. He pulled Spirit to stop in front of the office.

“Whoa, son.” Teaspoon hurried over to Buck’s lathered mount and grabbed the bridle.

Buck leaped off the horse before Spirit had really stopped. “Is she okay?”

Jimmy quickly glanced at Abby before realizing that Buck knew nothing about the little girl. He looked back at his friend, perplexed.

“Is who okay?”

Buck decided not to say because he knew what Jimmy would do. Still nervous about the answer, he turned to Teaspoon. “Is everyone okay?”

“Well, yes. But what makes you think someone ain’t?” Teaspoon hadn’t seen Buck this riled in a long time and he’d noticed how the young man had ignored Jimmy’s question.

“Well, I heard about Charlie when I rode into Oak Grove and someone said that an Express rider had been hurt too and that they’d been taken over to Sheriff Berger. I remembered from the schedule that,” Buck paused, glancing over at Jimmy but his need to know outweighed the reaction from his friend, so he continued, “Lou was supposed to have that ride so I went over to his office but the sheriff wasn’t around so I ran over to the doc’s office but his assistant was the only one there and he didn’t know what I was talkin’ about and, since I was passin’ through anyway, I figured I’d get home as fast as I could and find out if…” Buck plopped down on edge the boardwalk running out of wind.

“Hey Buck, Lou’s fine. Honest.”

Jimmy walked over and bent down, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. It was rare to see Buck this wound up and he didn’t think he’d ever heard Buck say this much at once. Also, he now understood why Buck hadn’t answered his question. ‘Does ev’ryone know how I feel about Lou?’

Thinking it best to show he wasn’t bothered, he added, laughing, “Last I saw, she was helpin’ Kid get ready for his ride. And we know what that means.”

Smiling, Buck let out a calming breath and gave Jimmy a nod indicating he was okay. As Jimmy walked over to Teaspoon and Abby, Buck stood up stiffly. He’d been in the saddle for too long without a break. As he stretched his tired muscles, he noticed the little girl behind Teaspoon, next to Jimmy, petting Spirit’s nose. He was intrigued at how the horse moved towards the girl’s hand, encouraging every touch.

“Who’s this? A new rider?” Buck wasn’t sure how she’d feel about him and he didn’t want to scare her, so, smiling but keeping his distance, he walked over to Teaspoon.

When Abby saw the dark rider approaching her, she automatically took Jimmy’s hand. She knew he was an Indian and she remembered everything her father had said about them being heartless savages, ready to kill any white man and steal the women and children. But this one didn’t look like a heartless savage. She looked up and noticed that Jimmy was watching her, as was Marshal Teaspoon. Looking back at the man, she saw in his eyes the same thing she saw in Jimmy’s and the Marshal’s - kindness and caring.

“I bet I could be a rider.” She smiled shyly.

The other men laughed. “That you could darlin’, that you could. And you probably could show these boys a thing or two.” Teaspoon patted the girl’s shoulder.

Remembering her manners, she released Jimmy’s hand and once more introduced herself with a curtsy to Buck.

“My name is Abby Cassidy. You’re Buck Cross, aren’t you?”

Buck was not only impressed by her manners but also extremely touched that this young girl would treat him with such respect.

In turn, he bowed, saying, “Well, Miss Cassidy, yes I am.” He held out his hand, took hers and kissed the back, causing the little girl to blush, “and I’m please to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance too, Mr. Cross,” Abby giggled as she imitated Buck.

Teaspoon smiled at the scene. ‘Maybe this lit’l girl will bring some much needed sunshine to the station.’ He’d been just as moved by her introduction when she’d curtsied for him.

“You’re a very polite young lady,” Teaspoon added, slightly bowing his head.

“She’s also a good girl,” Jimmy added, winking at Abby.

Abby smacked Jimmy on the arm, earning a chuckle for her trouble. Blushing, she glanced up at Jimmy and smiled. Buck looked questioningly at Jimmy and then Abby. When no explanation was offered, the Kiowa looked over at Teaspoon for clarification.

“Don’t mind ‘em. I believe they’ve got some secrets they ain’t willin’ to share.” Teaspoon walked over to Buck. “Go on home. The others can fill ya’ in on ev’rythin’ that’s happened.” Teaspoon casually nodded toward Abby.

Buck took the hint. He was anxious to get home anyway, not only to see Lou for himself, but because he was tired and hungry as well. As he mounted Spirit, he suddenly remembered something else he’d learned in Oak Grove.

“With all the worry over Lou I almost forgot, I heard from the doc’s assistant that Charlie’s gonna’ be okay.”

Jimmy let out a whoop as Teaspoon cried, “Hot damn!” before realizing where they were and who was standing there. Abby giggled again, which was contagious, causing Jimmy to start again and Buck to ride away laughing.

Teaspoon cleared his throat and turned to the little girl, “Okay, so where were we?”

Abby walked over to the bench and sat down. “I was answering your questions about the man that killed my mama.”

Teaspoon soberly nodded. He still couldn’t believe how stoic she was about what had happened. He and Jimmy joined her on the bench.

“Ya’ know Abby…if you could tell us just a teeny bit more about this man, we might know 'im already.”

“But I’ve told you everything,” Abby insisted.

“That you have honey but, ‘not tall, not short, not fat, not thin,’ well, we need a bit more to go on. Ya’ understand?” Teaspoon stopped the sigh he felt welling up within.

Abby shrugged. She looked at Jimmy, now seated beside her with his arm protectively around her shoulders.

“Okay honey, think. What color was his hair?” Jimmy thought maybe he could get her to open up more.

Abby shrugged.

Jimmy looked at Teaspoon, helplessly.

“Alright…. how about his nose? Long or short?” Teaspoon prodded some more.

“In between, I guess.” Abby looked down in defeat. She was now worried that they would be angry at her lack of help.

Teaspoon sighed, “In between.” He saw her frown and immediately assured her, “It’s okay darlin’, we’ll figure somethin’ out.” He received a small smile.

Both men sat contemplating the situation for a while. Neither could think of any more questions to help Abby remember.

As the men sat pondering, Abby saw a group of children playing games a couple of buildings down, just off the boardwalk. Two girls, about her age, were jumping rope and a group of boys were running away from one boy who seemed to be after them. She didn’t know what the game was but she wished she could play.

After a moment, Jimmy asked, “Abby honey, do ya’ think you’d recognize him if ya’ were to see him again?”

Abby’s face lit up as she looked at him. “Oh, I think so. I’d sure try.”

“Good girl. That’s all we can ask.” Jimmy squeezed Abby’s shoulder in a hug.

Teaspoon smiled at the little girl. He hated having to ask her all these questions, making her relive the incident, but she happened to be their only witness.

“I guess we just wait until her pa gets back and comes for her. Maybe he can tell us somethin’.”

At the mention of her pa, Abby got up and walked to a post down from where they sat. She didn’t want to think about him coming and taking her away from all this.

Jimmy watched as she walked away. His heart hurt for the girl. “I doubt it Teaspoon. By the way Abby talks about the killer, he’s a stranger.” He made sure she was out of earshot, before he continued, “And as fer her pa, I’m not sure how he’s gonna’ take this. It don’t sound like he’s much of a pa. Abby acted like he wasn’t gonna’ be worried about her at all, just annoyed at havin’ to come all this way to get her.”

Teaspoon grunted. He knew many men like that and he always wondered why they’d become husbands and fathers in the first place.

“Do you know if she has any other folk?” Teaspoon was worried now whether Mr. Cassidy would come for the girl.

“There’s an aunt back east named Elizabeth, Mrs. Cassidy’s younger sister. I think she said Delaware.”

Teaspoon pondered what Jimmy said. Suddenly, he got a terrifying thought. He walked over to Abby and asked, “Are you sure this man didn’t see ya’?”

“He couldn’t see me at all. Mama made me hide real well. ”

“Good.” He slowly walked back to Jimmy, thinking.

“Umm, Teaspoon?” Jimmy glanced over at Abby again to make sure she wasn’t listening. “What are we gonna’ do with her? I mean, I guess she can stay with Rachel but Jesse’s got the spare room and well, what are we gonna’ do?”

“Whatta’ ya’ mean we?” Teaspoon hid his smile. “She doesn’t seem ta’ trust anyone but you.”

He knew Rachel would find her a place and, besides, Jesse could always stay in the tack room with him or use a bedroll in the bunkhouse.

“Now, hold on,” Jimmy tried to keep his voice low, “You know she can’t stay in the bunkhouse with me.”

“Now Jimmy, it’s just ‘til her pa gets back and after all, someone’s gotta’ take care of her, right?” Teaspoon teased. “And like I said, you seem ta’ be the only one she trusts.”

“But me?”

“Jimmy?”

Without having to look down, Jimmy realized that Abby was standing beside him and had probably heard the majority of the conversation. Closing his eyes, he quietly groaned. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her anymore.

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be all right.” Abby glanced nervously between the two men.

“Now Jimmy, see what you went and did? Poor little thing feels like no one wants her around.” As Jimmy looked heavenward, Teaspoon turned and winked at Abby. At first the girl looked confused but then she gave him an understanding grin. She quickly became somber when Jimmy looked at her.

Jimmy squatted down beside Abby. “Abby, I didn’t mean for it ta’ sound like that. You’re a real sweet girl and anyone would be proud to have ya’ as their daugh…er, sister. But we’re a group of men and we ain’t set up to take care of ya’. Do ya’ see?”

“Well, not everyone is a man, right? I could stay with Miss Rachel.” Abby looked at Jimmy curiously, trying not to giggle but, in the end, was unsuccessful. Jimmy was taken aback, not quite sure what was so funny.

“Well, now Abby. That’s right smart of ya’ ta’ ask. I’m sure that Miss Rachel would love ta’ have ya’ stay with her,” Teaspoon chuckled. “See Jimmy? She’s a smart girl.”

“You did that on purpose didn’t ya’?” Jimmy shook his head as he stood up.

“Now why would I do a thing like that?” Teaspoon laughed outright, slapping the young man, that reminded him so much of himself, on the back.

“‘Cause you’re an ornery ol’ coot, that’s why.” Jimmy joined in the laugh.

“Jimmy! You watch your mouth around this here young’un’,” Teaspoon chastised with mock indignation, conveniently forgetting his outburst from earlier.

“Oh, that’s okay Marshal Teaspoon. You shoulda’ heard what he said when he was trying to catch me,” said a grinning Abby.

Teaspoon eyed Jimmy. “Z’at so?”

Abby nodded.

“Miss Abby, maybe tonight you can tell us exactly how you two met, hmmm?” Teaspoon said in a conspiratorial pseudo-whisper. “Oh, and jus’ call me Teaspoon. The marshal bit makes me sound too respectable,” he added with a wink.

Abby giggled.

Jimmy played along and looked abashed. “Wait a minute. It really wasn’t that bad Teaspoon.” Leaning over to Abby, he playfully grumbled, “I thought you said I was a good boy.”

“I don’t think she ever actually agreed Jimmy,” Teaspoon knowingly pointed out as Jimmy laughed and took Abby’s hand.

“See, Jimmy?” Abby looked up at Jimmy, “I said I’d be all right.”

“You did at that Abby. Let’s go get you settled with Rachel.”

“Bye Marsh…um, Teaspoon!”

“Bye darlin’.”

Teaspoon smiled at Abby and then gave Jimmy a thoughtful look. He saw the young man grin sheepishly as he and Abby walked over to the station.

‘Yep, that girl’s got him wrapped tightly ‘round that lit’l finger and the rest of us are followin’ fast,’ he chuckled to himself as he decided to walk over and see what his sweetheart, Polly, was doing.

Chapter 5

Abby looked around the small but cozy bedroom on the first floor. She still couldn’t believe that this was going to be her room, even temporarily. There was a chest of drawers that was as tall as she was and a trunk sitting under the window with a quilt lying on top. But the best part was the bed. It looked so soft and comfortable and big enough for her to get lost in.

“Abby, you ready to go over to the bunkhouse for dinner?”

Rachel had stood in the doorway watching the little girl tentatively touching the bed as if her touch would make it disappear. Abby spun around and when Rachel saw the fear in her eyes she could only wonder what type of family life this beautiful girl had.

“I’m sorry Miss Rachel, I was just looking, I didn’t touch anything.” Abby looked down and, realizing her hand was still on the bed, stammered, “I mean, I was…”

Rachel quickly went to Abby and, putting her hand on the girl’s shoulder, tried to allay her fears. “Abby honey, it’s okay. This is your room and you can touch anything you want to.” Rachel sat on the edge of the bed, patting the space beside her. “Here. Sit by me.”

Abby wasn’t sure but, if Miss Rachel said so, she guessed it was okay. She went over and sat. The bed was as soft and comfortable as she thought it would be. Rachel bounced a bit and Abby grinned from ear to ear.

“Okay, so are you ready for dinner?”

“Am I going to meet the other riders?” Abby couldn’t keep the anxiety out of her voice. Since she’d slept so late, the boys were already doing chores or running errands, so she hadn’t had the chance to meet anyone except Buck.

“Yes you are but don’t worry, Jimmy, Teaspoon and I will be right there with you.”

“Will Mr. Cross be there too?”

Rachel, thinking of how Buck would react to being called 'mister', kept her laughter to herself because she didn’t want Abby to think she was laughing at her.

“Um, yes he will and you can call him Buck, he won’t mind.”

Abby stood up and, taking Rachel’s hand, said decisively, “I’m ready.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“So, that’s what we know right now.”

Lou had finally had the chance to fill Buck in, telling the story for the third time in less than a day when Abby walked in carrying a plate of biscuits for Rachel. The female rider was impressed at how Abby bravely followed Rachel to the table even as everyone watched her.

“Hey darlin’, did you make all a’ this?” Teaspoon teased, lightening the somber mood. He was rewarded with a small smile.

After placing the biscuits on the table, she walked straight over to where Jimmy was at the table and sat beside him. She always felt safer with Jimmy there. Abby was finally able to look around at the people in the room. She was pretty sure she could identify everyone else from the descriptions Rachel and Jimmy had given that morning.

“So Jimmy, who’s your friend?” Cody grinned at the little girl.

“Mr. Cody, I can talk.” Abby stood up and introduced herself. “My name is Abby Cassidy.” Adding the curtsy at the end.

“Well, now, you seem ta’ know my name. Wonder who from and what he said?” asked Cody with a sardonic expression directed specifically at Jimmy.

“Lord Cody, what the devil would Jimmy have to say about you?” Rolling his eyes, Noah dismissed Cody.

“Can’t be nothin’ good,” Jesse added, for which he received a severe look from Cody that threatened he’d deal with the boy later.

“Uh, Cody? She knew my name too,” Buck stated helpfully, causing the others to laugh.

Buck glanced at Abby to see how she was handling being the subject of this silly conflict. She was quietly sitting by Jimmy, thoughtfully listening to the banter. He really couldn’t believe what this child had been through. ‘She certainly fits in here,’ he thought wryly. His announcement seemed to take the wind out of Cody.

“Alright, Miss Cassidy, or can I call ya’ Abby?” Cody walked over to give the young lady a traditional Cody introduction. Bowing over her hand, he said, “William F. Cody, at your service, ma’am.”

Abby couldn’t help it; she started giggling. Then when she saw the face that Jimmy was making as Cody was bowing, her giggles grew into laughter.

“Alright, you all, let’s eat,” Rachel tried to sound stern but was unsuccessful since she was laughing too.

Gathering at the table, everyone took their seats around Jimmy and Abby.

“Jimmy, why don’t you go ahead and introduce the rest of this ragtag bunch,” Teaspoon encouraged.

“But I know their names already, Mar…Teaspoon,” Abby softly informed the older man as Jimmy put a helping of beef on Abby’s plate.

“Okay then, Miss Abby, you introduce everyone.”

“Well, I know Jimmy, you, Miss Rachel, Buck and, now, Cody.” Abby looked at each person in turn, smiling shyly.

“So, then you’re Noah,” she pointed at Noah, who nodded his head, smiling.

“And you’re Lou,” again Abby pointed and received a big smile from the petite rider sitting on the other side of her.

Abby looked around before moving on to Jesse. She then turned to him and said, “You can’t be Kid, you’re too young, and so you must be Jesse.” This received a round of cheers from everyone but Jesse, who gave Abby a sullen look.

“Very good, honey,” Lou nodded. “Kid’s on a ride, so you’ll prob’ly meet him tomorrow.”

“So Buck, why were ya’ worried ‘bout Lou when you heard the news about Charlie in Oak Grove?” Jesse decided that he’d had enough of this conversation and changed its direction.

“Jesse, I don’t think we need to discuss that here,” Buck quietly informed him.

“You were worried ‘bout Lou?” Cody asked, grabbing two biscuits, completely ignorant of his friend’s expression.

Buck looked down at his plate, promising to teach Jesse a lesson in tact. When Buck rode into the station’s yard, the only person home was, unfortunately, Jesse. Even though both Teaspoon and Jimmy had assured him she was fine, Buck was still anxious to see for himself. Jesse had picked up on this anxiety and badgered Buck until the rider finally asked how Lou was. After telling Buck that Lou was fine, the boy continued to question him trying to find out why Buck was curious about Lou’s well being. Buck had only told him he’d heard about Charlie.

“Well, I figured that Lou and I could ride home together if she was still there but when I got to the corral one of the riders waitin’ told me that he’d heard Charlie’d been shot and that a rider had been hurt too.”

“That’s right nice of you, Buck,” Rachel said, not surprised since Buck always took others feelings to heart.

“I agree. I for one am happy that someone worries about me. Thank you,” Lou looked at him with a teasing smile, placing her hand on his. She really was touched but the way the boys were, they hated it when someone made a fuss.

“That’s not what you tell Kid,” joked Cody.

Lou’s gentle demeanor changed in an instant and she leaned over to swat Cody upside his head. This of course started a commotion, when Cody, trying to return the swat, playfully smacked Noah. Noah reached out to get Cody but Cody ducked and Noah got Buck. Soon everyone was in on it until Teaspoon bellowed.

“BOYS!” Instantly they all sat down. “We aren’t settin’ a very good example for our guest,” he snapped.

Actually, Teaspoon found the whole thing amusing but he wasn’t sure what Abby would think and he didn’t want to upset her. He’d noticed that Jimmy had shielded Abby and hadn’t really gotten involved except to smack Jesse when he’d gotten too close to Abby.

“That’s okay Teaspoon,” Abby said. She’d found the whole situation fascinating. She’d never been a part of a family that acted like this to each other in fun. “But I have a question?”

“What’s that?”

“Why do you say ‘boys’ when Lou’s a girl?”

Smiling, everyone exchanged looks. Lou wasn’t hiding as much, especially now that she and Kid were engaged. Besides, it was getting harder and harder to pretend and she was tired of the whole charade.

“Abby, the owners of the Pony Express, Russell, Majors and Waddell, wouldn’t allow me to ride knowin’ I’m a girl,” Lou explained.

“But you do the same job?”

“Well, yes.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, it is,” Teaspoon agreed.

Jimmy laughed, “’Specially since Lou does her job as well, and sometimes better, than any of us.”

They all nodded in agreement, causing Lou to blush.

As everyone continued eating, they shared the particulars of their separate days. Soon, they were entertaining Abby with stories from their lives as riders. Teaspoon, in particular, relished being able to tell all his stories to new ears, since the others knew them as well as he did.

Abby looked around at the members of this family and for the first time since Jimmy found her, she allowed herself to feel some bit of happiness. She silently wished her father would never come for her and that she could stay here forever.

After a couple of hours, the stories were dwindling, as was the energy. Even Teaspoon had run out of steam. Buck, Noah and Cody had started a game of cards as Lou helped Rachel clean off the table.

“Well, sweet pea, I think it’s time for you to go to bed,” Jimmy put his arm around Abby not caring who heard the endearment.

“But I’m not sleepy,” Abby protested through a stifled yawn. Anyone could see she could barely keep her eyes open.

“Come on darlin’, I’ll put you to bed,” Rachel came around and took Abby’s hand as the little girl got up.

“We’ll take care of the dishes,” Lou volunteered, though she was sure that somehow ‘we’ would turn into ‘I.’

“Thank you,” Rachel said, giving Lou an understanding smile.

“Well, Miss Cassidy,” Teaspoon grunted as he stretched. Rachel brought the girl over. “It’s been a right pleasure havin’ you stay with us and you are welcome for as long as need be.”

Abby reached up and pulled on Teaspoon’s suspender, coaxing the older man to lean down. When he did, she hugged him around the neck and kissed his cheek. He couldn’t stop the blush that crept over his face.

“Thank you Teaspoon.”

Abby proceeded to make her rounds saying goodnight and giving hugs. Everyone was touched by the affection and Abby even got a smile out of Jesse. Lou and Jimmy were the only two besides Teaspoon to receive kisses on the cheeks as well.

Teaspoon said his goodnights and walked with Rachel and Abby to the house.

Abby left such a good feeling in all the riders that Lou received help cleaning up from everybody. Including Jesse.

Chapter Six

Days passed and Abby became more and more comfortable at the station. She loved helping Rachel around the house or helping the boys with chores around the yard. She was also getting to be a pretty good cook.

By the second week though, Teaspoon had decided that if her pa hadn’t arrived by the end of that week, he’d try to contact Abby’s Aunt Elizabeth somehow. The little girl had told him her ma’s last name was Grayson. She also knew that her grandparents had died before Clara had left to come west.

When the elder Graysons had passed, her grandfather’s sister, Prudence, had taken over care for the girls. Great Aunt Prudence had never married and was the proprietress of a girls’ school. Abby thought it was called Grayson Academy but she wasn’t sure because, though she didn’t know why, her father would get furious whenever Clara mentioned her family, so Abby rarely heard anything about them. Thus, Abby knew little of her mother’s family.

As Teaspoon slowly rocked on the swing, pondering Abby’s situation, Rachel came out and sat beside him. She knew he was worried about Abby and what would happen to her. She was worried about Abby as well but also about everyone else. The end seemed to be coming for the Express and, even if it wasn’t, the end was coming for their family.

A few nights back, Kid had made the announcement that he and Lou would be leaving for Virginia once they were married. The normally outspoken Lou had sat docilely while Kid spoke. The response to this news had been less than enthusiastic. Jimmy had almost torn the door off its hinges as he left the bunkhouse. Now the two weren’t speaking and could barely stand being in the same room.

Rachel sighed. She knew Lou loved Kid with all her heart and she hoped that would pull them through. She didn’t want to see this come between the young couple. The life ahead of them would be difficult enough.

Both Teaspoon and Rachel were pulled from their reflections by the sound of joyous laughter. Looking up, they saw Lou coming out of the barn with Abby stuck to her heels. Both girls were giggling. When they reached the front of the bunkhouse, Lou let loose a coil of rope. She knotted both ends and clutched one in each hand. She then started to jump.

Teaspoon smiled at Rachel. Lou was trying to show Abby how to jump rope. The rope she had was a bit short for her but it was cut just right for Abby. After a few rounds she handed it to the youngster.

Teaspoon saw the tentative look Abby gave Lou. He grunted. It infuriated him to no end at how little she knew about being a young girl. He then saw how Lou encouraged her and, with newfound gumption, Abby threw the rope over her head and jumped.

She did it! Abby couldn’t believe she was jumping rope. Just like those girls she’d seen near Teaspoon’s office. She kept jumping and jumping. Lou was clapping in front of her, encouraging her every jump. Suddenly her foot caught on the rope and it all stopped. But she wasn’t upset because she’d jumped rope.

Lou was thrilled. After the tension of the last several days, she’d needed a distraction and Abby was the perfect one. She loved having the girl around, and, missing Theresa as much as she did, it was just like having her little sister here. Lou looked over at Teaspoon and Rachel and waved. Seeing the smiles on their faces made this all the better. Everyone needed a good distraction now.

Abruptly, she heard Abby squeal and, scared the girl had hurt herself, spun around ready to help or protect her.

Buck lassoed Abby. The girl was giggling so hard she couldn’t stand up. He walked over, grinning. He helped Abby out of the loop and made sure she had her feet before he let go. Unknotting the honda, he held out the end to Lou.

“Hold this.”

Lou took the end, looking at him curiously. Buck walked a few feet away and then faced Lou. He started to swing the rope and saw Lou’s face light up with understanding. She started swinging too. Then he looked at Abby.

“Okay, start jumping.”

Abby shook her head. She’d just learned and hadn’t jumped but a few times.

“I don’t think so.”

Buck stopped the rope.

“Stand by the rope and we’ll swing it around you, then you jump.”

Abby did as Buck said and, as he and Lou slowly turned the rope, she started jumping.

Rachel slapped Teaspoon on the arm. “Look at her!”

Teaspoon watched and soon a wonderful thought popped into his head. Rising, he stretched and turned to Rachel.

“I believe I need to go to Tompkins’ place to pick up a few things.”

Rachel looked at Teaspoon, puzzled, saying, “But you sent Kid and Jimmy. Remember?”

He couldn’t possibly have forgotten. Rachel was sure that one or the other would quit when Teaspoon told them that they were to go. Of course, once Teaspoon had made up his mind, God couldn’t get him to change it, even as a personal favor.

“Oh, I remember. Not likely to forget the looks I got, but those two need to settle their differences about this mess. They ain’t likely to change each other’s mind so they need to live with each other’s choices. And arguin’ about it ain’t gonna’ help.”

Rachel stood up and hugged Teaspoon. “You’re really worried about them, aren’t you?”

“Well, all I know is ya’ can’t unsay cruel things once they’re outta’ your mouth. Those two need ta’ think on things b’fore they say anythin’.”

“How’d you get so smart Teaspoon?” she teased.

Teaspoon snorted, “Ya’ know, it’s a might frustratin’ when ya’ know all the answers, but nobody bothers to ask ya’ the questions. Now,” tipping his bowler towards Rachel, he grinned slyly, “I need to get some supplies.” Turning, he strode towards Tompkins, whistling.

‘What’s he up to?’ Rachel was curious but soon her attention was back on Abby and the jump rope.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When Teaspoon got back, the others were gone.

‘Now, where in tarnation have they gone to?’

He went in the house and saw Rachel busy at the stove and the aroma told him she was baking an apple pie. He was in heaven.

“My, that does smell good.”

Rachel spun around, startled. “Thank you kindly Marshal Hunter. You almost sent me to an early grave.” She shook her spoon at him.

Chuckling, he asked, “Where’s Abby?”

“She’s in her room. Lou and Buck needed to finish their chores.”

“Hmmmm, would you tell her to meet me on the porch please?” Teaspoon walked away, humming.

Bewildered, Rachel watched a departing Teaspoon. She walked over to peek out the window but Teaspoon’s face popped up, grinning like a crazy man. Rachel gasped and, tilting her nose up, turned to go tell Abby.

When Abby walked out on the porch, Teaspoon was standing at the foot of the steps surrounded by thin pieces of wood, a roll of paper and string. She looked at him strangely and walked down the steps to join him.

“What’s all that for?”

“Abby, has anybody ever made ya’ a kite?”

“What’s a kite?”

“What’s a kite?” Teaspoon barked. He then sighed and shook his head, sadly. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

Teaspoon squatted down and started to arrange the items. He looked up and saw that Abby was still standing by the bottom step.

“Now, Miss Cassidy, don’t think you’re jus’ gonna’ stand there and watch me. I’m gonna’ tell you how and you’re gonna’ make it yourself.”

Abby hurried over and listened intently as Teaspoon told her how to make a kite.

As Abby and Teaspoon sat on the ground, oblivious to the dirt, Cody and Jesse strolled out of the bunkhouse. They’d supposedly been in there fixing the extra bunk that Jesse had been using. In one of the many arguments between Kid and Jimmy, one of the two had thrown the other onto the cot. No one could remember which one did what and, at this point, no one cared. Everyone was just tired of the fighting and wanted them to stop.

“What’s he doin’?” Jesse nudged Cody.

“I don’t know but at least he ain’t havin’ us do whatever it is,” Cody smirked.

But, as always with Cody, curiosity got the better of him and he wandered over to see what the two were doing. Jesse tagged along. When the two got close enough, they saw Teaspoon cutting a sheet of paper, as Abby was twisting twine around two thin pieces of wood.

“What’s a kite for?”

Abby still wasn’t sure what this thing was, but she’d learned so many fun games from everyone that she was sure she’d like it as much as she had all the others. Actually, she’d liked all but the strange stick and ball game. She just hadn’t seen the point in hitting the ball and stopping at just one pillow. She thought you should be able to run around to all the pillows and since you couldn’t, she thought it was boring.

“Hold on. Just one thing at a time, young lady,” Teaspoon moved over and continued his teaching. “Okay, you have those two set like a cross. Now, put them on this here paper,” he guided her hand, “here’s the glue…”

A few moments later, Abby was flying a kite beside the corral, with Teaspoon. Cody and Jesse were sitting on the corral fence coaxing Abby to let it go higher, as Rachel kept at them to leave the little girl alone.

“Buck, look at my kite!” Abby shouted with delight to Buck, who, after finishing the stalls, had come out to see what the noise was about.

Buck stopped and stared at the object framed by the blue sky. As always, he thought of Ike. But this time, it was a warm, happy feeling. He walked over to join the group, smiling at Teaspoon when the older man looked at him with concern. He saw Teaspoon relax. Buck had a comforting realization that everything was going to be okay, no matter what the others decided to do.

“Who made that?” Lou had walked up between Buck and Rachel.

“Abby.” Rachel answered.

Abby turned to see Lou. “Lou, help me!” She jumped up and down, motioning for Lou to fly the kite.

“Well, aren’t we special,” Jesse taunted Lou as she trotted towards the girl.

Before Lou could respond, they heard a wagon approaching.

“Wagon comin’,” Cody laughed, knowing it would be Jimmy and Kid with supplies. Jumping down from the fence, he started toward the wagon. He couldn’t wait to see what damage they’d inflicted on each other.

Jesse followed having the exact same thoughts as Cody.

“Who’s that with Jimmy and Kid?” Buck moved forward, joining Cody and Jesse. He couldn’t keep himself from wondering the same as the other two.

“Teaspoon!” Jimmy shouted, looking agitated. He jumped off the buckboard before Kid brought it to a halt.

Teaspoon slowly walked toward the three. As he watched Kid and the stranger climb down, he assessed the man with each step. The man was an average size and had a very harsh look. His mouth was set in a frown that probably hadn’t changed in years. It was like his face was made of stone, permanently set with that expression. The marshal had a gut feeling he knew who this man was.

‘Well, at least this certainly dampened the fuse between Jimmy and Kid,’ Teaspoon sighed to himself.

Teaspoon glanced over at Lou, who read his face like a book. Lou continued to fly the kite with Abby, keeping her occupied.

Kid and Jimmy made sure the man stayed close to the wagon, thus keeping the conversation out of earshot of Abby.

“Teaspoon this is Russ Cassidy. Mr. Cassidy this is Marshal Teaspoon Hunter.” Jimmy tried to be cordial but didn’t quite feel it.

Teaspoon extended his hand but Cassidy ignored him, hands on his hips, glaring in the direction of the kite.

“Where’d she get that?” He pointed to the kite, sounding more than a little annoyed.

“Well, now Mr. Cassidy. You have a right smart daughter there,” Teaspoon stated proudly, “she made it.”

“What?” Cassidy scowled at the marshal.

Teaspoon ignored the look and continued smiling. “Well, I might have helped a bit but she did most of the work.”

“I went to the marshal’s office to find my daughter and your deputy tol’ me I’d find her here,” Cassidy grumbled, “I ran into this boy,” Cassidy jerked his thumb towards Jimmy, causing a shadow to fall over the young man’s face, as he continued, “at your office and he explained to me what happened. I suppose you expect me to thank you all for what you’ve done but, after seeing this, I ain’t. Young’uns need chores and discipline much more than they need toys.”

“Sir, I’m sorry but a little bit of fun never hurt nobody,” Kid pointed out, trying to defuse the situation. “And Abby seems ta’ need it right now.”

“The sooner we find the man that killed her ma, the sooner she’ll get over it,” Cassidy stated. “She don’t need no toys to do that!”

“I don’t see how you have that figured, Mr. Cassidy. Abby’s just a little girl and…” Rachel began.

Since Teaspoon knew this man wasn’t going to listen, he placed a hand gently on Rachel’s arm and interrupted, “Well, I’ll tell ya’ one thing, Cassidy, this man ain’t gonna’ be easy to find.”

“Not for you maybe,” Cassidy scoffed, “but I’m gonna’ find him and right quick. No man can dare come on to my place and shoot my wife and get away with it.”

“You sound like he done it just to insult you,” Cody snapped.

“You think it wasn’t an insult?” Cassidy shot back. He was livid. These good for nothing saddle tramps, telling him what to do with his daughter, were about all he could stand. The only reason he hadn’t set them straight was that this old geezer was a marshal.

No one answered, because whatever he or she had to say wasn’t what he or she should say.

Teaspoon shook his head, glancing towards Jimmy. He had been unusually quiet during all of this and that worried Teaspoon. Worried him a great deal.

“This boy of yours said that Abby tol’ you she can recognize the man but he didn’t see her, right?” Cassidy wanted these people out of his way.

Jimmy clenched his teeth. He hadn’t intended to tell Cassidy as much as he had but the man wouldn’t listen and Jimmy just wanted him to understand what his own daughter had been through.

“That’s what she said, yes,” Teaspoon sighed, knowing where this was going.

“Then findin’ him ain’t a problem. He figured he was safe,” Cassidy reasoned. “And since this here town is the closest one, he’s probably right here in Rock Creek. So we jus’ start here.” Cassidy walked forward only to be stopped by Teaspoon’s hand on his chest.

“If you got the idea of takin’ her around town and seein’ if ya’ can find him, forget it, I’ve already thought of that and it’s too dangerous.” Teaspoon wanted to stop this fool from hurting his own daughter. “’Sides, there’s no guarantee he’s even here.”

Cassidy shook off the offending hand. “Well, why didn’t ya’ do it?”

“Ummm, didn’t he just say it’s too dangerous?” Buck asked incredulously.

“For her sake!” Jimmy couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He was enraged.

“For her sake? I don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about?”

Rachel gasped. She couldn’t believe this man. Before she said something she’d regret, she turned and walked over to Lou and Abby.

“I jus’ don’t understand you people,” Cassidy sniffed.

“You wouldn’t,” Cody mumbled, as he, Buck and Kid followed Rachel.

“No, I guess you wouldn’t Cassidy,” Teaspoon stared at the man in disgust.

“I want that man and I’m gonna’ find him.” Cassidy glared at Teaspoon. He wasn’t going to take this from these people. He stormed past Teaspoon towards Abby.

Teaspoon eyed Jimmy as they followed after the irate man.

As he walked up to Abby, she finally looked away from her kite. She’d been so enthralled by her new toy, she wasn’t aware of his approach until he was almost beside her.

“Papa!” Abby threw her arms around his waist, keeping the string clutched in her hand.

“Now quit that,” Cassidy shoved Abby away, “and turn loose of that thing. You’re comin’ with me.” He grabbed hold of her arm.

“Please Papa,” Abby begged, “I made it.” Everyone saw the happy look fade from her eyes.

“I said turn it loose!” Cassidy grabbed the string, releasing Abby.

“Hey!” Jimmy stepped forward. “I think you better back off.”

Cody, Buck and Kid gathered behind their friend. Rachel and Lou flanked Jimmy. They all stared intently at Russ Cassidy, daring him to continue.

“Boy, the minute I laid eyes on you, I knew we wasn’t gonna’ get along.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” Jimmy quietly said, glowering at the man.

“What harm is there in Abby having a kite?” Rachel demanded.

“Abby ain’t none of your business.”

“Well, then let’s just talk about what is,” Teaspoon stretched, running his thumbs under his suspenders. He looked up at the kite and then back at Cassidy. “Ya’ know, all that wood and paper and string and stuff belongs to me. You do any harm to that kite and well…”

“I’ll blow your brains out,” Jimmy finished.

“Go ahead boy, you just try it.” Cassidy turned, facing Jimmy.

“Abby, why don’t you let me take care of your kite?” Rachel stepped forward putting a stop to the confrontation.

“Do I have to Miss Rachel?” Abby pleaded.

“Well, I think your pa wants to visit with you,” Rachel fibbed.

“No. He wants to take you around town and....” Rachel placed a hand on Jimmy’s arm to stop him. He did but continued to glare at Cassidy, refusing to take his eyes off him.

“I’ll take good care of it,” Rachel placated, “and it’ll be here when you get back, okay?

“Alright.” Abby handed Rachel the string.

Cassidy grabbed Abby’s hand and as they walked away, he deliberately passed between Jimmy and Cody, facing Jimmy.

“I’ll settle with you later,” he warned Jimmy. “Come on Abby!” He dragged the little girl toward town.

Abby looked back at her friends but only for a moment because she was having difficulty keeping up with her father.

The riders all watched sadly as Abby was pulled farther away. Jimmy grunted and started after them.

“Now hold on there, Hickok,” Teaspoon put his hand out to stop the hotheaded young man. “He’s still her pa and we can’t do nothin’ about that.”

“I can think of somethin’,” Jimmy scowled.

As the group dispersed, going their separate ways, they all brooded over the situation. Jimmy watched Abby and her father until they were out of sight. He then turned in time to see Kid and Lou walk off hand in hand.

“Never thought I’d see the day that Hickok would get paternal on us,” Buck sighed, coming up behind Jimmy, patting him on the back. He had seen a different side of Jimmy the last two weeks. He was both surprised and impressed. He also saw the hurt in Jimmy’s eyes as he watched Kid and Lou. He’d never understand why Jimmy didn’t say anything to Lou.

“I just felt kinda’ like shootin’ somebody and he was makin’ himself awful handy,” Jimmy grumbled. Looking at Buck, he smiled. Buck walked away laughing.

Rachel looked over at Jimmy, who seemed to be lost with nothing to do. She walked over to him, handing him the kite.

“Here. Fly a kite.”

Jimmy had no choice but to take the string as she walked towards the house. He looked at the string, then up at the kite. ‘This is kinda’ fun,’ he wearily thought.

When Rachel went to call everyone to dinner, Jimmy, deep in thought, was still flying the kite.

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