Author's Note: This is a companion story to A Warm Welcome
The cold snap had taken them all by surprise. Sure, the temperatures had dipped last year but it was the first time that the boys had to chip the ice from the water troughs in the mornings and their wood supply was already starting to suffer.
The move to Rock Creek had seemed to be a seamless one until they'd have to travel far and wide to find enough wood to fuel the fire. Trying to keep the heat inside where it belonged once the last rider was in for the night, the bunkhouse door rarely opened. That's why there wasn't someone outside when the lone rider, slumped in the saddle approached the station.
Even the first few knocks on the wooden door were lost in the buzz of excitement at the coming holiday and the constant drone of Cody's begging for the last few sweet sticky buns.
Perhaps it was a lull in the conversation, just a moment of peace… or perhaps it was the rhythmic thud against the door that caught Ike's attention. He was on his feet before anyone could ask him what the matter was and a moment later the door was open and a body stumbled into Ike's waiting arms.
Jane drank down the strong brew as if she were trying to climb into the cup with it. Cody eyed the young woman with wonder. "Boy am I glad we already had our supper."
She nearly tore the cup away from her lips and gave Rachel an apologetic grin. "Sorry, but almost an hour out I was worrying that I'd lose my fingers," she looked over at the oven where Rachel had just placed a few sticky buns to warm them up, "and everything smells soooo good."
"No apologies needed," Rachel held the cup steady as she filled it with another dose of coffee, "Cody just likes to pretend he's the only one that needs to fill his stomach from time to time." She gave the young man a pointed look when he gaped back at her. "We've enough to share, especially with friends."
"I can't believe you were out in the blizzard." Buck's words were nearly mumbled into his own cup of coffee and when Jane gave him a shove with her shoulder he gave her a grumpy look. "I thought you'd have more sense than that."
"Well," she gave him a surly stare, "it wasn't a blizzard when I started." She looked up at Rachel for support, "besides, I had it on good authority that I'd beat it by half a day."
"Ain't much of an authority if he was wrong." Jimmy leaned back in the chair and nearly had his feet up on the bench before Rachel pushed them down on the floor. "What kind of fool told you that?"
Jane shrugged. "Hack. You know, the Kangaroo Kid."
Noah looked stricken with either a sour stomach or disbelief. "He's still around?"
Nodding, Jane's eyes followed Rachel's every move as she opened the stove and with a hand covered in part of her skirt, pulled out the tin of sticky buns. "Joined up with the Express at the next home station. You boys ain't seen him yet?"
*no* Ike shook his head and Buck translated his last thought *did you see Lou on the trail*
Jane broke off a piece of the bun and popped it in her mouth, moving it quickly over toward her cheek so she could continue talking. "Not that I saw, but I had my head down tryin' to keep the wind off my face. If she was headin' in the other direction I probably didn't see her."
Shrugging, Jimmy reached out for a bun and had his fingers whacked by a spoon. "Hey!"
"You had one already," Rachel reminded him, "I warmed these for Jane."
"Two?" Cody's expression fell and his transformation to a 'hang dog' was complete. "She doesn't want to eat two, does she?"
"Naw, I'm fine with this one. Thanks, Rachel." Jane pushed the plate across to Cody who ignored Rachel's glare and helped himself to the last bun. "So, Lou's headed to the station?" She couldn't quite hide her giggle behind her hands.
Jimmy saw her reaction. "Yeah… what's so funny?"
"The storm was comin' up pretty quick when I left the station, so if she was headin' in… she'll probably have to stay until the storm blows over."
Rachel's expression darkened. "She was supposed to turn right around and come home."
"It's better she stay at the station instead of tryin' to come back in a storm."
Jane looked around the table. "I'm sure Hack will take care of her if she has to stay." Having met Louise and the rest of the riders she understood their anxiety. "He knows her secret and he'll help her keep it. Don't worry." She took a long sip of her drink and nearly hiccupped into the cup with a laugh at the end of it.
"What?" Jimmy's look was a cautious. "Does it taste funny?" He lifted his own cup to smell the brew and ducked Rachel's towel as it flicked toward his head.
The door opened and Kid walked in, hugging one arm close to his chest as he closed the door and headed toward the stove. "Boy, it's just freezin' out there." He gave Jane a smile as soon as he saw her at the table. "Glad you're in from the cold, too. Nothin's gonna get me to go back outside."
"Good to see you too, Kid." Jane looked back at Jimmy. "Naw, I was just thinkin' how 'hard' it's gonna be for Lou to be stuck at the station."
Kid turned from the stove, his expression darkening. "Stuck? What's going on?"
Noah looked up at Kid. "Jane just came from the station that Lou was heading for. Says they're bracing for a storm."
"Looks like she'll have to stay there until the storm blows over, Kid. She'll be fine… Hack's there so he'll help her keep her distance from the other riders."
Jane giggled again. "Oh, I didn't say that… I mean, " she saw Buck's curious expression, "if I was there I wouldn't wanna keep my distance." She turned to Rachel and her cheeks warmed as she admitted. "Let me tell you who they have working there… " Jane went on to list in 'extreme' detail the new riders at the station. Hack was a man, but he was a friend of sorts and would help Lou as much as he could, but the other riders were a collection, to hear Jane tell it, of young, strapping, handsome men.
She'd nearly finished describing the fourth rider when Kid crossed to his trunk and pulled out his heaviest jacket, Jimmy not far behind.
Standing up at the table, Jane gave Rachel a questioning look before she turned back to Kid. "Don't worry, she's fine…"
She didn't get to finish her reassuring words before Kid was out the door heading for the stable.
Noah called out to Jimmy. "Where you off to?"
"I'm goin' to the station with Kid."
Buck joined Noah at the door. "He's goin' to check on Lou, and-"
Ike stood, knocking his knuckles on the table to catch Jimmy's attention. *she can handle herself*
Jimmy looked at his friends and cracked a smile that took them all by surprise. "I know she can." He threw a look over his shoulder at the barn. "I'm going to save Kid, once she figures out why he's there."
He slapped his hat on his head and disappeared out the door.