One Last Journey
Thunder on the Mountain, rolling like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
The drums were calling. They echoed from the walls and thrummed in his ears until he had to struggle to hear anything else.
"Buck?" He felt her touch and turned, his eyes lighting on her face, noting her concern. "Are you feelin' all right?"
A moment, it took a moment for him to understand the words she formed with her lips and he smiled, trying to ease the worry he saw in her eyes. "I'm fine, just distracted." His words were slow, measured. His mind already turned back to the drums. "I just… the sound."
"Sound?" Annalisa reached out a hand and touched the side of his cheek and felt her palm chill at the cold of his skin. "What sound?"
He covered her hand with his, drawing it to his lips to place a kiss on her palm. Her hand warmed to heat of his and he looked down into her eyes. "Just an old man's fancy, it's nothing to worry about."
"You hear the drums again, don't you?"
She waited for his answer, but his smile was soft, his eyes focused on something she couldn't see. She wanted to demand answers, but she wasn't sure he would even hear her.
He let go of her hand, letting his own drop to the medicine bag hanging around his neck. "I've work to do. More hay to put up for the winter." He moved past, headed for the barn door.
Annalisa felt the wind slice through her thin frame and she gathered her woolen shawl tightly around her shoulders. She turned and looked at the empty field. The barn was full of hay. Buck and Tommy had seen to it weeks before.
"Oh Buck." She watched the cloud of her breath form and dissipate in the twilight air.
Tommy looked out the window, his slender form nearly swimming in one of Buck's castoff shirts. "Is Pa comin' back in soon?"
Turning to look over her shoulder she gave her son an encouraging smile. "Soon. What's got you so excited?"
He lifted something in the air, the flat of it catching the light from the fireplace. "I finished it. The handle for my knife."
Annalisa smiled at the boyish excitement in his tone. Tommy had always been fascinated by Buck's long knife and just a few weeks before they two had embarked on a project together. "I'm sure he'll like what you've done."
The boy, barely 12 summers, brushed his fingertips along the flat of the handle front and the back. "It took a lot of work."
Closing the lid of her stew pot Annalisa wiped her hands on her apron. "Good, your Pa will appreciate the effort you've put into it."
She looked past her son, through the window and saw a large shadow on the ground outside of the barn. The light of the full moon made it easy to see the horse standing outside in the light fall of snow. "Goodness, what is Challenger doing outside on a night like this?"
Tommy turned back to the window wiping at the glass to clear the frosty chill. "Can't believe that Pa would'a left the barn door open."
"No, he wouldn't." Annalisa took the pot off of the stove and moved toward the door, willing her feet to take an even steady pace. She didn't want to alarm Tommy. "I should just go outside and check on your Pa, maybe he needs help." She took down her woolen cape from its hook by the door. "You just stay here and I'll be right back."
Steeling herself, she opened the door, fighting to keep it from being torn from her hand by the strong gusts of wind. She tucked her head down and let the hood of the cape take the hardest beating as she pushed into the wind.
Challenger greeted her with a plaintive whiny, nudging her shoulder with his nose.
"Whoa, boy." She reached up and brushed the snowflakes from the horse's coat. Pausing in the doorway of the barn she wrapped her arms around her middle, willing her hands to warm themselves. "Buck?"
There was no answer from the man who stood in the center of the barn. He wasn't moving, his gaze directed somewhere she couldn't see. Perhaps a time long ago before she knew him.
"Honey? You left Challenger outside in the cold and I-" she gasped, the sound rasping deep in her throat. He was wearing a coat and a hat she didn't recognize. "I was wondering if something was wrong."
He turned, his eyes lifting to meet hers across the room. "Nothing wrong." His voice was soft, nearly a whisper. "I just have somewhere I need to go."
"Somewhere?" She shook her head, trying to understand. "What are you talking about?"
"The drums," he looked past her shoulder and out into the darkening night, "don't you hear them?"
"Buck, please, you're scaring me."
He began to move, one foot and then the other catching on spare bits of hay. "I have to go."
"No!" She wrapped her arms around him as he reached the door, her face turned up toward him she brushed a kiss against his neck, fear flooding her veins as she tasted ice along his skin. "Please, don't go."
His hands gripped her arms, fingertips biting into her through the cape. "I have to go. It's time."
She struggled against him, fighting back the tears that stung her eyes. "No… this is all crazy talk, Buck… something is wrong, please-"
"Can't you hear them?" His hands softened brushing along her arms and up until he held her face in his hands. "Don't you know what it means?"
"No, I don't… and you're scaring me, Buck."
He brushed a kiss on her forehead, turning his cheek to her skin as though he needed the warmth. "One day," he promised, his words muffled against her skin, "I'll see you again."
The words rang with finality and she couldn't seem to move as he stepped away, heading for the door and the horse that he'd chosen for this ride.
With a grace she hadn't seen in years, Buck reached up and grasped Challenger's mane with one hand. He swung up onto the stallion's back and looked down upon her with the regal deportment of a king. It was in his blood, she knew, the grace and glory of the Kiowa. He was magnificent.
He moved, just the touch of a heel against the side of the horse's chest stirred the animal into action. The two moved into the yard as one, every muscle flowing in chorus.
Challenger stopped, his ears turning toward the sound even though his master hadn't moved.
Buck turned slightly and looked down at his son.
"I'll go with you, Pa… just wait… give me a minute to saddle my horse." The boy's words were nearly shouted through the wind, the high pitches echoing off the walls of the barn and their house. He started into the barn, determined to do just what he said.
There was sadness in his eyes as he looked at his wife, saw the tears coursing down her face. He nodded, the last acknowledgement he would give her, and then he was gone. The shadow of horse and rider erased inch by inch by the building snow storm as the drifts blew across the ground.
Tommy, his arms full of his saddle and blanket, ran toward the barn's doors. "No, Pa! Stop!" The saddle tumbled to the ground at his feet as he ran toward the snow. "Wait!!"
Annalisa wrapped her arms around him and held him tight.
Struggling against her arms, Tommy fought against the sobs that welled up in his chest. "Please, wait!"
She heard his voice and knew by the hitch in Tommy's sobs that he heard the same far away whisper of sound. "Where I go, I must go alone."
Falling to her knees she held on tight. She knew that Buck was gone, that he was traveling to a place that neither of them could go. It wasn't their time. Not yet.
So now she struggled, whispering words of comfort to the crying boy in her arms as they mourned the man they loved more than anything else.
Just a Man
The light in the window was pale, barely discernable through the darkness. His key clicked into the lock, grating on his nerves. There hadn't been a lot that day that didn't grate on him. Sanders, his deputy, had been late and slow all day.
It started with a visit from Mr. Elders, the banker who felt that his money afforded him more protection and a larger share of his time than the other folks in the town. It was a daily chore not to tell the sanctimonious man exactly where he could put his demands.
Later, it was the usual desperate entreaty for help down at the Saloon. Why they served folks alcohol before the midday meal was a curiosity for him. He'd been a man that could drink his problems into submission, but these days he could only shake his head when he saw others a slave to the bite of a watered-down drink. What were they doing to themselves? He had no answers, but he was expected to drag them down to the jail and lock them up until they'd come to their senses. Too bad they spent more time drinking liquid than bathing in it.
So it was up to Sanders to take the mattresses out and air them when the smell became unbearable. And it was Sanders that fell asleep in the office and forgot his chore. Sam didn't have to try to remember the smell; it was most likely burned into his memory.
That was something he didn't have to worry about at home. By now the boys were in bed and he hadn't even seen them once that day. He'd been up and out the door before sunrise and now, the moon was almost at the top of the sky and he was just coming home.
"Tsk. Tsk. Just imagine what the town busy-bodies would say if they heard the Territorial Marshal using 'that' word."
His anger fled in the presence of his wife; the woman who never failed to make him whole and happy. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Cain," he gave her a look of mock contrition, "I guess I forgot myself for a moment."
She stood, untangling herself from the heavy comforter that she'd covered herself with hours ago. "Well, if there's one place you 'should' be able to do it. Your own house would qualify." She moved closer, her expression soft and half-asleep. "It's good to have you home, Mr. Cain."
"It's about time I had somethin' to make me smile." He tried to sound gruff but it was hard to grump through the smile curving his lips. "It's been a long day."
"I'm sure," she began as she lifted her hand to take the brim of his hand in her hand, "that you've used all your energy keeping our town safe and peaceful, but we've had our share of frets and fumes here." She set his hat on the small side table, smoothing away the crimp she'd set in the brim with a stroke of her hand.
"Oh?" He thought he saw a little sparkle in her eyes. "What happened?"
"Robert took it upon himself to ride herd on his little brother." She reached up and unpinned his badge, weighing it in her palm before setting it down beside the hat. "He knew they had their chores to finish and Robert thought to help me by mindin' Samuel."
He shook his head. "I'm sure that went over well with Sammy."
Emma grinned. "Oh, most definitely not." She set her hand against his chest and sighed. "The two of them had a row fit to wake the dead and it was only my threat to get out that last jar of pickled turnips that got them to settle down."
Sam swallowed involuntarily and struggled to keep his expression light. "Well, I'm glad you have them so well in hand." He quieted down as Emma unhooked his gun belt, lifting it away in her hands before she set it down on the table beside the other two items. "I'm sorry I wasn't here to help."
"I guess we can forgive you, just this once."
"Emma," he took her hand in his and drew it up to his lips. Pressing a kiss to her palm before pressing it against the side of his face. "You deserve better than this. You deserve a man who comes home when there's still time to do all the things a good husband should."
She stepped in closer, the hem of her robe covering the toes of his boots. "Are you sayin' that you want out, Sam? Because if that's true you're in for a rude awakening."
"I just want you to have… to have-"
"I have the man that I've always wanted, Sam." She pressed her lips together as she leaned into his tall form. "I have a man that comes home to me and touches me with his words as much as he touches my heart. I have two strong boys who remind me everyday what joy I've found since I met you." She rose up on the tips of her stocking feet and brushed a kiss on his lips. "Here in your home you're a man, Sam. A husband and a father who gives us his strength and honors us with his love."
His arms wound around her, pulling her flush against his body as he whispered into her ear. "I'll always be your man, Emma… for as long as you'll have me."
"Then you'll be busy for a long time, Sam Cain, because I'm never going to let you go."
Mama, take this badge off of me
The road out of town was lonely and long. Thomas Wembly took it one step at a time.
It was early and the only company he had was the birds and the bees buzzing over the flowers in a nearby meadow. That and his thoughts and they were buzzin' too.
He took a look back down the road and saw the puff of smoke from the top of the Simmons' chimney. Right about now they'd be sitting down to breakfast. It was an involuntary rumble that rolled through is belly. He remembered that he'd put an apple in his pocket before he'd left the farm that morning and there was a couple of slices of bread and a slab of cheese that Doritha's packed for him.
Doritha. The name was golden in his mind, just about as gold as her hair.
She'd given him so much in their young lives that he scarcely knew where to start counting them up.
The dust rose up from under his feet as he continued on down the road. He hadn't a destination save the urge to get away from this town. Step far and wide from the memories which threatened to drown him in frustration.
Money. She'd given him money to pay off their debts. He'd gone to the bank that morning and made payments to their creditors. Not all of them, but the ones that counted, the undertaker and the stone cutter. He wanted his Ma buried right and proper and the marker strong enough to last in case he ever made it back. He wanted to find her… someday.
The road continued on, stretching out into the trees and then beyond that through the countryside and still he walked.
Doritha. The image of her startled him, popping up like some trick of the light. That jeweled pin she'd held in her hand by the river. Telling him they were married.
He smiled at the memory, he always did… always would. She'd been so pretty standing there in the sunlight, her face full of a girl's childish romantic ideals. It hadn't changed much through the years.
She still looked up at him with those sweet wide eyes, smiling with love. Oh yes, he loved her back but he couldn't stay.
What could he offer her? That was the question her father had asked him when he'd tried to come calling. He hadn't even gotten out more than, 'Hello Mr. Simmons' before the man had stared him down and asked him what he could promise to Doritha besides hard work and a house full of poor babies.
That had turned him around in a moment, convinced him that he had to go. He didn't have anything left for him in that town besides living down to people's expectations of his life.
She'd met him out behind the barn that morning, her hands cradling the wrapped food she'd packed for him. Her eyes full of excitement and her words full of encouragement. "You'll see, Kid. You'll find somewhere excitin' and wild and you'll make a name for yourself; a name so big that we'll hear about it all the way back here in Virginia."
She'd touched her hand to the side of his face and smiled at him as if he'd just stubbed his toe and she was soothing his pain. "And when you've made it there you'll send for me, won't you?"
"Yes," he'd promised, "I'll send for you."
"And I'll come, Kid." She'd walked back toward the house. "I'll be waitin'."
She'd disappeared and he'd stood there. Waiting.
As if she was coming back. As if she was going to ask him to stay.
As if there was something there for him.
Kid walked on through the night and left Thomas Wembly behind him.
I'm on the dark side of the road
Still I wish there was somethin' you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
Stranger With a Name
Emma flicked the reins, urging the team on toward the house. The grey clouds that had crept over the mountains that morning were rolling in fast and she had a way to go. The wagon wheels lurched over a rut in ground and she turned worrying over her supplies. Tompkins had read through the letter from Russell, Majors & Waddell more than twice through before he'd believed it as the truth and taken her order.
Yes, sir, it was quite a change to have Tompkins skirting about the store fetching supplies for her instead of watching her like a hawk. It was quite a change, indeed.
She heard her own laughter in a break between the rattle of wheels against the rocks and stopped as a distant rumble warned her about the oncoming storm. Again the reins flicked in her hands and she flexed her fingers in her worn leather gloves. She was used to the action, used to the travel… even though it was lonely.
Happen, the horse on the left shied into Stance, the horse on the right, and Emma sat up a bit to see what the problem was. It was easy to see.
A dark figure was sprawled out onto the trail before her team, but whether it was dead or alive there was one thing that she was sure of. She had to move it to get home.
"Whoa." She set the brake and climbed down from the seat, watching the clouds with a weary eye. They were too close for her liking and the seemed heavy with rain.
The man was alive, at least for the moment. His shirt was dark, but her fingers came away sticky and dark with blood. It wasn't a good sign. Neither was the fact that he barely stirred as he examined him on the ground. Brushing back the wisps of hair that stuck to her forehead in the humid heat of the late afternoon, Emma gave a little sigh. "You look like you're bigger'n Evan." She shook her head with a slight smile as his eyes cracked open. "I'm going to have to make room for you in my wagon," she began.
"Wagon?" He frowned, sweat beading on his forehead and cheeks from more than the humidity.
"You need help and with the storm comin' we best hurry if we're goin' to get you into town." She shifted her skirts so she wouldn't trip over them and managed to lay his arm over her shoulders. Between her encouraging words and gruff orders she got him on his feet and the two stumbled over to the back of her wagon.
As she struggled to hold him upright and shift some of her supplies he managed to rouse from another momentary stupor. "When we get to town," he mumbled warm and thick near her ear, "will you take care of me?"
She turned, stunned at the soft timbre of his voice, the instant longing she felt in a heart she thought had gone dark. "I'm sure the doctor will take good care of you. I've got chores to do around my house, so-"
He lost what was left of his strength then, nearly knocking her down beneath him onto the bed of the wagon. Emma managed to maneuver him into the makeshift pallet but when she tried to straighten up she realized that he was holding onto her hand.
The low rumble of the coming storm bothered her. "We need to go… the storm's comin' in."
"I think… the town might be a little too far." He murmured the words and she heard the pain and the underlying fear in them. "Is there somewhere… closer?" It wasn't just a matter of wishful thinking on his part, but a small measure of desperation.
Emma froze. There was something tugging at her where there should only be darkness and a big empty hole. "Yeah, there's my house."
He didn't ask with words, but his fingers bit into her hand as pain gasped from his lips.
"I-I…" She wanted to tell him he'd have to wait until town, but the lines around his eyes and the pinch of pain at the corners of his mouth said differently. "I don't even know your name."
He sighed, a low rumble of noise rattling in his chest and for a moment she feared he'd die right then and there from his wounds. When another breath passed through his lips and opened his eyes that she had a moment of relief. "Sam… my name's Sam."
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm"
Teaspoon pushed the door open for the little girl that had barely managed to climb up the steps beside him. "Hold on now, missy. Won't do you no good to run full steam to the first pretty thing you see. Take your time to get the lay of the land before you jump in." His sage advice was lost on the little brunette who was already straining at his restraining hand.
Stepping to the side, William Tompkins watched the outstretched fingers grasping at the lengths of ribbon spooled on the table. "Looks like she's got her heart set on somethin' pretty."
Looking up with a bemused expression on his face, Teaspoon wondered if Tompkins heard the longing in his own voice. The way the other gentleman cleared his throat and busied himself rearranging an already perfect display told Teaspoon all he needed to know.
Bending down another couple of inches, Teaspoon wrapped his arm around the toddler's waist and lifted her up against his chest and listened as she giggled when his whiskers tickled her cheek. "So, what color ribbons should we get for your hair?"
Tompkins watched the old marshal with his granddaughter and found himself almost mesmerized by the sight. Children in his store gave him hives. The only things they were good for were putting smudges on the glass cases and a sticky mess on his clean goods. Still, watching the man dote on the girl he had to admit there was little danger to his displays. Teaspoon had the girl well in hand.
"Oh?" Teaspoon leaned away, smiling at her whispered words and giggles. "Blue? You want blue ribbons? I think that can be arranged."
Saul Harker stepped up, his apron pristine white even with all the dusting he'd done that morning. "Something I can get for you, Marshal Hunter?"
Teaspoon sighed, a gush of air through grinning teeth. "No need to call me that, son. I haven't worn the badge in a coon's age." He gave the young clerk a wink. "I'm here with my best girl and she needs some ribbons for her hair. Gotta get gussied up for the picture man comin' next week."
Nodding in agreement, the young man lifted a pair of scissors from his apron pocket. "We've had folks comin' in from miles around lookin' for new things to look their best. Most of our ready-mades are sold out." He nodded over to a near-empty counter. "How much do you need?"
Watching from his place behind the counter, Tompkins felt every year of his age weighing on his frame. Teaspoon had it all, it seemed. Polly waiting for him at home and a passel of grandchildren even though the people they'd come from weren't even his real children.
Reaching into his apron pocket he withdrew the letter he'd been carrying around for days. The even lettering on the front was familiar and yet rare. Jenny.
She wrote to him from time to time. Told him about her life. Told him what he'd missed.
A stack of letters sat in the top drawer of the dresser in his rooms, tucked beneath his thick woolen socks. Letters from her aunt's home. Letters from her own home. Letters from her husband's home.
Jenny had married and was expecting a little one of her own. It was odd to think of the little girl he'd known. The one that had crawled into bed beside him when the lightning was too bright or the nightmares too real. The defiant young woman that had looked down at him from her inferior height, cursed his weakness and turned her back on him.
Now, she was a woman grown with a husband and a farm and soon… a baby.
Tompkins tugged at the string ties of his apron, nearly snapping them as he removed the apron. Taking his hat in his hand he stepped around the counter. He passed by his young clerk with a grumbled goodbye, pausing at the door only to turn back for a moment. "Saul, I'll be takin' a few days for myself, I know I can trust you with the store."
"Trust? Go?" The young man gulped down his surprise. "Mr. Tompkins, sir? What do you mean you're takin' a few days… are you ill?"
Tompkins smiled at the concern in Saul's tone. "I'm fit as an ox, son. I just need a few days to take care of some things."
Saul nodded slowly as though he was still struggling to grasp the reality of the moment. "So I'll try not to call on you unless there's a real need."
Tompkins turned the hat around and around by the brim. "I'm takin' the morning stage… I'm goin' to see my daughter."
As he stepped out onto the walk he took a breath, a deep-into-the-lungs breath that rocked him back onto his heels. He'd spent so much time watching everyone else, he had no idea how this was going to work and there was a certain buzz of excitement at the thought. Maybe, he thought to himself, maybe this wasn't going to be so bad.
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die
He'd lived a hard life. He'd climbed mountains, forging his way up a rocky face only to tumble down the other side without much to soothe his pains besides a bottle of whiskey and a sense of humor.
Lately, he'd had more than enough whiskey and not enough of anything else to keep him on an even keel. He was an angry man and he was drunk most of the day. In most men that was a dangerous combination.
In the whiskey-sloshed gullet of Aloysius Hunter it was downright murderous.
The small town of Draperville was laughable: a store with a few passable items in it, a saloon that sold vittles even to the 'good' people of town and that meant that until sundown he had to buy a bottle and drink it 'elsewhere' or wait.
He bought the bottle, grumbling the whole time, but at least the bartender didn't give him guff for drinking on a Sunday. That was the only way he was going to make it through to sundown without putting a bullet in his own head or… someone else's.
Polly Hunter. Correction: Polly Porter. "Stupid name," he groused over the lip of the bottle. "What kind o' name is Porter anywho?" He pushed an errant drop back to his lips with the back of his hand and watched the citizens of Draperville amble up to the church steps. Little more than a tent with a wooden floor, the church was going to be crowded if he was any judge of space.
The bartender stepped outside of the saloon, his apron missing and his sleeves rolled down and buttoned at his wrists. "You can dress up a sinner…" the thought didn't make much sense to him on his lips and the laughter that followed it was cold and thin, "… and I'm still a damn drunk."
His self-pity continued to lift the bottle up to his lips with relentless ease, pausing only when a buckboard rattled up the road. Perched up on the seat beside his friend, no… his enemy, was the most beautiful woman who ever drew breath in or out of Texas. Polly Hunter. "Damn it." He swallowed nearly half the bottle with one gulp. "Porter, damn his eyes."
Holding onto the neck of the bottle he watched the other man step down from the buckboard and lift Polly down with ease and holding her close, his smile warm. Hers too.
"Lucky for him I got this bottle in my gunhand."
The words fell into the silence with a sad little thud. There wasn't anyone around to tell him he was full of it, nor was there anyone to tell him to put the bottle down and get a cup of coffee into his stomach to kill the alcohol.
"Then again," he sighed, the fight going out of him, "there isn't anyone around for me at'all."
Polly walked up to the tent entrance and waited for her husband to hold back the flap. She paused for just a moment, turning to look at the sparse population of buildings behind them.
Setting a gentle hand on her arm he looked down at her with concern. "Somethin' wrong, honey?"
She couldn't see anything amiss but there was something that ached deep down inside, as though she was hungry for something and didn't know what it was. Shaking herself free of that melancholy thought she smiled up at Tom but couldn't find the words to tell him what she was feeling.
He looked past her into the tent. "Well, we'd best find our seats then. I don't want to be standin' up durin' the service if we're late."
Polly nodded and let him place her arm in the crook of his elbow and usher her inside.
'It should be easier,' he mused. It had been nearly six months that he'd been on their trail, following them around the state as Tom found work and Polly… well, she took care of Tom.
He remembered only too well the sweet soothing touch of her hands on his own neck when his muscles ached and the warm scent of bread in the mornings when he woke. He remembered the sharp bite of her tongue when she was riled at him and the warm press of her body against his in the dark of night.
None of that was his anymore.
Tom had it all. Tom had Polly.
Leaning back against the wall he lifted the bottle up to his lips and tried to wash away the homey images of Polly in another man's arms. It wasn't easy. In fact it was probably going to be impossible. With a flick of his wrist he dashed the bottle against the opposing wall, splintering it into a shower of glass. He turned away from the little make-shift church and stumbled off toward his horse. "It's gonna be a cold winter, Al. Cold indeed."
Riches of Gold
Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too
Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through
The room was familiar. It wasn't the musty velvet curtains dragging along the floorboards and under chair legs, or the worn felt tops of the tables that she remembered, it was just that she'd been in a room like this so many times before.
The men were from every walk of life: broken-down drunks and tony gents inhabited the chairs and barstools just inches from each other. It was always something to behold. In the long winter evenings there would always be a wealth of memories to draw upon, stories of the myriad of characters that inhabited those amazing rooms.
Now, poised in the doorway of the game room, it would be so easy to step down into the lair of drunken denizens and pull out a chair… sit herself down… make herself at home. She knew, without a doubt, that with the coins in her pocket and her wicked luck at cards she could triple her money within an hour. It was a heady thought, one that she'd given into probably a thousand times before.
But even as she gripped the doorframe another sensation captured her attention. There. Deep beneath the layers of petticoats and corset and chemise, it was merely a flutter. A gentle stretch of awareness that took her breath away.
Her baby. Henry's baby.
She pressed her hand to her heart and felt the answering flutter beneath her palm.
The exciting din of the game room dimmed and she heard the soft voice of her husband at the door.
"Rachel, darlin'?" Turning toward the door she watched him lower his hat as he stepped into the room. "Ready to go?"
As she walked, taking one step and then another away from past, she only had eyes for her future.
And he only had eyes for her, softening his expression with a smile as she took his arm.
"I'm ready to go home, Henry." She leaned her head on his shoulder for a moment, enjoying the warmth of his body beneath the soft worn fabric of his shirt.
Henry Dunne was a man who earned his living with the strength of his body and his knowledge of the earth. He was a man that would never own a fine carriage or a team of fancy horses, but he filled her heart with love.
That was worth more than gold.
To Clear My Head
But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise
Whom nature's beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes
It was fine, as long as the others kept up a steady stream of conversation.
Or if the rafters would creak in the wind.
Or if the horses would stamp their hooves or call out to each other from their stalls in the barn.
But if it was quiet. That's when it would happen. That horrible, sinking, gnawing feeling that would both suck him down into the darkness and spit him back out almost at the same time, leaving him gasping for air half-leaning out of his bunk screaming silently while the others slept.
He'd want to wake up Buck, but his friend was fast asleep with his arm usually thrown over his face heavy with sleep, his blankets kicked off onto the floor. He'd never become accustomed to their use, no matter how many years he'd had cotton blankets available to him.
So, Ike would leave him be, letting him get the rest he needed, after all, what could Buck do for him?
There were no outlaws to hunt down in the darkness.
No murders that needed swift justice.
No, those men were long gone. It was only sleep that Ike hunted in the night.
Sleep, that had become scare since their brush with Nickerson.
So as the night dragged on and the others slept Ike pulled out his britches and stepped outside to keep his own company. His own, and the memories that Ike carried with him.
They were fresh in his head no matter how many years ago it had been. All he had to do was let his mind go. Rest for just a moment and there they were, the faces of his family. Their dark eyes looking up at him.
Looking up at him and asking why he was still alive.
Why he had escaped their fate.
Why he, had run and hid, and left them to die.
Their dark eyes stared up at him from the darkness and in that moment the world would flip upside down. He couldn't tell which end was up in the sky and which end was hard packed earth. It was a strange feeling, weightless and floating, his stomach would turn and twist within his middle.
It was guilt and pain and so many nameless feelings and since Nickerson had killed those poor folks right in front of him, it had taken a stronger hold on him.
Now, even when he nodded off or just closed his eyes during the day 'they' would look back at him.
Especially his father.
Dark eyes, cold dark eyes, would stare up at him from the ground, asking an endless litany of questions that Ike had no answers to.
By rights he should have run from there. Seen the carnage of his family and run away. For the road, for the hills… for anywhere, but he'd stayed.
He'd sat there, waiting.
Waiting for someone to come and tell him that it was real. That in less than the time it took his mother to heat water for tea, they'd been killed. He'd sat there, holding his mother's hand, eyes wet with his tears of sorrow, and he'd sat there with his father's eyes fixed on his face, waiting.
The door behind him closed with a soft click and Ike started like a prey animal, suddenly alert. Shoulders tensed, he looked slightly over his shoulder and waited.
Ike didn't say anything with his hands, letting his silence speak for him.
Jimmy shrugged a little, almost imperceptivity, "me neither." Moving toward the end of the porch, Jimmy leaned up against one of the posts and yawned slowly, the simple gesture almost mimicking itself in Ike's body.
"Sometimes I come outside," Jimmy looked out from under the porch roof and up at the sky, "look at the stars for a little bit, you know."
His soft chuckle began to rustle the worrisome emotions bottled up inside of Ike.
"Then again, you probably think that's more like Buck than someone like me." Stretching one leg then another Jimmy continued on. "I need the light sometimes. Especially when the moon's small ... I need a little light every now and then."
Ike mimicked the stroke of a match as a question and Jimmy nodded a little, still unsure he understood. "I've got these… memories," he began, "sometimes… when all I can see is the memories when I close my eyes… I need to take a little walk. You know," he grinned at Ike, "clear my head."
Jimmy stepped off the porch and for the first time Ike realized that Jimmy was wearing his boots and pants as well.
A few steps off the porch, Jimmy stopped and turned back around. "I ain't sayin' that I want someone taggin' along," he cleared his throat, "'specially one that chatters on so much… but," he nodded off toward the barn, "but in case you're wonderin'… I'm headed that way."
He turned and walked off toward the barn, lit only by the sliver of moon and some of the stars above. It was only a moment before Ike stepped off into the near darkness after him.
Author's Note: Thanks to Liz M for giving me the 'slant' on the story that got it written :D
Sweetheart Like You
He watched her, the way she moved in heels that hobbled her feet and avoided some of the grasping hands that snaked out toward her as she made her way through the tables scattered about the Saloon. He followed her with his eyes even when Sally flopped into his lap and pressed a few overly-enthusiastic kisses on his cheek. "Hey, sugar… long time no see."
"I've been busy, Sally." He leaned slightly away from her and tried to ignore her angry look as he picked up his glass. "I'm a man with many irons in the fire."
Sally was undeterred for long. She moved back, leaning against his chest in a suggestive swoon of movement. "I know how to get your irons hot, Billy."
"Yeah, well," he gave her a playful shove off of his lap, "I'm warm enough as it is, but thanks for the offer, sweetheart."
It took the space of a moment for Sally to lose her pout and move onto the next man. It took a fickle woman to work in a place like this. Men were a dime a dozen in the West. Women could pretty much pick and choose who they wanted to bestow affections on and they'd find a man willing to enjoy anything they were willing to give.
He took another sip of his beer and watched the world around him, waiting for a chance to say-
"Hey there." She was prettier up close. Her face, under all that make-up, was still fresh. "Anything I can get for you?"
With a smile he drank down the rest of his beer and held out the glass to her. "Would appreciate another if you have a moment."
"Sure." She brightened as she took the glass from him, turning toward the bar and scooting through the tables as quickly as she could.
There were only a few hands that reached out to touch her on the way back, but Cody felt like putting a bullet through each one. He managed a smile as she returned to the table with a fresh beer in hand. "You're new here."
She flushed a little, the color pink beneath the rouge on her cheeks. "Does it show that much?" She let go of a little sigh. "I've been tryin' to learn everyone's name, but folks keep comin' 'n goin' and I get so confused sometimes."
He shrugged, it was true, there was a constant turn-over in town. "When in doubt, a pretty girl like you can't go wrong with callin' one of these louts 'cowboy' or 'honey' or 'sweetie'."
Her mouth pinched slightly. "I dunno," she whispered, leaning just the littlest bit closer, "if I could do that. You know," she bit into her bottom lip, "callin' someone my sweetheart if it wasn't true."
The laughter that rose up inside him boomed against the walls. She stepped away, shaken by his reaction, the corners of her mouth turned down as she turned away toward another table.
"Wait… wait, I'm sorry, come back." He motioned to her to come back and he struggled to stop laughing. "I'm sorry… what was your name?"
She stopped at the table, her chin a little higher, her manner a little colder. "I didn't give it and I'm not likely to if this is how you're gonna treat me."
Cody shook his head. The girl wasn't using any artifice and he doubted she even knew enough to know what it was. She was a lamb in a perfume drenched lion's den and had no idea what she was doing. "I'm sorry, really I am," he began, his charm reasserting itself, "but you're just too sweet to be workin' in a place like this."
Her expression softened, her tray clutched to her low-cut bodice and her free hand splayed on the scarred table-top. "it's the only work I could get in this town," she confided, "I need the work, mister."
"Cody," he softened his smile, trying to put her at ease again, "my name is Cody, and I didn't mean any offense. You just seemed a little out of place here."
Instead of making her happy, the observation seemed to worry her more. "I've been tryin' hard, real hard, Mister Cody. I don't know how to be like these other girls no matter how hard I try."
Cody didn't have to look around to see what she meant. He'd seen it too many times in too many saloons. Women falling into the laps of strange men, smoothing their hands over arms and chests trying to make a man happy if only for a chance that he'd leave more money on the table when he left. Others touched men hoping to find little bags of gold dust or a spare coin that they could filch when the man was busy staring down into their dresses.
Women fast to call a man her sweetie and letting him take too many liberties just because it might pay off in tips and return business. It was a hard life for any one and for this young woman it seemed nearly impossible.
He just couldn't see her surviving in a saloon for long, or if she did, he'd hate to see the result. "If there was another job," he wanted to kick himself under the table, he was getting too involved for his own good, "if there was something else a little less-"
"I'd work real hard, Mister Cody."
"Just Cody, please." He stood, taking a few coins from his jacket pocket and holding them out to her. "Here, take this to pay for the drink and keep the rest." He stepped closer and nodded. "I'll see what I can find for you, ah…"
He brightened, remembering a tiger and a good friend. "I've always liked that name, Susannah." He took a few steps and turned back around. "I'll be back, Susannah," he promised, "I'll find you something. You don't belong in a place like this… not a sweetheart like you."
You know, a woman like you should be at home
That's where you belong
Watching out for someone who loves you true
Who would never do you wrong
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there's no way to tell by that first kiss
What's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?
What I Need to Do
If not for you
My sky would fall
Rain would gather too
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
Oh! what would I do
If not for you
"There's got to be somethin' wrong if you had to come all the way out here to think on it." Emma poured a second cup of tea and set it down on the saucer. Lou all but jumped out of her skin at the soft ring of china.
"I don't know what's goin' on inside of me, Emma…" her lips pursed as she fiddled with the delicate handle, "just when I think I know what I want, something happens and I'm not sure."
Emma slid the plate of cookies across the table almost under Louise's hand and lifted her own cup to her lips for a sip. "Sounds like comin' here might have been the best thing you could do. A change of scenery may do you good, give you a chance to get your mind and heart all in the same place."
"I don't know if-"
The front door opened and Sam Cain stepped into the room, with a big smile. "Afternoon, Ladies, I-"
"Oh no you don't!" Emma stood, her skirt swirling about her feet and swishing about her rounded middle. "You keep that dust and dirt outside where it belongs, Sam Cain! I just finished sweeping and dusting in here from your last homecoming."
Even as she pushed him back out the door, her hands shooing him away even as he brushed a kiss on her cheek, Emma's smile lit up the room. She left the door open as she made her way back to the table and Louise shook with silent laughter at the sight of Territorial Marshal Sam Cain dusting himself off as though he were on fire and then dousing himself with water to clean his face and hands before setting foot in the house again.
This time he paused in the doorway and gave his wife a pointed look. "Now, may I come in my own house?"
Emma gave him the once-over and nodded with great sincerity. "Yes, you may now enter your home," she pointed off toward the kitchen, "through the mud-room." As he closed the door and dutifully trudged around the corner toward the kitchen, Emma called out to him. "I left clothes in there for you and a cookie or two so don't give me that hang-dog expression of yours."
Louise could watch him passing by the windows and knew she saw the hint of a smile cross his lips as disappeared beyond the reach of the windows. "Hard to believe he's still a man that can make folks quake in their boots, Emma."
Sighing into her teacup Emma took a sip. "That may be, Loulabelle, but around here we have rules. When he's at the Marshal's office he can fret and fume all he wants but I'll have my floors clean." She bit into a cookie and gave Louise a nod.
"I see things haven't changed."
"Oh, dear me," Emma set her cookie down on her plate, "isn't that the truth. You'd think now that I'm only lookin' after one man things would be easier." She turned slightly in her chair when a loud thump sounded from the kitchen. "I had no idea that one Sam was worth all of you rolled up into one."
"You're really happy." Louise flinched. She hadn't meant the words to sound so hollow when she'd said them. Blinking back sudden tears she gave Emma a bright smile as she reached for her tea cup and promptly knocked it over. "Oh no!"
Louise grabbed her napkin up from her lap and reached out to corral the spill before it became any worse than it already was. "Emma, I'm so sorry."
"Louise," Emma put her hand over Lou's and gave it a gentle squeeze, "sweetheart, calm down." She settled back into her chair but didn't let go of Louise's hand. "It'll wash, it always does. I'm more worried about you, honey."
Well and trapped, Louise could only offer up an apologetic smile. "It was a long ride here."
Emma nodded and gave Louise an encouraging smile. "Sure it was. Why don't you sit here and have your tea, I'll check on Sam and make sure he hasn't flooded the mudroom… again." Standing up from the table with a little bit of effort; Emma made her way into the kitchen leaving Lou to stare at the puddle in the tablecloth.
"Just wonderful, Lou, you come all the way to Omaha to spend some time with Emma and you end up ruining her tablecloth." She dabbed the tea with one hand and nibbled at a cookie in the other. "At least I get to enjoy her cooking again."
"Hey there, Lou…" Same paused in the doorway, brushing at his hair with a towel, "Louise? He smiled through the lengths of his sandy blond hair. "Sorry, I guess I should have asked Emma what I should call you now."
Louise pushed her chair back and rounded the table to give Sam a warm hug. "You can use either, the boys do."
When she stepped back he caught at her shoulders with his hands and smiled. "I still can't believe… I thought… well, you know, that you were a boy."
She shrugged and touched his arm in an affectionate gesture. "I was tryin' hard to hide it so I'm glad you were fooled, at least for a little while."
He leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. "Well, let's just keep that between us, all right?"
Emma stepped back into the room, dusting off the front of her skirts. "After all, can't have folks knowing that their Territorial Marshal couldn't tell a girl from boy, can we?"
Sam wrapped his arm around Emma's waist and pulled her tight against his side with a care for her growing middle. "Poke fun at me later, darlin'… but how about you tell me if there's anything to eat a little more filling than cookies."
Rolling her eyes, Emma turned back toward the kitchen. "You know I saved something for you, Sam. You just sit and keep Louise company while I fetch you that sandwich I made."
Sitting back down in her chair Louise watched as Sam stared after his wife a wide smile on his face.
"You look happy, Sam." She tried to keep the bite of envy from her voice.
He turned back to the table and took a seat across from Louise. "I am happy," He reached for a napkin and laid it across his lap before he looked back up at her. "The question is… are you?"
Louise sighed, her shoulders sagging just a bit. "That easy to read, huh?"
Sam shrugged. "I can read a gunfighter down the street. I know which man in a group is going to be the hard-head that's about to start trouble. As far as women go, the only one I seem to have much luck with 'reading' is Emma." He picked up a cookie and quickly put in his mouth, chewing quickly with one eye on the door. "But the two of you are alike enough that you cover your worries with a smile. The only way I can tell the difference is your smile doesn't quite reach your eyes."
Fiddling with edge of her napkin, Louise couldn't argue with his words. "How did you know?" She looked up, her eyes full of questions. "How did you know that Emma was the one for you?"
He sat back against his chair, his expression softening just the littlest bit. "I knew… when I thought about comin' home at the end of the day and I had to have her there waitin' for me. I knew… when every good thought I had revolved around her. I knew," he looked up as Emma walked back into the room, "when I realized that without her, I wasn't me."
Emma set the plate down in front of her husband, but her hand was shaking ever so slightly. Her lips pressed together as she smiled down at him and she raised a hand to brush her fingers through his sandy colored hair. "Why, Sam, you certainly do know how to say the prettiest things."
He took her hand in his and pressed a kiss to her palm. "I'm only sayin' the truth, darlin'. I-"
Louise stood and set her napkin down beside her plate.
Emma blushed a bit and motioned for her to sit. "Sorry about that, Loulabelle, we didn't mean to embarrass you."
She shook her head and moved forward, wrapping Emma in a warm hug. "No… No, I'm not. I just…" Louise turned and looked Sam, reaching out to touch his shoulder with her hand, "I think I really needed to come here… talk to you both." She stepped back and smiled. "Now, I know what I need to do."
Tangled Up in Blue
The words sounded like paper to him, thin… brittle… worthless. He'd said them probably a hundred times since he'd gathered her in his arms and freed her hands from their bonds, her neck from a crazy man's attempt at revenge.
"I wasn't thinking about the danger." And it was true. He hadn't been. Watching the world around them had been the last thing on his mind during their time together. There was something to be said for oil lamps and flickering candles. They create little pockets of warm light, make it easier to talk, make it easier to smile. He'd quietly made note of the amount of wine she'd had to drink but the single glass he'd had may have been too much.
He'd allowed himself to be distracted.
He'd allowed himself to be careless.
He'd allowed himself to want something he knew he couldn't have.
And with Lou it had been only too easy. When she was unhappy he wanted to see her smile and when she had overheard the conversation in the bunkhouse and mourned the loss of not just her place in Kid's heart but her confidence as well, he had decided to help her find some way to put her feet back under her… to find a way to bring that wide-eyed twinkle back into her eyes.
The mercantile had a small selection of readymade dresses and the older woman who owned the shop was a fast hand at sewing. It was the perfect solution as she was able to take in a dress so that Lou could wear it that evening. The woman had charged extra for the service and he'd paid for it gladly. And later, when he saw Louise emerge from behind the dressing screen in their room, he knew that he'd have done it again and paid twice the cost to see the smile on her face.
At supper, she'd smiled and blushed and laughed… her eyes alive with light. In truth she'd been more intoxicating than the wine they'd shared. Her smile and the gentle kiss she'd pressed on his cheek had left him confused and more than just a little shaken by how eager he was to pretend that this… life was his to keep.
The Carnival had been his undoing. In the crowds, in the darkness, the danger had been there… right in front o f his face. He just hadn't seen it. He'd been distracted… hobbled by the giddy smile of the woman in blue.
And then, in a flash, she was gone.
A puff of smoke, a smattering of applause and his laughter died.
He'd spent the rest of the night with his heart in his throat, his stomach in knots. Lou was in the hands of someone who wanted to hurt him. She'd become a target because of him. He would find her, he vowed. He'd find her and he'd save her… and he'd make it right.
There were darker thoughts in the night, ones that he would never give voice to. Dismal thoughts that belied his fear and showed him how helpless he was, how much he wondered if his luck had finally run out.
Now, holding her to him, hands gently searching, his words falling from his lips with apologies that would never be enough, he still couldn't feel relief. She was alive. She was in one piece. He was shattered and tied up all at the same time, desperate to know… if she could… if she would. "Forgive me?"