Supper dishes cleared from the table and a few above the age of majority and beneath the age of seniority had disappeared to the porch for quiet conversation, leaving the two doting 'grandparents' in the center of the rowdy bunch of youngsters.
As they always did they would tumble and roil around the room, their volume of playful conversations and arguments would become too much for the like of human ears and the family dog was the only one who could be heard above the din. In the center of it, Polly leaned into the fray and whispered a suggestion into the passing ear of one child and soon, all the unruly bunch had latched onto the thought and began to chant as one mass instead of a chorus of individual mayhem. "Story… Story… Story!"
With a wink and a grin that had the children nearly vibrating with excitement Teaspoon Hunter would hold up his hands in a gesture that started like a surrender and ended settling the children down at his feet. He never knew the subject before he began his recitation. It was much like one of those Chinese fortune telling contraptions, holding hundreds of sticks inside with only one tiny opening. The stick that came out was purely by chance.
Tonight, he began his tale with a familiar beginning, "Back durin' the Express…" the children exchanged excited looks and edged forward on their bottoms to get close enough to hear every intake of breath and every hint of adventure.
The tale was a about the smallest Express rider and how 'he' evaded a whole group of outlaws and delivered the Army's messages safe and sound to the fort. Louis, sitting next to his best friend Uly sat up proudly and gave a nod. "That's my mom," he announced to the crowd as if they didn't already know.
Turning to his wife seated at his side, her warm smile lighting up his heart, Teaspoon gave her a grin before turning back to the assembled gathering of family. "Yes son, that's your Ma."
From his place near the door, Marshal James Hickok grinned and pulled his lovely wife against his side, ignoring her soft sounds of protest and the becoming blush on her cheeks. Maybe it was just wishful thinking… or maybe it was the years of knowing this group as well as he knew the back of his hand, but he swore he could hear the young Marshal whisper to his wife. "Just enjoy it… I still love hearing that story."
Louis gave his Papa a nod and turned back to his friends. Uly, whose blue eyes and thatch of unruly brown hair marked him as Kid's son more than a name could gave his friend a mock bow as though having a 'legendary' mother was commonplace around Rock Creek. Then again, as Teaspoon's gaze shifted to the two darker skinned boys at Uly's side he smiled. He'd told hundreds… maybe thousands of stories about all of their parents. All of them had done the unimaginable and the unthinkable again and again and they'd only lost two of the bunch.
Buck's sons, twins in every way except their personalities, filled most of the remaining space of the rug. Both boys had Spanish names that seemed to escape everyone except the women in their lives. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers all knew which boy was which by their given names Teodoro and Tadeo… the men; well they tended to call them by their earned names; the quiet one and the loud one. They were more Teaspoon's by blood than the others, having Rosa as their mother, but they were all family.
The last of the brood in attendance sat nearly in the shadow of her taller cousins, her hands folded in her lap and her braided hair flopped down in front of her shoulders. She wasn't smiling like the rest and that in itself was cause for alarm.
Teaspoon lifted his gaze over her head to her parents and noticed Lou's quizzical glance and unspoken question. With a subtle nod of his head, Teaspoon leaned forward in his chair and in a whisper that would make any stage actor jealous he called out to the youngest of the brood. "Dara, honey?"
The chatter in the room dimmed a bit as the little girl raised her gaze to her grandfather's face. The stern set of her brow was creased by worry.
Trying to hide his concern behind feigned shock, Teaspoon reached out a hand and crocked a finger, hoping to draw her forward.
Used to following her grandfather's lead, at least at the start, Dara dutifully got up to her feet but seemed to think better of it, backing up until the bow of her pinafore bumped up against someone's leg. She mumbled her thanks to her Uncle Buck for the steadying hand.
"What's the matter, honey?" Teaspoon peered into her face across the room, resisting the urge to waggle his brows at her.
Darting a glance at her expectant family, Dara turned back to her Grandpa and admitted her fear. "I'm gonna be a hundred thousand years old before I get to do half the things y'all have done!" Her voice quivered and behind her back the bow of her dress suffered in her hands. "Even if I started now, I'd never catch up until I'm god-awful old… like… well, THIRTY!"
The riders, more experienced than the children at reading Teaspoon's myriad of facial expressions zeroed in on his face, but none of them were prepared for the serious set of his eyes or the purse of his lips as he thought over her words. "Well now, I wouldn't go that far… I know how much a body suffers once it's turned thirty, but I think you and the boys will fare well… long as you eat yer greens and learn everything we teach ya." The laughter was welcome, but settled quickly.
"But folks don't pay you no heed if you don't 'do' somethin'."
"First of all little lady, that's 'any heed'…," he turned to Polly, "right?"
"Right, Sugarlips," she nodded.
"And second of all, I don't think that anyone expects you to outrun the Comanche or round up a band of outlaws-"
"But, we're just children!" Dara's hands gestured wildly as she struggled to find her words. "We're not heroes!"
The words were simple, but their meaning was as strong as any Teaspoon had ever heard. "What?" He opened his arms and before either of them expected it Dara was hugging his neck tightly. Then taking hold of her shoulders he set her back far enough to see her eyes, full of as much fear and expectation as you could squish into a body of her size. "You're not a hero? Says who?"
"Says anybody," Dara huffed.
"Says Cam Whitaker and Dorcas Potter." Louis spat out the names with a knowing edge, echoed by Uly's nod.
"Well," Teaspoon reasoned, "anyone that says that about any of you," his gaze made the rounds of his grandchildren and his children… all close to his heart, "then they don't know anything about anything." The definitive tone was not lost on the gathering. "Why, I recall… there was this young boy that saved an entire family of settlers who'd lost a wheel miles out in no man's land, by ridin' to town in a downpour and gettin' help." Uly grinned from ear to ear at the mention of his adventure.
"Then," he continued on, "there was a young man who gave his pocket money to buy some gifts for children in our community that didn't have anything for the holidays." Louis elbowed Uly back and gave Buck's sons a grin.
"Let's not forget my intrepid pair of boys that managed to track themselves that heard of beeves that the Army was bringin' in… and managed to lose. Between the two of them, they herded them up to the door of the fort." The loud one clamped his hand down on his brother's shoulder and for a moment Teaspoon got a little misty-eyed.
"Then, there's this little girl-"
Dara sighed and looked down at the ground. "Who didn't do 'anything'."
"Who was brave… maybe braver than anyone I know."
She lifted her head and gave him a skeptical look that couldn't have been more Teaspoon than if she'd carried his blood in her veins.
Teaspoon took her chin in his hands and turned her face to the light of one of the lamps in the room and traced the little scar right next to her ear. "Who came down with scarlet fever and had all of us scared half to- well, scared more than a body wants to remember and even when she was burnin' up with fever," he touched her forehead with a gentle finger, "she was the only one who kept tellin' a fearful old fool that everythin' was gonna be jus' fine." Teaspoon swallowed hard past the memory of her little form piled under all those blankets, face shining with fever. "So if you think that I've been remiss in my stories, maybe you're right little lady. Sometimes I get wrapped up in the memories of bygone days and forget that the best stories might be right in front of me."
A smile bloomed on her lips and Dara reached out to pat Teaspoon's cheeks and ended up touching his heart as children are wont to do. "I love you, Grandpa."
"I love you right back, honey."