"Boys..." Teaspoon dashed the papers in his hand across his thigh and paced across the room, "I got me here a letter from the men at Russell, Majors and Waddell. They tell me that we've got a bit of a problem. With the rising cost of running the Express, well," he scanned the room with his eyes, meeting each expectant gaze with a growing ache in his middle, "I gotta let one of you go by the end of the week."

He held up his hand to stave off the immediate and vociferous denials from the riders. "Don't let this get to you, boys. I haven't the first clue about what I'm going to do to fix this... But mark my words, I will find a way to make this as fair as possible." His enthusiasm didn't quite reach his eyes.

* * *

Hours later, the mood in the bunkhouse was morose at best. They'd all heard the announcement, but after that they had avoided the subject entirely each one having their own separate chores to do around the Station. But now, it was impossible since they were finally all together again. They were readying for supper, changing into fresh clothes and washing up at the basin when Ike flopped down into a chair catching Buck's attention. He followed Ike's signing and tilted his head at the end, confusion apparent in his features. "A what?"

Lou watched Ike repeat his agitated statement. "Elephant?"

Ike nodded and looked around the room pointing at each of them in return, ending with Lou.

She nodded. "He says that we're not talkin' about what's really happening... Or really, what's going to happen. To us."

"It's only one person..." Kid had begun the statement, but his words faltered as Jimmy turned around to look at him from his place by the window. "Well? Teaspoon said it was going to be one rider. You're all talking about this like it's all of us."

"That's what it is, Kid." Cody lifted his head up from his pillow and blinked in disbelief. "We've been together for so long, that-"

"We're a family." Lou made the statement and closed the lid of her trunk and sat on it. "We should be talkin’ about a way to help Teaspoon make this work… find a way to…” She hung her head and sighed, “I can't imagine what would happen if someone had to leave."

Kid wanted to change the mood; things were really much simpler than everyone was making it out to be. "Why is everyone gettin’ so upset about this? It’s not like no one’s ever left. Look at Sam and Emma.”

Lou’s answering look was more of a glare. “That was something good for them. They left because Sam had a better job. This isn’t the same thing.”

“Besides, we haven't all been together since the beginning. Noah only came in a few months ago."

"Only?" Buck stepped in toward the table, looking down at Kid in his seat. "I thought we were in this together."

Kid leaned back in his chair and looked around the room. "Don't take it like that."

"How else are we supposed to take it, Kid?" Jimmy put his foot up on the nearest trunk and pulled his boot on the rest of the way. "Just because he was the last one hired-"

"That's exactly the point." Kid's fingers bit into the table top, "the rest of us have been here from the beginning. If anyone should go, it should be the last one that came in. The rest of us have more of a stake in the Express."

Silence greeted his statement.

"So, I'm it." Noah's statement fell into the center of the room and sat there on the table, waiting for someone to address it.

"But Noah's the best breaker we have." Lou gave Noah a sympathetic look. "We can't lose him."

"If you don’t like that idea? Then there's Ike," Kid felt the mute rider's gaze as a tangible touch on his face, "He's great with horses too, but you have to admit he's had a lot of troubles as a rider. With the fact that it takes one of us to translate for him to talk to anyone outside the Express, it's hard to send him out by himself, without worrying that he's gotten himself into a fix."

"You mean like that time you were thrown into that camp and it took Cody to come get us to save you?"

"That was a fluke, Jimmy..."

"You got into just as much trouble as the rest of us have gotten into."

Kid hung his head and tried to think of a way to counter it without starting a fight. "What about Buck?"

*what about buck*

"It's no secret that some of the Station Masters don't like having Buck ride through."

"Small minds, Kid."

Kid barreled on, even after Noah's comment. "I know, we've had to fix the ride schedule so that Buck doesn't have to ride through any of those stations, but it would save us a lot of trouble if we didn’t have to worry about scheduling anymore."

"Humph, what about the fact that I'm a girl, what would the Station Masters have to say about that?"

Kid waved off the statement and had to stall his words as Jimmy stalked up to the table and leaned on it. "So, you're fine if Noah, Ike or Buck go, what about me... Or Cody?"

Cody swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and he rubbed his eyes, his nap forgotten. "What about me? You gotta problem with me that I don’t know about, Kid? This is like an ambush; you’re just cuttin’ everyone down."

Swinging his chair around to face the blond Kid grit his teeth. "Don't put this off on me, Cody."

Pushing himself up from his bunk, Cody stretched out his back as he moved closer. "You're the one who brought it up."

The others waited and Kid found himself under their collective gaze. "Fine. You're not really cut out for this, Cody."

"What?" Cody's mouth gaped open at Kid's statement. "What the hell?"

"You're a showman, Cody. You belong on the stage entertaining people. Riding out on the trail, alone? It's just not something that can showcase the talents you have."

"Hmmm..." Jimmy slugged Cody on his shoulder, "What? He's got a point with the-"

"So, you don't want your job?"

"I never said that." Cody's expression fell and he turned a wounded look to Kid. "I'm not ready to move on... Or head out and do something different, yet." He looked around the room. "'sides I’m the best rider here, Teaspoon would be crazy to fire me. I'm fast and I've proven that again and again."

Lou opened her mouth to speak, but Kid rolled over her in an attempt to answer Cody. "I don't remember you bein' so much faster than the rest of us, Cody... You ran into that bear once that slowed you down. You haven't been any better than the rest of us, as far as I know, and if we're looking at bein' efficient, that's where the problem with Jimmy comes up."

"The problem with me?"

Getting up from her trunk, Lou took a step forward, warning in her voice and her expression. "Kid... Stop."

“There hasn't been a month that’s gone by that there hasn't been someone come lookin' to make a name for himself by callin'-”

“That ain't the case, Kid, and you know it.”

“Ask Noah,” Kid continued, rising to his feet turning to face the group, “Doc said his arm's gonna have that scar for the rest of his life.”

“Jimmy-” it was Lou, moving between them until Kid took her arm.

“Are you goin' to tell us that havin' you around doesn't turn us into targets... That we'd be safer if you weren't-”

Lou swung about and grabbed Kid's collar and pushed him toward the door.

Noting the hard looks around the room, Kid didn’t put up too much of a fight. He was fairly glad to get out of the bunkhouse, give folks a chance to cool down.

He nearly fell of the porch when Lou let go of his shirt. Kid reached out and steadied himself with a grab at a wooden brace. “What’s the problem, Lou?”

“You are! They don’t need to hear that! You sit there and tell them how easy it would be for them to lose their job here. Where is this comin’ from? You want them to go?”

Lou’s eyes went wide as she realized how loud she was yelling at Kid.

He shook his head. “No… I don’t want them to go, but Lou, sometimes things like this happen and you need to accept them. You need to move on.”

Her resolve crumbled a little faced with the soft calming tones of his words, the soft pressure of his hand on her back as he rubbed in gentle circles. “It’s just that folks should move on because they want to, not because they’re gettin’ fired. We’ve all done our jobs. We’ve never lost a pouch…”

Kid pulled her into his arms and she clung to him, desperate for some kind of comfort during this horrible situation. He drew a hand up to smooth her hair back away from her face. “Don’t worry, Lou… it’ll be fine… I’ll be here to take care of you.”

“What?” Lou froze in his arms and she pulled away far enough to see his face. “What did you say?”

In a rush to reassure her, he soldiered on. “You said it before. If the other Station Masters find out-”

“You… you’re bringing that up now?”

“Well, you did mention-”

“You’re saying I’m going to be fired? What about you?”

Kid’s confusion was evident on his face. “I’m a good rider, the best according to Teaspoon-”

“He says that to all of us.”

“I have my own horse-”

“We can all afford our own horses with the pay we get from the Express, I don’t see-”

“I’m more experienced-”

“You’re incredible!” She put both hands on his chest and shoved, nearly knocking him off of his feet. “You just don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?” He followed her as she paced away. “What’s got you so angry?”

“You have to…” she swept her arm at the door of the bunkhouse, “You sit there and give a reason why everyone else should go and then I try to keep you from gettin’ shot right there in the middle of the room… and the whole time you’re thinkin’ to protect me… when I’m fired?”

The door opened up behind Kid, but he wasn’t in the mood to tell them to go away. He had littler fish to fry. “I’m only thinking of you-”

“Thinkin’ I’ll get fired.”

“It’s a possibility-”

“Kid,” she ground out, “we’re all possibilities here. If the choice was that simple, Teaspoon would have told us already. He’s not the kind of man to drag it out.”

“Like I told you, Lou… it’ll be fine. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of-”

“That’s exactly the problem, Kid.” She walked away from his open arms and headed back to the bunkhouse door, where the other riders had gathered. “You’re so worried about me… you tell the others that they’re the ones who may be out, but there’s one person you haven’t mentioned. You.” She glared at Cody who stepped back so there was an opening in the wall of people. “You don’t think it could ever be you.”

The door shut behind her and Kid was left standing on the front porch, shaking his head.

----------


Buck paused just inside the open door to the tack room. “Teaspoon?”

Teaspoon caught sight of the young Kiowa in the reflection of his shaving mirror and smiled. ‘Another one,’ he thought. “Buck, come on in, son.”

He didn’t move, but he didn’t straighten up his posture a little, just as if he was trying to strengthen his resolve. “I don’t think it’s fair for you to have to decide which one of us goes. You’ve said again and again that we’re a family, Teaspoon and a… a… a parent shouldn’t have to decide which child should leave. That’s not fair to you… to any of us.”

Teaspoon turned around in his chair and gave Buck a curious look, half of his face still covered in lather. “So what do propose I do?”

Buck worried his hat in his hands, his gaze dropping to the floor for a moment before he found the courage again and looked the Station Master straight in the eye. “I’ll go.”

“Go? Go where?”

“I’ll find something else to do… somewhere where it doesn’t matter that I’m Kiowa… half, for all it matters. Ike needs the Express more than I do and the rest. They haven’t done anything to make you want to send them away. Jimmy shouldn’t have to go, just because of Marcus and what he did.”

“So you’re sayin’ that you’re the sacrifice on the altar.”

He saw Buck cringe. “Don’t think I would have said it that way, but I’ll leave if it will keep the others together.”

Teaspoon set his razor down on the tray at his side and gave Buck a long considering look. “I’ll think on it… should have an answer by tonight if all goes as expected.”

Buck was still for a long moment and then a slight nod was all Teaspoon could see… and then the doorway was empty.

Teaspoon picked up a cotton towel and wiped off the last remnants of shaving cream from his face before he stood.

“Teaspoon? Was that Buck?”

He turned toward the door and gave Rachel a smile. “Yup.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No… not that I can see.” His grin was fairly stretched from ear to ear.

"What did he want to talk about?"

"Nothing that the others haven't said." He didn't need to have Rachel ask, he gave her the answer with his characteristic smile. "So far I've had Ike, Jimmy and Lou before Buck. Before Noah went out on his run this morning, he said he had to talk to me when he got back. Cody's the other one out on a run..."

"Uh, Teaspoon?"

Rachel gave Teaspoon a knowing look and stepped aside as Kid walked into the room.

"What is it, Kid?"

"I got somethin' I need to say to you."

"Oh?" He raised a curious brow and motioned to the room. Kid circled around a bit, looking at the different mis-matched furniture before settling for his original place standing in the doorway.

"I want to go."

Silence.

"It's easier this way."

"It is?"

Kid started pacing. "Well, we were talkin' about this yesterday in the bunkhouse and I started talkin' about how easy the decision could be. We went through how everyone had a reason to go and I told Lou that no matter what I'd take care of her, but the truth is I couldn't really think of a reason why I should go. That's why I'm here."

Teaspoon's look was questioning and curious at the same time. "Because you shouldn't go."

Kid nodded and continued his walk. "That's it. I got everybody mad at me and now I just think it'll be easier if I just leave."

"Son, that's mighty nice of-"

"After all, I can find a job in a snap. I've got Katy and I'm a good rider, someone would be glad to have me work for them."

"That's ri-"

"So, there, I said it, Teaspoon." He looked up for confirmation. “So, uhhh, when are you going to make… your announcement?”

Teaspoon rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm, I think I’ll be able to let everyone know tonight." He paused, waiting for Kid to walk away, but he didn't... "Is that gonna be quick enough for you?"

His head dipped slowly as if Kid was continuing to process the information. "Might as well get this over with... So I know when to start packin' my stuff."

Kid paused for another minute in the doorway, then turned and walked away.

Teaspoon followed him up to the doorway and watched him walk across the yard his back ramrod straight.

Setting his hand on the doorjamb he watched Kid walk away and let out a sigh. The news he'd given them the other day had a profound effect on his riders. Their mood, of course, had sunk and most were in a darker mood than usual that was to be expected.

On the other hand he'd had more visitors to his humble abode than he'd been used to receiving in the entire time he'd been in Sweetwater. They'd all thrown themselves on the sword, so to speak, and offered themselves up in exchange for keeping the rest of the group together.

If there was one word to describe how he felt at this very moment, it was PROUD. Proud of his riders and the little family they'd become. In meeting with other Station Masters he'd heard of nothing like his station. They were transient at best, men riding in for awhile and then taking other jobs for less money but better conditions or just plain moving on.

So when he has each of his riders come to him in turn, looking to offer themselves up for the safety of the others, it proves that he must be doing something right.

----------


Needing the time to make his final decision, Teaspoon went into town to get things off his mind… paperwork had a way of doing that. Thank goodness that it was a slow day in Sweetwater; he needed the time to think.

Too bad it wasn’t going to be that kind of day.

No sooner had Teaspoon put his key into the lock, Barnett bounded up the stairs to his side. “How-Dee, Teaspoon.”

“Well, Barnett… looks like you’re in a good mood.”

Bumping up the brim of his hat with the tip of his fingers. “Theee best, Teaspoon. I feel like I could rule the world!”

Nodding at his deputy, Teaspoon motioned for him to proceed into the office. “Really, now, how about we settle for you tellin’ me what you’re so happy about.”

Barnett swept his hat off and tossed it up onto one of the pegs on the wall. “It’s nothin’ really, Teaspoon. I was just thinkin’ about something last night while I was sittin’ here at the Marshall’s office.”

Somewhat ‘not’ interested in Barnett’s thoughts, Teaspoon didn’t quite have the patience to sit and listen to-

“So, I’m sittin’ here and I think to myself, Barnett,” he grinned, “cuz when I talk to myself, I call myself Barnett… I say, Barnett, you sure do have a good life. I live in a right nice town… have some good friends. Then I like workin’ for you Teaspoon, you’re a fair boss… don’t overwork me, much.” He gave a big shrug. “I even like the pay.”

“The pay…” the words fell from Teaspoon’s lips with a whisper of a smile touching his face, “the pay…”

A commotion came from the end of town and Barnett was out of his chair like a shot, heading for the porch. He rushed back, whipping his hat from his head, “there’s a cavalry man comin’, Teaspoon… he looks like he’s in a rush.”

Teaspoon hobbled over to the doorway and squinted out into the sun. “Looks like you’re right, Barnett. We’ve got ourselves a visitor.”

When the rider reached the hitching post outside of the Marshall’s office he dismounted and tossed the reins to an eager Barnett. “Marshall Hunter?”

Teaspoon held out his hand. “That’s right, son, you’ve found me… what can I do for ya?”

The officer reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope that he quickly dropped into Teaspoon’s hand. “Sir, Captain Dennis asked me to get this to you. He said you’d know where to send it.”
The officer waited long enough to see the nod from the older lawman before he bounded down the steps to his mount.

After Barnett saw him off down the street he scrambled up the stairs to see what was the matter. “What’s you got there, Teaspoon?”

“I’ve got to get this to Fort Laramie. You want to take it, Barnett?”

The younger man waved him off with a sour look on his face. “Oh hey, no thanks, Teaspoon. I like bein’ here in Sweetwater… here… not,” he pointed down the street, “out there.”

“Well then-”

“Why don’t you get one of the Express boys to do it… you always get them to do those kinds of runs.”

“I could…”

“’Sides,” Barnett plopped himself down in a chair, “the Army pays real good for them deliveries.”

Dropping his head back Barnett dropped off into sleep in moments, leaving Teaspoon to mull over the avalanche of thoughts that had tumbled into his mind. “Pays real good.”

-----


“Boys?” Teaspoon slammed the letter down on the table, nearly upsetting the bowl of gravy at the end of the table. “And ladies,” he spared a smile for Rachel and Lou, “I have here something very special.”

Jimmy peered over at the envelope. “That’s the name, isn’t it?”

“The what?” Teaspoon was momentarily distracted. “The name? Oh! No… no… not that, Jimmy.”

“Then what is it?” Buck leaned in closer, trying to see the words written on the outside of the letter.

“The answer, son… the answer.” He gave them all a smile that set their nerves on edge, “You’re gonna like this boys.” He lifted the envelope and waved it in the air. “I have here a special dispatch for Fort Laramie, who wants it?”
Jimmy shrugged, “No one’s in the mood, Teaspoon… we’re all worried about-”

“That’s what I’m sayin’ boys.” He took in the confused stares of all the riders as they sat around the table. “We’re gonna do a little creative arithmetic.”

Rachel lifted an elegant brow and inquired. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It’s the cost of the Express, Rachel, that’s the big problem. We needed to cut back our payroll by one person, so that’s what we’re gonna do…” the riders sat around the room, literally on the edge of their seats, “seems to me like we’re always doin’ some special run or errand for the Army. Shucks, they’ve got their hands full tryin’ to keep peace out here and they’ve been payin’ the money to the company. From now on – and by the way, the company has already agreed to my… demands – they’ll be payin’ the money to a special account at the bank here in town.”

Jimmy opened his mouth to ask a question, but Teaspoon lifted an imperial hand and staved it off. “The next thing is that every time I get the call to deputize one or more of you boys – er, riders,” he gave Louise a smile and a wink, “the town will be payin’ for it. Literally.” Teaspoon preened in the light of Rachel’s smile. “So now, that money will also go into the same account at the bank.”

“So, Teaspoon, what you’re sayin’ is…”

“Cody? I ain’t done yet.”

“Oh? Sorry, Teaspoon.”

“So, instead of the company makin’ me get rid o’ one of my boys… er, riders… I get to keep all of you… we jus’ have to be a bit… creative in our thinkin’…” realization dawned on the rest of the group and the mood in the room lightened measurably. “So,” he concluded, “it’ll still be the pay you’ve always had, just-” the rest of his words were drowned in the growing tide of relief that flooded the room.

They were talking over each other and suddenly Teaspoon felt Lou’s arms make an attempt to reach all the way up around his neck. On the way back down she pulled the letter from his hand and went to grab her coat.

The bunkhouse emptied in record time, leaving Kid alone with his thoughts. Teaspoon had solved one problem, but left another entirely untouched.

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