The stage rolled in.
Normally, this wouldn't cause a stir or set anyone's tongues a'waggin'… but this wasn't the usual stage.
Pushing his hat back, Cody sat up in his chair and peered at the coal black coach with unfettered curiosity in his gaze.
The driver stepped down from the box and started to release the ropes holding down the baggage. Bag after bag of thick canvas was taken down from their secure nest. Each time another bag flopped down on the wooden walk another pair of eyes focused on the coach.
The slight rocking motion of the coach indicated movement from inside the vehicle and Cody moved to the edge of the chair as he leaned his arms on the wooden railing in front of him.
Golden trim, still pristine and elegant glinted in the sunlight as again a slight change of weight within the carriage set it bobbing on its supports.
"Miss?" The driver froze, a heavy canvas bag nearly bowing his arms, "ah… Miss?"
The door of the coach swung open as if someone on the inside of the stage pushed it open from the inside, the door blocked Cody's view. "If that don't beat all," whined the blond rider.
"Miss," called the driver, "Please, just a moment!"
"I'll be just fine!" The feminine voice slipped into Cody's ear, beckoning him to draw closer. Without a thought to stop it, he rose to his feet.
"Miss!" The driver's panicked tone brought more curious onlookers, "Please… you know what will happen if…" He stopped as he stumbled into the street, juggling the bags like his very life depended upon it.
She called from inside the body of the stage; "It's really not a problem. If you need to go back, just leave my bags…"
He was red in the face and puffing as he balanced the burden in his arms, "Oh no.. I couldn't."
"Hey, watch where you're goin'!" A man on horseback viciously yanked back on the reins as Cody walked across his path.
Cody numbly walked on. His eyes never left the coach as his ears drank in the rich velvet sound of her voice.
A single boot stepped out onto the step. White kid leather had been fashioned into an elegant boot, one that looked as if it had never seen the harsh light of day. The heel was unmarred and well turned, leading the eye toward a row of matching buttons that rose toward the top of the boot.
Before Cody's eyes could reach the top of the boot, the frilly edge of a petticoat swept over it, obscuring the leg from view.
A second boot joined the first and a deep blue skirt slipped over the petticoat drawing Cody closer, ever closer.
"As I said at the last station Miss," He looked away from her eyes, "You’re to stay where I can see you. I can’t have you runnin’ around town on your own."
Lorilei resisted the urge to lay into him about what she’s allowed to do. "Really now, Mr. McNally-"
Cody was just a few steps away when he was finally able to ‘see’ her. She was tall, almost like one of them fancy statues in the museum and with the wind kickin’ up down the street, her dark blue skirt and blouse swirled around her.
"I’m perfectly able to take care of myself."
"Really now," McNally's words echoed hers, but the tone was less than civil, "You know next to nothin’ ‘bout wild towns and the type of riffraff that hangs around in places like this."
Lorilei craned her neck to look up the street, trying to find a familiar face, "I know I’ll be fine, the hotel is just up the street and I know..."
"I ain’t gonna leave you alone on the street."
"Little snit," he cursed under his breath, "What if I did let you alone, who would you get to carry these?"
Finally, Lorilei did take a moment; she looked at the waist high mound of bags and let out a rather unladylike huff.
"You see what I mean, girl... who would you find to drag these to the hotel? I mean no one in their right mind-"
"I’ll take them." Lorilei and McNally paused at the interruption. "William F. Cody." He stuck his hand out and smiled at the young woman.
"Lorilei McKay." Presenting her hand, Lorilei had only a moment to wait before Cody grasped her hand and pumped it up and down in a vigorous handshake. Quickly, Lorilei removed her hand from his. "Thank you, Mr. Cody."
"You can call me Billy, Lorilei."
"You can call her ‘Miss’ McKay, young man."
Cody tipped his hat, "Yes sir, Miss McKay it is."
"Well Billy, if you would be so kind, the sooner I get to the hotel, the sooner I’ll get to know my new home."
Lorelei reached into the coach and handed Cody a bag. Turning, she started down the street with Cody close at her heels. "So tell me about Rock Creek, Billy."
McNally cleared his throat and Cody turned back around as the older man held out another bag and nearly laughted at the him, "Looks like you forgot something."
Cody’s shoulders sank as he realized the mess he’d gotten himself into. Lorilei continued down the street, looking in each window as she passed. Cody stood as McNally loaded the bags onto his arms and wished with each addition that he’d learn to think before he spoke.
There was a song bubbling up inside of Lorilei. It had no words and no distinguishable melody, but it was there and her body fairly sang with it.
She slowed her pace to allow Cody to catch up, all the while listening to whatever words he could eek out between each desperate breath.
"..so I came.. to Rock Creek, ...when the station..."
Cody looked up as his brows knitted together in confusion, "What?"
Ahead of him, Lorilei pressed one hand to her lips as she stared across the street.
Jimmy Hickok stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of Tompkins store and pulled on his gloves. He patted his coat’s breast pocket to make sure his purchase was safely away.
He had to stop himself before he stumbled down the stairs. His gaze stretched across the street. "What?"
Lorilei picked up the hem of her skirt and jogged forward, "Jimmy!"
Stepping down into the street, Jimmy’s long strides ate up the distance and the two met in the street. "Lorilei, what... what...."
She reached out and touched his jacket, laying the lapel flat against his chest she smoothed out the material. "I can’t believe I’m finally here!"
Lorilei looked up with a questioning glance, "Jimmy?"
Jimmy saw Cody struggling down the street, or at least he thought it was Cody under all those bags.
Tilting her chin down, Lorilei looked up into his face through her lashes, "Is there something wrong?"
"What are you doing here?" The minute it was out of his mouth Jimmy knew he was in trouble. "Lorilei-" he cautioned.
"What am I doing here?" Lorilei set her hands on her hips, "What is that supposed to mean?"
She leaned forward and stuck a finger in his chest, "Don’t you Dare!"
"Dare?" Jimmy had to shake his head, this was not going well.
Cody finally reached Lorilei’s side. Dropping the bags in a heap just a few feet away, Cody panted out his questions. "Miss McKay? Do you know Jimmy?"
She shot an accusing glance at the dark haired rider, "I thought I did. Now," she whirled to look at the street, "Now, I’m not so sure."
Cody wasn’t sure what to do. Lorilei certainly seemed mad at Jimmy, but that’s happened before. The women that start out hating him... and well, "Dang it."
Jimmy rolled his eyes and looked at Cody, "What now Cody?"
"I just don’t understand it. You and women... women and you, when do I get a chance?"
Shaking his head, Jimmy pushed out a breath, "Cody. I have no idea what you're talkin’ about."
Cody shook off the last bag and flexed him arm to get the blood flowing again. "Why.. I’m talkin’ about this."
Lorilei was ignoring the conversation as she stared at Jimmy.
Jimmy saw her look and stepped closer, "You never answered my question, what are you doin’ here?"
She opened her mouth, seemed to think better of it and closed it again. A moment later she spoke with a resolute tone to her voice. "I know when I’m not wanted." With a slight nod she turned on her heel. "Billy?"
He looked up; his head turned to the side as he doubled over while he fought for his breath. "Yes?" "Take my bags back to the stage."
Both riders answered her. "What?"
"You heard me, take them back."
He stared at her for a moment and then with a sigh, bent over to pick up the bags scattered at his feet. "Alright. Back to the stage." Cody slung one bag over his arm and then another. He looked up at Lorilei, her head held high, and let out a sigh, "What a waste."
Jimmy stood in the street, his hands balled up at his sides, trying to grasp the situation, "Where are you going?"
She didn’t look at him, but her icy words hurt just as if she’d shot him point blank with a gun. "Anywhere I’m welcome."
Cody added the last bag onto the pile. Taking a moment to steady himself, Cody headed back in the direction he’d come.
Jimmy barked out a command, "Bring the bags back, Cody." Cody did an about face.
"Mr. Cody, I asked you to take them back to the stage."
He turned around again and teetered under the weight. ‘What did she put in these bags anyway?’
Fighting for patience Jimmy tried a different tact, "I didn’t say you couldn’t stay."
"No, but you made your feelings very clear." Lorilei pinched the seam of her skirt in hand and deftly lifted the hem a few inches above ground. "It was nice to see you again."
She only made it a step away before Jimmy stopped her.
"Let go of my arm." The chill in her voice matched the cold glare she gave him.
They stared at each other until a movement from Cody caught their attention. A bag fell in the dirt, shaken loose by Cody’s attempts to balance the mountain of bags. He met their eyes with a pointed sigh, "Sorry.. sorry... it ain’t like I did it on purpose... these are heavy."
"Bring the bags back, Cody." Ignoring the pained look on Cody‘s face Jimmy turned his attention back to the bigger ‘fire‘. "Lorilei-" Jimmy purposely lowered his voice and relaxed the hold on her arm, she was as skittish as a colt. "Don’t go like this."
Tears welled on her lashes but she willed them away, "I will go anywhere I please... I will stay anywhere I please." She yanked her arm away. Cody was nearly bowled over as Lorilei caught hold of his arm and started marching down the street toward the Stage Waystation. "Let’s go, Mr. Cody, I refuse to play the fool-"
"Lorilei," there it was again, that low voice that rumbled inside of her. As much as she fought against it, his voice shook loose the walls she’d hastily thrown around her heart. "Lorilei, I ain’t playin’-" Cody was moving further away, "Cody!"
The overburdened rider turned around on his heel, "What!?"
It wasn‘t a request, "Bring the bags back."
She turned away again, "No. What you’ve done-" ‘hurts more than I’d care to admit,’ "What you’ve done-" Cody set down one of the bags that was set to topple from the pinnacle of the pile, "Never mind. Billy?"
The young man’s shoulders hunched down with a sigh, "Yes?"
"Cody-" the warning in Hickok’s voice was unmistakable, "Cody, just-"
"Uh Uh!" Cody dropped the bags onto the boardwalk, "I’m not goin’ through this again. I’ve had it, you hear me? HAD IT." Cody’s hands shot up in the air as he backed away, "When the two of you make up your mind about ‘where’ she’ll be, I’ll be at the Saloon. Just let me know.. on second thought, DON’T let me know what you two decide, ‘cause I’m not playin’ around anymore."
He stalked off toward the Saloon, dodging the mountain of bags in the street.
Lorilei and Jimmy stood rooted to their places. Jimmy looked over, but Lorilei avoided his eyes, "Now what am I going to do?"
The silence was deafening.
When he didn’t say anything Lorelei resisted the urge to throw her purse at him, barely.
"Fine," she huffed. Bending over in a rather undignified way, Lorelei started to collect her things.
She’d managed to pick up a few of the bags before she realized Jimmy had the rest balanced on his arms. He lowered his voice and the look in his eyes was compelling. "Let’s get these out of the street."
Her anger ebbed a bit and she followed him to the boardwalk in front of the restaurant.
Once on the secure walkway Lorilei set her bags down at her feet and grasped her hands behind her back, forcing her eyes away from his face. The stage trip had been long and she was starting to feel the effects of the miles on her energy and her emotions.
"Jimmy... I just, I don’t want to get into this right now."
He took a step closer, "Lorilei-"
Jimmy stopped, this wasn’t the same spitfire that had challenged him in the middle of the street. Her simple request hit home.
"Look," he began, "I didn’t mean... the way I sounded." Lorilei didn’t move, "Ah hell."
She looked up, "Jimmy?"
He took his hat off and shoved a hand through his hair, "It’s Saturday."
Wide eyed she looked back at him. "Yes..."
Jimmy motioned with his hands, "You see, it’s Saturday.. and-"
she shook her head and stared at him, "..and that means..."
She held up her hands, "Never mind, I don‘t want to know."
Jimmy reached out and grabbed her arms. He pulled her closer and into his arms. "I didn’t think you’d really come back."
She looked him straight in the eye and pressed him with the all important question, "Well, I’m here, are you happy about it?"
He stared at her, his eyes tryin’ to communicate something he couldn’t find the words for.
After a long stagecoach ride Lorilei’s patience was a bit strained. "Jimmy?" Even to her own ears her question sounded thin. She saw the inner conflict in his eyes, but without the words- "I’m leaving now."
She stepped back and pulled free of Jimmy’s grasp and headed into the street. She stopped for a moment and looked around.
Jimmy walked up behind her, "Leaving?" His voice was raised, a little bit of the fire back in his eyes, "You ain’t given me a chance to-"
"Haven’t," she corrected, "and YES I HAVE. You just didn’t have the right answers." She located the building in question and started walking.
"Lorilei! Where are you going?" he tromped after her.
She whirled around and lifted her chin an inch "Not that it’s any of your concern, but I will be at the hotel."
He reached for her, but she was already out of the reach of his arms. As she disappeared into the hotel Jimmy felt something akin to the unsettling results of Teaspoon’s cooking arise in his stomach.
She reappeared a moment later as she directed two harried looking men out the door toward her bags. She caught his eye as the two began their task and again she gave him a look that would have reduced most men to a blubbering mess.
Jimmy though, wasn’t like most men. Instead, Lorilei’s haughty look only piqued his interest, and his heart, which had been sleeping for so long, awoke to the challenge Lorilei presented.
Jimmy paused at the bunkhouse doors for just a moment before pushing the door open. He could wait until dinner to go in, but he’d have to face it sooner or later... and he’d rather face it sooner.
"Well hello ‘Jimmy’."
"Cody." The greeting was terse and perfunctory. Jimmy thought he should get a medal for the restraint he was showing... so far.
"So, Jimmy," Rachel swept by, her smile was broad and open, "Cody tells us-"
"Yeah," laughed Noah, "seems this mystery girl of yours has come to find you."
"That’s not why she's here."
"Oh?" Questioned Kid. "Why else would she be here?" v "You shoulda seen it," started Cody, "I’m loaded down with a hundred bags and all Hickok has to do is step out into the street and there she goes-"
"Goes?" Buck was tryin’ hard not to laugh, "She left you?"
Cody nodded repeatedly, "Left me standing there in the middle of the street, bags and all."
"I didn’t think you’d bring that up, Cody, she did make you look like a first rate idiot."
Cody did his best to look like the barb hit home, "Yeah well, the only reason I told them about it was to see your face.. just about now."
"Get out, Cody."
"I live here!" Cody protested.
"I don’t care!" Jimmy stalked outside to wash up for supper.
Having an early ride the next morning gave Jimmy time to think and by the time he’d returned to the station, he was ready to talk to Lorilei. He rushed through grooming Sundance, all the while promising an extra helping of oats when he came back. Still, by the time he’d washed up and changed clothes, it was the middle of the day.
Jimmy stood before the mirror in the blessedly empty bunkhouse and adjusted his collar. Slipping his hand through his still drying hair, Jimmy pulled himself up an inch or two taller and looked straight into his reflection.
"Well," he spoke into the silence, "Time’s a wastin’."
Taking his hat into his hands, Jimmy walked out of the door and into town.
The rather harried looking desk clerk seemed hard pressed to stand and talk when Hickok entered the lobby.
"Ms. McKay’s room number?"
Jimmy smiled as the clerk gasped for air. "Her room number?" When the clerk did little but gape at Jimmy’s Colts, he leaned closer, "She does have a room here, right?"
"Lorilei McKay." Jimmy turned the register around and found her name. Her name was clearly printed next to her signature. "Room 3. Is that upstairs?"
The clerk nodded and pointed up toward the second floor. "Have...have a nice day..Mr.. Mr.. Hickok sir."
Jimmy knocked on the door and adjusted his collar, opening the top button to give him some air to breathe. There was no answer so again, he knocked on the door.
He knocked again and started to feel very foolish.
He looked down the hall toward the stairs, "Me?"
She rolled her eyes heavenward, "Yes you. Is there something wrong with your hearing?"
She leveled a disbelieving look at him, "Really young man, knocking on her door will do you no good." She watched him closely and saw the question in his eyes, "She’s downstairs in the restaurant..."
Jimmy breezed past her on the way back down the stairs.
"...eating a meal with her gentleman friend."
He froze on the stairs, ‘gentleman friend.’ The thought sucker punched him. "Did you see him?"
She crossed her arms and looked down her patrician nose at him, "I do not snoop into the affairs of other people. I merely heard his voice and I happened to be opening the door for... for..." She dismissed it in a moment, "well, let it suffice to say that I had an errand to do when I opened the door."
Jimmy nodded, "Yes.. Thank you again for your help." He didn’t wait for her to dismiss him, he marched down the staircase toward the restaurant.
"Oh really, Billy?"
"Honest and true, Lorilei."
"I’ve never heard such a story." Her laugh was golden.
"I’ve got hundreds of stories like that one," Cody’s voice rose above the rest and Hickok planted his feet in the doorway.
"Really? In a book?" She looked lovely this morning, her hair neatly wound in braids and pinned up.
"Nope, just in my head, you wanna hear another?"
"I’d love to-" she touched her hand to Cody’s arm and Jimmy stepped into the room. "Jimmy?"
"Lorilei." He had his hat in his hands and a scowl on his face. "Cody."
Lorilei stood and indicated the empty chair at the table, "Would you like to join us?"
"I came to talk to you."
Something flickered through her eyes even though she smiled, "I was about to have lunch with Mr. Cody here."
"Mister? Just a minute ago you were calling him ’Cody’ and .. and.. touching his arm!"
"Jimmy-" the warning was in her tone as well as her eyes.
"I’ve got eyes."
"Yes, I can see that, but what you’d don’t have much of is common sense."
Jimmy’s eyes narrowed dangerously and Cody swallowed hard, "What’s goin’ on here?"
Lorilei turned back to Cody, a sweet smile on her lips, "Nothing about you, Cody. Jimmy, here," she indicated Jimmy with the tilt of her head, "seems to have something he’d like to say to me." She turned back to Jimmy, "However, I’m currently in the middle of a delightful conversation with Cody."
Jimmy glowered at them both and Cody couldn’t help but notice that Lorilei’s color was also high in her cheeks. Before Cody could think up some excuse for leaving, the hotel clerk bounded around Jimmy and moved up to table, "Miss McKay?"
Looking back the clerk’s voice jump a notch higher, "I see he found you."
Lorilei offered up a wry smile to the clerk, "He was looking for me"
The clerk caught the angry look in Jimmy’s eyes, "This came for you Miss." He placed a letter on the table before her and scampered away.
She opened the envelope and read the contents quickly, her smile fading a bit as she read the words, "If you’ll both excuse me for a minute-" She avoided their eyes as she moved around the table and for the door.
Cody turned a curious eye on Hickok, "What’s wrong with you, Jimmy?"
"What are you doin’ here Cody?"
Cody sat down and leaned back in his chair, "None of your business."
Jimmy moved a step closer, "I came here to talk to Lorilei."
The grin on Cody’s face only aggravated Jimmy, "So did I."
"This ain’t funny."
Cody leaned forward on his elbows, "Look Hickok, I came to the hotel ‘cause she asked me." The look in Jimmy’s eyes gave Cody more than a little pause. "What’s got your shirt tails in a knot?"
Jimmy seemed to shake off his mood with no small amount of effort. "Nothin’s goin’ right."
A light twinkled in Cody’s eye, "She’s got you wound tighter’n the trigger on your Colts."
Shaking his head, Jimmy smoothed out the brim of his hat, "She really asked you to have lunch with her?"
Cody smiled, "Yeah... think she felt bad about me carryin’ her bags up and down the street yesterday."
Hickok felt a smile tug at his lips, "I don’t know why she did, you’ve got lots of practice lookin’ like a -"
"Watch it Hickok, or I’ll tell her all kinds of stories about you."
There was a challenge in the tone and Jimmy smiled back, "I know just as many stories about you Cody... so watch yourself."
Lorilei breezed back in, "Oh good, it’s nice to know you’re both still in one piece." She gave each man a once over, "Frankly, I’m impressed. I don’t know what I expected when I came back."
The simple question from Jimmy surprised her. "The men building my father’s store needed some questions answered."
"That’s why you’re here?"
"You sound disappointed."
Hickok noticed Cody as he silently watched the exchange, "Lorilei? Could we talk about this... later?"
Her smile set them both at ease, "Dinner?"
Cody clapped his hands together, "Perfect! Why don’t you bring her over to Rachel’s. I’m sure she’d love to have company for dinner-"
Lorilei’s smile faded into a thin line, "What’s wrong with tonight."
"I’m busy. You see, I promised Teaspoon-"
"Fine." Her mood was sullen and her tone final.
"What about tomorrow?"
"I’m busy," she echoed.
"I’ll stop by-"
"Lorilei-" Jimmy was interrupted as the serving girl put two plates on the table.
"Jimmy, I’d appreciate it if we’d talk about this later."
There was no way to misunderstand her tone and Jimmy was hard pressed to rescue the situation, so he didn’t try.
He turned his back and stalked out of the room. If he’d have turned back he would have seen Lorilei push her plate away and excuse herself from the table.
Lorilei was determined to put the previous day behind her and busied herself taking out her frustrations on the sawdust and dirt left behind by the builders. They’d worked through the night and had vacated the store just an hour or two before. Since then she’d strapped on an apron and attacked the grime and dirt with a ferocity she didn’t know she possessed.
There was a pocket of dust in the corner of the room and no matter how she angled the broom, Lorilei couldn’t quite manage to get it. The self same pocket of dust sat there, but all around her clouds of dust swept around the room.
"Oh... stubborn little-" She shoved her broom into the pocket and a spurt of dust flew in her face.
Waving her hands in front of her face, the broom dropped to the wooden floor at her feet. Coughs, choked with thick layers of dust doubled her over.
She hacked out one last cough before straightening up to greet her guest. She resisted the urge to scream and run, he’d already seen her. "Jimmy."
He looked like he’d been caught with his hand in Rachel’s cookie jar, "Should I come back?"
"No," she quickly wiped the dust off her face with the back of one dust covered hand and then another. "Stay, please..." Without a mirror, Lorilei had to trust that her fleeting motions had removed any dust from her face.
Jimmy hid his smile as she stepped into the daylight of the doorway. There was a streak of dust across her forehead and one down the side of her face, "You missed some." He wiped the dust off of her cheek with his thumb, sweeping it away with a slow downward motion.
"I did?" Even if she had wanted to be coy, she couldn’t muster the concentration.
He nodded and turned his attention to the delicate skin above her brow. "Here’s more-" he leaned closer until the toe of his boot touched the tips of her laced ankle boots.
Lorelei watched fascinated as he drew closer, until she felt the warm sensation of his breath on her cheek and the gentle touch of his thumb on her skin. Quickly, she stepped back and undid her apron. Balling up the cloth, she swiped at the smudge on her forehead. "Well, thank you for pointing that out. Good, yes, well.. the dust is gone, thanks to you."
He tried not to smile at the deep flush on her cheeks. "Glad I could help."
She turned around in a quick circle, brushing the dust off of her skirt and what she could reach of her top. When she finished, she looked over at Jimmy. She looked at him for a long moment, "Busy today?"
He couldn’t ignore the barb, "I’m sorry about what happened yesterday."
Jimmy gave her a quizzical look.
"James Hickok, apologizing?"
His eye looked heavenward.
"What now, talking to angels?" Her laughing tone was infectious.
"Nope," he replied, "Hoping for patience."
She looked away and felt her mouth turning into a whimsical smile, "Sorry, I shouldn’t tease you like that."
He fought a laugh of his own. "I deserved it." She opened her mouth to comment and he held up his hand. "What I came by to do, is ask you to take a walk with me."
Her retort died on her lips, "Walk? With you?"
Nodding, he indicated the door behind him, "Yes... walk.. together... alright?"
"Sure," she nodded, "sure.. Just let me lock up first." She quickly looked around the room, looking for the set of key the builders had left behind.
He let her dart around the room for a minute before he cleared his throat. "Leave it."
She stood up with an imperious look, "I’m responsible for this sto-"
"Leave it. Look around, there’s nothing here."
Lorilei stopped for a moment and looked at the vast empty expanse of the store. Except for a few shelves on the far wall and the broom laying in the dust, there wasn’t anything to steal.
Turning back toward Jimmy, Lorilei shrugged her shoulders, "Let’s go."
Jimmy took a deep breath and let it out in one slow calming motion. Looking into the shop window to his right he tried not to smile. Lorilei walked beside him, her sure strides matching his with ease. His world had been spinning since she’d come back into town and now, in just the last few minutes, it finally seemed like he was able to settle down long enough to enjoy it.
They continued on in silence.
Lorilei was beside herself. She felt the air in her lungs freeze with uncertainty. Didn’t he have anything to say? Did she have to start the conversation? He asked her to go for a walk...and now... that’s all they were doing, walking! She felt her legs stretch to match his stride and her patience was becoming shorter and shorter.
They stepped into the middle of town just outside of Tompkins’ store. Lorilei stopped dead in her tracks,"Where are we going?"
Jimmy slowed to a stop a few feet away, "Going?"
"Yes," she prompted, "on this walk."
He shrugged, "Dunno, just walking."
Lorilei bit into her lip, "Oh... well," she saw the sign in front of the store, "I needed to stop into the General Store for.. ah.. for supplies."
"Now?" Jimmy wanted to keep going.
"Yes, now." Lorilei turned and made it up onto the boardwalk before the door swung open.
"Well lookee here!"
Jimmy resisted the urge to throw Lorilei over his shoulder and run out of town.
A relieved smile came over her face, "Cody!"
"Better be careful Jimmy, let her get more than a step away and I may steal her away for myself!"
Jimmy’s look would have melted lead, "We were just about to finish our walk."
Lorilei turned a sideways glance toward Jimmy, "I was going into the store."
Cody took his chance, "Well why don’t we join ya, Tompkins looked so happy to see us this morning, we’ll visit him again and make him the happiest man in town."
"Better be careful, Cody," warned Noah.
Buck nodded, "Tompkins didn’t kick us out this time, but I’m not willing to try my luck again. ‘Sides, we don’t want to start a fight with..." Buck looked at Lorilei with a questioning glance.
Jimmy stepped up onto the walk and wrapped his fingers around her arm, "Let’s go."
Lorilei wouldn’t budge. Instead, she leaned closer to Jimmy and whispered under her breath, "Introduce me."
Just as stubborn, Jimmy tugged on her arm, "Not now."
Cody stepped closer, "Jimmy, aren’t you gonna introduce the lady?"
"What’s the matter Jimmy-" Buck began.
"Yes, Jimmy," Lorilei shook his hand off of her arm, "What’s the matter?"
"Nothing." He stepped between Lorilei and the others, "Let’s just walk."
"I want to meet your friends."
Jimmy turned around and saw Cody’s overly sunny smile, "I’ll bring you to dinner someday."
The vague commitment stung and Lorilei’s mouth turned down at the corners. "I -"
"Jimmy!" The happy greeting grated on his already frayed nerves.
Jimmy groaned silently as Kid and Ike crossed the street toward them.
"Didn’t think we’d see you today, we thought-" Lorilei turned toward the voice and Kid stopped in his tracks, "Is this... I mean, is she-?"
Lorilei’s brow arched up in a questioning glance.
"Look, we were just-"
Cody stepped in and took hold of Lorilei’s elbow with one hand and extended the other, "Well, since Hickok’s suddenly decided to pretend he’s Ike’s twin brother, I’ll step in and handle the niceties. Lorilei McKay, this is Kid."
"-and our friend, Ike." They both shook her hand and Ike looked away with a bashful smile. Cody grinned and explained. "Unlike Jimmy, Ike can’t help but be quiet."
"He’s mute," Buck added.
Lorilei turned and Cody continued the introductions with Buck and then Noah.
Jimmy stood by during the ordeal and couldn’t help but feel that Cody would do well to mind his own business... and get his hand off of Lorilei’s arm.
Kid couldn’t help but notice the dark red color in Jimmy’s face. Unsure of what else to do, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind, "We were headin’ back to the Station, why don’t you come along?"
She turned an overly bright smile on Jimmy, "What a lovely idea! I’d love to -"
"We were walking.. alone."
The statement made his point and the riders all exchanged looks around the little gathering.
"Who’s to say we can’t change our minds."
"What is it?"
"Lori-" he moved closer and tried to steer her away from the others.
"Is there something wrong with me?"
He looked like she’d slapped him, "What? Nothing-"
"Then why are you tryin’ to get me away from your friends?"
She took a step away from the boys and into the road. Pointing a finger to the top of her head she asked, "Did I grow horns when I wasn’t looking?"
Buck leaned back a bit, curious about the exchange.
When she didn’t get an answer she turned around and held out her skirts, "What about a tail? Do I have a tail?"
Jimmy turned and saw every eye locked on the backside of Lorilei’s skirts. Stepping between her and the others he turned her around. "I just wanted time... you and me... without everyone else watching us or sticking their noses in," he glared at Cody over his shoulder, "where they don’t belong."
"Well," she began, tears threatening her composure, "I know where I don’t belong."
He silently pleaded with her, the look in his eyes was very compelling, but still not enough. "Where?"
"Here." She whirled around and nearly ran back down the street toward the empty store.
Teaspoon cocked his head toward the front window, "What do you suppose is happenin’ out there?"
Rachel leaned against the glass beside him, "I don’t know, but I think the boys had best give Jimmy some breathin’ room before-" She sucked in a breath as Cody hit the ground out cold.
Jimmy shook out his hand and nodded with great satisfaction before walking off toward the station.
"I’d say Cody didn’t see that comin’."
Rachel laughed and lifted her basket onto her arm, "Depending on how much that eye swells up, he might not see much of anything for awhile."
Days had past and it seemed like a canyon had opened up in the middle of Rock Creek, at least for Jimmy and Lorilei. He rarely strayed from the Waystation and Lorilei made the same trip to and from the hotel everyday.
Never had two people done such a good job of avoiding each other, while they continued to think about each other constantly.
It didn't take much prompting for Teaspoon to stick his own well-practiced nose into the affairs of one of his children. In fact, Rachel summized, he'd been waiting for an excuse.
Teaspoon stepped into the doorway. His hesitant footsteps were lost in the insistent shuffle of boxes. Spying the dark haired woman marshalling the troops, he swept his hat from his head and rocked onto the balls of his feet. "Excuse me-"
"Take the boxes over there and unpack them - carefully."
He tried again, "Excuse me, Miss?"
Lorilei saw the figure in the doorway and caught the glint of sunlight on his silver star. Swiping and the dust on her shoulder she started forward with her hand extended, “You must be Marshal Hunter.”
His bashful smile immediately set her at ease, “Yes Miss, I am lucky indeed to hear my name on lips as lovely as yours.”
She blushed and titled a knowing smile at Teaspoon, “You are a charmer, aren’t you?”
Basking in her attention he continued, “Well, Miss McKay, I have been known to turn a head or two in my time.” He had a wistful look in his eye, “I’m afraid that was a few years ago, however.”
She patted his arm affectionately, warming to his sweet words as a flower turns its head to the sun, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
He set his hand over hers and sighed, “You’re too kind my dear, too kind.” He looked around the store, “My goodness.. it’s hard to believe that just a few shorts weeks ago, this was just a dirt square at the edge of town.”
Lorilei beamed as she looked around the store, “It’s quite a sight isn’t it? It’s a bit more colorful than my father’s other stores… but I like it.”
Teaspoon couldn’t help but respond to the sound of joy in her voice. As she walked around the room showing Teaspoon the many fixtures and items of interest he snuck glance after glance at Lorilei McKay. It was refreshing to see such a tall woman around… someone you could look in the eye without stooping. There was an intelligent glimmer in her eye.. he’d bet his last dollar that she’d be more than capable opponent at chess - or a cracker jack at entertaining conversations. Why, he could count on his hands the number of women like Lorilei he’d met in his life - and he’d be darned if most of them had become his wives.
Two workmen began to bicker over something insignificant and Teaspoon watched as she resolved the dispute with a quiet word and a reproachful look. As the men returned to their tasks, he could hear Lorilei mumble underneath her breath, “If only other men were as easy to handle.”
He did his best to keep the mischievous smile in his eyes from reaching his lips. She had something, this young spitfire, and Teaspoon could certainly understand what had Hickok tied up in knots.
Lorilei stopped her work and looked over at the Marshal. He stood tall and silent like a Cigar-store Indian, but the devilish look in his eyes was all too real.
"Something tells me, there's a whole lot going on in your head, Marshal." She walked over, a pointed look keeping him from high-tailin' it out the door, "I want to know what it is."
Teaspoon took a quick side-step toward the door, but darned if she didn't counter him with one of her own. "Well, it's nothing really... "
"Marshal?" Her tone was deceptively coy.
"It's just that... well you see..." Another step closer to freedom.
"What I see... is that you're tryin' to sneak out of my shop."
He cleared his throat and tried a winning smile. "I do have my duties about town, Miss McKay."
She swung around him and stood before the door. The way she placed herself, he'd have to knock her down to get around her. "You remind me of Jimmy."
Teaspoon was taken aback. He straightened up a bit and eyed her with the shrewd look of a cornered animal. "How so?"
She straightened up and gave him the same cool assessing look his primary school teacher had given him. "Both of you, show up on my doorstep... obviously you want something.. but you're too scared to ask... just because you might not like the answer. Am I right?"
Lorilei didn't need to look at him to know she was right. Her shoulders sagged a bit, "I just wish I didn't care so much."
Pulling up a chair, Teaspoon sank down into the seat, amazed at the comfort. After making a mental note to himself to come back and buy one, he pointed a hand at an open chair. "Really now? Well, it appears we have something to talk about after all."
Nearly a week from the day Lorilei rode back into town, Jimmy emerged from his self appointed isolation.
Squinting into the sunlight Jimmy headed for the barn, with a hunger for some crow.
"I need another nail, Ike."
Cody’s voice carried across the yard and Jimmy headed straight for it.
Coming around the corner, Jimmy nodded to Ike. Cody, his back toward the bunkhouse, reached out a hand and Ike set the handle of the hammer in the center of Cody’s hand.
Lookin’ up at Ike, Cody looked like a cross between a golden retriever and spotted cow. The swelling around his eye had gone down, but the color was a livid black-purple that masked half of his face. "What is it, Hickok? I’ve got work to do."
"I want to talk."
Cody shrugged and moved to the next leg, "Well talk."
Jimmy lowered a pointed look at Ike. "I was kind of hoping this would be between the two of us."
Running his hand down PowderKeg’s leg, Cody heaved out a sigh, "Aw heck, Jimmy, it ain’t like Ike’ll interrupt you."
Ike cut off Jimmy’s next protest by holding up his hands. With relief plastered on his face, Ike pointed toward the bunkhouse and walked quickly in that direction.
"Cody," Jimmy began.
"Come on, Jimmy, if you’re gonna scare away the help, you might as well make yourself useful."
"Fine." His breath blew out with loud hiss as he moved around to stand in front of Cody. "What do you need?"
Jimmy reached into the can and dropped a nail into Cody’s outstretched hand. Standing there for a moment, Jimmy took a good look at the horse that Cody was shoeing. "You know, Cody, I can‘t believe you got PowderKeg to stand still for you."
"You know what the trick is?"
Jimmy shook his head and spat out the required answer, "No, what?"
"When you’ve got a spirited filly on your hands, it takes a lot of care...you’ve got to respect her wild side-" as Cody continued on, Jimmy’s thoughts strayed down the street, "understand it, cause if you don’t you’ll be wearing the imprint of her horseshoe on the side of your head." Cody stuck his hand out, "Nail."
Jimmy was startled, "What?"
Cody put his hand out again, "Nail.. I need a nail, Jimmy."
Handing Cody a nail while still locked in thought, Jimmy continued to ponder his friend’s words. A few minutes and several nails later, Jimmy dropped the extras back into the can. "Thanks, Cody."
Cody pounded the nail flush and looked up at Jimmy’s back as he was already halfway across the yard, "For what?"
Without slowing, Jimmy turned around and smiled, "for the advice on Lorilei!" Without a second glance, Hickok turned back around and headed for the other side of town.
Cody stretched his back into some semblance of it’s original shape and shook his head. Still puzzled, he pushed back the brim of his hat and raked his fingers through his hair. "I was talkin’ about the horse."
Jimmy leaned his elbow against the wall beside the door and paused for a moment before raising his right hand. With a quirky smile of anticipation he knocked on the heavy wooden door.
"I’ll be right there." Her cheerful tone made his smile stretch wider, adding light to his features.
Through the thin walls of the hotel he could hear her soft steps and looked up just as she set her hand on the doorknob.
"I didn’t expect you-" Lorilei opened the door and her mouth gaped open.
Jimmy pushed himself away from the wall and stared down at her with bemused look on his face. He certainly hadn’t expected to see her in her chemise and drawers.
"Hello-" he started.
"Goodbye." She slammed the door in his face.
It took Jimmy a moment to recover from his surprise. "Lorilei-" he called, "what the hell-"
The door opened again and Lorilei had her robe wrapped tight around her body. "Don’t you dare yell at me!"
His lips clamped down into a thin line, "What are you doin’?"
"Me?" She baited him, "Well I was waiting-"
"For who?" There was a sharp edge of jealousy in his voice and a matching glint in his eye.
"Ooh ---" Lorilei’s voice trailed off. "If you’ll just let me finish-"
Jimmy stood back and waited.
A door down the hall opened and an older woman dressed in black peered down at them. "Please! Try to hold down the noise, it is most disruptive."
Jimmy tipped the brim of his hat, "Sorry ma’am, we’ll try our best."
"Oh my," the woman gasped, "Aren’t you-"
Jimmy felt a hand close around the lapel of his jacket and a moment later found himself pulled into the room with the door closed securely behind him.
Lorilei looked positively furious, "I can’t believe you."
"What would people think?"
"You, standing outside of my room?"
His smile was languid as it slipped across his face, "What would they think of you pulling me into your room and shutting the door?"
"Oh!" She gasped at the thought and felt her entire body flare with embarrassment, "Why did you let me do it?"
He leaned closer until they were almost nose to nose, "Let you? How could I stop you? You’re pretty hard to resist, especially when you’re blushing." She could feel the warmth of his breath across her skin.
She whirled around, facing her back to Jimmy. "Out."
"What?" Her sudden dismissal had him confused again.
"I said out!" Without turning she pointed to the door, "I can’t have people thinking you.. I mean... we’ve... you know!"
"Jimmy! Leave, now before it’s too late."
He shook his head, Rock Creek was still a small town and by now, half the town had probably heard about it. Still, judging by the sound of her voice, Lorilei felt she had a chance to keep this quiet, "Alright, I’ll go." Her shoulders relaxed a bit and he couldn’t resist the urge to see the color in her cheeks again. "After I say one last thing-"
Jimmy stepped closer as she answered in a small, almost breathless voice, "What?"
He walked around until he could see her face, gazing into her eyes, wide and worried. He took a moment to watch her reaction and heard the silence as she held her breath.
Slowly, he drawled out his parting shot, "You’ve got the prettiest toes I’ve ever seen."
In a breath he was gone and Lorilei felt her mouth gape open, "Oooooh!"
He tried not to laugh at the picture in his mind. Lorilei, standing by the door like she'd turned to stone. Her mouth gaping open like a fish... "Prettiest Damn fish I've ever seen."
Instead of waiting to feel the heat of her wrath, he stepped into the restaurant and found himself a table. A table with the best view of the stairway.
Just as the waiter set down a cup of coffee, Hickok was rewarded for his patience when Lorilei McKay, cool collected woman of the world, tore down the steps, taking two at a time in her haste. She would have run full force into the closed door if he hadn't called out.
Her hand flew to her chest, trying vainly to stop the frantic heaving beneath it. She took in another gasping breath before she could push out the accusation, "You!" Heedless to the other customers she stepped through the doorway, brushing aside the tasseled curtains without a second thought, "You!"
Jimmy set down his cup of coffee and stood. "Yes, me."
He hung his head to hide the smile he knew would send her over the edge.
"Why-" she gasped for air, "Why are you still here?"
Shrugging, Jimmy looked up into her eyes, "I was hungry, they serve food. Want to join me?"
She stared at him, wondering when exactly he had become insane. "Join you? For supper?"
He walked around the table and held out the chair. "Yes."
Lorilei couldn't stop the words from tumbling out of her mouth, "I'd love to." She took the offered chair and stared at the table setting in amazement. Jimmy had invited her to dinner, Jimmy had asked her nicely, Jimmy had held out her chair. It all sunk in with a resounding thud in the back of her brain. In a moment she was on her feet, "What's going on?"
He tried to ignore the dent in his confidence and smiled across the table. "Sit down, Lorilei."
"No?" Jimmy blinked once and then again.
"No. I'm waiting for one of your friends to come stomping through here, forcing you to throw the table cloth over your head."
He smiled. "I won't."
"Or," she continued, "I'll ask someone to eat with me, to thank them for their kindness and you'll ... you'll haul off and punch them into the next territory."
"I promise I won't."
Lorilei looked at the earnest expression on his face and flopped down into her chair. "Hmmph."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
The waiter came over and handed them both a paper menu. Jimmy picked his up and scanned it's contents with a serene expression. When she didn't continue, he looked up over the top of the menu and smiled, "Then you'll have to stick around, won't you?"
Lorilei picked up her menu and measured a look at Jimmy, "Deal."
Swirling her wine in her glass, Lorilei looked across the table at Jimmy. Besides the two of them, the restaurant was empty. Some time during the meal, the waiter had brought two candles and lit them. Now, those same candles were melting away into little stubs of wax. She giggled and felt a hiccup rise in her throat. Covering her mouth she fought the urge to stare at Jimmy again.
Somewhere along the way, between the meal and several glasses of wine, Jimmy Hickok had become a living, breathing person... and heaven help her, she loved it. He laughed... an honest to goodness belly laugh... and Lorilei couldn't help but think of every possible reason for him to do it again.
"So... here I am... my tooth hurtin' like... like..."
Lorilei ventured a guess, "Hell?"
He stared at her for a minute, disbelief written across his face, "yeah.. hell, exactly." He winked at her, "and here's Buck, Cody and the rest of 'em, tryin' to drag me to the dentist."
"I bet you knocked them all to the ground."
He shook his head and gave her a bashful little smile, "Emma made me go."
"Emma?" Lorilei had never heard that name before.
"She was our housemother... and when she told you to do something... you did it."
Lorilei let out a sigh, "I think I'd like her."
"I know she'd like you." Jimmy said it before he could stop himself. After the moment had passed, he blamed the honest slip on the wine. Why else would he have let something like that slip?
In the corner of the room, the waiter was quietly trying to stack the chairs onto the table tops. Lorilei stiffled a yawn and covered it with the back of her hand. Jimmy set his glass down and pushed back his chair, "You're tired."
"No... no... really,-" another yawn followed the first.
Jimmy pulled out her chair for her and took her arm, steering her toward the stairs. He only had to steady her once as her feet caught on an invisible bump in the carpet.
Lorilei held onto the banister and started up the stairs.
She turned and looked down into Jimmy's eyes. "Why?"
He shook his head with a rueful smile. "You're not even goin' to say goodnight?"
She smiled and swiped at his shoulder with a sleepy hand, "You're leaving?"
Jimmy looked over his shoulder at older woman peeking out from behind the desk, her hair wrapped in rags. Leaning closer he whispered, "I can't go upstairs with you."
"Why not?" She protested and slid her fingers under the point of his collar, "You did earlier-"
He had to stop her from saying more, and so he did it the best way he could think of. He kissed her. It started out as a way to simply keep her quiet, but it turned into much, much more. The wine had affected them both and Lorilei fairly melted against him. Jimmy gave up caring what the old busy body could see and tried to show Lorilei what he'd been tryin' to say all night.
The two tried to ignore the interruption.
"Mr. Hickok!" The voice brooked no argument.
Jimmy set Lorilei back on the step and turned toward the desk. "Ma'am?"
"Mr. Hickok, I'm sure you're aware that it has long passed a decent hour of the night?"
"Oh, that." Jimmy looked at the clock. "Why so it has, Mrs. Carter, so it has."
Taking Lorilei's hand he kissed each knuckle in turn, "Goodnight, Lorilei."
She spoke from the throes of a dream, "Goodnight, Jimmy."
Lorilei watched him leave, heard the quiet click of the door and the hollow clips of his heels on the wooden steps. Finally, she turned and floated up to her room with nary a thought for the woman guarding the stairs.
The familiar footfalls behind her made her smile. Turning on her heel she stared, "Jimmy-" Her smile faultered for a moment, "Daddy!" Lorilei threw herself into her father's arms.
She embraced him tightly before pulling back to sweep her arm over the room, "Isn't it beautiful?"
He looked at the store around him and had to agree that she'd done a wonderful job with the store. "Yes, yes... quite a job you done here, my dear."
Lorilei beamed at the praise, "I'm glad-"
"What part did 'Jimmy' play in all of this?"
"Jimmy? Nothing really-"
He regarded her with the shrewd visage of a hawk. "And yet, you were expecting him?"
"Well yes, father, he's... well... you see? He and I... oh dear... "
"It's really quite simple, father. You see... it all started-"
He took her hands in his, tryin' to still their movements. She used her hands to talk, but when she was flustered, well, Lorilei could cause a tornado with her hands, "I'm quite aware of when this all started." He watched her draw in a breath, "I still have nightmares."
She laughed and gave into the cathartic experience. "Father-"
He held up a hand, "Wait just a moment..." He caught her eyes again, "Why don't we sit down and talk-"
Lorilei waved him off, "That's alright, Father, Teaspoon and I have already-"
"Teaspoon?" Mr. McKay repeated the question, "Teaspoon? Who is-"
Smiling, Lorilei gave her father a pat on his cheek, "He's the Marshal of Rock Creek, Father. Such a sweet sweet man! Don't worry yourself over it. He really was quite understanding. Jimmy is not just a gunfighter... he's an honorable man... and so very handsome...." She continued to walk away, her mind back on the business at hand. "I'm so glad you could be here to open the st-"
The tone of his voice caused Lorilei to stop in her tracks.
"When did I loose control of... of... EVERYTHING?"
"Really, Father, it's nothing to worry yourself over. I've got everything ready and there's nothing left to do, but sit back and wait for the customers to break down the door..." Lorilei gifted her father with an indulgent smile as she continued to check every inch of the store before their Grand Opening scheduled for tomorrow. She hummed a tune to herself as she straightened cushions and stacked the bentwood chairs lining the walls. She was so wrapped up in her own preparations that she didn't notice her father storming out into the street.
Jimmy barreled through the bunkhouse that afternoon. He'd done his chores in record time, eager to have some time to clean up before taking his evening meal with Lorilei. For once, he vowed, everything would go smoothly.
Taking his time before the mirror, he laid the blade of his razor carefully against his skin. As he drew it across his face, he tried to plan his words. Last night gave him hope, they'd spent the entire evening together and nothing had gone wrong. He'd lain awake for hours thinking of her, wondering if she'd been doing the same.
Absentmindedly, he washed his blade off and continued to scrape the white foam off of his skin. Jimmy was hard pressed to keep his face still as a smile continued to threaten his composure.
In fact, he was in such a good mood that Cody had to all but fall out of his chair to get Jimmy's attention. Cody finally gave up trying to needle his friend, 'cause it weren't no fun if Jimmy wasn't gettin' mad. Finally, just to get a reaction out of Jimmy, Cody was reduced to making a monkey of himself, literally.
"Give it up, Cody."
Freezing in place, Cody looked up into the tiny mirror and relaxed his features, "Aw heck, Jimmy. You gotta tell us something about last night."
"Leave him alone, Cody." Buck ordered. "We can all guess what happened."
Noah laughed and elbowed Buck, "Yeah, Hickok ain't the type to Kiss and Tell."
Cody stepped in front of the mirror. "Did ya?"
Jimmy leaned to the side to finish shaving. "Not tellin'."
"Hot damn, you did! You kissed her!"
Rolling his eyes up to the ceiling, Jimmy sighed, "It ain't like it was the first time-"
Cody sank back against the wash stand, "What? What? You've kissed her before?" He didn't wait for an answer as he rolled to the side and leaned against the wall, the back of his hand pressed against his brow. "You've kept this a secret from all of us?" He lunged forward and stood nose to nose with Jimmy, "How long were you planning to keep this a secret?"
Jimmy set down his blade and wiped at his face with the ends of a towel. He took his time, wiping every last trace of foam off of his face, "Forever, Cody... It ain't none of your business."
"How can you say that?"
Ike flopped down on his bunk and covered his ears with a pillow.
Buck lobbed a tin cup at Cody's head, "It's his business, Cody... leave it alone."
Cody ignored the cup as it bounced off the wall behind him. "It's not... not if Hickok's gonna leave us."
The riders froze, wondering if they'd heard right.
Noah's eyes narrowed as he leveled a look at the blond rider, "Cody... where'd you get a crazy idea like that?"
Cody paced across the floor like a beleagured statesman, "Oh it ain't as crazy as you think... lookit Lou and Kid. They ain't gonna be around much longer... gonna get their own place soon... and if you look at that silly hang-dog expression Jimmy gets when he thinks we ain't lookin'... you'd see it too!"
Buck sobered a bit and looked over at Jimmy, who was putting on a clean shirt, "Jimmy?"
Smiling, Jimmy fought to change the subject, "Ain't nothin' been decided yet... so keep your shirts on."
Cody looked up through a single knowing eye, "You just remember your 'own' advice."
Jimmy pushed the last button through, "Just what would that be?"
In all seriousness, Cody poked a finger in his direction, "Keep your shirt on," Ike's fist pounded the mattress, "and everything else, while we're at it."
Jimmy pulled on his coat and turned toward Cody with a warning on his lips.
Cody's life was saved as a little boy burst through the door. He bounced on the balls of his feet as he surveyed the room, his eyes finally coming to rest on Jimmy. "Mr. Hickok?"
Jimmy knelt down to look the boy in the eye, "Hey there, Ryan... you lookin' for me?"
"Uh huh!" His headed bounced up and down so hard Jimmy was afraid it might snap right off the boy's neck. "I gots a message for ya."
"Oh?" The query was playful.
Little Ryan pulled a note from his pocket and handed it to Jimmy. "Itsth for you." Nodding his own little satisfaction, Ryan ran back out the door and back toward town.
Jimmy stood and walked to the window, using the late afternoon sun to read the letter in his hand.
Suddenly his expression changed, "I've got to go." He swallowed hard and moved toward the open door, his feet dragging along the floor.
"Go where?" Cody was like a spaniel, bounding along beside him. "Come on, Jimmy..."
Noah grabbed his arm and held him back. Just outside of the bunkhouse, Jimmy slipped the letter into his pocket... or at least that was his intention. As he trudged through the dusty street, the letter made it's slow arcing path toward the ground.
Cody shrugged off Noah's hand and made for the door.
"Leave it, Cody.... you don't wanna get in the middle of-"
He held the note in his hands, "Come on! You mean to tell me y'all ain't curious what's in here?"
Buck and Noah held in the doorway for a minute before they ran down to stand behind Cody. The three read the note silently as Ike appeared in the doorway with a dark expression on his features.
"Well... I'llllllll be!"
Ike's curiosity got the better of him and he looked to his friends for an answer. *What's wrong?*
Cody shoved the note in his pocket and looked toward town, "Get Kid and Lou... Jimmy needs our help."
Jimmy took a moment before pushing the door to the hotel open. Staring into the glass of the window he adjusted his shirt and dusted off the hem of his coat twice before he was satisfied. He tried to look calm as he pushed open the door to the hotel. Steppin in, he looked about the lobby with a deep trepedation.
The greeting was more of an accusation. Jimmy could only hope it wouldn't be a death sentence, "Mr. McKay." He held out his hand only to have the offer ignored. Self concious and more shaken than he'd care to admit, Jimmy stuffed his hand into his jacket pocket.
"I have some questions for you, Mister Hickok..."
"You can call me Jimmy."
"As I was saying, Mister Hickok, I want some answers."
The older man gave him a look that would have silenced Cody. "What have you been doing with my daughter?"
"I'd like to know what you and my daughter have been doing behind my back?"
Jimmy felt himself drowing in a puddle. "Nothin' really-"
"Nothing? Nothing?" His voice was beginning to attract attention, "One only has to take one single look at my daughter to know that something infinately more important than NOTHING has occured."
"I'm not sure I understand, Mr. McKay-"
Lorilei's father took a step forward. "I'll endeavor to make my meaning crystal clear. My daughter... has been..." His face turned a shade darker with frustration, "has been humming!"
Jimmy blinked and stared, sure he'd heard wrong. "Sir?"
Mr. McKay took another step closer drew in a deep breath, "You heard me. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Jimmy could only utter a single word, "Humming." For some reason, he began to smile.
Mr. McKay watched the satisfied smile spread itself over the younger man's face and tried to resist the urge to wipe it off. Instead he tried to redirect the young man's obviously short attention span. "So?"
Receiving no response he tried again.
"I'm sorry, sir, did you say something?"
Gasping for air like an out-of-water fish, Lorilei's father pulled himself up another inch. "I'm really trying to understand exactly what's happening here. I come into town to open my store... and.. all I can see is that while the store is ready-and quite nice, too... really she's done a wonderful job... anyway that's not the point-my daughter has been quite involved in a non-retail activity!"
Jimmy stood there for a moment staring at Mr. McKay. He knew that there was something in that statment that was supposed to be directed to him.. but for the life of him he couldn't understand. "Sir, is there something that's bothering you?"
He became a raging bull, "WHAT HAVE YOU AND MY DAUGHTER BEEN DOING?"
Finally a question Jimmy could answer, but before he could begin, the double doors at the front of the hotel burst open.
"Everybody... hold your places.. no funny business!"
Jimmy's hand froze, his gun pointed at the chest of a most un-welcome interuption. "Cody! What the hell?"
Cody, Buck, Ike, Noah, Lou and Kid.. they all lined the wall, guns drawn and aimed at Mr. McKay. It was only Cody that had the audacity not to look embarassed. With only a momentary pause, all the riders put away their guns. "We thought you were in trouble!"
Noah sighed and leaned back against the wall, a patented smirk on his face, "You thought he was in trouble..."
Lou finished, "We came along to help."
Kid stepped forward and made his way toward Mr. McKay, "We're real sorry there, Mister." He held out his hand and watched as Mr. McKay took a step back, his hand clutched to his chest.
"Who are... who are... these..."
Jimmy stepped closer and introduced each one down the line...ending with, "and that there is Cody... but don't pay him no mind, we're still convinced his mama dropped him when he was a -"
"These are your friends!" The ending of the sentence was nearly a shout and almost seemed like an accusation of sorts.
"We're all Express Riders.. and yes, they're all my friends, even Cody."
"Thanks, Hickok." Cody called from his corner as he sulked.
"See.. this is exactly what I mean!"
Jimmy shook his head, his good mood was quickly disappearing. "I still don't understand-"
"I refuse to let you see my daughter anymore!"
The declaration fell into the sudden silence of the room.
All the riders fell in to help.
"Really, sir.. you misunderstood-"
"Yeah.. we didn't mean to scare you-"
"It's all Cody's fault-"
"Sure... sure.. Jimmy's a gunfighter'n'all-"
"Shut up, Cody-"
"He's real good with babies... just don't let him-"
"Jimmy's like a brother to me-"
Jimmy's shout quieted everyone down, "I can talk for myself!"
Kid opened his mouth to agree and Lou quickly clamped her hand over it. "Not now," she whispered.
Clearing his throat, Jimmy began again. "I'm going to see your daughter."
"No, you will not."
Jimmy took a step closer and tilted his head to the side to stare under the brim of his hat. "This isn't up for discussion."
"She's my daughter!"
Jimmy nodded and leaned forward, "I know, and-"
"I'll say who she sees.. and who she doesn't! You, my fine young fellow-"
"He called him fine-"
"Shut up, Cody-"
"are not to see her."
Everyone in the room, which by now meant nearly everyone in the town limits, turned to stare at Lorilei. She ran down the rest of the steps and came to a stop somewhere between Jimmy and her father.
Mr. McKay cleared his throat. "Hello, dear-"
She turned away before he could buss her cheek. "I want to know what's going on here!"
Chagrined, Mr. McKay tried to continue, "That's what I was tryin' to find out-"
"He said I can't see you." Jimmy's remark was quiet and pointed.
"Oh,... really now?" Lorilei leveled a look at her father, "What did you mean by that?"
Mr. McKay tried to save face with his daughter, "I meant... exactly what I said! Really Lorilei, you must try to be reasonable, you should have seen his friends bursting in here, guns a blazing, knocking down the doors!"
Lorilei looked around him to the gathered group of riders lounging by the door. "The doors seam fine to me."
Maybe it was Jimmy's imagination, but it seemed as thought Lorilei's father actually blushed. "Really, he's unsuitable."
"He's a gunfighter-"
Jimmy set Lorilei aside and stood nose to nose with her father, "I'm an Express Rider.."
"How do you know?"
"You've got a reputation!"
"I only do what I have to-"
"You have to kill people-"
"They called me out..."
"Good Lord, you think my daughter wants this kind of life-"
Lorilei was busy trying to push them apart, "Daddy!"
"I think she can be happy here."
"Really, now.. how do you know?"
"I'm gonna try to make..."
"You're too stubborn for me to talk to .... "
"You're too stubborn to listen-"
Lorilei tried to break in again, "Jimmy!"
Mr. McKay ignored her again, "I'm her father.. I know what's best for her...I love her-"
"I love her, too!"
Everyone in the room froze, except for Cody. "Hot damn, Hickok."
Mr. McKay fell back as Lorilei pulled Jimmy a step closer. Her expression was shifting between utter shock, an angry glare and a giddy smile... "Jimmy?"
"Lorilei," he brought up a hand and smoothed back a stray whisp of her hair.
"When... why? What?"
"I did it."
She couldn't resist the smug expression on his face, "Did what?"
"Made you speechless, without having to kiss you."
Her eyes narrowed a bit but the smile never left her face. "Really?"
"Mmm hmmm." Jimmy leaned closer without a look to the gathered crowd of people, "You know what else?"
Lorilei leaned into him, anticipating the kiss she knew he'd give her, "What?"
"I'm one the deputies around here."
She leaned back an inch to stare into his eyes,"So?"
He gave her a half smile that curled her toes, "I'm legal."