Teaspoon sighed and lifted the hammer, it took only a few swings to nail the notice in place and giving it a critical eye he stepped back to look at his handiwork. It was straight… enough.
"I hear you've done lost another housekeeper, Teaspoon."
The older man turned a gruff look on the storekeeper. "Give it a rest, Tompkins." Teaspoon pulled a stack of papers out from under his arm and waved the hammer absently as he gave the taller man a fixed stare. "Miss Dunne decided she wanted to put this part of the country behind her, that's all… her husband's death-"
"Her brush with the law," Tompkins interjected.
"Yes, well," Teaspoon turned the hammer so it caught the late sunlight, "she's gone to take a job in Galveston and so yes, we're lookin' for a new station mistress, so if you know someone who might be interested, I'd be obliged-"
"I doubt that anyone in their right minds would saddle themselves with that bunch of ruffians."
A delivery wagon rumbled up the street and Tompkins grumbled out a goodbye before lumbering across the way to his store.
Lou rode into town, tipping her hat at Tompkins as she came to a stop near to where Teaspoon was nailing up another notice. "Need some help, Teaspoon?"
He swung a look over his shoulder. "Naw… mighty nice of you to ask, Lou, but I've got it covered. What are you doin' in town?"
"I lost a bet with Cody," she held up a hand to stave off the question that she saw 'bubbling' up in Teaspoon's eyes, "so I have to buy a pie to bring back for supper."
"A pie?" Teaspoon was suddenly pleased to think of something as delicious as pie on the table. "You didn't want to make one?" He gave her a wink. "I know you make a fine apple pie, that last one you-"
Lou shrugged, but the slight blush over her cheeks gave away how pleased she was. "Well, if I let the boys know that… I'd be stuck takin' the job instead of waitin' on you to find us a new… cook."
Teaspoon set the hammer down on a railing and sighed. "Look, Lou… Louise. I know yer missin' Emma somethin' fierce and I-"
"HA!" The loud call reached their ears a moment before the rumble of stagecoach wheels clattered past them and Louise gently pulled on her reins to back up her mount. She was well out of the path of the stage, but it didn't hurt to be careful.
With his posters clutched in his hand Teaspoon started to amble down the walk toward the stage depot.
"Somethin' wrong, Teaspoon?" Lou turned her mount to follow him.
"Nothin' wrong , Lou… just a feelin' I have in my bones… just a feelin'."
Thomas Gentry had been at the table with his young wife when the unmistakable rumble of the stage reached his ears. He was out of his chair, forgetting the napkin he'd stuck into the neck of his shirt. He worked hard to swallow the bite of meat that he was choosing so that he could open his mouth and greet the stage. It was close. "How do, Bob!" Thomas swiped the napkin down out of his neck and stuffed it into his pocket. "I was tryin' to hold dinner until you got here."
Bob looked down from his perch and sighed. "I hope you've got some of your wife's stew saved for me and a couple others."
Turning his attention to the stage, Thomas grinned. "Company is always welcome."
Louise and Teaspoon stepped up on the boardwalk and watched with curiosity as the passengers from the stage stepped out into the sunlight. Old Mrs. Creagan had come visiting again and surely her sister would be beyond happy because of it. Then the salesman, toting his over-weighted sample case with him stepped out into the light, his eyes scanning up one side of the street and then down the other. The last passenger reached a hand to grasp the window ledge of the stage and Thomas moved forward his hand already extended to help her out.
It took Lou a moment to realize that the young woman stepping out onto the board walk was the same Annie that had broken poor Ike's heart only a few months ago. There wasn't much about the young woman that had changed, her hair was still pulled back in a tight neat bun and her glasses were perched primly on her nose. Annie blinked once and twice into the setting sun as she looked around the stage station to gain her bearings. If there were any misgivings on Annie's part about her reception in Sweetwater they were gone the minute Teaspoon bellowed out a welcome greeting and he and Lou met her more than halfway for some hearty handshakes.
Annie could do nothing but smile and nod as Teaspoon's enthusiastic greeting was most likely causing her teeth to rattle. Her surprise must've shown on her face prompting Teaspoon to gentle his gesture. . "Well now, Miss Annie." Teaspoon gave her a look from head to toe punctuated with a nod. "You sure are a sight for sore eyes. Why we thought we'd never see you again."
"Did you get the letter Ike sent you?" Lou had barely backed up an inch or two and was nearly staring straight up into the Annie's eyes. "He must've made four drafts before sending one."
The young bespectacled woman looked confused, her mouth parted softly as she struggled to understand what Lou had said. "A letter? There hadn't been any news for quite some time." Annie looked demurely away. "It was lonely in Silver Creek, we rarely saw anyone unless we went into town. Most of time it was just the two of us."
Teaspoon leaned to the side to look into the stage and saw that it was empty. "Didn't he come to visit too, Miss Annie? Or are you just stopping by on the way somewhere else?"
For a moment Annie seemed frozen. It was only the sound of a trunk dropping down on the boarded walk that seemed to shock her from her silence. "No," it was then that they noticed the handkerchief in Annie's hand, "no, he didn't come with me. You see, workin' in a mine is tough, it's dangerous. I should've known that there would be more than one accident."
Teaspoon laid a consoling hand on her shoulder his voice softening to calm her nerves. "Now now Miss Annie, you don't have to go talking about this right now. Why don't we just pick up your things and you can come to the house for supper and we'll think about the rest later."
Annie, her eyes wide, tried to wave him off. "Oh no, Mr. Hunter, I couldn't impose. I can get a room at the hotel here in town."
"I wouldn't hear of it, Miss Annie," Teaspoon answered, "you're like family to us and family, well... is family."
Annie had no choice but to agree. She sat down with Lou to wait as Teaspoon went to arrange for a wagon to transport her and her things to the Sweetwater Station.
"When's Lou gonna get back with that pie?" Cody wondered aloud as his stomach grumbled along with him.
Buck shook his head and gave Jimmy a knowing look. "I wouldn't be surprised if she stopped on the way home to get a piece for herself."
"Yup, I can see Lou doin' that."
Cody gave Jimmy a wounded look. "That ain't fair."
Jimmy shrugged, "With you around, Cody, all of us are lucky to get a fork full for ourselves. So I don't begrudge Lou a quick bite on her own. Just in case you don't decide to give us our fair share."
Kid flung open the bunkhouse door and pointed the way to town. "Looks like we got company. Teaspoon and Lou are comin' home in the wagon with someone else."
They all promptly filed out of the bunkhouse lining up along the edge of the porch. Laying his hand over his eyes to shade them, Buck looked out into the sunset sky. "I wonder who that is. We weren't expecting company anytime soon."
Shifting his feet, Jimmy said the first thing that came to his mind. "Maybe Teaspoon got us a new cook."
Cody gave him a look that would freeze water. "I sure hope you ain't complain' 'bout my cookin', Hickok."
"If it was only your cooking, Cody, I wouldn't mind so much." Jimmy gave him a smug look. "You ain't even the one that looks the best in the apron. I for one would be happy if we found someone that cooks half as well as Rachel did, it would be wishful thinkin' to hope for someone that could cook anywhere near as good as Emma did."
Ike was just emerging from the barn as the wagon clattered past, the trunk in the bed of the wagon bouncing around merrily as it went. He brushed absentmindedly at the smudge of dirt on his cheek as he watched the scene unfolding before him. His eyes couldn't quite believe what they were seeing, but there was a smile on his face.
Almost as though she sensed him nearby, Annie searched the yard for his familiar face and gave Ike a little wave. The poor boy nearly stumbled over his feet and instead of cleaning off his face he only succeeded in smearing the dirt into a wider swath. Once he untangled his feet he set off at a run to catch up with the wagon.
The assembled group sounded like chickens going after their feed. There wasn't a moment to get a real word in edgewise. Thank goodness that wasn't a problem for Ike. He merely stepped into the fray and after a quick brush of his palms against the legs of his pants he held out a hand to welcome Annie back.
Ignoring the excited chatter around her, Annie quickly peeled off her glove and took Ike's hand in hers; her eyes smiling as he gently shook her hand.
Lou stood back from the group, her arms folded over her chest her eyes eagerly taking in the situation developing before her. The Kid looked over at her and caught her mischievous grin. He didn't know what had caused the secret smile on her face, but he knew whatever it was he was going to stay out of her way. Things were safer that way.
It wasn't hard to figure where Ike would sit that night at dinner. If it wasn't that they already knew how Ike felt about the young woman, Lou made it absolutely clear that anyone who tried to monopolize Annie's time would find themselves on her bad side for the rest of their lives. It did help that the riders genuinely liked Annie to begin with. Once they heard that her husband had died in a mining accident, they bent over backwards to make her feel welcome and give her something to smile about.
They'd all seen how much Ike had suffered before and while they knew their friend had never gotten over the young woman, they didn't want him to get his hopes up too high. A widow was different than an unmarried woman. A widow needed to mourn and Annie's black dress was an obvious reminder of that.
In fact, Ike had barely said a word to Annie since she had arrived at the Sweetwater Station. He was more than respectful of her widow's weeds, but he still managed to sneak a few glances at her as he passed her a plate or stood up to fill her water glass. He was every inch the gentleman and Lou hoped he would give Annie something to look forward to when her mourning was over.
As the meal came to an end, the empty tin from Lou's purchased pie gutted on the table before them, Teaspoon set his napkin down on the table and gave Annie a smile. "You said you weren't sure where you're going to go now."
"That's right," Annie nodded, "everything happened so fast. I have no family to go back to and I do so love... the beautiful land of the West. I just don't know where else to go."
Ike perked up at the sound of worry in her voice.*you can stay here*
Annie watched as Ike signed the words again, she was out of practice. "I couldn't ask you to do that. I have some money; I could get a room in town, until I figure out what to do next."
Lou leaned across the table and gave Annie's hand a squeeze. "I remember Emma saying that you helped her cook while you were visiting before. She thought you were an excellent cook and that you have the patience of Job. "
"She'd need that around here." Jimmy leaned back to avoid Cody's elbow.
"You can certainly be a bear when you want to, Jimmy," answered Cody.
"What I think Lou is trying to say is..." Teaspoon gave the table a look that said they'd better be quiet or they'd answer to him, "we need someone like you around here, to keep the boys in line. If you ain't got anything else planned for now, we sure would appreciate you helping us."
Annie thought for a moment before she gave them all smile. "I'd be happy to help and you wouldn't have to pay me."
Teaspoon set back in his chair and gave her a doleful. "I won't hear of it. Besides, the money isn't much and you may soon find out that you'll need it if only to get away from here. So don't turn it down sight unseen Miss Annie. "
"That's right," agreed Lou, "with Cody around here, you'll earn every penny."
The next few months passed and Annie quickly settled into her role as Sweetwater Station Mistress, friend and younger sister. She brought so much joy into their lives that it was hard to see her wearing the constant reminder that she had lost her husband. In the west social norms of polite society could be blurred. Young marriageable women were not expected to live out the full mourning period that their counterparts in the east would. In fact many of them from Sweetwater and the surrounding towns who once would have mocked Annie for her seemingly plain looks, had come to visit hat in hand and ply their troth in hopes that she would consent to marry one of them when she was finally out of mourning.
So far, Annie would have none of their suits. She would offer them a place at the table for the next available meal and converse with them with gentle words and a sweet smile. Yet no matter what gifts they brought or what sweet words they would compose none of them left with anything more than a fond farewell.
Through all of this, it was Ike with his quiet ways, who was in Annie's constant company. Although Ike and Annie never saw it, it was Lou that shepherded the other riders at night and every spare moment, allowing the two friends to spend time together alone.
It was an early spring day when Annie found Ike in the barn tending to a new foal wobbling on its legs. She watched him from the open doorway as his strong and steady hands guided the young horse towards its mother. Ike leaned back against the stall and smiled, his face alight with laughter.
"You have such a gentle way." She knew her voice had startled him, his head turning towards her, his eyes nearly blinded by the sunlight.
Annie moved further into the barn, allowing him to see her with a few blinks to clear his vision. She knelt down beside him in the hay and leaned back against the same wall. They sat in silence for a moment and Annie lifted her hand to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. It took a moment for Ike to understand what his eyes were telling him, the soft light inside the barn altered the colors around him.*your dress*
Ike gently touched her sleeve before he could look into her eyes. *lavender*
He withdrew his fingers, worried that the touch might be too much... or maybe, not enough. He tilted his head to the side and looked at the soft curve of her face. He could feel so many words bubbling up inside but he didn't know which ones to start with.
Annie seemed to take pity on him as she touched his hand with her own. "Ike," she lifted her hands to sign as she spoke, "would you like to walk with me?"
In lieu of an answer with words, Ike scrambled to his feet and offered her his hand while the other dusted tiny pieces of hay from his pants. It was almost as if he had bowed to her in a formal request. She put her hand in his and gave him a soft smile. The gentle pressure he provided, helped her to stand in the close quarters of the stall and neither noticed the impish grin on the face that peered in the door at them, they only had eyes for each other.
Kid tapped Lou on the shoulder and whispered into her ear. "What are you doing out here?"
"Making sure they take the next step." They stood back and watched as Ike and Annie emerged from the barn with her hand gently tucked into his arm.
"Looks like they've got it all figured out, let's go back inside."
Lou took one last look before she nodded in agreement and leaned against his shoulder. "Can't argue with that."