Rock Creek, Winter 1881

Teaspoon nearly choked on his bite of pork chop, prompting Polly to pound on his back with one hand as she sipped her water with her other hand. When he regained his power of speech he gasped out. “A what?”

The well dressed man sat down on the opposite side of the Marshal’s desk. “A spell down.”

“Oh?” Teaspoon dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “I thought you were wantin’ a show down.”

The man’s nose wrinkled with disdain. “I forgot about your quaint activities out here in the west, but no, this has nothing to do with guns… or shooting.” He recovered his composure. “It’s a simple thing really, a community event.”

“Well,” Teaspoon sat back in his chair with a smile, “I’m a big supporter of community events, go on.”

Mr. Carter nodded and launched into his explanation. “Our new store is ready to take shipments, but with all the snow and storms the shipments have been delayed so we’d like to host a gathering… and introduce our family to the good folks in town.”

Mrs. Carter looked a bit pained at the thought, but no one seemed to notice it except for the former marshal.

“We’ll end things with a dance that night, a celebration.” The storeowner was brimming with excitement.

Teaspoon’s smile was wide and grew with the discomfort on Mrs. Carter’s face. “That’s sounds like a wonderful idea.”

*** ***

Louise gave Teaspoon a smile when they entered the storefront, her eyes quickly taking in the size of the store. “It’s nearly twice the size of Tompkins’ store.”

Teaspoon sighed. “Yep, most folks have said that, but where Tompkins lacks in space, he’s got longevity here in town.”

Looking down at her two children, Louise gave them both a little nudge in the direction of the other children. “Don’t make too much noise your father isn’t even here yet.” She watched them go and gave a little sigh of her own. “I’m not so sure of this little ‘event’ Teaspoon… don’t you think a dance is enough?”

Polly stepped up beside them and nodded. “I hear they’ve had them in other towns. Sounds exciting.”

“Louis has been going over his lesson books for days.”

“For days?” Teaspoon’s tone was a good imitation of surprise. “Well, anything to get that boy to study more… that’s enough for me.”

Mr. Lakewood stepped into the center of the gathering and held his hands up for silence. Mr. and Mrs. Carter stood behind him, their young daughter resplendent in a green velvet dress that was obviously made for her. “Excuse me folks! It seems like it’s about time to get this started, so if you’ll all find a place to sit or… uh, relax,” a general laugh rolled through the crowd as everyone looked to see that they were short nearly a score of chairs.

“The floor,” interjected Mr. Carter, “is quite clean,” he nodded to emphasize his words. “I had my men wash and sweep it this morning.”

A few of the men and some of the children crossed their legs and found a seat on the floor beneath them.

“Yes, thank you folks,” Mr. Lakewood consulted his list, “The order of events is first the spelling bee and-”

“Spell down.” Mr. Carter corrected. “It’s a spell down.”

“Yes,” nodded Mr. Lakewood, “the spell down first and then the dance.” A round of cheers spread through the room. “Alright… let’s gather the children up here.”

The children began a rush forward but stopped when Mr. Carter’s voice boomed through the room. “I’m sorry; I wanted to formally introduce my family to the citizens of Rock Creek.” He held out a hand to Mrs. Carter beside him. “This is Mrs. Carter, she’ll introduce herself to the ladies later… and this,” taking his daughter by the shoulder he brought her to stand beside the teacher, “this is my daughter Millie Carter.”

“Millicent.” His wife corrected.

A polite round of applause sounded around the room and Millicent gave a little bow to first one side and then the other side of the room.

From his place, Louis folded his arms over his chest. “Millie? Great, another girl.”

Bobby Gentry shrugged. “What’s wrong with that?”

Louis shook his head. “We’re tied again. Eight girls and eight boys.”

Giving her brother a good natured elbow Dara peered over at the new girl. “She doesn’t look very friendly.”

“What makes you say that?” Ellen Gimble looked over at the girl with the strawberry blonde curls that glowed in the lamp light. “She looks fine to me.”

Dara sucked the corner of her lower lip into her mouth for a moment. “I’m willing to wait and see, but her smile don’t seem to reach her eyes.”

Mr. Lakewood was calling them over so Ellen tugged on Dara’s arm and the two followed after Louis and the others. Dara stepped up beside her brother and Bobby Gentry squeezed Ellen out in an attempt to stay as close as he could to the young girl that had kept his fancy for the last few years. After Mr. Lakewood explained the rules he addressed the room again in a loud voice. “Well, now… since Millie’s family is sponsoring in the dance I think it’s only fair that she get to be one of the captains for the game.” Millie smiled brightly and lifted her chin in pride as a few ladies applauded, led by her mother. “And I think as my oldest student here, Louis Hickok will lead the other team.”

Louis nudged Dara and she shouldered him back giving him a play-glare. “Don’t worry, sis… I’ll pick you.”

“I think you’re stuck with me,” she came back when Millie’s haughty look poured over them, “I don’t think she’ll pick me in a thousand years.”

The two captains squared off in the middle of the room. Mr. Lakewood tossed a coin and Louis lost first pick. Millie was over happy with it and chose Harvey Sills first. Louis looked at Dara and gave her a smile before choosing Sue Ellen Sills. It went on as they went through the class with Billy Gentry trudging over to Millie’s side with an apologetic look at Dara and she moved to Louis when he nodded at her.

The door swung open letting in a gust of snow and wind that chilled many to a shiver as it swept through the crowd. “Sorry we’re late folks!”

“Jimmy!” Lou slipped her arms around her husband’s middle as he peeled off his heavy coat. “I was wondering where you were.”

He brushed a kiss to her forehead. “I found some old friends on the way.”

Rosa Cross stepped around the Marshal with a grin. “Louise…” the two women wrapped their arms around each other as Buck greeted Teaspoon with a hearty hug, “it’s good to see you.”

“The boys are sooo tall!”

Shaking the snow from their jackets, the boys hung them up on one of the hooks beside the door. Rosa pulled one then the other to her side. “And eating us out of house and home.”

Teaspoon and Polly beamed down at the two youngsters as Teaspoon shook his head. “I still can’t tell them apart.”

“I’m taller,” the boy in a red shirt stepped away from his mother to give the retired Marshal a smile, “better looking too.”

Polly nodded at him. “That’s Tadeo.”

Rosa smiled and nodded to the other boy, still at her side. “And this is Teodoro.”

Tadeo raised an eloquent eyebrow just like his father. “Teo, but he’ll never say anything.”

Teo looked at his brother with a calm regard before he nodded.

Polly leaned down and brushed a kiss on his cheek. “The quiet one.”

Mrs. Carter bustled forward to draw everyone’s attention. “Mister Lakewood, should we begin?”

He looked at her and grinned. “Well we have two more to add to the fun, yes?”

Mrs. Carter worried at the back of her husband’s coat. “We had really only planned on sixteen… the prize,” she looked over at the basket of oranges and nuts on the head table, “we don’t have enough for more. This was supposed to be a community contest.”

“I’m sure the children will share, they’ve learned that much.” Teaspoon took each boy by the shoulder and steered them forward. “And the Cross family is part of our community.”

“I don’t mind father… mother.” Millie stepped forward, “I’m sure everything will work out just fine.” She gave Louis and Dara a pointed look. “It doesn’t matter who else is on my team. We’ll win.”

“Oh brother,” Dara ground out the words and shrugged of a consolatory pat from Billy, “let’s just get this started.”

Millie stepped over to the two boys and gave them both an open once over. Teaspoon nearly sighed with impatience the little girl was a little too calculating for his own peace of mind. “I’ll take him.” She pointed at Tadeo in his red shirt and turned on her heel, her long curls swinging around behind her.

“Banana curls, ewww.”

Louis laughed behind his hand. “Kinda looks like it.” He bent over at the waist and gave Teo a wave. “Come on over, Teo… you’re on the winning team.”

With a shy smile to his father, Teo walked over to the team aiming for Dara’s right side, but Billy kept himself firmly at Dara’s side so Louis made room and let him come in between them.

*** ***

Mr. Lakewood went in order from Captains on down. Millie and Louis easily answered their words, but Sue Ellen stumbled over hers and had to sit down. Mr. Lakewood turned to Teodoro. “Alright son, your word is ‘quiver.’”

With a moment of thought Teo began to spell the word, his voice barely heard over the ambient noise in the room.

Leaning closer, Mr. Lakewood tried to hear the young man’s words, but he was having quite a time. “Son, could you repeat that for me?”

Dara piped up. “He said it right, Mr. Lakewood.”

“Riiiight.” Millie set her hands on her hips. “Of course she’d say it. He’s on her team.”

“I said it ‘cause he was right.” Dara’s tone was outraged. “He shouldn’t have to repeat it just ‘cause he’s quiet.”

“That makes one of them.” Millie’s tone slid under her skin and it itched something awful.

Dara turned back to Teo and laid a hand on his arm. The young man looked down at her hand against the dark blue of his shirt and smiled. “You don’t have to repeat it if you don’t want to… just ‘cause ‘banana girl’ says so and-”

“Banana?” Millie’s face was bright red beneath her curls. “Like you’ve ever ‘seen’ one out here in this silly town. Let him sit out, if he’s going to be like that this’ll take forever.” Millie moved closer to the other line.

“Like what?” Dara took a step forward, shrugging off a restraining hand and was nearly nose to nose with the new girl.

“A mute… he’s no better than a mute.”

Dara’s eyes flew open and she heard Louis mumble behind her, something he’d get in real trouble for if their parents heard. “Take it back!”

“It’s true,” Millie taunted, “He’s probably stupid too,” her voice was low and probably didn’t reach their teacher. “Indians usually are.”

That tore it. A moment later Millie was on her backside, her frothy petticoats tangling with her legs and her face burning with rage.

“Dara!”

Buck beat Louise to Dara’s side and was treated to a look on Dara’s face that showed every sign of her parents’ loyal spirit and their tempers. “Dara?”

Her shoulders slumped when her Uncle bent down to look her in the face. “I know, Uncle Buck. I should be sorry, but what she said-”

“It doesn’t matter ‘what’ she said,” Louise reminded her daughter, “we don’t solve problems by hurting other people.”

“So I hafta apologize.” Dara turned and took a breath before walking over to Millicent, who had just gotten back on her feet. Dara kept her hands behind her. “I’m sorry you said something nasty about my friend and I had to knock you on the floor.”

Millie glared back at her over a false smile. “I’m sorry you have horrible manners and you got in trouble.”

Mr. Lakewood cleared his throat and Teo looked straight across to the other line and clearly spelled out, “Q-U-I-V-E-R.”

Dara gave him a smile and nodded at her brother.

*** ***

The spell down continued back and forth, up and down the line. Louis tripped over the double letters in raccoon because he was a bit over confident and Tadeo’s laughter at his old friend turned to an answering scowl when he misspelled the word paradox, leaving Dara and Teo on one side and Millie on the other.

Mr. Lakewood cleared his throat when he turned to Dara. “Your word is ‘violence.’

Mr. Carter huffed and his wife ‘whispered’ a few pointed words on how she must know the word since she was so capable of it.

Across the room Jimmy folded his arms over his chest and stared at the woman, Lou a mirror of his disapproving glance beside him.

Dara pulled on the edge of her lip with her teeth. “Violence.” She opened her mouth once… and then closed it again. “Violence.”

“You have to ‘spell’ it,” Millie reminded her unnecessarily. “That’s how the competition works.”

“You can do it, Dara.” Louis was offering her his support and she was grateful, but she had a nagging doubt in her head.

“Violence.” She swallowed hard and looked up at Mr. Lakewood to avoid seeing Millie’s expression. “V-I-O… V-I-O-L…” Dara looked at her mother, fighting tears. “V-I-O-L-E-N-S-E.”

“HA!” Millie crumpled her dress as she fisted her hands in her velvet skirt. “She’s out!”

Dara knew it too. She knew as soon as the letters flew out of her mouth it had been a C instead of an S. She was mortified and refused to look at Millie or Teo as she turned around and shuffled back to her brother and sat down beside him on the hard wood floor. “I’m so sorry, Louis… “ She squeezed his hand in response as he laid his hand over hers.

“You did fine, Dee… ‘sides, Teo’s still in.”

She nodded, her head shaking up and down in response to her brother’s words.

*** ***

Millie lifted her head, shaking her curls around her shoulders. She knew how pretty her hair was and she smiled at the Indian boy. She wanted to distract him as much as possible. She doubted he’d ever seen hair as glorious as hers was.

Teo looked at her and raised a brow as he pondered her unfortunate hair color. ‘Bananas… Dara was right.’

Mr. Lakewood consulted his list and turned to Millie. “Your word is ‘unaware.’”

“That’s a good one for her. Ow!” Teaspoon looked down at Polly with a smile before shrugging. “What?”

Millie grinned. “U-N-A-W-A-R-E.”

“Teo, ‘character.’”

“C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R.”

It went back and forth for a few minutes with words like ‘taunt’ ‘judgment’ ‘weevil’ ‘honorary’ and then it happened, a chink in Millie’s armor.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lakewood, what did you say?” There was a definite element of panic in her voice and she swung her head around to look at her parents, her eyes begging for their help.

“The word is ‘camouflage.’”

“Cam-o-flage?” She sounded it out and licked at her lips as she pondered the word. “Sure, that one’s easy.” She set her chin and lifted her eyes to Mr. Lakewood. “C-A-M-O-U… no, that’s not it, is it?” She looked over at her mother and saw a subtle movement of her head but she couldn’t see if it was a nod or a shake. She waited a fraction of a second to see if her mother was going to repeat the movement.

But she didn’t.

“C-A-M-O-F-L-A-G-E. Camouflage.”

Her mother gasped out loud in the room and it seemed to echo in the room. Millie shook her head, “Wait! I’m not… that’s not… I didn’t mean that!”

Mr. Lakewood was already facing Teo. “Your word is-”

Millie grabbed his arm, “No! Wait! I’ll spell it again!”

“I’m sorry, Millie, but you-”

“It’s not fair!! I wasn’t really done! I-”

“Millie!” She froze in mid thought and turned to her father. He was red in the face, his eyes near bulging as he struggled to reign in his anger. “Enough.”

Mr. Lakewood looked down at the last remaining child on Louis’ team. “You’ll have to spell one more word to win. Your word is ‘desecration’.”

Rosa looked up at her husband and gave him a kiss on his jaw. “This should be fun.”

Teodoro Cross looked up at the teacher and then over at Millie and gave her a little smile that had her cheeks blazing with heat.

“Desecration. D-E-S-E-C-R-A-T-I-O-N. Desecration.”

The cheer that went up in the room drowned out Millie’s wailing and her mother’s argument that the last word was much too simple.

Teaspoon and his extended family descended upon the young man and hugs followed as Mr. Carter set the prize basket in Louis’ hands. “Congratulations, son… your team won.” It might have been that his voice wasn’t full of sincerity, but he turned and walked away as soon as he could.

Louis was busy for a few minutes, handing out the bounty in the basket, setting a fat orange into the hand of each of his team members, until he got to Dara and Teo. Between the three of them there were only two left. “You go ahead,” Louis began, looking at them both, “I got out first between the three of us, you two take one.”

“No… it’s fine,” Dara backed away, “I don’t really like them. You two take it.”

She disappeared into the throng of well wishers. Teo was left staring at the orange that Louis put in his hand. “Since when?”

Digging into the fragrant skin of his orange, Louis barely heard him. “When what?” He slipped a section of the orange into his mouth and mopped up the line of orange juice that slid down his chin.

“When did Dara stop liking fruit?”

“I dunno,” Louis grinned, “as far as I know she likes them enough. Why?”

Teo weighed the fruit in his hand, the bumpy texture of the skin sliding over his palm. He looked at Louis. “I’ll be back.”

*** ***

Tracking a lizard over the sandy soil of the desert was easy, tracking a young girl in hard soled shoes across a hard wood floor, near impossible. There weren’t any tricks he could use to find Dara Hickok, so Teo was forced to do it the only other way he could. He had to look… everywhere.

The dance was in full swing when Teo cracked open the door to the back alley and saw a little form huddled on the step below him. Closing the door quietly he stepped down and sat beside her, his eyes downcast at their shoes lined up beside each other.

Dara didn’t bolt or run when he sat down beside her, but she did look up at the darkening sky and watched the snowflakes falling down from the sky. “You didn’t have to come out here.”

“I know.”

“I’m fine, really. I was half ‘pecting someone like my Papa or Uncle Buck to come out once they figured I wasn’t in there. Then again, they’re probably dancing and they should be… it’s a fun night. A good dance, probably and Mama sure likes dancing so they’re probably in there. Your Mama too. She’s a good dancer. Don’t you think?” “Sure,” he paused for a moment, “I think.”

It took her a long moment to hear way he said it and she turned around her eyes wide with worry. “I... oh Teo, I didn’t say it that way… you know that, right?

“Right.” He nodded and then a slow smile spread over his lips.

Dara smacked him on the arm. “That’s not nice… making me think that I made you think that… oh!” She smacked him on the arm again. “That’s sooo not nice.”

She folded her arms and set them down on her knees, her eyes dark and looking down at the ground.

Reaching into his pocket he fished out the orange and with his other hand he pulled a knife from his boot. “Then I should probably apologize.” He deftly sliced into the skin of the orange all the way around the fruit, making it easy for him to pull back the skin and expose the flesh beneath. With a quick flick of his wrist he pricked the flesh and a couple drops of orange juice spurted from the fruit scenting the air.

Dara turned and looked up at him; her eyes wide as her tongue snaked out and swept at her bottom lip. “Didn’t you eat it yet? That’s an orange, Teo!”

“I know.” He peeled back a section of it and held it between his fingers as he looked at her. “I was wondering if there was someone who wanted to share it with me, but if you don’t like oranges then-”

“I never said that! I loooove oranges.”

Teo dangled the section at her and wiggled it before her eyes. “Then take it.”

She nearly snatched it from his fingers as though she expected him to yank it away. “I will.” With a big grin she popped it in her mouth.

Teo did the same and they sat there munching as he peeled piece after piece giving her a piece and then eating one himself. When they’d finished the fruit he gave her a grin and brushed at her hair, knocking off a few snowflakes that had caught instead of falling down to the ground. She saw the flakes fall and looked up at him with soft wondering eyes. “Thanks…”

He smiled at her and replied that, “You’re welcome.” He cleaned his knife off and slid it back into his boot. “Thank you.”

“For what?” She blushed and shook her head. “For knocking that prissy Millie Carter on her behind? No problem. That was easy.”

“No. Not really.” Teo stood up and offered her his hand. She looked at it for a moment, but curiosity won out over her confusion and he helped her to her feet.

When they were standing she realized that she had to look up a little to see into his eyes. Teo was growing… they all were, but Teo and his brother were a few years older than she was and it was beginning to really show. “Then what?”

He gave her a little half grin that had her smiling as well. “For believing in me.”

*I was reading in a book about Old West winter time activities… and they talked about a Spell Down.*

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