Author's Note: A continuation of 'After the Express' Chapter One
She sat quietly in the darkness, her mind wandering back to a cool autumn day. Lying on the ground by the lake. Briar Lake.
'Seems like a lifetime ago…' she mused, her skin already showing the flush of heat that ran through her.
She shifted in the straw bed as she remembered the wind blowing across her bare skin, goose flesh rising not only from the wind; but also from the hands of the man she still loved. Her protector.
She remembered the day like it was yesterday and she remembered him just as if he stood next to her.
As she dreamed, she remembered the time they spent in each other's arms; the velvet caress of his calloused hands. His long, dark hair dragging across her bare skin; the smell of horses, leather, and an indiscernible flavor that was all Jimmy.
As she closed her eyes and let the memories overtake her as they had done many times before, an explosion shook the entire building and brought her back to reality.
As the dust settled, she shook her head to clear it, and saw a shadowy figure make its way to her; a hand reaching through the darkness and grabbing her shirt, pulled her to a standing position. "Get up and walk if you wanna get outta here," a rough voice growled and she was shoved through the hole in the wall.
She stumbled through the darkness, tripping over debris and bodies. She reached the cool night air gasping, pulling clean air into her lungs and saw a lone rider waiting in the darkness with two horses.
"You sure she's worth it," the dark shadow on the horse asked. His voice was low and rough with whiskey.
"I been draggin' her outta trouble for the last 23 years," said the first man as he shoved her toward one of the horses. "Why should now be any different."
She had cleared her head enough to recognize the voice of the man who pulled her from the prison. But still in a state of shock, she couldn't believe what was happening. She dragged herself up on the horse, "if you hadn't promised the old woman, there'd be no need, would there," She coughed as she mounted, still trying to clear her lungs of the dust. "Besides, I can take care of myself."
"Yeah, looks like you were doing a good job. I told you that fool Gentry was a no-count." He mounted his horse and looked at her. "We're drivin' a herd of cattle down to Texas, keep yourself outta trouble," and they spurred their horses and were gone.
She was alone again, alone in the quiet night. She could hear the movement of the others trying to orient themselves in the rubble and the shadows. She spurred her horse into the night, going in the opposite direction of those that freed her, just as the rifle shots pierced the air.
She had been in prison for almost 4 years. But she had been wrongly accused. She thought Gentry had loved her and that taking the ranches and land was all they were doing. She didn't know he was capable of killing, capable of cold-blooded murder.
But now she was free. Free to go after the only man she ever loved. She knew that he loved her. He told her he would protect her and not let anyone hurt her again. He promised. Even when he was behind bars, wrongly accused of a murder he didn't commit.
She knew she still loved him. All she had to do now was find him, and their son. He had just turned 3. The day stayed with her. It was her dreams and memories that kept her going. She knew one day she would be out, and now that day was here.
The guard told her about the mission school that took in unwanted children; "orphans and bastards," he'd said. A cold chill ran down her spine. She bent lower over the mare and spurred her on.
The easy part would be getting her son from the mission school. The hard part would be finding the man who promised to protect her.
It was the middle of the night when she found the Mission school. She stayed hidden in the trees behind the school as she watched, learning all she could about the school and the area, trying to catch a glimpse of her son. During the dark of the night she crept quietly peering in windows, learning her way around the grounds. She made a mental note of the barn, the garden, the play area and the few farms animals that were in the barn.
After almost a week of watching, she approached the school. She saw no one as she entered the yard and tethered her horse to the hitchin' post and then slowly climbed the steps to the porch of the school.
It was nearly noon and there was no one about. She planned it that way. She stood on the porch and looked out across the grounds, took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
After several minutes she knocked again, and soon a tall elderly woman answered the door. Her face was lined with age and she had dark piercing eyes that looked Sarah over from head to toe. Her face framed in the typical nun habit.
"Can I help you?" She asked her voice frail with age.
Sarah stood looking at the woman before she answered. "Yes, I'm here looking for my son." She waited for a reply from the nun.
The elderly nun looked at Sarah. She noticed her dusty clothes and weathered attire. She peered past her at the horse tied to the hitching post in front of the school. "Please come in. We were just sitting down to our noonday meal. You are welcome to join us." She stepped back and allowed Sarah to enter the school, closing the door quietly behind her. "My name is Sister Margaret." She turned and smiled at Sarah, expectantly.
After several awkward seconds Sarah spoke up, "I'm Sarah," she said with a smile. "Sarah Butler" and she extended her hand to Sister Margaret, who gripped her hand then looked up, startled at the name.
"Butler?" Sister Margaret replied with a warm, welcoming smile. "You would be Jace's mother?"
"Yes." Sarah said confidently. "Is he here?"
"Yes. He is in the dining area," Sister Margaret explained quietly. "Please, come and join us," she persuaded, thinking of the reunion to come between mother and son. "Then we will reunite you with your son."
Sarah tried to appear composed and calm while she followed Sister Margaret to the dining area. Her mind was racing and her heart was beating fit to burst just thinking of a future she would have with Jace and his father.
As they walked to the dining hall, Sister Margaret asked Sarah why her son was here at the school and had not been raised with her.
The lie flitted in her mind as she listened to the Nun. "My husband and I knew that with all the war effort, he would be best taken care of at the mission school." Sarah told Sister Margaret. She glanced at the nun, to see if her story sounded convincing. She saw no evidence of doubt in the nun's expression and pressed on. "So, now that my husband and I are no longer involved in the war effort, we decided to return to the area, collect our son and settle down as a family."
They walked to the dining hall and as they got closer Sarah could hear the low hum of many children.
"When was your son brought to the school?" The nun asked, watching Sarah closely.
"He was brought when he was an infant, not long after he was born. It would have been June. He turned 3 this past." Sarah could feel real tears welling up in her eyes as she thought of her son, the day he was born and the guards taking him from her so soon, leaving her in the dirt, on the floor of the prison.
"Yes, I am very familiar with Jace. He is such a strong, intelligent young man," the sister stated proudly. But quietly she was remembering. Remembering the day he was delivered to the school. Prison guards flitted through her mind, but she quickly put it aside. She must be mistaken.
"Thank you," Sarah breathed softly.
Sarah had tears in her eyes that the Nun heard in the sound of her voice. She slowed and turned to look at Sarah. "You will be together soon," she encouraged softly.
They entered a large spacious room with many tables. Sarah looked around the room at the children. She estimated around 30-35 kids, of all ages. She slowly pulled the chair offered to her and lowered herself beside Sister Margaret, still scanning the room and watching all the children. She was confident she would be able to pick her son out of the many children in front of her now.
As Sarah scanned the room and the children, she felt a light touch at her elbow. She turned to look and saw Sister Margaret pointing at a table of young boys. Sarah's eyes fell on a young boy with dark hair and a toothy grin on his face and her heart pounded.
She had found him.
Sister Margaret watched Sarah as she visually found her son. "Well, let's get a bite to eat and see if we can get you reacquainted with your son." The nun patted Sarah's hand, smiled and offered her a biscuit.
Life at the ranch was settling into a routine of day-to-day chores. Since their return from the mission school, Red Bear had arrived with several Indian ponies for breeding and sale, Ike was well mended and Jimmy was falling in love with Bright Star Falling.
Emmett Wallen had proved to be a valuable asset in the start of their ranch, and had also become a good family friend.
Their sale of horses had progressed much more quickly than anyone thought possible, and they were making a name for themselves and the ranch; a ranch that they had not yet named.
As Buck sat in the fading darkness, holding Lou, who was sleeping peacefully, he watched the sun crest the horizon. When he built their home, he built it so their bedroom faced the rising sun. He also built the house big enough to house many children, the first of which was on her way.
But now, as the sun peaked above the horizon, he cradled Lou in his arms, and rested his hand on her well-rounded tummy. At night, when he fell asleep he held her close, wanting to protect his wife and his child from the outside world. He spoke every night to the wee infant in Kiowa. Singing the songs his mother sang to him when he was young.
As his thoughts wandered, he slowly massaged Lou's middle. She stirred and looked up at him.
"Good morning," she said sleepily, reveling in the massage done to her middle. "If you keep that up, she'll be spoiled before she even gets here." She giggled and rolled slightly, wrapping her arm around Buck's middle.
"That's okay. That will give me an excuse to never put her down," his voice husky with sleep and love, "except when I want to hold her mama." He kissed her forehead, making his way down to her cheek, to her chin, then her lips. "Are you ready to get up, Mrs. Cross?" he said through a kiss and began a new trail down her jaw. "I can hear Star downstairs with Jimmy, but I don't think that's reason enough to let you go," he mumbled into a trail of kisses leading to her neck. "They can find their way around."
Lou's head fell back as she lost herself in the moment, goose flesh rising on her arms and down her back. "You know, it's exactly this kinda behavior that got me in this shape in the first place." Buck could hear the teasing and the attempts at scolding to her voice, and knew that she was perfectly content, right where she was.
"Yes, but I like this behavior," he mumbled through a kiss, "and I love this shape." He smiled and continued his assault, traveling down her neck.
Getting up in the morning was no longer a problem for Jimmy. Bright Star Falling was an early riser, so Jimmy followed suit. He made his way over to Buck and Lou's house every morning before the sun had crested the horizon. He liked this time with Star all to himself.
And this morning was no different. He could already smell the coffee.
As he walked in the house, he could see Star in the kitchen busy with her morning rituals. With Lou getting closer to delivery everyday, Star was taking over most of the house chores for Lou.
Jimmy walked through the house quietly, watching Star move about. He stopped at the door leading to the kitchen and leaned against the frame, quietly listening. He knew she had probably heard him, but he stood quietly, watching as she worked.
Star was busy making bread. She had flour across her apron and on her face. And she made no move that made Jimmy think that she knew he was close. So he watched.
Star kept up her mixing and cooking, smiling as she worked. "Are you going to stand there all morning and watch me?" Her cheeks blushed to deep crimson.
"Yep. Til sunset." Jimmy teased and waited.
When Star didn't reply, he came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him. "I could watch you all day, then all night." He kissed her cheek and trailed down her neck.
Star leaned back into him and tilted her head to one side, allowing easy access. She moaned and then remembered where she was. "Jimmy, someone will hear us," and she giggled as he continued.
"Everyone's sleepin'," Jimmy murmured into her neck and continued.
"No. Buck is awake. I heard him when I came down this morning. He will hear us," and Starr pulled forward a fraction of an inch and continued her baking.
Jimmy pulled away, reluctantly. "I'm gonna get you a house of your own, that way I can nibble all I want, when I want." He finished with a smile, turning her to face him and kissing her lightly on the lips. He looked in her eyes, then reached up and wiped the flour from her cheek.
She laughed. "I need to set this bread to rise if you want to eat today," she finished softly.
Jimmy stepped toward the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. "We're gonna break those new mares Red Bear brought us today. They're a good breeding stock." He watched out the window as Star finished the bread and began breakfast.
Yes, he liked this life, waking up every morning to be with Star. Living close to the friends that had quickly become the family he never had.
Jimmy leaned against the corral fence, thinking about Star. He was glad she decided to move in with Buck and Lou after the bunkhouse was complete. He saw her everyday and found himself missing her when to sun went down and the stars came out.
As he waited, watching Ike work the new stock, his mind wandered back to the long walks in Ike's meadow, the evenings on the porch, the sunsets while sitting on the porch swing and he wondered if this was how Ike and Buck felt about Emily and Lou. He wondered, with his background, if he could have a life like Buck and Ike.
He loved everything about Star and wanted to spend his life with her. As he watched Ike and mused about Star, he saw Buck heading toward the barn.
"'Bout time you get up." Jimmy grinned at Ike. "We thought we was gonna have to break this bunch all on our own." He winked at Ike. "You'd a thought those two were newly weds," he teased as he leaned on the corral fence, looking at Ike but throwing his head in Buck's direction.
Ike smiled, and dropped his gaze to the ground, shaking his head. Buck crossed the ranch yard heading for the barn, ignoring both of them, but grinning all the same.
~That will be you one day.~ Ike signed to Jimmy, pointing to Buck. ~If you ever start thinking with your head~ he tapped a finger to his head, ~and not your gun.~ He jabbed a finger at the colt that was strapped to Jimmy's hip and smiled.
"I hope you're right, Ike." Jimmy said with a quiet, anxious tone.
Ike looked at him. Unsure of what Jimmy was trying not to say, but at the same time, had an idea he knew what was coming, very soon.
~There's nothing better.~ Ike clapped a hand to Jimmy's shoulder and gestured toward the horse they were breaking.
"How's that black mustang settlin' in?" Buck hollered back as he continued to the barn, still ignoring the two.
"Quiet through the night, least the stall's still standin'," Jimmy teased, while he scaled the fence to catch up with Buck. "Hey Buck, can I talk to you a minute about Star?"
Buck stopped and turned, looking at Jimmy, questioning. "What about her?"
"I… well… I want to ask…" Jimmy had stopped beside Buck and looked at his own foot that was digging a hole in the dirt, a soft chuckle escaping through a look of embarrassment.
Buck leaned down and peered up at Jimmy, a smile across his face. "The great Wild Bill lookin' to settle down finally?"
Jimmy smiled and his head fell forward, his hair falling to curtain his face and hide his embarrassment. "Yeah, but I don't know if" he started but quickly changed directions. "Her past. She's Lakota, you know." He looked at Buck and saw him stiffen, and something else that he couldn't recognize. It only lasted a fleeting moment, but he was sure it was anger. He quickly amended, "Is there anything I should do, you know, before I ask her to marry me?" Jimmy was looking at Buck and saw him physically relax. "Any special custom... you know.... any Indian rules I need to follow."
A look of total surprise was quickly seen on Buck's face. "Well…" Buck continued on to the barn, slowly. "Do you know anything about her family, anyone that she's still in contact with?" Buck stopped and looked at him.
"Her father is dead, killed by trappers. Her mother died when Star was born." Jimmy looked at Buck, "she was a white woman, you know?"
"I wondered…" and his voice trailed off. They stopped just outside the barn doors, Buck listening to Jimmy and thinking.
"Her aunt raised her, but Star was mistreated after her father died, so she left. Her aunt helped her to leave in the middle of the night." Jimmy watched Buck, he saw the emotion in the Kiowa's eyes, and recognized the far-away look. He knew Buck wasn't listening and he waited patiently as Buck came back to the present.
Buck was thinking back to when he left his village in the night, his brother had encouraged it. Red Bear had wanted him to learn the ways of the white man, because he thought that would be best. Buck thought about always pleasing his brother, always doing things to seek his approval. He thought about the mission school, Ike and his pony express family, and hoped Star could be just as happy as he was.
He turned to look at Jimmy who had a patient, expectant look about his face. Buck grinned sheepishly.
"It's okay, Buck. She feels the same way." Jimmy patted Buck on the shoulder and headed back to the corral.
"Jimmy," Buck called after his friend as he turned to leave.
"I'm sorry… about before. When you mentioned her past and that she was Lakota. It's…well…"
Jimmy was looking at Buck, and he recognized the honesty on his face.
Buck continued. "If she doesn't have any family that you would need to answer to, then you only need to ask her for her hand," he smiled. "And I hope you will be as happy here as I am with Lou."
"I wasn't sure, you know, about tradition." Jimmy shrugged, "and it's ok Buck, like I said, she feels the same way." He turned back to the corral, pulling on his black gloves. "I best get busy or that wife of yours won't feed any of us, we don't get these horses ready for sale." And he headed out across the ranch yard, back to the corral, turning back to holler, "No matter if my future wife cooks it."
Buck smiled and continued on to the barn.
As Jimmy reached for the fence to join Ike, his thoughts on Star, he stopped suddenly when he heard the undeniable sound of hooves splintering wood and the muffled grunt of Buck. As he turned and ran to the barn, he heard the high-pitched neigh of an angry horse, and moved just in time as the mustang ran from the barn.
"Buck!" he hollered as he entered the barn. He stopped at the door and saw Buck pushing the railings from the stall off himself. "You all right?" He reached for the fence railings as Buck moved to sit up.
At that moment, Ike came flying into the barn. He skidded to a stop on the ground, next to Buck.
"I think so." Buck sat up and rubbed his right arm and shoulder.
"Maybe he wanted to sleep in, too," Jimmy said half-heartedly, trying to smile as he helped Buck to stand. He looked him over and noticed blood at his forehead. "Well, looks like one of ya got the worst of it." Jimmy said, removing his bandana from around his neck and applying pressure to Buck's forehead.
Buck winced, and he reached up and took the bandana from Jimmy.
"You may want Emma to look at that," Jimmy whistled. "She may need to put a stitch or two in it." They both took Buck by an elbow and led him out of the barn, toward the house.
Ike hit himself in the chest 3 time to get Jimmy's attention, ~I'll stay behind and clean up this mess,~ but then turned to look out across the ranch yard. ~Maybe I should go after the mustang,~ and again looked toward Jimmy, questioning what to do.
"Leave him Ike, he's probably half way to Red Bear at the reservation by now," and he continued toward the house with Buck. "We keep that animal around and we'll be seein' a lot of Red Bear," Jimmy smiled and chuckled, only speaking to Buck. "There's gotta be a way to settle that animal."
He walked Buck to the kitchen and set him in a chair and got a wet rag from the sink board and gave it to Buck. "Lou! Star!"
"Comin'." Lou shouted. She entered the kitchen and Buck heard her sharp intake of breath. "What happened?"
"I'm alright. That black mustang had the idea he was sleepin' in, too." He smiled at Lou, and then winked at Jimmy. "Didn't take kindly to me wakin' 'em up." As he glanced back at Lou, he lowered the rag from his head. "Jimmy thinks I'm gonna need a stitch."
He leaned his head back as Lou took the cold rag and dropped it into a pan of soapy water. "Emma should be here any minute. We were plannin' on making curtains for Emmett's room." She looked at the wound then began the process of cleaning it. "This may sting." She said softly and kept working.
"If you stay right here with me, I think I can take it." Buck smiled and peered up at Lou, his line of vision right at the same level of her bosom. Lou did the same, smiling down at Buck as he winked up at her, wincing at the pain in his forhead.
As Lou cleaned Buck's wound, Jimmy looked out the kitchen window and saw Emma's wagon coming into the ranch yard. "There's Emma." He turned back to Lou, "where's Star?"
"She's in the back bedroom," Lou looked up at Jimmy. "I told her I'd be right back. You best get her, we may need another pair of hands for Little Lilly while Emma stitches up Buck."
Little Lilly had come to live with Sam and Emma when Abigail, Emma's best friend and Little Lily's mother, had died during the winter months from pneumonia.
Little Lilly was just 18 months when her mother died. She had pale red hair like her mama, a kind heart, and at the very young age of 5, she knew Sam and Emma simply as mama and papa. So she melded right in to Sam and Emma's life, just like the rest of the orphans Emma took in.
Buck watched out the window as Jimmy helped Emma from the wagon and explained what had happened. "Tomorrow I stay in bed with you," and he wrapped his arms around her waist, looking up at her with a wicked smile on his face.
"I think maybe you got hit a little to hard again, cowboy," she smiled and reached down and kissed him.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Star had entered to kitchen looking for Lou and found her, just as she was kissing Buck. She turned quickly on her foot to leave.
Lou chuckled. "This Indian of mine got a crack in the head from a horse with ideas of sleepin' in. Emma's gonna need to stitch him up. We may need help with Little Lilly." Lou said, having hard time hiding the grin on her face from Star's reaction.
"Oh. Of course." She smiled. "I'll get the medical kit," and she walked toward the back of the kitchen, to the wash room to get the needed supplies.
Lou turned toward Buck and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. They were both chuckling at Star's reaction when Emma entered the kitchen, Jimmy carrying Little Lilly, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck.
"All right you two," they both jumped, and turned to Emma. "You must not be injured to bad to be carryin' on the way you are," Emma teased as she walked across the kitchen to Lou and Buck. "Let me see what we got here." She leaned Buck's head back and looked at the wound. "Yep, four, maybe five stitches ought to do it." She turned to Lou. "Would you get me a candle, and light it, please."
Lou left the kitchen as Star walked in with the medical kit. "Here you go, Emma," and she placed it on the table at Buck's elbow. Little Lilly climbed off Jimmy's lap and ran to Star. Star scooped her up in her arms as Little Lilly threw her arms around her neck and hugged her tight.
"Mmmm. I missed you, Little Lilly." Star said as she hugged the small child close to her.
"I missed you too, Aunty Star." Little Lilly replied, kissing Star on the cheek.
"You better heat up that needle and thread me some black thread, about a foot and half ought to be plenty to work with." Emma spoke to Star as she scrubbed her hands. "Heat up a pan of water, too; Lou will need some cleansing herbs steeped to keep that wound clean."
"Come on Little Lilly, you can help me get the medicine pot from the back porch," and they left the room hand in hand, Jimmy watching after them, and Emma was watching Jimmy.
Lou entered the kitchen, carrying the candle. Emma took the candle and held it to the side of Buck's head. "Just look at me Buck," she said and moved the candle into Buck's line of vision. She did the same on the other side. "Doesn't seem to be any other problems." She said as she repeated the procedure.
"What's that do, Emma?" Lou asked, an anxious look on her face.
"I'm not sure what it shows, but Doc says if the pupils don't react to the light, there's a problem." She looked at Lou and reassured her. "He's fine. Seems his head's still just as hard," and she turned to Buck and smiled. "Did the mustang catch you in the head, or was it something else?" She asked, his chin still in her hand as she examined his forehead.
"It was the fence. He had other ideas on his mind," Buck said looking at Emma. "He was gone before I knew what hit me. Ike's fixin' the stall, but Red Bear will be here in a few days with the mustang."
Emma chuckled and started to clean the wound.
It didn't take long for Emma to figure out it was gonna take five stitches to put Buck back together or for Cody to figure out all the help was gone from the barn.
"This here is a workin' ranch, not a ranch for Cody to do it all on his own," he was saying as he walked in the front door. "Where is everybody?"
"Keep it down will ya, we're in here." Emma called out as she cleaned up the mess from her handy work to Buck's head.
Cody entered the kitchen with Ambrose on his heels. "What's goin' on? Ike said the mustang got a piece of Buck." He glanced to Buck and winced. "He's a feisty one, ain't he?" and grinned at Buck.
"Yeah. Red Bear ought to be showin' up in a few days. The last time that mustang busted through the barn, that's where he ended up." Buck had his elbows on the table and was rubbing his forehead with both hands. "No need goin' after him again."
"You get all the supplies we needed, Ambrose?" Jimmy asked, watching Buck and glancing at Ambrose.
"Yeah. Everything on the list." Ambrose turned to go and unload the wagon as Jimmy stood to follow.
"C'mon Cody. This ain't a Jimmy/Ambrose ranch, it's a workin' ranch and it's time to work." Everyone chuckled as Cody stood and left the kitchen.
As Cody went out the door, Emily came in with the boys. "Am I too late? Are all the curtains made?" she asked jokingly as she entered the kitchen. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt." She glanced at Buck, his head in his hands. "You okay Buck?" she asked as she approached the rider.
"Yeah. That mustang," he said with a bit to much venom, "wounded my pride and gave me a headache is all." He smiled at Emily to soften his tone and rose from the chair. "Think I better help with the wagon." He gave Lou a peck on the cheek and followed the others outside.
"Well girls, we got curtains to make." Emma said as she wrapped an arm around Lou, who was watching Buck leave. Lou watched Buck leave the house then turned to look at Emma. "He'll be just fine," Emma said softly and pulled Lou to her side.
Evening rolled around and everyone sat at the table at Buck's house for dinner. The curtains were finished and hanging, the boys and Little Lilly had all been fed.
As everyone sat down to dinner, Sam came in from town. "There's a man in town lookin' for some horse flesh." Sam said looking at the riders. "He's stayin' at the hotel. Said he'd be out here in the morning."
"How many's he needin'?" Emily asked with her serious business-like tone.
"Didn't say, just said he needed some horses. Said his name was Jackson," he thought a minute as he chewed, "yeah, that's it. Morgan Jackson." Sam continued to eat, "seemed an all right fella', real nice. Drivin' cattle into Texas." and he returned to his plate.
"Best put 'em all in the barn tonight, be ready when he gets here." Jimmy gave Star a kiss and rose from the table. "Buck how's that head? We can get 'em in, if you want to head on upstairs." Jimmy said as he walked toward the back door.
"I'm okay." He kissed Lou and followed Jimmy out the door. "We got plenty of stock on hand for him to choose from…" Their conversation faded as the walked out the back door; Ike, Cody and Ambrose following.
Teaspoon was watching from his chair at the head of the table, a smile across his face. "Them boys are gonna do alright," Teaspoon said looking at Emma, then turning to the group still at the table. "Gonna do alright."
All the boys were up early and out at the barns at sun-up. They spent the next couple of hours separating the horses into individual stalls, brushing them down and combing their manes and tails. By the time Lou, Emily and Star had breakfast ready, the horses looked like they were ready for a church social.
Star had just finished setting the plates on the table when she heard the boys approach the back door to get washed up.
"I figure he should be here in a bit, if he's serious about the purchase," Jimmy said as he followed Buck into the kitchen. He walked over to Star and planted a kiss on her cheek and Star blushed a deep crimson.
"Yeah. I wish we knew what he was interested in. That would help us a bit." Buck walked over to Lou and gave her a peck on the cheek, then sat in the chair next to her. "Most of our stock on hand now is wrangling and riding stock."
"No sense gettin' all worked up over the wait," Cody said as he helped himself to a biscuit before he sat down. "He'll be here soon enough."
Breakfast passed in a flurry of 'what ifs' and 'maybes'. Star was just getting ready to fill coffee cups again, when she looked out the window and saw a rider approaching.
"Look's like the wait is over," she said smiling and glancing at the group at the table. They all looked up at her, and then followed her lead, gathering around the window.
Off in the distance, a lone rider could be seen coming toward the ranch.
"Well, no use standin' here," Jimmy said as he stood by Star. "Let's go see what he needs." He pulled Star to him and kissed her, lingering for a moment, then turned and walked out the door.
Star watched him as he left, trying to catch her breath, not unnoticed by Lou.
Lou smiled at Buck as he leaned in to kiss her. He paused and looked at her, a question forming to be asked, but Lou kissed him quickly and gave him a look that said 'don't go there, Buck'. He kissed her again and glanced at Star, then got up and followed Jimmy out the door.
"See, just like a man with money to interrupt my breakfast." Cody said as he followed the others to the back door, fixing bacon between two halves of a biscuit.
He was dressed in a brown suit with a wide cowboy hat and a string tie at his neck. He looked as if he had just ridden in off the high plains of some big ranch. Even the saddle that sat atop of the brown mare had an expensive tailored look to it.
Jimmy looked at Buck, his eyebrows raised, and they turned toward the corral, both smiling at the attire of their guest.
The rider dismounted and extended a hand toward Cody. "My names Morgan Jackson. Was told you had horses for sale."
"Yes sir. Name's Cody, William F. Cody." and he extended his hand. "This is Ambrose, Ambrose Merryweather." Cody said, gesturing toward Ambrose. They shook hands and slowly walked across the ranch yard to the barn. "What exactly are you needin' today, Mr. Jackson."
The riders had learned a long time ago it was best to let Cody talk to unannounced buyers. He had the gift for gab and could get the buyers to relax and browse through the stock. Today they had thirty-six horses on hand, twenty-two were saddle and lead broke and ready for sale.
As Mr. Jackson was shown the horses in the barn, Jimmy, Ike and Buck continued to work the stock in the smaller corral. Not long after their return from Emmett's, a second corral was built and used for training and breaking new horses. It got to be tiresome and tedious, moving horses from corral to barn, just so training could be done.
As Mr. Jackson walked and admired the horses, he told Cody about the ranch where he was foreman, in South Dakota.
"Why'd you come so far for horses, Mr. Jackson?" Ambrose asked, looking at him, questioning.
"We're on a drive to Texas. Sold eighteen hundred head-a-cattle and we're takin' 'em south." Mr. Jackson removed his hat, and wiped at his forehead. "Several of our horses got into snakeroot vines while out to graze, had to put 8 horses down. Nothing we could do, they were poisoned."
"Oh, that's horrible." Ambrose replied with a look of shock on his face. "I wasn't aware that could happen." He had an innocent look about him that only Ambrose could pull off.
Mr. Jackson looked at Ambrose, studied him more like, wondering if a ranch hand could be so... unknowing and appear so innocent at the same time.
"Ambrose is new to ranchin' and horses. Moved here from the big city to be closer to the Wild West." Cody smiled his big friendly smile, trying to calm some of Mr. Jackson's fears he knew were rising. "He's still learnin' a lot," he wrapped an arm around Mr. Jackson's shoulders. "Now, just tell us what horses you've decided on and we'll get you ready to head back to your drive."
Mr. Jackson pointed out the horses that he intended to purchase. A bill of sale was drawn up and the money exchanged hands.
"We'll be out in the mornin' to get 'em." He pulled the reins to his horse from the hitchin' post and walked back toward Cody. "We'll be headin' out about daybreak from here, is that a problem?" he asked looking at Ambrose, then Cody.
"No sir. We'll have 'em ready to go." Ambrose smiled and shook Mr. Jackson's hand. "Will you be drivin' 'em along or should we put them on a couple of leads?"
"I've got a few hands with me. They stayed in town this mornin', so tether them by 3's and we can lead 'em." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. "This should take care of the leads and the overnight stay," he handed Ambrose another twenty dollars.
"We'll have 'em ready." Ambrose said, Cody at his side, "and thank you Mr. Jackson, see you in the mornin'."
Mr. Jackson mounted his horse and was gone. Cody and Ambrose walked to the corral with Jimmy and the others.
"Well, how'd it go?" Jimmy asked. He was leaning against Star, who was sitting on the top rail of the fence, watching the riders break the stock.
"He bought 12 horses." Ambrose said with a huge grin. "Nice fella. Said he'd be back in the mornin' to pick up the horse. Their headin' for Texas." Ambrose went on to explain the whole story to the others. When he finished he asked Buck about the white snakeroot.
As Buck explained, he turned and watched the lone rider fading on the horizon, thinking.
As the day wore on, Emily made a run into town to the bank. She stopped at Tompkins store to pick up a few supplies for the houses. As she returned to the wagon, she was unaware of the lady who had been watching her, was now approaching her.
Emily turned and looked at the woman standing behind her, a small child at her side. "Yes. Can I help you?"
"I'm new to the area. My son and I," and she gestured with her head to the little boy who was holding her hand, "just bought the Gentry place just outside of Sweetwater, and I was wondering," she looked at Emily, trying to be sociable and friendly, "We need 2 new horses. The gentleman at the livery pointed you out. Said you had horses for sale." She smiled at Emily, trying to be friendly.
Emily looked at her, then her son and returned the friendly manner. "Yes, ma'am. I can help you with that. My friends and I have a horse ranch just south of town. You're welcome to come and see our stock."
"Oh. Well…" her son looked up at her, "I don't get…" her voice faltered. She squeezed her son's hand to keep him silent while she thought of a way out of this.
"We need another horse, and a wagon. I'm getting' big enough to ride by myself." He smiled at Emily and then smiled at Sarah.
"Oh, of course you are." Emily smiled and bent over, her hands on her knees. "You and your ma are welcome to come out any time and take a look. Just follow the road south of town you'll see the ranch. Anytime's good."
Emily watched as the woman held a hanker-chief to her chest and breathed slowly. "I'm sorry…" She glanced around, looking at her son, her mind racing. But she was spared any further explanation.
Emily took her by the elbow and led her to the bench in front of the hotel. "Here, lets sit a bit, til you catch your breath."
Again, she fanned herself with her hanky. Her breathing still slow and deliberate, trying to keep herself calm. She knew where Jimmy was, and she wanted to go to him.
"Did you say you just moved here, to Sweetwater?" Emily asked, watching the woman.
"Yes," she replied in what she hoped was a weak voice. "You run the ranch with your friends?"
Emily smiled again, "yes, we started the ranch after the pony express closed down. There are 7 of us." Emily raised her hands, counting off the members of the ranch. "My husband, Ike and I, my good friend Lou and her husband, Buck. Then there's Cody and Ambrose, and Jimmy and Star." Emily paused a minute. She had eight fingers up from the counting. "Well, I guess Star makes us eight," she finished with a smile.
The woman looked at her, "Star?" There was a tone of sarcasm and ridicule in her attitude. "What kind of a name is that?" She tried to finish with a smile, but failed miserably.
Emily chuckled. "Yeah. That's Jimmy's girl. I reckin' they'll get married," she laughed, "If he ever gets the nerve up to ask her. She moved here from the orphanage…" Emily stopped, her attention diverted to the boy. "What did he…" She thought she heard the boy mutter something about 'Bright Star Falling.'
As she watched the boy, the woman abruptly rose, took the boy by the hand and walked away at a very quick pace.
Emily watched her for several minutes, then returned to the wagon and headed for home. Her thoughts kept returning to the boy and the woman. She convinced herself that she had imagined the whole incident with the boy and lost the thread of that thought when she pulled the wagon in to the ranch yard and Charlie and Chet came running out to greet her, with Little Lilly right behind them.
She wrapped her arms around the kids as Star approached her. "Where's Lou, she okay?" Emily asked Star as they walked to the front porch, where Star had been shelling peas when Emily pulled up. The boys were playing in the porch yard, pretending to ride horses, when in fact they had the brooms from the house.
"Yes, she's okay. She and Buck went on a walk." She said with a glance and mischievous smile Emily's way. "They took sandwiches, I think they'll be gone for awhile." She finished with a far-a-way look in her eyes, looking out across ranch yard, her chin dropped slightly.
"Star?" Emily said after watching her friend for several minutes.
Star looked up at Emily, her face full of emotion. Tears at the corners of her eyes. "I'm okay. I just…" but she didn't finish. The girls had had this conversation numerous times before. Star wanted her relationship to move forward with Jimmy, but his past held him back.
"Be patient. No one's come lookin' for him in quite awhile," Emily said trying to reassure her friend. "His past haunts him. He doesn't want any of us, you included, to get hurt if someone thinks he's Wild Bill."
Star smiled a small, almost heart-rending smile. "I know," and she patted Emily's hand. "I can wait." She dried her tears and looked at Emily, "I just love him so much," she said in a tiny whisper, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I don't want him to leave. And I especially don't want him to leave because he thinks he needs to protect me."
They carried the supplies in the house then sat in companionable silence and finished the peas. Emily told Star about the new neighbors and the odd woman she had met in town, completely forgetting about the incident with the child.
"She's new in town, maybe just tryin' to get settled." Star said looking out across the ranch yard. "It can be unsettling moving to a new area."
The next morning, just as the sun peeked over the horizon, Morgan Jackson showed up at the ranch with 4 other men. Buck and Jimmy were up and had the horses ready, and Star was in the kitchen and had coffee going. She peered out the window when she heard the sound of the horse hooves.
She watched as introductions were made as the men dismounted. Buck and Mr. Jackson were talking very animatedly over a small leather pouch that Buck was holding. Mr. Jackson listening intently to every word.
Star raised the window slightly and knelt down to listen.
"… in the horse, it will help neutralize the poison from the snakeroot vines. But you need to do it fairly quickly after they have eaten it. It's best to use a cattail reed. They won't want to drink. You'll need to force it in 'em." Buck went on to explain to Mr. Jackson, how to use the cattail reed to his advantage, to get the horses to drink.
As Star watched the men, she noticed that 2 of the men had separated themselves from the group and were talking quietly, unaware that she could hear.
"I'm tellin' ya, that's Wild Bill," the first man said.
"Aaww, he said his name was Jimmy. Maybe he's just a relative." It wasn't an inquiry, it was a statement made to avoid trouble by the second man.
"Well, I aim to find out. He killed…"
Star didn't stay to listen to the rest. She made her way to the back door and picked up her bow and the arrows and made her way towards Jimmy, staying in the shadows of the house. She set the arrows beside her, pulled one arrow and took aim. She had a clear shot to both men from where she stood, and she aimed to defend the man she loved.
She had decided, that unless she saw anyone of them make a move toward Jimmy, she would do nothing. She didn't even plan on telling him, after they were gone, if nothing happened.
So she waited.
Buck and Mr. Jackson, after a bit of time, walked to the barn with the 2 other gentlemen to retrieve the horses tethered to each other in groups of three.
As she kept her eye on the others with Jimmy, it was plain to see the first man was not going to leave this alone. She noticed him take the leather strap off the gun in his holster as he walked several more steps closer to Jimmy. Jimmy was completely unaware of the developing events going on behind him. He was quietly leaning on the hitching post, watching Buck and Mr. Jackson at the barn with the horses.
"I'm gonna get you for killin' my brother, Wild Bill…" and he pulled his gun from the holster. At the same time Star let an arrow fly that caught the man in the upper arm of his gun hand.
He dropped his gun as the arrow hit him in the arm.
As the gun hit the ground, a shot rang out ricocheting off the barn. At the same time, Jimmy pulled his gun from his holster, pointing it at the man's chest. "I don't know what you're talkin' about mister, I told you, names Jimmy. Now, unless you intend on takin a round in the chest and few more arrows in the arm, I suggest you git on that horse and git outta here."
Buck heard the shot echo past his head and strike the barn above him. He ducked automatically at the sound and spun on his heal looking back at Jimmy and the others. His gun cleared the holster before he had completely turned. As he walked back to stand beside Jimmy, he heard the bunkhouse door clatter open.
Cody and Ambrose spilled out on the porch, still in their long johns, guns clutched in their hands. They slowly made their way across the ranch yard coming up behind the group of men. From the corner of his eye, Buck saw Ike. The same as Cody and Ambrose, he had heard the shot and came to help. Momentarily, Lou entered Buck's mind and he hoped she would stay put. He had every confidence in her with a gun. But now with the baby, it was different.
Quietly, Mr. Jackson had walked up on the situation and stood beside Buck. He held up his hand in front of Buck and took a small step forward.
"Rand, get him outta here," Mr. Jackson said quietly. "Take him back to town, get him to the doc." He then spoke to the injured man. "I suggest you keep your mouth shut Gentry when you get in town." Jackson had taken several steps toward Gentry, "Get yourself fixed up at the doc and get back to the drive; collect your wages and git. I don't need your kind on my drive." His voice never raised.
Jimmy was still looking at the injured man; his gun still pointed straight at his heart. He was pulled from his thoughts when he heard Mr. Jackson call the injured man by name. He looked at him. 'Gentry,' he repeated quietly in his mind. He knew that name. He tried to control his anger as the name from his past was considered.
The injured man scowled at Mr. Jackson, and then turned to Jimmy. The anger and vindication that pulsed through his veins was felt amongst the onlookers as Gentry stared at Jimmy.
They all watched as one of the other riders helped the injured man mount his horse, the arrow still lodged in his arm. With a final glare towards Jimmy, he turned his mount towards town and left.
Jimmy holstered his gun, but was on his guard as Mr. Jackson spoke. The others, still in place, slowly lowered their guns, but didn't holster them.
"My apologies to you, Mr. Hickok. I hope this won't interfere with any future purchases I may need to make here," and he took several small steps toward Jimmy with his hand extended.
Jimmy hesitated, hearing the others release their guns; he took Mr. Jackson's hand. "I hope you don't listen to all you hear and read. I never knew Wild Bill Hickok." Jimmy was looking at Mr. Jackson intently, trying to convey his quiet message to him. Ambrose stood across from Jimmy quietly; his eyebrow traveling farther up his forehead as he listened, his eyes glancing from Jimmy to Mr. Jackson and back again.
"I understand completely." He paused only a moment, "It's not him we need to worry about." Mr. Jackson was smiling and shaking his head. "It's whoever was on the other end of that arrow?"
Jimmy grinned, unsure, just when Star became aware of what was happening. He turned just as Star came out of the shadows, Lou walking quietly by her side. Star walked up beside Jimmy, her bow still in her hand; Lou walked over and stood beside Buck, he took the rifle and folded Lou in his arms.
Jimmy wrapped an arm around Star's waist, "Mr. Jackson, this is…" He stopped. He looked at her face and noticed the shape of her chin, the slight raise in her lips, the dark hair that hung in sleek beauty in contrast to her copper skin. Jimmy heard Lou clear her throat.
"This is Star," He said, turning to Mr. Jackson. He cleared his throat and regained some of his composure, "I mean, Bright Star Falling." He turned back to look at Star and quietly whispered, "She's the woman I'm gonna marry," he paused, "if she'll have me."
Star's heart jumped four beats and she inhaled sharply. She kept her eyes on Jimmy as she heard Mr. Jackson, "My best wishes to both of you."
Jimmy muttered his thanks and turned with Star as they walked toward the meadow beyond Ike's house. Star could hear subtle laughter and chuckles coming from the group behind her, as they walked hand in hand.
The group watched as Jimmy and Star walked away, Lou was smiling the biggest. Emily and Ike were walking to the group, watching Star and Jimmy, also. Emily asking Ike softly, "I wonder where they're off to," a grin stretched across her face.
"Buck, my apologies, again." Mr. Jackson extended his hand to Buck; Buck took his hand and smiled. "My thanks for your business, and for the help with the snakeroot vine," he held the leather pouch up for emphasis. He mounted his horse and turned to leave, stopping before heading out. "If people ask me where I got these horses and the help, what do I tell 'em."
Buck looked around at the other riders, a look of confusion on his face. It was Lou who answered. "Tell 'em to look for the 5 Riders Ranch outside of Sweetwater," and she smiled at the others then at the gentlemen on horseback.
"We'll do. Thanks," and they rode on.
They watched the group of riders' leave, the horses in tow, getting smaller on the horizon.
"Is someone gonna tell me what just happened?" Cody was rubbing his eyes, trying to wake up.
"C'mon, there's coffee on. You can fill us in." Lou smiled at Buck then turned to look at Star and Jimmy as they continued towards Ike's meadow. "Don't look like those 2 will be much use today." She laid her head on Buck's chest as she hugged him tighter, "Took him long enough," she said only loud enough for Buck to hear, and she felt his chest gently shake as he chuckled.
Emily fell in beside Lou quickly, dragging Ike by the hand. "You have to tell me everything I missed." And she locked her elbow with Lou's as they headed for the house, heads together and whispering animatedly.
When the two companions from the ranch, made their way into town, the injured man continued to grumble over events that transpired at the ranch.
"I know someone who's gonna be real interested in that Hickok feller. You just wait. I know she'll want to know where he is and that he no longer has intentions of protecting her." There was a violent tone to his voice as he finished his sentence. "You see that half-breed he was holdin'?"
"Can't you just drop it? You already lost your job." He was watching the injured rider as they made their way to Sweetwater. "What're you gonna do now?"
"Like the man said, take care of this arm, get back to the outfit, collect my wages and be on my way." He never faltered. Kept his eyes forward and planned.
"You ain't gonna let this rest, are you?"
The silence continued all the way to the doctors' office. As they came into town, Teaspoon and Sam were just getting to the jail. "What 'ya reckin' that's all about?" Teaspoon asked Sam as he watched the riders pass.
"Best go ask'em," Sam said, and he and Teaspoon walked to the doc's place.
Having gotten all the answers they needed, Teaspoon and Sam returned to the jail. "I reckin' I ought to ride out and see that everything's ok." Teaspoon said, looking out through the town, toward the ranch.
"Before you go Teaspoon, there's something you need to see." Sam returned to the jail with Teaspoon following him. He pulled a pile of papers off his desk and rifled through them. Teaspoon waited quietly until Sam pulled out one paper and handed it to him.
Teaspoon looked at the paper, and then at Sam. "You tell Jimmy?" he asked, still holding the paper.
"Nope. Paper says that she had help; someone blew a hole in the side of the territorial prison. She was one of several that got away." Sam explained. "Two prison guards were killed."
"Seems trouble comes at that boy from all sides. Just when it was quietin' down a bit, I expect him and Star…" Teaspoon trailed off. "Ok if I keep a hold o' this, show it ta' Jimmy." Teaspoon was looking at Sam.
"Yeah, they sent out several," as he made a motion to the pile of wanted posters. Sam was quiet a minute. "You ridin' out to the ranch now?" He knew Teaspoon was worried. Worried about Jimmy, the riders at the ranch, the loud mouth at Doc Weaver's.
"Yeah, 'less'n you need me here." Teaspoon said, still looking at the wanted poster.
"No. No, you go on." Sam watched as Teaspoon looked up at him, and then turned and walked out of the jail.
Teaspoon mounted his horse and rode to the ranch. He stopped and admired the work the kids had done. They had started with a bare piece of ground, and now, a working, productive and profitable ranch.
He walked up on the porch and through the door of Buck and Lou's house without knocking. "Where is everybody?" He entered the house just as he heard a collective, "we're in here."
He found Buck and Lou, Ambrose and Cody, and Ike at the table drinking coffee. Emily was at the stove retrieving the coffee pot. "You boys musta got up pretty early to have your chores done already, and to send one to Doc's with an arrow in him." He looked around, not seeing Jimmy and Star. "I'm guessin' that was Star's handy-work?" he asked to no one in particular.
"Yep." Lou said with a wide grin.
Teaspoon looked at her amusingly. "Somethin' else I should know?" he asked with a guarded grin looking the others. Everyone was grinning. "Where's Jimmy and Star?" he asked, turning back to Lou.
"They went for a walk," was all Lou was able to squeal out in delight as she continued to smile.
Teaspoon looked at her, a small smile played on his face. "Kinda early for a walk ain't…" He stopped suddenly, and something seemed to clunk into place and he whispered, "did he finally…" was all he got out before Lou squealed, "Yes!" and she flew up and out of the chair and into Teaspoon's arms.
Teaspoon smiled a broad grin and swung Lou around in a circle, her feet flying out from under her. "'Bout time he figured out what to do." He set her down and turned to look out the kitchen window as if he could see Jimmy and Star.
At that moment, Teaspoon decided not to show the wanted poster to Lou and the boys. Well not Lou anyway. Not in her condition.
They sat and enjoyed their coffee and each others company before Teaspoon had to head back to town. "Well, I best get back to keepin' the peace. Never know what you boys is gonna stir up." He stood and headed to the door. "Buck, can you take a look at my horse, she seemed a bit lame on the way out here."
"Sure Teaspoon," and he stood and followed him out the door.
Buck descended the steps and walked up to Teaspoon's mount. "Front or back?" he asked, his hands automatically on the horse and sliding across the mares' legs; roaming, looking for signs of injury.
"Neither. Let's take her to the barn and talk." Teaspoon said softly as he pulled the reins from the hitching rail and walked to the barn. "I need you to look at somethin' but I don't want to upset Lou."
Buck straightened up and looked at Teaspoon, worried. "What is it?" Buck asked, as he walked beside Teaspoon, who was leading his horse to the barn.
"Sam got a wanted poster from the territorial prison. Seems there was a break out a few months back." Teaspoon dropped the reins of his horse just inside the barn and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Buck.
Buck took the paper, unfolded it and looked at it, reading. WANTED: escaped from territorial prison. Sarah Downs. He went on to read the reward, and the reason she was imprisoned almost 4 years ago. "Four years. Has it been that long?" Buck looked up at Teaspoon. "You know if Jimmy sees this, he'll leave. He won't want trouble comin' down on us." Buck handed the paper back to Teaspoon. "That woman was bad news from the start. But," he hesitated, looking at Teaspoon, "that would explain the events of this morning."
"What did happen?" Teaspoon asked, taking the paper from Buck.
"Seems one of the hired hands on Mr. Jackson's drive is named Gentry." Buck said, causing Teaspoon to look up at him with surprise. "Says Jimmy killed his brother."
"Gentry?" His eyes were tight and his voice high in surprise. "Do you think she'll come here, too?" Teaspoon wasn't looking at Buck. He was folding the paper and putting it in his pocket. "He's worked so hard…" Teaspoon let his sentence trail off. "I don't want him to lose everything he's worked so hard to get." Teaspoon was talking softly, not looking at Buck.
"I know. But if anyone can stand up to anything that Jimmy faces, it's Star." Buck smiled at Teaspoon. He was happy Jimmy had found someone to love. He wanted him to be happy. Happy like he was with Lou. "That girl's as good with that bow as Jimmy is with that colt. He'd be crazy to leave her."
"You know he's up 'n left before, with not even a word, for less reasons than this." Teaspoon rocked on his heals and hooked his thumbs in his suspenders. "Buck lets just see what happens. Could be, she won't be around. Let's just let it sit for now." Teaspoon looked at Buck, hoping he was doing the right thing. If anything did come of this, and Jimmy found out that Teaspoon knew, Jimmy would be mad; real mad.
"Sure Teaspoon. Let's just see what happens." Buck walked over to Teaspoon and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's get back inside. Lou and the girls probably got lunch goin'. You might as well eat with us." Buck started for the barn door, but stopped when he knew Teaspoon wasn't following. "Teaspoon?" Buck said, waiting.
"You go on. I best git back to town." Teaspoon mounted his horse and left.
Buck watched him, thinking how hard this was on him. First Ike shot, then Kid leaving; hunting for Ike; the trouble with Stands-Alone and the injuries to Lou, now Jimmy.
As the two hired hands left the doc's office, they weren't unnoticed by Sarah. She had seen them come in to town and now she waited.
As the riders mounted their horses to leave, she made her way to the edge of town and stepped out in front of them as they headed past the livery.
"What are you doin' here?" She said, trying to sound braver than she felt. She knew how the Gentry boys were, and she didn't trust any of them.
"Well, well." Gentry said as he reined in his mount. "I had heard you were out." He looked down at her with a leer, and then looked up and down the length of her slender figure. "Still lookin' as pretty as ever."
Sarah folded her arms across herself to add a bit of protection, "You didn't answer my question." She stared at him, her insides shaking.
"On my way back to your brother, just so I can tell him your boyfriend seems to have moved on without you, while you was in prison." He smiled and Sarah shivered. "Got himself hooked up with a half-breed. Seems he's over protectin' you." He finished with a sneer, spurring his mount past her.
Sarah could feel the fear in her change to anger. So it was true. He had moved on. He wasn't gonna protect her. She forgot all about the men on horses and turned to leave. She would do something; she had to get him back.
Over the next several days, life at the ranch was busy. Emmett had finally arrived and was settled in his room. He was grateful for the space and a welcomed addition to the family.
Emma, Lou, Emily and Star worked diligently on Star's wedding dress. Star had decided that since she had started a new life at the age of 8, she would continue that new life when she married Jimmy. Lou and Emma helped her with a traditional wedding gown and Sam would walk her down the isle to Jimmy.
Teaspoon was pleased he would be marrying off another one of his boys. He had presided over Ike and Emily's wedding, Buck and Lou's and now Jimmy's to Star.
As they all sat down to dinner, enjoying Star's fine cooking, Buck abruptly stopped his conversation and rose from the table, only to leave the kitchen without a word.
Lou looked after him then turned to Jimmy, "must be Red Bear."
"That's what I was thinking'." Jimmy gave Star a kiss on the cheek, and then followed after Buck. He walked out on the porch and found Buck looking out across the ranch yard at a lone rider, followed by a lone horse. "How did you know? I didn't hear a thing." Jimmy asked looking at Buck.
Buck glanced at him and smiled. "There's a bird call, a whistle, he's always done it when he approaches me. Even when I was younger at the reservation." Buck walked down the steps, Jimmy followed.
They waited quietly as Red Bear approached.
"I see this one has escaped again." He smiled at the pair as he dismounted, but then noticed Buck's head. "But not without a price this time," he pointed to Buck's head and smiled. "You are good?"
"Yeah, Emma stitched it up. I'm okay." Buck raised a hand to his head and touched the wound. "He caught me by surprise that day," and he turned to look at Jimmy with a smile.
"I will show you what to do with this animal to keep him here." Red Bear handed the lead rope to Jimmy and took the few steps to Buck and embraced him. He turned to Jimmy and shook his hand. "When we train wild mustangs in the village, we hobble them. The animal is not hurt, and after several days, he will no longer run away." He walked to the barn with the others following. "This horse will be excellent for your ranch. The horses bred from him will be strong, with sure footing."
They got the mustang in a stall and turned to leave the barn. "I passed by a camp on my way here, very close to here, then a second as I got closer." He looked intently at Buck. "You are being watched my brother. I can only see one person, but she moves. She watches you closely." Red Bear was walking between Buck and Jimmy as he spoke.
"She?" Jimmy stopped, looking at Red Bear. "Why would a woman be camped out, watching us?" His vision trailed to the horizon as he contemplated his own question.
"I do not know. But she watches. She moves, so not to get caught." Red Bear turned to look at Jimmy, puzzled. "She is waiting. She does not come close, but she watches and waits. I am uncertain, but I think she travels with a young child."
"First light, we'll go out and take a look, see what we can find." Buck was trying to reassure Jimmy, and he hoped Jimmy could not see the tension he felt. "Come on. Let's go eat."
"You think we should go take a look, Buck? We ain't had much luck when it comes to people watchin' the ranch." Jimmy was still looking out across the ranch yard, scanning the horizon. "Who would be out there with a child?" He directed his question to Red Bear.
Red Bear glanced at Buck, noticing the emotion on his face; he paused, watching Buck, watch Jimmy. "She is only watching. She is waiting," Red Bear said to Jimmy, but glancing at Buck. "I will show you in the morning where she has waited." Red Bear looked at Jimmy, "I can no longer keep my sister waiting, she grows restless," and he pointed to the window where Lou was watching. He clapped Jimmy on the shoulder and steered him to the porch.
As they walked to the house, Red Bear looked at Buck, slowing him by placing his hand on his arm. He watched Jimmy continue to walk to the house. "You know who this woman is," he said glancing at Buck then at Jimmy to assure he didn't hear them.
Buck simply nodded, "I have my suspicions," and continued on to the house.
After dinner, with the evening quiet and still, everyone gathered on the porch of Buck and Lou's. Emily had spent part of the afternoon baking cookies with her boys and Little Lilly. Everyone enjoyed them now.
Emmett was introduced to Red Bear at dinner, and the 2 were now talking animatedly about Stands-Alone. Emmett was learning about Stands-Alones past, eagerly listening to every word.
Teaspoon was quiet in the rocking chair, sipping his coffee and enjoying his family.
Jimmy and Star were talking quietly on the steps; Jimmy sitting on the top step with Star below him, between his knees. She was leaning back on him, his chin resting on her head, his arms around her.
Emily, Ike, Buck and Lou were discussing the latest horse sales and the last group of horses that were brought to the ranch. They were also discussing the possibility of expanding to include horse boarding and a blacksmith.
Emily leaned forward and looked at Buck and Lou. "The livery only keeps 2 or 3 horses available for use, I think if we offer wagons, horses and tack, we broaden our availability and sales just a bit." She was looking at the others, asking their opinions; a hopeful, excited look on her face. "Maybe add our own blacksmith," she shrugged, smiling.
~I know it gets very busy at times, and that's the last thing we have time to do, might not hurt to look into that.~ Ike shrugged, looking at Buck.
"We might think about it." Buck said, looking at the others. "But I don't know anyone besides ol' Stephens in town that knows anything about blacksmithin'." Buck looked up at the others and noticed Lou had nodded off. He wrapped his arm around her and drew her into his embrace at his side. " I know he's lookin' to retire, maybe he knows someone," he said with a slight shrug. "Maybe Teaspoon knows…" He looked at Teaspoon, but stopped before he could ask any question. Teaspoon had his head propped back against the rocking chair and was sleeping. "Well, maybe tomorrow," he said with a chuckle, looking at the others.
"I might be able to help you out." Emmett turned to the group. He had been listening to them talk about a black smith, but didn't want to interrupt. He could tell they were planning for the future, but now the time was good to offer. "The black smith that worked at the ranch, Westin's his name. Jake Westin. He was moving into town the day you all arrived in Blue Creek. The new owners from Virginia, they didn't need a smitty, so, Westin left before they got there. He's been staying not far from the ranch, but Blue Creek already has a smitty, so he's outta work." Emmett shrugged. "Good honest kid. Knows his business," he glanced around the group. "May want to consider him."
"Could you send a wire to him, maybe ask him if he has time to come to the ranch?" Ambrose asked.
"Yeah. I can do that in the morning." He stood and stretched. "But, right now, it's time for this old boy to turn in." He walked to the door, and then turned, "Good night." Then to Red Bear, "I hope you stay a few days, I would enjoy your company and conversation again." Red Bear nodded once. "Good night," and Emmett turned and retreated to his room.
"He is a very wise man, your Emmett. A welcome addition to any tribe." Red Bear said looking at Buck. "You are very smart to keep him close."
"Will you take him up on his offer, and stay?" Buck asked, watching his brother stand from his seated position on the porch. "At least for a few days."
"I will stay. Tonight, I will sleep in the loft," and he walked to the steps. "You should take your sleeping wife to bed. It will not be long and I will be an uncle," he said with a smile. "I will see you when the sun rises."
A chorus of 'good nights' was heard as he headed to the barn.
One by one everyone headed to bed. The last on the porch was Jimmy and Star with Buck and Lou.
Jimmy stood, Star's hand in his. "Did your brother mean that litterlly? Does he get up with the sun?" Jimmy pulled Star close to him as she giggled knowing his loathing of an early morning.
"Yeah," Buck said shifting Lou in his arm. "He does."
"Great," Jimmy sighed under his breath. "Does Ike know we have a watcher?"
"Yeah. I told him after dinner." Buck sat on the swing holding Lou, watching the horizon. Jimmy could see him tense as he scanned the horizon.
"Come on, Buck. At least we know who it ain't, this time." Jimmy said reassuringly.
Buck smiled but didn't look at Jimmy, guilt rising in his chest. He scooped up Lou and headed for the door. Jimmy held the door and watched as they ascended the steps. He closed the door and pulled Star to him, kissing her with a passion that kindled many emotions.
He wanted her. Oh how he wanted her. But he knew he needed to wait and do things the right way. He pulled back from her, putting enough distance between them so he wasn't touching her. He leaned forward one more time and kissed her, lingering long enough to know he had gone to far, again.
He stepped back to the door, opened it and watched her retreat inside. He quietly closed the door and then he turned toward the bunkhouse.
Buck didn't think he had been asleep long when he suddenly found himself awake and staring into the darkness..
The sky was inky black and Lou was still cradled in his arm, sleeping soundly. He laid quiet for several minutes, listening to the night. Something woke him, so he waited. He heard the soft footfalls on the steps and the soft whoosh of a door closing.
Slowly he worked his arm out from under Lou, pulled on his pants, passing over his shirt and boots. He picked up his gun belt and strapped it on and crept to the door. He pulled it open slowly and listened. The soft lamp light dimmed in Stars' room. He crept into the hall and down the steps. He walked quietly to the door and pulled it open a little more. He could see a familiar silhouette standing in the moonlight.
"Jimmy?" Buck said softly but still causing his friend to jump.
"Damn it, Buck," he said with a start. "I knew I wasn't quiet enough. If it ain't Star, it's you," and he smiled, relaxing his hand from his gun.
"What are you doing out here?" Buck asked as he walked through the door, pulling it shut behind him.
"Couldn't sleep. Like Red Bear said, 'someone's watchin'," and he scanned the horizon again. "We ain't had much luck with people watchin' us. Thought I'd come out and take a look." He paused again, scanning the area again. "I suppose over the years, the work we did for Sam and the express, we all made some enemies," he shrugged. "But… I'd a figured they were male…" Jimmy trailed off, his eyes flashing up toward Star's room.
"But, the stakes are higher now. It's more than just ourselves we need to watch out for?" Buck finished Jimmy's thought as he walked to the porch rail.
He turned to look at Buck, a small smile playing across his face. "Yeah."
For several minutes Jimmy seemed to struggle with himself and Buck patiently waited.
"I like this life, Buck. I like the ranch. The family. My family," he smiled, "your family. I don't want to go back to a life of always lookin' behind me. Always wonderin' who's out there." He chuckled once. "Like now," and he threw a hand toward the ranch yard and beyond.
"Did you hear something or just get a feelin'." Buck asked, looking toward the barn and scanning the area. Wondering if he should tell Jimmy what he knew. Feeling very guilty for waiting as long as he had and not saying a word. Wondering if this would be when Jimmy would leave or would Star be the reason he stays.
"Just a feelin'." Jimmy was watching out across the ranch yard and across the meadow. "Just can't seem to shake it, ever since Red Bear told us..." his voice faltered.
Buck waited quietly.
"You know, I always thought that most everyone had a brother, or a friend… a relative of some sort… someone who would come lookin'… someone tryin' to get a piece of Wild Bill." He looked at Buck, "I never thought…" he shook his head in disgust and fury. "I never thought it would be a woman," he finished quietly and turned to look at Buck. "And I been thinkin' on this Buck. There's only one woman that any of us scorned bad enough to come lookin' for any of us…" but he didn't finish, he was interrupted by Buck.
"What about Star," Buck asked quiet and cautiously. "She knows you're out here?"
"Yeah. She's as bad as you." He grinned and dropped his chin. "Can't make a move without her hearin' it. I told her what I was doin' and why." Jimmy turned more serious as he scanned the horizon. "I also asked her to stay put," and he added quietly, "I don't want to lose her."
"Then don't." Jimmy's head snapped up to look at Buck, unsure of the emotion he displayed. His voice was hard, demanding. "She's helped you out of a few tight spots." Buck smiled at Jimmy, softening a bit. "You ought to keep her close." He gave Jimmy a companionable grip to the shoulder and turned for the door. "She can help you out of a lot more. I think she's proved that."
As he reached for the door handle, he heard the shot, and turned in time to see Jimmy spin and fall face down on the porch. He quickly dropped to the floor and scurried to Jimmy's side. Even in the dark of the night, he could see the pool of blood forming under Jimmy.
Buck pulled his gun and waited. As he scanned the horizon, he saw Red Bear slip quietly from the barn in to the darkness. When he was sure the immediate surroundings were safe, he directed his attention back to Jimmy, unaware of someone else slipping into the darkness.
He grabbed Jimmy at the shoulder and turned him on his back, better to see the wound. Jimmy let out a low moan.
"Shhh. She's got to think your dead," Buck said quietly as he pulled Jimmy's bandana from around his neck.
Jimmy grabbed Buck's wrist. "Who?" he asked, wincing in pain.
Buck stopped momentarily to look into Jimmy's eyes. "Sarah Downs. Someone broke her outta prison a few months ago." Buck pulled his wrist from Jimmy's grip and continued to the wound. "Teaspoon thought she'd come here." Buck paused, considering saying more. "Supposedly in prison…" Buck stopped. He knew he should continue and tell Jimmy everything, but saw the familiar look in his eye.
"Buck?" Jimmy said. Buck heard the question in his voice, waiting for answers that Jimmy knew he had.
"Supposedly in prison she ran her mouth about you… a lot. Said she was gettin' out and…" he paused again. He knew Jimmy was looking at him but he couldn't bring himself to look at him, so he continued with the wound. "She said you two were getting married… told the guards the letters she got were from you. Told them they should be careful because you'd be comin' for her."
He knew Jimmy would leave. He knew he would be very angry that no one told him anything about Sarah's escape from prison, his suspected son and the wanted poster. "… You should know…" Buck paused, angry with himself for not telling Jimmy what he had known for a few days now. "Rumor has it she had a son." He felt Jimmy go completely still. "Yours." They were both quiet. Buck finally looked Jimmy in the eye. He saw many emotions play across Jimmy's face before he closed his eyes.
Buck waited, listening to Jimmy breath, waiting for him to say something, to rage, to yell, to attempt to get up and leave. But Jimmy didn't move.
After what seemed like a lifetime of silence, Buck could hear the scurry of feet in the house and coming across the ranch yard. "Come on, let's get you inside."
Lou helped Buck get Jimmy's shirt off and clean the gunshot wound. He was settled in the necessary room on a cot while Ambrose headed to town for Doc Landry and went for Emma. All the time, Jimmy never stirred.
After the wound was cleaned and bandaged, Buck looked around. "Lou," he said, panic rising. "Where's Star?"
Lou looked around in surprise. "Maybe she's still...." She didn't finish her statement and Buck didn't wait for an answer. He knew she was awake. He had heard her return to her room just before he came outside and spoke with Jimmy.
He ran up the steps two at a time and turned the corner to Stars' door, not stopping to knock. He opened the door and scanned to room. The room was empty and Star's bow and arrows were gone.
"Buck!" Cody was running up the stairs.
Buck took a deep breath. "Saddle the horses, Cody. We've got to go after her."
They both turned toward the steps and started down.
"Sarah will kill her. She has to know that Jimmy was involved with Star or she wouldn't have tried to kill him."
They got to the bottom of the steps and Cody went out the front door and headed to the barn. The sky was still inky black and the moon was clouded over.
Buck knew if Star had gone out the front door, he would have seen her. He scrambled to the back door and found what he was looking for. A small set of foot prints encased in a moccasin that headed off toward Ike's meadow.
It didn't take long to pull together Sam, Teaspoon and Ike. Ambrose and Emmett stayed with Jimmy and the women.
"You say Red Bear is already out here tracking Sarah?" Teaspoon asked as they headed out of the ranch yard.
"I saw him leave just after Jimmy was shot." Buck kicked Warrior into a gallop and took off through Ike's meadow, the others following behind. "But I don't know if he knows," is voice rising to carry to the other riders. " Star's out there, too."
To Be Continued...