A young girl was being tucked into bed by her mother. A cough racked the small body as her mother mopped her face and fixed the covers.
“Do you want some water? It’ll help your sore throat and help you get over your cold faster,” Maria coaxed as she tucked a strand of hair behind Angela’s ear.
“No thank you, Mamma,” Angela whispered hoarsely. Maria turned the lamp down and sat on the bed. “Mamma, tell me a story.”
“Okay, what would you like to hear; Goldilocks and the Three bears or Little Red Riding Hood?” Maria smiled at her daughter. Angela sat up suddenly to cough. Maria handed her a cup of water to sooth her throat. “Alright?”
Angela nodded soundlessly at her mother and pulled the covers up tight. “I want to hear about the dashing young man you met nine years ago,” Angela whispered with a smile. She knew all the stories by heart and loved to hear them over and over. Her mother’s face would light up as she relived those times from the past.
“Ah, you want to hear about the Pony Express riders. You never tire of those stories, do you?” Maria chuckled and patted Angela’s leg. “Well, which one would you like to hear about?”
“Mamma,” Angela said with an exaggerated sigh, “I want to hear about the ‘dashing young man’.”
This had Maria laughing. “Okay, sweetheart.” Maria looked around the room for inspiration. Her eyes fell upon the silver comb on the side table. “How about the story about the silver comb?”
“Oh, yes please,” Angela said with eyes fluttering and she gave a big sigh.
Maria picked up the comb and turned it over in her fingers. I was in Rock Creek one fine afternoon picking up some flour and sugar. The Founder’s Day picnic was the next day and I wanted to make a chocolate cake. I had been saving the cocoa for a special occasion. The general store was teeming with people. I milled around as I waited for an opportunity to talk to the proprietor, Mr. Thompkins.”
Angela watched as her mother got that far away look in her eyes. She smiled and settled in for a very good story.
The inside of Thompkins’ store was a veritable madhouse. Women were talking and examining fabric. Some were squabbling about recipes they were going to “out do” each other with for the picnic. Maria looked up and down the aisles at the little knick knacks and other wares. She stopped at the counter and eyed a simple yet elegant silver comb. She could just imagine it in her auburn hair.
“That is a fine piece, isn’t it?” asked a male voice from her shoulder.
Maria’s eyes shot up to find a very dusty yet handsome man smiling at her. Unnerved at someone speaking to her, she just mumbled incoherently.
“Pardon me, Ma’am, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the young man said and kept smiling at her.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot my manners,” Maria said as a nervous hand fluttered to her throat. “My name is Maria Campbell. You are?”
“William F. Cody, at your service. You can call me Will, Bill, Cody or anything you would like. I haven’t seen you around here before, but then I’m new here.” Cody gave a slight bow.
Maria smiled, a little overwhelmed by his vibrato.
“What’ll you have, Cody?” Thompkins interrupted.
“Oh, uhm, Rachel needs …” Cody rattled off a list of things and Maria moved off to look at the fabrics the women were mooning over.
“Don’t mind him. He can be a bit much.” Maria looked up to see another dusty young … man. Maria just smiled. “I’m Lou, by the way. You’re Maria, right? I heard you introducing yourself to Cody.”
“Hi, Lou. Yes, I’m just trying to get some supplies to make a cake,” Maria said while moving back to the counter.
“Really! I’m sure it will be a good one.” Lou smiled.
“Well, I have enough to bake two if you want to come over and sample the first one.” Maria just realized that she invited a total stranger to her house. She smiled, hoping that she had made a new friend.
Lou just looked at her quizzically as Maria turned around and Thompkins took her order. Maria exited the store with her items. She passed Lou and a group of young men.
“Lou, the offer still stands. Bring your friends if you’d like,” Maria said with a smile. As she turned she ran into a wall of chest. “Oh, sorry,” she said as she slowly raised her eyes. She sucked in a breath as her eyes met his. His easy smile made her heart race.
“No problem, Ma’am.” He tipped his hat.
Maria realized Lou was speaking to her and stammered, “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“What time would you like us there?” Lou laughed.
“How about three o’clock? I live just past the Freeman homestead.” Maria smiled at the group.
The chest spoke, “I’ll be there.”
Maria gave him a shy smile as the butterflies whipped up a tornado in her belly. Maria’s head snapped back to Lou.
“I can come help you now if you’d like?” Lou offered.
“Sure, that would be great,” Maria said. Lou and Maria moved toward her home.
Walking back to Maria’s house with Lou’s horse in tow, they had a nice conversation.
“So all of you ride for the Pony Express?” Maria asked.
“Yep, we have about two runs a week per rider. It takes two days on average. One day to the next station and one day back,” Lou explained. “Don’t think that we do nothing the other times, though. We have to take care of the station itself, not to mention being deputized to help Teaspoon.”
“You help a teaspoon?” Maria asked with brows raised.
“No,” Lou giggled, “he’s our boss. He’s also like a father to all of us.”
“I see. And he’s the marshal, right?” Maria asked.
“Yep. Well, what about you?” Lou inquired.
“My father, mother and I moved here about a year ago. Da works for the railroad. Ma past away this past winter from a weak heart. I still miss her terribly.” Maria paused. “Da has never been the same, but he seems okay, I guess.”
“Sorry for your loss.” Lou walked along quietly.
“Thank you.” Maria smiled. “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but I was wondering how it feels to ride a horse wearing pants?”
Lou started laughing. “Well, I guess you figured out I’m a girl, and yes, it’s a lot easier to ride a horse with pants on rather than a skirt.”
“My Da would be stunned to see me in britches.” Maria giggled.
“Maria, every once in a while you say things differently, in an accent. Are you from another country?” Lou asked.
“Well, me Da and me Ma are from ‘bonny Scotland’. It’s me brogue you hear.” Maria enunciated her rolling r’s. “I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Da became interested in the railroad and moved us this way with the company. It’s been lonely since Ma’s gone and Da is away on surveying missions a lot. He’s away right now in Kansas. He’s moving this way, though. We’re here! Come on in and have some lemonade.”
Lou followed Maria into her two story home. The porch was wide and had a few rockers and a swing on it. They walked through the door into the living room that had a fireplace. It was moderately furnished. Many books lined the shelves. Maria handed her a glass of lemonade.
“Mmm, this is good. How do you get it chilled?” Lou asked in surprise.
“That’s my Da. He likes to tinker. He saw this idea of an ice box and he built himself one.” Maria walked to the ice box and showed Lou the inner workings. “The top is the place where you put the ice. Through the holes, the cool air comes down to cool whatever you put in the storage area. The water is collected in the bottom tray and if you get there before anyone else, you can have a cold glass of water. Da has it rigged to drain into a big pot. I’ve seen others that have to be emptied two times a day or it overflows. A 25 pound block of ice lasts about three days. We help fill the ice house in the winter from the streams. Instead of being paid money, we get our ice for free if it’s a good harvest like last winter. Da and I go out and drag it in. It’s very hard work. It helped us this past winter when Ma passed away. It kept us busy,” Maria said taking deep breath. “Oh geez, that was like a lecture. Sorry about that. We should get moving on those cakes.”
“I liked learning about the ice box. I always wondered what an ice box looked like up close. Emma back in Sweetwater wanted one, but they come dear. Now that we’re here in Rock Creek, I’m sure Rachel, our new station mistress, would love to have one.” Lou continued, “So, what is the first step to making these cakes?”
“Well, let’s get out the ingredients. We need eggs, flour, cocoa …” Maria and Lou continued to make the cakes. Just for added measure they made vanilla and chocolate icing. As they were putting the finishing touches to the icing, the boys rode up. “Lou, you are going to have to introduce them to me. I don’t know their names.” Maria was secretly hoping the chest would be there, too. Her heart was beating wildly as they walked onto the porch.
“Well, I’ll be. You look like a real baker with all the flour on your face, Lou,” Cody said as he dismounted.
“Maria, I’d like you to meet Cody.” Lou gestured grandly at the blond man.
“Now Lou, she met me in town, but the rest of the boys haven’t had the honor,” Cody said as he took Maria’s hand and kissed the back of it.
Maria smiled but her eyes kept looking around at each of the others. She only half listened as Lou introduced the rest. “He’s not here,” Maria thought. She smiled and murmured greetings to them all and welcomed them to her home. As they were filing into the house with Cody raving about the delicious smells wafting through the air, a final rider rode up.
Maria’s knees went weak as he came closer. He tethered his horse to the post and bound up the steps. His smile just about stopped her heart. He smiled wider. Blinking rapidly Maria realized he had spoken and she was standing there like a ninny.
“I’m sorry,” Maria stammered. “Please come in. I’m glad you could join us, Mr.? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Buck Cross. You may call me Buck.” He grinned because he had just introduced himself as she was entranced.
“You just told me that, right? Sometimes I just don’t know where my head is.” Maria grinned back. She took his arm and entered the kitchen. Lou had already served everyone some cake.
“I love how you did the icing, half chocolate and half vanilla,” Kid said.
“Yeah and it tastes good, too,” Cody added, shoveling in a bite.
“I don’t know how you made the icing weave like that to look like a basket, but I’m sure it will win first prize tomorrow,” Buck said in awe of the complete design on the other cake.
“Here, have a piece.” Maria handed him a slice.
Buck took the first forkful and closed his eyes in pure delight and said, “That is the best chocolate cake I have ever tasted. I really think you’ll win tomorrow. What is the grand prize, anyway?”
“It’s the silver comb that Thompkins has in that display case of his,” Kid said.
“That’s the one you were admiring, Maria,” Cody added. “It’s as good as yours with that cake.”
Lou piped up, “She’ll win because of the secret ingredient. I swear there is a secret ingredient.” The boys looked at Lou expectantly. “I have been sworn to secrecy. I took an oath not to divulge the secret under penalty of death.” Lou put her hand over her heart.
“I bet I could guess it,” Cody said smugly.
“Okay, how about everyone write down their guesses. Tomorrow after the bake-off I will announce the winner of our little contest.” Maria handed out slips of paper. The boys took turns writing their names and guesses, folding them and placing them in a bowl Maria brought over. “Once I announce the winner you must promise never to tell a soul.”
“Well that was good,” Kid said as he got up. Cody, Jimmy and Lou got up too.
“Thank you all for coming. You all are welcome anytime you want to come over,” Maria said with genuine warmth. “Lou, thank you for helping me today. It was nice to have company.” Maria hugged Lou.
“I should be thanking you for the cooking lesson. I promise never to tell your secret.” Lou giggled and crossed her heart. Lou mounted her horse. “I’ll see you back at the station, Buck.” Lou and the boys rode off.
Maria turned around to find Buck just behind her. She blushed a deep crimson. “Let me get you some cake to take with you for Rachel and Teaspoon.” She moved around him toward the kitchen. She plated three pieces, including a second for Buck, and placed them in a basket. Their hands touched as he took the basket.
“Maria,” Buck started and Maria drowned in the chocolate of his eyes. “I would be honored to take you to the picnic tomorrow.”
“I’d like that,” she whispered. Buck leaned in and kissed her cheek. His lips lingered close to her mouth and she felt his warm breath on her lips. He slowly pulled back.
“Until tomorrow at noon.” Buck donned his hat and walked out the door. He waved to her as he rode away.
Maria had a night filled with dreams of the most dashing young man she had ever had the pleasure of meeting. When morning came she practically jumped out of bed. She quite happily did her chores as she hummed. She even found the time to draw a bath with scented water. She tried on every dress in her closet, discarding each one to finally settle on a green day dress.
She sat in the living room trying to read. At the sound of a buckboard she jumped up, gathered her things, including the cake, and headed out onto the porch.
“Your chariot awaits,” Buck said with a sweeping hand. He handed her up into the buckboard and swung up to join her. “Are you ready for the competition?”
“I guess.” Maria shrugged. “I’m excited, but …”
“But what?” He turned to look at her, but she just gave a strangled smile. “You’re nervous. That’s okay. All of us will be there for you. Plus your cake is one in a million.” Buck took her hand in his for the rest of the ride.
Maria could not have been happier. She did not care if her cake sprouted wings and flew away as long as she could hold his hand. “I wonder if he’s going to kiss me when he takes me home,” she thought. “Good God! I just met this man! What am I thinking? But look at him. He’s gorgeous. He’s tall, dark and handsome. Plus he loves my cake.”
“What are you giggling about?” Buck asked her with a grin.
“Oh, nothing,” she said with a secretive look.
“We’re here. The bake-off is held in the main tent. So let’s head in that direction first.” Buck helped her from the buckboard. They entered the tent and stood in line to register her entry.
“Buck, why don’t you go find the others?” Maria asked him. “I’m just going to register this then I’ll be out.”
“You’re sure?” Buck raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, it’ll be fine.” Maria patted his arm. She watched him exit the tent.
“You’re friends with that heathen?” a grizzled voice asked her.
Maria looked at the woman that spoke and her visage matched her voice. She looked so pinched that lemons would taste like candy in comparison. “I would like to register my entry for the bake-off, please,” Maria said, ignoring the woman’s bigoted question. The woman just picked up Maria’s cake and placed it on the table. Maria filled in her card and handed it to her. As she turned around to leave the tent she heard a huge crash. Maria spun to focus on the noise to see the table that held her cake, the only entry on the table, was on the ground in the dirt. The old crow of a woman stood there with a triumphant gleam in her eye. Maria felt two hands on her shoulders. She looked to see Buck’s angry face glaring at the other woman.
“Buck, let’s just go.” Maria grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the tent. They said nothing until they reached the others. Rachel had set up a spread worthy of a king. Buck remained silent as he seethed with anger at what he saw. He could not bear to think that it was because of him Maria lost the contest. Maria nudged Buck out of his thoughts.
“Rachel, this is Maria Campbell. Maria, this is Rachel Dunn.” Buck introduced Maria.
“Hello. Thank you very much for inviting me to lunch today.” Maria went on to say, “This looks fantastic.”
“Please have a seat. Teaspoon and I loved the cake you sent over. Is the same one entered in the competition?” Rachel asked, looking after Buck as he stomped away.
“Unfortunately, there was an accident in the tent and the cake was ruined.” Maria’s eyes followed Buck. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to Buck for a minute.” She moved quickly to follow him. “Buck, I have only two things to say to you,” Maria said sternly. Buck turned to look at her, expecting her to blame him for what happened. He almost fell over when she said, “I am so happy to be here with you today and I’m hungry.” She took his hand and led him back to the table. “Sorry about that,” she addressed the table. “I would love to join you. It would be a novel idea to eat without having to make it myself. Somehow it tastes better.” Everyone laughed, including Buck. They had a wonderful day of games and laughs and Maria solidified many new friendships.
“Hey, Maria?” Cody called. “What about that secret ingredient?” Jimmy hit Cody in the back of the head.
“It’s alright,” Maria said with a laugh. “I looked at all of your guesses. One was very interesting and I’m not sure I understood it, but no one really guessed the ingredient.”
“What was the one you couldn’t understand?” Kid asked.
“It said ‘morning jolt,’ whatever that means. It was from you, Buck.” Maria turned to look at him. “So, what does it mean?”
“I’ll tell you later.” Buck smiled slyly and winked.
Later that night Buck brought Maria home. They sat in comfortable silence on the porch swing with her head on his shoulder. Buck let out a big sigh.
“What?” Maria looked up at him.
“Coffee,” Buck whispered in her ear. Maria moved to get up. “Don’t go.”
“But I thought you wanted coffee,” Maria responded. “I’d be happy to make it.”
“Morning jolt is coffee.” Buck laughed at her stunned face.
Maria’s jaw dropped. “You’re right. The secret ingredient is coffee. How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. It does make the chocolate flavor much richer.” Buck’s eyes lingered on her lips as she involuntarily licked them. “I wanted to give this to you, you deserve it.” He placed an object in her hand. He watched her intently as she opened it. She untied the ribbon and unfolded the paper to reveal the silver comb.
“How did you get it? I didn’t even win.” She looked up at him.
“This is another one that Thompkins had. I feel that if you were given a chance, you would have won hands down.” He cupped her neck, his thumb caressed her cheek. Looking at her lips, he leaned down to them. Liquid fire pooled in the pit of her stomach as their lips touched. His lips danced on hers but a moment and sensing her pleasure, he deepened the kiss. They pulled apart, breathless. “I should go.” He punctuated that with a quick kiss and practically jumped onto the buckboard and raced away. Maria sat with the comb to her smiling lips.
“…and that is the story of the silver comb,” said a male voice from the doorway.
“Daddy, snuggle with me?” Angela whispered as best she could. “Please, mamma, tell another story.”
“Not tonight, poppet. You need to rest so you can get well.” Maria leaned down and kissed her daughter’s cheek.
Buck came over and tucked her in more and kissed her forehead. “Good night, my angel,” Buck whispered against her forehead. “Sleep tight.”
“Night, Mamma, Daddy.” Angela rolled over mumbling tiredly, “Tell the story about horse present tomorrow, Mamma.”
“Goodnight, honey, sleep tight.” Maria turned the lamp off and closed the door.
“You told her the story of the horse present?” Buck stared at his wife incredulously.
“Yes, but with a few details left out,” Maria said with a giggle.
“What was this one called?” Buck asked as he unbuttoned his shirt on the way to their room.
Maria wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his back. “This was called The Dashing Young Man.” Maria moved into his arms.
“I guess I should remind you how dashing I can be.” Buck’s lips met hers in a searing kiss as he extinguished the lamp.