Chapter 3 - Cody

Cody sure did like coming home to his Ma's cookin'. Pot-roast, potatoes, corn and biscuits not to mention the apple pie that was just callin' his name. The only problem he had was listening to his sister's gabble on like a bunch of turkeys. Lou sure didn't act like his silly sisters.

"Don't ya think so Billie?" his sister Julia asked her dark brown hair piled stylishly on her head.

He almost forgot they'd been talking to him. Guess he'd grown used to the riders calling him Cody. "Bout what?"

"Goodness Billie! Don't you ever listen to what we're talking about?" Lizbeth snapped.

"Well you talk all the time 'bout girly things that I just ain't interested in." Cody grumbled.

Mrs. Cody smiled at her son "I'm just happy you've come home for a visit. It's been quite sometime since we've seen you last. Marta and Helen will be so disappointed they missed you but your sisters decided to help your cousin Irene prepare for her baby. "

"I'm sorry that I haven't been able ta get away sooner but working for the Pony Express keeps me kinda busy."

"I know sweetheart." Mrs. Cody murmured softly

"Did ya see lot's Indians, Billie?" May burst out loudly. Billie looked over at his youngest sister and smiled. Her lust for adventure reminded him a lot of himself as a child.

"Heck yeah! I'm dodgin' arrows all the time. I met Sitting Bull's half-brother Curly once. He bragged." I even work with a Kiowa Indian called Running Buck."

"Oh my, did ya hear that mama?" May whispered eyes wide.

Seeing that his time was tickling away, Cody figured he better deal with the issue of finding out if he was Angel's Pa.

"Ah, Helen… whatever happened to your friend Julienne Sutters?"

"Julienne? Why I see her and her kids every week." She giggled.

'Kids!' His heart started hammering in his chest. The chunk of roast beef seemed to stick in his throat and he asked with a small cough, "What's so funny?"

"I remember bout three years ago when you were working as a messenger for that freight company. You had a little bit of a crush on her I believe." Helen taunted.

'A crush was putting it mildly. That girl could kiss like…'

His mother patted his arm, "William?"

"Sorry Ma. Guess I was daydreamin.'"

"You always were my daydreamer." the older woman smiled.

"Well, like I was saying, she married the minister." Helen continued.

Forgetting to swallow his food, the rider began choking in earnest. "Th..The..min.. Minister?"

"Why yes Minister Jeffries. He is such a gentle soul. They must be truly in love because they've had a child every year since they were married. They have two girls and a boy. Little Caleb was just born last month."

Cody was dumbfounded. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. That very passionate girl married a minister? His tense body relaxed when he realized Julienne's presence in town meant that she couldn't be Angel's mother which took him out of the running as Angel's father. He breathed a sigh of relief as the huge weight of prospective responsibility lifted from his chest. As much as he bucked at the thought of becoming a father, he would've taken responsibility for any child he helped bring into the world.

For some unknown reason, Cody felt an inquisitive desire to see Julienne before he left. She was the first girl he'd made love to and he wanted to see how her life had changed since they'd parted. "I think I'll go into town tomorrow to pick up a few things before I ride out."

"Oh, do you have to leave so soon?" His mother asked softly.

"Yeah Ma. I was lucky Teaspoon gave me a chance ta come home at all." Cody apologized.

"Can ya tell us another story Billie before we havta go ta bed?" May begged.

Cody's eyes brightened. "How bout I tell ya about the time I took on a bear all by myself? There I was just mindin' my own business. Riding through ta the next station when outa nowhere walks this huge brown bear…"

When he finished telling his story, he carried his bag to his old room for the night. The girls had taken it over of course with five of them they needed the room but it still echoed with memories from his youth.

Memories of his father sitting at the bottom of the bed reading Uncle Tom's Cabin while he fought to keep his eyes from drifting shut. His older brother Samuel lying in this very bed ill once again. Billie would try to cheer him up by recreating his sisters' reaction to the snake he had placed in their bedroom. Of course his father came up later to put the fear of God into him. But now his father and brother were dead and all he had left were memories.

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Cody said good bye to his family the following morning. Course he had to suffer through excessive hugs and kisses from the passel of females before mounting his horse. Funny thing was this time he didn't seem to mind. Being a Pony Express Rider meant it would be quite some time before he saw any of them again. He looked back one last time and waved. Storing their smiling faces like a picture within his memories, the showman gave a hardy shout as he rode toward town.

Trotting up to the whitewashed church, he tied his horse to the well-worn hitching post and hesitated a moment before walking up the stairs into the building. 'Best not let Hickcok know I've been ta church looking for a woman or I'll never live it down.' He thought while walking down the center aisle toward the front of the church where his eyes locked onto a pretty woman cleaning the altar table. A small infant gurgled happily at her feet.

Julienne turned as footsteps resonated within the small wooden structure to find Cody stepping slowly in her direction.

"Why if it isn't William Cody and in a church no less." she smiled. If there was one thing that he'd always remember were Julienne's bright green eyes. They'd always reminded him of newly growing field grass. Her honey blond hair was held in a bun at the back of her neck. It sure was a pity she put it up in that tight formidable style. It used to hang below her shoulders and he'd loved running his hands through it.

Pushing his hat back, "Hi Julienne, been a long time."

"Yes it has truth be told. I thought with you going out West that I'd never see you again."

"Is this your little boy?" he asked uncomfortably.

"Mmm, yes this is little Caleb" she said reaching down to pick the infant up. "I have two more but they're with my mother. It's a blessing to have her help with the kids seeing as they're so close in age."

"Julia mentioned you at supper and I thought before I returned to Sweetwater I'd see how ya were doin'."

"I find that strange considering how fast you took off out a' town looking for adventure. Didn't think I would be on your mind at all."

"I'm sorry bout that Julienne. I, well I did have feelings for ya but I really wasn't ready ta settle down. I know it was wrong to leave like that but…I was young and only thought of myself."

"That's alright Billie. You were always talking about wanting to see the world. I guess I just wanted to ride along with you." The pretty woman met his gaze then looked down at the cooing child.

Cody felt bad. He'd been so wrapped up in his dreams of adventure that he hadn't considered what Julienne might have wanted. Seeing the guilty expression on his face, she quickly added, "Don't worry Billie. I'm happy. Martin is a good husband and I'm head over heels in love with him. What you and I had together helped me learn what forever love is and what it isn't."

"I'm really glad you're happy." he said with a sad smile.

"Just remember Billie, a girl never forgets her first love." She added with a small smirkish grin.

Cody tilted his hat in thanks before leaving the church, a definite bounce in each step.

Mounting his horse, he gave his hometown one last lingering glance before giving his mount a gentle prod toward the next great adventure.

****************************************

Kid walked into the bunkhouse to find Lou, Buck and Ike playing horsy with Angel.

"Okay Buck you get down on the floor." Lou instructed.

Shaking his head, "Why do I have to be the horse?"

"Because you have long hair like a horse's mane for her ta hold onto and… ya neigh the best."

"This sounds painful." He moaned

"I think a great big Indian brave like you can handle this Buck." Lou teased.

"Ike you just hold her with a hand on her waist while Buck takes her for a ride."

"Hey sweetie, you ready to ride the horsy?" Lou coaxed the child.

"Orsee!" the child mimicked.

"Giddy up horsy!", Lou ordered Buck. He began walking on hands and knees across the bunkhouse floor while Ike held her on the Kiowa's back.

"Mama orsee!" Angel giggled.

"That's right Sweetheart, your riding a horsy. We'll make an express rider out of her yet." Now you guys play with her til I get some chores done."

"Lou you can't leave us here by ourselves." Buck complained while Ike shook his head.

"Course I am. How else are you guys gonna learn how ta take care of your own children when the day comes?" Lou laughed

As she turned to leave, she saw Kid standing by the door watching them.

"How long you been standin' there?" she asked bluntly.

"I guess since the ride began." Kid chuckled.

"Did ya have a good trip?" the question came out stilted.

"Not bad. Lou, can we talk now? Please."

Lou knew that there was no putting this off any longer. "I've got some things to do. How about after supper?"

Kid just nodded as she walked past him heading toward the barn. "Hey guys" Kid said moving toward his bunk. Watching them play with the little girl. "

"Kid! Boy are we glad you're back. Now you can help take care of Angel." Buck said desperately.

"I don't know Buck. You make a really good horse." Kid chuckled

Seeing the hurt expression on the Kiowa's face, he hastily added, "Don't worry, I'll get cleaned up and come back ta help out. Did either of you guys find out if you're her Pa?"

"Yeah we found out," Buck looked at Ike." We're not her father."

"So that just leaves Cody, Jimmy and I." he mumbled as he moved toward the shower.

*********************

Kid was anxious to talk with Lou. He had so much he wanted to say to her that he almost didn't know where to begin. He glanced over at her feeding Angel. And his heart twisted. 'If they had a child would she look like this little girl?'

"You want some more Angel?" He asked softly.

"Mo." the little girl smiled her three little teeth showing.

"Here ya go, chew real good." Lou instructed as she gave her a piece of meat that had been cut into very tiny pieces.

Giving her a little bit of milk, the female rider prompted, "Take a sip."

"Good girl!" Lou praised.

"Dood dirl" Angel repeated giggling.

"I'll cleanup supper if you want to get Angel ready for bed Emma. Last time I did, I fell asleep with her."

"No Louise you go and put her down for the night. I'll get the boys ta help clean up. Look at her rubbing her eyes. She's surely ready to go to the Land of Nod."

"Come on sweetie. Night night time." Lou carried the child up the stairs.

*****************************************

Kid was pacing in the barn by the time Lou showed up. "Ya wanna sit down?" Kid asked

"Naw that's alright. What did ya wanna talk to me about?" she asked anxiously.

"I want to know why you've been avoidin' me by taking every run you can."

"That's not true. I just don't wanna be around anyone right now. I need a little time to work through some things right now, but it isn't about you or any of the boys."

"Is it because I well …danced with another woman? Cause Lou..."

"No Kid it's not about that. I didn't know you boys three years ago and you didn't know me," she trailed off. "I don't judge any of you for loving someone enough to, well, be together."

"Lou I want to talk about Doritha and what happened between us. I sent a letter to my friend Evan who lives close to her family's farm to find out if she could be Angel's mother. I couldn't afford to take off over a week to search for answers so I sent a letter instead. I expect he'll get back to me by next week. I told him it was important."

"Look Kid, I like ya a lot but sometimes I think this thing between us is moving a little too fast."

"Are you telling me this because you think Angel is my child with another woman?"

"Kid that woman is in St Joe. If it is Doritha's child that you spoke of, are you tellin' me you would walk away from her if Angel is yours?"

Kid looked down at the ground. "No, I can't say that."

"So us talkin' about what we feel right now is pointless until we find out don't ya think?"

"Look Lou let me tell you how it happened."

"Kid, Emma needs you to bring in some water for a bath," Buck shouted from the yard.

Kid looked into her eyes placed his forehead against hers. "We'll have to talk later ok?" he said shortly before running out of the barn toward the well pump.

Lou walked over to pat Lightning's neck. "Hey girl. Seems I'll have to face my nightmare head-on," Lou said to her horse before she turned and hastily strode to the bunkhouse door. *******************************************

Cody rode back into the station, a cocky grin plastered on his face.

"So, I take by the look on your face that Angel's not your daughter." Buck stated while taking the other rider's reigns.

"Yep! I mean no. I'm not her father. How ya'll been doin' on Daddy duty?" he taunted.

*Just 'cause you aren't Angel's father doesn't mean you don't have to help take care of her, * Ike complained.

"Yeah, neither of us are her father but we still had to play horsy and let her ride us all over the bunkhouse yesterday."

"Well guys, sure like ta help but I'm bettin' Teaspoon's gonna send me out on the next run since I haven't made a run in three days," Cody yawned and began hustling toward the bunkhouse.

"Nah, Lou's up next. I swear it's like she's runnin' from something." Buck shook his head.

"Probably just wants to get out of caring for the little sprite." The blonde added in mid stride.

Buck knew it wasn't that. He could see that Lou cared a great deal for the little girl. No this was something else. Well Jimmy should be back today and he was the next to leave in search of answers. "Guess it's between Jimmy and Kid now." Buck stated wondering if that wasn't the reason for Lou's behavior.

"Personally, I don't think the little girl looks anything like either of them. She's much too pretty to have either of the ugly mugs for a father," Cody snorted in the hopes of lightening the atmosphere.

Chapter Four - Jimmy

Looking over his right shoulder as he rode out of the busy station yard, Jimmy noticed an agitated Lou hurrying through the bunkhouse door with Kid following closely after with dogged determination. The Southerner had just returned from a ride and seemed focused on pressing Lou about her moodiness of late.

The truth was everyone had become extremely edgy ever since Angel, that was what Lou had named the little girl, came to stay with them nearly six months ago. A man from St. Joe relayed the story of how the child's mother had been injured in a train accident. She'd told her rescuers, before losing consciousness that the father worked as a rider at the Sweetwater Station. Ever since that day, the five young men had taken turns seeking answers as to which of them, not counting Louise of course, was the little girl's father.

Cody, Ike and Buck had returned from their excursions to reveal that none of them were the pretty toddler's father. The prospective paternal parent had been narrowed to Kid and himself. The situation obviously had the two of them mighty antsy not to mention Lou. God only knew how she was dealing with knowing that Angel might be Kid's daughter.

Jimmy would never admit it to the other fellas but the sweet little girl had been growing on him ever since she'd set those baby blues in his direction. He actually looked forward to feeding her oatmeal in the mornings or swinging her on the rope swing that rider's had made for her enjoyment. Granted the diaper changing was something he wasn't too thrilled about but he knew that if Angel was his child, he would do his very best to take care of her.

He just hoped that his reputation as 'Wild Bill' would soon be forgotten. As he thought on the possibility of Angel being his daughter, Jimmy was forced to face one of his greatest misdeeds. Only through this journey backward would he be certain that he is the tiny cherub's daddy.

It had been an impulsive decision; one that haunted him for nearly two years and which he'd tried his best to forget. Yet here he was riding toward the very incident from his past which he'd fled like the fires of hell were at his heels. Walking Sundancer slowly forward, Hickok thought back to a time when he actually had a friend whom he trusted like a brother. Nathan Tremaine turned out to be that person although they definitely hadn't started out their relationship as friends. Nate had been just as hot tempered and cocky as Jimmy so it hadn't taken long for the two of them to lock horns.

The two gunslingers were drunk the first time they met and their inebriation had most probably saved their foolish hides. They'd been proud headstrong young men spouting off to one another over who was better with a gun while throwing back shots of whiskey at some saloon in Carson City. Hickok had just walked away from his job with the Judge. He had plenty of anger raging within ready to be taken out on all and any that challenged him. Nathan, on the other hand, had been moving westward making a name for himself with his colt. Both men had been struggling from job to job. Eventually, fate had them challenging one another like two bulls within the same pen.

He could still remember how they'd staggered out into the street on that dark starless night to draw down on one another. Luckily for them, they'd missed each other and in a fit of laughter at their mutual humiliation became the best of friends. The young men decided to stick together and search for whatever employment they could find on their way through the wild open lands of Nebraska.

They made one hell of a team at whatever job they took on from breaking horses, guarding stagecoaches to putting up fences. They were even deputies for a spell and that was the crux of his present predicament. Jimmy had a grim look on his face as he moved from the open prairie with fields of wild mustard and Buffalo grass into a small wood; the path which he knows will eventually lead to an old log home deep within.

Hickok laid his hands atop the saddle horn and shook his head at the memory of the two of them working as newly appointed deputies for the town of Cottonwood. They'd only been working a few weeks when two Mexicans gunned down the Sheriff. The murderers had been hunting for the older man for some time in retaliation for his interference with their torment of a local saloon girl. The two deputies immediately lit out after the murderers as soon as they heard what happened to their boss. Following the criminal's tracks, Jimmy and Nate made their way to an abandoned farm about an hour outside of town and found the men holed up inside a small shack. Little did the lawmen know that the sheriff's daughter, Alissa, had firmly set her mind on killing the criminals herself.

The lawmen broke down the door and were surprised to find the young woman wrestling with one of the bandits while the other struggled to pull her off his partner. Jimmy reacted instantly as one of the banditos shifted his gun toward them and a bullet hit the stunned desperado in the chest.

Just as the pretty young woman was about to pull the trigger, he and Nathan stepped forward to stop her. Not that they'd really wanted to but the two were bound by the badges they wore to bring the desperados in to face justice by a jury. He could still see Nathan wrestling the pretty brunette to the ground as she frantically struggled to pull her gun free from his friend's hand. Sometime during that little tussle, a spark flared. The two rarely separated from that moment on. During the sheriff's trial, Nate had taken care of Alissa and they'd all stood side by side in the middle of town watching as the last murderer swung from a noose. It was one of the only times Hickok had seen justice served by a court of law.

Hickcok watched his friend court Alissa over the next month. Then one sunny July morning, Nate asked him to be his best man. Nothing made Jimmy happier than seeing the two of them marry. Nate was eventually elected as the new Sheriff of Cottonwood and Hickok hung around for the next three months working as his Deputy. Feeling a bit antsy and wanting to give the couple some time alone as husband and wife, Jimmy had been preparing to leave the small town when a cocky young fella showed up looking for the new sheriff. The stranger had been tracking Nathan for some time intent on wreaking vengeance on his friend for killing the man's brother in a duel long before the two friends had ever met.

Jimmy had been at the mercantile that fateful day talking to Mary Sue Westerland about a small boy who'd just sent a rock sailing through the store's front window when he heard a shot ring out from the street. It was followed shortly after by the sound of hooves thundering down the dusty earthen road westward away from town. As the deputy made his way over to the body in the middle of the street, he'd screamed in denial. "No!"

Squatting down to lift his friend's motionless body, Hickok's hands shook in rage as he held the man whom he'd looked on as a brother and saw his blood soak into the dry thirsty ground. He would never forget the look on Alissa's face as she ran screaming out her husband's name. Weeping uncontrollably, she fell to her knees by the dead man's side. Her heart shattered that day in front of a street filled with gawkers.

Once they'd moved Nate's body to the local physician's office to wait preparation for burial, Jimmy raced out of town his face expressionless and his eyes stone cold. It hadn't taken him long to catch up to the young man. The killer soon began pleading for his life but the gunman who'd been trained by a coldhearted judge merely called out into the now frosty air, "Draw! Draw you Bastard!"

The fear was evident in the murderer's face but Jimmy was resolved to the fact that he was looking at a dead man. No sooner had the young man pulled his gun free from his holster than a look of shock appeared on his face and his colt slipped finger by finger from his hands. The murderer's glazed eyes looked down at the hole in his chest before falling forward onto the ground. The young gunslinger took aim at the still body of the man whom he'd just killed for the anger had yet been assuaged by the man's death. Vengeance hadn't eased the pain of his best friend's loss.

As the Deputy, Jimmy had been forced to take over as sheriff until another could be found to take his place. No matter what he did to try and help Alissa, she never really recovered. The pretty brunette spent hours just sitting by his friend's grave or holed up in their small cabin rocking back and forth in an old willow rocker. She would constantly look out the window as if waiting for Nathan to come home from town.

Tormented by the guilt and shame that came from not being there for his friend when he needed him most, Hickok took to drinking each night after work in the hopes of numbing the pain.

Jimmy stopped by the log home every evening to check on the pseudo-brother's widow for the next three months. He wanted to be sure that she'd eaten and to see if she needed him to cut firewood or help with chores. When the lawman passed quietly through the door, he'd found her weeping uncontrollably on the dusty floor holding one of her husband's shirts tightly clenched in her hands.

Her head jerked upward when she saw him enter. "Why…? Jimmy why weren't you there to stop it from happening?" She screamed hysterically while shifting to and fro on her knees. The guilt that had been burning within the quiet man sent him to the ground where he tenderly took the broken woman into his arms. He rocked along with her as she clung tightly to his chest and wept. Jimmy held her for quite some time until her body eventually went slack. He picked her exhausted body up from the floor, walked into the back bedroom and laid her carefully on the bed.

As he placed a blue wool blanket over her frail form, Alissa reached up whispering a husky plea, "Jimmy, it hurts to be so alone. I miss him so much…. his touch…his arms around me as I fall asleep." There was a long pause as she drew him down onto the bed beside her. The pretty young widow tugged him tightly against her so that his chest was pressed against her feminine curves. "Can ya hold me Jimmy? Make me feel something again just once. I feel so dead inside." She begged him with watery blue eyes.

Maybe he had too much to drink or perhaps he'd desperately wanted to feel something…feel alive and not dead inside due to the guilt of his friend's death. Her tortured words sliced through him and he reached down to tenderly touch her cheek. When her head tilted back and her lips parted, he leaned close and gently brushed his lips to hers. It was like over dried timber in a wood where a spark had blown free from the confines of a fiery circle. They both hastily undressed each other and in desperation let their bodies take control.

Their hands roamed over one another as they sought to push the loneliness and emptiness away by succumbing to their bodies need for release. In the midst of her excitement, Jimmy heard her call out Nathan's name and his stomach clenched at the realization of what he'd done. By morning, they both were filled with overwhelming guilt due to their actions that neither of them could look the other in the eye.

No matter how many times Jimmy apologized, when he looked at Alissa all he could see was the betrayal of his best friend. So late the following day, he left her some money on the worn oak table, rode out of town and hadn't looked back. Not long after, he'd signed on with the Pony Express and pushed all memories of that day from his mind until Angel's appearance. He soon realized that he might have left the young woman pregnant with his child. Yes … he was riding back to face one of the many dark ghosts from his past…and most probably his worst.

As Jimmy rode closer to the small town, he cut a glance to his right at the old cemetery with a soulful look on his face. He rode Sundancer toward a grave, which sat off to the side near a small crimson rose bush. Hickok looked at the small almost insignificant cross, which bore the name of a man who'd been his best friend …brother. He could barely look at the marker due to the shame he still felt. Turning left at the fork in the road, the young rider made his way down a now overgrown lane until he came to the small log cabin that had once belonged to Nate and Alissa. He stepped lightly up the stairs of the shabby cabin and knocked on the door.

When no one answered, fear began to spread in his gut. 'Has she moved to St. Joe? Was she lying injured in that bed hoping he would care for their child?' Desperately wanting the answers, he pushed the door open. The room within was almost exactly as he'd left it that morning. Dust covered nearly everything in the room and there were signs of animals making their homes in the empty refuge. To Jimmy it was as if he was walking back into the nightmare he'd run from not so long ago. The room's decay seemed to represent his lost friend who now rested in his grave just west of town.

After walking about for a few moments, his stomach clenched from a new guilt, the Guilt from leaving Alissa alone to care for their child. He moved about looking for anything that might give him a clue as to where she'd gone. Jimmy hesitated at the bedroom door as a myriad of emotions welled up inside. He swallowed hard and hesitantly pushed the door open. His eyes instantly locked onto the mussed up bed before hastily darting about the room.

As the memories of the night they spent flickered through his mind, Jimmy winced. His boots echoed on the old wood planks as he walked about the room looking for the simplest of clues that might give him some insight to Alissa's whereabouts.

Jimmy struggled against a fierce desire to leave the room. His eyes jumped quickly away from the bed and to the open door. While hastening toward the doorway, Hickok noticed a small dust covered badge sitting against a talc canister. It had been the Sheriff's Star which he'd taken off his shirt the morning after they'd spent the night together.

The lawman just stood there for quite some time staring at it and then hesitantly ran his finger across the letters etched into the metal. Guilt ridden, the gunslinger dropped the badge back onto the table and looked around the room once more before walking with determined steps through the opening and back onto the porch. Hickok untied his horse from the post and swung up into the saddle. Maybe he could find the answers he needed in town. Deep in thought, the cream palomino thundered up the barren rode towards the small town of Cottonwood.

Jimmy pulled up on his mare's reigns as he entered what looked like a rapidly growing town. The young rider, his hat tipped low over his eyes, made his way slowly down the lively street as he took in the many changes since he'd left. With a grimace on his face, he brought his horse to the rail outside a very busy mercantile. The anxious young man knew that of all the townsfolk in cottonwood, Helen Cooper would know Alissa's whereabouts since the two had been the best of friends while Nate was alive.

Hickok stood looking at the glare off the store's window for a moment hoping that the answers that he needed could be found within. Stepping slowly up to the board, he opened the door and walked inside to find the proprietor rushing about helping her customers. The gunslinger meandered about looking at the various items as he waited for the store to empty a bit. He ran his hand across the binding of a book before making his way over to where the containers of sweets were displayed.

He opened a few of the jars and began to pick out a few when a young voice spoke up at him; "I like dem."

Shifting his gaze downward, he saw a small boy of about three with fiery red hair and freckles. The rider's eyes crinkled a bit and the corners of his mouth rose upward. "Me too," Jimmy paused as remembered the look on Angel's face when he'd let her have a lick of his lemon stick.

"My Ma runs in the store." His hazel eyes shining as he pointed to the front counter where a young woman bustled about and he gave a little laugh at the child's understanding of his mom's job.

Jimmy's brown eyes sharpened on the pretty redhead's face and quickly recognized the woman he'd been seeking. Picking out two lemon sticks, he walked toward the oak counter just as Helen was finishing helping an older woman with her order.

"You tell that Siras of yours to rest up now and I'll have the sweet cherries in by next week." Helen said to the departing lady as she made her way out the door with the tinkling of the bell.

Giving the redhead a smile, Jimmy offered a quiet "Hello Helen." A frown came to the young lady's face as she tried to place the man before her.

"I'm sorry but…" Just as she was about to address him, the small boy chirped in impatiently "He's gonna give me a licker Ma." He said nearly bouncing in excitement. Jimmy chuckled at the boy's words and touched his fingers to his hat, "I did kinda promise I'd ask."

"Oh no …really you shouldn't…" Helen began to protest but Jimmy shook his head and lifted his gun hand with a smile. "You wouldn't want me to break a promise now would ya?" He asked.

"No Ma! You teld us never break a pwominse." The cherub by his side added. Returning his smile, she took the money.

"Don't know if ya remember me, Ms. Cooper. James Hickok." He murmured while lightly touching the brim of his well-worn hat.

"It's Mrs. Lennox now." She said with a concentrated stare. "Now I remember! Why you and Nate were…" Helen started brightly but faded to a more somber tone as she continued,"… best friends. Sad… so sad. You were Sheriff for a spell too if I recall."

"Yeah, that was me." He said dauntingly.

"What brings ya back this way, Mr. Hickok if I might ask?" The proprietor continued in a friendly manner.

"Came back to check up on Alissa. I was by the cabin…" He paused, "…didn't see anyone around. It looks like it's been empty quite some time. "

Helen looked sadly back at him." Yes, Lissa couldn't stand being there after Nate passed away. Actually I think it wasn't but a few days after you left that she came and told me that she was going back East ta live with an Uncle of hers. I helped her pack up the necessities she needed before she took off on the next stage. Truth was…I thought it was a good thing her leaving. She was looking terrible.

Jimmy listened as the pretty redhead spoke of her friend heading back East and his heart beat a bit faster as the reality of Alissa being Angel's mother grew ever greater. He was caught between elation that the sweet little girl might be his and the desire to live a young man's life, perhaps with someone he felt close to…but who wasn't yet aware of his regard.

"Do ya know where she's living now? I wanted to check and make sure she knows that if she needs anything. I have a good job now and can help her out."

Helen's eyes crinkled a bit at the corners as she smiled. "Yes I do. We send letters to each other every now and again. She's living in Philadelphia with her new husband. She met him at a function with her Uncle. He's a lawyer!" The redhead bragged a bit in her friend's stead. "Christopher Armstrong is his name. Let me get that address and write it down for ya. I won't be but a minute." She said slipping from behind the counter to move toward a door that he assumed led to the living quarters for the young woman's family.

Fidgeting with the candies in his hand, he thought on the fact that Allissa was married. Did she live in Philadelphia now? Had she been coming out to tell him about his being a father? Millions of such thoughts went racing through his mind until he felt something tapping on his leg.

"Can I hab da tandy now?" He asked eyes locked on the yellow sticks in Jimmy's hands.

"Sure …sorry 'bout that." He handed the redhead the candy and watched as he slipped it quickly in his mouth.

"Wanks," the boy hollered as he ran to the back of the store to sit down by on a small wooden stool and licked his treat.

It seemed like forever until the mercantile owner returned. As she came toward him his eyes latched onto the white piece of paper in her hand. Helen smiled brightly as she reached his side and held out the tiny note toward him. "Here ya go! I'm sure she'll be glad to hear from you Mr. Hickok. Why you were practically like a brother to Nate!"

Jimmy near groaned at her words but gave her a weak smile as he took hold of Alissa's address.

"Yep that's true. Thanks for your help." He looked about and noticed a few patrons waiting for the young woman's attention. "I best be on my way. By the way, do ya know if she had any …children?" He asked in a hushed voice. Nodding her head, she grinned brightly. "Why yes she does! She had a small one last month. Tyler's his name. So far he's her only child."

"Thanks for the address." He gave her a nod of respect and a small smile toward the small boy before walking outside once more. Jimmy took a few steps on the boards and then froze his hand slightly shaking as he unfolded the slip of paper. There written in crisp neat penmanship was the following; Alissa Armstrong, 6th Capital Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Upon reading the words, Jimmy felt both happy and sad at the same time. Sad that he wasn't Angel's father but glad that their recklessness hadn't left Alissa pregnant and alone. He stood as if rooted to the spot staring at the paper for quite some time as the realization of what could have happened sank in. They could have had a child as sweet as Angel but he would have missed so much of the little girl's life.

In truth, he was glad she wasn't his. He didn't love Alissa. Jimmy just hoped that once he shook off his outlandish reputation, he might get married and have a child of his own. A dark haired woman's face floated in his mind and he shook his head. The gunslinger knew what he was wishing for was impossible yet still his heart teased him with her image.

Jimmy was brought out of his wandering thoughts as an older man accidentally bumped into him while trying to move around his standing form. "My apologies," The weather worn cowboy murmured before continuing on his way.

Jimmy carefully refolded the note and placed it in his coat pocket. With a small shake of his head at where his thoughts had taken him, he made his way along the boards and over to his horse. Untying the reigns, the young pony express rider took one last look about the town before mounting his horse and riding along the busy street. He soon found himself on the outskirts of town. Jimmy paused at the graveyard gates and glanced over at his friend's tombstone. He wondered how different his life would have been if Nate hadn't been killed that day…if he'd lived.

The gunman smirked and raised his eyes toward the encompassing sky. No, if Nate had survived he would never have met Emma, Teaspoon and the rest of his Pony Express family… Lou. Jimmy realized that if he was not Angel's father that only left one person who could be, Kid. Knowing how that news would affect Lou, Hickok gave his horse a hard kick and with a final glance at Nate's tombstone began his trek back to the station…back home.

To Be Continued

Author's Note: Thanks to Amara for reviewing my story Email Okeshala

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