Chapter 1

Summer 1864

The man peered through the window at the figure asleep inside. The old Marshal had his feet propped on the desk and his hat over his eyes. Carefully the young man opened the door, stepped inside and slammed the door with a loud BANG.

“What the hell?!” The Marshal leaped to his feet, his hand on his gun. “Well, I’ll be damned! Look who found his way home!” The older man regarded the figure in front of him.

“Hey, Teaspoon.” Jimmy grinned.

“Three years with not a word to nobody. Then you waltz in here, damn near bust my door and all you can say in ‘Hey, Teaspoon.’ I oughta string ya up.” Teaspoon grumbled, but his smile was wide as he hugged Jimmy. “What are ya doin’ here?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Just passin’ through. Thought I’d stop and see everybody.”

“I’m glad you did.” Teaspoon said as the two men sat down. “Kid and Lou’ll want to see ya, too.”

“How are they?” Jimmy asked hesitantly. It still hurt to think of Lou and what might have been.

“Doin’ fine.” Teaspoon told him. “They bought a farm outside of town and are tryin’ to make a go of it. And they got a lively little three year old.” Teaspoon chuckled. “Thomas sure keeps Lou on her toes.”

Jimmy managed a faint smile. “What about the others?”

“Cody’s still with the Army. Buck went back to his people, but I still see him from time to time.” Teaspoon sighed. “With so many of the tribes on reservations, I figure he’ll be back soon. Rachel got married and moved to Kansas City. Sam and Emma are still at Fort Kearney. They got two younguns now. That leaves you. Where have you been?”

“Around.” Jimmy replied evasively. “I scouted for the Army a little, worked odd jobs a little, and gambled a lot.”

Teaspoon laughed. “So where ya headed now?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Nowhere in particular. Might hang around here awhile.”

“That’d be nice.” Teaspoon commented.

“Anybody live out at the old station now?” Jimmy asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” the older man answered. “Young lady named Heather Miller bought it little over a year ago. You oughta ride by and look at it. Looks real nice.”

“I might do that.” Jimmy considered the idea. “First, I’m gonna get me a room and some food. I’ll see ya around, Teaspoon.” Jimmy rose and headed for the door.

“Jimmy.” Teaspoon’s voice stopped him. “Good to have ya home, son.”

“Thanks, Teaspoon.” Jimmy nodded.

After a bath and a hot meal Jimmy felt refreshed. He had changed clothes and was now headed out of town on the once familiar south road. Sundance trotted along eagerly. Jimmy reached to pat her neck. “You’re rememberin’, too, ain’t you ol’ girl?”

When the station came in view Jimmy halted for a moment. It was just as he remembered it. The house gleamed white in the mid-afternoon sun. The corrals were in good repair and Jimmy noticed a couple of horses in one section. He turned to the bunkhouse, his home for over a year. It still looked the same and as he urged Sundance forward, he could almost hear the call of “Rider comin’!”

As Jimmy pulled up beside the picket fence, he noticed there were a few changes. Flowers now lined the walk and the porch had a rail around it. He smiled at the fact that the swing was still in its place.

On the swing sat a young girl with reddish hair. She regarded him with curiosity, then called through the door, “Heather, we’ve got company!”

Jimmy watched as a young woman not much younger than himself stepped onto the porch. Her brown hair was braided into one long braid that hung halfway down her back. She wiped her hands on her apron and smiled pleasantly. “Good afternoon. May I help you?”

“Afternoon, ma’am. My name’s Jimmy Hickok. I used to ride with the Pony Express and this was my home station. I was in town and just wanted to see how the place looked now,” Jimmy explained.

“Could I interest you in a glass of lemonade, Mr. Hickok? It’s rather warm today.” The young woman asked politely.

“Thank you, ma’am. That sounds nice.” Jimmy took a seat on the porch.

“By the way, I’m Heather Miller and this is Bridget O’Shea.” Heather informed him.

“Pleasure to meet you both.”

“Excuse us a moment.” Heather took Bridget and went inside. She returned shortly, without the younger girl. Heather set a tray on the small table on the porch. Taking the pitcher of lemonade she poured a glass for Jimmy and one for herself. Nodding to the plate of cookies on the tray, Heather said, “Please help yourself to the cookies. I always keep plenty on hand with four children.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened and he almost choked on the swallow of lemonade. “You have four children?” he asked in shock.

Heather laughed. “Oh no, they’re not mine. Well, they are, but…” she paused. Why was she telling this strange man all this, she wondered. Then again, everyone in town knew her story, so he could find out easily. Might as well get it straight from the horse’s mouth. “You see, Mr. Hickok, we’re all orphans. I was raised in an orphanage in St. Louis until I was eighteen. After I left and headed west to start my new life, it seemed that other orphans just found me. Pretty soon I had a family to take care of. I worked whenever I could and by the time we reached Sweetwater, we had managed to save a good bit of money; enough for a down payment on this place. With Marshal Hunter backing us, the bank agreed to give me a loan. This place was a godsend and we’re working hard to make it our home.”

Jimmy contemplated her story. It was just like Teaspoon to help ‘em out. And it looked like they were doing pretty good. “The place looks good,” he commented.

“Thank you. We try.” Heather took a sip of lemonade.

Jimmy reached for a cookie, just as sounds of an argument came from the barn.

“I’m tellin’ Heather!” Jimmy heard moments before a dark haired little boy charged out of the barn.

“Heather! Billy says he ain’t milkin’ Bluebell and it’s his turn!” the boy protested, heading their way. “Oops, sorry. I didn’t know we had company.”

Heather shook her head. “Please forgive me,” she said to Jimmy. “William!” she raised her voice. A blond head poked around the barn door. “Come here!”

The boy walked slowly over to the porch. “Billy, do you want milk to drink with your cookies later?” Heather asked. The blond head nodded. “Then I suggest you get busy milking the cow while Stephen feeds the horses.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said grudgingly. As the two boys returned to the barn Billy commented, “Tattletale,” as he smacked Stephen in the head and ran.

“Honestly, those boys.” Heather shook her head again, but Jimmy heard the affection in her voice. He bit back a smile at the scene. She reminded him of Lou. That reminded Jimmy; he had one more stop to make.

“Thank you for the refreshments, Miss Miller, but I’d better be goin’ now.” Jimmy stood up.

“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Hickok.” Heather responded. “Perhaps we’ll see you around town.”

“Maybe.” Jimmy untied Sundance and swung up. With a nod, he was gone.

Jimmy had tried to prepare himself for this all day, but still nothing prepared him for the sight of the woman who came onto the porch.

Lou had gone to the door when she heard approaching hoof beats. At first she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her, making the horse appear golden in the light from the setting sun. Then as the rider swung down there could be no mistake.

“Oh, God! Jimmy, is it really you?!” she screamed and flew down the steps.

“In the flesh.” He caught her in a hug and pulled her close. Just feeling her in his arms again made Jimmy’s pulse race. He had to stop this. She was his best friend’s wife. Anything they’d had was over long ago. At least for her.

Kid had heard his wife’s scream and come charging out of the barn. Seeing Jimmy, he hurried over. “You ol’ son-of-a-gun! What are you doin’ in town?” The two men exchanged hugs.

“Thought I’d come back and see how things were goin’.” Jimmy said simply.

“Well, you can stay for supper and we’ll have a long visit,” Lou decided.

“That’s alright, Lou. I can grab something to eat in town.” Jimmy started.

“Like heck you will!” Lou declared. “You’re stayin’ right here so we can catch up a little.”

Jimmy looked at Kid and laughed. “Same ol’ Lou.”

Kid nodded. “Give in now,” he advised his friend.

Lou assumed victory. “Supper will be ready in half an hour.” After giving Jimmy another hug, she returned to the house.

The two men put Sundance in the barn and then Kid showed his friend the corrals which held the beginnings of a promising horse ranch.

“You’ve done pretty good for yourself, Kid.” Jimmy commented, leaning on the fence as he took in the barn and the corrals with eight or so horses milling about.

“Yeah. It’s a nice place.” Kid responded, pushing away Katy who had come over to nuzzle. “No treats, girl.” Kid said to the horse.

“Still spoilin’ that horse,” Jimmy teased. Katy blew at him. “Yeah, yeah, I remember you, too.” Jimmy laughed and scratched her neck.

“Supper!” called a young voice from the porch. Jimmy turned and stared at the young girl.

“That’s Teresa?” he asked. “Man, she grew up.”

“Yep.” Kid acknowledged. “Miah’s inside, too. Along with someone you haven’t met yet; our son Thomas.”

The men washed and hurried inside. Kid was barely in the door when an energetic little bundle latched onto his legs.


Kid picked up his son. The child had Kid’s curls and blue eyes. Ain’t no way Kid could deny that one, Jimmy thought as he watched Kid place the little boy in his high chair.

The little boy eyed the stranger and looked at his mother. “Mama, who him?” he asked, pointing a small finger at Jimmy.

Lou stooped to tuck a napkin in his shirt and answered. “That, my little man, is your Uncle Jimmy.”

“Unca Jimmy.” Thomas tried out the words while regarding the man.

Jimmy knelt down beside the boy and held out a hand. “Howdy, Thomas.”

Thomas grasped the hand with a gleeful smile and replied, “’lo, Unca Jimmy.” The adults shared amused smiles.

Jeremiah and Teresa remembered Jimmy from the Express days and they all talked some during supper. After they finished eating, Lou insisted that the dishes could wait while they visited. Teresa volunteered to wash them and also put Thomas to bed, so that the three friends could visit. Jeremiah even agreed to help.

“When did you get into town?” Lou asked as she settled next to Kid on the parlor sofa.

“This morning.” Jimmy told her as he fought the wave of emotion he felt seeing her snuggled with Kid. “’Course I went by to see Teaspoon first thing.”

Kid smiled. “Bet he was surprised.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” Jimmy grinned as he recalled Teaspoon’s reaction.

“Well, I’m glad you’re back, though you sure took your own sweet time about it.” Lou half scolded.

“What have you been doin’ with yourself these last few years?” Kid questioned.

“Little bit of this and that.” Jimmy shrugged. His life was nothing to brag about. It wasn’t like he had a home and a good woman to share things with, he thought somewhat jealously.

“Been stayin’ out of trouble?” Lou teased.

“Mostly.” Jimmy winked.

Lou rolled her eyes. “I guess that’s as good as it gets.” They all laughed, and Lou changed the subject. “How long you stayin’?”

“I don’t know yet.” Jimmy stated. He didn’t tell them that he’d planned just a brief visit, but now that he was here, something pulled at him and made him want to linger.

“Well, if you need a place to stay, we can make room.” Lou offered.

Jimmy glanced around the small little house which was already pretty full of people. “Nah, thanks Lou, but I’ll stay in town for now.” Besides, he added to himself, there was no way he could stay under the same roof as Louise and not want to do something he’d regret. It would be bad enough to be in the same town. “I’ve got a room at the hotel and that’ll do till I find a job. Then I might get a room at the boarding house.” Now what the hell had possessed him to say that, Jimmy wondered. He hadn’t really thought about a job, it just kinda came out.

Lou clapped her hands with delight. “I knew you’d stay!” she exalted.

“Now, Lou, it ain’t nothing definite yet.” Jimmy cautioned. “I just got here and I ain’t even looked for a job yet. Fact is, that just sorta slipped out.”

Lou smiled. “Because you do want to stay,” she said knowingly.

Damn, she’d always been able to read him, Jimmy thought in frustration. “So, Kid, what do you do?” He quickly changed the subject.

“Mainly work the ranch. We’re starting to get more horses and I’ve bred a few. I break horses for some folks and I help Teaspoon when he needs an extra deputy.”

“And I’ll bet Thomas keeps you busy.” Jimmy turned to Lou.

“Lord, yes.” She laughed. “Tessa helps me when she not in school and Miah helps Kid.”

“Sounds nice.” Jimmy remarked wistfully.

They sat awhile longer, talking about old times. Suddenly Lou asked, “Have you been by the old station yet? If you haven’t, you oughta to.”

“As a matter of fact, I rode out that way earlier.” Jimmy told her.

“What did you think?” Lou prompted.

“Looked real nice.” Jimmy replied. “Pretty much like it was when we were all there.”

Lou nodded. “Heather’s done a remarkable job keeping it going. Did you meet Heather?”

“Yeah. She seemed pretty nice.”

“She is.” Kid ventured. “She and Lou hit it off from the day they met in Tompkins’.”

“We just have a lot in common,” Lou explained. “And we’re the same age. The children are wonderful, even if the boys get carried away sometimes.”

Jimmy’s lips curled a little as he thought about the cow episode he’d witnessed today. He wasn’t the least bit surprised that Lou and this young woman were friends. They were a lot alike; he could tell that just from his brief visit. “How does she make it with all them kids?” he asked.

“She takes in all the extra sewing the dressmaker gives her. She also makes stuff and sells it in Tompkins’ store,” Lou supplied.

They talked until late that night. Jimmy was tired when he left but he had enjoyed it. It was good to be back with friends.

Chapter 2

“Hurry up, everyone!” Heather called up the stairs the next morning.

“Be right there.” Bridget called back. “I’m tying Daisy’s hair ribbons.”

“We’re ready.” Billy and Stephen appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Billy, go back and comb your hair.” Heather responded. “It looks like a rat’s nest.”

“Picky, picky.” Billy grumbled. “We’re just goin’ into town. It ain’t like we’re goin’ to church.”

“Billy.” Heather warned and he went back to finish up.

The others were waiting in the kitchen when the blond boy came back down. “Am I alright now?” he asked.

“Very nice.” Heather kissed his cheek.

“Don’t do that.” He wiped it off.

Laughing, Heather opened the door and they all went out to the waiting wagon.

“What are we doin’ today?” Stephen asked as they drove along.

“I have to stop at Miss Barbara’s to get some more dresses to work on.” Heather informed them. “And then we’ll head to Mr. Tompkins’.”

“Can me and Billy go see Tea…I mean Marshal Hunter?” Stephen asked, catching himself as Heather glared back.

“If he’s not busy. And don’t pester him for more than one story.”

The boys exchanged smiles. One story from Teaspoon could take awhile.

By now they had arrived in town. Billy hopped out and tied the horses. Then he and Stephen scampered off to the Marshal’s office.

Heather got down and turned to lift down six year old Daisy. Holding the little girl’s hand, and with Bridget at her side, Heather walked to the dressmaker’s.

“Good morning, Heather,” the trim shop owner greeted the younger woman.

“Good morning, Miss Barbara. Do you have anything for me today?” Heather answered.

“Do I have anything? Child, I think every lady in town wants a new dress, what with the church picnic and dance two weeks away.” Barbara Cook handed Heather a huge bundle of dresses to be finished. “Oh, and I have a bag of scraps for you, too.” These she handed to Bridget.

“Thank you so much, Miss Barbara.” Heather smiled.

“No, thank you, Heather. You do fine work and I’d be lost without you.”

“I’ll get these back as soon as I can.” Heather promised.

“I know you will. Take a little time to fix yourself a new dress, too.” Barbara winked. “I’m sure Bob Richards would like that.”

Heather blushed slightly. “I’ll see what I can manage. Good-bye.” And she escaped before the woman said anymore.

“You’re not really goin’ with him are you?” Bridget asked as they returned to the wagon to put the sewing in.

“I don’t know. No one’s asked me yet, including Bob.” Heather replied and turned for the general store.

“Good morning, ladies,” Tompkins said as they entered.

They all returned his greeting. As Heather and Bridget selected the things they needed, Daisy gazed at the candy jars. Tompkins smiled at the little girl with her blue ribbons adorning her chocolate colored braids.

“Got some new kinds in yesterday,” he whispered.

The little girl nodded and turned pleading eyes on Heather. Heather gave in quickly. “One penny’s worth, she agreed.

Daisy contemplated her choices. “Gumdrops, please, sir,” she announced sweetly.

Tompkins put a handful in a little sack and handed it to the child.

“That’s more than a penny’s worth,” Heather protested.

“Figured you all might want one.” Tompkins stated as he added up their purchases.

Heather smiled and shook her head. Everyone in town treated them so well. Even thought she hated charity, she was grateful for the kindness of friends.

“Bridget, you and Daisy run over and get the boys. We’ll need help loading the wagon,” Heather directed as she paid Tompkins.

The girls skipped out just as another customer came in.

Tompkins looked up and sputtered, “ Where did you come from?”

A deep chuckle caused Heather to turn around.

“Good to see you again, too, Tompkins.” Jimmy stated. Then smiling at Heather, he said, “Hello again, Miss Miller.”

“Good day, Mr. Hickok.” Heather returned.

“You know him?” Tompkins asked in a hushed voice.

“I just met him yesterday.” Heather whispered back.

“Why are we whispering?” Jimmy asked softly, coming to lean on the counter. Heather couldn’t hold back the giggles.

Tompkins shook his head. “It’ll be just like it used to be,” he muttered and turned away.

Jimmy suppressed a grin. “Need any help?” he asked nodding to the packages on the counter.

“The children should be back any minute. They’re over at Marshal Hunter’s.” Heather told him.

“In that case, I’d better help. I know how long winded Teaspoon gets when he has an audience.” Jimmy picked up the two largest boxes easily. Heather took the smaller one and opened the door for Jimmy.

“Thank you, Mr. Tompkins,” she called.

A grunted “Humph!” was her only response.

“I take it Mr. Tompkins’ isn’t very fond of you,” Heather observed as they loaded the wagon.

“Now why would you think that?” Jimmy grinned.

Heather laughed and together they crossed the street and entered Teaspoon’s office.

All four children sat engrossed in Teaspoon’s story.

“Told ya,” Jimmy leaned over to say to Heather.

“Told her what?” Teaspoon questioned.

“’Bout how long winded you are.” Jimmy grinned.

“Now see here,” Teaspoon fussed good naturedly, “I don’t need you comin’ to town stirrin’ up disrespect for the Marshal among the citizens.”

“Heather, Marshal Hunter says Aunt Lou’s cat had kittens,” Daisy began in a wheedling tone.

“No ma’am.” Heather spoke firmly, knowing where this was leading. “We already have Foxy. One cat’s enough.”

“Can’t we at least stop by and look at ‘em,” Stephen begged.

“Alright.” Heather conceded. “But not a one of you better try to sneak one home,” she warned. They all nodded obediently.

After thanking Teaspoon for the story, the group bid the two men good-bye.

Heather pulled the wagon up to Kid and Lou’s before lunch. The boys jumped down and Kid and Miah came over from the corral to help the girls.

“We came to see the kitties.” Daisy proclaimed.

“Well, right this way, ma’am.” Kid bowed and offered his arm. Giggling, Daisy walked with him to the barn with the others following. “Lou’s in the house.” Kid called over his shoulder to Heather. She smiled and nodded and headed for the house.

“Lou?” Heather called as she opened the door.

“Heather. Come on in.” Lou poked her head out of the kitchen.

“The kids wanted to see the kittens, thanks to Marshal Hunter.”

Lou laughed. “Trust Teaspoon. Would you like to have one or two?”

“No!” Heather informed her. “And don’t you dare mention it. I’ve already told ‘em no.”

“Oh, alright.” Lou agreed. “Won’t ya’ll stay for lunch?”

“Thanks, but we really need to get home. We’ve all got chores and I have a pile of new dresses to work on.”

“Well, alright.” Lou conceded. “How about supper tomorrow?”

“I think we can manage that,” Heather agreed as they walked outside. “Time to go, kids,” she called. The children came out and climbed in the wagon. Waving good-bye they started home.

“What are you lookin’ so smug about?” Kid asked, slipping an arm around his wife.

“We’re havin’ company for supper tomorrow.” Lou informed him.

“Heather and her brood?” Kid guessed.

“And Jimmy.” Lou smiled.

“Lou…” Kid warned.

“Don’t worry.” Lou gave him a quick kiss. Kid shook his head and followed her inside.

Jimmy had accepted Lou’s invitation and since the ranch was close to town, he’d ridden out a little early to spend time with his friends.

Heather and the children drove up and Jeremiah stood by the barn waiting for them. “I’ll see to the team. The others are in the house,” he told Heather.

Heather nodded her thanks as she and the girls headed to the house. Billy and Stephen stayed to help Miah.

Heather stopped short in surprise at the sight in the parlor. Kid and Jimmy both sat on the floor playing with Thomas. Heather hadn’t known there’d be any other guests, especially this particular guest. Dismissing her thoughts with a shrug she told herself that it was Lou’s house and she could invite whoever she wanted.

The men looked up and said hello. Thomas barreled over to Heather.

“Aunt Wose!” he crowed in delight.

“I thought I heard other guests.” Lou came out of the kitchen. “Tessa’s upstairs if you girls want to go up,” she commented to Bridget and Daisy. They nodded and did just that.

Thomas was pulling at Heather’s skirt. She smiled and sat down on the floor next to him.

“Aunt Wose, look what we do.” The youngster pointed at a wooden block pile.

“I see.” Heather responded.

“Build somethin’, Aunt Wose.” Thomas commanded.

As Heather started to obey, Jimmy asked Lou in puzzled voice, “I thought her name was Heather.”

Heather overheard and smiled. “It is, Mr. Hickok,” she said. “But Heather was too hard for Thomas to say. We decided he could call me my middle name, Rose.”

“That’s a pretty name.” Jimmy commented.

“Thank you, but no one but my special little guy gets to call me that. Right, Tomboy?” Heather said, tickling the little boy.

“Wight, Aunt Wose.” Thomas agreed through his giggles.

The girls came back downstairs. They played with Thomas as Heather got up to help Lou.

Kid and Jimmy went to get the boys. As they walked to the barn, Jimmy spoke up. “I didn’t realize ya’ll were havin’ other guests tonight.”

“Don’t look at me.” Kid stated. “This is all Lou’s doing.”

The supper was good and the children’s chatter provided entertainment. When they finished they begged to go outside and play until it was time to go home. Heather consented and the house was soon empty except for the four young adults. Lou began cleaning up. Heather helped her and said, “Since the summer days are so nice, why don’t we have a picnic over at my place next Sunday after church.” She paused to look at Jimmy. “You’re welcome to come too, Mr. Hickok.”

Jimmy smiled and nodded. “Thank you. Are you sure it won’t be a problem?”

“No problem at all.” Heather assured him. “I should be finished with a good bit of my sewing by then and hopefully, the garden will be laid by.”

“You really oughta think about finding someone to help you,” Lou ventured.

Heather laughed. “Like I could afford to pay anyone, Lou. Besides the children help out and we get by just fine. And…”

“I know, I know.” Lou had apparently had similar conversations with Heather. “You don’t wanta be dependant on anyone.”

“Right.” Heather responded firmly.

Jimmy had to smile at her spirit. She was a plucky little thing.

The sun was starting to set and Heather decided to take her leave. “The children will need baths, I’m sure, after running and playing, so we’d best head home. Thank you for the meal, Lou. We had a nice time.”

They all walked outside. Heather called the children and got them loaded in the wagon, but not without some grumbles and whines.

“Bye, Aunt Wose.” Thomas hugged her fiercely and placed a sloppy child’s kiss on her cheek.

“Bye, sweetie.” Heather kissed him back and handed him to Lou.

“Goodness you’re dirty.” Lou inspected her son.

“Told ya they’d all need baths.” Heather laughed as she climbed up and started the horses. “Good-bye Kid, Mr. Hickok. Thanks again, Lou.”

“See ya next Sunday.” Kid called as they drove away, waving good-bye.

Chapter 3

Heather pushed back an escaping strand of hair and then wiped the sweat from her face with the back of her hand. The day was hot and her sunbonnet hung limply down her back. She was tired, but at least the garden was weeded. She headed to the porch to take a well deserved rest, before she and Bridget got the clothes off the line. Sighing, she sank down in the swing and fanned herself with her bonnet.

Hearing footsteps, Heather looked up. Bridget stood there with a big glass of iced tea. “Oh, Bridge, you’re a lifesaver.” Heather gratefully gulped the cool liquid.

“You’re overdoin’ again.” Bridget stated, sitting down beside Heather.

Heather regarded the thirteen year old girl. “The works gotta be done. Besides, you helped wash the clothes.”

“That’s right. And Daisy and I will get them all in.” Bridget announced. “You need to rest. Your face is all flushed.”

“Alright. Thank you.” Heather patted Bridget’s arm.

The younger girl went back inside to get Daisy and the clothes basket.

Billy and Stephen headed over from the barn. “We finished muckin’ the stalls.” Billy informed Heather as the boys collapsed on the steps.

Heather smiled proudly at her two boys. Sure they were young. Billy was only eleven and Stephen a year younger, but they were hard workers when necessary.

“You boys have done a good days work. What’d ya say, when Bridget and Daisy finish with the clothes, we all head to the pond?”

“Ya mean it?” Billy’s face brightened.

Heather nodded. “We all need baths anyway. Swimming is just an added bonus.”

“Alright! We’ll get the towels!” The boys found sudden energy and ran upstairs to gather things together.

As Heather sat up sewing late that night, she thought about Lou and Bridget’s recent comments. Maybe they were right. Maybe she was trying to do to much. But, she argued with herself, I have to keep my little brood together. Still, a voice nagged, some help would be nice. Heather looked down at her sewing. Who was she kidding. What little money she made had to go for food and to pay on the loan. She couldn’t afford to hire someone and she would NOT be treated like a charity case. Lord knows she’d endured that most of her life at the orphanage. Now she was determined to succeed on her own. Even if it was hard and lonely sometimes, she sighed.

Jimmy stood in Tompkins’ store waiting his turn. He absentmindedly looked around. Tompkins had a table set up that Jimmy didn’t remember from three years ago. There was an assortment of items on it. Neatly hemmed napkins, some baby clothes, fancy lace trimmed handkerchiefs, a patchwork quilt, even some doll clothes. He was wondering at it all when Tompkins spoke from behind him.

“That’s Miss Miller’s stuff.”

“Huh?” Jimmy was puzzled.

“Barbara, the dressmaker, gives Heather all the scraps from the shop. Then Heather saves ‘em and makes ‘em into other stuff. I sell it for her and give her part of what I make.” Tompkins explained.

“Probably not a big enough part,” Jimmy muttered.

“Don’t start, Hickok. Miss Miller and I have a fair business deal. And no matter what you think of me, I ain’t about to cheat that girl outta her hard earned money. She’s got good sense and determination and I can respect that.” Tompkins stated. “Now, something you want?”

Jimmy handed his selections to the store owner. Then on impulse, he added the cream colored napkins with blue edging. Lou would like them, he reasoned to himself, and promptly wondered why on earth he was buying a present for a married woman. Because she’s my friend, he told that little voice, knowing that that wasn’t it at all.

Jimmy knew that the napkins were just an excuse to go see Lou again. Sure, he said he was going to see the whole family, but he knew that was a lie. As much as he cared about the others, it was Lou that always drew him to the McCloud ranch. It still amused him that Kid had taken Lou’s last name rather than tell anyone his own name.

As Jimmy rode up, he waved to Kid. Kid was working with a new filly and it looked like the filly was winning. As Kid got to his feet, Jimmy climbed up on the fence. “Havin’ trouble?” he grinned.

Kid threw a glare his way. “You wanna try?” he asked.

“Been a while since I did that.” Jimmy replied. “I think I’ll just watch you bust your butt.”

Kid eyes sparkled as he replied. “Turned yella, huh, Jimmy?” Kid waited for approximately two seconds and Jimmy was in the corral with him. Kid bit back a grin. He could still get Jimmy riled by questioning his abilities. Handing his friend the reins, Kid stepped back to watch.

Jimmy mounted the filly and hung on longer than Kid had managed to, but in the end he landed solidly in the dust.

Miah had come over by now. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Jimmy’s findin’ out if he can still handle horses or not.” Kid responded.

“And the answer’s gonna be yes.” Jimmy called back as he dusted himself off. He climbed back on the little horse. After a few minutes, the young man found himself on his behind on the ground.

A soft laugh notified them that Lou had arrived. Jimmy looked up in embarrassment. He now had the entire family watching him.

“You boys will never be able to break Fireball.” Lou stated, as she stroked the red filly’s nose. Jimmy slowly walked over to the fence. “You okay, Jimmy?” she asked with a hint of a smile.

“Yeah. Just forgot how hard the ground in a corral can be,” he answered. “Next time remind me to not to take the bait.” Jimmy punched Kid’s arm.

Kid laughed. “I’ll remind you, for all the good it’ll do.”

“You want to stay for lunch, now?” Lou smiled. “I think you earned it.”

Jimmy nodded. “That reminds me. I got you something for your table, Lou.” Jimmy went to Sundance and pulled a package out of his saddlebag. Handing it to Lou, he waited for her to open it.

“Open pwesent, Mama!” Thomas hopped up and down, wanting to see.

Lou unwrapped the napkins and knew at once who had made them. “Thank you, Jimmy, they’re lovely.” She hugged her friend. “Now if you and Kid will get cleaned up, I’ll go put the food on the table.”

Kid eyed Jimmy a little suspiciously. “You know, if you keep bringin’ Lou presents, you’re gonna make me look bad.”

“Just tryin’ to make up for stayin away so long.” Jimmy told him. “Besides, nothing I could do would make Lou think any less of you.” As he said the words, Jimmy knew they were true. It was time to let go, but it was easier said than done.

Chapter 4

Sunday arrived and the unbearable heat that had held Sweetwater in its grasp all week eased somewhat. After church, Kid , Lou and their family followed Heather and the children back to the old way station. Jimmy rode behind them on Sundance.

While the men and boys went to put away the horses, the women and girls gathered the picnic baskets and blankets.

“I thought we could eat down by the creek,” Heather announced. Everyone agreed and they started off on the short walk, with the children running ahead.

The blankets were quickly spread out and Heather and Lou unpacked enough fried chicken, potato salad, oatmeal raisin cookies and a large container of sweet tea for everyone to eat their fill.

“That was good, Heather.” Kid leaned back against a nearby tree.

“Especially the cookies.” Jimmy took another one.

Heather smiled. “I’m glad you all enjoyed it.”

Billy’s blue eyes turned to Heather. “Can we?” he hinted.

Heather exchanged looks with Lou. Lou nodded and added, “Just watch Thomas carefully.”

“We will,” promised Teresa and Bridget, taking the little boy by the hand.

“Go ahead,” Heather said. With a whoop, Billy tore off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants legs and headed for the creek. Stephen and Miah weren’t far behind.

Heather took off her straw hat and sighed. “To be that young again.”

“Hey, it’s not like we’re that old.” Kid protested.

“I know.” Heather laughed. She watched the sunlight glint off the water, winking and beckoning. “It’s just that that water does look inviting.”

“Go wadin’ then,” Kid teased.

Heather shook her head. “Kid, you know it’s not proper.”

“Who cares?” Lou declared recklessly. “We can at least stick our feet in.”

Kid took off his boots and socks. “C’mon, Jimmy.” Jimmy didn’t need to be asked twice.

“Oh, what the heck.” Heather decided. She and Lou slipped off their shoes and stockings and followed the men to the stream.

Jimmy and Kid waded with the children. Lou and Heather contented themselves with sitting on the bank and dangling their feet in the water.

“Look at those two,” Lou giggled. “I don’t think they’ll ever grow up.”

Kid and Jimmy had joined the boys in trying to splash the girls. The girls ran squealing away from them.

Billy waded over to Lou and Heather and with mischief in his eyes, splashed them. Heather laughed merrily and kicked her foot sending twinkling droplets of water all over the boy.

Jimmy had to smile at the attractive picture Heather made sitting there. With her hands propped behind her and her feet swinging gently in the stream, she looked younger and more carefree than he’d seen her. Her light blue dress was the color of the summer sky and sprinkled with little pink rosebuds. And also water drops, he mused to himself. Water also sparkled on her brown hair. It was only later, that Jimmy realized he had not even really thought about Lou even though she was sitting right beside Heather.

It was mid afternoon when they packed up and headed back to Heather’s. Thomas was asleep on his father’s shoulder and Daisy wasn’t as energetic as before. Jeremiah saw her stumble and stopped to give the little girl a piggy back ride.

Lou smiled at his thoughtfulness. Miah had grown up lately, she reflected. He was no longer the surly boy he had been.

When the wagon was hitched up, Heather handed Thomas up to Lou.

“We all had fun.” Kid spoke for his family.

“I enjoyed it, too.” Jimmy commented, as he swung up on Sundance.

“We’ll have to do it again sometime.” Heather said. “You know you’re all welcome anytime. You too, Mr. Hickok,” she added.

Jimmy nodded his thanks and they rode off towards town.

“I like Mr. Hickok.” Stephen commented after their guests were gone.

“He is pretty nice.” Heather acknowledged. And very handsome, she thought to herself.

“He’s definitely better than Bob.” Bridget pointed out with disgust.

“Now, Bridge, don’t be like that. Bob’s always been every inch the gentleman with me.” Heather scolded lightly. “He’s polite, considerate, dependable…”

“Boring.” Billy interrupted, making a face.

“Go tend to your chores.” Heather laughed and gave him a gentle swat on the rear. He winked and did as he was told.

Billy did have a point, Heather reflected. Quiet, mild mannered, mousey bank clerk, Bob Richards would never measure up to a man like Jimmy Hickok. Oh well, it wasn’t like either of them was beating down her door, so why worry. In her experience men only brought trouble anyway, especially the handsome ones. She was better off alone.

Chapter 5

Heather approached Barbara’s shop. The little bell chimed merrily as she opened the door.

“Heather. I didn’t expect you today, dear.” Barbara looked up.

“I finished the last two dresses. I knew the ladies would want them for this weekend.” Heather handed her the package.

“Thank you. Are you all ready for this weekend?” the older woman asked.

Heather nodded. “The children are looking forward to it.”

“And you?”

“I’ll have fun watching. Now I really have to get back. I left Bridget in charge and I just hope the place is still standing when I get back.” With a smile, Heather slipped out the door. Honestly, she thought, that woman can be so nosy, even if she does mean well.

Turning toward her wagon, Heather heard her name being called. She stopped and looked around. When she saw Bob headed her way, she sighed. “Good day, Bob.”

“Hello, Heather. I’m glad I saw you. I wanted to speak to you after church last Sunday, but you were busy.”

Heather regarded the nondescript man before her. Bob wore a nice crisp shirt and well tailored jacket and pants. Working in the bank, he had to look nice. His short, mouse brown hair was combed back and his gray eyes were almost hidden behind his glasses. Now he pushed his glasses up on his nose, a gesture Heather had learned to equate with his nervousness. Bob swallowed hard, causing his Adam’s apple to jump.

Here it comes, Heather thought.

“Heather, I was wondering if you would allow me to escort you to the dance this weekend?”

Heather forced a smile and her answer. “Why, thank you, Bob. That would be nice.”

“Shall I ride out and get you and the children as usual?” he asked.

“Yes, that would be fine.” Heather said, thinking of the previous times they’d been through this. It seemed they were developing a routine for every major town function. Bob would ride out to the ranch, drive them all to town in Heather’s wagon, see them home, and then return to town himself on his horse. Pulling herself back to the present, Heather smiled and said, “I really need to get home, Bob.” He helped her into the wagon and said good-bye.

On the way home Heather thought about Bob and their casual relationship. She had met Bob the first day at the bank. Then they’d seen each other at church. He had nervously approached her and asked her to attend the spring dance over a year ago. Other young men had looked at her until they found out about the children. Heather didn’t really blame them. What sane man would want a passel of kids who weren’t his own? She had a ready made family and that was way too much baggage for most men. Bob was the only one who didn’t seem to mind, but lately even dependable old Bob had not been around much. It wasn’t really the man’s fault. She hadn’t exactly encouraged him much. She liked Bob well enough, but deep down Heather longed for a little more romance. Still there was another part of her that shied away from men in general. If she could only come to grips with the past. Heather shook her head. Best not to even start down that road again. Squaring her shoulders, she clucked to the horses to hurry and tried to leave her thoughts behind.

“Do we gotta go?” Billy asked the day of the picnic and dance.

“Yes.” Heather answered. “You’re not staying here alone.”

“I’ve been by myself before,” the boy declared in a tough voice.

“I know you have, but that was before we were all together.” Heather patted his shoulder.

“I thought you liked picnics.” Bridget commented.

“It ain’t the picnic. It’s the dance later and the fact that we gotta ride with Bob.” Billy said the name in disgust.

“But Heather promised we could eat with Aunt Lou and Uncle Kid.” Stephen reminded.

“I know.”

“Here comes Bob now.” Bridget looked out the window.

Great.” Billy muttered.

“I expect you all to be polite and on your best behavior, understand?” Heather stated. They all nodded, except Billy. Heather took him by the shoulders. “Billy, please be good,” she begged. He nodded.

“Hello, Bob. We’re all set.” Heather announced as they came out.

“Alright then.” Bob helped Heather up on the wagon as the children scrambled in back with the picnic basket. “Everybody ready?” At the answering nods, Bob started the horses.

When they arrived in town, they left the wagon on main street, but took the basket and walked to the flat behind the church. Tables and benches had been set up, and there was plenty of room to spread out blankets.

The children saw Lou and Kid and ran over to them. The two women started unpacking the baskets while the men talked and the children played.

“We just got here, too.” Lou commented and looked up to see her friend glancing around. “He’s here, don’t worry.”

“Who?” Heather asked.

“Jimmy. He and Miah are tyin’ the horses.” Lou informed her friend.

“Lou, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I was keeping an eye on the children.” Heather declared. Lou gave her a skeptical look, but didn’t comment. However, Heather thought, it was nice to know that Mr. Hickok would be there.

By the time the food was laid out, Miah and Jimmy had arrived. Kid introduced Jimmy and Bob and they all sat down to eat. The conversation was light and centered on general topics.

Jimmy found himself watching Bob and Heather. The man did not seem to be the type for Heather. She was too much like Lou to settle for this drab little fellow. She tried to pretend she was having a good time, but Jimmy could see the resignation in her eyes. Why was she subjecting herself to this, he wondered. It was plain that the children were less than thrilled, too. Especially Billy. Jimmy watched the boy make faces behind Bob’s back until Kid thumped him in the head and gave him a stern look.

The picnic and fellowship lasted until mid-afternoon. Then the band began to warm up on the outside stage and dance floor that had been constructed.

Heather had danced a couple of times with Bob and then Kid. Now she sat quietly watching. Thomas had crawled into her lap. Heather didn’t mind as it gave Kid and Lou a chance to dance. And it also helped prevent her having to dance with Bob any more. Not that he would now. She caught sight of him talking to some of the other bank employees, and knew it would take a lot to drag him away once he started talking business.

Heather smiled as she watched Bridget and Miah dance together. The two had become good friends and Heather knew Bridget was at an awkward age with boys. It helped to know that Miah wouldn’t pressure her to be more than friends like some of the other boys in town would.

The young woman’s smile widened as she spotted Daisy and Stephen twirling and swinging each other as they danced in complete disregard to time and tempo. She scanned the crowd, but didn’t see Billy. She prayed he wasn’t off in mischief somewhere.

“Don’t you like to dance, Miss Miller?” A deep voice broke through her thoughts.

Heather turned. “Oh, Mr. Hickok. I’m not a very good dancer. Besides, I seem to have lost my partner.” She nodded at the sleeping little boy in her lap.

Jimmy smiled. “Then may I sit with you?”

“Of course.” Heather answered and Jimmy took a seat beside her.

“Where’s Bob?” he asked.

“Over there. Talking business as usual.”

“Does he always just leave you like this?” Jimmy was amazed that the man was not even looking at the woman he’d agreed to escort.

Heather shrugged indifferently. “It doesn’t matter. We’re just friends. Bob is kind enough to play escort to events. He’s the only one who ever asks. The children are usually enough to scare off any men.”

Kid and Lou made their way over. Seeing Thomas asleep, Kid scooped up his son. Heather shifted her numb legs.

Lou laughed. “He’s getting heavy isn’t he?”

“I don’t mind.” Heather answered truthfully. She missed having a rumpled haired little boy in her lap. Billy had decided he was too old for such foolishness and Stephen was rapidly following in his footsteps. Of course, she smiled, they still wanted lovin’ when they were hurt or in trouble. And she always had Daisy, who still loved to rock and cuddle.

“Now that you have been relieved of your burden, would you care to dance?” Jimmy asked Heather. She nodded and took his hand. Lou smiled contently.

Jimmy didn’t think the woman in his arms was as bad a dancer as she claimed. He’d never seen Heather this close before. She was taller than Lou. Her chin came to his shoulder. The peach dress that she wore tonight was simple, but the color suited her with her lightly tanned skin and light brown hair.

Heather looked up to find Jimmy studying her. Her steps faltered in embarrassment. Jimmy held her steady. When she had looked at him with those soft brown eyes, he had noticed for the first time the light dusting of freckles across her nose. He was beginning to think that Heather Miller was an attractive young woman.

As he led her back at the end of the song Heather said quietly, “I enjoyed that, Mr. Hickok.”

“Jimmy,” he replied.

“Excuse me?” Heather looked puzzled.

“I wish you’d call me Jimmy,” he requested.

“Alright, Jimmy,” she agreed. “And I’m just plain Heather from now on, okay?”

“Okay, Heather.” Jimmy said. But you ain’t that plain, he added to himself.

No sooner were they back at their seats than Teaspoon approached, dragging a sulky Billy. “I believe this belongs to you,” the Marshal stated.

“What’d he do now?” Heather sighed.

Teaspoon’s eyes twinkled. “Caught him and Peter Fisher fixin’ to put a lizard in the punch bowl.” Jimmy turned his head to hide his grin.

“William Miller! What am I going to do with you?” Heather scolded.

“Nothin’, I hope,” the boy whispered.

“I’ll find something.” Heather promised. “Right now, why don’t you go get the others and tell them it’s time to go.”

“Do I have to find Boring Bob, too?” Billy asked contemptuously.

Heather leveled a look at her young charge. “If I were you, I’d watch that mouth. You’re already in enough trouble.”

“Yes ma’am.” Billy meekly went to get everyone.

Jimmy chuckled. “You sure you ain’t kin to Lou?”

“No.” Heather laughed. “But I’d better find them and say good-bye.”

“They already left and took Thomas home.” Jeremiah reported coming over with Bridget, Teresa and Daisy. “Jimmy, you’re supposed to take me and Tessa home.”

“No problem.” Jimmy nodded. “Ya’ll ready?”

“Yeah, it’s getting late.” Miah, looked at Teresa who nodded agreement.

“I’ll be seein’ ya, Heather.” Jimmy bid her good night.

“Good bye, Jimmy.” Heather responded. “Thank you again for the dance.”

As Jimmy, Teresa and Jeremiah walked away Daisy yawned and leaned against Heather. “Bet you’ll be asleep before we get home.” Heather put her arm around the little girl.

Billy, Stephen and Bob arrived by their side. “Billy said you were ready to go.” Bob looked at Heather.

“Yes, I’ve got a sleepy little girl here.” Then seeing Stephen’s drooping eyes, she smiled and added. “And a sleepy boy, too.”

Bob helped Heather get the children in the wagon. When they reached the ranch, Bob helped Billy put away the horses, before he headed back to town.

Sure enough, Daisy was asleep and Heather had to carry her up to the room the younger girls shared.

“I’ll get her tucked in. You tend to the boys.” Bridget said as she slipped Daisy’s dress off and put on her little nightgown.

Heather went across the hall to the boy’s room. Both of them were in their nightshirts and in bed. Stephen was fighting to stay awake to get his good night hug.

“Good night, sweetie.” Heather hugged him and tucked him in.

“And you, my little lizard hunter,” she turned to Billy. “You realize that you probably would have drowned that poor creature, not to mention ruining the punch.”

“But it would have been funny to see the expression on those old biddies’ faces,” he grinned.

“What have I told you about saying stuff like that?” Heather fussed gently as she tucked him in bed.

“So?” He looked up at her with big, blue eyes, awaiting the verdict.

“So, since you’re so fond of bowls, tomorrow you’ll wash all the breakfast dishes by yourself.”

“That’s the girl’s job.”

“Tomorrow it’s yours.” Heather kissed his cheek. “Good night, my Billy.” She blew out the lamp and left the room.

In her own room, Heather thought about the night. She wondered briefly why it seemed so much easier to dance with Jimmy than with Bob.

Chapter 6

Heather was repairing a board on the corral fence when Jimmy rode up. “Jimmy, what brings you out this way?” she asked, pausing in her work.

“Just passin’ by. Need any help?”

“No thanks. I’ll manage.” Heather doubted seriously that he was ‘just passin’ by. Since the dance, Lou had tried quite a few tricks to get them together. She had invited them all over again. Then there was the time Lou had ‘needed’ to borrow a recipe from Heather, but just didn’t have the time to come get it, so she had sent Jimmy instead since he just happened to be at Kid and Lou’s house. Then there were countless times in the last few weeks that Jimmy ‘happened’ to meet Heather in town, usually after Heather had said something to Lou about going to town. Heather thought Jimmy was attractive, but she wasn’t about to let herself get suckered in by his charm and wind up hurt again. With her thoughts wandering, Heather didn’t notice that the fence rail was slipping until a splinter jabbed into her finger.

“Ow!” she exclaimed, dropping the board.

“Let me see.” Jimmy took her hand in his. Heather’s first instinct was to pull away, but she held still. As Jimmy touched her hurt finger, a tingle went through her whole body. Stop it now, warned a voice in her head. You know where this leads. But she simply watched as Jimmy gently pulled the splinter out.

Then he held out his hand. “Now, give me the hammer.”

“I can do it.” Heather protested. She tightened her grip on the hammer like it was her lifeline.

Jimmy placed his hand over her hand. “Give me the hammer,” he said again. Heather relinquished the tool and watched as with a few practiced swings the board was in place. “Anything else?” he asked, picking up the bag of nails.

“No, that’s it. I just needed to fix that so I could let the horses out.” Heather answered and started for the barn. Jimmy followed. “Oh,” Heather called over her shoulder, “the hammer and nails go in the…”

“Corner in the tool bin.” Jimmy finished with a grin as he put the things away.

Heather blushed slightly. “I keep forgetting that you lived here before I did.”

Jimmy smiled. “How many horses do you have?”

“Just three.” Heather led out a brown mare while Jimmy got the two bay geldings that usually pulled the wagon. “We also have one cow, five chickens, and a cat.”

After the horses were in the corral, Jimmy and Heather leaned on the fence. “You know, those two bays look almost like twins,” Jimmy commented. “Do they have names?”

“Of course.” Heather answered. “The one with the sock is Sock and the one with the white snip on his forehead is Snip.”

“Clever.” Jimmy teased.

“Stephen named ‘em.” Heather laughed. “The mare is Gingerbread, ‘cause she’s the same color as gingerbread. Our cow is Bluebell, the cat is Foxy, and the chickens you’ll have to ask Daisy about. She’s the only one who can tell them apart.”

Jimmy chuckled. “Speakin’ of Daisy, where are the kids? Seems awful quiet today.”

Heather smiled at the comment. “I let ‘em go fishing. School will be starting in about a week, so they’re enjoying the last few days of freedom.” Then she added, “Why don’t we go over to the house and I’ll fix us something to drink. It’s the least I can do, since you did my work for me.”

“That was nothing,” Jimmy stated causally, “but some iced tea would be nice.”

As they entered the house, Jimmy hesitated. It was the first time he’d actually been inside, usually he stopped on the porch. Now he gazed around the parlor as Heather said, “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”

Jimmy surveyed his surroundings. There was a navy blue sofa beside the window. The man smiled at the rag doll that had been left on the sofa. Obviously, Daisy had been playing there. Next to the sofa was a small table which held a lamp and several books. Beside the fireplace was a cushioned rocking chair and a small cushioned stool. A sewing basket sat next to the rocking chair and a shirt peeked out of the basket, waiting to be mended. Jimmy could guess who usually occupied the rocker. Two chairs covered with brown cloth and a small wooden bookshelf completed the furniture. The floor between the two chairs was evidently the boy’s domain for there was a wooden horse and cow with a fence of sticks around them, and also some marbles and a wooden top scattered about.

Jimmy glanced at the mantle and saw two candles in brass holders and a small brown mantle clock. On one side of the clock was a wooden box and on the other was a sketch in a silver frame. Jimmy looked closer at the sketch. It was a drawing of this house and it was very familiar. Jimmy stared in amazement. It couldn’t be, he thought.

“Sorry it took so long. And I know the room is a mess right now, but we clean it up every night, honest.” Heather came back into the room.

Jimmy barely heard her. He stood transfixed before the picture. “Where’d you get that?” he asked in a strained voice.

“I found it,” she replied in a hushed tone.

Jimmy managed to swallow past the lump in his throat and choked out, “Ike drew it.”

“I know.” Heather said gently.

Jimmy whirled to regard her in astonishment.

“When we first arrived in Sweetwater, Lou and Kid were some of the first people we met. When they found out I’d bought this place, they asked if they could help us clean up.” Heather explained. “When we were cleaning the bunkhouse, we drug the bunks out to really clean the place. I found the sketch wedged in a crack behind a bunk. Lou told me it was Ike’s bunk. I guess the paper slipped back there and was forgotten. I tried to get Lou to take it when I found out whose it was, but she wouldn’t. She said it belonged here; that Ike would have wanted it like that.”

Jimmy nodded. “Lou’s right. Ike would have wanted you to have it.”

“I wish I could have known him,” Heather whispered, as she traced the lines of the sketch with a finger. “From everything Lou and Kid told me, I would have really liked him.”

“You would have. Ike was a special guy.” Jimmy sighed, as he rubbed a hand across his eyes. Heather noticed, but didn’t say anything. Jimmy gave her a half smile.

“Would you like to sit on the porch?” Heather suggested gently. At Jimmy’s nod, she carried their drinks outside.

They sat quietly a few minutes. Jimmy was lost in memories and Heather let him be.

Finally, Heather spoke up, “Jimmy, why did you come out here today?”

“Just felt like visitin’ you and the kids,” he answered. “Is that alright?”

“Of course. I told you, you’re welcome anytime.” Heather stated. He only came as a friend, she reminded herself, don’t even start thinking anything more.

“Heather! We’re back!” Billy called, as the children came around the corner of the barn.

“Catch anything?” Heather questioned. Billy grinned and held up a string of fish. “Well, you and Stephen clean ‘em and we’ll have them for supper.” Turning to Jimmy, she asked, “Would you like to stay for supper?”

“Sounds good. I’ll go help the boys.” Jimmy accepted.

As he rode back to town later that night, Jimmy wondered about his motives. He had enjoyed the supper and the time spent with the little family. The kids were cute and amusing. Heather was nice, but was he really attracted to her or was it only because she reminded him of Lou. He knew he’d never have the one woman that he loved, so was he now just looking for a substitute? He pondered his feelings, but they were too confusing to untangle right now. Sighing deeply, he looked at the light coming from a certain window and knew where to go.

“What brings you out this late?” Teaspoon asked, offering Jimmy a cup of coffee.

“I was just on my way back to the hotel and thought I’d stop by.” Jimmy said.

Teaspoon eyed the young man, knowing there was more to it than that. “Been out to Kid and Lou’s?” he ventured.

Jimmy shook his head. “Out at the old station.”

“Oh.” Teaspoon’s single word answer carried a lot meaning. The old Marshal had seen how Lou had been ‘helping’ Jimmy and Heather lately. “What were you doin’ out there?”

“Just visitin’.” Jimmy remarked.

“Heather’s a nice girl and very hard working.” Teaspoon commented.


Teaspoon waited. He’d eventually find out what was bothering the young man. He always did.

“Teaspoon, I got a problem.” Jimmy blurted out.

Teaspoon raised an eyebrow. Not like that was any big surprise, he thought to himself. “What kind of problem?”

“Women.” Jimmy informed him.

The older man smiled. “Certain ones or just the species in general,” he teased.

“Lou and Heather.” Jimmy supplied. “You know how I’ve always felt about Lou.” At Teaspoon’s nod, he continued, “Well, the truth is, I still care about her.” Seeing Teaspoon’s look he added hastily, “I know it ain’t right, but I can’t help it. Being here, close to her, it brought back a lot of memories.”

“I’m really surprised you’ve stayed this long,” Teaspoon commented.

“So am I. I’ve thought about leavin’ at least a dozen times, but somethin’ keeps tellin’ me to stay here. I don’t know why.” Jimmy tried to explain.

“Maybe ‘cause you belong here, son.” Teaspoon offered gently.

Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, now there’s Heather. I’m startin’ to like being around her, Teaspoon, but I don’t know if it’s right.”

Teaspoon chuckled. “Why wouldn’t it be? Don’t tell me you’re worried about Bob Richards.” Jimmy threw him a disdainful look. “Well, what’s the problem? Heather’s a nice lookin’, available woman.”

“With four children.” Jimmy put in.

“I don’t think it’s those kids that are botherin’ ya, is it?” Teaspoon looked at Jimmy, who shook his head. “It’s the fact that she reminds ya of Lou. Well, boy, there are gonna be other woman out there. Some of ‘em will remind you of Lou and some won’t, but you can’t let that memory of what you lost make you shy away from ‘em all. If you do, you’ll not only have lost Lou, but anyone else who could have brought you happiness. You got lots of ghosts, Jimmy, you always have. One of these days, you’re gonna have to quit runnin’.”

Jimmy sat quietly and finished his coffee. Then he stood up. “I’d better be going now.”

“You know I’ll try to help ya all I can, son.” Teaspoon patted his shoulder.

“I know. Thanks, Teaspoon.” Jimmy left the office.

A few mornings later Heather was getting the clothes ready to wash when Jimmy rode up. Two visits in one week? Heather thought. Lou must have sent him this time. “Good morning, Jimmy.”

“Howdy, Heather.” He dismounted and tied Sundance.

Before Heather could ask what he needed, Billy yelled from the barn, “Heather! We got a problem!”

Heather and Jimmy hurried over to see what was wrong. “Bluebell got out again,” Billy informed them.

Heather looked at the broken gate. “Well, you’d best go find her.”

“Do I gotta?” Billy whined.

“Yes, you’ve ‘gotta’. And if you’d fixed that gate when I told you to, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“It ain’t my fault,” the boy stated angrily. “Stephen turned her out last night. He probably didn’t fasten the gate good. Besides, that damn cow could get out of Teaspoon’s jail, she’s so tricky.”

Heather spoke sternly. “I don’t care whose fault it was, go and find her. And watch your language, young man.”

Billy grabbed a rope and was about to stomp off when Jimmy stopped him. “I’ll help ya track her down, shouldn’t take to long.” Billy nodded and they started off.

Heather headed back to the well where Stephen was getting the water for the washing. “Stephen, I need you to clean the stalls and take Sundance and see to her, too. Billy had to go find Bluebell and Jimmy’s helping.” Stephen nodded. As he turned toward the barn Heather asked, “Did you latch the gate good last night when you put Bluebell in her pen?”

“I thought so.” Stephen said hesitantly.

“From now on make real sure, okay?” Heather patted his shoulder. “She’s all we’ve got and we couldn’t afford another cow.”

“Okay. I’m sorry, Heather.” Stephen looked down.

“It’s alright. Go do your chores.”

By the time Billy and Jimmy made it back with the cow, Heather and Bridget had the clothes washed and hung up. Daisy sat on the steps, playing with her doll.

“They’re back,” the little girl reported.

Heather went over to check on things. Billy had tied the cow in the barn and was now helping Jimmy repair the damaged gate. They both looked up when Heather came over.

“Found her on the other side of the stream.” Jimmy told Heather. “She’d found a patch of tender grass and wasn’t real thrilled to be pulled away.”

“Jimmy showed me some about trackin’,” Billy put in excitedly.

Heather started to correct him for not saying Mr. Hickok, but Jimmy sensed what she was thinking and hastily said, “It’s alright. I told him to call me Jimmy.”

“Can I, Heather?” Billy asked hopefully. He knew how Heather was about manners, though he couldn’t understand the big deal.

Heather smiled and nodded. “If it’s alright with Jimmy, it’s fine with me.” She left them to their work and returned to the house to make lunch.

Stephen came over after he finished the stalls. “I took care of your horse for you,” he told Jimmy.

“I saw that. Thank you, Stephen.”

“Can I call you Jimmy, too?” Stephen asked hesitantly.

“Sure you can.” Jimmy grinned. Together they put up the tools and went to wash up. Just as they were finishing, Heather called from the porch, “Lunchtime!”

Everyone sat down around the table and Heather asked Billy to say the blessing.

“Thank you, God, for our food. And thank you for sendin’ Jimmy to help me with that ornery ol’ cow. Amen,” the boy prayed.

Heather and Jimmy exchanged glances, each trying to hold back the laughter.

After lunch, the girls washed the dishes while the boys went outside to play. When the girls finished, they joined the game of catch. Heather and Jimmy soon quit and sat on the steps watching.

“You never told me why you came today.” Heather commented.

“Well, I wanted to talk to you.” Jimmy began. “When I came back to Sweetwater, I never planned on stayin’ this long.”

“So you’re leaving?” Heather felt a slight twinge at that thought.

Jimmy shrugged. “That’s kinda up to you.”

“Up to me? Why on earth is it up to me?” Heather wondered.

“Well, I’ve looked around for a job, but there’s not much available. Then I got to thinkin’, maybe with the kids goin’ back to school, you might need some help around here.” Jimmy waited for her reaction.

Heather’s jaw tightened. “I can manage just fine,” she declared heatedly.

Jimmy had expected that. Her and Lou and their damn stubborn pride. “I’m sure you can,” he tried to appease her. “You’ve done a remarkable job keepin’ this place goin’ and raising the children.”

“Did Lou put you up to this?” Heather interrupted.

“Lou don’t even know I’m here.” Jimmy told her. “So what do you say?”

“I say thank you, but I don’t take charity.” Heather said firmly. “I couldn’t pay much and it would be wrong to ask anyone to do the work for next to nothing.”

Jimmy thought about that. “So what could you offer for the job?”

“A few dollars a week, plus room and board in the bunkhouse.” Heather replied.

“I’ll take it.” Jimmy stated, shaking her hand.

Heather looked confused. “What just happened?” she asked.

“I believe you just offered me a job and I accepted.” Jimmy laughed as her mouth dropped open.

“You…you…you tricked me!” she sputtered.

Jimmy grinned. “Worked didn’t it.”

Heather laughed. “And Lou always said Cody was the tricky one who usually got his way.”

The children came over to see what was going on.

“It looks like Jimmy is going to be our new ranch hand.” Heather informed them. “He’ll be living in the bunkhouse and helping out around here.”

“Yeah!!” they all yelled.

“Does this mean I have to call you Miss Miller?” Jimmy winked.

“No, ‘Boss’ will do just fine.” Heather teased.

“She’s defiantly bossy enough,” Billy put in, dodging the swat Heather aimed at him. They all laughed.

“When do you want me to start?” Jimmy asked.

“What about tomorrow? I can give the bunkhouse a good going over this afternoon and you can move in tomorrow morning.” Heather suggested.

“Sounds good.” Jimmy agreed. “I’ll get Sundance and head back to town and pack. See ya tomorrow.”

“Bye, Jimmy. And thank you.” Heather smiled. “Alright, Bridget, let’s get that bunkhouse cleaned up.” The girls went to get the brooms and dust cloths.

As Jimmy rode back into town, Teaspoon called to him.

“What’s up, Teaspoon?” Jimmy reined in Sundance.

“Been lookin’ for ya. Kid came by earlier and said Lou wanted us both to come for supper tonight.” Teaspoon informed the young man. “Where you been? Kid couldn’t find ya and I been lookin’, too.”

“Just out ridin’,” Jimmy hedged. “I’ll be ready for supper, but I gotta pack first.”

“Pack? You leavin’?” Teaspoon was somewhat surprised.

“Nah. Just movin’.” Jimmy grinned. “Found a job.”

“Well, good for you! Where?”

“Out at Heather’s place.” Jimmy replied, easing Sundance down the street.

Teaspoon smiled as he watched the man ride away. “Must have figured some things out after the other night,” he said to himself.

Jimmy met Teaspoon back at the Marshal’s office that evening and they rode out to Lou and Kid’s together.

Thomas met them at the door. “Dwanpa! Unca Jimmy!” he yelled as he attacked them.

Lou laughed. “He’s been waiting at the door for you for the last half hour.”

Teaspoon swung the little boy up in the air and he gave a delighted squeal. “Do again, Dwanpa!” he begged.

“How ‘bout a story instead?” Teaspoon questioned as he set Thomas down.

“Story!” Thomas agreed eagerly, pulling both men to the sofa.

Lou smiled as she returned to the kitchen. She and Teresa put the finishing touches on supper as they heard Kid and Miah come in from the barn.

As they gathered around the table, Kid spoke up. “I sure am glad that we got all the horses moved today. In just two more days, I’ll lose my help.”

“Don’t remind me.” Jeremiah grimaced at the thought of going back to school.

“I’m ready to get back to school,” Teresa put in.

“Hear there’s a new teacher this year.” Kid commented.

“That’s because Miss Tracy got married and now she’s Mrs. Connors and staying at home.” Teresa answered.

“Wonder what the new teacher will be like?” Miah pondered.

“Well, I met the fellow, but I can’t say as I’m impressed.” Teaspoon stated. “His name’s Thorn and he don’t look real sociable.”

“Maybe he just needs to get to know folks.” Lou offered hopefully.

“I hope that’s all.” Teaspoon nodded.

They talked about other things during the meal and finally Jimmy announced, “Well, I need to get back soon. Need a good nights rest to start my new job tomorrow.”

“What new job?” Lou turned on him. “You’ve been holdin’ back on us, Jimmy.”

“I just got it today.” Jimmy told her.

“Tell ‘em where.” Teaspoon smiled.

“I’m the new ranch hand out at Heather’s,” Jimmy informed them.

Lou squealed and jumped up to hug him. “I knew you two would get together!”

“Lou, calm down,” Kid laughed. “Jimmy’s just workin’ for Heather. It ain’t like they’re fixin’ to get married or nothing.”

Lou frowned at her husband. “You never know what might happen,” she stated.

“Unca Jimmy gonna help Aunt Wose?” Thomas asked.

“I sure am, Thomas.” Jimmy answered.

“You wike Aunt Wose?” the little fellow asked innocently.

Jimmy smiled and nodded. “She’s very nice.” Beyond that he was not willing to say, not yet anyway.

Heather fell into her bed, tired but happy. She and Bridget had spent the afternoon cleaning the bunkhouse thoroughly and everything was ready for the morning. She wondered briefly if she was ready for what the morning would bring. He’s just an employee, she scolded herself. But she knew she was lying to herself. In her heart of hearts, past all the doubts and fears, she wanted Jimmy to be more than an employee. Much, much more.

Chapter 7

It was mid-morning Saturday when Jimmy arrived at Heather’s ranch. Everyone was waiting in the yard.

“Good morning!” Jimmy called.

“Good morning!” came the reply.

“The bunkhouse is all ready.” Heather informed him as he dismounted. Jimmy followed her over and threw open the door. He was immediately hit with a wave of memories. Heather had left the bunkhouse just as it was during the Express days.

Heather watched as the emotions played over his face. She had seen it to a lesser degree in Kid and Lou when they helped her clean up when she’d first moved in. It had to be hard for Jimmy, she thought, after all the time he’d been away to come back here and find almost nothing changed.

Jimmy entered the room and looked around. He could envision everyone’s stuff in its place, Emma sewing or cooking, the riders talking or playing cards. It was enough to cause tears to prick at his eyes. Blinking rapidly, Jimmy turned his head.

Heather sensed his feelings and shooed the children out. “Let Jimmy get his stuff unpacked, then we can talk at lunch.” She looked back at the man standing almost helplessly in the middle of the room. “I’ll call you when lunch is ready,” she said gently and left him alone with his thoughts and memories.

Jimmy walked over and put his stuff on his bunk. His bunk, he thought with a smile. It always had been and now it was again. He started unpacking his things and put everything in its familiar spot. He hung his gun belt on the peg by the door. Then a sudden sense of loneliness swept over him. There were supposed to be other gun belts there. His friends and family were supposed to be here. Jimmy leaned against the wall and gave in to the tears. He stayed in the bunkhouse, lost in the past, until there was a knock at the door.

Opening it, he found Daisy. The little girl looked up at him with big hazel eyes. “Heather said to tell you lunch is ready.”

“Thanks, Daisy.” He patted her head.

“You okay?” she asked with concern.

“Yeah, why?” Jimmy tried to act normal.

“You look sad.” Daisy answered. “Don’t be sad. Even if you’re by yourself out here, we’ll be close. You won’t be alone. You got us now and we’re a family; that’s what Heather always says.”

Jimmy couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Daisy.” He took the little hand that she offered and together they went to the house to eat lunch.

His first day on the job and all he’d done was help clean the stalls while the boys milked the cow and fed the animals.

At supper, Jimmy commented to Heather, “Didn’t know this job was gonna be so easy.”

She laughed. “Oh, just wait till next week when everyone is back in school. I’ll put you work then,” she promised.

“Is Jimmy goin’ to church with us tomorrow?” Stephen asked.

Heather shrugged and looked at Jimmy. “You can if you want to,” she offered.

“I might,” Jimmy replied.

“If Jimmy don’t go, can I stay home, too?” Billy piped up.

“Nope. It’s not an option whether or not you go,” Heather told him.

“I was afraid of that,” Billy said.

Heather mussed his hair as she took his plate. “You all better start gettin’ ready for bed now.” She turned to wash the dishes as the children went to do as they were told.

“Good night, Jimmy,” Billy and Stephen said before going upstairs.

Daisy gave Jimmy a hug and said good night. Then she followed the boys.

Jimmy watched as Heather and Bridget washed the dishes. A man could get used to this, he thought.

As Jimmy climbed into his bunk that night, he sighed. Yes, there would always be the memories he had of this place. But something told him, he was going to be making some new ones. With a smile of contentment, Jimmy closed his eyes. It was good to be home.

“Everybody ready?” Heather called up the stairs. It was Monday morning and Heather was trying to get her clan together and ready for school.

Bridget and Daisy came down. They each had on new dresses and Daisy’s hair was neatly braided and tied with her ribbons. Moments later Billy and Stephen scampered down the stairs. For once they looked presentable with neatly combed hair and clean shirts. Heather smiled with pride at her little family.

“The wagon’s hitched up.” Jimmy came in the house.

“Thanks, Jimmy. I think we’re all set.” Heather replied.

Soon everyone was in the wagon and headed to town. Heather planned to take the children to school and then stop by Barbara’s to get any new sewing she might have.

When they reached town, Heather let Jimmy help her down. “I’ll be at Teaspoon’s. Just let me know when you’re ready,” he told her. She nodded and telling the children goodbye Heather watched them walk to the schoolhouse. Then she left to go to Barbara’s shop.

Barbara had a few things for Heather to work on. “I’ll soon have more. You know that Susan and Harry are getting married next month. She’s already told me she wants you and me to make her several dresses and her wedding dress.”

“I’ll do my best.” Heather promised. Bidding Barbara good day, Heather went to Teaspoon’s office to get Jimmy.

“Well, Heather, are you keepin’ this fellow busy?” Teaspoon teased with a nod at Jimmy.

“Not yet, but I have plans for a busy week,” she smiled back. “Are you ready, Jimmy?”

“Guess it’s time I earned my keep, huh?” he winked.

She nodded. “Good-bye, Marshal.”

On the ride home, Jimmy asked, “What did you have in mind for today?”

“Let’s see, I’ve got to pick the vegetables and sweep the house. After that I’ll probably start on the new dresses for Miss Barbara. You can clean the barn and then there’s an old saddle that I bought from Otis. It needs some cleaning and repairing so we can use it.” Heather informed him.

“Alright, I’ll see what I can do,” Jimmy told her.

Jimmy flopped down on the porch steps and sighed. His hair hung in sweaty tendrils and he took off his gloves and leaned back to relax. A soft sound behind him made Jimmy look at the door of the house.

Heather stood there smiling. “From the looks of you, you earned your pay today,” she commented as she handed him a glass of tea.

“I’d forgotten how much ‘fun’ chores around here could be,” Jimmy quipped with a grin as he took the cool drink. “I thought you were gonna work in the garden,” he said as he took in her clean dress and neatly braided hair.

“I already did,” she informed him, “but I took a bath and changed clothes after we ate lunch, because I knew I had to go pick up the children from school soon.”

“Ah man, I forgot about that,” Jimmy sighed.

“Don’t worry, I can go by myself,” Heather assured him. “I’ve made it this long without a man around.”

Her smile revealed she was teasing, but Jimmy heard a note of bitterness mixed in. “I’ll at least go hitch up the wagon for you,” he stated. “Then while you’re gone, I think I’ll go clean up at the pond.”

Heather nodded and taking his now empty glass, she returned to the kitchen.

The ride home from town was filled with the children’s descriptions of their day and their new teacher. Heather decided that Mr. Thorn was a tough, but fair teacher.

“He’s got tons of rules,” Billy commented. “And he’s a lot different from Miss Tracy.”

“Sounds like your charm and blue eyes won’t work on this teacher.” Heather laughed and ruffled his blond hair. “You just behave like you’ve been taught and you’ll be fine,” she assured the boy.

Jimmy was waiting on the bunkhouse porch when they returned. Heather couldn’t help but notice the way his still damp hair curled gently to his broad shoulders. There was no denying it, she thought, she had the best looking ranch hand around.

Chapter 8

Jimmy had finished repairing the other saddle and talked Heather into letting the children ride to school by themselves. So on Monday morning, with the girls mounted on Gingerbread and the boys riding double on Snip, they headed for school. Heather had Sock if she needed to go anywhere, but she hoped that wouldn’t be necessary.

Heather decided to work in the garden while Jimmy repaired some boards on the barn. The young woman had just finished filling her basket with vegetables for supper, and was walking toward the porch, when she heard approaching horses. She glanced up and saw Lou and Thomas in their buckboard.

“Hey, Aunt Wose!” Thomas jumped into her arms.

“Hey yourself, Thomas.” Heather gave him a squeeze.

As soon as the little boy was free, he flew over to Jimmy. “Unca Jimmy!” he cried. Then seizing the hammer Jimmy had laid down, he announced, “I can bang, too.”

“I’ll bet you can,” Jimmy chuckled. “Thanks for bringin’ me some help, Lou,” he called.

Lou laughed. “Anytime. Alright, Thomas, come on now.”

Thomas’ face took on a determined look. “No. Me help Unca Jimmy.” Jimmy’s smile widened. This child may look like Kid, but that sounded more like Lou.

“I’ll watch him.” Jimmy assured. “You ladies go talk.”

Nodding, Lou and Heather started inside.

“Couldn’t make it over before now, huh?” Heather’s eyes twinkled.

“What do ya mean? I just came to visit.” Lou told her, trying to play innocent.

“Uh-huh. You aren’t foolin’ me. You came to check on me and my new ranch hand.” Heather playfully shoved her friend and they both laughed.

“Alright, you caught me,” Lou admitted. “So how are things going?”

“Fine.” Heather answered. “There’s not a whole lot to do around here right now, but I am going to have to harvest the garden in a week or so and do the fall housecleaning.”

“Oh, Jimmy’ll love that.” Lou laughed merrily at the thought. “We used to get roped into helpin’ Emma, so he knows how. Don’t let him weasel his way out of it.”

“Are you kiddin’?” Heather responded. “If he doesn’t help, he doesn’t eat that night.”

The two women were laughing as Jimmy and Thomas came in and Jimmy gave them a suspicious look. “What are you two up too?” he asked.

“What makes you think we’re up to something?” Heather smiled.

“Cause I know Lou and I get the feeling you’re a lot like her, so God help me if you two get together.” Jimmy remarked.

Thomas didn’t really understand all this and thought it was time to remind his uncle of the real reason they came inside. “Tookie,” he whispered.

“Thomas and I finished our chores and now we want a cookie.” Jimmy informed Heather.

“Alright with me, but you’ve gotta wash up first,” Heather stated eyeing Thomas’ dirty little hands.

“’kay. Come on, Unca Jimmy,” and the little boy pulled Jimmy back outside to wash up.

When they returned Thomas had clean hands, and also a clean face, wet hair and a wet shirt.

“Geez, Jimmy, did you try to drown my son?” Lou scolded through her laughter.

“No, he wanted to wash himself and he kinda splashed,” Jimmy told her. “Look at it this way, Lou, you won’t have to give him a bath tonight.” Then picking up the little boy, Jimmy retreated into the kitchen before Lou decided to scold anymore.

The night was calm and peaceful, a perfect Indian summer night. There was a slight breeze blowing, but just enough to be pleasant and not too cool. Heather sat in the swing, enjoying the solitude after putting the children to bed.

“Want some company?” Jimmy asked as he approached from the bunkhouse.

“Why not?” Heather shrugged. Jimmy took a seat beside her and Heather was aware of the closeness of him. She could smell the soapy scent where he’d washed up for supper, but underneath there was a trace of hay and leather, where he had been working on the harness in the barn. Heather smiled; she liked the smell, it was masculine and comforting at the same time.

They sat in silence, her bare feet pushing the swing back and forth gently. Jimmy was content to keep his boots out of her way so she could swing.

“You like to swing, don’tcha?” Jimmy asked at last.

“Yes,” Heather answered. “Pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

Jimmy smiled. “Yeah, I’ve watched you sittin’ out here every chance you get.”

“When I was little there were two huge oak trees behind the orphanage. We had a swing in one of them. I loved to swing as high as I could till my feet almost touched the limb above me. It was like flying. Then one day the rope broke.” Heather grinned. “My flight ended rather fast and hard.”

“Did you get hurt?” Jimmy questioned.

Heather shook her head. “Not really, but I was sore for a few days. I learned my lesson about swinging too high, but I still loved to swing. I’d go to the swing to think or dream or just to be alone. It was my favorite spot. I think one reason I loved this place was because of the porch swing.” Heather ran her hand over the wood that had been worn smooth by much use.

“I was always partial to this swing myself,” Jimmy admitted. “It was a good place to sit and think, or talk. Or get talked to,” he added with a laugh.

Heather looked at him quizzically. “Alright, spill it,” she ordered. “I told you my story.”

“Well, during the Express we were all kinda wild,” Jimmy began.

“So I’ve heard,” Heather grinned.

“I don’t think I wanna know what Lou’s told ya,” Jimmy joked.

“Let’s just say I know about Teaspoon’s method of coolin’ you down.” Heather winked.

Jimmy chuckled and shook his head. “Yeah, well, Emma had her own ways of dealin’ with us, too. She and Lou always had their talks in the parlor while drinkin’ tea. Kid usually wound up in the barn talkin’. And I had the swing. Me and Emma would sit out here all night sometimes just talking.”

“About what?” Heather asked.

“Everything; nothing; whatever was botherin’ me,” Jimmy told her. “Emma and Lou always knew when I needed to talk and they were always there to listen. ‘Course there were quite a few times I remember Emma tellin’ me to sit my behind in the swing while she chewed me out my behavior. Man, could she fuss.” Jimmy shook his head and grinned at the memories.

“You probably deserved it.” Heather commented.

“Oh, I ain’t denyin’ that,” Jimmy responded. “I hated it at the time and usually swore I’d do the exact opposite of what Emma or Teaspoon said, but I owe them both a lot.”

“You oughta talk to Billy.” Heather smiled. “He and I have had quite a few talks out here, too.”

“I’ll bet.” Jimmy laughed, knowing the boy’s ability to get into mischief. “How’d you wind up with all the kids anyway?”

“That’s a long story,” Heather said.

“We got all night,” Jimmy commented.

Heather took a deep breath and leaned back in the swing. “Bridget and I met first. After I left the orphanage I made my way from town to town. I’d been traveling about four months when I got to the little town of Deer Lick. I found a job as a waitress in the hotel. The hotel and the saloon were connected, kind of like here, so most of the girls who worked there did other things on the side, if you get my meaning.” Jimmy nodded. “Well, I didn’t. Bridget’s Ma, Linda, ran the bar, but she also sold her body. I looked after Bridget for her when the restaurant closed. Bridget wasn’t quite eleven, but some of the men were already eyeing her.” Jimmy felt his stomach churn at the thought.

“Anyway,” Heather continued, “Linda came to my room one night after Bridget and I were in bed. She was beat up and bleeding and she begged me to leave and take Bridget with me. She said her little girl deserved a better life and so did I. Linda gave me all her money, which was a pretty good bit. Then she kissed Bridget and left. We left at dawn the next morning with the money, the few clothes we had and a sack of biscuits and apples. About six months later we heard that Linda had been killed by a drunk; he stabbed her to death.” Jimmy shook his head and silently wondered if all the children had such bad pasts.

“Stephen was my next little one.” Heather’s voice trembled and Jimmy instinctively reached to squeeze her hand. “Bridget and I had traveled to a town called Clark’s Ridge. It was a pretty nice little place overall. I was working in the kitchen at the café as a cook and Bridget helped wash dishes. That was one of our best jobs and we stayed there over six months. We came to know several folks in town by name and by sight. One that we knew about was just called Hoot; he was the town drunk. He was also Stephen’s father. You know how small Stephen is now?” Jimmy nodded. “Well, picture him about Daisy’s size and half-starved. He came to the back door of the café one day to look for scraps in the garbage. I gave him a plate of food just as Hoot stumbled by. The man exploded in a drunken rage, accusing Stephen of begging and saying he wouldn’t have his son begging. Then he proceeded to beat Stephen. There was nothing I could do to stop him.” Heather sobbed at the memory and put her face in her hands.

“Heather, I’m sorry.” Jimmy tried to comfort her while tears formed in his own eyes. He knew exactly how she felt, helpless to stop the abuse and yet forced to watch.

When her tears subsided, Heather continued even though Jimmy assured her she didn’t have to. “I talked to the Sheriff and he said it wasn’t anything he could do. He said that Hoot could do as he pleased to his son. Everyone knew that Hoot continued to beat Stephen. Then one night, when Bridget and I were getting ready to go back to our room at the boarding house, I opened the back door and there on the steps was Stephen’s little body. Jimmy, the child was a mass of bruises and I thought he was dead until I bent down to touch him. He was alive, barely, and unconscious. I sent Bridget to get the doctor.” Jimmy sat with his fists clenched wanting to kill the person who would hurt a child.

“It took three days for Stephen to regain consciousness and by then his worthless father was dead from drinking.”

“Good riddance.” Jimmy spat out vehemently.

Heather nodded. “After several weeks Stephen recovered, but he had no one and no one wanted him. When Bridget and I left we took Stephen with us. We headed farther west into Kansas and then Nebraska Territory. We didn’t really have a certain place to go, so we wandered from town to town. I worked and the children got odd jobs like sweeping and shining shoes. We saved all the money we could and none of us ever stole anything. Until we got Billy.” She smiled.

“Billy had been on his own for almost a year. He wasn’t but nine, but he was a tough little guy. He slept under the steps by the saloon and had learned things a boy twice his age shouldn’t know. He lied, stole, and cheated; whatever it took to stay alive. He was rough and tough, or so he thought. He was running errands for a gang of gunfighters when we found him. When they left town without their little helper, he was heartbroken. I found him curled up behind our hotel, trying not to cry. He informed me that he didn’t need no damn girl to help him and he was gonna show those jackasses, ‘cause one day he’d be the best damn gunfighter there ever was. I couldn’t believe this blond haired, blue eyed little cutie was saying all this.”

“So what did you do?” Jimmy asked with a grin.

“I took him up to our room, got him all cleaned up, washed his mouth out with soap and put him to bed.” Heather stated. Jimmy laughed as he pictured Heather doing this and fussing the whole time.

“He’s been my boy ever since.” Heather smiled.

“It’s not hard to see he’s your favorite. Not that you don’t love ‘em all,” Jimmy hastily assured her, “but Billy’s your special one.”

Heather blushed. “I can’t help it. Those blue eyes of his can charm me every time and get him out of most trouble.”

Jimmy shook his head slightly. “Must go with the name.” Heather looked puzzled. “Let’s just say I’m glad I met ya ‘fore Cody did,” Jimmy told her.

Heather laughed. “Lou’s told me some about Cody and you’re probably right, with two Billy’s I’d have been a lost cause.”

“What about Daisy?” Jimmy asked.

“We found Daisy by accident,” the young woman told him. “Her folks had been killed by Indians and she escaped by hiding inside a hollow log. When we stopped to rest one day, we happened to sit on the log and heard her crying. She’d been there three days, too scared to come out. That was about two months before we got to Sweetwater. We’ve been here a little over a year now and I don’t think we’ll ever leave.”

“So how did the all the kids except Bridget end up with your last name?” Jimmy wondered.

“Bridget wanted to keep her mother’s name, in memory of Linda, but the little boys didn’t want any link to their past and begged to be my little brothers, so they just took my name. Daisy didn’t know her last name and she wanted me to be her sister like the boys, so they all became Millers.” Heather explained.

“You still haven’t told me about you.” Jimmy prompted.

“Yes I have. I told you I grew up in an orphanage. Not much to tell.” Heather’s face darkened and her eyes grew cold. Jimmy knew there was more, but he wouldn’t push her. Maybe, one day, she’d tell him. Jimmy studied the young woman he’d come to admire. Sure, at first she had reminded him of Lou, and she still did somewhat, but there was a vulnerability about Heather that Lou didn’t have. For the first time Jimmy understood Kid’s need to protect Lou, because he found himself wanting to do the same thing with Heather.

Chapter 9

“Want to ride over and see Kid and Lou?” Jimmy asked one day at lunch. He and Heather had finished the chores for the day.

“Well,” Heather hesitated. “I guess Sock could pull the wagon by himself.”

“Why don’t you just ride him?” Jimmy questioned.

“Two reasons,” Heather answered. “We don’t have another saddle and …I can’t ride that well,” she whispered.

Jimmy smiled. “I’ll teach ya. For now though, we can just ride double on Sundance.”

Heather thought it over and finally agreed. However, when Jimmy swung up behind her, she was ready to call the whole thing off. His nearness was making her senses reel. She gave a tiny shiver.

Thinking she was afraid, Jimmy wrapped an arm around her waist. “I got ya, you’re not gonna fall,” he assured her as he nudged Sundance forward.

Heather tried to calm her rapidly beating heart. This is silly, she scolded herself, he’s just letting you ride with him and you’re going to see your friends. Quit reading more into it. It’s not like he thinks of you other than an employer or a friend. Forcing herself to relax, Heather had to admit it was nice to held by Jimmy.

Jimmy, on the other hand, was thinking that the woman in front of him sure smelled good. There was a slight hint of roses coming from her hair and he longed to bury his face in the long brown tresses. Trying to keep his mind on the ride was hard since he could also feel the womanly softness of Heather beneath his arm. Unconsciously, he tightened his hold a little, and pulled her snuggly against him.

As they rode into the yard at Kid and Lou’s, Jimmy swung down and reached up to help Heather down.

Kid was standing in the barn door, watching. He grinned as he came over to his friends.

“We thought we’d ride over for a visit,” Heather explained.

“That’s fine,” Kid responded. “Lou’s out back in the garden and Thomas is ‘helping’ her.”

Heather laughed and started toward the back of the house to find her friend.

Kid stood looking at Jimmy with a silly grin on his face.

“Mind telling me what you’re grinning like a fool about,” Jimmy questioned.

“You tell me,” Kid answered.

Jimmy shrugged. “Ain’t nothing to tell. Heather and I finished the chores at home and came over to visit a little while.”

“So how come you’re both riding Sundance? I seem to remember Heather has another horse,” Kid teased.

“She does, but she said she can’t ride well and she didn’t have another saddle.” Jimmy informed his friend.

“Uh-huh.” Kid’s eyes sparkled with barely suppressed mischief.

“Oh, shut up.” Jimmy punched him. “You’re startin’ to sound like Lou. I thought you were gonna show me that new colt you got.”

“Alright,” Kid laughed and the two men headed to the barn.

Jimmy had decided to help Heather with her riding and on Saturdays they went for rides and left the children with Bridget in charge for a few hours.

As the weeks passed, Heather grew more comfortable on Gingerbread. One clear autumn day she was trotting along beside Jimmy and Sundance, when Jimmy suddenly announced, “Let’s gallop.”

Heather looked at him and shook her head. “Trotting is one thing, but I’d fall off if we went faster.”

“You would not,” Jimmy stated. “You’ve gotten much better in the last couple of weeks. Just try it.”

“I don’t know,” Heather wavered. Before she knew what was happening, Jimmy leaned over and whacked Gingerbread across the rump. Heather squealed as the normally sedate mare lunged forward at a gallop. Heather hung on and managed to turn the mare, bringing her back to Sundance’s side.

“I’ll kill you if you ever do that again, Jimmy Hickok!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to catch me first,” Jimmy teased and kicked Sundance into a gallop. Heather laughed and urged Gingerbread to follow. Together they raced across the prairie until they came to a clump of trees that lined a small stream. Jimmy pulled Sundance to a halt and dismounted. Heather came charging up, her hair escaping from her braid to fly wildly about her face. Jimmy smiled at the picture she made.

“I caught you,” she gasped as she swung down and led Gingerbread over to the stream to get a drink.

“You look like a wild woman,” he laughed, resisting the urge to brush her hair back into place.

“And I wonder whose fault that is,” she glared at him and then burst into laughter.

As they sat in companionable silence beside the stream, Heather watched the rocks thrown by Jimmy hit the water and the ripples spread out in ever widening circles. She felt the warm sun on her back and sighed in contentment. The bliss that she felt could not last for long however. Heather thought about the children and knew that she should be getting home soon. Glancing over at Jimmy, she wondered if he enjoyed their times alone as much as she was starting to.

Seeing the thoughtful look that Heather wore, Jimmy asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Heather pulled herself out of her musings. “I think it’s time we headed back.”

“You’re right.” Jimmy stood up and offered her his hand. “Did you have fun today?”

“Galloping was actually kind of fun,” Heather admitted as they mounted the horses and headed back home.

“Want to try again?” Jimmy asked with a grin.

“Maybe later.” Heather smiled. “Right now let’s just walk.”

They walked their mounts until they were almost in sight of the ranch. Then Heather remarked, “Want to race the rest of the way home?”

Jimmy laughed. “One time galloping and now you’re ready to enter races?” he joked.

“Scared I’ll beat ya?” Heather taunted, leaning over Gingerbread’s neck.

“Not a chance,” Jimmy replied. “Alright, ready, get set, go!”

They galloped toward the ranch, Heather low on her horse’s neck, urging the mare on. Jimmy rode Sundance at a controlled gallop. He let her win.

“You oughta get a couple of more horses,” Jimmy commented. He was sitting on the porch steps taking a break from cleaning the barn.

“Why, so you’d have more stalls to clean?” Heather teased from the swing. She was peeling a pan of apples and planned to make some pies for supper. “You haven’t finished the ones we got yet.”

Jimmy made a face at her. “No, smarty, I was thinkin’ all the kids are ‘bout old enough for their own horse instead of riding double. And since you’re riding more, you oughta have a good horse for you, too.”

“And just how do you propose I pay for these horses?” Heather questioned.

Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe Kid could give you a deal.” As soon as the words were out, Jimmy knew it was the wrong thing to say. Heather frowned and Jimmy prepared himself for the standard “I don’t take charity” speech.

Instead Heather’s frown became thoughtful. Then her eyes sparkled with mischief and she said, “Maybe I could work something out. I could just stop payin’ you, since you’re not working anyway.”

“Alright, alright.” Jimmy laughed and got up. “I’ll finish the chores ‘boss’.” Heather laughed and threw an apple at him. Jimmy caught it easily and headed back to the barn to finish the stalls.

“Well sure we can work something out,” Kid assured Heather. “How many do you need?”

It was Saturday, and Jimmy, Heather and the children had ridden over to Kid and Lou’s.

“Two,” Heather answered. “Gingerbread will still be the girl’s and Snip will be Stephen’s and we’ll use Sock for the wagon. So I need one for me and one for Billy.”

“I want a wild ‘un,” Billy piped up.

Heather turned to the boy. “You’ll take what we can afford, cowboy. You couldn’t handle much anyway.”

“Could too,” Billy argued. “Jimmy and me could break ‘im.” He had full confidence in himself and his idol. Jimmy grinned and patted Billy’s shoulder.

“The unbroken ones are a little cheaper,” Kid put in.

Heather regarded him sternly. “You’re not helpin’, Kid.”

The man grinned. “Billy’s got a point. Jimmy could probably break the horse for him.” Kid glanced at his friend.

“As long as you don’t give me that darn filly,” Jimmy commented.

“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” Kid laughed. “Lou broke her and she won’t let me sell Fireball.”

“Figures.” Jimmy grinned.

Heather was curious about the conversation, but she kept her eyes on the horses in the corral.

“I like that pinto.” Billy informed Heather as he pointed to a black and white horse. “Is he for sale, Uncle Kid?”

“Yep.” Kid nodded. “That’s Bandit, we named him for the way the black on his face looks like a mask. He’s a tough little character. Maybe you and Jimmy’ll have better luck with him than I have.”

“What about you, Heather?” Jimmy asked. “See one you like?”

Heather was about to shake her head when she noticed a slate gray horse in the far corner. “What about that one, Kid?”

“That’s Smoke. She’s kind of a loner, but she’s real gentle. Wanna try her?”

“Yes, please.” Heather watched as Kid got a bridle and headed over to the mare. Talking gently, he slipped the bridle over the horse’s head and led her back to the fence. Miah put on the saddle and soon Smoke was ready to go.

“Just ride her up the road to the bend and back,” Kid suggested.

“Want me to go with you?” Jimmy offered.

Heather shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” She mounted and nudged the mare into a walk.

When Heather came trotting back, she was smiling.

“Well?” Kid asked.

“I like her. She’s smooth and gentle, just like you said.” Heather commented as she slid off. “Now, let’s talk price.”

“Can I have Bandit, too, please?” Billy begged. Heather looked at Jimmy and he nodded.

“Alright, if we can afford him,” the young woman promised.

“I’ll help pay for him. I’ve got a dollar from where I helped Teaspoon sweep the Marshal’s office,” Billy announced.

“He gave you a dollar!” Heather exclaimed. Then shaking her head she added, “I’m gonna have to talk to that man.”

Jimmy and Kid exchanged grins. They both knew Teaspoon spoiled Heather’s kids when he could. He considered them as much his grandkids as Thomas.

“Well, I think we can come to an agreement on price.” Kid pretended to ponder. “Let’s see, a wild gelding and a mare that no one else wants. I figure $65 oughta do it.”

Heather gave him a disgusted look. “Kid, I know how much your horses normally cost and there’s no way you can sell two for that price. I don’t need charity. Now tell me the real price.”

“That is the real price. You can take it or leave it,” Kid said firmly, crossing his arms.

Heather considered him a moment, but she knew Kid well enough to know that he wasn’t going to change his mind. “I’ll take it, you sweetheart, you.” Heather kissed his cheek and handed him the money. “Thanks, Kid. Now I’d better go get the girls and spend some time with Lou and Thomas, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Did you find any good horses?” Lou asked as Heather entered the kitchen.

Heather nodded and told her about the transaction. “You’ve got quite a man for a husband, Lou. Do you have any idea how fortunate you are?”

Lou smiled. “I think I do, but you know, there are still some pretty good men available around here.” She winked at her friend.

“Don’t start again, Lou,” Heather protested. “I’m not ready yet.”

“I don’t see why not,” Lou persisted.

“I have my reasons.” Heather’s tone was cool and Lou stopped pushing the issue. She did wish Heather would open up to her. She could see that Heather and Jimmy’s friendship was growing, but the woman refused to admit her feelings.

Chapter 10

“Just wait’ll I see Kid again,” Jimmy Hickok muttered as he picked himself up for the third time that morning. He was still trying to break Bandit. At least today he didn’t have an audience for his failure since the kids were in school. Jimmy mounted again, and again Bandit dumped him.

“At least your falls are getting more graceful,” a teasing voice sounded from the fence.

Jimmy looked over to see Heather watching. Perfect, he thought ruefully. The kids were bad enough, but he hated looking like a fool in front of Heather.

“Thanks for your encouragement,” Jimmy said sarcastically. “It’s your fault, ya know, you bought this blame horse.”

“Hey, you agreed to break him, Mr. I-can-do-anything,” Heather retorted, “so don’t blame me if you wind up on your rear end.” Then in a gentler voice she said, “Why don’t you quit for awhile since lunch is almost ready.”

“One more try and I’ll quit,” Jimmy stated. “Either I’m gettin’ use to the ground or he’s gettin’ tired, ‘cause that last throw wasn’t as bad.”

Heather watched as Jimmy swung onto Bandit. The pinto did seem to have lost some of his fight. Jimmy hung on through a series of half-hearted bucks and then the horse calmed down enough to just gallop around the corral a few times before the young man pulled him to a stop.

“Told ya I could still do it,” Jimmy gloated.

Heather just shook her head and smiled. “I’m glad you did. Now get washed up and come eat.”

At lunch Heather mentioned that she needed to go to town.

“If it can wait till tomorrow, I’ll go with you,” Jimmy volunteered.

“I suppose one more day won’t hurt.” Heather smiled. “Just make sure you finish all the chores, because I have a lot of errands to run and it’ll probably take a while.”

“Alright, ‘boss’,” Jimmy winked at her and went back to work.

Heather laughed as she washed their dishes and then went to put the finishing touches on the dresses she was taking to Barbara tomorrow. She thought about how her life had changed in just the little while she’d known Jimmy Hickok. He was kind and gentle with the children and they had quickly taken a liking to him. Heather had seen him mostly fun and playful, but he also had a serious side. She knew enough about him from Lou to know that Jimmy had a hidden past. She could understand that. There were things she’d never told anyone either.

The next morning, Heather rose early to fix breakfast and pack lunches. Then she got everything together for the trip to town. When Jimmy came in with the water, Heather nodded toward the bundles on the chair.

“Can you load those in the wagon for me, please?” she asked.

“Sure.” Jimmy responded. “Let me go hitch up the wagon and I’ll come back for them.”

Billy and Stephen brought in the milk and Daisy carried in her basket of eggs. Heather poured the milk and scrambled some eggs to go with the bacon and biscuits. Breakfast was finished by the time Jimmy had the wagon loaded and ready.

After the morning cleanup they all climbed in the wagon and rode to town together.

Barbara looked up to see Heather enter the dress shop. “Good morning,” they said at the same time and laughed.

“I have several new ones for you to work on,” the older lady spoke up. “Now that the weather’s turning cooler, people want warmer clothes.”

“I know what you mean.” Heather nodded. “I intend to get some material today to make the boys new winter shirts. The sleeves on their old ones are almost up to their elbows.”

“They are growing fast,” Barbara acknowledged. “And that Bridget will be courtin’ before you know it. I’ve seen quite a few boys lookin’ at her lately.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Heather begged. “I’m not ready to deal with moony-eyed boys and a love struck teenage girl.”

“That’s why you need yourself a good man.” Barbara stated. “He could help you keep those boys at bay for a little while.”

“Why does everyone think I can’t make it on my own?” Heather asked rather sharply.

“I didn’t say that, dear,” Barbara soothed. “But a man can be a comfort to you in more ways than one.”

“Or he can bring you more problems.” Heather remarked with a toss of her head. “Let me know if you see a good one, Miss Barbara.”

“I don’t think you’d have to look to far.” Barbara glanced up as the bell jingled and Jimmy walked in.

“Mornin’, Miss Barbara. Heather, you want me to take that to the wagon?” he offered, nodding at the latest bundle.

“Yes, thank you,” Heather almost whispered, praying that Jimmy hadn’t overheard the conversation between the older lady and herself. “I’ll see you soon, Miss Barbara.”

“Think about what I said, Heather,” the shop owner smiled.

Heather blushed. How could she not think about the handsome man who was holding the door for her. She simply nodded and walked out. If Jimmy was aware of what was going on, he didn’t show it.

“I need to go to the bank and then to Tompkins’,” Heather informed him.

Jimmy nodded. “I’ll meet you back at Tompkins’ and load the stuff for ya,” he told her before heading for the saloon.

Heather didn’t particularly like that, but it was none of her business. Shrugging, she headed to the bank to pay on her loan.

“Good morning, Heather.” Bob greeted her.

“Good morning, Bob. Here’s some more for the loan.” Heather gave him the money. He counted it and wrote it down.

“You know, Heather, if you keep paying on that loan like you’ve been doing, you’ll have it paid off in about another year.” Bob commented.

“That’s my goal, Bob.” Heather smiled. “I can’t wait for the place to truly be mine.”

Bob smiled back. “How are things going at your place anyway? I haven’t seen you around much lately.”

“We’ve been busy with the harvest and housecleaning,” she answered, “but things are finally settling down again. But,” she amended, “now I’ve got to get winter clothes made.”

Bob chuckled. “You always find some work to do, don’t you?”

“Generally because the work’s always there,” she laughed.

“I thought you had help now,” Bob commented slyly.

“If you’re referring to Jimmy, I do, but that’s just for the upkeep of the place and outside chores. I still have all the cooking and sewing to do.” Heather informed him. “I don’t think I could pay Jimmy enough to take over those two jobs.”

“I imagine you’re right,” Bob laughed.

“Well, I’d best get on with my errands. Good day, Bob.” Heather smiled.

“Good-bye, Heather.”

“Heather, good to see you!” Tompkins exclaimed as the young woman entered his store. “I see you got more stuff for me.”

“Yes, sir.” Heather opened her package to reveal more napkins, delicately embroidered nightgowns for babies, and several doilies, some with lace edges and some embroidered.

“Heather, you do the prettiest embroidery,” old Mrs. Biggs commented, coming over to inspect. “My granddaughter is getting married and these doilies will be perfect for her. I’ll take them all, Mr. Tompkins, don’t you even put them on display.”

Tompkins nodded as Heather said, “Thank you, Mrs. Biggs.”

The woman patted her arm. “Think nothing of it, my dear. My old eyes can’t see to do that type of work anymore, but I can still appreciate your skill.”

Heather smiled shyly and turned to get started with her own shopping.

She had soon selected all the necessary cooking supplies, including flour, sugar, and cinnamon, and turned her attention to the yard goods. After debating for a while, Heather choose a green plaid for Bridget and a deep red fabric for Daisy to make their new winter dresses. For the boys she picked out a blue and gray plaid. Adding some warm flannel for nightclothes and undergarments, Heather started back to the counter. She hesitated beside a bolt of royal blue material.

As she fingered it longingly, a deep voice said, “It would look good on you.”

Heather jumped and turned to find Jimmy watching her.

“You oughta get it,” he told her.

“Can’t afford it.” Heather stated. “Besides, the children need new clothes, I don’t.” She went to pay Tompkins for her purchases.

Heather took a small load of supplies to the wagon and Jimmy assured her he’d get the rest. Heather sat and waited. She was beginning to wonder what was taking so long, when Jimmy appeared.

“Sorry, some of the stuff came unwrapped and Tompkins had to fix it,” he explained as he put it in the wagon and hopped up.

As they drove out of town, Jimmy grinned and tipped his hat to a saloon girl in front of the Wild Horse. Heather noticed, but didn’t comment.

“You’re awful quiet,” Jimmy commented on the way home.

“Nothing much to say.” Heather shrugged.

“What’cha thinkin’?” Jimmy asked.

Heather looked at him. “How do you know I’m thinking anything?” she questioned.

“’Cause you always wrinkle your forehead when you’re thinkin’ about somethin’, but aren’t sure what to say yet.” Jimmy smiled. “I’ve seen you do it with Billy when he’s up to somethin’, but you don’t wanna scold.”

Heather considered his comments. It kind of unnerved her somewhat to think that Jimmy had been observing her so closely.

“So,” Jimmy prompted questioningly, “what are you thinking about?”

“I was just wondering about that saloon girl you smiled at,” Heather said and then looked down. She couldn’t believe she’d just said that. It wasn’t like Jimmy had to tell her his business. He was an adult, not a boy Billy’s age and they were only employer and employee or friends at best.

Jimmy grinned. “Her name’s Joy and that’s all I know. I met her today when I was getting’ a drink. And before you ask, all I had was sarsaparilla.” Heather peered up at him. “Honest,” he held up his hand. “That’s all I ever drink. I reckon it’s just a carry over from my Express days.”

“I didn’t mean to pry,” Heather offered softly. “I was just curious.”

“It’s alright.” Jimmy assured her as they pulled into the yard. He helped her down and turned to unload the wagon.

Heather took the package from Barbara’s and carried it inside. Then she began to put away the supplies Jimmy carried in.

“Just how much cooking stuff did you buy?” Jimmy questioned after he’d carried in two boxes.

“Well, I bought more ingredients to make some more oatmeal raisin cookies, but if no one wants any, I suppose I could take the stuff back,” Heather teased, her eyes twinkling.

“Now hold on. I wasn’t really complain’,” Jimmy hastily changed his attitude. “I’ll go get the rest.” Heather chuckled as he went back for another load.

When the wagon was unloaded, Jimmy went to put away the horses. Heather started unwrapping the fabric. That’s strange, she thought, I could have sworn I only had three bundles of fabric. She opened the fourth package to find the beautiful blue cloth she had admired.

Going to the door, she called, “Jimmy!”

“Yeah?” He stuck his head out of the barn door.

“Can you come here a second?”

When Jimmy was on the porch, Heather held up the package with the blue cloth in it.

“Now how do you suppose that got in there?” Jimmy asked innocently.

“Oh, I know how, but you shouldn’t have, Jimmy,” Heather stated.

“Well, I did it for purely selfish reasons,” he told her. When she raised an eyebrow he explained. “I figured you needed a warm dress for winter. Can’t have you gettin’ sick, ‘cause if anything happened to you, I’d be out of a job.”

Heather couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you, Jimmy,” she said and kissed his cheek. The move surprised both of them and Heather hastily said, “I’ll fix us some lunch,” and promptly disappeared inside.

Jimmy walked back to the barn, smiling.

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