Music: Together Again, Janet Jackson
Author's Note: This short is really a couple of scenes originally intended for Fighting For Love. Unfortunately, they didn't quite fit the overall track of the story and ended up on the cutting room floor. My family convinced me to post them as a separate story, anyway.
December 1865, Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory
Lou stood and stared down into the grave, watching as the gravediggers dumped shovel after shovel of dirt onto her adopted father's casket. She still couldn't believe Teaspoon was gone. It had all happened so fast. One day he was fine. Then the bank robbers, the posse, the storm. He'd weakened so quickly and died even faster.
She felt adrift without him. He'd always been there, ready to offer fatherly advice whether she wanted it or not. Most of the time she'd even been able to figure out what he'd been trying to tell her in his roundabout way.
She shivered as the sharp prairie winds tried to peel her cape away from her shoulders. She knew everyone else had already left. Kid was waiting for her by the cemetery entrance. Yet, she couldn't pull herself from the graveside, wrapping her arms around her waist in an attempt to comfort herself.
At last the gravediggers patted the last of the dirt into place and began putting away their shovels. One by one, the paused to pat Lou on the shoulder before trudging out of the cemetery. The last paused to say, "Ma'am, you should go on home now. Ain't nothin' left ta do fer him."
"In a moment," she whispered. Falling to her knees, she placed the flowers Polly had gathered by the brilliant white headstone. "Aloysius 'Teaspoon' Hunter, Beloved Husband, Friend and Father" it read.
"Goodbye, Pa," she whispered, calling him for the first time what he'd been to her, and the other riders, for so long now. As she began to struggle to get back to her feet, unbalanced by her growing belly, Kid rushed to her side and offered his arm. Soon, she was in the buckboard, headed home.
"Is there something wrong with the food, Lou?" Standing Woman, Buck's first wife, asked with a concerned glance at Lou's plate.
Lou jerked to awareness of those around her and glanced down at her dish. She realized though everyone else had already finished eating, she had yet to take a bite.
"Lou, you've gotta eat," Kid said gently, wrapping an arm around her waist. "For the baby, if nothin' else."
"You're right, Kid," she said, forcing herself to swallow a bite of the stew. She tasted nothing as she ate, still thinking.
After supper, the whole family gathered in the salon at the back of the house, as had become their custom since moving out to their new ranch. Buck sat down with Standing Woman, their children gathered about them for story time. Tonight, Standing Woman was sharing the story of White Buffalo Woman. Dawn Star sat at the rear of the group, listening to the story while sewing a tiny moccasin for one of the kids. Kid and Lou sat down together on a loveseat near the fire, close enough to Buck's family to listen to the story, yet far enough away they could talk of other things, if they chose.
Lou leaned over and picked up her sewing basket, placing it in her lap. But, she didn't take anything out of it, just stared at the baby gown she'd been working on that sat on top. Kid's hand came to rest on her shoulder, squeezing slightly. He knew how hard this was on her, especially. They were all suffering, mourning, but, aside from Polly, Lou seemed to be taking Teaspoon's death the hardest.
There was something special about the relationship between a father and a daughter, he thought. They'd all watched it develop once Teaspoon discovered Lou was Louise. But none had really understood it, except maybe Buck, now that he had two daughters of his own.
Lou picked at a loose thread on the baby gown as she listened to the ending of Standing Woman's story. Then, as Standing Woman and Dawn Star stood to herd the children toward bed, she looked up and called, "Buck?"
"Yes?" he said, coming over to sit on the floor near the loveseat.
"I've been thinking," she started, then didn't finish.
"What about, Lou?" Kid asked.
"I think we should change the name of the ranch," she finally said, racing through the words as if afraid they might bite her if she didn't get them out fast enough.
"Why?" Buck asked, confused. "What's wrong with the McCloud/Cross ranch?"
"Nothin'," Lou said, smiling at her friend and brother. "It is, was, a great name. But…."
She trailed off, unable for a moment to explain herself.
"But what?" Kid asked gently, pulling her in closer to his side.
"But, it doesn't really represent us. Our family," she finally said quietly, not looking at either of the men in the room with her. "It makes us seem like two different families, not one."
Buck nodded slowly, seeing what she meant.
"So, what do you think it should be?" Kid asked.
"I don't know. But, it should be somethin' that honors Teaspoon."
Buck flinched slightly at the mention of Teaspoon's name. While he'd gotten accustomed to the white man's habit of continuing to use a dead one's name, he'd never become comfortable with it. Among both the Kiowa and the Cheyenne it was taboo to speak the name of a lost loved one.
"We could use Hunter," Kid offered. "We've already all agreed to use that as a middle name for our children."
"I know," Lou smiled, placing a hand on her belly for a moment. "But… it just doesn't seem quite right."
"Well, we can't use Aloysius!" Kid said adamantly.
"No," Buck laughed. "He'd come back from the grave and kill us!"
"And you'd be the first one he'd start haunting, Hieronymus!" Lou giggled, finally relaxing a little. Kid blushed and ducked his head, flashing a grateful look at Buck. "I don't really have an answer," she continued. "Yet. But, if we keep thinkin' 'bout it, I'm sure somethin'll come to us."
The two men nodded. They'd help think of a new name for the ranch, for Lou if nothing else.
As the days passed, everyone on the ranch made it a practice to bring suggestions for a new name to the supper table, with even the children getting in on the fun.
"The Express Ranch?"
"The Lone Star Ranch?"
"A Family Business?"
"The Riders' Family?"
But, despite their best efforts, none of the names they thought up quite seemed to fit the ideal of describing their family and honoring Teaspoon's efforts to bring them together. Lou was about ready to give up on the project, but the rest of the family wouldn't let her.
"Maybe this was a bad idea."
"No," Kid reassured her. "It's a great idea. Even Polly and Rachel think so. And if we keep at it, we'll come up with the perfect name. Don't worry."
A few weeks later, shortly after Lou began her new job as Rock Creek's Marshal, a young boy caught up with her as she was headed home for the night.
"Marshal! There's a letter for ya!" he shouted, waving the letter in the air above his head. "From Mr. Cody!"
"Why thank you," Lou said, smiling at the child and fishing in her pants' pocket for a penny. "Don't spend that all in one place."
"No, ma'am!" he said, taking the penny and running for home.
Lou looked down at the letter, considering for a moment, then slipped it inside the pocket of her vest and continued on her way. She'd save it until she was home with Kid and Buck and the rest of the family. They'd all read it together.
After supper that night, she pulled the letter out and began to read it.
"Louisa said, 'Yes!'" Lou read. "After dinner, we started talking about who to invite to the wedding. Since I don't have much family left, I told her my Express family would be sitting on my side of the church. She was a little aghast at that, concerned that such a group of 'hotheads and misfits' wouldn't be able to behave themselves appropriately. We almost had our first fight!"
Lou stopped reading.
"Well," Standing Woman asked, "what else did he say?"
"She asked what else Cody had to say?"
"Oh!" Lou shook her head and went back to reading the letter. Once finished, she said, "I think I know what the name should be."
"What name?" Kid asked, confused by the topic change.
"The ranch's new name."
"Well?" Buck encouraged her.
"The Hotheads and Misfits Ranch."
Everyone stared at her for a moment in complete silence. Then, they all started talking at once.
"I love it!" Buck said.
"I don't know," Kid demurred. "I like it, but… it doesn't seem very professional. Will people really want to buy horses from the Hotheads and Misfits?"
"We could simply call it the H&M Ranch. We don't have to tell them what it means," Standing Woman said, Dawn Star at her side nodding her agreement.
"That would work," Lou smiled at the other women, glad for their support.
The talked long into the night, discussing the pros and cons of the proposed name. By the end, they'd all agreed, it was the perfect name.
"What ya doin', Buck?" Lou asked as she came out to the barn to saddle her horse for the ride into Rock Creek. It was Saturday afternoon, which meant tonight would be her busiest of the week as Marshal. So, she was getting an early start.
"A surprise," Buck smiled at her, pulling a tarp over whatever it was he'd been working on. "You'll see it tomorrow, when ya get back from town."
"But," Lou began, trying to cajole the secret out of Buck. He shook his head, refusing to give in. He walked over and helped saddle up Lightning, chattering all the while to distract Lou from her curiosity. As soon as she'd ridden out of sight, he headed back into the barn and pulled the tarp back.
"Is it almost done?" Kid asked, walking into the barn from the corrals.
"Yep," Buck nodded. "Just gotta finish varnishing it. We should be able to hang it in the mornin', before she gets home."
"Great!" Kid clapped Buck on the shoulder. "See ya at supper."
Lou sighed as she turned her horse toward home. It had been a long night. A crowd of cowboys coming home from a fall cattle drive had descended on the town. When they'd heard Rock Creek's marshal was a woman they'd thought they'd hit the jackpot. She'd had to knock three of them out and drag them off to jail before the rest had calmed down and behaved themselves. At least the fines those three would be paying would provide a nice bonus on this month's paycheck.
She was almost asleep in the saddle by the time Lightning turned down the lane toward the ranch. It was a good thing he knew the way so well, she smiled slightly to herself. Suddenly, she sat up in the saddle and pulled back on the reins, bringing Lightning to a halt. She simply sat there and stared. While she'd been gone, Kid and Buck had erected a gate over the entrance to the ranch. Hanging from the top of the gate was a sign with their new brand.
Tears came to her eyes as she saw the lovingly crafted letters, carefully varnished and hung. It was the perfect tribute to Teaspoon. The H&M Ranch.