Topic #1: A Rider is trapped in Tompkins Store! What's the story?
To Catch A Thief by: Donna Ree
Add This to the Bill by: Lori
In a Trap by: Raye
Suspicions by: Karen
The Perils of Peaches by: Vicki
A Chance by: Dee
For Want of a Key by: Cathy
Amazed by: Regina
You are What You Eat by: Nora
Who's Afraid by: Mary Ayers
Conundrum by: Cindy Trapped by the Melody by: Tracy
To Catch a Thief
by: Donna Ree


“Buck, c’mon. We’ll make in one night what we do in a whole month.” Lou pleaded.

“You know Tompkins isn’t on my list of favorite people and he feels the same about me. Why he asked for me I’ll never know.” Buck stated matter-of-factly.

“Puleeeze, Buck?” She begged.

“Oh, alright.” He reluctantly caved in. “But I’m not doing it for him. I’m doing it for you so you’ll have the money.” He added.

Lou jumped up and hugged him tightly around his neck. “Thanks, Buck. You won’t regret it!”

‘I already do.’ He silently thought.

***

The pair strode into Tompkins’ just before closing time.

“Glad you two showed up. I appreciate your help. Finally catching this thief is going to save me a heap of worry - not to mention I’ll quit losing my stock to him.” Tompkins explained. “I’m gonna lock the two of you in here and be back in the morning to let you out - hopefully with the thief in your custody.” He set his hat on his head and said simply, “Night boys.” And left, locking the door behind him.

“Well, whatcha want to do while we wait?” Buck inquired.

“Poker?” Lou pulled a deck of cards from her pocket.

Buck shrugged, “Sure, why not. It’s gonna be a long night.”

She grabbed a box of matches off the shelf. “Here. We can play for matchsticks. I wouldn’t want to win all the money you’re gonna earn here tonight. I plan on beatin’ the pants off of you, Buck Cross.” She grinned cheekily at him.

They slunk down behind the counter and Lou dealt out the hands.

An hour later Buck was glad they weren’t playing for money because Lou was doing exactly what she set out to do and had a large pile of matches in front of her to prove it.

Finally, Buck thought he had a winning hand when they heard it. A faint scratching sound coming near the window.

Buck and Lou pulled their guns and cocked them, attuned to their surroundings. The sound stopped as abruptly as it started. After a few minutes they relaxed and started playing cards again. Then they heard it again. Only this time it was coming from inside the store.

Buck peeked around the side of the counter. He didn’t see anyone, but he could hear someone moving around. He crawled out into the store, taking cover behind the pickle barrel. Lou peered over the top of the counter trying to get a look at the intruder, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

Once again it grew quiet. Buck stood up, gun ready, quietly walking around the store. Not seeing anyone, he went back to where Lou now stood.

“Did you see anything?” She asked anxiously.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Nope. Musta imagined it.”

“Both of us?”

Again he shrugged.

“Maybe the store is haunted.” Lou suggested.

Buck gave her a look showing he didn’t believe her. “Oh, yeah. I can see it now, angry Indian spirits haunting Tompkins’ store to punish him for hating the Indians.”

“You don’t have to be so sarcastic, Buck.”

He resumed his post behind the counter and began a game of solitaire. Lou sat beside him and closed her eyes, leaning her head against the counter. Buck was right, it was definitely going to be a long night.

There it was again. A rustling noise on the other side of the counter. Buck listened intently. Something about the noise - it sounded so…

CRASH! A stack of tin cans on the shelf tumbled to the floor. Lou and Buck reacted instantly drawing their guns once more. They slowly stood up, aiming near the shelves, but no one was there. A can of peaches rolled to a stop near Lou’s feet.

Buck motioned to Lou to move to one side of the store, while he crept along the other side.

“Alright, we’ve got you surrounded. Come on out and you won’t get hurt.” Buck commanded.

BANG! It sounded like gunfire, but there was no telltale flash. BANG! There it was again. And again.

Buck and Lou whirled around to the sound of the noise. It seemed to be coming from all over the store. Maybe there was more than one intruder.

RIP! The sound came from near the counter.

Suddenly, the small rack of clothes near the door fell to the ground. Out of the corner of her eye, Lou saw movement. “HA! Now I’ve got you!” She yelled and tackled the figure in front of her.

“Uh, Lou, that’s me.” Buck grunted.

“Sorry, Buck.” She replied meekly, letting him up.

More ripping could be heard. Then Buck saw a flash of white streaking across the floor. Thinking the white he saw was something caught on the thief’s shoe, he leaped up to where he thought the body should be and caught nothing but air. He landed with a thud on top of the white object. It was a woman’s blouse that was ripped in shreds.

CRASH! More cans tumbled off the shelves. PING! PING! PING! Lou ran toward the sound. Without warning, her feet left the ground and she fell hard. “OUCH!” She yelled.

The sound of breaking glass came next. Buck ran to the window, thinking the thief was trying to make his getaway, but the window was intact.

BAMM! Something fell nearby Buck. RIP! Lou scrambled toward the sound. No one was there.

“Buck, where are you?”

“Over here, by the window.” Came the reply.

She started to walk toward him. BOOM! She just knocked the cracker barrel over. “Dang it all!” She cursed.

BANG! There was the sound of gunfire again.

“Stop right there or we’ll shoot.” Lou said. No response.

THUMP! WHOMP! CRASH! A rustling noise then the sound of crunching was heard. It couldn’t be…it sounded like the thief was actually eating!

Lou and Buck could just make out each other’s faces in the moonlight through the window, bewilderment shown in their features. They stealthily moved toward the crunching noise.

Buck looked down and grinned sardonically. He threw himself to the floor trying to catch the intruder. He missed.

“Lou, light a lamp in here. We’ve got a thief to catch.” Buck laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“You’ll see. Just light the lamp.”

A soft glow illuminated the interior of Tompkins’ store.

“There.” Buck pointed over to a corner.

“Where? I don’t see anybody.” She challenged.

“Look down.”

Laughter bubbled up inside Lou. “That’s our thief?” She exclaimed.

“Now to catch him.” Buck said purposefully. He slowly walked toward him, just at the last minute the burglar dashed out of reach.

Lou dove after him and only succeeded in landing in the flour spread over the floor.

Buck lurched after him and managed to grab ahold of his hair, but the intruder wriggled free. Buck stood up and quickly fell down, slipping on the nails that had fallen from the shelf. Feeling something sticky beneath his hand, he raised it up and saw honey dripping from it.

“Wait! I’ve got an idea.” Lou retreated to the back of the store and came out carrying an empty crate.

“Excellent plan!” Buck praised her. “I’ll get him to come to you and then you can nab the slippery devil.”

Lou nodded.

Buck grabbed a broom and shooed the trespasser toward her. Lou slammed the crate down. “Gotcha!” She shouted.

Buck and Lou peered through the slats of the crate at their prisoner. The masked creature looked at them with innocent eyes and cocked his head to the side. Laughter erupted from the two riders as they collapsed onto the floor.

“I can’t believe Tompkins’ burglar is a raccoon!” Lou squealed.

Buck doubled over in laughter, clutching his stomach. “If you could see what you look like, Lou!”

“What?” She glanced down at herself and then saw the flour.

“At least I don’t have honey dripping from my hair!” She giggled.

“I do not!” He protested.

“Yes, you do!” She countered.

They stared open mouthed at Tompkins’ topsy-turvy store.

“I sure hope he doesn’t expect us to clean this mess up.” Buck said woefully.

“I guess we’ll find out in the morning. I don’t know about you but all this critter-chasing has worn me out. Time for some shut-eye.” Lou declared.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

***

They awoke to the sound of Tompkins swearing. “What in tarnation happened in here? It’s never looked this bad before.” He looked at his two sentries questioningly. “I take it from the looks of you two, you didn’t catch the thief.”

“Oh, we caught him alright. He’s just not who you think he is.” Buck told him.

Lou motioned to the crate still imprisoning the raccoon. Tompkins just stared.

“You mean to tell me that a raccoon has been reeking havoc in my store for the past week?”

“Sure looks that way, Mr. Tompkins.” Lou spoke up. “We found a hole under the window there near the shelves. Looks like that’s where he’s been getting in and out.”

Tompkins sighed. “Well thank you boys for solving that mystery for me.” He reached behind the counter and withdrew some money. He reluctantly handed it over to them.

Lou and Buck thanked Mr. Tompkins and headed back to the way station.

“Lou?”

“Yeah, Buck?”

“Do me a favor. Next time you have another one of your half-baked schemes to make some extra money, leave me out of it?”

Lou laughed. “Not a problem. I think I’ll leave the scheming to Cody from now on.”

As they rode into the way station they were both hesitant. Knowing the reaction they were going to get from the other riders about their appearance, they knew it was going to be a long time before they’d be able to live it down.
Add This to the Bill
by: Lori

It was a good thing Emma was gone with Sam, hundreds of miles away. Because if she had any idea of what he was about to do, she would march over to him, grab him by the ear and tan his hide. Of that he had no
doubt. He knew it was wrong, knew it wasn't the way to handle things, and yet, the Devil on his shoulder whispered naughty little things that he couldn't help but chuckling over and wanting to do.

Bill Tompkins had to pay. And he - William F. Cody - was just the man to extract the payment.

He was cheating 'em. After all the hard work and life threatening dangers the riders had faced to make sure he got his mail, the man had the gumption to cheat them on the prices of his goods. No-good-opportunistic. Okay, deep breath. There was no sense in letting his temper run away and make him mess up. This was a delicate
operation, and it was a good thing he had the best tactical mind of the riders. He had to wait for just the right opportunity, just the right combination of events, and just the right amount of.

CRASH

"Cody, what in the heck are you doin' over there?" Tompkins cried out as the large earthenware crock fell to the ground.

"I'm so sorry," he profused. "I got my foot caught on the corner of the sack of flour and I put my hand out to steady myself. I'll pay for it."

Tompkins arched a brow, but nodded his head in a huff. "Darn right you'll pay for it. No-good-lazy riders always in here busting up my store."

"I said I was sorry, Tompkins," he whined with just enough plaintiveness to mask the growing anger. "Can I help you clean it up? Where's your broom? I swear, I didn't mean to do it."

The shopkeep hooked a thumb over his shoulder and Cody scampered off to the storeroom to grab the broom and dustpan. And put a wedge in the back window so that he could come back later in the evening. Five
minutes later and several more apologies that were beginning to choke him, Cody left the shop without a backward glance. As he walked to his horse, the Devil on his shoulder cackled gleefully at all the fun they
were going to have.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He couldn't have planned it any better. A storm had rolled in and obscured the moon, and kept people indoors and away from their windows. He tied his horse up, and slipped quietly to the window he had fixed
earlier in the day. Gently he pushed it up in its casing, holding his breath every time the wood creaked out a protest of use. Then he effortlessly pulled himself up and dropped into the backroom of Tompkins' store.

He waited a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, and then set to work. He was going to have a little midnight snack, courtesy of Bill Tompkins. If the man was going to charge him an arm and a leg for the
goods, then it only seemed fair that he lose a little merchandise to the ol' five finger discount.

He started off by sampling the fresh fruits that were out. Fresh fruits. A snort filled the store. Yeah, fresh all right if you wanted to ignore the fact that they were starting to turn. Carefully keeping his discarded waste, he made his way over to the jars containing pickled and canned foods. What did he feel like tonight? A jar of canned peaches caught his eyes, and he picked it up and popped open the lid. A taste of summer slid down his throat, warming him on this chill autumn night. Peaches reminded him of his mother and the pies and preserves
she would make.

He ignored her voice when it popped into his head, and ate the entire jar. Then he decided to wash it all down with a bottle of Wild Turkey. So long as he was breaking all the rules, he might as well really live it up. Taking a swallow, he decided what else was going to be on the menu for tonight.

An hour later, he realized that chipped beef absolutely did not mix with Wild Turkey. Or maybe it was the fact that chipped beef didn't mix with the peaches, cherries, creamed corn, and something called "Biscuits in a
Jar" that he'd eaten as well. Maybe it was just an entire bottle of Wild Turkey. Whatever it was, it was making the store spin in a decidedly unpleasant manner, and Cody would whimper every time he moved too quickly.

He gathered his empty containers, put them in the large trash barrel in the storeroom and made sure to hide them under the other rubbish. Then he opened the window and relished the cool air that seemed to quell his
churning insides. All he had to do was get outside and find his horse and he'd be home free.

Climbing out turned not to be nearly as easy as climbing in. The window seemed to move around a lot, and the little crate that he'd used to step up on wobbled precariously and he'd already knocked it over twice. Finally, he made it outside, leaned against the wall and pressed his hands to his throbbing temples. Revenge wasn't nearly as fun as he imagined it was going to be.

Shaking off the thought and relishing the cool mist that had begun to fall, he pushed himself off and headed for his horse. Of course, just his luck, his horse had run off. As he turned in circles trying to determine where it went, his stomach protested and he ended up in the bushes. Too tired to go on, too ill to think of anything else to do,
Cody crawled partway under Old Man White's back porch and proceeded to make himself a little bed.

Yep, if Emma was here, she sure would tan his hide. And at this point, he wouldn't care. Because after it was all over, she'd make him some lovely chamomile tea and tuck him into bed. This was the last time he listened to the Devil on his shoulder.
In a Trap
by: Raye

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

A dull thud sent shock waves reverberating through Kid’s foot thanks to the thin covering of his leather boots. He side stepped the offending item and took a step to the side. Something clamped down on his foot with a snap! He was pretty sure he was alone in the store, but still he held his tongue and swallowed the curse words that sprang up with the blinding pain.

“Mr. Tompkins? Is there ANYONE here?”

Again, silence.

Kid moved over to the window and peeked outside the outside, his gaze finding only complete darkness and an empty street. He pressed his cheek against the cold glass of the window pane and craned his neck to see further. The Prairie Flower was dark... and that was not a good sign.

“Ah!!! What time is it?” Kid leaned his forehead against the glass. “How long was I asleep?”

The glass rattled as the monstrous echo of Tompkins’ Grandfather clock sounded off twelve times.

“Midnight?” Kid quickly counted back the hours. He’d been sleeping almost five hours in the shop. “Five Hours!” It wasn’t something he wanted to think about, that, and the fact that he’d missed dinner. “Ohhhh.” His stomach heard that thought and immediately set to growling like a hungry bear.

He went for the door and twisted the knob. Locked.

Reaching for the lock he tried to turn it... then again... and again... the fourth time he wrapped it in the tails of his shirt and leaned against the wall. It still wouldn’t budge.

Kid tried one last time before he yelped in pain and slid down the door, crouching at its base. “This is NOT good.”

“Why?” He asked the empty store, but nothing answered him.

“How did I get into this mess?” Now, there was a question for the record books. Kid hung his head and let out a frustrated sigh as he struggled to remember.

“Lou... I was here with Lou.”

He’d come home from a long ride... a LONG LONG ride, half-baked from the strafing heat of the sun and she had asked him to go shopping with her.

Simple enough, he thought. He could go with her. Right?

He should have said no. Should have said tomorrow... should’ve said ANYTHING but yes.

There was a new dress shipment at Tompkins store and Lou wanted to go look. So, someone needed to watch the dressing room while she changed. All he had to do was stand there!

So what happened?

Good Question, he groused.

Kid caught a whiff of a light springlike fragrance. Roses. “Oh no! Mary Jo Putney! I wasn’t thinking straight, I couldn’t have been. Not if I let... ARGH!!!”

He pounded his head against the door behind him. “What was I thinking?”

His head snapped up and he focused on the row of hats across the way. “I wasn’t thinking.. I wasn’t thinking at all.” His memory drifted before his tired gaze.
Mary Jo Putney had cornered him by the dressing room and it had been all to easy to become distracted by her appealing qualities. Her eyes bright with her sunny disposition, her voice full of honeyed warmth and southern charm, and the delicate bobble of her raven dark curls.

Kid felt the blood in his body flood to his face. “She is a beauty, that’s for sure.” He remembered her utter frustration. She’d been buying a new vest for her father, Mr. Tom Putney, the Banker, and she needed a man’s opinion. So, of course, he had to help. Right?

Too bad for Mary Jo, there hadn’t been anything she was really interested in, but she’d been really appreciative. She’d even invited him out to supper at the restaurant tomorrow night.

His good deed done for the day, he’d returned to his post outside the dressing room and patiently waited for Lou. Boy she’d taken forever in that dressing room. Silent too. Kid had waited... and waited for Lou. Eventually leaning
against the wall beside the rooms. Then sliding into a chair beside the room... and then he had just fallen deep asleep.

ASLEEP!! Why hadn't Lou woken him up? Kid couldn't beive she had just left him there... alone... asleep!

Kid lurched to his feet and started banging on the front door of Tompkins’ store. “Let me out of here!” Boy, when he got back to the station, he was going to have a talk with her. Find out what happened... why she’d left him. He was
going to drag her out of the room and take her someplace quiet and then give her a piece of his mind!

He continued to bang on the door, searching the sleeping street for some sign of life, but there was nothing he could see to help him. “Grr!” He pounded his fist against the wood and bit back his yelp of pain.

“I just can’t believe she left me-” ... by myself!

Kid was just about to make himself a bed out of the grain sacks in the corner when a metal jingle could be heard through the door. Cautiously he stepped into the shadows to wait for the intruder to show himself. He wasn’t in a mood to be interrupted by some thief!

The door swung open on stiff hinges, creaking its complaint as it was forced open after hours.

Kid stopped himself from charging at the last minute.“Arlen!”

The mousy little shopkeepers assistant nearly jumped out of his skin. “Saints Preserve me, Kid! I was coming in to check on the rat traps Tompkins laid out in the back room. What are you doing in here?”

Shaking his head, Kid shook off a measure of his fear and anger. “It’s a long story.. and I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Nevermind... I just want out of here.” Straightening out his clothes, Kid started for the door again.

“What was the matter with Lou today, Kid?”

Kid stopped at the door. “Why would you say that, Arlen?”

The young assistant shuffled behind the counter and shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno.. nothing special. He just looked a bit upset, that’s all.”

Kid let go of the door and paced a bit closer to the register. “When was this?”

“This afternoon. You were over there,” he pointed at the back counter, “talking to that Mary Jo girl.”

“Mary Jo Putney?”

He looked up at Kid with eyes wide over his wire-rimmed spectacles. “Is there another ‘Mary Jo’ in town?”

“Never mind.. go on.”

“Nothing much to tell. Lou stomped right passed the counter and out the door.... he was mumblin’ somthin’ ‘bout Men and Simple Tasks... that’s about it. He just left... never looked back.”

Kid nodded, swallowing his shock, and turned back to the door. Just before the threshold he looked back over his shoulder. “Thanks Arlen.”

A head popped back into the open doorway to the back room. “For what, Kid?”

“For letting me out... and other stuff. It’s too hard to get into it-”

“Good,” the assistant nodded, “I’ve got stuff to do.”

Kid closed the door behind him and headed off toward the Station. “So do I, Arlen.... so do I.”
Suspicions
by: Karen

He stood at the bottom of the store room steps looking up in disbelief. The door was closed! He’d never seen that door closed. Why would it be closed now? He went up the stairs and tried to open the door. It didn’t budge. Great! Not only was it closed; it was stuck. This is probably why it was never closed. He wondered who had closed it. Obviously not Tompkins since he would know it got stuck. Boy was someone going to be in trouble when Tompkins couldn’t get this door open without help. Whoever closed it better hope it didn’t cost him anything.

Shaking his head, he put down the bag of oats someone had sent him down here to get, knocked on the door, and waited. No one came. He knocked louder; still no response. He pressed his ear to the door and listened. There wasn’t any noise; in fact, it was extremely quiet. He hurried back down the stairs and headed over to the back window - he looked out. The horses were all gone - even his! It was getting dark. It dawned on him that Tompkins had most likely locked up. He strained his neck and managed to get a glimpse of Tompkins as he rounded the corner on the way home. He banged on the window, but it was too late. Tompkins was too far away.

He looked back to where his horse should be. Why was his mount gone? Who took it and how did they manage to get it away without any of the others raising a question. Maybe they were all up to something. What could they be plotting? Were they picking on him because he was new? Black? Educated? What was the reason for them to all gang up on him and abandon him here?

He went back and tried to door again. No luck. He looked around; found a lantern and some oil. He lit the lantern and explored the small storage area. There was no exit except the door. He could break the window, but he was too big to crawl out that way. It soon became obvious that he wasn’t getting out of here until morning when Tompkins opened for business. He once again searched the room until he found some items to use to make himself comfortable for the evening. After adjusting a few bags of oats and covering them with a saddle blanket to make a bed, he located a soft bag of seed that would work for a pillow. He placed the lantern next to his makeshift resting place, lowered the light, and settled in for the night. Lying there, he wondered once more why the others had trapped him here. With no answers to his question, Noah Dixon drifted off to sleep.
The Perils of Peaches
by: Vicki


Why me?

I just wanted to head out to Harper Ridge with my friends. Eat some plum cake. Drink some fruit punch. Enjoy the festival. Maybe dance with a pretty girl or two.

So. why me??

I know the answer. 'Cause I'm a sucker. Jimmy Hickok just can't say no to a pretty face or a soft smile. So when Lou asked if I'd run back to the store to fetch her new purple bonnet -- I bit my lip and stopped myself from ranting that if she cared so much about her danged bonnet, she wouldn't have left it behind to begin with. Instead, I turned Sundancer around and set off toward the store. And when Emma called after me, asking me to pick up some canned peaches while I was there. well, what was I supposed to say? No? I already told you I can't say no to a pretty face.

Sweetwater was practically deserted by the time I reached the shop. Teaspoon told us that everybody went to the Harper Ridge festival, but I didn't really believe him. Surely there'd be some people that stayed behind. even if it was just to prop up a wall at the Wildhorse Saloon. But Teaspoon was right. Sweetwater was a ghost town. For one day and one night, anyway.

I could just make out Tompkins bustling around in the storeroom, but I wasn't about to call out to him. The last thing I needed was him huffing and puffing at my back while I tried to make out the tiny little words on the tins! Peaches. peaches. fresh ripe juicy peaches. I could see 'em in my head, but why in blazes don't they have little pictures on the cans? It would have made my life so much easier.

After what seemed like an eternity, I had finally narrowed it down to two likely suspects. With a can in each hand, I started to make my way toward the counter. All right, so I was looking down at the cans as I walked. It was going to be hard enough to ask for Tompkins's help in making the final choice. and I kept thinking that if I could just figure it out before I got to the back of the store, I wouldn't have to ask him anything at all.

So that's why I didn't see the blasted pickle barrel stuck right in the middle of the aisle. I felt myself falling, but only managed a strangled "oomph" before I hit the ground -- hard. You hear people talk about seeing stars, right? Well, I saw an entire galaxy. The last thing I remember was clutching them peaches -- if they were peaches -- in my hand so hard that the can burst.

Yup, they were peaches.

By the time I woke up, everything was hushed and still and I couldn't quite remember where I was. Then the memory returned. The pickle barrel. The crash as I fell and somehow got myself wedged between the wooden barrel and the shelf of women's toiletries. Who knew a body could fit in such a tiny space? Only my feet betrayed my presence. and obviously not well enough, 'cause I was certainly alone. How Tompkins could have missed the sound of my body hitting the floor is beyond me.

I lay there for a moment, just taking inventory of my senses. I had a goose egg on my head the size of. well, the size of a goose egg. The front of my brand spankin' new shirt was covered with the sticky remains of one mangled tin of canned peaches. My knee was all swollen from where it got twisted when I fell. And it was very quiet. The quiet of deep night. The quiet of the graveyard.

This was not good.

I pulled myself from the floor and hobbled to the door, calling out for Tompkins as I went. Nothing. Not a sound, not a peep. To my surprise, it was full dark outside. Full dark! You realize what that means, don't you? They -- my friends, my family -- just went on to Harper Ridge without me! Didn't bother to check on me. Oh, I know what they were thinking. Probably figured that I'd got the peaches and the stupid hat and rode on without them. Or that I'd catch up with them by the time they reached Harper Ridge. Or that I found some pretty girl to talk to and forgot all about them. Still doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

I've yelled 'til I'm hoarse. I've pounded and pulled on the doorframe 'til I'm red in the face. Why would Tompkins buy such a danged strong lock? It's just a mercantile, for the love of pete. I've decided that I'm going to have to toss a chair through the window if I want to get out, and I'm about to do just that when I remember that glass don't come cheap. He'll have to get the replacement sent all the way from Boston. And a picture window -- that's going to cost a pretty penny. And who's wages was the cost of that replacement glass going to come out of? Three guesses and the first two don't count.

Why me?

I put the chair down and flopped onto it with a sigh, resigned to my fate. Trapped in Tompkins store for an entire night. It had to be a punishment of some kind. I just wish I knew what I was being punished for!

My gaze travelled around the store wearily. Tompkins had a good supply of dime novels, so I figured I might be able to practice my reading if I could find a candle or an oil lamp. And I'd have plenty to eat. As if the mere thought was all it took, my stomach started rumbling. I pulled myself from the chair and started snooping around. Canned beef, canned raspberries, pickled eggs from the barrel that nearly killed me. Canned peaches, of course. It wasn't quite Emma-worthy, but it was a feast nonetheless. And when I poked around behind the counter, well what did I find? A flask of whiskey. A large flask of whiskey.

Turns out this night might not be so bad after all.

* * * * *

"What in tarnation is goin' on here?!?!"

The bellow wakes me up with a start. I blink sleepily, trying to see past the blinding light coming through the open door and the bulky figure of Tompkins. The fact that my head feels like it's splintered into about a hundred pieces isn't helping much, either.

Tompkins eyes rake over me and I frown. All right, I've been locked in his store overnight and I'm sure I look the worse for wear, but I can't look THAT bad. Can I?

I squint down at my body, then raise my eyes to take in the rest of the store. When I see the disaster area that used to be Tompkins Mercantile, it all comes back to me. The whiskey. The food. More whiskey. More whiskey. And for a change, some more whiskey.

I'm pretty sure it was around 2am when I decided that practicing my dance steps with the mannequin was a good idea. I can't recall when the mannequin ended up face first in the pickle barrel.

The yards of yellow fabric tucked around my waist and over my shoulder? About 2:30am. I think I was trying to act out a scene from one of the dime novels. Something about a Roman general.

The red feather boa around my neck? 3am. I was cold. Yeah, I'm going with that.

And the bonnet? Lou's fancy-schmancy new purple bonnet that's currently squashed on top of my own hat? I found it tucked behind the receipts on the counter at about 4am. I just didn't want to forget to bring it home with me. Lou would be furious, and heaven knows any sane man does NOT want Lou McCloud furious at him.

I close my eyes and lean my head back on a sack of beans. I figure I might as well relax before Tompkins kills me. So I'm shocked when I hear the unmistakable sound of laughter. I crack an eyelid and peek out. Yup, Tompkins has his hands on his knees and is cackling fit to choke.

When he can finally get a breath, he points at me. "What on earth were you thinkin', boy?"

I return his grin, doing my best to ignore the pounding headache, and shrug. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
A Chance
by: Dee

“Thompkins,” Teaspoon shouted from the doorway of the store, “you ain’t leavin’ me hangin’ his time. I judged that last pie contest alone and made several of the good ladies of this here town mad at me. Now, get on out here and over to the dance or I’m gonna tell Widow Adams you’re sweet on her.”

Thompkins had been startled by Teaspoon’s shout, but the threat of telling the town gossip he was sweet on her scared him. “I’m coming,” he growled back forgetting about Lou talking inventory in his storeroom. Lou had had a couple of days off and since she seemed to have more sense than most of the young men in town, Thompkins had offered her a few dollars to take inventory for him. Of course Thompkins thought that Lou was a boy or he would never of offered the job to her. “Alright, let’s get this over with, “ he grouched at Teaspoon as he turned his sign around and locked the door.

A few moments later Lou walked out of the storeroom saying, “ Mr. Thompkins, I finished count....” Lou trailed off as she realized she was alone in the empty store. “Mr. Thompkins?” she asked looking around. But no one was there. Walking over to the door she tried to turn the knob but realized that she had been locked in. She started to panic, she hated to be locked inside any room. Shaking the door and hollering didn’t get her any response from anyone either. She remembered then that everyone was probably at the dance.

At first she started to get upset. She’d be locked in the store all night and what would the morning bring or even later that night. She checked every available outlet in the store but there was just no way she was going to be able to get out. An idea then slowly crept into her mind; she had the store all to herself. No one was around to see what she looked at, no one watching her every move. She could look at anything, anything at all. Lou turned and leaned against the door taking in everything. She giggled to herself then looked around to make sure no one was watching her. Which only made her laugh out loud at herself. No one was here she reminded herself everyone was at the dance.

The little girl inside came out to play then and she walked over and helped herself to a piece of ribbon candy. It was so sweet and brought back good memories of the last Christmas she’d had with her mother. Smiling she turned toward the ready-made dresses hanging in a corner. They were all made of penny calicos but a couple of them were really pretty. She walked over and fingered the lace on one and the ribbon on another. Looking over her shoulder again making sure no one had arrived to spoil her fun she plucked one of them off the hanger. Looking around she found undergarments stored behind a curtain along with petticoats, stockings, and a corset. At first she was hesitant to try them on. What if Thompkins returned early or remembered that she’d been in the storeroom taking inventory? What if Kid or one of the others got to worrying about her and came looking for her? How would she explain being in a dress to them?

She shook herself. She couldn’t worry about all that. She was alone no one was going to come back. Quickly gathering her treasures she headed for the storeroom, just in case. Glancing out the window one last time she drew the curtain that hung as a door to the storeroom.

She undressed and began to put each item on carefully, savoring every moment she had to be Louise and not Lou. When she was finished she stepped back out into the store and headed over to the mirror that stood by it’s self in a corner. At first she didn’t recognize the young woman staring back at her in the mirror. She’d changed so much since escaping Wicks. The young woman in the mirror looked strong and confident, not small and naive.

She stared at her reflection for a moment and then noticed something behind her in the mirror. There on the table behind her sat the perfect hat to match her outfit. Walking over she picked it up and placed it on her head. Turning back to the mirror she was even more pleased with her reflection than before.

Spotting a music box on another table, Lou walked over and lifted the lid. It started to play a beautiful waltz. She smiled at he imaginary partner who bowed and asked her for this dance. They twirled around the store dancing as if it was a grand ballroom. Lou had not felt this good or so much like a girl in a long time.

As the hours passed Lou found other things to do. First there was a candlelight dinner for her and her dancing partner. They had what was left of her lunch a stew Emma had made the day before. For dessert they had canned peaches-which were a treat by themselves- crackers, and some more candy. She felt like a glutton for eating so much candy. She didn’t know how Cody did it.

She was just finishing her last bite of supper when she heard people walking down the street going home from the dance. Quickly she doused the candles she’d been using and tiptoed back to the storeroom. Passing the dime novels on a shelf, she picked one at random and took it with her.

Pulling the curtain closed, she sank down on a large bag and began to read. She had almost finished reading the story of a lady pirate and her crew when the first rays of sun started to chase away the night. Knowing Thompkins would be arriving soon to open the store she quickly changed out of the dress and back into her other clothes. After replacing the items she had borrowed, she picked the book back up to finish the story. As she finished the last sentence of the story she eyes slowly drifted closed.
For Want of A Key
by: Cathy

The clerk at Thompkins general store looked up as the bell rang to announce someone entering the store. “Evening, Ike,” she said pleasantly.

The bald Express rider nodded a greeting shyly. Looking at the clock that hung above the counter, he glanced back at the clerk, a questioning look in his eyes.

“You still have a few minutes,” she told him, reading his expression correctly.

Nodding again, Ike began looking for the item he had come to town to get.

“I’ll be right back, Ike,” the clerk called. “I have to move some things in from outside.”

He waved his acknowledgement, then continued his search. Finally he spotted the axe handle he was looking for in a storage room behind the counter. He looked around for the clerk, but she was nowhere to be found. Shrugging, he stepped into the little room.

Reaching to a shelf, high above his head, he tried to pull the wooden handle from a tightly packed shelf. When his first attempt failed, he climbed onto the bottom shelf and gave a stronger tug.

The handle came free so suddenly that the rider fell back. His momentum was so great that he actually did a back flip across the table in the center of the room. The last thing he remembered was his feet flipping up and over as the back of his head connected with the scale that rested on the table. His unconscious body fell to the floor on the far side of the table.


“What’s the matter?” Thompkins asked irritably. It had taken the clerk longer than it should have to move the displays in from the front of the store. Thompkins was tired, hungry and didn’t appreciate the delay.

“Nothing, Mr. Thompkins,” the girl replied. She hadn’t seen Ike leave the store, but he wasn’t there so he must have. The last thing the girl wanted was to face Thompkin’s wrath for leaving the boy in the store. Worse yet, he would probably make her stay to take inventory in the event that Ike had stolen something.

“All right then,” Thomkins growled, closing the storeroom door and securely fastening the padlock in place. “Let’s go home.”


Ike’s head was throbbing as he regained consciousness. Gradually, his eyes adjusted enough that he was able to see that the darkness wasn’t a result of the blow to his head, but because he was in a windowless room and the door was closed.

He started to sit up, then fell back with a groan as the back of his head exploded. He moved his hand to inspect the tenderest spot, wincing as even his gentlest touch came in contact with a large bump.

Ike lay on the floor until the throbbing subsided, then tried to sit up again-much slower this time. After a few minutes of dizziness, he was able to try to stand. He held tightly to the edge of the table until the nausea passed.

Searching his pockets, he finally found a match. With what little light the match provided, he was able to find a lantern hanging from a nail on the wall. A second match revealed that the lantern wasn’t new, but one Thompkins had probably hung there for an occasion such as this. Well, not exactly, he amended. He seriously doubted that Thompkins had ever shut himself in his own storeroom.

Lighting the lantern, Ike forced his tired brain to assess his situation. He experienced a brief moment of panic as he tried the door, only to discover it was locked from the outside. Leaning wearily against the door, he slid once again to a seated position. Resting his aching head in his hands, he wondered what he was going to do next.


Time passed slowly while the solution to Ike’s dilemma eluded him. His options were limited at best. He knew he could find something in the storeroom he could use to break the door open, but he didn’t want to have to use his hard earned money to pay for a new one-and he was sure Thompkins would demand that.

It wasn’t likely that anyone remained in the lawyer’s office at one side of the storeroom and, if Thompkins had closed the store for the night, the bank that bordered the back wall was most likely closed as well. The third wall led to an alley but Ike seriously doubted he would be able to attract attention even if he were able to clear the wall enough to make an attempt.

As he saw it, his only option was to wait until someone came to rescue him. The only problem was, he had no idea how long that would be. He wasn’t even sure how long he’d been unconscious. Leaning his head against the door, he winced as the lump on his head connected with the wood. He probably had a concussion, he decided, meaning he shouldn’t try to sleep. Sighing, he rose to his feet and began to pace a tight square.


The sound of breaking glass made Ike pause. He heard a gruff voice cursing as its owner apparently barked his shins on something in the darkened store.

“Leave it to that old tight wad to put a padlock on his storeroom,” a second voice grumbled from just outside the door.

“Shut up!” a third voice ordered. “Somebody’ll hear you.”

“Ain’t nobody likely to be up this early in the morning,” number one protested. “Even Cain’s probably in bed by now.”

“And we ain’t taking no chances!” number three admonished.

“So let’s go!” number two interrupted. “I can almost smell that money from here!”

Ike’s tired brain finally put it all together. They were going to rob the bank!


Hastily extinguishing the lantern, he ducked behind the table, covering himself with the blanket he had grabbed from a pile at the end of the table. He heard the sound of the lock breaking and then the door swinging open.

“Close the door,” number three ordered.

A shielded lantern illuminated the far wall. As two of the men began to clear the wall, the third pulled a sledgehammer from a barrel and wrapped a blanket around the head. He waited impatiently for a space to be cleared.

Ike held his breath. The sound of his own pulse was so loud in his ears, he was sure the men would hear it. He had his pistol, but the odds that he could wound or kill all three men before one of them could get him were slim at best.

The smartest thing he could do, he decided, would be to wait until the three men moved into the bank, then go out the way they came in and go after Sam Cain. He just hoped they wouldn’t decide to leave a guard.

While Ike was making his decision, the three men had succeeded in breaking through the wall that separated the two buildings. His worst fears were confirmed when number three said, “Watts, you keep watch here. Carter, you come with me.”

“Wait a minute, Kinney,” number two protested. “I’m not staying behind while you two go into the vault.”

“What’s the matter, Watts?” number one argued. “Don’t you trust us?”

“I’m going with you!” Watts said determinedly. “We all go or none of us do!”

“All right!” Kinney broke in before the argument could escalate. “We all go!”

Ike waited until he heard the trio start to work on the vault door before leaving his hiding place. He slipped silently into the main part of the store and started for the side door. Hesitating as an idea came to him, he turned back to roll a barrel of nails to block the storeroom door. He started for the side door a second time, smiling with the knowledge that the bank robbers would not be using the storeroom as an escape route.


A single gunshot roused many of the inhabitants of Sweetwater just before sunrise. The few who were already up and about-or were able to get to the street in quick time, heard Sam Cain’s orders, clearly.

“Put the bags down!” the marshal shouted. “Now your pistols! Get your hands in the air!”

Those very few who were in a position to see the action were able to watch as Cain and the bald Pony Express rider herded three very red-faced men to jail.

The morning had almost returned to normal when Thompkins arrived to open his store. “Who’s going to pay for my doors?!” he roared. Seconds later a second roar was heard. “AND MY WALL?!”

Amazed
by: Regina

Buck sat on the floor in the dark, amazed that he had let this happen. He should have known better. He never should have let Cody talk him into coming to Tompkins’ store. Yet here he was, locked in the storage room after closing with no way out-and no sign of Cody.

Buck had often heard that no good deed goes unpunished. He supposed that his present predicament was proof enough of that. Thinking back, it started innocently. Cody came into the bunkhouse all starry eyed in love again with a pretty face without a name. He wore that sad, puppy dog expression of unrequited love although he hadn’t even met the girl. He climbed up onto his bunk bed and stared at the ceiling. Buck observed, unwilling to be pulled into whatever Cody was fussing about this time. When no one paid him any mind, Cody let out a heavy sigh. “I’m in love and she don’t even know I exist.”

Buck let out his own sigh, knowing that he would regret asking, “Who is it this time?”

Cody wistfully answered, “The new clerk in Tompkins’ store. She’s so beautiful-red hair, deep blue eyes and dimples. Have you seen her?”

Buck had met her earlier in the day. She was nice to him. He immediately liked her and hoped that she liked him. He wanted to get to know her but was afraid to talk to her.

“I met her today when I went into town with Emma to pick up supplies. I waited outside for the packages. She came out. Her name is Anna.”

Cody excitedly jumped down. “You met her? You’ve got to introduce me.”

“Why don’t you introduce yourself? Why do you need me to do it?”

“Cause it ain’t polite to just walk up to a proper young lady. You’ve got to do things right with an introduction and such. Don’t you know nothing? Come on. Let’s go. The store will be open for another half-hour. We’ve got time.”

Buck shook his head, annoyed at Cody’s comment. “Tompkins don’t want me in the store.”

Cody insisted, “I heard he’s out of town. He’ll never know you were there. Please, Buck. You’ve got to do this for me. I’ll owe you.”

“You already owe me more than you can ever pay.”

“Ah, come on Buck. What harm could it do? I’ve got to meet her. I’m in love.”

What harm could it do? No harm to Cody but plenty to Buck judging by their present situations. Cody was having a nice time somewhere with a woman that Buck would like to know himself while Buck was trapped-in Tompkins’ store of all places. The man hated him and thought of him as a “lowlife half-breed.” Tompkins would probably have him arrested for trespassing or worse when he found him in the morning.

Buck knew he shouldn’t have gone along with Cody but, truth be told, he wanted to see Anna. When they entered the store, she smiled sweetly at them, saying hello to Buck. Cody kissed her hand when they were introduced. Buck would never have thought of doing anything like that but she seemed to be flattered. Maybe that’s what gentlemen were supposed to do. He didn’t know. Maybe Cody was right. He didn’t know anything. What was he thinking? Who was he kidding? Only himself. Anna would never be interested in someone like him when Cody was around. His features were too dark. He was a half-breed. He was crazy to think that she might like him.

It seemed that they quickly forgot about Buck after Cody told him to hide in the storage room when they saw Tompkins coming from across the street. Buck didn’t want an ugly scene in front of Anna so he hid, hoping to explain later. He knew Tompkins would berate him and throw him out. He didn’t want to hide but he figured that it was the lesser of two evils. He definitely didn’t want to be humiliated in front of Anna.

He had been hiding for fifteen minutes when he heard the door being padlocked. The store had closed and everyone had left-everyone except him. Apparently, Cody had forgotten about him. Although he wasn’t sure how long he had been locked in the storage room, it felt like hours. As he sat, he plotted his revenge against Cody. So far, he had a list of 27 ways to make him pay-each successive idea more elaborate and painful.

When he thought about it honestly, Buck supposed his present situation was really his own fault for wanting to see Anna. Cody was just being Cody. Anna wouldn’t want anything to do with him even if Cody wasn’t around. She probably wouldn’t give him a second, or first, thought. Just when he was about to give up hope of ever getting out, he heard a soft tapping and then the turn of the lock. A thin beam of light appeared in the room as the door slowly opened. He was shocked when he heard a soft, feminine voice whisper his name.

Anna quietly entered the room. She gave Buck a radiant smile, making him blush. He was glad she couldn’t see his face clearly in the light from the candle that she held. When she reached out her hand for him, he carefully took it in his. “Let’s go, Buck. We don’t want to get caught.” Amazed for the second time that evening, Buck speechlessly let Anna lead him to safety.


The End (or maybe just the beginning)
You are What You Eat
by: Nora

Cody awoke with an uneasy sensation of not being sure where he was. The last thing he remembered was reading a new dime novel in a corner of Tompkins’ store. Uh oh, he thought, struggling to open his eyes, that’s where I must be. Opening his eyes to total darkness, Cody realized that the shopkeeper must have forgot about him and gone home for the night. And from what Cody could judge, night had fallen a while ago. He didn’t even bother yelling for help; the only people up at this hour were in the saloon and it was far too loud in there for anyone to hear his shouts.

Cody stood up, stretched and shrugged his shoulders. He’d spent the night in worse accommodations and besides, someone was bound to find him come morning. However, Cody realized that the last time he ate had been at dinner and by now it was long past suppertime. His stomach gave a growl of acknowledgement.

Fortunately Cody knew that Tompkins always kept matches and candles behind the counter, so he felt his way to the front of the store, and found the items by feel. He lit a candle and began to search the shelves for something to eat. He could just credit the groceries to the Express Station’s account. First he spied a jar of Mrs. Brimmer’s pickled peaches. His search for a fork came up empty but that was no problem, he could eat with his hands if necessary. Next some beef jerky, with Tompkins’ special brand of seasoning. Followed by an apple, then a carrot, then a banana. Cody really wished he had some milk so he could wash everything down with a drink. Instead, he satisfied himself at the candy counter-five pieces of licorice, 14 gumdrops, and several horehound candies.

All this food in his stomach was making Cody sleepy again, so he borrowed a blanket from one of the shelves and curled up once again in his corner.

When Tompkins came in the next morning, he was surprised to see a rather ill-looking Cody in his store. But Cody’s face was nothing compared to Teaspoon’s when he learned the cost of the bill!
Who's Afraid?
by: Mary Ayers

“ ‘ He strode down the main street, his jet black hat pulled low over his golden brow, his great black coat flapping behind him in the breeze. Casually, he pulled open the coat, revealing the handle of the six-shooter known to have downed more than a hundred outlaws. Chet Remington had arrived. And he was ready to bring justice to the people!’ ”

“Cody!” Jimmy called from the woodpile. “When you’re done shoveling that horse manure, there’s a whole pile of worthwhile fertilizer right here just waitin’ to be spread.”

“And you promised to do it yesterday,” Kid chimed in as he pitched another forkful of hay.

“And the day before that,” Buck added from over by the barn.

“Cody! Do you hear me?” Jimmy yelled impatiently. But the blonde rider’s face remained buried in the dog-eared ten-cent novel, his rump firmly planted on the top rung of the corral fence where it had been happily situated since lunchtime.

“Alright, that is it!” Jimmy grumbled. He flung the axe into the chopping block. It landed with a ‘thwack’ that made both Buck and Kid jump to attention and rush over to the rider’s side.

“Hold on, Jimmy,” Buck cautioned, as Hickock stalked toward the corral. He rested a firm hand on Jimmy’s arm. “I know how to get his attention. Hey Cody!” he called. “Supper’s on!”

Cody’s head bounced up like a dog who’d just been thrown a bone. “Huh?”

Jimmy turned to Buck, wide-eyed.

“Works every time,” Buck grinned.

“You about ready to start earnin’ your keep?” Jimmy snarled at Cody, “or are you gonna keep gnawin’ our ears off with that Chuck Derringer bull all day?”

“It ain’t Chuck Derringer, Jimmy,” Cody corrected, jumping off the fence with a flourish. “It’s Chet Remington, the most fearless gunfighter that ever strapped on a six-shooter.”

He was met with a trio of doubtful faces.

“I can prove it!” Cody insisted. “Once, he was out huntin’ down a pack of horse thieves and he tracked ‘em to a saloon in Durango. He sauntered into that saloon and called ‘em all out. Before anyone knew it, bullets was flyin’ left and right—whizzin’ right past old Chet. Everyone ducked for cover. But Chet, he just smiled. He didn’t even flinch. Well, that alone caused them outlaws to shake in their boots. Chet casually pulled out his pearl-handled revolver and said to ‘em, ‘If any one of you boys wants to keep a semblance of your manhood intact, I suggest you drop your guns right now and give yourself up!’ And with that, every one of them horse thieves dropped his guns and fell to his knees in a heap of tears, beggin’ Chet to be easy on him.”

“You been dipping into Teaspoon’s moonshine again?” Kid inquired.

“What?” Cody asked.

“Well, you have to admit it, Cody,” Kid said, “it does sound a little far-fetched. I never heard of a bunch of outlaws crying like sissies in front of a whole roomful of people.”

“And no one man could wrangle a whole gang of thieves all at once like that—let alone stand down a shower of bullets,” Jimmy put in.

Cody shook his head sadly. “Jimmy, you just don’t understand folks like Chet and me.”

“Like Chet and you?” Jimmy asked incredulously.

“Yeah. Me and Chet, we’ve got a lot in common. We’re both dapper and tall and handsome and great with the ladies.”

“You both have egos the size of Texas . . .” Kid added smoothly.

” And most of all, ain’t neither of us afraid of anything.”

“Oh come on, Cody,” Buck interjected. “Everybody’s afraid of something. I for one know Jimmy here’s afraid of spiders. Even the little bitty ones.”

“That ain’t true!” Jimmy swore. “I’m not afraid of ‘em. I just ain’t particularly fond of ‘em.” He shoved Buck. “But what about you? You get panicked whenever you hear an owl hoot—let alone when you see one. At least a spider’s a real threat. You can get bit by one and maybe die. But what’s an owl gonna do to you? Peck you to death?”

Buck’s eyes darkened. “That’s not funny, Jimmy.”

“Simmer down, you guys,” Kid warned. “Cody, Buck’s right. Everyone’s got some kind of fear. I’ll admit, I can’t stand being in closed-in places. Always feels like the walls are coming in on me. It’s pretty scary sometimes.”

“I feel for you boys, but I can’t say as I share in your experience,” Cody admitted. “I’m a real man, and real men like me ain’t afraid of nothin’.”

“Well, **I’m **a man—or at least I was last time I checked,” Kid responded. “And I’m telling you, Cody, being afraid of something doesn’t make you less of one.”

Cody shook his head. “I beg to differ with you there, Kid. Some folks, like me and Chet, were born full up with courage. We were meant to step out boldly and be heroes in this world. And some folks, like you boys, just weren’t. Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, as he made his way in between a stunned Kid and Buck, “I just learned today that the latest installment of the Chet Remington series is sitting over in Tompkins’ store, just dying to make my acquaintance.”

“Hey wait a minute!” Jimmy called as Cody sauntered past the blacksmith’s and into town. “You got chores to do here! If you go to Tompkins, so help me Cody, you will NOT want to come back tonight!”

But it was no use. Cody had already turned the corner, his head filled with the anticipation of reading new and fantastic tales, his ears oblivious to Jimmy’s threats.



“Hey there, Tompkins!” Cody called as he entered the mercantile. Tompkins, who had been dusting the shelves behind the front counter, turned toward the rider.

“ Well, hello Mr. Cody,” came his amicable reply. “What can I do for you this evening?” No matter how Tompkins disliked the rest of that rowdy crew at the Pony Express station, he just had to greet Cody with a smile. For, whenever Cody entered his store, he always left with at least five dollars in purchases. “You finally decide to buy that pearl handled pocketknife you been admiring for the last week? Got it right here.”

“Not tonight, Tompkins. I’m after something even better than that.”

Tompkins’ eyes lit up. “Oh, then you must be after that prized saddle in the window there. Came all the way from Spain, hand crafted by the best leather workers in the world. You arrived just in time. Mr. Callahan’s had his eye on that beauty.”

“Nope. I’m not here for that, neither,” Cody smiled. “I am here to procure the latest installment of the Chet Remington series which I hear you just got in stock this very day.”

Tompkins’ face fell. “A dime novel?”

“Only the best!” Cody replied.

“Are you sure you don’t want. . .” Tompkins began, but he was interrupted by the welcome sound of the door bell announcing two well-dressed gentleman.

Ah, Tompkins thought. By the looks of them, they’re sure to spend at least ten dollars each.

“Excuse me, Mr. Cody,” he mumbled absently, his eyes drawn over the rider’s shoulder to the more promising customers.

“Uh, Tompkins,” Cody waved a hand in front of the shopkeepers eyes. “I was here first. And I aim to buy my novel. Now can you get it for me?”

“Huh? Oh, yes, your novel. Well Mr. Cody, I’m sorry but I haven’t had time to unload that shipment yet. It’s still boxed up in the storage room downstairs. If you come back tomorrow. . .”

“I don’t want to come back tomorrow. I want the book now.”

Tompkins sighed in frustration. Sometimes that boy is just like a tick on a dog, he thought. “Cody, if you want it that bad, here. Take this candle and go down into the storage room and find it yourself. I’ve got customers to tend to.” He lit the tiny stub of a candle, handed it to Cody, and without another word, snaked his way out from behind the counter to join his new customers.

“With that kind of service, it’s a wonder he sells anything at all,” Cody snorted. But at least he would be able to get his book, and that’s all that really mattered. He carefully guarded the candle’s flame, opened the door behind the counter, and stepped down the stairs.

The staircase was deep and dark. The orange light from the candle cast ghoulish shadows on the walls. He reached the bottom of the staircase and lifted his candle toward the door in front of him. The blackened image of a spider scuttled across the smooth wood. His spindly legs appeared eerily distorted in the flickering candlelight.

“Good thing Jimmy ain’t here. He’d be cryin’ for his mamma about now,” he chuckled.

He reached for the doorknob and twisted it open. The room was small and cluttered with boxes and crates of every shape and size. Most of the crates had been opened, but in the center of the room stood a stack that appeared untouched. “I’ll bet you’re in one of these, Chet.” He stepped into the room and instinctively closed the door behind him.

He’d just reached the stack of crates when he heard a muffled cry above him.

“Hey, just what do you think you’re. . .” he heard Tompkins shout. “No! No, please!” The high, strained voice hardly resembled the shopkeeper’s normal baritone. Then he heard the heavy thud, the scrambling footsteps, and the unceremonious slam of the front door.

“Tompkins?” Cody called. “Tompkins, you OK?” But he was met only with silence. “Well of course he couldn’t hear me from all the way down here,” he reasoned. “I better go check on him.”

He headed for the door and reached for the doorknob. He gave it a turn, but the door did not open. Once more, he attempted to turn the knob, but the door still did not budge. His irritation quickly mounted. “Alright, if it’s a fight you want, it’s a fight you will get!” he yelled. “I’m stronger than any door.” He set the candle down, backed up a few paces, and charged.

“Oh! Aaahh!” he cried, reaching for his throbbing shoulder. But the pain only intensified his determination. Gritting his teeth, he gathered all his strength together threw himself face first at the door.

He immediately regretted it.

“Oooh, my head!” he moaned, closing his eyes against the pain. He stumbled backward a few paces, reeling from the impact. It wasn’t until he’d shaken his head clear and opened his eyes that he realized he was standing in complete and utter darkness.

He flung his head around, his eyes struggling to pierce through the black veil that surrounded him. His heart began to race. Where’d that candle get to? It was then that he felt something soft give way under his boot. He knelt down and felt for the object. He was met with the candle’s warm waxy remains and, beneath that, a flattened tin candlestick holder.

“Oh no,” he mourned, “I squashed the damn candle! Now what am I gonna do?”

He felt his breath quicken as he sat down in a heap on the floor. A cold, damp film appeared on his palms. “Hold yourself together, Cody,” he said, rubbing his hands on his shirtfront. “It’s only a little dark. It ain’t that bad. . .”

But it was that bad, and Cody knew it. Never in all his days had he admitted it to anyone, but there was something about pitch darkness that always seemed to rattle his bones. Who knows who or, more importantly, what lay hidden in the darkness? Cody had heard the stories of evil creatures, cloaked in the blackest night, that snatched people away while they were fast asleep in their beds. That’s why he always made sure he had a bunk by the window where the moon and stars could stand watch for him against those unknown demons. True, there were nights when clouds covered the celestial lights, but Cody didn’t mind the dark as much during those times. With his friends surrounding him as they slept in the bunkhouse, the fear wasn’t near as intense as it would be if he were alone.

Alone. The very word made his blood run cold. Alone in the dark, no one would know where he was. Alone in the dark, no one would hear his screams of terror as a wild-eyed wooly mountain monster dragged him off to his cave to turn him into Cody stew.

“Stop!” he cried. “That is enough of that. I am a real man. I’m not afraid of anything! I just gotta think. Now, what would Chet Remington do in this situation?” He pondered that for a moment and then the revelation hit him. “What am I thinking? I’m in a mercantile storeroom for goodness sakes! Tompkins must have millions of candles and matches sitting somewhere in these crates. All I gotta do is find them.”

He stood up and stretched his hands way out before him, searching for an open crate. He’d only taken two steps when he heard a strange scratching sound from across the room. He turned slowly. “What’s that?” he whispered breathlessly. The scratching sounded again, closer this time. Cody gulped. “Get. . .get away from me, you hear?” he took a step backward. “Ain’t no mountain monster gonna mount William F. Cody’s head on his wall—not if I have anything to say about it!” Then, he felt something hairy brush against his leg. “Aaah!” he cried. He spun around and ran full speed right into a pile of heavy crates.

For a second, Cody lay on the floor so stunned he could barely remember how to blink. Then, slowly, he began to feel his arms and legs again. “Ugh,” he moaned, “feels like I got a hangover three times over. Chet Remington never went through nothin’ like this.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Mr. Cody.”

Cody bolted up. “Who’s there?”

“Over here,” the voice called.

Cody turned his head toward the sound and his jaw dropped. It couldn’t be! There, sitting on the stack of unopened crates in the center of the room was none other than Chet Remington, bathed in a heavenly light. He looked exactly as Cody had imagined him. His jet-black hat was pulled low over his brow. His golden locks flowed down his shoulders onto the long black great coat that he always wore. The coat was open to reveal the smooth pearl-handled six shooter that was his trademark. His deep blue eyes, when Cody rested his gaze upon them, were kind. Yet, in their depths, they held the promise of turning cold as ice if any man should cross him with evil intentions.

“Chet Remington,” Cody sputtered, “wha. . .what are you doing here? How’d you get in here?”

“That’s not important, Mr. Cody,” he said, pulling out a cigar from his vest pocket. “What **is** important is this problem you seem to have with a fear of the dark.”

“What fear?” Cody asked innocently.

Chet casually lit his cigar and savored a few puffs. He looked at Cody from beneath the brim of his hat with cold eyes. “You know better than anyone how I feel about deception, Mr. Cody. You can’t lie to me.”

Cody hung his head. He hoped Chet couldn’t see him blush. “I. . .I know. It’s just that bein’ afraid—especially of somethin’ like the dark—well, it just ain’t manly.”

“Whoever said that?” Chet asked.

“Well, I guess nobody’s ever outright said it, but all the real men in the world that I’ve ever seen—they don’t ever seem to be afraid of anything. I mean, just look at you, Chet. You can stand up to bandits and sharpshooters and all that without even flinchin’.”

“Well, Mr. Cody, the truth of the matter is that everyone has fears. Even me.”

Cody’s eyes went wide. “You? What could you possibly be afraid of?”

“The number thirteen.”

“Huh?”

“Thirteen. Even just saying that word makes my skin crawl. It’s my one weakness—my one superstitious fear.” He took a puff on his cigar. “I try and stay home on the thirteenth of every month as I’m sure I’d never make it through to the fourteenth if I were out hunting bandits. If I’m playing poker and I draw cards adding up to thirteen, I quit and beat it out of there as soon as I can.”

“That can’t be, Chet,” Cody objected. I ain’t never heard of anything about that in any of your books.”

“You know when I walk into a saloon and count the people first?”

“You mean to make sure that you have enough bullets to kill every one of ‘em if they all happen to turn out to be outlaws?”

“Yep,” Chet nodded. “Well, the real reason I count the people first is just to make sure there aren’t thirteen people in the room.” He sighed and hung his head a little. “Like you, Mr. Cody, I’ve spent years hiding my fears. I’m ‘Chet Remington,’ the hero, the perfect man. Well, I’ll tell you Mr. Cody, even heroes are afraid of something. And it’s a **real **man who will admit to those fears and let them be. That’s why, in my next novel, I’ve decided to face my fears and hunt down a gang of thirteen cattle rustlers.”

“That must take a lot of courage for you to do, Chet,” Cody answered seriously.

“That it does, Mr. Cody. But I’ve discovered that courage isn’t just about dodging bullets and stopping runaway stagecoaches. Courage is also about being comfortable with yourself—with all of who you are—including that part of you that is afraid sometimes.”

“Well, I guess when you put it that way, it don’t seem so silly to be scared,” Cody reasoned.

Chet smiled, flashing a perfect set of white teeth at the rider. “You got that right, my friend.”

Cody’s face brightened. “You really consider me a friend, Chet?”

“I do.” His eyes softened into a lustrous blue. “I believe we have quite a lot in common.” He pulled out a shining gold pocket watch from his vest. “Well, Mr. Cody, it’s about time I go.”

Cody scurried to his feet. “Already? You barely got here!”

“Don’t worry,” he replied smoothly as he replaced his watch and rose to his feet. “We’ll catch up with each other again when you open my latest novel. Until then!” He tipped his hat and disappeared into the darkness.

“But Chet. . .you can’t leave yet! Chet! Chet!”

“Cody, wake up.”

“What?” Cody croaked. Slowly, he opened his eyes and found himself staring up into Teaspoon’s face.

The Marshal let out a sigh of relief. “Thought we might have lost you there, son. Took a while for you to open those eyes of yours.”

Cody shook his head and glanced around at the dozens of crates that surrounded him. He was still in Tompkins’ storeroom. The door was now open and, standing just inside the room, he could make out the figures of both Kid and Jimmy.

Once he saw the boys, the events that led him into this strange predicament flooded back into his mind. “I was comin’ down to get the novel and somethin’ happened. . .Tompkins! Is he all right? What happened to him? How long have I been down here?”

“Whoa, hold your horses, Cody,” Teaspoon said as he helped the rider sit up. “Looks like Tompkins was robbed just after you wandered down here last night,” he explained.

“Found him unconscious behind his front counter this morning with a good-sized knot on his head,” Kid added. “We didn’t know where you were until he woke up and remembered you’d come down here. Looks like you were locked in this room all night.”

“Why didn’t you come lookin’ for me?” Cody asked angrily.

“Why should we, the way you were actin’ all high and mighty,” Jimmy replied. “We figured you knew well enough that we’d all give you hell for ducking out of your chores and you decided to go read your ten-cent trash out on the prairie someplace.”

Cody sighed. “Well, I guess I deserved bein’ stuck here all night.” He looked sheepishly over to the two riders. He could tell they were both still a little upset with him, and he honestly couldn’t blame them. “It was wrong of me to ignore my responsibilities like that.”

“Well, if you want to know the truth,” Jimmy added quietly, “when we all woke up and you still hadn’t come home, we were all a little scared about what might have happened to you.”

“And I’ll tell you the truth, Jimmy,” Cody replied as he stood up. “I was scared myself, sittin’ down here in the dark all alone.”

“You were scared?” Kid questioned with a smile.

“Yessir,” Cody admitted. “You were right, Kid. Everybody’s got somethin’ to be afraid of. And it don’t make anyone less of a man. Why, even Chet Remington himself. . .”

“Enough with the Chet Remington garbage!” Jimmy cried.


“All right, all right,” Cody said as he walked out the door. “I better get back to the station. I’ve got a lot of manure to spread.”

“Come on you boys,” Teaspoon said as he started up the staircase.

But Kid and Jimmy just stared at one another, amazed. “Did Cody just say he’s going to work?” Kid asked.

“Sounds like it,” Jimmy replied. “Boy, Cody should get locked in Tompkins’ storeroom more often!”

THE END
Conundrum
by: Cindy

The blackness gradually changed to varying shades of gray as Buck struggled back to consciousness. As awareness returned, so did the realization that the back of his head felt like it was on fire. He tried to sit up, and two things became instantly clear - his hands and feet were tied, and if he moved quickly like that again he would undoubtedly pass out.

He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the dizziness and nausea to pass. It should have all been so simple. One of the clerks had stopped by with the news that a shipment of supplies had arrived for the Express station. All it needed was someone to go load the supplies onto a wagon. The choices had been few. Jimmy and Cody both claimed to be busy shining their boots - primping for the ladies they were escorting to tonight’s Independence Day festivities was more like it. Kid and Lou were likewise off somewhere getting ready for the party, though they’d disappeared - together - much earlier in the afternoon. Noah was off on the scheduled run, and Ike . . . well, Ike was just gone.

Buck took a deep breath, as much against the physical pain in his head as against the pain Ike’s loss still caused in his heart. The last town party had been the one right before Ike had been killed, so Buck hadn’t really planned to go tonight anyway. Of course, he really didn’t want to deal with Tompkins alone either; he’d been avoiding the store ever since the day he’d discovered the man was selling sacred medicine pouches. But he couldn’t avoid the place forever - and maybe, just maybe, the night’s coming festivities would have the shopkeeper in a better mood.

And everything had been going just fine. Tompkins was too busy with people wanting things for their picnic dinners to pay much attention to him. He’d gotten gruff instructions on where the supplies were stacked and then been left alone to work.

The “fine” part had ended when the four armed men entered the store just after Tompkins shouted that he was locking up. Buck had come out of the back room, and found himself face to face with the business end of a pistol. A quick glance out the window showed empty streets - everyone had already headed to the field outside of town where the picnic and games were being held. The armed bandits were taking advantage of the deserted town to rob the businesses there. Buck and Tompkins were forced to the back wall and kept under close guard while two of the strangers made leisurely work of ransacking the store; with no one in town to stop them, they could take the time to make sure they found everything of value. As time went by, other men joined the robbers already in the store, bringing in merchandise pilfered from other shops.

Still, everything might have been all right - if the men hadn’t found Tompkins’ secret cache of money under a loose floorboard behind the counter.

And if Tompkins hadn’t decided to flaunt the odds and try to save the money.

Tompkins!

Buck twisted around, searching the storeroom where he’d wound up. The storekeeper had been shot trying to get the money back. And against his better judgment, Buck had tried to go to the fallen man.

That was when the back of his head had exploded in pain.

At first he didn’t see anyone else in the storeroom. Maybe Tompkins had died and the bandits hadn’t bothered moving his body . . . He twisted against the ropes a little farther, and then he saw the other man. The storekeeper lay unmoving by the door. The small window let a bit of moonlight in, and Buck paused for a moment in his struggles, just watching, until he convinced himself he saw the slight rise and fall of the other man’s chest.

The sky lit up just then in bright red - the fireworks were still going off! The first of the colorful explosions had masked the gunshot, but if the show was still going on, then he hadn’t been unconscious for that long. For the town’s first-ever fireworks display, Rock Creek hadn’t purchased that many of the pyrotechnic treats.

Buck pulled again against the ropes, but whoever had tied him up knew his knots; there was no give at all. And they had trussed him with his hands behind his back, his arms pulled down with his wrists bound to his ankles. All in all, very uncomfortable, and extremely hard to move. But eventually, using his elbows and what little movement he was able to get from his legs, he managed to get over to where Tompkins lay.

The man was definitely still breathing - but that was the only good news. His breathing was labored, and even in the dim light Buck could see how pale the other man was. The gaping hole on the right side of the man’s chest, and the still-deepening pool of blood underneath it, also looked very bad.

Buck looked around again - the life-and-death situation had helped clear his head. His knife was gone, but surely somewhere in the crowded storeroom there was something else he could use to cut the ropes.

His eyes finally settled on a shelf that held three glass vases. He inched his way over and began to kick at the shelves.

He wondered how much Tompkins would charge him for the broken glass.


“That was some show, huh?” Kid asked as he got glasses of lemonade for himself and Lou.

“Sure was,” Teaspoon agreed, getting a glass himself. “Anyone know where Buck is? Don’t think I seen him here tonight.”

“Last I seen Buck, he was heading to Tompkins’ to pick up some supplies that came in,” Jimmy answered.

“Don’t think he was plannin’ to come tonight anyway,” Cody added.

Teaspoon pursed his lips in thought and looked out over the crowd. Come to think of it, he hadn’t see Tompkins here tonight either. Given the storekeeper’s self-proclaimed position as a leader of the community, his absence was even stranger than Buck’s. If it had been two other people he might have suspected they’d just gotten to talking or gone off night fishing or something - but Buck and Tompkins?

“You think something’s wrong, Teaspoon?” Lou asked.

Teaspoon paused before answering. He looked back toward the town, which lay in peaceful silence just down the hill. Nothing looked out of place, and he had left a deputy to watch things. Still, something just didn’t feel right - and if there was one thing he’d learned over the years, it was to trust his feelings.


The ropes finally snapped, shredded by the shards of glass he’d been using to saw at the fibers. Trying to ignore how the glass had also shredded the skin on his hands, Buck quickly freed his ankles and got unsteadily to his feet. Between the blow to the head and the decreased blood flow to his feet from the tight ropes, he swayed for a moment or two before steadying himself.

Buck checked the exit to the alley first, but the door had been bolted from the outside. He crossed the room, stepping over Tompkins to get to the entry back into the store. The handle turned, the door started to open - and then stopped suddenly after about two inches. He threw his shoulder against the door, but it barely budged.

There was a lantern hanging by the door, and a book of matches near it. Buck lit the lamp, turned up the wick, and held the light up to the small opening. To his dismay, the robbers had moved some of the heavy store shelves against the door, the solid wood illuminated by the lamp’s glow. “Couldn’t have had the door open in to the storeroom, instead of out,” he muttered as he gave one more try with all his strength. But there was no way he was going to move the blockade by himself.

A quick glance at the window reminded him of the heavy bars Tompkins had installed there. No one would get in - but he couldn’t get out either.

With no quick escape presenting itself, he knelt by Tompkins’ side, bringing the lantern close to check the wound. What he saw made him fear for the other man’s life even more. He got to his feet and began rummaging through what the robbers had left behind. He finally found two towels and some alcohol on a back shelf. Returning to the fallen man, Buck pulled his apron aside, then opened Tompkins’ shirt, exposing the still-bleeding wound. He poured the alcohol over the wound, knowing it was good that Tompkins was unconscious for the pain of that part. Then he packed one of the towels against the wound, positioning the apron to hold it tight in place. He set the other towel aside in case he needed it later.

He went to the window, but it didn’t look like anyone was back in town yet. With nothing else he could do right then, Buck pulled his own shirt free and ripped some material off the bottom, binding the wounds on his hands. Then he sat down next to the injured man. “You’re going to make it, Tompkins,” he said wearily. “Because this town will somehow blame me if you don’t.”


Following his gut feeling, Teaspoon hurried back to Rock Creek. His first stop was at the jail; the sight of his deputy lying unconscious on the floor confirmed his fears. When he walked out to the street again and found the door to the bootmaker’s shop smashed open, his fears mounted.

Teaspoon headed toward the general store, noting other open doors as he went. He knew at least one of the riders had followed him back to town, but he didn’t even stop to see which one. The door to the store was open and he walked in. “Tompkins?”

Buck was on his feet immediately. “Teaspoon?”

That wasn’t Tompkins . . . “Buck?”

“We’re trapped back here, Teaspoon. And Tompkins has been shot.”

Teaspoon hurried back to the door, finding Lou standing out in the street, staring at all of the broken doors. “Lou, get back up the hill and tell doc to get down here. And bring the boys when you come back. We got lots of stuff to move here.”


Teaspoon gathered reports from all of the merchants who had been victimized by the thieves, and then he gathered his posse. Despite his injuries, Buck insisted on going along, pointing out that he didn’t need his hands to track.

It took the better part of two days, but the Rock Creek posse finally caught up with the band of thieves. After a brief gunfight that left three of the outlaws dead, the rest were duly arrested. Since the thieves had been on the run, all of the merchandise stolen from the town was still there. So the posse headed back to Rock Creek victorious, bringing both the goods and the thieves.


“Buck, how are your hands doing?”

Rachel’s question pulled Buck’s attention from the bridle he was repairing. Actually, the healing wounds itched like crazy, but the doctor said that was good. “They’re fine,” he said, shrugging.

“Well, my order of books for the school came in. Could you come and help me carry them?”

Oh, great. After the way his last trip to the store had turned out, he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to risk it. But, of course, that was silly - couldn’t possibly happen again. “Sure, Rachel,” he answered, trying to shake off that nagging doubt.

He followed Rachel to the store, hesitating only a bit before actually crossing the threshold into the establishment. He saw Tompkins back behind the counter - the shopkeeper was moving slowly and gingerly, but he had survived his wound.

Buck hung back by the door while Rachel went to talk to Tompkins. He glanced around noting that everything seemed to be back to normal.

Everything except the wall by the door, that was.

He did a double-take, then looked once more. The medicine pouches were gone.

“Them pouches never sold well,” Tompkins said gruffly, walking slowly out from behind the counter. “No money in ‘em.”

Buck turned to look at the shopkeeper, his eyes meeting Tompkins’ for just a moment. And in that moment he decided Tompkins was even more of a mystery than he’d thought before. He kept his mouth shut, just nodding an acknowledgment. Both men knew differently, but neither would say it out loud, each for his own reasons.

Tompkins reached for a package on the counter and held it out toward Buck. “Guess I owe you this,” he said brusquely. Once Buck had taken the package, Tompkins headed into the storage room without another word.

Buck just looked at the package for a moment, puzzled. He knew Rachel was staring at him anxiously, but he really wanted to understand what had just happened. Then again, that probably wasn’t going to happen.

The package felt too soft to be anything that would explode, so he slowly opened it. He let the paper fall away, leaving a new shirt in his hands. And not just any shirt - it was one of the good kind. The kind that Tompkins took great pleasure in reminding the riders they’d never be able to afford.

Buck turned toward the storage room, but the doorway was empty. He could hear Tompkins working deeper within the room, but apparently the shopkeeper had said all he planned to say.

Buck just shook his head slowly as he folded the shirt and prepared to help Rachel carry the books.

He would never understand that man!

Trapped by the Melody
by: Tracy

"Whatcha got there Jimmy?" Cody asked. A wide smirk was plastered all over his face. Standing at his side was the delicious creamy-skinned, raven-haired beauty, Bella Daniels. Jimmy felt himself start to drool a little.

"You're interested in music, Mr. Hickok?" Bella asked. Her deep brown eyes smiled at him and Jimmy's heart turned a little to the left to be just a bit closer to her.

"Whatever else you've heard about 'Wild Bill', let me tell you, he's an educated man. Aren't you, Jimmy? He's always readin' books and poetry," Cody said. His smirk grew wider with the mischief he was making.

Jimmy grew red and fought to keep his temper under control. He'd thump the tar out of Cody later, when Bella wasn't watching.

"I think education is so important, especially way out here. I don't think we can ever say we are truly taming the west, unless we maintain a level of culture and refinement," Bella said sagely. Her dainty gloved hand reached out to take the sheet music that Jimmy had been holding. He'd been looking at the picture on the cover. Bella had to tug slightly, as Cody's smirk had the effect of tightening Jimmy's fist.

"That's exactly what Jimmy said the other night at dinner," Cody put in on Jimmy's behalf.

"Oh, I don't know this one," Bella said in surprise. "Is this a favorite of yours?"

Jimmy firmly put a big smile on his face as he looked down the barrel of Cody's smirk. He turned to Bella whose eyes were riveted to Jimmy's.

"It surely is," Jimmy said, his smile sagged a bit at the corners as the muscles in his face began to melt under the soft regard of Bella.

"C'mon Jimmy, why don't you sing a bit of it for Bella?" Cody prodded. He knew full well that Jimmy hadn't a clue about the melody, let alone how to read the lyrics.

"Oh yes, please do. I'd love to hear," Bella said enthusiastically, and handed the sheet music back to the horrified Jimmy.

Jimmy was trapped and he knew it. His hands shook as he looked down at the sheet. Pinpoints of sweat broke out on his forehead. The nerves in his back started to jump and twist. His eyes were glued to the black letters that he couldn't read. Under the weight of Bella's expectations, Jimmy felt his knees begin to buckle and he dropped to the floor.

"What's wrong, Mr. Hickok? Are you ill?" Bella asked, although she did not kneel down to his side. She stood over him and appeared to grow taller.

Jimmy passed a sweating palm over his eyes to clear them. Was he shrinking or was Bella growing? He realized that he had to be getting smaller, because the sheet music grew too big for him to hold. He peered over the top of it and saw that Bella was now so tall that her head hit the ceiling. Next to her, Cody had disappeared, leaving only his smirk hanging in mid-air, and then that vanished from Jimmy's sight as he grew so small that the sheet music did, in fact, cover him like a sheet.

"You can't read, can you?"

Jimmy looked everywhere for the speaker. The voice was small and squeaky.

"Obviously not." Came another voice, equally as squeaky, but of a different timbre.

"Who said that? Show yourself," Jimmy said angrily. His voice echoed strangely as the walls of the sheet music turned his words back on themselves. Jimmy's gun appeared in his hand.

A dark shape seemed to drip off the page over his head. It landed on the timber floor with a soft 'plop'. The shape moved towards him. It made a swishing sound as it crawled. Jimmy looked on with horror as the shape entered the shaft of light that crept in under the sheet music. He recognized it as one of the black letters on the page.

Jimmy backed out and away from under the sheet music. He was followed by the letter 'e' that had jumped off the page.

"He can't read. He can't read." The 'e' began to chant in its eerie squeaky voice.

Several more letters followed the 'e' and they spread in front of Jimmy in a semicircular pattern. They didn't have eyes, but Jimmy knew they were looking at him. He took aim at the 'e' and shot it. The bullet passed through the letter's black body and the hole it had left quickly closed over. Teeth grew in the curve of the 'e', as if in retaliation, and it began to laugh. All the other letters laughed along with it. More terrified than he'd ever been in his life, Jimmy tried to edge away, but the 's' on the end of the line developed fangs and struck at him like a snake.

Jimmy dropped his gun and wrapped his arms around his torso so the snakelike 's' couldn't get him. More and more letters marched out from under the sheet music and formed ranks behind their brothers. An 'R' in the front row, picked up its feet and grabbed its top half. A tongue appeared in the loop and it blew a raspberry at Jimmy.

Without warning, the letters all dropped their chanting and took up a song in its place. He recognized the tune as being the same one that a group of children had been singing as they skipped rope out the front of Tompkins' store, but Jimmy didn't know what it was called. At the time he thought the words sounded strange, but with all the supplies to load he hadn't had the time to ask them about it. The song was 'Freres Jacques'.

Jimmy's stupid, Jimmy's stupid
He can't read. He can't read.
Dumber than a donkey. Dumber than a donkey.
He can't read. He can't read.

The wooden dolls and the toy soldiers all took up the taunting refrain. Over-head, Cody's disembodied smirk sang louder than them all. Jimmy was more terrified than he'd ever been in his life. He looked every which way for an escape route. He turned around and had every intention of running through the space between the door and the floor, but the 'e' shot forward and clamped its jaws on his trouser leg and held him in place. He was trapped with no way and nowhere to run.

Loud as that awful singing was, Jimmy could still hear that same soft plopping sound that the letters had made as they came to life. He looked up and saw all the letters on every box, can and bag in Tompkins' store, all drop from their labels. These letters all rushed together into the center of the store and, as more of their brothers joined, they formed into a tornado of jumbled words that grew higher and higher. The singing grew more frenzied as the tornado of live letters bore down on Jimmy. The letters from the sheet music were sucked into the funnel and their squeaky voices grew more distorted.

Jimmy screamed as he too was absorbed within the whirling vortex. Letters spun around his head too fast for him to focus on any one of them. His limbs felt as if at any minute they would separate from his body. In the middle of the mayhem hung Cody's smirk.

"You'll never do it. You'll never do it," Cody's voice said over and over.

The tornado stopped spinning and all the letters fell away. Jimmy felt himself falling. He looked down and saw that the tornado had spun him towards the tools and that he was about to fall head first into the pitchforks. He screamed and threw his arms across his face.

"Hickok, get your lazy bones off the floor and out into the barn."

Jimmy awoke feeling bruised and battered. With a jolt he realized he'd fallen off his bunk and onto the bunkhouse floor. His left hip was already advising him that it had borne the brunt of the fall and was most displeased with him.

"What's this? You plannin' on serenadin' us while we eat breakfast?" Teaspoon asked as he picked the sheet music out of Jimmy's limp hand.

"Cody bet me that I couldn't read it. If I can read him the first two lines tomorrow, without gettin' any help from anyone else, he's takin' my next two rides for me and doin' my chores for a week," Jimmy explained. His words were a little slurred and he eyed the pages of the sheet music with suspicion. He was sure the 'o' winked at him.

Teaspoon smiled to himself. "How you gettin' on with it?"

"Ain't as easy as I thought. I mean, Emma and Lou been helpin' me with my letters, but these ones don't seem to be in the right order," Jimmy shook his head and tapped the sheet music with his finger. He felt defeated and depressed and was worried that he really was stupid after all.

"Did Cody pick this one out?" Teaspoon asked. Jimmy nodded.

Teaspoon laughed loud and hard, and that only made Jimmy more angrier. Teaspoon could see Jimmy's color rising and the acute embarrassment in the young man's eyes.

"Now, I ain't sayin' you're an idiot 'cos you can't read so well as other folks, but you're a sure-fired, danged fool for lettin' Cody pull this one on you," Teaspoon said between guffaws.

Jimmy looked confused and angry at the same time.

"Son, this," Teaspoon said, as he snatched the sheet music from Jimmy's hand and waved it in front of the young man's eyes, " is in French!"

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