Topic #5: Heat
||The Surprising Joys Of Summer
|It Ain't The Heat, It's The Story
||Sweat Lodge Musings
||Into The Fire
|You Give Me Fever
Jimmy leaned against the fence, resting his forehead on his folded arms. His eyes stared blankly down at his dusty, creased boots. Drops of sweat hung tenuously from his chin, until they grew swollen enough to make the long, slow, fall to splat onto the hard, cracked, ground. It was sweltering, and the hot, moist air was oppressive, making it hard to breathe and sapping his strength, as well as his will to move. It seemed as if the very air around him was pressing in, wrapping the blistering heat closer. Sweat trickled freely down his temple and for the first time ever, he cursed whatever stubbornness or vanity had made him keep his hair long. The black hat probably didn’t help much either. But whatever possessed him to make those choices, the past week convinced him he was ready to give it all up. He didn’t care what he looked like, what people thought of him, or who laughed at him; he was ready to shave his head and walk around in one of the loincloths Buck had been talking about. He honestly no longer cared, so long as it provided even one instant of relief from this intense and suffocating heat.
On the first day the heat had been a topic of lively conversation. On the second day each of the riders had tried to prove their mettle by showing how much it didn’t bother them. On the third, brash smiles faltered, and bold claims of imperviousness died quiet deaths on chapped lips. On the forth, unspoken agreement had found the riders hiding out wherever they could. Now Teaspoon was on a rampage, saying how they couldn’t hide forever, that chores still need to get done, and that there was even more work to do with the heat the way it was. Personally, Jimmy suspected that heat was getting to Teaspoon, too. He was in the worst temper Jimmy had ever seen.
Listless murmurs of rebellion made the rounds, of course, but, truthfully, it was too hot to argue. Jimmy had chosen to work on the fence, hoping that out in the flatlands a hint of breeze might reach him. It was, he realized now, a foolish decision. Being out in the open left him completely at the mercy of the blazing sun, and those hopes for a breeze might as well have been hopes for snow. The air was hot and unmoving, as if a heavy wool blanket had been thrown over the land. He was almost completely soaked with sweat. He had long ago removed his shirt, which had lain on him like a limp and soggy second skin. He tried taking his hat off, finding it an unbearable burden, but soon discovered that that left him entirely unprotected, so he put it back on. A desperate feeling came over him, “a man can’t be expected to live through this,” he thought, his mind dull and distracted. Looking down at his bare, angry-red skin, it occurred to him that he was so sopping wet with sweat it looked as if he had just jumped in a lake.
Oh god. A lake.
He didn’t run, but he did hurry more than he would have guessed was possible in this heat. His tools and shirt lay abandoned in the still and scorching mid-day air. ~*~*~*~
Lou’s head swam as she bent over the pitchfork, shoveling fresh hay into the stalls. Trying to recover her balance she straightened up quickly and felt the world begin to go black. Grasping the edges of consciousness with sheer stubbornness, Lou hauled herself back toward awareness, and her head slowly began to clear. She sagged against the wall of the barn. The heat had been relentless for the past week, not a single break in the torturous, melting, weather. When Teaspoon had taken to carrying on like a grizzly in a trap, Lou had chosen to volunteer before he had the chance or inclination to make her do something terrible. She had thought that working in the barn would shade her from the worst of the sun, and thus, the heat. She was wrong. The air in here was so stifling that it was hard to breathe. She should have known. Lately even the night was impossible. The air was inert, hanging, and midnight was as hot as noon on a normal day.
Tired and hot, Lou felt ready to explode. Feeling the weight of her shirt, drenched in sweat, and the slight compression of the bindings she used to hide her “womanly features,” she focused her irritation at her cloth encumbrances. She had always actually enjoyed the freedom of male clothes, but she had recently, and bitterly, realized that there was a certain degree of freedom she could not explore. For the first time ever, she cursed whatever overconfident and headstrong decisions had led her to this moment, working up a sweat like a man, swaddled in clothes like a woman. She had almost thrown a boot at Cody earlier, just because he had the gall to take his shirt off while he was working. Like he was taunting her, she thought, her eyes narrowing. The only thing that saved his oblivious skull was the infernal heat. It was just too danged hot to be throwing things.
Abruptly at the boundary of rational thought, Lou decided that it just wasn’t fair. If she had to work, she would work as comfortably as possible, and if that meant naked, then naked she would be, dang it. She would do as she wanted, and not be constrained by the boys, or her clothing, but as she hastily unbuttoned her shirt, reason slapped her awake. “You cannot shovel hay and manure naked, Louise McLeod,” she told herself, possibly out loud, probably delirious. Inspiration suddenly hit her, showing her a picture of the last time she had stripped down with such eagerness. Swimming.
Leaving her pitchfork without a backwards glance, she strode towards the swimming hole, thinking greedily of the cool relief of water engulfing her over-heated body. ~*~*~*~
Jimmy had just emerged from the depths of the lake, where he had sat for as long as he could hold his breath, when he heard a loud splash. He maneuvered his body around in the deliciously refreshing water until he was facing the direction the sound had come from. As he watched, he saw Lou’s head break through the surface of the water. Her eyes were closed in ecstasy, her face lifted toward the sun. Wiping her face with her hands, she opened her eyes. And then opened them wider as she saw Jimmy staring at her with a heavy-lidded gaze full of a different kind of heat. Both giddy with release from the fever that had gripped them, they nevertheless hovered motionless as the cool water swirled the heat away from their bodies. Water droplets hung from the ends of her hair above her bare shoulders, and the end of his nose above his bare chest, and, for a moment, dripping was the only sound.
Until they slipped toward each other in the silk of the soothing lake.
The sun was baking everything that dared to be out during this show of dominance. It was once again showing the other members of nature’s team who was in charge. It was declaring itself the boss, and any resistance was wilting under its intense oven like heat. The ground cracked as it gave up all moisture and sent up waves of heat that distorted the horizon. The dampness that used to be found on the plants, rocks, and ground had long ago given up and returned to the air where it sat heavy and oppressive.
He sat under the small rock overhang and surveyed the area. He was thankful for the fact that his horse had collapsed here near this place. He was thankful for the shade he presently had. He knew it would be gone soon. In a couple of hours, there would be no relief from his captor, the sun. He shook his head and returned to his digging. If he could dig deep enough, there would be water. If he could find water, he would be able to replenish his canteen. If he had a full canteen, he could make it to the next outcropping and repeat this ritual one more time as he had been for the last few days. This time however, was different. If he could make it through this ordeal one more day, he could reach home – home, water, and her. All he had to do was survive two more days.
The moisture on his hands brought him back to the present situation. He had made it! He filled the canteen, using his bandana to filter the water and keep out as much of the dirt as possible. When the sun, in its relentless pursuit of total dominance, took his shade, he quickly doused the cloth in the quickly evaporating water. He placed the damp cloth on his head, took his canteen, and started walking. He walked away from the sun towards the next ridge. One more ridge and he was home. One more time and there would be help. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, he crawled into the small opening in the rock wall. He drank a swallow or two of his water and wished the moon would rise to allow him to travel at night, but it stayed hidden as if it too feared the sun’s wrath. It was yet another moonless night. He sighed, drank some more of his precious water supply, and lay down to sleep.
Tomorrow evening he would be home. One more day and she would be there to welcome him, bathe him, and nurse him back to health. All he needed to do was survive one more day of this baking sun’s re-assertance of control. Exhausted, he slept dreaming of her and the coolness of the water in which he would soon be soaking.
As he slept, the moisture-laden air gave up its fight. As he slept, the rains came. He awoke to greet a cooler day, a day with clouds. When he saw the clouds, he knew he’d won. He’d beaten the sun and its heat. He’d outlasted it. He smiled. Now, all he needed was a boat so he could cross the river in front of him.
Like a great many people, Lou loved the summer. But where others loved the patterns that the shimmering heat wrought on the distant landscape or the simple joy of feeling a cool twilight breeze on their skin after a day of blistering heat, she had other reasons. Not that she didn't appreciate these things. She did. These and many more, but summer's heat brought with it what had been at first, an irritating lack of sleep. It hadn't taken long for Lou to discover the more than pleasant surprise it held for a girl in her unique position.
Today had been their first real, scorching day of unrelenting heat. The temperature had been building steadily for weeks. A subtle increase each day that had not passed unnoticed by the residents of Sweetwater. They held their collective breaths, waiting, anticipating when the full brunt of heat would be unleashed upon their heads. Some with dread and some with joyful anticipation. There was a shared sense of 'knowing' when people rose from their beds on that particular morning. They just knew that spring had moved on and summer had arrived.
The sun had been brutal that first day. It burned in the cerulean sky and sent its rays to pierce the skin. It seemed intent on searing a body's flesh from its bones. The birds only chirped in the dawn and the twilight. The riders had spent the day searchng for work that kept them in the shade. After the sun finally put away its face from the sky, the heat lingered on. The baked earth radiated its stored warmth up into the scorched air. That night, the bunkhouse was suffocatingly hot.
Lou had tossed and turned for the first hour or so, then realised depondently that it was hopeless. She would not find sleep tonight. She thought maybe a change would help so she picked up her pillow and threw it angrily to the foot of her bunk and tried sleeping up that end. It didn't help and in fact, made it worse because now she had the moonlight on her face. The moon was radiant against the black, cloudless sky. Its gentle light reached soft fingers across the land and they crept quietly into the bunkhouse from the open door and the window. She grumped to herself. Cross that after such a long day she could not find sleep when the others had. From her new angle she had a clear view of all her bunkmates as they slumbered. Her petulance faded quickly when she realised that she did indeed have a very good view of all of them.
In the hotly oppressive atmosphere of the bunkhouse, they'd all of them pushed their sheets off most of their bodies and were treating Lou to an unencumbered vista of torsos and legs that she found more than pleasing. She knew she should be ashamed of herself, but what was a girl to do when she just couldn't sleep. 'It's the least they can do for me,' she explained to herself as a flare of envy that they could find rest and she couldn't, turned her petualnt again.
She cast an annoyed glance across to Cody's softly snoring form. He was well into his sleep cycle. Cody always looked serious when he was asleep. A small frown creased his brow under his sweat dampened hair. Something must have been tickling his nose in his dreams as he continually brushed at it with his hand. Abruptly he gave a sort of 'grumph' sound then threw himself on his side. Lou's gaze lingered on Cody's back. Pressure marks from the mattress formed patterns on his smooth white skin. He curled his body and every bone in his spine was shown in sharp relief. 'For someone who eats like he does, he ain't got a spare bit of fat on him,' Lou observed.
Cody wriggled in his sleep again and his sheet fell back to reveal a pair of well-defined, china-white cheeks. Lou nearly giggled out loud. She knew none of them were wearing underwear. A blush spread across her cheeks as she recalled how she'd hurriedly hid her eyes when she'd realised that the boys had no intention of keeping anything on while they fought for sleep in the stifling heat of the room. Her cheeks reddened further when she thought of Kid standing there in all his glory while he asked her how she could sleep wearing the heavy calico shirt. He thought Lou was the strangest boy he'd ever met. They all did. 'Well, they're right,' Lou admitted to herself. The oddest and the least friendly. Jimmy had looked positively affronted when Lou had refused to join the boys for a cooling dip in the waterhole.
Tearing her eyes away from Cody's unknowing display, she looked at Jimmy as he slumbered. He was the oldest of them, but he looked very young as he slept. The hard arrogance that he wore in the waking hours was gone. His mouth was slightly parted and the tip of his tongue rested against his top lip. He lay on his back with his head resting on the upper part of the arm that was flung up on the pillow. Just like Cody, Jimmy's dark hair was slick with sweat. It was plastered against the side of his face but curiously not to his neck. Lou liked to look at Jimmy's neck and imagine the feel of his life pulsing just under his strong jaw. His chest rose and fell in the rhythm of deep sleep. Sweat glistened on every curve of him and enhanced the sharp definition of his tendons and muscles as his upper body moved. Every angle of the man screamed 'power'. She envied his strength.
Sometimes Lou wished she was as strong as a man, especially when she was toting water buckets for the horses. She could only ever manage one at a time and when she got it to its destination, her arm throbbed in protest.
She decided that she shouldn't linger too long with her appreciation of Jimmy, and swivelled her head to look at Buck in his single bed. The moon's light fell fully on his sun-kissed skin. The raven wings of his hair covered his face as he slept on his stomach. He was not as solid in the body as the others. His muscles were just as defined but he had a lithe build. It was as though nature had given him this shape to try and slip through life unnoticed by those who would seek to ridicule him for his mixed heritage. Lou frowned at that thought. She'd been frightened of his fierceness when they'd first met, but now she understood him better and she liked him a lot. She'd be willing to trust her back to Buck in any fight and in turn, defend him against any detractor.
Lou was disappointed that Ike was out on a run. She'd had enough glimpses of him without his shirt on to feel deprived at not seeing him as she could now see the others. Gathering her courage, she peeked over her bunk to see what Kid looked like asleep and found further disappointment. For all his going on about her and her shirt, he was tangled up in his sheet to the point that he was barely visible.
'Oh well, there's always tomorrow night, and the night after that, and the night after that,' Lou smirked. 'Oh yes, I just love summer!'
"Ain't you boys got chores to do?"
"Aw come on, Teaspoon," Kid protested. "It's too hot to work now."
Buck and Jimmy groaned inwardly, suddenly wishing they had volunteered to go into town with Ike and Lou—or for that matter, taken Cody's run when he had begged them. It WAS hot for sure, but the heat was nothing compared to the lecture they were sure to be receiving thanks to Kid's remark.
"Hot!" Teaspoon exclaimed, right on cue. "You call THIS hot? Why I remember back in forty-three . . ."
Buck considered leaving to do some chores, but he had already DONE his. And he knew, now that Teaspoon had started, the station manager would just call him back to hear the story. Acr
oss the way, Jimmy began to plot revenge. Catching Buck's eye, he raised an eyebrow and glared meaningfully at Kid. An almost imperceptible nod of the Kiowa's head told him that Buck was willing and ready to help.
". . . no rain for THREE months!" Teaspoon said sharply, looking at each boy in turn to make sure they understood how bad it really was. "The sun was a-boiling down . . ."
Throw him in the horse trough? Nah, that's too good for him. Besides, in this heat, he'd probably enjoy it.
". . . that old fry pan got so hot, you could cook an egg in it without putting it on the stove! And dust! There was so much dust . . ."
Staking him out on an ant hill, now THAT had possibilities—no, if we did that, he'd probably get bit so bad that Emma would have our hides—and we'd have to do his runs for him until he healed.
". . . by the end of the day, you'd look like a big old coon. You'd just want to jump into the nearest water, no matter what . . ."
There was always dumping a load of manure over his head, but after the initial satisfaction, Kid'd end up having to take a shower and that would be almost as bad as the horse trough. Gotta come up with a plan that don't involve water.
"Course we could make our OWN puddles—from the sweat that used to just pour off us . . ."
Wonder if Buck could find a nice big snake to put in his bed tonight? All right, so we'd all end up being woke up when he started yelling, it would be worth it.
". . . use to work ten-fifteen hours a day no matter if it was . . ."
Look at him, sitting there. He looks like he's actually ENJOYING the story. Course he's getting out of doing his chores—don't matter to HIM that Buck and me gotta suffer when we already DID ours!
". . . boys don't know how good you got it, what with a shower out there at the water tower . . ."
So no manure, no snakes or ants, no watering trough—what else is left? Guess we could always just beat the crap out of him, but that would still get us in trouble with Emma and he'd probably milk it for all it's worth.
". . . to share a bathtub with four or five other men, you'd be grateful . . ."
Too bad Buck used up all the good stuff on Cody that time. But then Kid wouldn't be that stupid as to fall for that kind of thing.
". . . you'd be grateful for a bath at all after four or five weeks of . . ."
Boy, Teaspoon is really wound up this time. He's been going on for almost twenty minutes this time. It's hotter'n the devil—too hot to sit here and listen to him go on and on. Dang it, Kid, why didn't you just keep your mouth shut and let Buck and me tell Teaspoon we were done!
". . . but WE never let a little hot spell stop US from doing what needed to be done . . ."
Wonder if we could tie Kid in his bed tonight—yeah that's it! We'll pile a bunch of blankets on him, make HIM sweat like this story is making us.
". . . got it too soft nowadays . . ."
All we have to do is let him get to sleep, then we grab him and stuff a rag in his mouth so he can't yell. If we can get Ike and Lou to help us, we'd have him tied down in no time. Heck, Lou'd probably be happy to help after the way he's been acting lately.
". . . think just because you go on a ride once or twice a week, you can be lazy the . . ."
Then we just grab all the blankets and pile 'em on. Won't have to leave 'em there for long . . . just a couple of hours or so. He won't know what hit him.
Jimmy started as Buck and Kid stood up to leave the porch. He joined them as they walked as quickly as possible towards the barn. He'd get with Buck as soon as they could get away from Kid and fill him in on the plan.
"Kids nowadays," Teaspoon muttered as he turned to go back into the bunkhouse. "Got no stick-to-itiveness. They think THIS is hot?"
The droplet of sweat formed at his hairline, then moved down his temple, along his jaw line, past his ear and down to his chin. From there the droplet joined others of its kind to fall to his chest and trickle down his breastbone, then across his abdomen. By the time the single droplet had completed its journey, another was already forming and another followed the second until the man's body was covered with a film of liquid.
He'd had this cold for almost a week. The past few days had been the roughest part. It had reached the point where his head was so stuffed that a single breath had taken almost every ounce of energy he possessed. Add that to the anger he was still feeling over the incident in town and he was just about as tired as he’d ever been.
Finally Teaspoon had suggested the sweat lodge. "Heat. That's what you need," the older man had advised. "Sweat that cold right outta ya."
Lacking any other suggestions, he'd agreed. His mother's people had used the sweat lodge to cleanse their bodies—and spirits—for as far back as anyone could remember—as far back as the oldest stories told around the cooking fires on the cold nights of winter. No reason to think it wouldn't work now.
He'd been in the lodge for only ten minutes before the heat had begun to penetrate and the sweat had started to pour from his body. Teaspoon had made sure this one was good and hot. He'd included some sage in the fire and had added more rocks to the pile to allow for even more steam. As the heat soaked in and his body began to relax his mind began to wander.
He could still remember the day when he and Ike had arrived in Sweetwater and had read the sign advertising for riders. The money had sounded good—really good considering that, between them, they had barely enough for a loaf of bread.
There had been some trepidation on his part when he'd first met Teaspoon Hunter, an older man who bore the look of someone who'd been around and seen more than his share of the good and bad. The station manager had challenged him at first, but apparently he'd passed the test. Both he and Ike had been accepted as part of the team and, as a result, part of the family.
Oh sure, he realized he was never totally accepted. There had been times when even Ike, his best friend since their childhood at the mission school, had doubted him. But the one thing he had learned, when there were problems between him and the other riders, it was seldom because of the color of his skin alone.
More often than not, the conflicts were a result of the combatants not fully understanding each other's background. He seen the same thing happening between guys like Jimmy and Kid—the former from a family of abolitionists, the latter a southerner who had grown up in a culture where slavery was as common as the buffalo had once been on the plains.
He’d often wondered how the group of them had ended up in the same place at that particular time. Sure they all fit the bill for the Pony Express—young, good horsemen, most of them orphans—or at least on their own long enough to be considered without family. But how they had all ended up in Sweetwater at the precise moment where the end result would be they would become the team they had become was a mystery to him.
Other than he and Ike, none of them had known each other—he wasn’t sure they did even now, especially after finding out about Lou—he’d always known there was something different about Lou, but had figured it was none of his business. He was just grateful that, for the most part, he could call them all friends. They seem to understand that he would always be just a bit different from them—but not so much that they couldn’t consider him a friend as well.
Heck, even Cody had learned that much after the incident with his medicine pouch. His hand instinctively reached for the little bag. Cody had learned, and hadn’t taken the joke he and the others had played on him too badly—once he’d stopped chasing Buck long enough to think about it.
No, he could honestly say life with the Pony Express hadn’t been all that difficult. In fact, for the most part, it was kind of boring. With only a ride or two at most a week, unless they were sent on a “special” run that Teaspoon always seemed to have for them, most of their time was spent at the station or in town.
Being at the station wasn’t all that bad. He’d always been able to find something to keep himself busy and Emma had always been willing to loan him one of her books. He missed Emma a lot but Rachel had turned out to be more than just a pretty face and a good cook. Both women treated him just like all the other “boys” and he knew, no matter where life took him after the Express, he would never forget them.
Town—now that was a whole other story—whole other world actually. Seems like just about everyone in Sweetwater had been involved in some kind of run in with Indians at one time or another. Sure, they were more than happy to see him when they needed some outlaw tracked down or needed to have someone risk his neck to save them from some foolish misunderstanding that one of them caused with the local tribes. But just let one thing go wrong where he might have been involved and they were out for blood—his blood.
Most of time, he granted, he’d been able to count on his fellow riders, Teaspoon, Emma and Rachel to support him, but there had been times. He doubted he would ever be able to understand why he was the one who was supposed to turn the other cheek when something happened. He’d be willing to bet, if Jimmy Hickok ever got spit on, he wouldn’t be “letting it go” the way he’d told Buck. More than likely the spitter would have ended up with the business end of Hickok’s pistol in his face.
All in all, he decided, he had handled the situations pretty well. He was still alive—and so were the townspeople. If he had been as truly savage as they believed, more than one would have woke up one morning minus his hair. Other than the pair that had humiliated him because of her, he’d not exacted the revenge the type of person they believed him to be would have.
He liked to think he’d gained at least some measure of respect from a lot of the townspeople in both places. At least he was fairly certain he had from Sam Cain. The lawman had earned his respect as well. It took a lot of guts to stand up to blowhards like Tompkins and some of the others in town, yet Sam had done it time and again. Buck missed Sam almost as much as he missed Emma.
Without warning, he sneezed. For a minute it felt like he should be looking for his head somewhere on the floor across the lodge. The flap on the lodge flew back as Teaspoon stepped in. Buck shivered as cooler air rushed in and across his body.
“You feeling better now?” the older man asked.
Buck realized he was actually breathing normally. He hesitated a moment, waiting to see if the stuffiness returned before nodding.
“Told you heat was what you needed,” Teaspoon stated. “Never known a cold yet that could stand up to being sweated like this.”
Rising to his feet, Buck accepted the blanket Teaspoon handed him. More than the cold had been sweated out of him he realized. Smiling he stepped out of the lodge, leaving a few steamed demons behind.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhh . . . it's too hot to even breathe," Cody moaned.
"Yeah, well, there'd be less hot air in here if you kept your mouth shut," Jimmy retorted. Under other circumstances he would have at least swatted Cody with his hat, but it was just too hot for even that.
"It could be hotter," Buck pointed out. Not that it was a pleasant thought.
Lou groaned. "I don't even want to think about that."
"I'm with you, Lou," Noah agreed. It already felt like he was swimming in his own sweat.
Ike looked up and raised his hands as if to sign a reply, but then he decided it would just take too much energy. Instead, he flopped down across the table. The other five riders were all stripped down to their underwear and sprawled out on their bunks. It wasn't necessarily cooler at the table, it was just that when he'd returned from doing an errand for Rachel he hadn't had the energy to get to his bunk.
There was quiet in the bunkhouse for a few moments, all of them too hot and tired to even complain any more. Then the door opened, letting in a burst of even hotter air as the sun streamed in. Rachel stepped in, looking around the room. "Well, aren't you all the picture of hard working employees!"
There were groans around the room. "Rachel, we worked hard this morning," Jimmy answered.
"That corral fence didn't fix itself," Noah added.
"Cody and I cleaned the stalls," Buck said.
Rachel just nodded, trying to keep from laughing. They all just looked so helpless right now. "Well, there's more work to be done, and I need some help. Louise, I think it's your turn."
"Awww, Rachel, can't it wait?"
"No, it can't. Now come on, it won't kill you."
"It might," Lou grumbled as she forced herself up and reached for her clothes and boots.
Rachel waited as Lou got ready, then she turned back to the others. "You boys find something to do now – other than lay around all day!"
When the door shut again five heads looked up to make sure they were really alone in the bunkhouse. "I think laying around in this weather is a perfect way to spend the afternoon," Noah declared.
"Well, we could go to the swimming hole," Jimmy suggested. Not that he could actually swim, but it was still refreshing to be in the water. And Buck had promised him lessons.
"Lou will be mad if we go without her," Buck cautioned.
"But without Lou, we can strip down," Cody said.
"No dripping wet longjohns," Noah agreed.
Ike raised his head and pounded the table. **Lou can always go when she's done helping Rachel.**
There was a moment of silence as they all weighed the benefits of going swimming versus the wrath of Lou. And then, almost as one, they swung off their bunks and began gathering clothing and boots for the trek to the swimming hole.
Noah paused just long enough to scribble a note, which he left propped on the table:
Lou ducked back as a wet sheet hit her squarely in the face – again. Cursing softly under her breath she tried again to get the errant cloth pinned to the line. "Rachel, why do I always get stuck doing this?"
"Lou, you don't 'always' get stuck with this. Buck helped me yesterday, and Noah the day before."
Logic deflated some of Lou's anger, and she finished hanging the basket of clothing in front of her in silence. By the time she was done, guilt had set in over the way she'd been complaining. She set her basket aside and went to help Rachel finish the other basket. "I'm sorry, Rachel. I don't know why I'm such a grouch."
"It's all right, Lou," Rachel replied. "I think this heat is making all of us a little grouchy." She looked down at the empty baskets and smiled. "Why don't you go get the boys and come up to the house. I think we all deserve some lemonade."
"Mmmm, sounds good," Lou agreed, heading off toward the bunkhouse.
Rachel had just picked up the empty baskets when she heard a loud shout coming from the direction Lou had just headed. She couldn't tell if it was someone in pain or maybe frightened . . . or angry. She dropped the baskets and headed that way just as the door opened and Lou came storming out of the bunkhouse.
"Those low-down, no-good, rotten . . ."
"Lou, what's the matter?"
Lou held up a crumpled piece of paper. "This!" she yelled. "While I'm workin' they went off to go swimming!"
Rachel struggled not to laugh. "Now, Louise, they can't have been gone that long. You can still go find them."
Lou shook her head, still fuming. "They're always sneaking off without me!" Ike had even told her once that the boys preferred going without her because then they were free to strip all the way down . . .
A smile spread across Lou's face as an idea came to mind. "Rachel, how would you like to help me with something?"
Rock Creek meandered along south of town, passing not far behind the Pony Express station. It was a shallow, fast-moving creek until it hit a point about half a mile from the station. There, the rolling hills pushed in a little tighter, creating a wide depression along the creek's path. Years of beaver dams helped fill the depression until the water averaged a little over five feet in depth – all in all, a perfect swimming hole.
While Ike swam lazily back and forth, Noah and Cody splashed in a good-natured water fight. Meanwhile, Buck found his patience sorely tested while trying to help Jimmy learn to swim. Actually, they were still working on floating. For every time Buck advised just relaxing into the water, Jimmy managed to tighten up as he should have been stretching out – at which point he promptly sank.
Jimmy came up sputtering again and Buck reached over to grab his arm and steady him. "Jimmy, you've got to relax."
Jimmy pulled some weeds away from his face and pushed his wet hair back. "How can I relax when I feel like I'm gonna drown?"
"I'm not gonna let you drown, Jimmy. But you're never gonna float when you curl up in a ball like that. Look!" Buck turned to one side and stretched out into the water, pushing off with his feet and floating easily away. After a few feet he twisted around and kicked again, coming back to where he started.
Jimmy just scowled. He had to admit Buck made it look easy. And ever since Emma'd had to save him, when he was supposed to be saving her, he had wanted to learn to swim. If he could just get past the drowning part . . .
Buck moved up close again and put one hand on Jimmy's stomach to support him, and the other hand on his back to help him down. "Jimmy, you have to relax. Now put your arms up and just lean forward into the water."
"Watch where you're putting that hand," Jimmy grumbled, mostly to stall for time.
Buck just rolled his eyes and shook his head. "You're not my type, Hickok. Now let's try it again." For all the time he'd spent giving lessons, Hickok was damned well going to learn to swim!
Jimmy took a deep breath, steadying himself – pushing thoughts of drowning away. Then he leaned forward, closed his eyes, and stretched his arms out. His body touched the water, his feet came up, and for the briefest moment he was floating . . .
Just then Jimmy felt Buck sliding his hand away, and the panic set in again. He pulled his arms in, thrashing with his legs – and he promptly sank.
This time when Buck pulled him up, Jimmy just shook his head. He coughed as he spit out a minnow that had found its way into his mouth. "That's it," he declared. "I'm done." He took a step toward the bank, then stopped dead. He looked around, making sure he was in the right place. "Uh, Buck? Didn't we leave our clothes over under that tree?"
Buck had started over to join Ike, but now he turned back to where Jimmy was looking. That was definitely the place – and the ground was very empty. "Yeah, we did." He joined Jimmy in eyeing the surroundings carefully, looking for any sign of the thief.
"Then where the hell are our clothes?" Jimmy demanded, his voice getting louder.
Jimmy's tone of voice caught the others' attention. "What's the matter?" Noah asked.
"Our clothes seem to be missing," Buck explained. He listened carefully for a moment, almost sure he heard a trace of a giggle from behind some trees on top of the hill. A prime suspect in the theft came to mind . . .
"What? Well, who took 'em?"
"If I knew that, Cody, they wouldn't be missing," Jimmy growled. He just hoped the culprit wasn't someone who had come gunning for "Wild Bill" – getting shot naked in a swimming hole was not the way he planned to go out.
Ike joined the others, and the five men stood together, studying the bank and the trees for a clue. But everything was quiet.
"So what do we do now?" Cody finally asked.
Buck was just about to suggest walking boldly out of the water and back to the bunkhouse when a voice came from atop the hill. "What's the matter, boys? Missing something?"
The men looked up to see Lou step out from behind the cover of the trees. Across her shoulders and arms hung various pieces of clothing – their clothing.
"Lou, what the hell you doing?" Jimmy demanded. "Put those back!"
"Why Jimmy," Rachel said, appearing next to Lou, her own arms full of clothing. "What's the matter?"
"Now Lou, Rachel, that's our clothes," Cody pointed out, trying to sound very reasonable. "Why don't you just put everything back where it was?"
"You left us working, doing laundry, while you snuck off to swim," Lou pointed out sweetly. The men all recognized the danger in that tone of voice.
"I told you she'd be mad," Buck muttered.
"Since we're doing laundry anyway, seems like we should just get these dirty old clothes washed too," Rachel added.
"Now Rachel, I just helped wash some of that two days ago," Noah pointed out.
"And I helped with some of that yesterday," Buck said.
"There, see, can't be that dirty yet," Jimmy concluded. "So you can just put it back."
Lou and Rachel just looked at each other, smiling. "Oh, I don't think we could do that, Jimmy," Rachel said.
"Why don't you come get it" Lou challenged, dangling a set of longjohns.
While the men bunched closer together and looked for a way out, Buck finally smiled and took two steps toward where Lou and Rachel were standing. "You know, the way I was raised, clothing was for protection, not because you were ashamed to have your body seen. It might not bother me as much as you think to come out and get my clothes."
Lou and Rachel exchanged a quick glance. They hadn't really expected anyone to get out of the water. Then again, Buck could be bluffing . . .
"You come right ahead, Buck," Lou answered, though she was getting a little nervous. What if he did come out?
Buck took another couple of steps, the water level dropping down below his chest. "I want my clothes, Lou."
"You really gonna go out there?" Noah whispered.
Buck turned toward the others, intending to rally them to go with him. But just then Ike grinned and began to sign, **Back at the mission school, Buck got out of the swimming hole naked in front of the sisters. This can't be near as bad.**
"In front of the sisters? That took some guts," Jimmy admitted.
Buck just grimaced. Actually, it had been less a case of guts and more a case of not understanding the white world well enough yet. Reminded now, he could still feel the switch against his backside – his first real introduction to how seriously some white people could take their modesty. But that was a different time and place. He wasn't a scared, confused boy in a strange world – Lou and Rachel definitely weren't nuns. "This is war," he said quietly. "And the women fired the first shot. Now who's coming with me?"
There was some nervous shuffling as the others looked around, not quite willing to make that commitment. "Too bad Kid isn't here," Cody muttered. "He could go out in front of Lou."
"Still leaves Rachel," Noah pointed out.
Buck just shook his head. "Cowards," he muttered. He stepped forward again, the water dropping to near his waist. “I’m warning you,” he called. “I’m coming out to get my clothes.”
Lou took a step back. “Think he’ll really do it?” she asked Rachel.
“I don’t know,” the older woman admitted. It was going to be interesting to see who flinched first.
Buck took another couple of steps, letting the water fall just below his waist. Truth be told, after his years in the white world, he was kind of nervous – but he’d gone too far now to back down. “Lou, Rachel, last warning. I want my clothes.”
Rachel and Lou both took a couple of steps back. “I think he might do it, Rachel,” Lou said. It wasn’t going to take much more . . .
Rachel opened her mouth to suggest that they end the game, but the words never came.
Buck decided they’d had enough time, and enough warnings. He took a deep breath, then let out a “WHOOP” and sprinted out of the water.
Lou shrieked in surprise and dropped the clothing she was holding, but she couldn’t move. Rachel gasped, dropping her own bundle of clothes, but she recovered first. Grabbing at Lou’s arm, she pulled hard and yelled, “Louise, let’s go!” They started to run, even as Buck scrambled up the bank. And then they were racing back toward the station.
But just as she and Rachel headed around the trees onto the flat ground that would carry them home, Lou pulled back and stopped for just a moment, turning around just as Buck topped the bank and reached for his clothes.
I can feel the blood of my ancestors coursing through my veins in a molten rush.
I have shed my clothes, my boots, and even my hat. I have no shield from the blazing sun. These things are abandoned in a heap. All vestiges of manhood, ignored for one glorious moment. Today there will be no, “Yes ma’am,” or “No, Sir.” There will be no pleasantries, no good manners, no being white, and no being red. Here, in this moment, in the sweltering heat, I just am. I am.
A film of sweat streaks over my skin as the sun beats down mercilessly on my back. I feel the heat. I can taste it in the form of my sweat on my own lips. I can feel it as my body slides through the scorching air, over the ground that has been baked with the blood and sweat of my ancestors. Yes, I feel the heat, but the hunt waits for no man. Catching a glimpse of my prey, I’m reminded how the thrill of the hunt makes all of my senses deepen and spread. I am one with nature. I am one with the heat. I am the hunter.
I breathe in the sweltering air, catching the scent of my prey. The scent lingers, light in the blistering breeze, enthralling me, calling me to continue the pursuit. In silence, accompanied by nothing but the roar of blood in my ears, I inch forward. Slowly, with the patience of the Ancients, I stalk. Doe eyes look about, watching, scanning the arid land, looking for danger, looking for me.
I am so alive at this moment, I swear I can hear the distant thunder of my quarry’s heart. The distant pounding of that heart makes me burn independent of the weather. The heat is on the inside now. It is expanding, growing, overwhelming. I race on silent legs, patience deserted, to take my target. She never even sees me coming.
The heat is spreading.
In an instant she is overtaken. She tumbles back onto the ground, a sound of surprise on her lips. I clamp my mouth around her throat, tasting salt, and feeling the almost musical cadence of her pulse.
The heat is spreading.
She rolls quickly, trying an ill-conceived escape. An odd noise escapes my throat. It’s almost a growl.
The heat is spreading.
My hand closes around her leg, and in an instant, she is trapped underneath my body. She gasps for breath. I’ve surprised her again. “Buck,” she pants my name. “You win! You’re right, married hide–and-go–seek is so much more fun than the normal variety!”
I smile. The hunt is always good. And like my ancestors, back bared to the sun, I remind my woman why she’s my wife.
The heat is spreading…
…She feels it too.
“Lips parted in anticipation. Thirst so deep that it’s an ache in my soul. Need so strong that my body’s humming with the heat of it. Blindly seeking with my mouth, water trickles on my tongue from a cup teasing my dry throat with a hint of relief as does the sight of her tease my senses …” Lou read softly.
“What the hell are you reading?” Jimmy said huffily. Lou quickly hid the piece of paper behind her back.
“Nothing. Just a … something.” She stammered.
“What kind of story is that? It’s almost indecent.”
“Key word being almost. Thank you very much. I can read anything I want.” Lou said. “Plus I found it on the bunkhouse floor. Is it yours Jimmy?” She asked coyly.
“Who do you think the girl is?” Jimmy walked over to look at the paper. The door to the bunkhouse opened Kid rushed in to his bunk and dumped his bag. He was rummaging through all of his things looking for something. Jimmy elbowed Lou and inclined his head toward Kid. Lou looked surprised then shook her head. Jimmy grabbed the paper from Lou’s hand.
“Hey, Kid!” Jimmy said as he walked over to him. “Missin’ something?”
“Yeah,” Kid kept rummaging through his things not even glancing at Jimmy.
“This it?” Jimmy shoved the paper under Kid’s nose.
“Nah, I’m looking for my pocket knife.” Kid didn’t even glance at the paper. He just pushed it aside. “Ah, here it is. See ya!” Kid went back outside. Jimmy and Lou just looked at each other.
“Whose is it?” Jimmy wondered out loud.
“I don’t know but it’s some powerful language. Do you think its Cody’s? He tried writing before.” Lou took the paper back from Jimmy and put it back where she found it. It sat conspicuously on the floor by the table. “We’ll just have to see who picks it up.” She lay on her bunk and began to read. Her eyes darted around the room every once in a while giving her away. Jimmy also lay on his bunk but didn’t even pretend to anything other than relax.
The door opened and someone came in quietly. Lou peeked over her book. The person’s head was obscured from her view by a blanket hanging from another bunk. The person continued to move slowly and quietly. The footfalls stopped as soft snores came from Jimmy’s bunk. The unknown person retreated back out the door.
“Damn blanket.” Lou jumped up from her bunk and ripped it down. She didn’t see so much as a toe to be able to figure out who it was. “Jimmy! Wake up. Did you see who it was?” “Huh, what?” Jimmy started. “Lou, what do you want?”
“Who just came in?” Lou slapped his foot. “You fell asleep.”
“Lou, are you kidding?! I was taking a nap. What are going on about?” Jimmy asked incredulously. His voice got louder when Lou indicated the paper on the floor. “Lou, find something else to do. You got to leave a body to rest.” Jimmy dismissed the whole thing and rolled over.
“Argh!” Lou stomped over to the paper and picked it up. “I’m just going to ask everyone so that I can return it.” Lou took it to her bunk and continued where she left off. “’water trickles on my tongue from a cup, teasing my dry throat with a hint of relief as does the sight of her tease my senses. I want to speak to her but I can’t. I think of her neck and how I want to place my lips there. I think on how I want to hold her in my arms all night and wake to see her face. Making love…’ Wait, where is the rest of it?” Lou turns the paper over as if words will appear on the other side. “Who is the girl?.” Lou paced back and forth.
“Lou, you’re making me ill.” Jimmy tossed in his bunk. “It’s just a piece of paper. It’s almost indecent.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Lou said exasperatedly.
“No.” Jimmy said flatly. Kid came back in the bunkhouse with Cody. “Jeez, can’t a man get a little shut eye?”
“Jimmy, a man should be out livin’ life not layin’ in bed like an old man.” Cody scoffed at him. Jimmy threw a pillow at him catching him in the face. Cody whipped it back at him with a grin.
“Either of you know who this belongs to?” Lou handed it to Kid. Cody read it over his shoulder. Kid’s eyes grew round and Cody’s jaw dropped. “I gather it isn’t yours,” Lou stated as she watched their reactions.
“No, but who ever wrote that has only one thing on their mind,” Cody chortled. “Where did you find that little gem?” Lou explained where she found it.
“Hmm, you’re right, it could be anybody’s.” Kid paced with paper in his hand. “It wasn’t near a particular bunk?”
“Why are you people bothering with this?” Jimmy interrupted their sleuthing. “It’s just some writing that someone probably doesn’t want you to read.”
“If they didn’t want us to read it why did they leave it out?” Cody countered. Jimmy groaned and put a hand to his head. “Besides,” Cody said as he flops on his bed with a dramatic sigh, “I’d like to read more.”
“I bet you would.” Lou thumped his bunk.
“You showed it to me,” an outraged Cody sat up.
“Hey, now look. Why don’t we just lay it on the table and watch to see who picks it up,” suggested Kid.
“I tried that but I didn’t get to see who came in and SOMEBODY,” Lou pointed a finger at a smiling Jimmy, “fell asleep.”
“We could try it again.” Kid suggested. “No, what we need is a new plan.” Kid pondered and tapped his lips with his fingers. Cody jumped up and grabbed the paper.
“How about we ask everyone at dinner?” Cody offered.
“The person who wrote this is not going to confess in front of everyone,” Lou said sardonically. “This is hot stuff.”
“I’ll wager you on who wrote it,” Jimmy suggested. “Since you all will not let it rest I might as well try to get something out of this nonsense.”
“Who’s left to bet on?” asked Cody.
“There is Buck, Ike…” Lou started naming the rest of the riders.
“Ooo, Buck reads a lot. I’ll bet on him,” Cody said getting out his two dollars. “It could be Ike too. It’s usually the quiet ones.”
“Wait, there still Noah,” Kid added.
“You’re right. Noah is really smart, he could have…” Cody started blustering.
“Let’s do this right,” Lou said as she got pieces of paper. “Write down who you think wrote it and your name. We’ll keep the money and the folded votes in my trunk. Once we find out who wrote it we’ll give over the money.” Everyone pooled their money and wrote their votes.
“I think it’s more important to bet on who the girl is.” Cody grinned.
“We’ll just ask the person who wrote it,” Kid said. “We still haven’t figured out how to find out who that is.”
“Since I found the paper I’ll ask each of them when there is no one else around.” With that Lou took the paper and went out the door.
“Do you think we can trust her?” Cody asked staring after her. Kid slammed him in the face with the closest pillow. “Hrmph, okay, okay.”
“Lou,” Cody whispered to Lou as they all sat doing various things on the porch.
“What?” Lou answered watching Buck and Ike walk off toward the barn.
“Come on Lou,” Cody said rolling his eyes, “the suspense is killing me.”
“It’s not those two.” Lou started.
“I knew it. It’s got to be Noah.” Cody jumped up and stuck out his hand. “The money please. That’s the easiest eight dollars I’ve ever made.”
“Noah is on a run. I didn’t get to ask him,” Lou argued.
“If it’s not the rest of us it’s got to be him,” Kid joined.
“That’s not true,” Jimmy walked up to the group on the porch, “ I know who wrote it.”
“WHAT?!” Lou hollered. “I asked you and you said you didn’t know.”
“No, I asked you who you though the girl was,” Jimmy said softly.
“So, who is the writer?” Cody asked.
“It’s him,” Kid laughed and clapped Jimmy on the shoulder. “We just assumed that none of us wrote it.”
“That’s sneaky,” Lou said as she went in to get the money. “Good, but sneaky. Where did you learn to write like that?”
“I’ve been practicing” Jimmy explained awkwardly.
“Who’s the girl?” Cody practically begged.
“That, I will never tell.” Jimmy thumbed through the money and put in his pocket as he walked away.
“Why that dirty, rotten…” Cody made to go after him.
“Cody, leave him be.” Kid grabbed Cody’s arm. “A man has a right to his thoughts.”
Jimmy stood at the railing of the corral smiling into the sunset as heated pictures of Julia Pierson ran through his mind. Julia's long light brown hair tumbled down her shoulders as she unwound it from her prim school marm bun. He imagined his fingers running through her hair gently tilting her head to give her a searing kiss. He'd been thinking about her for months since he visited her classroom. Maybe someday soon he would work up the courage to go back.
The sheer fury of the approaching storm was staggering.
This was no regular storm – this was a firestorm, raging across the plains. It almost seemed to be targeting Sweetwater directly.
It was mid-summer – oppressively hot, and exceptionally dry. The area hadn’t seen any rain in almost three weeks. As if to rub the drought in, nature had taunted them with storm clouds the night before last. Thunder rumbled, lightning flashed, but no rain fell. And one of those lightning bolts had snaked through the clouds, down to the ground, igniting the tinder-dry prairie grass several miles outside of town.
Buck had brought the first news of the fire when he returned from his run the previous morning. He had ridden back out with Teaspoon, Sam, and Jimmy as they surveyed the fire’s likely path.
The projection was not good news for Sweetwater.
The fire rolled ahead, scorching everything it touched. Animals raced in front of its path, looking for escape from the heat and flame. Tentacles of fire reached out, away from the main body. Occasionally one of those tentacles would be snuffed out as it ran into a river or over rocky ground that offered no fuel. But still the fire raged on, eating up the prairie and drawing inexorably closer to town.
The people of Sweetwater stood ready to make their stand. Under Teaspoon’s guidance a wide swath of land had been cleared just outside of town, directly in the fire’s path. The townspeople worked side by side with farmers from outlying homesteads and the riders from the Pony Express. Armed with every shovel, pick, and hoe that could be found, the men, and many women, had stripped the area of grass, weeds, and brush. Working through the night they turned the earth, removing whatever might give fuel to the approaching fury.
Around town, several men patrolled the rooftops. Armed with blankets and brooms, they would be tasked with extinguishing any flying sparks before the fire could take hold. Every pail, bucket, and pot that could be scrounged up had been filled with water and placed along the street.
But no one believed that they stood a chance if the fire took hold in the town.
On the other side of town, the wagons stood ready, just in case. Mothers with children too young to help fight the fire worked to keep the youngsters entertained even as they struggled to hide their own fears. When the fire moved closer, they would need to keep the children and the animals calm. Closer to the fire line, Kid and Lou took charge of the Express horses. Their fellow riders were on the front of the line; if things went bad, it would be their task to get the horses in, and their friends out.
And so the others waited along the fire line, standing in the blazing sun under cloudless skies, watching the storm approach. Many of the people leaned heavily on the shovels and hoes; exhausted already from the preparations, they were saving whatever strength they had left for the final fight. Others had sunk to the ground as they waited. Few could take their eyes off the wall of flame and smoke bearing down on them. Already the leading edge of the fire’s heat was touching them, making the hot day even hotter.
Sam and Emma walked toward the end of the fire line closest to the blaze, where Teaspoon stood talking quietly with Buck, Jimmy, Ike and Cody. “Think we stand a chance, Teaspoon?” Sam asked softly.
Teaspoon paused, looking up and down the line. There were a lot of good people along there – a lot of very exhausted people. “Well, IF the fire stays on this course, and IF we dug that line wide enough, and IF the wind don’t pick up and blow sparks into town . . . we might.”
Sam just nodded. It was pretty much what he had already figured. He put his arm around Emma and pulled her close to him. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask you to go wait with the wagons,” he said.
“No good at all,” Emma answered, tightening her grip on the shovel she carried. “This is my town too, Sam.” Fortunately, the fire’s path was taking it away from her home.
“That’s what I figured,” he admitted. He leaned down to brush a kiss on her forehead. “You just be careful.” He looked up and added, “All o’ you be careful.”
“Just don’t kiss me, Sam,” Jimmy muttered, grinning.
They all smiled at that, a welcome relief from the building tension. But it was short-lived, as the roar of the fire seemed to suddenly intensify. They could hear the crackling now as the flames ate up the fuel in a furious race toward the town. The sun blazed high in the sky, but the smoke was beginning to obscure its light. The already hot day grew even more unbearable as the fire’s heat approached. The atmosphere grew oppressive and the flames seemed to suck the oxygen away as the firestorm sought the fuel it needed to live and grow.
As they watched, tendrils of flame snaked out, reaching ahead of the main body of fire. Within minutes the wall of fire blocked out almost everything else in front of them. It was both awe-inspiring and terrifying in its intensity.
“This is it,” Teaspoon called out as he walked out in front. “Everyone on the line.”
People moved quickly into place, hands gripped tightly around the shovels, picks, and hoes. All along the line the faces reflected fear, and determination.
The next few hours of heat and struggle would determine whether Sweetwater lived or died.
The setting of the sun brought a bit of welcome relief from the heat. The absence of fire certainly helped make it cooler too.
Teaspoon paused from his ember patrol, removing his bandana from his face and using it to mop the sweat flowing freely down his brow. Ahead of him lay a charred field, still glowing with some small spots of fire. Behind him . . .
Behind him, the town of Sweetwater still stood, proudly defiant in the face of the fire that had threatened it just a little while earlier. There were a few charred rooftops, and the saloon would need a new storage building, but otherwise the tough little town was whole.
“Your plan worked, Teaspoon,” Buck said, his voice raspy from the smoke. He pulled his own bandana off, soaking up the sweat on his face. Just those few words were too much for his parched throat and he started coughing.
Teaspoon just nodded, not trusting his voice to work at all. He motioned for Buck to follow him over to one of the water pails that the women had been bringing out to the field. He filled the ladle and handed it first to Buck, who sipped heartily at the refreshing liquid, letting it soothe his throat. Then he handed the ladle back to Teaspoon, who quickly finished off the remaining water.
“We got lucky,” the stationmaster said softly as he watched the people move around the field, smothering the remaining hot spots with dirt or water. It hurt to talk after all the smoke he had swallowed. He filled another ladle and drank half the water, handing over the rest to Buck. “Everyone done a real good job. You boys especially.” All of his boys had performed admirably, racing from hot spot to hot spot, always at the front of the line. And except for Cody’s slightly-singed hair and a minor burn on Ike’s arm, they had come out unscathed. All in all, a heroic performance as they had managed to turn the fire toward the river, where it finally ran out of space.
Maybe, just maybe, this would help the people of Sweetwater better accept the riders as part of the community.
They walked together back out into the field, joining the people working there. Fewer and fewer spots glowed in the growing darkness, so it appeared they were well on the way to beating the fire. There would be people on patrol through the night, making sure that nothing flared up anew.
Teaspoon spotted a couple of smoldering areas off to one side and he pointed them out to Buck. As the two men walked in that direction, the wind suddenly seemed to swirl around them, before finally settling down. Instead of the earlier air stream that had come from the west, across the dusty hot plains, the breeze now came from the north, bringing it with it a refreshing feel of the mountains that lay in that direction.
In the distance, thunder rumbled, and a flash of lightning lit the sky. For a moment everyone looked up, worried that there could be another fire. But then the breeze brought the revitalizing scent of rain, and the promise of the end of the drought.
The fire and heat of the day had passed.
A/N: Continuation of previous weeks' Quick Fics (Begins with #2 and goes from there).
It was a bad idea. She knew it was, and yet she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. Not tonight.
Not when an oppressive heat had settled over the land, parching it, making the wind as hot as the blast of air when she opened the oven. Even in her lightest cotton skirts and shirts, she still felt like she would melt into the ground. She opened the windows of the house, ate cold cut sandwiches and fruits – anything to avoid baking – had never drank so much lemonade in her life, and nothing helped at all. The town, her house, she herself had been covered by a thick wool blanket and the fireplace was blazing.
Even the night held no relief. With no wind to stir and move the hot, stagnant air out of her house, she would lie in bed on top of the covers in her thinnest gown and groan every time she tried to find a comfortable position and instead ended up peeling the moist cotton away from her body. Or maybe it was the thoughts that ran through her mind that offered her no relief.
Ever since Jimmy told her he couldn’t live without her, that he wanted to see her bed, make her his wife and make children with her, her nights were plagued with the most improper of thoughts. And Jimmy once again leaving on a long run hadn’t helped. There were no stolen kisses to be shared, no hand holding to help ease the tingle and excitement that coursed through her body. Of course, maybe that was a good thing, because just the thought of seeing Jimmy and being near him wasn’t helping at all.
Her mother had to be rolling in her grave. Good, proper women didn’t have these thoughts. She was sure of it. But she didn’t want to be good and proper any longer. And that’s why she was out here tonight, surely to cause a scandal if anyone saw her.
She had come to realize that nice, tepid baths were the only thing that offered a modicum of escape from the sweat rolling down her back night and day. And tonight when she got out of bed, huffing because the air seemed even thicker, her braided hair sticking to her neck and back through her chemise, she decided that she didn’t want to go through the trouble filling the tub.
Not when there was a perfectly good pond right on her property.
She remembered swimming there as a child, going down there as a young woman to soak her feet, sitting on its bank with Jimmy as they talked. And all she could think about was she had a perfectly good, and large, way to cool down without having to lift a finger. She could go to the pond, the moon wasn’t bright, she wouldn’t be seen, and she could sink her heated flesh into its cool inviting waters and maybe soothe her troubled spirit.
The only thing that gave her pause was that town wasn’t as small as it used to be. The kids knew about her pond and she’d even told them she didn’t mind them swimming in it. But surely this late at night they’d be tucked away safe in bed and she could enjoy a swim. Right? So, it was with determination – also to prevent herself from chickening out – she headed off down to the pond.
And there she stood.
The water beckoned to her, tempting her with the promise of cool enjoyment. She dropped her wrapper to the ground, and dipped one toe in. She waded in up to her ankles, and then paused. She knew she should keep her chemise and pantalets on. It was bad enough she was down here clad in only her undergarments. Surely she shouldn’t take them off and treat the pond as a giant bathtub. Should she? She took another step, then stopped.
Wet, clinging, confining clothes…or cool, sweet, pure freedom?
This was a bad idea. He knew it was. And yet, he couldn’t stop himself. After being gone for four days, he couldn’t wait for the morning to come. He had to see Brandy tonight.
He knew it was later than propriety allowed for a visit. But since when had he let propriety dictate his life? He groaned as he paused on his journey. Since he met Brandy and wouldn’t allow them to keep seeing each other when she snuck away from her father’s house. He insisted that he couldn’t do that to her, open her to that kind of ridicule and shame, that he wanted to get her father’s permission to court her.
And he’d done it. It hadn’t been easy, but he’d done it. Then…well, then her father died. The illness had been hard, and Brandy turned to him for comfort. The last thing on his mind was pressing her into a compromising situation. But as each day wore on and she got some life back in her, and their kisses became filled with more fire and passion, he was having a harder and harder time reminding himself that she deserved better than a man who only wanted to bed her.
She might let him, might even say she wanted it. But he wouldn’t do it. He loved her, nearly lost her, and then got her back. He meant it when he said he wanted to marry her. He’d gone looking at rings when he was on his run, and had found the perfect one. He couldn’t wait until morning to put it on her finger. He wanted to do it tonight. So that everyone would know that he was committed to her, that she was promised to him, and that they were going to be married.
He really hoped she didn’t want a long engagement.
Because he swore he wouldn’t dance with her until their wedding night. And every time he looked at her, held her hand, pulled her into his arms and kissed her, he had to remind himself to pull back. That he’d made a promise to her father, he’d made a promise to himself that he would respect her, cherish her and honor her enough to wait. Dang, foolish pride.
The heat that clung to the land wasn’t helping. He was surly, and he wanted her. He was probably making a mistake by coming out to see her. With any luck she’d be asleep, and he’d be forced to return to the bunkhouse. Even if they sat on the porch, which they always did, it was nothing but madness to see her tonight. And yet he couldn’t stop.
As he crossed onto the property, he caught a distant sound. A whisper of something that made him rein in his horse. Someone was out there in the darkness. He could hear him. The question was, where was he, and what did he want?
He turned Sundance, and kept her to a slow walk. After he traveled a little ways, he realized where the source of the sound originated. Someone was in the pond. Some fool who probably couldn’t sleep was taking advantage of Brandy’s generous nature and had come to use the pond to cool down. He didn’t like the thought of someone on the property that late at night while she was probably asleep in the house. Well, Brandy may be a kind soul, but he wasn’t.
He climbed off his horse, loosely gripped her reins in one hand and pulled his revolver with the other. He didn’t want any problems; he just didn’t want anyone this close to her. He stepped up to the pond and saw the distant figure languidly moving through the water.
Clearing his voice, he spoke with an air of authority. “Whoever is on this property would be wise to clear out now. It’s late, there’s no business for you to be here.”
The figure stilled, the air hung heavy and silent and he wondered why the person wasn’t moving. “I meant it. I’m not here to harm you, I just think you should go.”
Her voice carried to him, like the call of an angel to a sinner. “Brandy?”
“W-what are you doing here?” If anything, she moved to the further shore, putting more distance between him and herself.
He dropped Sundance’s reins, convinced that the horse wouldn’t wander off and began skirting the shoreline. He was puzzled when Brandy kept moving.
“I came to see you, Brandy. I know it’s late, but I wanted to talk to you.”
“I think you should go. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Puzzled he stopped. Was she dismissing him again? He shook his head. No, they’d cleared everything up. She wasn’t angry, her voice held…fear, trepidation.
“Brandy? Are you alright?”
He started walking again, knowing that she’d continue to circle away from him. Then he stopped, looked down and swallowed. Raising cautious eyes, he looked out over the pond. Her wrapper, her chemise and her pantalets were lying on the shoreline, blazing iridescent in the moonlight.
“Go home, Jimmy.” Her voice was stronger, the stern command filled it. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He nodded, forced himself to take a step back, then another, and finally another. She was still on the far side, head barely visible above the water, waiting for him to leave. He turned, made his way back to his horse and pulled himself up. “Until tomorrow.”
Then he spurred his horse, knowing it was cruel to make the animal run in this heat. But he had to leave. Had to, or he would break his word. All he knew now, was he really, really hoped she didn’t want a long engagement.
Thanks: To Kemara, for volunteering to beta for me. I didn’t get it done in time to send the second half to her, so the mistakes are mine, not hers!
Blistering heat scoured the land, burning away the cool desert nights before sun-up. For weeks, the summer of 1860 stretched hot and unrelenting, without a drop of cooling rain or trace of sheltering cloud in sight. Gamely, Sweetwater’s residents toiled on, most taking the respite offered by mid-afternoon siestas to help them through the worst part of the day. As temperatures continued to soar, tempers around town started to shorten.
Out at the Pony Express station, the riders weren’t as lucky as most of the town’s citizenry. The mail couldn’t wait for the coolest part of the day, and in order to keep the station running, Teaspoon and Emma insisted that chores still had to be done. Everyone pitched in, but the fraying tempers and decreasing attention spans weren’t wasted on the station master. He knew he needed to do something to alleviate the boys’ mounting aggravation, before Hickock and Cody drew on one another, or some other mischief sprung up. Then Teaspoon remembered an article he found in an East Coast magazine and thought he had just the thing to take everyone’s mind off the uncooperative weather.
Dawn came bright and clear on July 4th. One by one the riders stumbled out of bed in the early hours, anxious to get as many chores as possible out of the way before it got too hot. Teaspoon and Emma kept their holiday plans to themselves until after breakfast. As the boys started to shuffle slowly away from the table – everyone but Cody, who was gamely finishing off the food Lou left behind – Teaspoon stopped them.
“Now wait just a minute, boys.”
Six pairs of eyes turned warily back to Teaspoon, as the riders tried to imagine what extra chores Teaspoon could possibly have in store for them.
Their expressions were not lost on Mr. Spoon, who quirked an eyebrow at them before clearing his throat and plowing ahead. “Now, Lou, you need breakfast more than Cody does. Are you feelin’ all right?
“It’s too hot to eat, Teaspoon. I’m just not hungry,” the diminutive rider replied.
Cody jumped in before Teaspoon could respond, not at all bothered by his mouth full of food. “Man’s gotta keep his strength up, Lou. You’ll still be whinin’ about how hot it is out when you’re too weak to do your chores, and I have to take over for ya’.”
Lou’s dark eyes narrowed to angry slits. “That’ll be the day, big mouth.”
“All right,” Emma warned.
“I thought you might like to know,” Teaspoon inserted, bringing the focus back to what he had in mind, “that the Comp’ny has declared that today all way stations will be closed in observance of the holiday.”
Five enthusiastic whoops rose into the air before he could continue.
“Does anyone know what holiday it is?”
Silence. The riders looked at each other for a few seconds before Ike replied.
It’s Independence Day, he signed.
Cody’s eyes widened. “How did we forget there was a holiday comin’ up?”
“Maybe because we don’t observe most of ‘em,” Jimmy answered sarcastically.
Kid added, “I hadn’t given it another thought since the town decided to cancel the race and picnic. I was sure Katy was going to win it too, but it’s just too hot to run ‘em like that.”
Teaspoon cleared his throat again to refocus their attention. “That’s right, Ike,” he confirmed with an approving nod. “It’s Independence Day. The day we celebrate our nation’s birth. And in honor of that event, I thought we’d play a little game. I even have prizes for the winners.”
“Prizes?” queried Cody hopefully.
“Game?” Jimmy questioned warily.
“Do we have to?” Kid asked with a look of dread. He remembered all too well the last time Teaspoon said he had a ‘prize’ for them. Sure the baseball game had been fun enough in and of itself, but it had taken three weeks for all his bruises to heal.
Teaspoon sighed. “Boys, boys. Have a little faith.” When neither Jimmy nor Kid’s expression changed, Teaspoon decided to plow ahead. “All right, I want everyone to step forward and draw a straw. There are too long straws and four short ones.”
Jimmy groaned. “Last time we drew straws for anything, I wound up getting’ shot!”
Cody winked at him. “Never know, Jimmy, just might happen again.”
“One of these days, Cody, I’m gonna wipe that grin right off your face,” Jimmy promised.
Cody was unaffected. “Any time you’d like to try, I’m ready. I’ll even give you a head start.”
Although Cody was only teasing, he was starting to wear Jimmy’s limited supply of patience thin. Emma prepared to scold them both, but a stern expression from Teaspoon was enough, as each of the riders stepped forward to draw a straw from Teaspoon’s extended fist.
When everyone had drawn, they held up their straws. Lou and Jimmy held the long straws.
Jimmy looked at his straw, then at everyone else’s, and sighed. This was not shaping up to be a good day. “So, what have we been volunteered for this time?”
“Quit your bellyachin’, son, it ain’t gonna hurt, I promise,” Teaspoon replied testily. “Now, Jimmy, Lou, you two’re our team captains. You’ll each need to pick two of the others to be your teammates.”
After a few minutes of discussion and only partially good-humored bargaining, it was decided that Kid and Cody would be on Lou’s team and Buck and Ike would be on Jimmy’s team.
“All right, then, let’s begin. This here game we’re gonna play is sort of a history game. For example, who among you can recite the preamble of our nation’s Constitution.”
Cody snorted. “You might have more luck by askin’ us to spell ‘constitution,’ Teaspoon.”
“I’m sure he’d hate to tax you that much, Cody,” Lou sniped, before turning toward Teaspoon. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Teaspoon smiled broadly. “Very good, Lou. You’re going to be a very good team captain. All right, Emma, will you be our scorekeeper?”
She nodded efficiently. “Certainly, Mr. Spoon.”
“Thank you. That’s one point for Lou’s team, and no points for Jimmy’s team.”
Buck and Jimmy were both quick to speak up. “Now wait a minute…”
“And your team gets the next question, Jimmy,” Teaspoon interrupted. “What five rights are enumerated in the First Amendment?”
Jimmy and Buck glanced at each other.
“That’s the speech one, right?” Jimmy asked.
“Sounds good to me,” Buck replied.
Ike tapped the table to get their attention, then signed, “Religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.”
“Very good, Ike,” Teaspoon acknowledged. “The first team to five points gets the prize. Now, that you’re even, we’ll throw this question open to both teams. Name three people who signed the Constitution, and I’ll give you a bonus point if you can tell me what state they were from.”
Despite the fact that several of the riders thought this was a silly way to spend a morning, their natural competitiveness soon took over and they spiritedly tried to come up with the right answer.
After several minutes each team captain had an answer.
Lou spoke for her team, “George Washington from Virginia, Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, and Charles Pinckney from South Carolina.”
Jimmy spoke for his team as well. “We’ve got William Few from Georgia, Alexander Hamilton from New York, and James McHenry from Delaware.”
Emma responded before Teaspoon had a chance to reply. “That’s two points for Lou’s team and one point for Jimmy’s team. James McHenry was from Maryland, not Delaware.”
“All right,” said Teaspoon, “this next question is a two-pointer. If Lou’s team gets the answer first, they win. The winning team gets the prize, and the losing team has to feed all the stock before we can all head down to the creek and enjoy some of Emma’s homemade lemonade. Are you ready?”
The six riders all leaned forward intently, determined to get out of chores and win the mysterious prize Teaspoon referenced.
“Name the most recent Amendment, and the year it was added.”
Kid jumped clear out of his chair in his eagerness to be the first to answer. “It was the Seventh Amendment, it covers the election of the President and Vice-President, and it was added in 1804.”
“That is correct, Kid, and congratulations, you’re the winner,” Teaspoon said with a smile. The losing team looked a bit sullen, knowing they still had chores to do.
Lou gave Kid a congratulatory thump on the back, while Cody snickered. “I didn’t know you were such a nerd, Kid.”
Kid shrugged affably, so happy to be chore-free for the rest of the day that he didn’t mind Cody’s ribbing. “I didn’t either.”
Jimmy was the first to ask what they were all wondering. “So, what’s this prize, Teaspoon? Don’t we even get to see it before we have to go back out there?”
Teaspoon crossed to the corner trunk and pulled out three packages wrapped in brown paper. He handed one to Cody, Kid and Lou.
Lou mumbled, “It’s not like Cody helped at all.”
Cody winked. “Just goes to show, Lou. It’s not what you know; it’s who you know that really counts.”
Eagerly the three of them tore open their packages. And promptly stopped dead in their tracks. Lou pulled out a pair of shoes with small wheels attached to the bottoms.
Jimmy, Buck and Ike crowded around to see what was in the paper. They looked at Teaspoon, not at all sure what to say.
Cody was, as usual, the first to say something. “You mean we had to sit here and have a school lesson for wheely-shoes?”
“Are they supposed to help us move around the station faster?” Kid wondered.
Teaspoon wondered – not for the first time – why he even tried. “Boys,” he explained patiently. “That right there is the newest craze to sweep the East Coast. They’re called roller skates, and everybody’s learnin’ how. I thought, as hard as y’all’ve been workin’, that you might like to try ‘em out for yourselves. I read about it one of those magazines, and several pairs for y’all to try.”
“Well, uh, thanks, Teaspoon,” Buck said uneasily, eyeing the skates in Lou’s hand. “I think I’ll go get started on those chores.”
“Me too,” Jimmy and Kid chorused, unwillingly even to try the strange looking contraptions. “We’ll just be outside in the heat if you need us.”
“Well, then, Lou,” Teaspoon said, after the rest of the boys took off into the blinding late- morning sun. “Looks like it’s just you and me. Here, Emma, help me tie these things on. It don’t look too hard.”
All Lou could do was gulp. Something said this wasn’t going to be a happy holiday.
A/N: Technically, roller skating wasn’t really invented until 1863. But I bumped it back a few years.