Topic #9: Beginning Prompt: "I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's as guilty as the day is long."
One Determined Lady by: Cathy
Heaven by: Donna Ree
Starting Early by: Liz
Mistaken Identity by: Lori
A Question of Negligence by: Cindy
Guilty by: Raye
First Impressions by: Sameena
This Ol' Cold Shoulder by: Lori
Sometimes The Truth Hurts by: Raye
In Defense of Cody by: Cathy
Terror in the Night by: Cindy
Tall Tales by: Lisa T
First Meetings by: Karen
One Determined Lady
by: Cathy

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s as guilty as the day is long!”

“The folks around here must be experiencing some mighty short days then,” Emma Shannon protested.

“Ma’am, we got us some witnesses that seen—“

“Your ‘witnesses’ were wrong, Deputy,” Emma interrupted angrily. “No matter what you or anyone else says, I will not believe that Buck Cross attacked a woman!”

“That’ll be up to a judge and jury to decide.”

The deputy breathed an audible sigh of relief as Sheriff Leffler stepped into the room. Ten minutes dealing with the Shannon woman had left him wondering why he had become a deputy. He’d never seen such an argumentative woman—especially one to argue over a stinking half-breed.

“I want to see him,” Emma demanded.

“That’s not possible, Ma’am,” the sheriff replied.

“And why not?” the woman asked indignantly.

“The prisoner tried to escape last night,” the sheriff explained. “He’s in isolation.”

“You take me to see him, right now, or I’ll ride to Fort Laramie myself and get the circuit judge to issue an order!” Emma stated, leaving no room for doubt that she would do exactly that.

The sheriff hesitated a second, then decided the woman wasn’t bluffing.

“Take her back,” he ordered.

As the deputy stepped past him, he added quietly, “Stay with them.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Emma nearly gagged on the stench that assailed her as she walked through the door to where the cells were. The deputy led her to a corner cell as far away from the single lantern and any windows as possible. The woman’s heart leapt to her throat as she looked through the bars to see a nearly naked man curled in a ball on what passed for a cot.

“Open the door, deputy!” she commanded.

“Ma’am, I can—“

“OPEN THE DOOR!”

Emma strode across the small cell, ignoring what might have been on the floor. She sat carefully on the edge of the cot to get a closer look at Buck, nearly crying aloud at the sight of his bruised and battered face. Even more bruises covered his arms, chest and back.

The man had been stripped of his shirt, boots and socks. Even his belt was missing from his pants. There were no sheets or blankets on the cot, which consisted of little more than a threadbare mattress over a rope net frame.

“Who did this?”

Emma’s voice was deadly calm now. For some reason that scared the deputy more than if she had been yelling.

“He tried to escape,” the man began lamely.

“Get the sheriff in here, now!’”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“We got no money to pay for a doctor,” the sheriff argued when Emma made her demand.

I’ll pay for it!” Emma said in the same quiet voice. “Get the doctor.”

The sheriff attempted to stare her down and failed. “You’ll have to wait outside,” he told her.

“I’m not going anywhere until this man has been taken care of!” the woman stated flatly.

“Then I’ll have to lock you in there with him,” the sheriff countered.

“Fine!” Emma retorted. “Before you go, get me some towels and a bucket of water. And a blanket while you’re at it.”

At the sheriff’s order, the deputy scurried to get the things she had demanded. She ignored the water sloshing onto her skirt as he dropped the bucket beside the bed but came up off the cot, fury in her eyes, when he muttered something about wasting the effort on a lousy Indian. He backed away quickly, slamming the cell door shut and turning the key in the lock.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The “towels” the deputy brought were little more than rags and far too filthy to be used so Emma tore a piece of cloth from her petticoat.

“At least the water is clean,” she murmured angrily as she soaked the cloth and began to wipe the dirt and blood from Buck’s face.

The doctor arrived just as she finished. “My Lord!” he exclaimed when he saw the man on the cot. With Emma’s help, he carefully cleaned and stitched the worst of the cuts.

“I don’t like that he’s still unconscious,” he commented as he finished. Turning to the deputy, he asked. “How long has he been this way?”

“He was fine when I brought him his breakfast just after sun up,” the other man replied.

Looking at the still full bowl of whatever passed for “breakfast” and the equally full cup of water that sat on the floor by the cell door, Emma struggled to contain her rage. While she could understand the gruel being left untouched, she knew that Buck would never have wasted the chance to drink the water—had he been able to do so.

“Hogwash!” she muttered in a voice only the doctor could hear.

He gave her a sharp look, then turned once again to the deputy. “Get the sheriff,” he ordered. “I want this man moved to my office where I can keep an eye on him.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Doc, you have to understand, the man tried to escape!”

The sheriff had been arguing his point for several minutes but the doctor stood firm. “He’s not going anywhere right now, Leffler,” the old man protested. “At the very least he’s got a concussion, at worst he could have a fractured skull. He’s not going to getting up, if he wakes up, for several days at least.”

“And by then the circuit judge will be here,” Emma reminded him.

“You can put a deputy outside the door to my office,” the doctor concluded. “I need four men to help me carry him, bring the cot and all. Whatever you do, keep him as level as possible.”

Decision made, the doctor turned and left the room—and the seething sheriff behind. Emma stayed with Buck until the deputy and three townsmen he recruited arrived to carry him to the doctor’s office. She kept a very close eye on them as they lifted the bunk—making sure they carried it just as the doctor had ordered.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Once the injured man was safely installed in the doctor’s examining room, Emma returned to her hotel room to pick up the rest of her clothes. She was on her way back when she ran into Eddy McGowan, a rider for the Pony Express.

“Miss Emma?” the boy called. “What are you doing here?”

“A friend in Fort Laramie is getting married,” Emma explained. “Our buckboard broke down outside of town and we ended up spending the night here.”

“You missed the wedding?” Eddy asked.

“Not yet, but it looks like I’m going to,” the woman replied. Quickly she explained what had happened.

“I guess someone should’ve warned you about Leffler and his ‘deputies’,” Eddy said sadly.

“Warned us about what?” Emma asked curiously.

“He hates Indians,” Eddy told her. “Don’t matter who they are or who they ride for. If Buck’s run up against Leffler, he’s in real trouble.”

“Eddy, when do you ride again?” Emma said, a plan forming.

“Not till next week, Miss Emma,” the boy replied. “Mail went through yesterday.”

“I need you to do something for me then.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“We may have problems,” the doctor told her when she returned to his office.

The deputy on duty had stopped her and searched her bag for weapons. She had been furious but no amount of righteous indignation on her part had swayed him from doing as he had been told.

“So I’ve gathered,” Emma replied.

“As long as the young man is unconscious, I can prevent his going back to the jail,” the doctor offered. “But after that . . . “

“After that, hopefully we’ll have some help,” the woman said. “I’m curious, though. Why are you doing this?”

“I guess I’ve seen too many people hurt ‘while trying to escape’,” the doctor confessed.

“So why don’t you do something?” Emma demanded.

“I’m an old man who’s taken a pledge to ‘do no harm’,” he replied. “What do you expect me to do?”

“I understand,” she said, nodding. Placing her bag on the floor, she began to roll up her sleeves. “What can I do to help?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Between the two of them, Emma and the doctor had managed to bathe Buck and move him to a clean bed. Finally, tired beyond belief, Emma had fallen asleep, her head resting on arms crossed on the bed beside the young man.

She woke with a start as a hand touched her hair. Rising to a seated position, she smiled as she realized the hand belonged to Buck Cross. He had managed to get one eye open but the other was too swollen.

“’bout time you woke up, young man!” she chided.

“Wou—would’ve been here soo—sooner,” Buck mumbled over swollen lips. “B—bu’ I was having a go—good dream.”

“Look, Buck, the doctor has gone home for the night,” Emma explained, smiling at his attempt at a joke. “I could send someone for him—but that would mean the sheriff finding out you were awake.”

“B—better wai’ then,” Buck agreed.

“Yeah, he’s gonna want you back in jail as soon as you can move,” the woman said. “If the deputy comes in here, you just pretend you’re still unconscious and let me take care of the rest.”

“Yes’m,”

“Can you tell me what happened?” Emma asked. “They say you attacked a woman.”

“Not me,” Buck replied as vehemently as he could. “F—found her. She was ‘ready dead. Heard someone run off, don’ ‘member ‘more.”

He coughed raggedly, then moaned as his bruised ribs throbbed in time with his pulse. Emma quickly poured him a glass of water and held it gently to his bruised lips, allowing him to drink his fill. She offered him a second glass but he carefully shook his head.

“You don’t remember being in jail?” she asked, returning the glass to the table beside the bed.

“No,” he said, his expressive face screwed up in concentration. “Wha’ happened?”

“The sheriff says you tried to escape,” Emma told him.

Buck’s good eye widened in disbelief. “Don’ ‘member anythin’ pas’ goin’ af’er whoe’er kille’ woman.”

He tried to sit up only to have Emma pushed him back to the bed. The fact that she had little trouble doing so, showed her how weak he really was.

“I believe you, Buck,” she told him firmly. “Now you just lay still and try to get some rest.”

“Yes’m,” he said agreeably.

“With luck, Sam and the boys will be here first thing tomorrow,” Emma continued. “I sent someone for them.”

“H—hope he hurries.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“He’s awake and he’s going back to the jail!” Leffler said angrily.

Buck had been able to rest through the night but a fresh deputy the next morning had overheard Emma talking to him. He’d not wasted any time running for the sheriff and the sheriff had wasted even less time coming for his prisoner.

“He’s in no condition to be moved!” Emma countered just as angrily. “Ask the doctor!”

“The doctor is unavailable,” Leffler replied sarcastically.

“If you’ve done anything to him—“ the woman started.

“Now whatever makes you think I would do anything to the good doctor?” the sheriff interrupted. “He was called to one of the ranches outside of town . . . it was an emergency.”

“I’ll just bet it was,” Emma said. “Buck is going nowhere until the doctor has a chance to look him over.”

“He can be checked just as easy at the jail,” Leffler stated. Turning to the deputies he ordered, “Get him.”

Emma moved between the deputies and the door to the examining room. Leffler grabbed her by the arm, twisting it until she cried out in pain.

Leave her alone!” Buck yelled, struggling to his feet.

He attempted to fight off the deputies but was too weak to do more than put up a token resistance and was easily subdued.

“I believe the man said to leave her alone,” a quiet voice said from the doorway.

Leffler whirled around, dragging Emma with him to face the owner of the voice. Sam Cain stood leaning casually against the doorframe. Behind him, Emma could see Jimmy, Ike and Kid, all ready to do whatever was necessary.

The deputies holding Buck let go immediately. He was able to stay on his feet but only by sheer strength of will.

“Who are you?” Leffler demanded.

“Marshall Sam Cain,” Sam answered affably. “I have a warrant here, signed by Judge Regan. It’s for your arrest, Leffler. So I suggest you let Emma go and you and your men put your guns on the table.”

Emma tensed, expecting Leffler to fight. Everyone expected Leffler to fight—except Leffler. Instead, he did exactly as he was told. His deputies followed his lead and a pile of pistols grew on the doctor’s desk.

Ike and Kid brushed past Sam, Ike to help Emma get Buck back into the bed and Kid to pick up the weapons. Sam moved carefully forward, still expecting some form of resistance.

“You all right?” he asked Emma.

“I’m fine—now,” she replied, smiling broadly.

With Kid and Jimmy watching the deputies, Sam led Leffler to his own jail and locked him in the cell where he’d kept Buck. “Give him a taste of his own medicine,” he muttered to the boys.

~*~*~*~*~*~

“I still can’t believe Leffler didn’t put up some kind of a fight,” Buck told Sam a few days later. “He didn’t seem like the type to just give up.”

At Buck’s insistence, Ike and Kid had gone on with Emma to attend her friend’s wedding. Sam agreed, telling the woman that they would be back well before the circuit judge was due to arrive. She would be there for the trial, he promised her.

“I know, Buck,” Sam replied. “I even asked him about it.”

“What did he say?” Jimmy asked curiously.

“He didn’t want to answer,” Sam said with a laugh. “But that deputy of his said it was because he had seen Emma when she was mad. He was a bully but a cowardly one. She scared him.”

Buck and Jimmy joined him in the laugh until Buck had to quit, his ribs reminding him that he was not completely healed.

“He may be a bully, but he’s not stupid,” he said weakly. “She’s one determined lady!”

Heaven
by: Donna Ree

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s guilty as the day is long.”

“Well then, deputy, he must not be guilty at all because it’s the middle of winter and the days definitely are not long.” Lou strode over to the cell as regally as a queen, tapped on the bars with her finger and demanded he be released.

“Ma’am, I can’t do that.” The deputy protested.

“You most certainly can and will. You don’t have a shred of evidence this man did anything illegal. He was simply trying to help a fellow human being in need. He was in the right place at the wrong time I’d say.”

“But ma’am, he wears two guns, that’s the sign of a dangerous man.”

“He also has long hair – does that automatically make him a woman?” Lou sweetly inquired.

“Well no, ma’am, but…”

“My point exactly. You can release him now.”

“I don’t know if’n I can.” The dim-witted deputy scratched his head in confusion.

“Don’t be silly. Of course you can. Now hurry it along. I’m a busy woman. Places to go, people to see. Snap, snap.” Lou was really getting into her part now and enjoying it way too much.

Jimmy thought she had finally found her calling – an overbearing woman-of-the-world using her position and power to get what she wanted. Little did the deputy know her “position” was that of a lowly Pony Express rider and the only “power” she really possessed was that of persuasion - to get her way. That and the power behind her gun. And the power to make Jimmy fall in love with her. Alright, so she had quite a lot of power.

In fact, that power of hers seemed to be working a great deal over the deputy because he was unlocking the cell door.

“Your cooperation is greatly appreciated, deputy, and won’t go unnoticed. Come along, James, we have places to go, people to see.”

Jimmy hastened out of the cell, slipping easily into his role as Lou’s lapdog.

The deputy actually tipped his hat to her as they exited the jailhouse.

Jimmy couldn’t help but ask, “Where’d you learn to speak like that?”

“I read it in one of my books. Now stop talkin’ and let’s get the hell out of Hades before the sheriff comes back.

“Hades. What an appropriate name for this town.”

“Yeah. Remind me to tell Teaspoon the next time he has an off-the-route mail run to send us to “Heaven”.

Unbeknownst to Lou, Jimmy was always in “heaven” as long as he had her by his side.

Starting Early
by: Liz

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long."

Sarah sighed, ducking her chin to gaze up at the exasperated store keeper through fluttering lashes. "Mr. Edwards, I'm terribly sorry. I know he didn't mean any harm. He's just a boy."

The shop keep huffed out an angry breath, blood pressure rising until a pulsing purple vein stood out on his prominent forehead. "That whelp of yours is gonna be big trouble someday, ma'am, unless you manage to talk some sense into him, and I mean but quick."

She drew herself up to her full height, meeting the old man squarely in the eyes. "There is no need for name calling, Mis-ter Edwards. I've already told you I'll be more than happy to pay you for the apple he took. Now, how much do I owe you?"

"That'll be three cents, ma'am," Edwards replied snidely.

With as much arrogance as she could muster, Sarah reached into her purse and withdrew the precious pennies from her skimpy supply. She blew wispy strands of dirty blonde hair out of her eyes as she placed her treasures with great ceremony on the mercantile's worn counter top. Raising her eyes to the merchant’s, Sarah met his gaze while extending her hand beside her. Small – and decidedly sticky – fingers gripped hers as she spoke. "Good day, Mr. Edwards."

As she turned, Sarah looked down into her favorite face in all the world. Twinkling eyes looked up at her adoringly as she led her small son out of the store.

"Oh, Billy, what am I going to do with you?"

THE END

Mistaken Identity
by: Lori

A/N: Another in the Jimmy/Brandy series. I'm not finished with these two yet.

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s as guilty as the day is long.”

Brandy fought valiantly against the urge to smack the pencil-necked deputy upside the head and instead clenched her hands in the folds of her skirt. Of all the ways she imagined her wedding trip, having Jimmy locked up wasn’t one of them. She should have known after the way the wedding went off without a hitch, that their good luck was bound to change.

Here she thought Randall’s Bluff might be an interesting place. Quiet, out of the way, they could while away days in their hotel room getting to know each other as husband and wife, and when they ventured out doors they wouldn’t be noticed or recognized. What she hadn’t realized that quiet and out of the way, apparently translated into backwards, ignorant fools. Because how else would this reedy, little backwater yokel mistake Jimmy as some two-bit criminal?

Did Jimmy look like the wanted poster for Augustus McFarlane? No. Augustus had a thick, heavy pair of jowls. Jimmy didn’t have an ounce of fat on his face, or his body. The wanted poster said Augustus was five foot five and had short, thick, curly red hair. What was wrong with this idiot deputy? How could anyone, anyone think Jimmy was this McFarlane fella?

The idiocy of humanity never ceased to amaze her. Slowly, after several deep breaths, she smiled politely at the deputy. “Mr. Fife, I assure you that the man sitting in your jail is not Augustus McFarlane. He is my husband. I think I know my own husband’s name, and my last name isn’t McFarlane.”

“Sure, that’s what you say now. How do I know you’re not in cahoots with him? You could be using an alibi…an atlas…one of those false names.”

Brandy’s eyes rolled dramatically. “I’ve got the wedding certificate at the hotel. Would you like me to go get it, Deputy?”

“It could be a fake,” he said, showing her he didn’t trust her.

The feeling was more than mutual. She didn’t trust him to be able to breathe on his own without having a cheat sheet. Standing up, she towered over the deputy, even when he scrambled to his feet. She held up the wanted poster for McFarlane and pointed at Jimmy. “Do you need glasses? Look at him. Look at the poster. Do those men even look anything remotely similar?”

“These sketches are notoriously bad.”

“Listen carefully, Mr. Fife. I am going to go to the hotel, and I’m going to get the wedding license. I’m also going to send a telegram to the marshal of Rock Creek and the Territorial Marshal, both of whom were at our wedding, and when I get back I hope that you have come to your senses and have realized that the man sitting in that cell couldn’t possibly be Augustus McFarlane.”

She strode over to the jail cell and placed her hands against the bars, waiting for Jimmy to stand and cross the cell. “I am going to get you out of here,” she whispered. Then her voice rose, “And then I’m going to get that fool’s badge.”

Turning, she was at the door when she stopped and threw a saucy wink at her husband that the deputy could clearly see. “I’ll see you soon, Mr. Hickok. Because there is no way I’m done with you yet.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Then, she was gone in a flourish of skirts. The deputy turned and looked at Jimmy, leaning casually against the bars of his cells. He could hear the deputy swallow, clear across the room, and he couldn’t help but smile. Brandy knew what she was doing when she called him Mr. Hickok. Normally he would blanch at invoking any hint of “Wild Bill”, but he was angry and frustrated over this fool who dared to call himself a lawman keeping Jimmy from his wife.

“M-Mister Hickok?” the deputy asked.

“Yes,” Jimmy nodded. After all, it was his name. He couldn’t hide it, or pretend it wasn’t. Just because he refused to go along with the “Wild Bill” moniker J.D. Marcus had saddled him with, didn’t mean he was going to deny his last name.

“’Wild Bill’ Hickok?”

“My name is Jimmy. I have never asked for, nor liked, anyone to call me ‘Wild Bill.’”

The deputy gulped again, and looked nigh ready to pass out when the door opened and they both turned their heads towards the sound. It couldn’t be Brandy back already. Instead, it was an older man, the marshal Jimmy realized by the badge on his chest. Immediately the deputy was tripping over his feet in an attempt to reach the man and talk to him.

“Jack?” he hissed out on a loud whisper. “Jack?”

“What is it, Clarence?” he asked, as he raised his head. In so doing, he saw Jimmy standing in the cell and arched his brow curiously. Turning to the deputy he asked, “Who’s the prisoner?”

Clarence worriedly wrung his hands. “I thought he was Augustus McFarlane.”

The marshal laughed, though he tried admirably to choke it down. Apparently someone else shared Brandy’s opinion of the matter. “McFarlane is over forty years old. This man can’t be much over twenty-five if that.”

“I know, I know,” the deputy nodded. “His wife was trying to say the same thing. But Jack, it’s more than that. This man is-“

The door opened once again, and there stood Brandy, slightly out of breath and clutching a piece of parchment in her hand. “Are you the marshal? I saw you head in here as I was leaving the hotel and I came here instead of heading to the telegraph office.”

How she managed to get that out all in one breath Jimmy would never know. The marshal was obviously thinking the same way, because Jimmy could see a smile tugging at the corner of the man’s mouth. Slowly he nodded and said, “I’m the marshal. What can I do for you Mrs…?”

“Hickok. Brandy Hickok. That’s my husband Jimmy.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you, Jack,” the deputy piped up in another frantic whisper.

The marshal turned towards Jimmy and started towards the cell. “Hickok, you said?”

“Uh-huh,” Brandy nodded. “I got our wedding-“

“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Hickok,” the older man smiled. “It’s obvious your husband here isn’t Augustus McFarlane. Sorry about my deputy over there. He gets a little excited sometimes. Swears every new person in town is the last criminal on a wanted poster.”

Jimmy chuckled slightly as he stepped out of the now open cell and opened his arms to Brandy. Deputy Fife reminded him of Barnett sometimes, and he could see a measure of Teaspoon’s exasperated patience in the marshal. “No harm done. Though I think my wife got a little ruffled.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and he knew he’d be paying for that statement tonight. But that was all right. He was more than willing to make it all up to her. He pressed a quick kiss to her temple, then held out his hand to shake the one proffered by the marshal. “Thank you for your help, Marshal.”

“No problem,” he smiled. “You folks enjoy your stay here and congratulations on your wedding. Sorry about the mix-up, Mrs. Hickok.”

Brandy smiled and shook off his apology, embarrassment tingeing her cheeks pink. Jimmy steered them out the door and across the street towards the hotel. As they paused to let a wagon rumble past, he looked over at her and laughed. “Well, at least we’ll have a story we can actually tell the folks back home. ‘Cause I sure don’t plan on telling them what I’m going to do to you tonight.”

A Question of Negligence
by: Cindy

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long."

Buck just leaned against the wagon and shook his head, trying to figure out how in the world he had gotten himself into this one. Well, he knew the physical part of how this had happened. He'd knocked a woman down in front of the general store. Not that he'd meant to, of course. He hadn't even seen her – the bag of feed over his shoulder had seen to that. But she'd still gone tumbling, winding up in the dirt after falling off of the boardwalk.

And, naturally, Tompkins had seen the whole thing, and drawn his own conclusions. The shopkeeper had been in an unusually foul mood anyway, and now he was ranting at Buck. His histrionics were drawing quite a crowd outside the store, and from what Buck could see, none of them were looking very sympathetic toward him. Fortunately, he saw Sam, Emma, and Teaspoon heading his way, so hopefully he'd soon have a few allies.

Claire Wright looked up from brushing herself off, livid at what she'd just heard. "WHAT did you just say?" she demanded. He didn't CARE what she said? The fire blazing behind her emerald green eyes would have warned anyone who knew her to be extremely careful. Unfortunately for Tompkins, he didn't know her.

With one more angry glare in Buck's direction, Tompkins turned his attention to the young woman. Softening his tone, he tried to explain slowly and carefully. "Now, ma'am, you bein' a stranger in town and all, it's natural you might not want to stir up trouble. But believe me, that boy is trouble enough! Them savages got no right being in town in the first place. And then when he goes around knocking down white women, well, that's just too much."

"So you're saying you don't believe my word?" Claire asked, using her most reasonable tone of voice.

“I’m just sayin’ you don’t have to try and protect the likes of him,” Tompkins answered.

Sam finally pushed his way through to the front of the gathering crowd. “What’s going on here?”

“That ‘breed knocked a fine young white lady down, that’s what,” Tompkins answered. “You gotta lock him up, Cain.” Noticing that Teaspoon had also made his way up, Tompkins turned his attention to the stationmaster. “And you, lettin’ savages hold down a job that should be held by a white man! Why, if you didn’t let the likes of him come into town . . .”

Emma pushed past them all to where Buck stood. “Buck? What happened?”

Buck sighed. “I was loading the wagon, and I bumped into this lady,” he said, looking over at Claire. “It was an accident. I had a bag of feed over my shoulder, and I didn’t see her.”

“The only ‘accident’ was you bein’ born,” Tompkins muttered.

Sam ignored the surly shopkeeper and walked over to where the woman stood. She definitely didn’t look happy, he decided – though it seemed to him her anger was directed more toward Tompkins than Buck. “Ma’am,” He said, tipping his hat. “I’m Sam Cain, the Marshal here. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Claire studied the lawman for a moment before answering. Her instincts were telling her he would be a fair man. “My name is Claire Wright,” she said. “I’m traveling with my father. We just got to town this morning on the stage.”

“Well, welcome to Sweetwater,” Sam said. “I am sorry there’s been trouble to greet you.”

“It didn’t start out to be much trouble,” she replied. “My father had a business meeting, so I decided to see some of the town. I was just wandering, and not paying attention to where I was going.” She glanced toward Buck, a small smile on her face. “That’s when this gentleman and I . . .”

“Gentleman!” Tompkins snorted. “Now look here Cain . . .”

That was all she could take. She stepped forward toward Tompkins. “Now see here, sir,” she said angrily. “I take great offense at your attitude. I told you what happened, and you flat out told me you didn’t care – all but calling me a liar to my face! Now you interrupt me when I’m attempting to explain things to the local law! Have you no manners at all?”

Tompkins stopped with his mouth open. She was questioning HIS manners?

Teaspoon stepped past Tompkins toward Claire. “Ma’am, are you hurt? There’s a doctor just down the street if you’d like.”

Claire shook her head. “Other than a ripped skirt, the main damage was to my pride. I hadn’t planned on winding up sitting in the dirt.”

“I am so sorry,” Buck said, stepping forward. “If there’s anything . . .”

“What you can do is get out of town, and not come back!” Tompkins growled. “Then ladies will be safe on the street. Get him out of here, Cain – and make him pay for the damage!”

That was all she could take. And she hadn’t spent hundreds of hours pouring over her father’s law texts for nothing. “Actually, sir, the negligence here is as much yours as anyone’s.”

“What?” Tompkins sputtered. “Now see here . . .”

Claire pointed toward the short hitching rail which was set in the street, a couple of feet from the boardwalk. “If this railing was set up against the walk, and extended all the way to the step, it would be much safer.”

“This ain’t about my railing . . .”

“And this,” Claire continued, pointing at the drop from the walk. “This is far too high a drop. You’re practically inviting an injury here.”

“Cain, what’s she . . .”

“Not to mention the dangerous state of repair on these planks,” Claire added, pointing at the jagged edges near the step. “It’s no wonder my skirt was ripped.”

“Now wait just a . . .”

“Oh, and let’s not forget how extraordinarily dangerous it is to require your customers to load heavy cargo right here in front of the store, where accidents could occur at any time! Any reputable establishment would have a separate loading area to minimize the danger,” Claire concluded. She had to work hard to suppress a grin at the perplexed look on the shopkeeper’s face.

Sam was enjoying the show himself, as Tompkins stood absolutely speechless, his jaw hanging open. But he was the local law, so he decided to take advantage of the lull and restore order. “Mr. Tompkins, why don’t you go back inside the store,” he suggested, taking the other man’s elbow and steering him toward the door. “I’ll see what I can do to get things settled here.”

“Right,” Tompkins muttered, letting himself be led. He couldn’t really be responsible for all of that – could he?

“Folks, you all go on now,” Sam ordered, turning back to the crowd. “Nothing more to see here.”

As the crowd dispersed, Claire heard someone chuckling behind her and turned to find her father standing there. “Brilliant, my girl. Simply brilliant.”

“Father, how long have you been there?” she asked.

“Oh, I saw the whole scene,” he answered, still smiling.

“You could have helped!” she replied.

“Why?” he questioned. “You were doing just fine. I may take you into court with me someday yet.”

“You a lawyer, Mr. Wright?” Teaspoon asked.

“Samuel Wright, Esquire,” the man answered. He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it over.

“Teaspoon Hunter,” Teaspoon answered. “I run the Pony Express station a bit out of town. Buck here is one of my riders.”

“A Pony Express rider?” Claire asked. “Oh, how exciting!”

“It can be,” Buck answered. “Though I get plenty of excitement in town.”

“That shopkeeper certainly doesn’t like you much, young man,” Samuel observed.

“He just plain hates Indians,” Buck replied softly. Maybe someday he’d learn why.

“I’ve never met an Indian before,” Claire said.

“Well, you have now,” Emma said. She elbowed Buck in the back to get him to move forward. “Introduce yourself.”

“Buck Cross, ma’am,” he said, sparing a quick scowl in Emma’s direction – the woman had a sharp elbow! “And I am truly sorry. If you tell me how much it is, I’ll pay for the dress.” From the looks of the fabric, that would take a healthy chunk out of his earnings, but it was only fair.

Claire looked down at the ripped skirt. “Nonsense, all it needs is a little mending.”

Emma smiled. “Why don’t the two of you come out to the station for dinner tonight?” she suggested. “I’d be glad to do the mending for you, and maybe Buck can show you some of the country around here.”

“Without all of Tompkins’ noise,” Teaspoon added.

“That sounds delightful,” Samuel answered. “Claire?”

“I’m looking forward to it,” she answered. Then, with a smile in Buck’s direction, she added, “Especially the tour.”

He smiled back, finally allowing himself to relax. Maybe going to town wasn’t always so bad after all.

Guilty
by: Raye

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long."

"What do you mean, Tommy?" The elderly matron questioned the young boy as she peered over her spectacles.

"Well..." he drew out the word until he nearly fainted from lack of breath, "I heard them say-"

"Oh my, Alberta, did you hear that?" Another society matron leaned in to whisper to the gathered circle.

"Why yes, Bernadetta, I did!" Her large feathered hat bobbed like a teetering bird perched atop her head.

"Hush up, Alberta.. I'm tryin' to hear what the boy said!" Carolina leaned her aged head forward, a cone shaped device pressed tightly to her ear as she tried to make out the words.

"Ladies, ladies..." argued Donatella Haskins, the original curious cat in the group. "I haven't heard a single word the boy is saying!"

The women all stopped their tittering and listened with wide-eyed curiosity.

"Tommy?" Donatella ordered, "Start over again."

The boy raised a questioning eyebrow but dutifully started again, his eyes on the pile of cookies he'd select from after he'd delivered his garnered gossip. "I heard it with my own ears! They say Wild Bill's a goner!"

"Oh My!"

"Really?"

"Goodness Gracious!"

"LAAAAAAAADIES!!!" Donatella was near her wits end. "Tommy... continue."

"They said... well, .. it's gonna be a shocker..."

"GO ON!" Roared Donatella.

The boy paled, grabbed a handful of cookies and shoved them in his coat pocket. "He's in love."

"Atrocious!"

"Truly shocking!"

"Impossible, if you ask me!"

"NO!" Carolina fainted dead away.

Tommy ran away into the shade of the trees to enjoy his ill-gotten gains.

First Impressions
by: Sameena

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long."

Emma lifted her chin and spun around. Arrogant, overbearing, insufferable and a few other choice adjectives crossed her mind. This idiot was now marshal?! Sam Cain, she loathed that man. He obviously thought he was God’s gift to women. Just because he was tall, lean and had hair that her fingers itched to run through...

Stop that Emma, she chided herself mentally. The new marshal was nothing special. And he had the nerve to accuse her dog of stealing his lunch.

*~*~*

Sam leaned back in the chair behind his desk and watched Emma Shannon march down the street. How long had it been since he had looked at a woman? Really looked?

“You best stay clear of that one,” Bill Tompkins said slowly, making note of Sam’s eyes. They were still following that harpy down the street.

“Why?” Sam asked, his eyes still firmly fixed on Emma’s retreating figure.

“She don’t know her place,” Tompkins exclaimed. He wondered how free he should be. Sweetwater needed a firm hand and he wanted to be the one guiding the new marshal. But it had to be said. Emma Shannon may be a good woman but she was forever interfering in everyone’s business, so sure she knew what was right.

Sam simply smiled. That mutt hadn’t even nibbled at his food which had been well within his reach. The dog was obviously did what he was told. Sam was sure that everyone did what Emma said.

He had only accused the dog because he had hoped Miss Shannon would be so mortified that she would offer to replace the food. Instead Emma had practically taken his head off. Something that intrigued Sam more than the idea of lunch with that woman.

This Ol' Cold Shoulder
by: Lori

A/N: This is quickly becoming the "Cold Series"...Buck and Justine...sigh

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s as guilty as the day is long.”

Buck looked up from his seat on the musty cot in the jail cell and watched the scene in front of him. He appreciated Justine trying to help him, but he knew that the sheriff wouldn’t listen to her. She was, after all, merely a woman. And he was, of course, a filthy heathen. At least in the eyes of the town of Hamm’s Bluff. It wouldn’t matter that he had an alibi for the night of the shooting, or that there were probably half a dozen witnesses who had seen what really happened.

All that would matter to the sheriff and the fine upstanding citizens was the unwanted Indian had been accused of murder. This was their chance, the opportunity they had been waiting for. They would be rid of Buck for good. Either by the hangman’s noose, or running him out of town on a rail after the Kangaroo Court was adjourned.

“Sheriff Blumm, you know as well as I do that Buck was nowhere near the Tin Pan Saloon. Not on the night in question, not ever. Walter Everance has a three foot sign outside his bar saying ‘No Injuns.’ Buck has never gone there, and even if he did Walter would never let him inside. So he couldn’t have been at the poker game the others are claiming he was at.”

“Now, Justine, I understand you don’t want to think your hired boy could do something like that. You and your family have always had a protective nature with him, but he is an Indian and you know their kind.”

Buck knew by the set of Justine’s jaw and the way her bodice swelled with her breathing that she was trying to hold onto her temper. Unfortunately, her grasp was slipping. He could see it in the way her green eyes hardened into glass.

“No, Sheriff, why don’t you enlighten me as to their kind . Because I would really like to know. All I have seen is Buck is a hard worker, he fulfills every task needed at the hotel, and is always eager to step in and lend a hand. And for that, he gets spit upon by nearly everyone in this town.”

“Justine, I know you’re just a child still, but all any savage cares about is killing and stealing from his betters. I warned your father against hiring him, but he insisted that the family trusted him. And look where that trust has gotten you. Your family gave him a job, and he repays that kindness by killing a man and stealing his money.”

Buck wanted close his eyes. He didn’t want to see the train wreck he knew was about to occur. And yet, he couldn’t help but watching. Justine wasn’t a woman to scream and yell, a kind but firm tone took care of the most troublesome supplier or rowdy guest, but he could see that the sheriff had pushed all the right hot spots.

“A child?” she asked, her voice lethal and strained. “I am older than your daughter who is married and expecting her third child. So don’t you dare patronize me and treat me like I’m in need of extra lessons in my sums. Buck doesn’t go to bars, he doesn’t play poker, and if you were half the lawman we were paying for, you would know that Bill Pearsons was at that card game, losing big I might add, and that when Tom Layton got up to leave, Bill left too. Where’s Bill Pearsons, have you questioned him, searched his house for Tom’s winnings? Should be easy to check considering a drifter was using double eagles. You’ve torn Buck’s room apart, but there wasn’t anything to be found.”

“Now, look here, Justine, I have had just about enough,” the sheriff said, standing up. “I appreciate you’ve got a tender heart and don’t want to see the boy hanged, but the law’s the law.”

“The law’s the law?” she asked. “So if he were to have an alibi for the night, you would look for other suspects?”

Buck narrowed his eyes, and noted with frustration that Justine moved so that he couldn’t catch her eye. What was she doing? She had better not be here to give him an alibi.

“He ain’t got an alibi,” Sheriff Blumm said with a note of arrogance to his voice. “I’ve asked him, and the boy clams up.”

“That’s because he was with me that night,” she announced. Buck stared at her, in disbelief. It wasn’t a lie, he had been with her, all night, alone in her room, until just before sunrise when he snuck back to his barely used bed so none of the guests or other employees would know. He could not believe she had just told the sheriff they were sharing a right commonly reserved for married folks.

“I mean all night,” she drawled so as to leave no room for imagination in the sheriff’s dense head. “Believe me when I say I know exactly where he was at the time Tom Layton was shot, because I was wide awake and he was right beside me in my bed.”

Sheriff Blumm actually flushed, but all Buck saw was red.

~*~*~*~*~

Justine stood in the hallway just outside Buck’s room and watched in disbelief as he continued to pack his things. “So, you really mean to do it then?”

“Yep.”

She closed her eyes and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Ever since she had told the sheriff Buck had been with her, he had been stiff and distant towards her. She saved his life and he was mad at her. Said she shouldn’t have ruined her reputation because of him. Didn’t he understand that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if he had been killed for a crime he didn’t commit because she was too afraid to admit the truth? She wasn’t ashamed of their relationship, and she wasn’t going to let this narrow-minded town make her feel that way. What she never expected was the brush off from the man who had once shared her bed.

“Are you going to say anything besides ‘yep’ and ‘nope’?”

“Nope.”

Stepping forward, she slammed the door behind her. A picture leapt off the wall and clattered to the floor, finally pulling Buck’s attention from his saddlebags. “I have had enough of this, Buck Cross.”

“What are you upset about?”

“You. I saved your life and you yelled at me and told me I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“You should have,” he insisted. “The whole town now thinks you’re a wanton woman. And what’s worse, in their eyes you’ve soiled yourself by being with an Indian.”

“So what?” she cried, throwing her hands up in the air. “I don’t care what this town thinks. If I did I would have married Clyde Dunforth when he asked me. Whole town felt he was my best chance of finding someone and settling down. But I didn’t, and I don’t care what they think of me now.”

“Well I do,” he insisted. “And they are always going to look at you like you’re nothing more than common trash, or you’re some frightened victim who’s too afraid to admit I forced myself on you.”

“Who cares. This town isn’t full of pious saints; I’m just not a hypocrite who goes around pretending I’m pure when I know I’m not. I’m not ashamed of being with you, Buck. And I won’t let you or anyone make me feel that way.”

“It’s better if I leave. Maybe in time the town won’t care, maybe they will. But your parents will care when they return, and so I’m saving your father the trouble of firing me for ruining his daughter.”

She could tell he wasn’t prepared for her laughter that sprang forth. “My parents aren’t going to care.”

“They will,” Buck promised her.

“No, they won’t. And you want to know why? Because I was born five months after my parents got married in front of my grandfather holding a shotgun on them, and my mother straining her dress.”

He looked at her, as if not believing what she just told him. “My mother was pregnant with me when she got married and everyone in town knew it. My grandfather insisted they leave town, start over and fudge their anniversary date so that they wouldn’t be shamed.”

“I won’t do that to you, Justine. I just won’t.”

“Are you ashamed of us?” she asked quietly.

“Never. But this town will never allow us to marry and if I stick around it will just give them a reason to shun you. This wouldn’t be a town to raise a family in, Justine.”

“Then let’s leave. Mother and Father can run this hotel, or find someone to help out. We’ll leave and we’ll raise our family elsewhere.”

Slowly, sadly, he walked towards her and raised one hand to cup her cheek. “I will always treasure our time together, but I will not take you away from your family and subject you to the life that I live. I am shunned by both my parents’ worlds.”

Tenderly, and yet with finality he kissed her, then picked up his belongings and opened the door. He didn’t look back as he walked down the stairs and out to his waiting horse. Justine stood in his room, her hands clasped over her still flat stomach and whispered to the wind, “You may think we’re over Buck, but we’re in each others’ blood. I will find you and you will see.”

Sometimes The Truth Hurts
by: Raye

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Marshal McGenty, but this boy is one of my best Riders, and I'm not leaving unless he comes with me!"

Teaspoon let loose the fire of his gaze and hoped that the obstinate man before him would catch the importance of his stance and the grim set of his lips.

"Is that so, Marshal Hunter?"

He leaned forward another inch, laying into the other man with his patented one-eyed stare. "That's the truth of it! I'd be a fool to say anything else."

The marshal of Robin's Nest nodded with understanding. "Then that's all there is to say?"

Teaspoon felt a smile of victory tug at his lips. "Yep. That's 'bout it. Except for the fact that you're probably THE most inept, sorry excuse for a law man this half of the country as ever seen if you can't tell that my boy here is NOT the man that robbed that bank! Now, put that in your cob pipe and-"

With a whisper of sound, Marshal McGenty drew his gun and leveled it at Teaspoon's chest, shocking the older man into silence. "Then I reckon you won't mind sharing his accomodations at our loverly establishment."

With a click and groan the cell door swung out on its rusting hinges and Marshal McGenty indicated toward the door with the barrel of his weapon.

Teaspoon could do little but step into the cell and plop down on the overly thin mattress. He avoided looking into the next cell even as he heard the lock slide home with an ominous click.

He dropped his head into his hands as the Marshal walked away, a raspy laugh trailing behind him.

There was blessed silence for a moment. A brief moment.

"Teaspoon, I don't suppose this is all a part of your brilliant plan to get me out of here... is it?"

Gritting his teeth against the sudden urge to strangle the boy through the bars he hissed out a warning. "Shut up, if you wanna live, Hickok."

In Defense of Cody
by: Cathy

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s as guilty as the day is long!”

William Tompkins was turning red with anger. “I’ve tolerated this thievery for too long now! You need to do something with him or I will!”

Rachel looked from the man to the object of his wrath, then on to the man who stood to one side, as if trying to stay invisible.

“Buck?” she asked. “Did you see anything?”

“Cody didn’t do it, Rachel,” the Kiowa told her. “He was with me all last night and most of the day today.”

“I’m telling you, he stole one of my turkeys!” Tompkins protested. “And this isn’t the first time.”

“Did you actually see Cody steal the turkey?” Rachel asked calmly.

“Who else would have done it?” Tompkins argued. “Everyone knows that he’s a bottomless pit and eats everything in sight!”

“But did you see him steal the turkey?” Rachel pressed.

“Well, no,” the storekeeper admitted. “But I never had anything turn up missing until he came to town. And now something’s being taken just about every other day!”

Rachel looked at the accused. “I don’t suppose you have anything to say for yourself?” she asked.

Cody simply stared at her with big soulful eyes.

“Come on, Tompkins,” Buck interjected. “If it weren’t for Cody, we’d never have known about that batch of bad meat you bought.”

“I don’t care what he did, it don’t give him the right to steal from me now!” Tompkins exclaimed. “If you want to pay him back, you can buy the turkey and feed him all you want!”

The storekeeper turned on his heel and stomped back into the building, slamming the door behind him.

Rachel watched him go, then turned to face Buck and Cody again. “Buck, I know you think you owe Cody for saving your life, and I know it took you a long time to find him after you were sick, but you really need to keep a closer watch on him-either that or take him back where you found him.”

Buck sighed. “I guess you’re right, Rachel,” he agreed reluctantly. “But you have to admit it’s been fun having him around.”

“Only because you use him to taunt the real Cody!” the woman scolded. “He has never forgiven you for that.”

Buck grinned mischievously. “It was just too good to pass up. Even you have to admit that he’s the only one who can hold a candle to Cody when it comes to eating,” he said.

Rachel chuckled quietly, then became serious once more. “Just make sure he stays out of town for a while. We don’t need Tompkins raising a fuss about him.”

“Sure thing, Rachel,” Buck replied. Grabbing the box of groceries the woman had just bought, the man headed for the buckboard. “Come on, Cody,” he called.

The dog leaped to his feet and followed Buck eagerly.
Terror in the Night
by: Cindy

"I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long!"

Lucy shook her head, struggling against the strong hands holding her back. “No, he’s not!” she pleaded. “Please, you’ve got to listen.”

“I figure we know a runaway slave when we see one,” one of the men said.

“Especially when he done raped a white woman,” another added.

Lucy looked around, desperately seeking a face - ANY face - that looked liked it belonged to a reasonable man. But all of the men wore the same hard, angry glare. The ‘Missouri Militia’ was what they called themselves. She would have used the more appropriate term of vigilante.

The man in question lay off to one side, his hands bound behind him. He was dazed and bleeding from a gash on the side of his head. Despite his weakened state, two of the militiamen stood next to him, one with a rifle barrel pressed against the prone man’s head.

Lucy fought to control her shaking. “Please,” she said, hoping she sounded somewhat calm. “Aaron’s father worked for my father for many years back in Ohio, as a free man. Aaron was born there, free. He’s not a slave - he’s never been a slave!”

“Don’t care what no piece of paper might say,” one of the men said. He spat on the ground right in front of Aaron’s face before adding, “Anyone can write anythin’ they want.” Of course, he wouldn’t be able to read it anyway.

The man Lucy had come to recognize as the leader of the group stepped forward. “Slave or no, he raped that white girl over to Hollenburg last week. Ain’t no way he can get away with that.”

Aaron struggled to lift his head. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “I never touched no girl . . .” A sharp boot to his gut cut off any further protest.

Lucy faced the leader, speaking directly to him. “Aaron hasn’t left the farm in weeks,” she said firmly. “He only goes to town with my father or me, and we weren’t in Hollenburg last week!” With the growing tension over slavery, and the Missouri border not really that far away, they all knew it would be too dangerous for Aaron to travel on his own.

The leader walked up to her and grinned, but there was nothing humorous or friendly in the sight. “Get the rope!” he called over his shoulder.

Lucy screamed. “NO!” But just then the man’s fist shot out, connecting with her jaw, and she crumpled to the ground.

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

Buck leaned forward along the horse’s neck, helping to watch the trail. There was only a quarter moon, and even that was mostly hidden by clouds that threatened to bring rain. But he knew he was close to the next waystation, and after that it was only twelve more miles until he reached the Hollenburg home station where he could hand off the mochila and get some rest.

This next waystation was one of his favorites though, and he smiled as he thought about it. The station was run by a father and daughter, the Websters, as part of their farm. It was one of the few places he’d been welcomed warmly, even the first time he rode through. The daughter, Lucy, frequently had fresh cookies waiting for the riders as they passed by. She even shaped them like doughnuts with a hole in the middle so it was easier to carry a few extras on the way. Hopefully she’d have some tonight.

There to his right was the old broken-down wagon that signaled the last hill before the station. It was a gentle incline and they quickly reached the top - and then he reined the horse in to a quick stop. Down below he could see the farmhouse and the barn. But there were many figures milling about, many of them with torches. In his experience, that was rarely a good sign. He sat still for a moment, counting. There were at least nine torches, and there seemed to be a few other shadows moving around as well.

Buck quickly considered his options. Due to the overcast skies and the rough terrain, they hadn’t been riding that hard. The horse could easily make it to the next station, where he could get help. But that would still leave the Websters and their hired hand, Aaron, under threat for a long time - probably too long. Or he could leave the horse hidden and work his way silently down toward the house. Unfortunately, given the number of men involved, it was highly unlikely he could pick them off one by one without raising an alarm among the remaining intruders. And he didn’t think much of his chances of getting nine or more men to surrender just because he got the drop on one or two of them.

Just then he saw a couple of the torches head for the large tree behind the house - and he heard the scream. With that, he chose his third option.

He urged the horse forward, riding slowly but steadily into the heart of the trouble.

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

Lucy struggled to get to her feet. Her vision was still blurry, and her head felt like it would explode. But there was no time to worry about that now. “Please, you can’t do this!” she pleaded.

The response was just rough laughter from the militiamen.

A couple of the men busied themselves hitching a horse to the buckboard that stood just behind the house, then they led the horse and wagon toward an old oak tree. Two other men had already thrown a rope over a heavy branch, a noose dangling ominously at one end.

Two men hauled Aaron roughly to his feet, pushing him toward the tree. “I didn’t do it,” he protested, trying to dig his feet in. But other men came to help, and he was pushed inexorably closer to the oak. A gag was forced into his mouth, stopping any further dissent.

One of the men turned toward the front of the house - and stopped short. “There’s a rider!” he called out.

Lucy looked up, recognizing Buck. For a moment her hopes soared - but then the fear returned, deeper than ever. He was only one man against so many. It was more likely he’d be hurt too. “He’s a Pony Express rider,” she said softly. “They change horses here. You don’t have to hurt him.”

“That’s up to him,” one man said.

“Pretty stupid, riding in like that,” another added.

Buck was close enough to hear that last comment and he had to agree - this was probably not his most brilliant moment. But after hearing Lucy’s scream, there was no way he could have just ridden on. So he kept riding slowly forward until men surrounded the horse. They pulled him to the ground and took his gun. “Look, I just need to change horses,” he said slowly, looking around. He needed to play for time to see if there was a way out of this.

“Picked the wrong time to do that, didn’t ya?” one man sneered.

“Might be he’s got some colored blood in him,” another said, holding a torch up close to Buck’s face.

“Nah, he’s just Injun,” a third said.

Buck resisted the urge to punch the man. He knew it would just lead to a moment of satisfaction - followed by a world of pain, or even death. “What seems to be the problem here?” he asked.

“The ‘problem’ is we got us a runaway slave who can’t keep his hands off of white women.”

Buck saw Aaron frantically shaking his head, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Lucy open her mouth to protest. Electing to keep the men’s attention on him, he said, “If there’s been a crime, we should get the local marshal. He can hold Aaron until there’s a trial.”

“We’ll give him a trial!” laughed one man.

“Already gived him a trial,” another added.

Several voices chimed in. “GUILTY!”

Buck took s deep breath and decided to step out a little farther onto the shaky limb he was already balancing on. “I’m not sure you have the authority . . .”

“I am Colonel Caleb McGee of the Missouri State Militia,” boomed a voice as the leader stepped up. He studied Buck for a moment before adding, “That’s all the authority I need.”

That brought back unpleasant memories of the Militia for Buck. He well remembered the men who had pursued Ulysses to Sweetwater, beating or intimidating anyone who tried to stand in their way. This man reminded him very much of the leader of that group.

Lucy finally pulled free from the man who had been holding her and stepped forward. “You have the wrong man,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. She knew she’d never been so scared in her life. “Aaron is not a slave, and he was not in Hollenburg last week!”

“I’m afraid me and the boys think different on that, missy,” McGee said. “We know a guilty man when we see one - specially a colored one.” He turned to the men waiting by the tree. “Get him on the wagon, boys!”

Men lifted Aaron onto the back of the wagon, easily subduing his struggles by sheer force of numbers. They fitted the noose over his neck.

Lucy tried to run to him, but two of the men caught her and held her back, laughing. One of them clamped a hand tightly over her mouth, silencing her pleas.

McGee started toward the wagon. “Let’s get this finished.”

Things happened very quickly then, though Buck was amazed at how clearly he saw each event.

Distracted by the activity near the wagon, the men closest to Buck let their attention waver. He took advantage of that by throwing his shoulder into the man standing closest to his horse. As the man stumbled, his torch passed close by the mare’s flank, frightening her. The terrified animal ran off. One of the other men fumbled for his gun, finally taking a shot at the horse, but the mare topped the next rise and disappeared, apparently unscathed.

McGee heard the commotion, saw the horse disappear, but he was not to be dissuaded from his mission. “Do it!” he ordered.

As she watched one of the men get ready to smack the horse hitched to the wagon, Lucy put all her strength into one final attempt to break free. Her movement was so strong and sudden that she surprised the men holding her back and they lost their grip. Free now, she ran forward. “No, you can’t . . .”

Buck started forward too, though he wasn’t sure what he intended to do. It wasn’t likely he could help Lucy, Aaron - or himself. But he hadn’t gotten more than a few steps when the back of his head exploded in pain and he fell to the ground.

As if through a haze, he saw the torches move forward. His vision blurred even more, but he heard the sounds - a frightened horse neighing, the creak of wagon wheels, the snap of a rope, cheers, a single gunshot, a woman’s scream . . .

The haze overtook him fully, and he passed out.

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

Consciousness returned slowly in a swirl of light and pain. He gradually became aware he was lying on the ground, his face in the mud created by the rain that was falling.

Buck tried to push himself up, but fell back into the mud. He turned his face slightly and took several deep breaths, trying to steady himself, then tried something simpler - he turned onto his back. Except for the throbbing pain at the back of his head, that was better. At least he wasn’t trying to breathe mud.

He lay still for a moment, letting the rain on his face help wash away the haze. But suddenly the memories came flooding back - Lucy! Aaron!

He rolled to his knees, fighting the waves of nausea and dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Finally forcing himself to his feet, he stumbled forward.

Off to his side, the house was smoldering, a few flames still flickering here and there. The fact that any of it still stood was tribute to the heavy rain. The Militia had done its best to burn the structure down.

He got closer to the old oak, and had to stop. The body hung there, swaying in the wind. It was obvious it was too late to do anything to help Aaron.

Buck felt his legs go weak, and he dropped to his knees. Head down, he retched until his gut hurt, and even then he felt ill.

After a few minutes he forced himself back to his feet. He still hadn’t seen Lucy. Had she gotten away, or had the men taken her along? Or had she . . .

He saw her then amidst the flash of a bolt of lightning. She lay, unmoving, halfway between the remains of the house and the oak. He stumbled toward her, slipping in the mud. When he touched her, she was cold, and for a moment he was afraid she was dead too. But then he felt the slight rise and fall of her chest, and his fingers found a weak pulse in her neck.

Heartened, he slowly rolled Lucy onto her back - stopping when he saw the bullet wound. There was a hole in her side, near her ribs, just below her right breast. In the darkness he couldn’t tell how bad it might really be.

He stood up, looking again for options. The house didn’t offer much shelter - two walls still stood, but the roof had collapsed. But they hadn’t burned the barn! They would have shelter there, and he could most likely find a lantern.

If he could get her there.

Progress was slow. His head protested every step, especially with the extra weight he was trying to carry. He had to stop a couple of times to gather his strength. But he finally reached the barn, pulled open the door, and found a pile of clean hay near the entry where he could put Lucy down. Then he rummaged around until he found a lantern, lit the wick, and brought it back to where she lay.

It wasn’t good news, he decided, when he really looked at her. But it could have been worse too. Out of the rain and mud, she seemed to be breathing easier, so the bullet apparently hadn’t hit a lung.

Still, he needed to see the actual wound. In the darkness the militiamen hadn’t noticed his knife, so he pulled it out now. He hesitated just a moment before slicing away her shirt. Lucy could be mad at him later over any impropriety - if she lived.

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

Conscious thought tried to force itself on her, but she resisted, pushing it away. She wasn’t quite sure why - she just knew whatever she would face was going to be unpleasant. But the pain gradually worked its way through the haze. She opened her eyes, waiting for her vision to clear. For a moment she was confused - why was she laying in the barn? She tried to sit up . . .

The memories came flooding back, accompanied by a wave of pain like she’d never known. Lucy cried out, falling back onto the hay.

Buck was at her side in a moment, his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t try to sit up,” he said softly.

Lucy took a few deep breaths, fighting back the worst of the pain. “Buck? What happened? I remember . . .” She stopped, her eyes wide. “Oh my God . . . Aaron?”

Buck shook his head. “I’m sorry.” Once he’d done what he could for Lucy’s wound, he’d cut the body down, but that’s all he’d been able to do.

Tears welled in Lucy’s yes, and she started to cry. Buck reached over and tucked his jacket tighter around her shoulders to keep her warm, then he lay down next to her and wrapped her in his arms, and they cried together.

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

When the riderless horse had shown up at the Hollenburg station, the stationmaster had sent a rider out to investigate. When he got to the Webster farm, he was greeted by Buck - who sent him off immediately for a doctor.

The doctor arrived later that afternoon, shortly before Carl Webster returned from his supply-buying trip to St. Joseph. Fortunately, Buck had been able to remove the bullet, and his ministrations stopped the bleeding, so Lucy was resting easily by the time the men got there. Still, with the house burned down, the doctor didn’t want to leave her to recover in the barn. So, while the doctor completed his work with his patient, Buck and Carl unloaded all of the supplies and then prepared a bed in the back of the wagon. By nightfall they were on their way to town.

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

“You’re looking at lot better,” Buck observed. He pulled off his hat and walked all the way into the room.

Lucy looked up from her book and smiled. “I’m feeling so much better,” she said. “The doctor says he’ll even consider letting me get out of this bed tomorrow.”

“That’s great news.”

“Well, I had a very good doctor to take care of me that night,” she said. “I owe you my life, Buck.”

He shook his head. “I just wish there was something I could have done to stop the whole thing.”

“There wasn’t,” Lucy said firmly. “There was nothing any of us could do.” She paused, swallowing hard. “I just feel so badly about Aaron. He never did anything wrong.”

“I know,” Buck agreed. “Your father and I buried him out behind your house. And your father is out there now, making plans to rebuild.”

“It’s our home,” Lucy whispered, still thinking of Aaron. “We have to rebuild.”

“I’m glad you’re staying,” Buck said. Then he smiled. “I’d miss those cookies.”

Lucy started to laugh, then gasped and wrapped an arm around her chest as the movement caused pain. “Oh, don’t make me laugh.”

“Sorry,” he said immediately. He went to the side of the bed and took her hand. “Should I get the doctor?”

She took a couple of deep breaths, which helped ease the pain. “No, it’s all right. I needed something to laugh about.” She paused, studying his face. “You didn’t find them, did you?”

“No,” he admitted. “All the rain, it hid any tracks. We sent riders out to St. Joseph and some of the other border towns. But they had a big head start, and probably plenty of places where they can hole up.”

She gripped his hand tighter, then leaned her head against his arm. “They should pay for what they did,” she whispered.

“They will,” he replied. “Someday, somehow, they will pay. I believe that.” He’d certainly never forget those faces.

“Then I’ll try to believe it too,” she whispered. She leaned back on the pillow, still gripping his hand. The terror was still so new and raw - but maybe that belief would be a way to start to heal.
Tall Tales
by: Lisa T

“‘I don't care what you say, Ma'am, he's guilty as the day is long.’ The woman stood motionless before the sheriff, tears in her vibrant blue eyes. ‘Please, you must let him go, he’s all I have.’”
“What a bunch of horse-“
“James!” Mai smacked her husband’s arm and motioned towards the six children sitting quietly in a semi-circle before their friend.
“Pucky.” Jimmy finished with a smirk and hugged his wife to his side.

The children laughed as they turned back to their Grandpa Cody and waited for him to continue. There was nothing in the world that compared to the feeling of love his family wrapped themselves in. He took pleasure in the fact that no one knew exactly how much he enjoyed the time he spent with his family in Texas, he hated being the one without someone to share his life with, but he was happy as long as he had these people to come to.
The blonde showman looked around at the faces of the children he loved as if they were his own. Ranging in age from thirteen to five, the Cross girls and Hickok boys were polar opposites. JD, always the inquisitive one, was waiting for the problems of the story to begin so he could dissect them and figure out a way to fix them. Isabella, the pride and joy of her father, was more interested in the adventure to come. James Hickok was more like his father. He hung on every word the story’s sheriff spoke and waited for justice to rear her head, while Marisa’s interest peaked whenever the hint of romance crept in. Billy, named for Cody himself, sat and waited to hear about the heroine and had asked more than once how pretty she was. Cody had glanced at the boy’s parents and felt sorry for them; he was going to be a handful when he got older. Finally, his gaze swept over to the youngest, Sofia lay on her stomach, a large piece of paper before her, letting her imagination roam free as the story inspired her to draw.

“I don’t think you’re one to judge, Jimmy.” Buck said with a sly smile.
Jimmy turned to his friend warily, “Why?”
“Well, you were charmed by a woman who begged you not to shoot her because she swore she wasn’t a tree. If you want horse … pucky, that’s it in all its glory.”
Mai arched a brow and turned to her husband. “You were taken in by a woman who uttered that mush? I’m shocked; I thought you had a little more sense than that.”
The memory had Jimmy frowning and turning to his wife. “She meant nothing to me.”
“Mhmm.” She muttered disbelievingly.
As his wife moved to sit apart from him, Jimmy shot Buck a look that promised retribution and the Kiowa smiled broadly. Hickok sat back with his arms crossed over his chest. “You think that’s funny do you?”
“A little.” Buck replied.
“Well how about your sweetheart? You know, the one that you thought was possessed by spirits? Let’s talk about how you spent days alone out in the wilderness with her. I think you told us you were trying to cleanse her soul.” Hickok grinned broadly, “That’s one way to put it, I think.”
Buck felt his wife stiffen beside him and he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. Sure enough, Christina was waiting for an explanation. “It was a long time ago and she was engaged.”
Tina’s eyes widened. “You compromised a woman who was engaged?”
“Mamí, what does compromised mean?” Izzy asked innocently.
Buck groaned as Jimmy chuckled and Tina turned away from the two men with an annoyed huff. “Nada. Pay attention to your Abuelo’s story.”
The young girl shrugged at the other children and turned her attention to her honorary grandfather. Cody’s blue eyes were alight with undisguised joy as he watched his adopted daughters make their husbands squirm.
“So what happens next?” JD asked in the silence that ensued.
“Does the sheriff throw her in jail with her good for nothing brother?” James added.
“Nah, she’s too pretty for that.” Billy said. “He’s gonna arrest her and take her home where he’ll make her cook him dinner. Like a good woman aught to.”
Mari rolled her eyes and pushed her spectacles up her nose, “You’re all wrong. He’s gonna think she’s beautiful and he’s gonna help her find the real murderer and then they’re gonna live happily ever after, where they’ll both make dinner because that’s the way it should be.”
The three boys all pretended to gag; causing the usually quiet girl to blush and open the journal she was never without. As she began to write, Izzy reached out for her sister’s arm and squeezed it gently. “I like your idea, Mari.”
“Me too.” Even with the love and acceptance of her sisters, Mari still seemed a bit too quiet. Doing her level best to express her love in the best way she knew how, Sofie offered, “I’m gonna draw you a picture, Mari.”
“Thanks.” Marisa replied softly.

Cody cleared his throat drawing their attention to him before any more feelings were hurt. “Where was I?”
“The woman was begging.” Izzy supplied with a smile.
“Ah yes. The sheriff-”
“Did you really fall for her drivel?” Mai asked suddenly.
Cody glanced up and waited for Jimmy to answer. For the first time in his life he watched James Butler Hickok squirm. Sitting back, Cody enjoyed the show.
“Now, Mai, darlin’-”
“Don’t ‘Mai, darlin’’ me, answer my question.”
“I may have been temporarily interested.” Jimmy hedged. “It was a long time ago, I was young and stupid.”
“You certainly were.”
Hickok smirked at his wife, “Don’t tell me you’ve never fallen for a man who used stupid lines to charm you.”
“Sure did. I married him.” She replied, her voice carrying a hint of amusement.
Jimmy frowned deeply, a smart retort on his lips when he noticed the glitter of laughter in her eyes and exhaled in relief. Things were going to be all right. He turned to Buck and found that Christina had moved to the other side of the small sofa they shared and she was refusing to look at him. Hickok smiled broadly as he placed his arm around Mai's shoulders and held her closely to his side.

Buck caught his friend’s display and his lip curled in annoyance. Just as he turned to his wife, the sound of his youngest’s voice floated over to him.
“They’re always fightin’, that’s the way they show they love each other.”
Buck turned his attention to her and found her kneeling beside Cody and leaning over as if to impart a big secret to him. Buck smiled; he’d have to give Sofie pointers on the fine art of sharing secrets.
“We are not fighting.” Christina said firmly. “We are having a grown-up discussion.” The children all stared at her as if they’d never seen her before and she rolled her eyes. “Story time is over. Everybody go outside to play. Vas afuera a jugar.”
Six voices joined together, begging to be allowed to listen to the rest of Cody’s story, but Christina seemed immune to it all. After several minutes Cody decided he should step in and help Buck.
“Now Chrissy, you’re making more out of this than you should. Camille was engaged and she left Rock Creek in the same condition as she came into it … well minus one nasty demon. Buck did not compromise her and it’s downright wrong of Hickok to lead you to believe your husband could be so callous. Besides, you should know he’d never do anything like that.”
Christina glanced at Buck. The Kiowa was staring at her with hope in his eyes. She smiled reluctantly at his pitiful expression then reached out for his hand. “I know he’s not a cad.”
“Well, put him out of his misery then and forgive him.” Cody said with a wink.
Tina slid over to her husband’s side and kissed his neck. “Perdóneme, Buck, but I get jealous thinking of you with other women.”
“There’s nothing to forgive you for, Christina, I can understand.” He replied as he held her gently to his side. Just the thought of you with other men sparks my temper.”
“Te amo, Buck.”
Buck smiled as he placed a kiss to her temple, “Te amo más.”
Christina felt the familiar tingle she received whenever her husband spoke her native language. “No, yo te amo más.”
Mai and Jimmy smiled as they both knew what came next. Buck turned his wife’s face up to his and he kissed her sweetly on the lips. “Te amo infinito, Christina.”

Cody sat back and tried to hide the pride he felt. No, there was nothing in the world that compared to the feeling of love the two couples before him wrapped themselves in. It may not be an easy road to get there, but he knew that the choices they’d made were the right ones.
First Meetings
by: Karen

Sweetwater – Nebraska Territory – 1853:

“I don’t care what you say, Ma’am, he’s guilty as the day is long,” the shopkeeper said as he brushed past Sister Catherine. He was so angry with the boy in question that he just stormed out of his store towards the marshal’s office unmindful of the customers he left behind.

Sister Catherine sighed. She noticed that some of the people were putting items back and preparing to leave. She decided to wait until the man returned before going to the marshal’s office herself, besides there were people here who needed assistance. Maybe if she helped his business the man would be willing to grant her a request.

“May I help you with that?” she asked a young couple who was beginning to replace supplies on the shelf. She led them towards the back counter, picked up a scratch pad and pencil, and started figuring. After a few minutes, the other customers realized that she was going to be working the counter and they all brought their items up to purchase. She took their names, made a list of what they bought, and then wrote the total amount that she charged them. “That way if something is wrong, it can be corrected later,” she explained. The people were most grateful and all left with a smile.

When the owner returned from lodging his complaint against the boy he’d caught trying to steal from him, he found the store empty except for the small nun who had protested when he grabbed the dirty little thief earlier. She was behind his counter, and it looked like she was counting money – HIS money. “Why the nerve of her,” he thought as he stormed across the store.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she greeted him by handing him the money, “but I waited on your customers while you were otherwise engaged. I saw no reason for you to lose business while you were out. I realize that you are just starting your business here and would hate for people to get the wrong idea.” She smiled her most winning smile and continued, “I hope I charged the correct price for everything. I wrote down names, purchases, and totals.” She handed him the scratch pad and waited for his response.

The bluster that had filled him as he crossed the room slowly faded as he took in this information. It was true that he’d only had the store here for about a month and it was just beginning to start showing promise. He could almost forgive himself for being here alone because he had decided to drag his family across creation on a whim.

He sighed. He would have to be more careful about not leaving the store unattended, but he had really felt the need to get that thief to the marshal. Someone – he was pretty sure it was the local kids – had been stealing fruit from him ever since he’d opened. He needed to make an example since he’d caught one. “Thank you,” he said returning the smile.

Seeing he had calmed down, Sister Catherine ventured on. “My name is Sister Catherine. I work at the mission school just outside of White Falls, a few miles north of here. I was just visiting my brother and his family before returning to the school for a new year. I would like to take the young man you caught today back to the school with me, unless the marshal is able to locate his family here. In that case, he should be turned over to them.”

“But he was trying to steal. . .”

“He picked up an apple,” Sister Catherine politely interrupted. “He didn’t put it in his pocket, hide it under his hat, or attempt to eat it. He simply picked it up, and you grabbed him, Mr. …”

“Tompkins, Bill Tompkins,” he supplied the name. He defended himself and his actions, “He didn’t tell me he planned on paying for it. The entire time I was escorting him to the marshal’s he never said a word, just kept kicking and struggling to get away. He wouldn’t even tell the marshal his name, just stared at him.”

He paused. It had been strange the way the boy hadn’t made a sound, but he couldn’t let pity get in the way. He needed to make this store work, he had no where else to go. There was no way he was returning to his old home; it would be too empty without his family. “I can’t let him just get away with it; the kids around here have been stealing me blind.”

“I’m sure he was too frightened to say anything,” the petite nun replied. “I wasn’t even the person you were angry with and it took me a few seconds to muster enough courage to address you.” She sighed. “Let me take him to the mission school if we can’t locate his parents. You can still bring him before the judge. I’ll bring him back to stand trial if that’s what you really want, or I could just pay you for the apple,” she smiled up at the man who towered over her.

“Why would you want to do that?” Tompkins asked as he considered her request.

“It’s my job,” she replied with an even bigger smile. She could sense the man was softening.

“Alright. I’ll go with you to the marshal to let him know that I’ve reconsidered pressing charges on the grounds that the boy goes with you if we can’t locate his family. You don’t have to worry about bringing him back or paying for the apple. You saved me a lot of money by helping out while I was gone.”

Sister Catherine nodded. “Thank you,” she said.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring him back, at least not before he gets cleaned up and learns some better manners.”

“Agreed,” Sister Catherine said. “We rarely travel this far to do our shopping. He’d only come back here if we locate his family.”

The two of them left the store and went to the marshal’s office where Sister Catherine hoped to collect her newest charge. She could only pray that the Mother Superior wouldn’t be too angry with her for bringing home yet another stray. The last one she’d been allowed to take in was proving to be a handful and from what Mr. Tompkins was telling her this silent young man might be even worse.

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