Topic #14: Table of Plenty
||Whetting the Appetite
on Dreams and Beans
||The Trouble With
||The Moment Has
“What is it this time?” the station master asked as he was interrupted from his morning nap once again. He had decided that these boys needed some lessons in decision making and initiative-taking if he was ever going to be allowed to rest in peace again.
“Would it be alright if I took a few days off?”
The older man dropped his feet from the table to the floor with a thud; he pushed his hat back to the top of his head, and worked up the best “you’ve got to be kidding” glare he could manage. He turned to face his intruder; the look softened the instant he saw who was asking. This particular boy didn’t usually try to get out of work so there must be a good reason for the request.
“Mind if I ask why?” he said.
Buck Cross had noticed the quick change in Teaspoon’s demeanor. He hoped that meant he wasn’t in trouble because he was requesting time off after only working for a few weeks. He took a deep breath before answering, “I would like to take care of some personal business that I’ve been ignoring.”
“How long do you need?” Teaspoon asked realizing that was most likely the only explanation he was going to get from the boy.
“Two, three days,” Buck answered.
“I’d like to be able to leave in the morning, if possible. I don’t have a run until next week. I’d just need someone to cover my chores. I’ll pay them back when I return.”
“Fine,” said Teaspoon. “Just be careful. I want to see you again in a couple of days.” He moved to return his feet to the table top and resume his relaxing as Buck left the bunkhouse and headed towards the barn. He would need to finish his chores quickly if he was going to have time to prepare for the task ahead.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Three days later, the riders sat around a table piled high with food. It wasn’t the usual fare, either. This was wild turkey, deer, some kind of vegetable they hadn’t seen before. “What’s the occasion?” asked Jimmy settling into his spot.
“I don’t know,” answered Emma. “I didn’t prepare it. It was all here - just like it is - when I came over to start getting supper ready. There was a note on the table, but it instructed me to wait to read it until everyone was here. So, we’re waiting.”
“Waiting for who?” asked Cody as he and Kid came in the room.
“You two,” answered Emma.
“Cody, what in tarnation are you doing here?” asked Teaspoon. “Isn’t it your turn to ride?”
Cody nodded. “It is, and I was ready to go. In fact, I was just getting ready to mount up when Buck came and told me that he was taking this run. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s right,” said Kid. “Buck insisted that he needed to take this run and that Cody and I needed to hurry in here.”
Teaspoon nodded and smiled, “Miss Shannon, would you be so kind as to read us our note?”
Emma returned his smile, “I’d be happy to, Mr. Spoon.” She unfolded the piece of paper she held in her hand and read:
To my new family,
The wistful sigh sounded in his ear and he knew without looking that Cody was about to declare himself in love with the newest town beauty. So long as it was not the gorgeous creature he’d been watching since she walked in the door with her family, he didn’t really care. Cody would find some way to stick his foot in his mouth with the young lady, then he’d whine and moan and bellyache until the next gem to catch his interest came along.
“Hickok, words can’t even begin to describe the beauty, the sheer perfection…”
His friend trailed off with another sigh and Jimmy found himself matching it with one of his own. She was a beauty beyond description - her smooth skin sparkled like polished diamonds in the lamplight that lit the hall, the narrow turn of her waist accentuated by small pearl buttons, the way her hair was so black it was almost blue and the combs that held the delicate twist away from her face radiated in the night. It all took his breath away. Twice he’d started towards her and twice he’d been beaten out by another partner for the dance. Everyone else disappeared into a seamless blur of voices and faces, while she stood out like an angel on earth.
“I have never seen something so utterly exquisite,” Cody continued, his voice taking on a rapturous tone.
Jimmy knew that tone and he knew it meant nothing but trouble for him. If he didn’t make a move soon and ask her to dance, he’d be beaten out once again, and this time it would be by a backstabbing bunkmate. Well, he wasn’t going to let it happen. As soon as this dance ended he was going to stride across the room, ask her to dance and if Cody got in his way he was going to forget that Emma and Sam were standing near the door keeping a watchful eye on the gathering and he’d break the company rules against fighting.
“I’m going to go over there,” Cody declared with determination.
“Over my dead body,” he hissed out through clenched teeth.
“You aren’t going to win this time, Cody. I saw her first, I’ve been watching her all night, and as soon as this song ends I am going to go ask her to dance.”
“What are you talking about?” Cody asked in confusion.
“The utterly exquisite woman over there in the purple dress. Like you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Jimmy scoffed. “Well, I’m going over to ask her to dance, and if you dare think about cutting in front of me I’ll tell Emma that it was you who broke her pitcher.”
Then the music swelled to a finish and he walked away without a backwards glance. Closer and closer he came to the enchanting beauty who had been calling to him all night.
“Excuse me,” he said, his mouth suddenly feeling like he’d ridden through a dust storm. “Would…would you like to dance?”
She appraised him with the most beautiful almond-shaped eyes and nodded her head in acceptance. As she took his proffered hand, he suddenly felt ten feet tall and the luckiest man in the room. He’d spotted her and he’d asked her to dance before Cody.
“Hey, Cody,” Buck said, wandering over towards him.
“Hey, Buck,” he replied, his brows furrowed in confusion. What had gotten Jimmy’s tail feathers twisted up? He had been admiring the dessert table and suddenly Jimmy’s off dancing with the new girl in town. And dangit, she was pretty. How come he hadn’t seen her first?
Ah well, he sighed shaking his head and wrapping one arm around Buck’s shoulder, while placing the other on his chest. “Buck, my friend, have you ever seen such a beautiful sight? Why, I’ve been watching Mrs. Winslow set out those desserts all night and I don’t think there’s one inch of that table that she hasn’t covered. What do you say we grab us something to eat?”
Buck arched a brow and his face took on a look of pure admiration. “Should we wait for Jimmy?”
Cody cast a glance at the dance floor and
then back at the table. With a shake of his head he propelled them towards
the delectable treats. “Nah, who knows what’s gotten into him lately. Just
means all the more for us.”
Lou carefully unwrapped the jar of blueberry preserves, smiling at the sight of the deep blue contents. The jam was an unexpected treat, a gift from Norma Howell, the schoolteacher in Little River, in gratitude for some repair work Kid had done. She set the wrapping paper aside. It was a fairly recent newspaper, only a little over a month old, so they could look at it later and read the current news.
Placing the jar carefully on the pantry shelf, Lou sighed and closed the door. It hadn’t been hard to find room for the jar - the shelves were nearly bare except for the beans that had become a near daily diet. They’d have to make the jam last for a while, perhaps as a special treat as the cold winter closed in. Lord knew they certainly wouldn’t be buying any, not with the few dollars they had left.
The window by the door rattled in a sudden gust of cold autumn wind and Lou walked over there, stuffing the ragged remnants of a blanket more securely into the cracks around the frame. Then she went over to the stove and stirred the coals there, trying to coax a bit more heat out of the fuel. But it was always cold in the house these days, and likely would be until spring brought some warmth back to the land.
Just then a cry came from the corner, followed by a hiccup and then another cry. Lou walked over to the cradle and lifted the blanket covering it, revealing the very unhappy face of her son. She reached in to pick him up as he started crying in earnest. “There, there, Jedediah,” she whispered, holding him tightly to her. “What’s the matter?” Of course, she knew what the matter was, didn’t she? The little boy was cold and under-nourished. He was almost one year old, and still so small. She was still breast-feeding, but the baby needed more than that at his age. She and Kid both scraped by on less food than they needed themselves to give Jed what they could, but growing infants needed more than beans.
The baby shuddered in her arms and Lou tightened her embrace. She worried for all of them, especially with winter coming on. But mostly she worried for Jed. He was so tiny, and so innocent, and so fragile. She moved to the rocking chair, wincing as the old chair creaked under her weight. But it held, for at least one more time, and she rocked slowly for a few minutes until his crying abated. Then she opened her blouse, smiling through her tears as Jed eagerly latched onto her breast and began to suckle. At least she could still give him this, though her own diet was making her too weak to produce much milk.
She closed her eyes, remembering. They’d had such grand hopes, she and Kid. It was hard to believe that it was just two years earlier that the Pony Express had been ending, the ‘family’ that had grown together there disbanding. Kid had finally followed his heart, if not his head, and gone back to Virginia to fight for what had been his home. Totally against her better judgment, Lou had gone with him. At first, this ‘war’ hadn’t seemed so bad. Kid was assigned to a unit close to home near Manassas, delegated to protect the vital rail crossroads there. He even got leave to come home three times in the first two months they were there - they had made Jedediah on one of those visits.
But then everything changed. Word of Kid’s Pony Express background filtered through the officer ranks, and he was transferred to a cavalry unit. The cavalry was always on the move, and delivery of the mail was spotty - at best. Lou had discovered she was pregnant, but she had no idea if Kid even knew since she received no response to her letters. She kept going only because of daily trips to town to search the lists of the dead and wounded. Kid’s name never showed up, and she resolutely refused to listen to those who wanted to point out that, due to the sheer numbers of men involved, the lists were woefully incomplete. If Kid’s name wasn’t there, then he was all right.
Lou shifted Jedediah to her other breast as she remembered THE day - the day that Kid’s name had appeared on a list. It was the list of those who had fallen at Sharpsburg, a battle that had taken place almost three weeks earlier. But he was listed as wounded, not dead, and she refused to believe that anything had changed in those three weeks. Seven months pregnant, she set out with the clothes on her back and whatever few coins remained in the pot. It had taken another three weeks of travel before she finally found him in an army hospital camp. He was feverish, weak from pain and lack of food, and his left knee was shattered from a bullet. The doctors had wanted to amputate, but Kid had refused. And so Lou settled in to nurse him, protecting his leg from the surgeon’s saw, bathing his wounds, holding his hand through the pain, wiping his brow, comforting him through the nightmares of waking up in a field of bodies.
The infection in his leg finally started to ease and as November drew to a close Kid began to regain some strength. And it was none too soon as his son soon made his entrance into the world. An army surgeon delivered the baby, a welcome relief to assist in the delivery of new life amidst all of the blood and death of war.
They named the infant after Kid’s brother, tying the past to the present. And they began to plan for the future. Kid stayed near the hospital for another month. He re-learned the art of walking, made more challenging by a knee that would never really bend again. As much as his heart remained with the southern forces, he was discharged from the army - there was little call for a cavalryman who could barely sit a horse, or an infantryman who couldn’t march.
They spent Christmas in Virginia, living in a tent not far from the army hospital camp. It was their first together as a family of three, and they celebrated their good fortune. But the sights and sounds of battle were never far away, and that was not the life Kid and Lou wanted for their son. So early in the new year of 1863 they started west. It was a slow trip. They had no money to pay for transportation, even in areas where it might have been available, so they walked. Kid’s leg required frequent rest, and they often had to detour to avoid Union or Confederate troops. They foraged for food where they could, or stopped here and there for a day or two of work where it was available in order to get supplies. But they made progress.
Jedediah started to fuss, bringing Lou back to the present. She lifted him smoothly away from her breast and put him on her shoulder, patting his back. They rocked gently as she closed her eyes again. She could so clearly remember the April day they had finally arrived in Rock Creek. Rock Creek! It felt like home, even though they had really only been there a few months. But when they got to the Marshal’s office, it wasn’t Teaspoon Hunter behind the desk. The new Marshal explained that Teaspoon and his wife had left for Texas a few months earlier. More bad news met them at the school. Rachel had moved on, possibly back to New Orleans, the new teacher had heard. The news at the general store was mixed. Tompkins told them that Buck had left a couple of months earlier, maybe to go look for his brother, though no one was really sure. But the shopkeeper had been in a mellow mood, offering them a few nights of shelter and a few days of work in exchange for food and supplies. And he had told them about the farm.
Jedediah let out a huge burp, and Lou smiled and stopped rocking. She stood up and carried the baby back to his cradle, setting him on the blanket. She put his toys in with him, a couple of things Kid had managed to make. As Jedediah started to shake his rattle, Lou went to the window and looked out. The yard was covered by an inch or so of early snow. Beyond the yard, an old barn stood, though she could almost swear it was swaying in the wind. And beyond that, two hundred acres of farmland stretched.
It had almost seemed too good to be true when Tompkins told them about the place. It had belonged to his cousin, who had succumbed to illness a few months earlier. The man’s widow had decided to move back east. On her way, she had dropped off the title to the place with Tompkins. He had no use for it, and something about the ragged little family had moved him. He offered them the title in exchange for two weeks of work at the store while he went on a trip to get new supplies.
A place of their own! It seemed too good to be true. Oh, Tompkins warned them it might not be in the best condition, but that didn’t matter. It would be theirs.
It was late May when they set out across the plains with an old plow horse and a battered wagon. The farmstead was closer to their old station in Sweetwater than to Rock Creek, and between resting the old horse and fording rivers and other challenges, it took almost a month to reach their new home.
Home. The word had such a pleasant ring to it. They reached the farm, discovering that the house and barn did, indeed, need a lot of work. But they weren’t afraid of that, and after the trials they had been through just to get there, it seemed like heaven. While Jedediah played in the summer wildflowers, Kid and Lou planted their first crop. It was late in the season to be planting, but with a little luck they would still get a harvest good enough to see them through until the next year.
Nature had not been kind. Shortly after they planted, the rains came. Rain like neither of them had seen before. It washed out the seeds and young plants, and left the fields unworkable for more than a week after the deluge finally passed. They replanted, hoping now for a small crop to sell, and enough for their own use through the winter months. But again Nature intervened, this time with a drought that left most of their crops brown and withered. In the end, what little they had been able to salvage had been kept for their own table, and it was long gone, before the full force of winter even arrived.
And so here they sat. They had a house and a barn, both in desperate need of repairs they couldn’t afford. Of the two buildings, the barn was probably the sturdier of the two. It housed the old plow horse that had brought them here, one scrawny dairy cow that produced enough milk every day for Jedediah, and a few chickens that provided a handful of eggs each week. Beyond that, they had a pantry with half a tin of molasses, a little bit of flour, one jar of blueberry preserves, and beans.
Oh, and they had dreams - dreams that the next year would bring good weather and a fine crop to sell. Dreams that they would fix up the farm, make it the home they wanted.
If only they could survive the harsh winter yet to come.
Lou smiled as she watched Kid come out of the barn. He bolted the door, then trudged slowly toward the house. Every step seemed to be a major effort, but just as they had for so many miles to get to the farm, he kept moving.
She met him at the door, opening it as he stepped onto the porch. He limped into the house and went right to the stove, rubbing his hands over the meager heat as she quickly closed the door behind him.
Kid waited a moment for a touch of warmth to reach his fingers. “I fixed the back door of the barn as best I could,” he said softly. “It ain’t great, but without buying lumber it’s the best I can do.”
“It’ll be fine,” Lou replied. She walked up behind him as he unbuttoned his jacket, pulling it off when he finished. She noticed a new tear in one sleeve and she felt around the edges, hoping there was enough of the worn fabric left to mend.
“Sorry about that,” Kid said as he turned around. “I got caught on a broken board.” Actually, he had stumbled into it, thrown off balance by his bad leg.
“I can fix it,” Lou assured him. Her sewing skills had improved immensely, the improvement driven by necessity.
Kid just nodded. All of their clothing had been mended so many times, there wasn’t much left. One of these days there wouldn’t be enough left to mend. He walked over to where Jedediah sat playing in his cradle, finally smiling as the little boy grinned at his daddy and held his arms out. Kid picked his son up, holding the baby over his head in one of their favorite games. His leg wouldn’t let him swing little Jed around, but he bounced the boy up and down a few times, rewarded with more laughter. It was good that Jed could laugh, Kid mused; he and Lou certainly didn’t have much to laugh about. “Has he eaten?”
Lou nodded. “Whatever I had,” she answered. “There’s a little left from the cow’s milk you got this morning, so I’ll put that in with some mashed beans when they’re ready.”
Kid looked over at the pot on the stove. It was almost a permanent fixture these days. He knew in many ways they were lucky to have the beans, but he swore to himself again that when they turned things around and made the farm a success, he would never eat another bean. “Do we still have some molasses? He likes them sweet.”
“We still have a little,” Lou confirmed. She’d add a touch to Jed’s meal, as usual.
“It’ll be better next year,” Kid said as he swung Jedediah up again. He hoped he sounded confident.
“Oh, Kid, I know that.” Lou paused, measuring her next words. “Kid, when I was in town today, Mrs. Walker mentioned still needing someone to help out at the hotel.” Another pause. “I told her I’d take the job.”
Kid shook his head. “Lou, you shouldn’t have to work. I’ll go to town, look for something.”
“There ain’t no other work, Kid,” Lou responded. “You know that. Everyone’s just sitting back for the winter.” It was a farming community, and winter brought a lull. The difference was that most of the other families had been there for a while, and had a little reserve to go on, even after a small harvest. “It’s only two days a week,” she continued. “And we need the money, Kid.”
Kid sighed as he put his son back into the cradle. “I know,” he admitted. He knew they needed the money. He also knew that the only possible work was with a few farmers who planned to repair barns this winter - work that needed men with two good legs. “I can try hunting again,” he said.
“Kid, your leg . . .”
“I have to try, Lou. I’ll go out next week.” Even a small deer could provide many meals of much needed nourishment.
Lou just nodded. She knew he needed to try. Then she pointed at the table. “Norma sent a jar of preserves. It was wrapped in that paper. I figured we could see what the news was. It ain’t that old.”
Kid reached for the paper, smoothing out the wrinkles. The first headline that caught his eye was ‘PRESIDENT LINCOLN DECLARES NATIONAL DAY OF THANKSGIVING.’ He read the first part of the story, then looked up at Lou. “Lincoln has declared the last Thursday of November as a national day to give thanks for what we have.”
Lou looked over at a tiny piece of paper tacked up next to the door. “That’s tomorrow,” she said, studying the days she had marked off.
Kid looked around at the tiny house, almost bare of belongings. “Guess it won’t take much time to give thanks for what we’ve got,” he said sadly.
Lou went to him, wrapping her arms around him. “It’ll be all right, Kid,” she said, burying her face against his chest to hide her tears. “If nothin’ else, we still got each other.”
Kid held her tight, fighting his own tears. They had each other, and Jed . . . and beans . . . and dreams.
Thanksgiving Day, 1863, dawned clear and cold in Little River. Kid reluctantly pushed the thin blanket away, tucking it in tight around Lou’s still-sleeping figure. He rolled to one side, swinging his stiff leg over the side of the bed. It was always worse in the morning, particularly cold mornings. At least when it was cold he simply slept in his clothes, so he didn’t have to struggle with getting his pants on over the stiff appendage.
He checked Jedediah’s cradle, making sure the baby was tucked in as snuggly as possible, then he went to the stove. There wasn’t much wood left in the pile, he noted; he’d need to hitch the horse up and make the trek to the nearest woods to replenish the supply. And that was something he’d best do soon, before the snow came in earnest.
With the fire stoked, he pulled on his jacket and gloves. Then he slipped out the door as quickly as possible, trying to minimize the cold air he allowed inside. There were enough cracks around the door and windows to let the cold in.
Lou heard the door and poked her head out from under the blanket just in time to see Kid disappear outside. She sighed, savoring one last moment wrapped up in the blanket, then she pushed the covering off and got up. She dressed quickly, standing close to the stove, then started working the pump handle to get some water to heat.
With the pot on the stove, she busied herself tidying up the small house. She pulled the bedcovers up on the bed, straightening the material and smoothing the top until it at least looked neat. It was a small thing, given the general state of the structure itself, but it was important to her that it be done.
Jedediah awoke just then, his whimpers quickly rising in pitch until Lou uncovered the cradle and picked him up. In short order she had his diaper changed, and then she sat down in the rocker to feed him. They were just finishing when Kid came back.
He pushed the door shut quickly against the stiff breeze, shuddering in the cold. But then he held up his prizes. “Got at least a couple of cups of milk,” he said, holding out the pitcher in his left hand. Then he held out his hat in his right hand. “And four eggs.”
Lou set the baby down and took the hat, placing the eggs carefully on the table. Then she took the milk as Kid shrugged out of his jacket. “Guess we’ll at least have a good Thanksgiving breakfast,” she said.
Kid smiled and nodded. He loved how she tried to make things so positive. Still, four eggs in one day was unusual. “It’ll be the best,” he agreed. He went to the door to hang up his jacket, then stopped, looking out the window. “There’s a wagon coming this way,” he said, puzzled. They didn’t get many visitors, and certainly not this early in the morning.
Lou joined him at the window. “Wonder who it could be,” she mused.
Kid just shrugged. “Guess we’ll know soon enough,” he said. There was little doubt now that the wagon was coming straight toward the house.
They stood at the window together, watching, for several minutes as the mysterious wagon drew closer. Suddenly, Lou leaned closer to the window, squinting through the scratched glass. “It’s Teaspoon!” She pulled the door open and ran outside, not even bothering with a coat.
From the wagon, Teaspoon saw her come out of the house, and he flicked the reins to get just a little more speed from the horses on this last little bit of the trip. Beside him, Polly was waving excitedly.
He pulled the horses to a stop, noting that Polly was jumping down before the wheels even quit turning. In short order she had Lou wrapped up in a hug. Teaspoon climbed down on the other side, coming face to face with Kid. Both men grinned as Teaspoon held out his hand. “Good to see you, Kid.”
Kid just shook his head, reached for Teaspoon’s hand, then pulled the older man into a tight embrace. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Teaspoon,” he whispered.
“Good to see you too, Kid,” Teaspoon said. He pushed back gently, studying the younger man. He didn’t much like what he saw. Kid looked so tired, and too thin, and it hurt to watch as the younger man took a couple of obviously painful, limping steps backward to make room for Lou.
“Teaspoon?” Lou reached out tentatively, almost afraid that this couldn’t be real.
“Hello, Lou.” He wrapped his arms around her, noting with sadness that she felt even smaller than in her Pony Express days. He was more thankful than ever that something had pushed him in this direction.
“Well, come inside,” Kid said, finally recovering a bit from the surprise. “Get out of this wind.” He limped ahead and opened the door.
Polly went in first, followed by Lou and Teaspoon. Kid shut the door when they were all inside, then shook his head again. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“The Marshal in Rock Creek said you’d gone back to Texas,” Lou added. She went over to pick up Jedediah, who was staring at the strangers in wide-eyed wonder.
“Well, we did,” Polly said. She was quickly at Lou’s side, smiling at the baby in the younger woman’s arms.
“Found I just didn’t have another war in me,” Teaspoon admitted. He too was drawn to the baby. “And when word went out that Sam Houston hisself wanted Texas to stay in the Union, well, that pretty much decided things.”
“We headed north again, but Teaspoon had given up the Marshal’s job, and I had sold the saloon, so there was no reason to go back to Rock Creek,” Polly added.
“Kept going north,” Teaspoon said.
Polly smiled as Jedediah reached out his arms to her. Taking the baby from Lou she added, “We’ve traveled a lot of miles these last few months.”
“And you wound up here,” Lou said softly. “I’m still not sure this isn’t a dream.” And if it was a dream, she knew she didn’t want to wake up.
“It’s not a dream,” Teaspoon said gently. One look at the bare little house told him they’d arrived none too soon. He looked out the window, watching something just beyond the wagon. “Now, I got some things to bring in from the wagon,” he said. “Then we got plenty of time to catch up.” He paused to tickle Jedediah’s chin, then he opened the door. “Might be there’s even more surprises today.”
Lou opened her mouth to say she wasn’t sure she could take more surprises, but before she could say the words, a shadow appeared in the doorway.
“I think he means me.”
Kid and Lou turned almost as one to face the door where the voice had come from.
Buck stepped inside, holding a wrapped package in one hand and the carcass of a wild turkey in the other. He barely had time to drop both before Lou launched herself into his arms.
He caught her easily, holding her tight. “Hey, Lou.”
Kid limped toward them, still in shock. “Buck.”
Buck deposited Lou gently back onto her feet, then reached for Kid’s hand. “Good to see you, Kid.”
“Tompkins said you’d left Rock Creek to find your brother. I didn’t figure we’d be seeing you.”
Buck just smiled and shook his head. When had Tompkins ever cared enough to find out what was really going on with him? “Red Bear made it very clear when I went back to get Ike out that he didn’t want me there,” he answered, not without a little sadness in his voice.
“Where were you then?” Lou asked.
“Do you remember Anna Grainger, the woman whose baby I helped deliver not long after Ike died?” Kid and Lou both nodded, so Buck continued. “She went back to St. Joseph for a while, but then she decided to go ahead and settle the land she and her husband had purchased. She wrote and asked if I'd escort her, and help her get things set up. Turns out their land was not far from Sweetwater, so that’s where I’ve been.”
Kid was still shaking his head. “But how did you wind up here, now . . . together?”
Teaspoon had slipped out the door behind Buck, and now he came back in carrying a box. “Well, that there’s an interestin’ story,” he said. He set the box on the table and indicated the contents. “An’ we figured it weren’t right to show up empty-handed.”
Lou looked into the box and gasped. She reached in and started to pull out items, tears coming to her eyes. There was sugar, flour, lard, salt, molasses, potatoes, a pumpkin, even candy - and not a bean in sight. By the time she looked up the tears were flowing freely. “How did you know?” she whispered.
“We got to Little River late last night,” Polly said. She handed the baby off to Buck, then went over to put her arms around Lou. “It was too late to try and find you then, but the store was still open so we asked if they knew you.”
“We only knew the name of the town you were by,” Teaspoon added.
“Well, the shopkeeper gave us directions - and then said how happy he was that someone was finally here to help such a wonderful family,” Polly said.
“He told us about the weather problems this last summer,” Buck said, trying to disentangle the baby’s fingers from his hair.
“And it weren’t likely you came west with much money, not leaving a war zone like that,” Teaspoon said.
“But how did you even know we were here?” Kid asked.
Buck grinned. “Well, Rachel taught Janos Terkovsky how to read and write English before she left Rock Creek, then she told him to practice by writing to her when she left.”
“He did know where we were going,” Kid admitted. In fact, Janos had helped them procure the old wagon, and had made repairs on it - free of charge.
“Rachel heard from Janos and wrote to us,” Polly said.
“And I wrote to Sam and Emma,” Teaspoon said.
“I had stopped to see them on my way out with Anna,” Buck added, “so they knew how to get in touch with me.”
“Meanwhile, Sam knew Polly an’ me had left Texas, so he asked if I was looking for a job,” Teaspoon said. He pulled back his jacket to reveal the Assistant Territorial Marshal badge pinned to his vest. “Turns out he was looking for a couple of men.”
“He got me too,” Buck said with a grin, showing off a similar badge.
“Gonna be based out of Longdale,” Teaspoon added. “Figure that’s maybe ten, twelve miles from here.”
“About that, yeah,” Kid said, still not quite believing the coincidence.
Buck handed the baby back to Polly and walked over to Lou, who was still staring in wonder at the food on the table. “Close enough that we can help you get this place fixed up real nice,” he said softly, reaching out to wipe the tears from her cheek.
“Just like old times,” Teaspoon said, his voice cracking just a little. “All of us working together.”
Buck went to the doorway and picked up the package he had dropped. “This is from Emma,” he said as he handed it to Lou.
Her fingers trembled as she undid the string, and then she gasped as she opened the paper. There were two quilts inside, one full-size, and one just the right size for a cradle.
“Sam said he’ll be out soon to see how his two new deputies are doin’ in Longdale,” Teaspoon said. “Figures he might bring Emma along for a little visit.”
“Emma?” Whatever resolve Lou had left dissolved and she sobbed. After all they had been through, to have these friends here now, and the promise of a visit from Emma, who had been like a mother to them . . .
Kid wrapped his arms around his wife, holding her for a few moments in silence. Then he looked up, smiling through his own tears. “I’m with Lou,” he said. “I think this has to be a dream. I just hope I don’t wake up any time soon.”
Polly smiled and handed Jedediah to a beaming ‘grandpa’ Teaspoon, then she went over to pull the last items out of the box. “Well, I think you should dream about a big dinner then,” she said. “We brought all the fixings.”
“And we found a flock of wild turkeys on the way out this morning,” Buck added, “so I stopped to hunt.” He picked up the turkey carcass and grinned. “It is Thanksgiving, after all.” Then he took the bird over to the table and started to help Polly.
Kid kept his arms wrapped around Lou, but he pulled her a few steps back, out of the way. For a few minutes they just watched as Teaspoon played with Jedediah, and Buck and Polly worked at the stove. Then he leaned very close and whsipered, “I guess we’ve got a lot to be thankful for after all.”
Lou nodded, wiping away her tears. “The best things,” she agreed. “We got each other, and Jedediah. We got friends, and a table of plenty for Thanksgiving. And we got our dreams again, Kid. We got our dreams."
*set after Dead Ringer*
I saw my death today. Laid there at my feet.
It's not something everyone can say they've seen, but who would want to? It wasn't a good death. Nothing anyone would dream of. Sprawled in the dirt, with a bullet hole in the back, spilling blood into the dust.
Just like a nightmare, I'd stood there and watched it all.
He took my name and died for it.
He was crazy, but then again, anyone that willingly lived my life would have to be.
Teaspoon said that I've been given a second chance. He said I could walk away and let it go. Let it go. Who is he trying to fool? Word will get out, it always does. There'll be another man gunnin' for me before the dirt on his grave settles. They'll come after me and I'll kill them. Same old story.
Emma'd tried to make me feel better... made my favorite pie, but I couldn't eat it... couldn't even look at it. Everything tasted like dust in my mouth.
Everyone left me alone, talking about anything... everything besides the shooting. Fine by me. I didn't want my life to hurt them. I didn't want my curse to.. my curse to...
I couldn't stay there with them. Couldn't listen to their words and know that they were tryin' to avoid hurting me. I'm just a bother.. plenty of trouble, that's me.
I walked out into the night, headin' for nowhere, lettin' my feet take me where they wanted to. I ain't that particular, not anymore. Why? I'm just me.
I'm Wild Bill Hickok, dead man walking.
Emma Shannon walked across the yard from her house to the bunkhouse, shifting the bowl of green beans she carried so it was leaning against her hip. She settled herself into a chair on the porch and set to preparing the beans for cooking. Next she would tackle the pot of potatoes that needed peeling and finally, time allowing, she would peel the bowl of apples she had next to her. Even with all that work ahead of her, she couldn't take the grin off her face, she felt like she was postively beaming!
This is what she had been waiting for, what she knew she needed. People to fuss over and who most definitely needed her. She knew she had made the right decision the moment she told the representative from Russell, Majors and Waddell that they could hire her and use her property to set up a way station for the new mail delivery service the company was starting, called the Pony Express.
She had been alone on her large homestead for a few years and the silence and loneliness was enough to get to anyone. She didn't know how much more of it she could have taken but now she didn't have to worry about that. There were seven people besides herself that would be considering this place their residence and she hoped, one day, might even call it home. Teaspoon Hunter had arrived a couple of weeks ago, he would be in charge of training the riders and scheduling rides once they actually started taking them. He had immediately set up residence in the tool shed next to the barn and set about making sure all the necessary equipment that would be required by the riders was on the premises by the time the group assigned to the Sweetwater station arrived.
Mr. Spoon, as Emma liked to refer to him, was a friendly sort and would seek out her company whenever he wasn't working. The two had even spent a few evenings, sitting on her front porch, talking about different places they've been and what had led them to Sweetwater. Of course, she had told the least she could, as she was sure he had done.
It was nice having him around, even though he did seem a bit eccentric at times but she wasn't settling for just the cake, she wanted the icing too. And she got it in the form of the most rag-tag group of boys she had even seen all in one place. Five of them had arrived at different times yesterday, with the sixth boy getting to the station early this morning. As she put down her bowl of beans and set to work on the potatoes, she watched Teaspoon trying to train the young group.
She saw that her first assessment of the lot of them had been correct. They were all as different as night and day but they were the same too. The help wanted posters had stressed that the riders the company hired had to be orphans so she knew these six had no families. But what brought a frown to her pretty face was wondering how long they had been on their own, as well as what they might have had to endure on their way to Sweetwater and the new jobs that awaited them.
Emma got up and went into the bunkhouse. She put the beans and potatoes to boil on the stove then set out sandwiches and a pitcher of milk. She went to the door and called that lunch was ready. After getting permission from Mr. Spoon to take a break, she watched as they nearly ran into the bunkhouse and grabbed the food in front of them. This was a very different sight than what she'd encountered last night. The only two to make a move at the table had been Billy Cody and Jimmy Hickok; she had even nodded approvingly when Cody had asked for a second helping of her stew. She was worried about how held back and reserved Buck Cross, Ike McSwain and Lou McCloud had seemed. She would keep her eye on those three. If they were going to succeed at the task ahead of them, they would need to keep their strength up. As it was, she felt that they were all way too skinny for their own good.
They needed someone like her around, someone to tell them what they could or couldn't do, make sure they behaved, and definitely put good, healthy food in front of them at all meals and see that they ate it. Emma also felt that they needed someone they could turn to if they got hurt or just needed to talk. She wanted to be that person to all of them, if they would only let her. She hoped her surprise for tonight would set them all at ease.
Up to now, she had been all business and hadn't paid them any mind. But that was about to change. She'd gotten a good look at her 'boys' and she liked what she saw. Just as she needed them to give her some meaning in her life, she knew they needed someone in their lives too. She would love nothing more than to mother them. A couple of the boys, Jimmy, Cody, and the newest arrival who called himself the Kid, seemed more sure footed than the others but in the end, they were still boys and needed a parent figure or figures in their lives. They could learn so much from Mr. Spoon and she knew, even though he seemed rough with them, he had taken an instant liking to them.
As she checked the roast in the oven, she couldn't help but smile each time she said the word 'boy'. The reason was because one of her boys was not a boy at all but a young lady. A very pretty young lady she concluded from the brief glance she'd gotten of Lou's face. Emma liked knowing there was another woman in her midst, even though she would never say anything to ruin Lou's chances of working for the Express. The young lady obviously had her reasons and Emma could only hope that one day she might be able to find out what they are.
The rest of the afternoon was spent between sitting on the bunkhouse porch, listening to the riders complain and Mr. Spoon bark orders in their direction, and running into the building to check on her meal. The closer it got to dinnertime, the more excited Emma became. She didn't want the riders to feel as if this was only their place of employment, she wanted them to feel like they belonged. She wanted them to know that they could count on her and Mr. Spoon for anything, good or bad.
Finally, it was time to eat so she stepped onto the porch and rang the dinner bell. As the group approached, she sent them over to the pump to wash up then went inside to await there entrance. She smiled at Mr. Spoon, with whom she had confided last night on her surprise for the boys. He sat at the head of the table and waited to see the reaction from his riders.
Expecting the same type of meal as last night, the six stopped short with their eyes wide and mouths open. Set on the table before them was the largest amount of food any of them had ever seen in a long time. A roast, potatoes, green beans, hot biscuits, gravy. And resting on the counter next to the stove was a steaming apple pie.
At Emma's insistence, the boys found their seats and slowly at first then more eagerly, they dove into the bowls in front of them. Emma watched with satisfaction as they consumed her meal; if a bowl or platter became empty, she was right there to refill it. She noticed the boys looking around themselves in awe, it actually looked like a family in that room: Mr. Spoon was at the head of the table, she stood looking over them from the other end, and the six of them filled the seats in between, slowly starting to act like brothers not strangers.
She hoped her idea came across and by the end of the meal, she was sure that it had. Emma had wanted to show Cody, Jimmy, Kid, Buck, Ike and Lou that there was more to coming to the table at the end of the day than expecting a good meal. She hoped to teach them that there would always be good company, conversation, laughter, and most of all, people who cared about them. The food was the easy part, the rest would have to be worked on for it to be there every day and night but none of her boys would go hungry again or have to worry where their next meal came from. That did not only mean feeding their stomachs, it also meant feeding their hearts.
Her heart had been open to them the moment they had arrived and she hoped they would each open theirs to include her, Mr. Spoon and each other. By the end of the meal, the table was a mess of empty plates but inside, each person at that table was filled with a lot more. They finally belonged somewhere and it didn't matter how different or similar they were; there were endless reasons as to why they should be there and it was up to them individually why they felt like they belonged. Emma smiled for what must have been the hundredth time that day; she had fed them with a lot more than just food, she had given them hope, meaning, and most of all, the chance to feel important.
“That’s it, I can’t do it,” Justine growled as she threw her hands up in the air, and then immediately regretted the decision when her back twinged in pain.
“Sweetie, it’s going to be alright,” Rachel said with a calming smile as she walked over to the frantic, pacing woman. “Just take a deep breath and relax.”
“Relax?” she asked, arching her brow and crossing her arms as best she could over her ample stomach. “Did Teaspoon already spike the punch?”
Rachel laughed and placed her hands on Justine’s shoulders, steering her towards a chair. Justine allowed herself to go, mostly because her back was killing her and because she wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t just burst out in tears if she didn’t take a step back. What exactly had possessed her all those months ago to agree to get married before the baby came? It had to be the hormones. Because what idiot decides to plan a wedding knowing they could give birth at any moment?
It was love. Pure and simple, she was a complete and utter sap. After she and Buck finally worked things out and after she accepted his 22nd marriage proposal, she felt the least she could do was wait to have the wedding until all his friends could be there. Of course everyone’s schedules finally worked out this week. Her luck wouldn’t allow anything different.
She was really beginning to wish she had just gone with her first instinct to elope with Buck. But no, she wanted everyone to join them for the occasion. She was crazy, no other way around it.
Her family, Cody, Sam and Emma had all descended on the town to join the preparations Rachel, Polly and Lou were making. Add their help to all that the townspeople were doing and there wasn’t much left to worry about. Or so it would seem. They said they’d do everything, she wouldn’t have to lift a finger, and yet she was constantly being called over to give her opinion on things. She’d never been presented with so many options for food, flowers, and decorations before in her life. She just wanted to scream at everyone to leave her alone. Buck tried to convince her it was just the stress from being pregnant talking once again. If he said that one more time he was liable to find out what else her stress convinced her to do.
Today it was the wedding cake. Had to be made for the reception this afternoon. How hard could it be to make a cake? Mix flour, eggs, and sugar together, throw in a little milk, bake it, pull it out, frost it. Voila, a wedding cake. But no. Her mother and Emma, who got along fabulously for women who had just met three days ago, kept asking her if she wanted this flavor or that, that color frosting or this. And Polly kept fussing over whether there was going to be enough room for all the food everyone was bringing and wondered if they shouldn’t maybe move the reception to a bigger place, what did she think?
What did she really think? She was going to forget the whole wedding ceremony, the dress, the lace, the flowers, the church, the reception, the cake, the food, and she was going to go hide under the covers until she either had the baby or everyone went away. Whichever came first. Really didn’t matter to her. But she was going to go to bed. Yep, that’s what she was going to do, as soon as she managed to get up out of the chair.
“Time to go get dressed,” Lou smiled, suddenly appearing at Justine’s side. She took one arm, Rachel took the other and the two women pulled her out of the chair and started her towards the room where her dress and veil were all laid out.
“I can’t wait,” she smiled mirthlessly. So much for the nap.
“I am happy for you, Buck.”
Buck looked away from the sight of Justine across the room talking to her parents, and turned to his friend with a smile. “Thank you.”
“A beautiful woman,” Emma continued. “Strong and very determined.”
Didn’t he know that. She never gave up on them in the beginning, even when he walked away. And when he returned, she didn’t just give in, come running back to him. She did what was best for her, for their child, and now that she loved him, honored him by becoming his wife, he knew she’d never change her mind or walk away. They would face life together.
“Yes, she is,” he finally said, as she watched him expectantly.
He talked more with her, but so much of the conversation was lost to him as he could not stop watching his wife. His wife. Two words that he thought he’d never say in this life. Absently he said good-bye to Emma and started across the room towards Justine.
She looked up and her smile matched his as he drew closer. Reaching out her hand, he stopped when she suddenly dropped it to clutch at her stomach, her face twisting in pain. Her mother supported her, and in an instant he was beside her, helping as she sank to the ground.
“Justine?” The panic in his voice was evident and she didn’t answer him. “Justine?”
She looked up at him and in a voice broken
by sudden pain said, “Get the doctor. My water just broke.”