Topic #26: The Mysterious Package
|Angry All The Time
||Fate In A Box
|Burying The Past
||The Everything Box
The reasons that I can’t stay
He looked up from the desk in his study, the late afternoon sun slanting through the window, dust specks dancing through the heavy air. Summer was dying, slowly being replaced by crisp early mornings and frosty nights. Yet it seemed that winter had taken permanent lodging inside his soul. He felt frozen, unable to comprehend the simplest of things, lost and adrift as his entire world had been turned upside down.
Faintly he could hear Nicolette moving in the hallway just outside his door. She walked like a ghost in her house, a specter of the woman who had filled his heart, his home, his world with love. He knew why she was doing it, knew he should open the door and explain to her the reasons behind his actions, but with that explanation would come her attempt to draw him out, to label what he was feeling, and the only thing he wanted to feel was anger. Unfortunately, his anger was being directed at the wrong person, and so he remained locked like a recluse in his study, drifting into the kitchen after her meals were finished to take the plate she’d left covered for him back to his study.
After that first day, the day that haunted him in ways too numerous to name, he had avoided her. She didn’t deserve his wrath, not when all she ever wanted to do was love him, help him, and stand side by side through life with him. But how could he share this with her, when for nearly a week he’d sat lost in his room trying to understand and process it all.
His fingers found their way to the edge of the envelope that had shattered his life. A letter from Lou. He’d smiled when he recognized her handwriting, more calm and content in his life than he’d been months ago and anxious to see how his old friend was doing. Now, he would give anything to go back, undo that moment and never open the letter.
The missive went on to explain how Jonathon had passed away a month ago, and she wanted to tell him the truth about their son. No matter how many times he read the letter, he still couldn’t understand why she had chosen to marry another and pass his child off as her new husband’s. It tore at his soul, a black spot that festered dark and angry to know that another man had loved his son, read him stories, tucked him into bed at night and did all the things that he never got to do.
Louise said she had been frightened when she realized she was pregnant. She had left him after their time together because she wanted him to go and realize his dream. She wanted him to have everything he’d ever wished for, and marrying her and having to care for Theresa and Jeremiah would hold him back. She didn’t love Jonathon when they married, but she wanted a father for her child, and she had eventually grown to love him. They had two more children and he was an excellent father. But she regretted keeping the truth from Cody.
Closing his eyes, he felt the hot burn of tears. That day, that day when he was ready to leave behind his wife and his daughter and left because he saw Louise so happy and in love, he’d seen his son. It was the only time he’d ever seen him. He’d left because he hadn’t wanted to disrupt Louise’s family. He’d walked away from a son he never knew was his.
And yet if he hadn’t walked away, he would have missed the life he had now. Nicolette and their children, the joys and the love they shared…how could he have lived his life without any of that?
Yet part of him was still filled with so much anger. He was angry with Lou who claimed she was only doing the best she could; angry with himself for sometimes understanding her actions and backwards thinking, because selfishly he wanted to stay mad at her, to feel entitled to feeling cheated. He had loved her so much when she left him and told him to go open his show, had begged her to come with him, how could she doubt that he wouldn’t be there with her when she found she was pregnant? That day she’d shown up, she knew she was carrying his child, and yet she chose to remain silent, to introduce him to her husband and let him think that she’d found the perfect life. Maybe he’d been wrong about what they’d shared. Maybe she hadn’t cared for him as much as he’d thought; maybe she’d never loved him at all.
And maybe it was good that he’d never known the truth then, because he never would have known the kind of love he had now. He believed Lou cared for him, she obviously had to given the way she took care of him, encouraged him, said she believed in him, and while they had shared a bed, maybe she just didn’t love him as much as he loved her. If she had told him she was pregnant and they had stayed together, would she have ever found the love she had with Jonathon, and would he have ever felt the all-encompassing love he felt every time Nicolette looked at him? Maybe he and Lou were only meant to have that time together, and nothing more.
He raised his head off the back of his chair when the sounds in the hallway changed. The gait of the footsteps was different than normal, and an odd thump, though soft, seemed to echo through the house. He rose from his chair, his stomach clenching in a sudden grip of fear. Opening the door he felt his strength ebb when he saw Nicolette, her coat fastened around her, standing before the entryway mirror putting her hat on her head while her bags sat at her feet.
She turned at his ragged whisper and her face showed the signs of her own pain. Taking a step towards him, she stopped and folded her hands in front of her. “William.”
“I am going to visit Josephine,” she said softly. “I do not know what it is that troubles you right now, William, but I cannot live like this. You hurt, but you do not want me around, and I will not make your pain worse.”
He closed his eyes, leaning against the door. He had been so unfair to her, yet she wasn’t mad, she wanted to ease his burdens. She thought leaving, giving him space, would help him, but all it did was make him feel like someone had taken a white-hot poker and stabbed him in the gut.
Shaking his head, he stepped forward, shaking his head before wrapping her in his arms. Automatically her own closed around him, and the flow of hurt and strength passed between them. He leaned his chin on her shoulder and whispered one word. “Stay.”
It sat there, unmoving, unyielding of its secrets. Without a voice it taunted them, begging for their attention, begging to be touched, begging to be opened . . .
Distracted by the package on the table, Cody marked his place in his book and got off his bunk. He stretched and yawned innocently, never taking his eyes off of the table. He finally ambled over to the wash basin and picked up a wet rag, then strolled casually over to the table. He started moving the rag in circles on the wood, ever closer to the package.
Of course, to really get the table clean, he’d have to move the package, now wouldn’t he. He picked it up, rubbing his finger against the string that held the wrapping in place. It was a little loose now, and it gave a bit . . .
“Cody, stop fooling with that,” Jimmy ordered from his bunk. He set his pistol and polishing rag aside as he stood up. “It’s Buck’s package, so leave it alone.” Not that the package wasn’t weighing on his mind a bit too.
“I was just cleaning the table,” Cody complained. He gave the package a little shake before reluctantly setting it back on the table.
“Sure, he does that all the time,” Noah remarked, rolling his eyes to underscore the sarcasm evident in his voice. Of course, if Cody just happened to ‘accidentally’ open that package . . .
“I don’t think Buck would be too happy to find his package opened when he gets back,” Kid commented. Still, the mystery was almost overwhelming. Buck just didn’t get a lot of mail, period, let alone a package.
“I’m sure he’ll be back soon,” Lou added, trying to sound hopeful. Ever since the package had arrived on the morning stage, it had occupied all of them.
“Don’t figure he can do much tracking in this rain,” Jimmy said. He moved closer to the table, noting – again – the neat, square corners on the package. Someone had taken great care in wrapping it.
“Might mean they’ll be home tonight then,” Cody said. “The posse’ll have to turn back.”
“Ain’t like Teaspoon to give up so easy,” Kid pointed out.
“Too bad none of the rest of us were here when he needed posse members,” Noah added. Then at least he wouldn’t be here staring at that package. It wasn’t very large, really, but not that small either . . .
“Maybe they already caught up to the Slattery gang,” Lou suggested. She looked out the window at the driving rain. If it wasn’t for that rain, they’d be outside – not in the bunkhouse, staring at the package. The package with no return address . . .
“Yeah, maybe,” Jimmy agreed. Between Buck’s tracking skill and Teaspoon’s instincts as a lawman, there was a good chance. But Buck still wasn’t in the bunkhouse right now . . . and the mystery package was. He cleared his throat and forced his eyes away from the table, reaching for a deck of cards. “Well, seeing as how Cody cleaned the table, anyone for cards?” Of course, he’d have to move the package to clear the space, so he picked it up. It really wasn’t heavy, he decided, though there was definitely some weight.
Lou reached out and took the package from Jimmy’s hands, pointedly ignoring the scowl he cast in her direction. “I’ll just put this on Buck’s bunk,” she said. As she walked, she managed to shake it just a little. There was no rattle, so nothing loose inside.
“It came on the west-bound stage,” Noah remarked as he sat down at the table. “Must be from someone out east.”
“Sometimes packages don’t go the quickest route,” Kid pointed out. “Could still be from out west.”
“But who does Buck know either direction that’d be sending him a package?” Cody asked.
No one had an answer to that question. But as Jimmy started to deal the cards, all eyes were studying the package on the bunk.
The second day was worse.
The rain continued, so only the necessary chores got completed outside. Then it was back to the bunkhouse for reading, writing, cards . . . and staring at the parcel.
Rachel stumbled as Cody bumped her. “Cody!” They’d received new blankets for the bunkhouse, and with cooler autumn weather setting in, it was time to get them out. She was just heading for Buck’s bunk when the collision occurred.
“Sorry, Rachel,” he mumbled, coming to a stop. “I was just trying to help,” he added – as he lifted the mysterious package from the bunk.
“Cody’s been very helpful the last couple of days,” Kid said.
“Yeah, he has,” Noah agreed. “Cleaning the table, helping change the bedding.”
“I help other times,” Cody protested.
“Sure you do, Cody,” Jimmy said. “Usually when you need money from one of us.”
“No money involved now,” Lou observed.
“Nope, just that package,” Noah added, and they all laughed.
Rachel finished straightening the blanket on the bunk and stood up. “Well, we’ll just put this right back here for Buck,” she said, taking the package from Cody. She couldn’t help but notice that the string was a little looser than the night before, and the paper not quite so tightly wrapped. The weight in her hands didn’t tell her anything about its contents either. In truth, she was as curious as the riders – but she couldn’t let on. She placed the package back on the bunk. “Now you all just leave that there for him!”
“Wish he’d get back,” Lou said, climbing up onto her own bunk. She could see the package very clearly from there . . . but even the different angle didn’t give her any clue as to its contents. “Well, wish Teaspoon’d get back too,” she added. Of course, Teaspoon didn’t have a package waiting that was driving them nuts.
“As long as they’re safe, that’s the main thing,” Rachel said. After all, it wasn’t just because of the package that they wanted Buck to get back.
“Yeah, they gotta be safe,” Cody agreed.
“Teaspoon ain’t the kind to walk into a trap,” Jimmy pointed out.
“And Buck’s real careful when he tracks,” Kid added.
“Real careful,” Noah agreed. “Could take a while to find that gang.”
That wasn’t what any of them wanted to hear – and all eyes returned to the mysterious package.
Day three dawned dark and rainy, almost as if the black clouds had taken up residence over Rock Creek and intended to stay forever. At least, it felt like forever to those waiting. Waiting for the sun to come out, waiting for the thick mud to go away, waiting for Buck to get back and open his package.
Even with the bad weather, the others all watched with a bit of envy as Noah took off on the next scheduled run. At least he was out doing something different.
The card games were getting old, but there wasn’t much else to do in the bunkhouse. Lou studied the cards in her hand, finally deciding that she’d have to draw five new ones to even have a chance at getting anything approaching a good hand. With a sigh she tossed her cards down and looked around. Her eyes settled on the package – and a distressing question came to mind. “What if it’s something private and he won’t tell us what it is?”
There was no need to further define “it” or “he” – they all knew. “He’ll tell us what it is,” Cody said, though there was a slight hesitation in his voice.
“Sure he will,” Jimmy agreed. “We’re his friends.”
“We don’t even know who might have sent him something,” Kid pointed out.
“He’ll tell us,” Lou said, trying to sound confident. “He will.”
Rock Creek came into view, and a welcome sight it was. “Good to be home,” Teaspoon remarked. Five days in the saddle chasing bank robbers had definitely taken its toll, and he was tired.
“Yeah, it is,” Buck agreed. Even though the rain had finally let up about an hour earlier, he still felt waterlogged. And they definitely hadn’t gotten much sleep during the course of the chase.
They rode into town from the east, four members of the posse leading Vic Slattery and four of his gang members. Three other posse members had left the group on the outskirts of town, heading directly home to their farms, while two other members of the gang lay buried in shallow graves on the mesa where the groups had finally met up.
It was getting late, and the streets were nearly deserted. Within a few minutes the prisoners were secured in the jail, the deputy on duty had been given his instructions, and Teaspoon and Buck headed for the station.
“That was good work out there, Buck,” Teaspoon said as they walked out the door.
“Thanks, Teaspoon,” Buck replied. The older man’s approval had come to mean a lot to him, so it was good to hear those words.
Leading their horses, they started walking toward the barn. Buck was slightly ahead, and as he watched the younger man walk, Teaspoon couldn’t help but wonder what the future held. With the end of the Pony Express all but in sight, they were all facing changes, and he hadn’t heard Buck speak about any future plans. One of these days he’d have to talk to Buck about maybe staying on in Rock Creek as a deputy – but not today. He was half-afraid that Buck would say no, and after the long chase, he didn’t want to face that right now. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. “Flip you for the first hot bath.”
Buck grinned and nodded. “All right.”
“Call it,” Teaspoon said, tossing the coin into the air.
They both stopped and watched as the coin landed, rolled on its edge for a moment – then landed with the heads side up. “Guess it’s your lucky day,” Teaspoon said as he picked up his coin.
They had just reached the edge of the station yard when Rachel came out of the house. “I saw you coming,” she said. “I put some water on to heat if you want a bath.”
“That’s gonna feel real good, Rachel,” Buck said. “Thanks.”
“Matter of fact, we just flipped a coin to see who got the first bath,” Teaspoon added. “Buck won.”
“Well, the water will be ready shortly,” Rachel said. “And there was some stew left over from dinner. It’s still down in the bunkhouse – just in case you got in tonight. I’ll get that heated up.” Besides, that was a good excuse to be in the bunkhouse when Buck opened his package.
Buck and Teaspoon headed for the barn to take care of their horses while Rachel went directly to the bunkhouse. “They’re back,” she announced as she walked in the door.
The others all jumped off their bunks or stood up from the table. “Great!” Cody said. “Now Buck can open his package.”
“Well, they’re both kind of tired and hungry,” Rachel warned. “He might want food and a bath before he does anything else.” She lit the fire in the stove and put the pot of stew on to heat.
“Won’t take that long to open the package,” Lou pointed out. “And it’s gonna take a while to get the stew and the water hot.”
“I’ll just make sure it’s where he’ll see it first,” Kid said. He picked the package up from where it sat in the middle of Buck’s bunk and placed it near the foot, closest to the door. The much looser string slipped off of one corner as he moved it.
“It’s gonna open itself before Buck gets in here,” Jimmy remarked. He grabbed the package from Kid and readjusted the string.
They waited in silence then, standing around, trying to appear casual – trying not to look at the package. A few minutes later the door finally opened and Teaspoon walked in, followed by Buck.
“Rachel, that stew smells like heaven,” Teaspoon said. The food was warming up, and the scent was filling the bunkhouse.
“Yeah, especially after Teaspoon’s beans the last few days,” Buck agreed with a grin.
“Hmmmmmpph.” Teaspoon turned back to glare at Buck. “I make a damn good pot of beans!” he protested. Well, they hadn’t been bad the first night, at least.
Buck’s grin widened as he stepped past Teaspoon and headed for his bunk. But then he hesitated, puzzled by the way everyone seemed to be gathering around him. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” came the quick reply from several voices.
Lou reached down and picked up the package. “This came on the stage for you the other day.”
Buck stepped forward and took the package warily. The way everyone was staring at him was really making him nervous.
“Who’s it from?” Cody asked.
“I don’t know,” Buck replied. “I don’t recognize the writing.” Now he was puzzled by both the package and the other riders’ behavior. He set the package back on the bunk and hung his jacket up, then reached down to untie his holster.
“Ain’t you gonna open it?” Jimmy prompted.
“Yeah, in a minute,” Buck answered. He was curious, but he was also tired from five days of chasing bandits. He wanted to be ready for that hot bath, so he turned toward his trunk and bent down – thereby missing the looks of dismay on the faces of the other riders.
“You, uh . . . you want help with anything, Buck?” Kid asked.
“No,” Buck answered, even more puzzled. “Rachel’s got bath water heating. I just want some clean clothes to change into.” What was going on?
“Uh, Buck . . . you’re gonna open the package first, right?” Cody pleaded.
Buck stood up with the clean clothes in his hands and looked around. He almost laughed at the hopeful, pleading expressions he saw around him.
“That package has been here for three days,” Rachel explained. “I’m afraid it has been the object of a lot of speculation.”
“We’re just curious, that’s all,” Lou protested.
Buck looked around again, then he put the clothing on the bunk and reached for the package. He just held it for a moment as the others gathered even closer.
“Now, son, if you want to open it in private, that’s fine,” Teaspoon said. He felt it only right to say those words – even though his own curiosity level was already rising.
Buck was silent for a moment, then he shrugged and shook his head. “Whatever it is, I can’t imagine it’s anything you all can’t see.” He stepped over by the table and started to slide the string off.
Around the room there was silence, except for the rustle of paper. The wrapping finally fell away, revealing a silk scarf with a bright floral pattern decorating it.
“Who’d be sending you a scarf?” Cody asked.
“Package was too heavy to be just a scarf,” Jimmy argued.
Buck glanced at Jimmy with a raised eyebrow, wondering how much investigation the other man had done concerning the weight of the package. But his own curiosity was taking over so he turned his attention back to the scarf. There was something familiar about it – and definitely something still wrapped inside. He folded one corner back, revealing a letter.
The paper was folded, so he opened it up, glancing first at the bottom. When he saw the name there, he stopped in surprise. Then he sat down at the table and started the letter from the top.
The others just stared at Buck, wondering what in the world was going on. He hadn’t even finished unwrapping the package. The corner of something wooden was sticking out, teasing them with its continued mystery.
Cody couldn’t take it any longer. “Well? Who’s it from?”
“Cody, it’s Buck’s letter,” Jimmy said. Though his own curiosity made it hard to say those words.
Buck finally looked up from the letter. “It’s all right, Jimmy,” he said. “The letter is from Bill Barlow.”
“Bill Barlow?” several voices chorused.
“The guy who was going to marry Camille?” Kid clarified. He hadn’t been all that impressed with the man when they’d ridden out to find Buck and Camille.
“This letter says they got married about two weeks ago,” Buck answered.
“Bill wrote to tell you about the wedding?” Rachel asked. She just hoped the other man wasn’t writing to gloat that he had won Camille’s hand over Buck.
“Sort of,” Buck replied. “He actually wrote to apologize for the way he acted here – and to thank me for saving Camille.”
“Well, that was big of him,” Teaspoon observed.
“But what about the scarf?” Cody asked. “And what’s in it?”
Buck rubbed his fingers over the silk as he answered. “Camille was wearing this the day they left Rock Creek,” he replied. “I told her she looked particularly beautiful wearing it. There’s a note from her at the bottom that she wanted me to have this, to always remember her.” As if he could ever forget . . . He peeled the corner back a little farther and pulled out a picture frame. His smile grew as he studied the photograph. “This is from their wedding,” he said finally as he put the frame on the table.
The others all gathered around, looking at the picture. Bill stood on one side, his arm wrapped lovingly around Camille’s waist. She was wearing a white wedding gown with a long train. Flowers adorned her dark hair. All in all, she looked . . .
“She’s beautiful,” Lou whispered.
“Definitely,” Jimmy agreed.
Buck just nodded, unable to find the words to describe how Camille looked in the photo. “They both say they’re very happy,” he said, indicating the letter in his hand.
“And how are you feeling about this, Buck?” Rachel asked. By now they all knew the history, that Buck and Camille had been promised to each other with the Kiowa, and that she had been stolen away at the same time that many Kiowa women and children had been killed.
They also knew that Buck had saved Camille’s life when she had visited Rock Creek not so long ago – and that he’d had to send her on the way to St. Joseph with another man.
“I’m happy that she’s happy,” he said softly. He looked around at the faces of his friends before adding, “Whatever Camille and I had beyond friendship, it was over a long time ago.”
“You’re all right with Camille marrying Bill?” Lou asked.
Buck took one more peek at the photo, then he looked up and smiled. “Yeah, I am,” he said. He glanced at each face around him, and his smile widened. “After all, if I had stayed with the Kiowa and married Camille, I never would have known any of you.” He paused, and then added, “And that would be sadder.”
There was silence around the table as Buck stood up and re-wrapped the photo carefully in the scarf. He walked over to his bunk and placed the package carefully in his trunk. There was plenty of room – he didn’t have many possessions. But this one was a precious reminder of a past he’d cherish.
Just like he’d cherish each of the friends he still found watching him as he turned around. “Anyone for a sarsaparilla at Polly’s?” he asked. “I’m buying.” He could only grin as the bunkhouse emptied in a big hurry, leaving him standing alone with Rachel and Teaspoon.
“What about that bath?” Teaspoon asked.
“And your dinner?” Rachel added.
“That can wait,” Buck answered. He went over and pulled the pot of stew off of the stove and set it on the table. “Family’s more important,” he added, holding his arm out to Rachel.
“I agree,” she replied as she slipped her arm into his.
“Can’t argue with that,” Teaspoon agreed as he moved up to Rachel’s other side. Maybe it really wouldn’t be so worrisome to ask Buck about staying. But that too could wait.
They walked out of the bunkhouse together, heading for Polly’s saloon. Teaspoon pulled the door shut behind them, creating a swirl of air as it closed. The breeze caught the wrapping paper on the table and lifted it up into the air. The paper hovered for a moment, then dropped to the floor. Its momentum carried it to one side and under a bunk. It had done its job – first concealing, and then revealing the mystery it contained. Under the bunk it would stay.
Kid was silent the entire ride back to the way station. Lou glanced over at him, wondering what he was thinking and also hoping she'd helped him feel better about things. When she'd found him at the pond following Doritha's funeral, her main concern was making sure he was going to be alright. He'd been so upset since her death. She had no idea that she would also be revealing how much she still cared for him. But now she was glad that she had. Words weren't needed to say they were back together again, or at least she hoped they were. She wanted, no needed, them to be.
Feeling a pair of eyes on him, Kid turned toward her and smiled. "I couldn't have done this without you, Lou. Thank you."
She looked away suddenly feeling shy. She didn't want his praise as much as she wanted his love, she knew that now. "I meant what I said - I'll always be here for you."
"I'm so lucky to have you," he said softly. He had felt so alone after Doritha's death but Lou now gave him hope, hope and a promise of a future together.
They watched as the station came into view. Kid tied his horse to the post outside the bunkhouse and waited for Lou to do the same. He then went to her and offered her his hand.
Lou smiled and slipped her small hand into his large one and blushed at the soft squeeze he gave hers in return. How could such a simple gesture mean so much?
They ascended the steps together then entered the bunkhouse, finding a strange sight in front of them. Jimmy, Buck, Noah and Cody were all crouched down close to the table surface, staring intently at something before them. Upon closer inspection, Kid and Lou saw that it was a small package wrapped in plain brown paper.
"What's goin' on? What's that?" Kid asked, breaking the silence.
Four heads popped up, staring in confusion at the new arrivals. None had heard the door open.
Cody spoke first. "Kid, the others filled me in on what's been going on around here. I'm real sorry about your friend."
Kid appreciated the sincerity from their usually comical bunkmate.
"Thanks, Cody. Thanks a lot."
Cody nodded then got a goofy grin on his face. "Now to answer your question. I brought this package back with me from St. Joe. It's addressed to the Rock Creek Pony Express Way Station but doesn't say who it's for."
"And we're dyin' to find out," Noah muttered, leaning his head heavily on his hand as if the weight of it was too much.
Noticing Noah's tired appearance, Lou asked, "How long you guys been looking at that thing?"
"For about an hour now," Buck told her. "We just don't feel right opening it until we know who it's for."
She and Kid glanced at each other and shook their heads at the crazy guys in front of them.
"You'll never know who it's for if don't open it. Maybe there's a card or a note inside explainin' things," Lou offered.
"Never thought about that," Jimmy admitted. "Alright, let's do it." He and the others gingerly moved their fingers toward the package and in one swift movement, it was torn open.
Lying in front of the six riders was not what they expected. It was a hard cover book. The outside of it had faded and was worn, most likely from a lot of handling.
Cody picked it up and brought it closer to his eyes for inspection. Squinting, he read, "Something, something love poems. Ah, what's so great about this? Here," he said, handing it toward Lou, "it's probably for you."
Lou took the offered book and, annoyed, asked, "Why do you think it's for you?" She stared at Cody, daring him to come up with a sensible answer but knowing he wouldn't.
"'Cause it's love poems and you're a girl and girls get into that mushy stuff," Cody answered, shrugging, feeling as if she'd asked the dumbest question of all time.
"I wouldn't mind looking at them, yes, but that don't mean it's for me." Lou started flipping pages and was surprised when something fell out and floated to the floor, resting at her feet. Bending down, she picked up the delicate object and brought it to the table.
"What is it?" Buck asked as each of the guys tried to get a view of what she was holding.
"It's a crushed flower. It must have been beautiful. I've never seen anythin' like it before," she said, knowing she'd not seen that many different sorts of flowers in her life to be the judge of anything.
Kid had been the only one not commenting on the uncovered book and sucked in his breath upon seeing the crushed flower. He quickly glanced around and was relieved to find that no one had noticed his reaction. He couldn't believe what he was seeing but didn't want to let on to anyone else that it was upsetting him.
"I wonder what kind it is?" Noah asked as each rider felt compelled to place a finger on the fine flower.
"It's a dogwood," Kid muttered without thinking then seeing the others turn their eyes toward him, he tried to cover up by explaining, "There are a lot of dogwood trees in Virginia. I just saw a lot of that type of flower growing up, that's all." He looked away nervously.
Lou noticed the change in his behavior; he was withdrawing from the rest of them, from her. She wanted to ask him more on the subject but could tell by his stiff posture that he wasn't in the mood for talking. She frowned, wishing he would confide in her but knowing that wasn't like the Kid. He would tell her in his own time but that obviously was not now.
"Well since you know what type of flower it is, maybe someone sent it to you," Jimmy suggested.
Kid caught the teasing look on Jimmy's face and quickly protested, "I don't know anyone in St. Joe and 'sides, pressin' flowers in a book is something women do, what would it have do with me or any of you?" He knew that sounded stupid, anyone could press a flower in a book as a remembrance but he wanted the topic changed and wanted it done now.
As the other guys reluctantly agreed that he was probably right and they'd never find out who sent the strange package their way, Kid silently walked toward the door.
"Where you goin', Kid?" Lou asked out of concern. She didn't like the sad look that had come across his face. She thought she'd wiped it away by being there for him earlier but it was back.
"Just to take care of the horses, Lou," he told her with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'm fine, no need to worry," he assured her, answering the question written on her face before heading out the door.
But that's exactly what she did. Try as she might, Lou just couldn't help herself. He had seemed so much better after the time they spent together, not appearing as if he was all alone in the world. But now that look was back on his face, ever since they came in to the bunkhouse. No, Lou thought, staring at the table. It was ever since the mysterious package had been opened and it's contents revealed. But Kid had said that no one would have sent it to him. Then again she knew how easy it was to say something that wasn't true just to avoid talking about something you didn't want to talk about. She would definitely keep her eye on him, hoping it was just her imagination.
Kid couldn't take the tossing and turning anymore so he got up just before dawn. He had thought trying to sleep the night after Doritha had died was a hard enough thing to do but this was so much worse. How could such a simple gesture on his part so many years ago have brought someone heartache instead of joy? Because he was only thinking of himself, that's why. He had deceived her and never realized it until now.
He moved to the table and sat down. He stared at the book of poems, still in the exact spot the boys had left it in earlier. His finger slowly traced the faded outlines of the binding. His mind started drifting back to almost five years ago, to a warm beautiful spring afternoon in Virginia.
He had been planning something special for Doritha's fifteenth birthday and when the big day had finally arrived, he'd been both excited and nervous. He had wanted so much to buy her the perfect gift but that was easier said than done - true he was working several jobs after school and on weekends but it was for one purpose and one purpose only. His ma had just passed away and he trying to make some money to pay off her debts so he could keep the small farm that had been in her family for generations. He barely had any money to put food on the table much less waste it on something frivolous but it was important that he do this for her. Her father would have bought her the book of love poems if she'd asked him to but Doritha never bothered to so Kid wanted to give it to her.
Finally he had enough to purchase the sought after item and had even asked for it to be gift-wrapped. Kid had arranged for Doritha to meet him by the hollow log at the pond, their pond as she called it. On his way to the meeting spot, dressed in the best clothes he possessed, he couldn't help but feel disappointed that he couldn't do more for her. Passing a neighboring estate, similar to her family's, he paused at the sight of the dogwood trees lining the entrance to the property.
Not seeing anyone in sight, Kid quickly climbed over the fence and picked the largest flower he could find. He then made his way to the pond, only to stop in his tracks at the sight before him. There was Doritha dressed in the prettiest yellow dress he'd ever seen, hair curled and hanging down her back. And next to her was a blanket laid out with the most incredible looking food he would ever have the privilege of eating. He felt ashamed for a moment that she had to provide the food but quickly put the thought aside as he went to her.
From behind his back he pulled out the dogwood flower and presented it to her. He had laughed as she took it in her delicate hand, smelled it's beauty then gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek as a thank you. They enjoyed their time together, eating, talking and holding hands while they walked along the edge of the pond. Kid then directed her back to the blanket where, once they were seated again, he presented her with her birthday present.
Doritha tore open the package and gasped at the book in her hands. She knew what it cost and that Kid didn't have money of that sort but when she glanced at him, she knew better than to ask him how he'd been able to afford it, it would have hurt his ego too much. So instead, she gave him a hug and another kiss, this time on the lips.
That kiss turned into another and another and pretty soon they were lying on the blanket as hands wanted to wander to other places. Kid was brought back to reality and sat her up. He had another important item to take care of that day and didn't want to put it off any longer. She looked at him in confusion as he struggled through one of the hardest things he'd had to say in his young life and saw the tears that quickly came to her eyes.
He was leaving Virginia and leaving her. Kid wanted to go west, start a new life. He had finally accepted the fact that he couldn't stay around there any longer, even if she was there. There were just too many bad memories that he needed to get away from. So he told her he would have to relinquish the farm because there was no way he could earn that much money.
They had then argued as she said she'd get him the money he needed so he could come back one day and reclaim the land for his own. After much protesting, he accepted then taking her in his arms, Kid made a solemn promise that when he had settled somewhere and had a good job earning decent money, he would send for her so they could be together forever.
She had accepted his promise and sealed the deal by putting her flower in the book of poems and closing the pages on it, saying she was preserving their love for one another until the day when they could be together again. Doritha said she would always keep that book close to her heart, since it was full of hope and promise.
Kid sat up and blinked, trying to erase the images from his mind. What he'd said had just been words, appropriate to the situation at hand, thus quickly forgotten, but to her they were so much more.
Oblivious to the rays of sun now floating onto the table and across the floor, he rose and taking the book headed out the door, without so much as a look behind him. He quickly saddled Katy, knowing he had to take care of this right away, it was the proper thing to do. He owed her that much. Kid put the book in his saddlebag and slung it over the saddle then just as he put his foot in the stirrup, he paused as he realized that although this was important, there was something more important he had to do first.
He headed straight to the bunkhouse and was relieved to see the person he was seeking sitting by herself on the steps.
Lou had woken up as the first rays of light streamed into the room and turning over was surprised to find Kid sitting at the table instead of sleeping in his bunk. She had watched him for several minutes, as he didn't move anything except the hand running over the surface of the book. He had seemed so lost in thought she hadn't wanted to surprise him by acknowledging she was awake but had been taken off guard as she saw him suddenly get up and leave, taking the book with him.
It hurt her a little that he wasn't confiding in her but she also knew how important it was to try to take care of things on your own. Seeing that the rest of the boys hadn't even noticed the missing book, she decided not to mention it and left the room so they could dress without a lady present.
She had just sat down on the steps when she saw Kid approaching.
He made his way to her and stood leaning against the post looking down at her. "Hey, Lou," he said softly.
"Hey yourself," she answered. "You alright?" She couldn't help but ask although she had told herself repeatedly that she would leave him alone until he came to her.
Kid nodded. "I will be, just as soon as I take care of something but I needed to talk to you first." He moved to sit next to her and started fidgeting with his hands, not sure how to say it.
Lou reached over to still his hands, enclosing her fingers around his larger ones. "What is it, Kid? I hope you know you can tell me anything." She looked into his eyes, searching for something and was relieved when she saw the familiar glint of love surfacing.
"I do know that and I appreciate it." He paused then gathering up his courage, continued, "Lou, I just want you to know that I may not always remember to buy you presents or give you flowers. But I give you my solemn word that I will only make a promise to you when I know I can keep it. And I promise to always be there for you and to always love you."
Not taking her eyes off him, Lou instantly knew he was talking about the package from yesterday and that it involved his past, a past he was trying to make condolences for.
"Kid, that means more to me than anything you could ever buy me. I love you too." She moved her hand and gently caressed his cheek. "I'll be waiting when you get back."
He grinned and gave her a kiss on the cheek then walked back to his waiting horse. He glanced back at the woman who held his heart, the only woman who had ever really held it, then rode out of the yard.
Kid rode with a destination in mind and didn't stop until he arrived there. Now he found himself standing in the middle of the small Rock Creek cemetery, holding the book of poems in his hand. He looked down at the cross below him, reading the words Doritha Simmons Maxwell with heaviness in his heart. Noting the dates on the cross, he was saddened at the thought that she hadn't been allowed to live a full life like she should have.
He knelt down and tentatively touched the dirt before him. "I'm sorry, Doritha," he said out loud, looking at the cross as he spoke. "I'm sorry I disappointed you so much and wasn't the man you wanted me to be. I just couldn't be. I'm afraid I used you all those years ago, used you as an escape from the life I was forced to live."
"But I did care for you," he continued, quickly adding, "I really did, just not the same way you cared for me. I had no idea my promise meant so much to you, not until I saw the book I gave you. I should have known and I'm sorry about that too. It's so worn out, the book I mean, you must have read it all the time, waiting for me to send word to you, thinking about the future we would have together. A future I knew was never meant to be. This book gave you false hope and that wasn't my intention, I hope you knew that."
"I hope that it did make you happy, even if it was for a little while, because that's all I ever wanted for you." He paused and looked at the book. "I think it did or you wouldn't have kept it all these years. Thank you for sending it to me, I needed to see it. It woke me up, made me realize how valuable words and even a simple gesture are. I'll never take them for granted again. I'm glad I got to see you again, real glad, and I'll never forget the time we had together."
Kid started to dig a shallow hole in front of the cross and when he was done, he said to her, "Doritha, this belongs with you. I gave it to you because I cared for you and I want you to keep it. It gave you something I couldn't. I'll never forget all you've done for me, then and more importantly now." He placed the book in the hole and covered it with dirt.
He stood and gave the gravesite one last look then turned to go. Before he got more than two feet, Kid turned around and whispered, "Bye, Doritha." He then walked to his horse and rode back to the one person he knew would be part of his future, the future he'd always hoped to have, and it was his past that made him realize just how important hope is.
Buck Cross entered the bunkhouse with a determined look on his face. The determination faded as he stood looking at the empty bunk where, until recently, his best friend had slept.
“It has to be done, Buck,” Teaspoon Hunter said from behind him. “If you want, me and Rachel can do it.”
“I can do it,” Buck declared loudly. Turning to the older man, his tone softened. “Thanks,” he murmured.
The next few steps were the longest of the young man’s life. Steeling himself, Buck reached under the bunk and pulled out a small trunk. Inhaling deeply, then releasing the breath with a long sigh, the Kiowa rider inserted a key into the lock and opened the trunk.
“We can give the clothes to the orphanage,” Buck said softly, pulling a couple of shirts, a pair of pants and some socks from the trunk. “They aren’t much but they’re better than what some of the kids have.”
Teaspoon nodded, reaching for the clothes. He met with just a brief moment of resistance before Buck finally let go.
With the clothing removed, the trunk was almost empty. A few odds and ends of leather that Ike had always meant to make into something or other, a couple of sketch books, some pencils and a small wooden box were all that remained.
Buck reached out to finger the box, then jerked his hand back with a grimace of pain.
Teaspoon hesitated a bit before asking, “What is it?”
“I . . . Ike used to call it his ‘everything box’,” Buck replied slowly. “He never showed anyone what was inside . . . not even me.”
Looking up at the other man, he continued. “It was probably the only thing he ever kept from me. When I asked what was in it, he just said ‘everything’. I never knew what he meant.”
“Maybe it would be better if we just left it in the trunk then,” Teaspoon mused.
Buck paused, then shook his head. “And do what with it?” he asked. “Dump it somewhere? Burn it?”
“If you want, I’ll let you be to open it in peace,” the older man responded.
“Yeah, maybe . . . no wait,” Buck answered. “I don’t think Ike would mind your being here.”
And I don’t want to do it alone. The words went unspoken but the statement was there in the younger man’s eyes.
Teaspoon nodded a second time, then sat on the bunk beside Buck.
Sighing again, Buck reached out to grasp the box and lifted it out of the trunk. It’s not very heavy, he thought absently as he shut the trunk and placed the box on top.
The little box had obviously seen a lot of wear. The edges had notches in them where they had been banged against something—probably the trunk itself. Smooth areas on the top gave evidence that fingers had opened the box many times.
Stiffening with a renewed determination, Buck gently pried the top off the box and set it aside. The first thing he noticed was the picture. A much younger Buck and Ike stood stiffly in their best clothes staring at the camera, crooked smiles plastered across their faces. A wry smile came to Buck’s face as he remembered the day the picture was taken.
“Ike insisted we get it done,” he told Teaspoon quietly. “I hated that collar and so did he but he was determined that we get a picture of the two of us together.”
“You both look right handsome,” the station manager agreed.
Setting the picture aside, Buck reached into the box again. His smile grew as he removed a feather.
“This was from a bird that we found a couple years before we got to Sweetwater,” he explained. “It had a broken wing and couldn’t fly. I wanted to eat it for dinner but Ike wouldn’t let me. He nursed that crazy bird back to health and it followed us around for a couple of months before it finally flew off.”
More digging revealed other items, each of which had a story attached. One by one Buck removed the items and offered the memory to Teaspoon. Finally items began to appear that Buck didn’t recognize. A locket containing pictures of a couple and a little girl and a bandana that was far too small for the adult Ike to have worn.
“These must be his family,” Buck murmured. “And this must have been the first bandana he ever wore.”
“You’re probably right, Buck,” Teaspoon agreed. “And now I understand why he called this box his ‘everything box’.”
At the young man’s puzzled look he continued. “It’s got everything that was important to him in it. Or at least everything that reminded of something important to him. Like your picture.”
Standing, Teaspoon picked up the clothes he has placed on the bunk and turned to leave. “He couldn’t keep you or his family or that bird in the box,” he added as he reached the door. “But he could keep the memory.”
Left alone, Buck sat staring at the jumble of items still sitting on the trunk. Finally, much later, he began to put the memories back in the box. A single tear fell to land on the photograph before he pulled a bandana from his pocket, folded it carefully and placed it on top. Then with a soft sigh, he set the lid to the box firmly in place and, moving to his own bunk, slipped the box into his bag.