Topic #28: Momma, there's a man at the door
|Momma, There's A Man At The Door
by: Donna Ree
|A Longtime Gone
||The Welcome Party
|Like His Father
|Bright N' Shiny
||Grown Men Don't Cry
|The Path We Follow
Some Place Back East – 1867
The sun was setting behind the distant mountains. It was just beginning to paint the cloud laden sky with vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. The sun continued its descent and soon the sky was ablaze. Buck Cross stood beside his horse and watched the magnificent display. When his horse nudged his arm he said, “Looks like we’d best find someplace to stay. That’s going to be a nasty storm when it gets here.” His voice broke the silence they had been entrapped in and gave him the strength to move forward. He sighed as he took the horses’ reins and slowly began walking toward the setting sun. He walked into the beauty ahead of him and away from the ugliness and hatred he’d found in the town behind him.
“Boy, it sure has been a long day,” he said aloud, once more trying to chase away the silence that hung heavy around him after the noise of the place he’d recently left. He couldn’t believe how rude people could be. All he’s done was ask if they knew how he could get in touch with someone. He had an important message from her father and this was the address he’d been given. The torrent of hate filled words that had come from the lady in front of him put even Tompkins to shame. Buck stopped walking when the two small buildings appeared on the horizon. “Maybe it will be different there,” he said as he changed his course toward the outlines and the ever darkening sky.
“Was wondering if I could sleep in your barn tonight,” he told the young boy who answered his knock. “There’s a storm coming and my horse has a hurt leg. I’d really like to be able to rest him, and not get drenched if at all possible.”
Standing in the door frame in such a manner as to protect anyone inside, the boy glanced past Buck to the sky. He then turned his large brown eyes to carefully study Buck. “Momma, there’s a man at the door wants to sleep in the barn,” he called back into the space behind him. Buck smiled at the protectiveness of the child who couldn’t be more than six, maybe seven, years old by white man standards.
Waiting, Buck felt the stress from the trip leave his body as he heard, “Tell him to be quick about getting his horse settled in and himself back over here so we can give him a warm meal and a dry bed.” The voice was vaguely familiar. His heart about stopped when the lady joined her son – there she was, Eagle Feather.
“Momma, there’s a man at the door! You better come quick. He’s wearing two guns and doesn’t look too friendly.” Lou’s 7 year old son, who was the spitting image of his father, frantically told her.
Lou peeked out the window to see who the stranger was and almost fainted dead away, something she hadn’t done since she was pregnant.
She quickly opened the door and flung her arms around the new arrival.
“Jimmy, it’s so good to see you again. Where have you been all these years?” She admonished.
Before he could answer, she continued on. “I have someone I want you to meet.” She said proudly. She beckoned her son over and introduced him. “Jimmy, I’d like you to meet Ike. Ike, this is one of momma’s dearest friends, James Butler Hickok.”
The boy skeptically held out his hand and then whispered to his mother, “You mean you know ‘Wild Bill’?”
Jimmy, who once would have winced at the moniker, now chuckled. Ruffling the boy’s hair, Jimmy told her, “Geez, Lou, he looks just like the Kid.” Instantly sobering, he added, “I’m real sorry about Kid, Lou. I guess if I’d have kept in touch I’d have known sooner. I just saw Rachel and she told me all about how he died in the War.”
With tears in her eyes, Lou just numbly nodded.
“Did you know my daddy, too, Mr. Wild Bill?” Ike asked.
“Yes, I sure did. He was my best friend. And you can call me Jimmy if you’d like.”
Later that evening, after she had put Ike to bed, Lou sat with Jimmy at the kitchen table talking over old times and what the other had been up to since they last saw each other.
“Lou, I know I should have written, but with you married to the Kid I just couldn’t. I didn’t think it was right.”
“Jimmy, it’s alright. What’s done is done. The important thing is you’re here now. Are you plannin’ on staying awhile?” She asked, pouring him some more coffee.
“As long as you’ll have me. I can see the old place needs some work. Even without Teaspoon here to keep an eye on me I think I can manage to get some work done. At least I wasn’t as bad as Cody when it came to workin’.” He winked at her.
Lou giggled. “I saw him ‘bout a year ago. He stopped by Sweetwater to say hello to us and Rachel. Buck comes and goes. He does some scouting for the Army now and then. But I think he’s still lost between his two worlds. Ever since Red Bear died he knows he’ll never be able to go back to the Kiowa. He seemed really happy when I named the baby Ike. It’s just too bad the Kid never got to know his son. It’s been hard these past years without him. Having Rachel nearby has really helped a lot. And Emma letting me have the old way station helped more than you can imagine. I always thought I could do anything and everything all by myself. And I wouldn’t trade Ike for the world, but it’s hard taking care of a child alone.” Lou took a deep breath for bravery and continued on. “Jimmy, I know you’re gonna think this is sudden-like, but I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years since the Kid’s been gone…hell, even before the Kid and I got married to be truthful. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, Jimmy, is I’ve been waitin’ an awful long time for you to come walking through that door.”
She reached across the table, took his hand in hers and smiled. “I don’t want you to think I’m doin’ this out of necessity because I ain’t. I love you, Jimmy Hickok. I loved both you and the Kid and it tore me up inside…still does. But you’re the one that’s here now, you’re the one that’s lasted. And what I want to know is…will you marry me?”
“Lou, do you know what you’re askin’? I just got here.” Jimmy told her, trying not to get his hopes up.
“Jimmy, don’t give me that. We’ve known each other since we were kids, ourselves. I don’t want you to think you’re my second choice either. Kid just asked me to marry him and you never did. I now know I made a mistake marrying the Kid. He was sweet and all, but we’d have grown to hate each other if he hadn’t gone off to the War. We were just too different. Had different ideas on life. But you and me, Jimmy, we had somethin’ special and it’s like we’ve gotten a second chance now that you’ve come back and I don’t want to lose you again. So please say yes. Say you’ll marry me.”
“I’ll marry you, Lou. Although I should have been the one askin’, not you.”
“Jimmy Hickok, when have you ever known me to do things the way they’re supposed to be done?” She asked him, saucily.
“Never, Lou. And I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
And then he kissed her.
He thought about her over the years. Her long legs, beautiful brown hair, eyes, like, an ever changing sea. Would she remember him? He’d been gone over 5 years since the war. Had she waited for him? Would she want him?
All these questions ran through his mind as he passed familiar landmarks. He noticed how the town had changed. It looked as though things were getting better here. People were starting to rebuild.
He had changed quite a bit. His hair was short. He now had a slight limp from an accident that damaged his knee and he was tired. Damn, tired! It had taken him almost 3 years to decide to come back to see if she would still have him. It took almost 2 damn years to find a way to get back. Anger and frustration ran through him like liquid fire. Hope had driven him this far to take the chance that he could build a future, maybe with her, if she’d have him. He left her with a promise to return and now he had.
He inquired about her from a few towns folk and they led him to the boarding house door. The house was clean. He knocked and it seemed to echo as he held his breath. The door opened and little face peered out at him.
“Hello,” the little boy of about five years old greeted him.
“Who is it, Chase?” a feminine voice called from the back.
“Mamma, there’s a man at the door,” Chase answered.
“I’ll be right out”
He could hear her moving around and coming closer. She was pulling off her apron as she rounded the corner and came into full view, his breath caught in his throat.
“Elizabeth,” he breathed.
She stopped dead still and looked him up and down. The next thing he knew he was holding her as she kissed his face all over.
“Buck Cross, where the hell have you been? Are you alright?” She said as she finally let him speak but still held his hand as if he’d float away. He grabbed her and hugged her again almost believing this was a dream.
“God, I have missed you,” he said in her hair. “I thought you would have moved on.” He pulled back to look at her face. “Are you married?”
“No, are you?” she smiled at him.
“No. The boy?”
“Ummm, yours…” She looked down at this boots waiting for his reaction.
“Really?” A smile spread across his face in wonderment.
“Yes.” She was relieved.
“Mommy, why are you two talking like that?” Chase came to stand next to them.
“Chase,” Elizabeth said as she put her arm around her son, “this is Buck Cross, your father.”
Chase looked his father over and said, “Great! Will you teach me how to ride?”
“Absolutely.” Buck ruffled his son’s hair.
Kid pulled his horse to a stop as he came over the rise in the road. There it was, just as he had left it nearly four years ago - four long and lonely years. Years spent with a heart heavy with regret, regret for leaving and regret for what he'd had to do to survive. Maybe he could put it all behind him one day but for now the only thing on his mind was what lay before him.
He recalled the day he took Lou out to see the ranch for the first time and when she couldn't stop talking about the possibilities it possessed, he had then surprised her with the news that it was already theirs. He had bought it outright, with money he'd earned from working the Express and the rest a loan from Teaspoon. Kid had known almost since the moment he'd gotten married that he couldn't ignore the calling inside of him and that he would have to return to Virginia to join the war effort. He wanted Lou taken care of first and foremost; she needed a home that couldn't be taken away from her and a means to support herself. The money she had saved from riding would buy her food and clothes and he was very relieved when Rachel had assured him that Lou could assist her at the schoolhouse, which would give her a small income but still it was better than nothing.
Kid urged his horse forward and entered the yard slowly. Dusk was setttling over the land so it was hard to make out much except what was right in front of him. He looked toward the barn, his beloved Katy was in there where he had left her when he'd rode out. How he wanted to mount her and ride across the plains, feeling one with his animal again, but that would have to wait. A woman far more important to him than any horse, or memory, or even ideal was just on the other side of that front door.
He tethered his mount to the hitching post alongside the front steps. He noticed the flower beds running the length of the house. They added such a nice homey feeling to the place. Lou must have spent hours planting and maintaining the gardens, he thought, happy that she'd obviously found something to keep her busy that she was good at. He climbed the steps, looking at the house as he walked. There were lights lit in several rooms, in the front and around the side, as he'd noticed on his ride up to the house.
Without thinking, Kid reached for the doorknob then drew his hand back, almost as if he'd touched a hot skillet. Maybe he had no right anymore to just walk in, it was so much more her house than it had ever been his. Lou had unhappily accepted his news that he was leaving her all those years ago - maybe she was mad at him and would want to take things slow. After all, four years was an awful long time to be apart and they had only been married for a month before he'd left her.
But Kid found himself arguing with that idea. The letters that he had gotten from her were filled with love and plans for their life together once he returned. There was no clear bitterness on the pages, only sadness. Still, she could have been masking her true feelings for his sake - if he'd been worried about her or upset himself, it would have marred his judgement and made him vulnerable out on the battlefields.
"Well, I may as well get this over with," Kid muttered to himself. He was thankful that he'd taken the opportunity to clean himself up when the stage had stopped for the night in Seneca. He had bought new clothes, shaved off his beard and gotten a haircut. He had some scars that were more visible once the beard was gone but for the first time in four years he was really starting to feel like his old self.
Pushing aside the feeling of stupidity that came upon him at knocking on his own front door, Kid rapped his knuckles against the hard wood anyway. He waited for several seconds for an answer and when none came, tried to peek in the front window closest to the door. That accomplished nothing since the curtains Lou had hung there were made of a heavy lace and all he could make out was a couple pieces of furniture and the fireplace.
He knocked once more, this time more firmly than the last. He was rewarded with the sound of running. Running? Why would Lou be running to the front door, unless she was expecting someone. He knew it wasn't him; Kid had taken the first train west then jumped stage after stage to get home as fast as he could. It would have been a waste of time to write that he was coming home - he would have beaten the letter anyway.
The running had stopped close to the door and now he could barely make out the muffled sounds of voices coming through the wood. He leaned his ear toward the door but couldn't make out what was being said. Just as he was about to knock once more, the door was slowly pulled open.
Kid looked around the opening door and saw nothing. No one was there. Now what the hell was going on? Someone had to have opened the door but where were they? He opened his mouth to call out a greeting but stopped as he heard something behind the door. It was the same mumbling he'd heard when the door was closed.
He also heard the shuffling of feet and found himself glancing toward the floor. Kid observed not two but four tiny feet huddled together. Lifting his eyes slightly, he took a step back in surprise at what was in front of him. This was not what he expected to find. Suddenly he was nervous that something had happened to Lou and she'd been forced to sell the ranch and he was intruding on someone else's family. Quickly, he tried to glimpse something, anything, that would look familiar to him but knew it was futile - anything done to the inside of the house would have occurred after he'd left.
Taking a closer look at the two heads peering around the door at him, Kid started to brush that thought aside. There was something about these two small children in front of him that was so familiar. It was as if he'd seen them somewhere before. The boy had wavy hair and bright blue eyes, it was like looking at a picture of himself at that age, and the girl had dark thick straight hair that flowed down her back, tied in place with a colorful ribbon, and she had the biggest brown eyes he'd seen since the last time he'd gazed into Lou's own eyes.
His breathing became heavier as he realized what he was staring at and what was staring back at him: it was his future, his life. Kid placed a hand on the molding around the door for support as he dared to think the impossible; standing in front of him were his son and daughter. His. Two products of the love he had shared with his wife.
Kid found himself smiling at the two perfect little persons. It must have been enough of a greeting because the boy's curiosity must have gotten the best of him as Kid saw him emerge from behind the door. He noticed the little girl did not venture out after her brother but still held tight to the boy's hand. Kid noticed the child's clean appearance, striped white shirt and dark pants. Knowing the kind of trouble small boys could get themselves into, Kid grinned thinking that Lou must have instructed him that he had to change or there was no way in the world he would be sitting at her table. She probably said he would be eating outside with the animals instead, Kid thought, almost laughing outloud as he pictured Lou having that kind of discussion with someone small as the boy in front of him.
"Who you be?" the boy demanded, as he placed his hands on his hips and scrunched his face up in the exact same manner Kid had seen in Lou more times than he could count.
Kid tried not to laugh at the serious little boy, obviously being the man of the house and protecting his mama and sister.
Before he could answer, Kid saw the girl tug on the boy's hand and softly say, "Jed, you know what mama say 'bout 'trangers."
Jed. Kid felt tears come to his eyes as he realized Lou had named their son after his brother.
"But mama busy, Emma," Jed told his sister. He turned his eyes back to the man in front of them.
Kid smiled at them and spoke with so much emotion that he hoped he wouldn't break down in front of the children and scare them. "Jed, Emma, I'm looking for your mama. Is Louise here?"
Both heads nodded. "She here," Emma said shyly. She kept raising her eyes to look at the tall man before her but when he caught her looking, she quickly blushed and glanced away, rubbing her toe over the floor repeatedly.
"Mama!!" Jed suddenly screamed, glancing down the hallway. "Mama!!"
Kid watched with amusement as his son tried to get his mother's attention by doing everything but going to find her himself. The next instant Emma joined in the calling with her brother, bringing her out from behind the door. She was so pretty in a yellow dress and white apron. He could picture Lou looking just like her when she was that young.
Kid froze as he heard a muffled shout from the back room at the end of the hall. It may have been almost a screech but it was the most beautiful sound he'd even heard.
"Jed, Emma, what's going on out there? Can't I take a bath in peace for five minutes without the two of you tearing the house down?!"
Kid stared at the door where the voice had come from. Lou was in there, ten feet away from him. She was apparently trying to take a bath and not having any luck with it. Kid's mind wandered to another time when she'd taken a bath, only that time she'd invited him to join her and join her he did! He was brought back to the present by shouting coming from below him.
"But, Mama, there a man at the door!" Jed informed his mother.
"Someone's here?" Lou asked in confusion. "Well if it's your Uncle Buck or Grandpa Teaspoon just let them in. I'll be right there."
"No, it someone else," Emma said innocently.
Kid heard the panic Lou's voice took on and could even make out the sound of water sloshing against the side of the tub, obviously from her hasty exit from the water.
"It o'right, he nice," Jed said, smiling at the man.
Kid kept his eyes riveted to the door down the hall as it started to open. He wanted to see her so bad but also didn't want to scare her so he moved slightly so all she would see at first was the children. But before he moved, he could make out her tying a robe in place then pushing her hair over her shoulder. It was so much longer than it had been when he'd left.
Lou had only wanted to soak in the tub and let the muscles from the hard day's chores relax. Usually the kids would give her ten minutes of peace before they came banging on the door, demanding a drink or something to eat. But when Jed said there was a man at the door, she had felt instant panic as to who it could be. Family would usually rap once to get her attention then let themselves in so this was obviously someone the children didn't know.
She could make out the dim outline of a man on the porch but he moved into the shadows before she could see if she knew him. Since the children were now excited to see her and trying to talk to her at once about this stranger, she gave them her attention.
"Mama, he big and nice, he got gun like Unca Jimmy," Jed said, jumping up and down in his excitement.
"Mama, he talk to us," Emma informed her mother, not to be outdone by her brother.
"Now, what did I tell you two about talking to strangers when mama's not around? Mmm? You should have came to get me, not open the door," Lou scolded them.
"See? Tol' you," Emma said to her brother, knowing her mother would say just that.
"I'll deal with you two later," Lou said, sighing. She pulled the belt on her robe tighter and crossed her arms, feeling self-conscious to be talking to a stranger while wearing nothing but a bathrobe. "I'm sorry, sir, but is there something I can help you with?"
"I certainly hope so."
Lou's eyes got wide as she heard the voice out on the porch. It can't be, she told herself. She'd wished just such an occassion too many times, knowing it would more than likely never occur.
"Wh - what did you say?" she hesitantly whispered. She found herself taking a step closer to the open door.
"I said, you've helped me so much in the past, I hope you can help me now." Kid moved until he was standing in the center of the doorway so he and Lou were facing each other.
Lou gasped and brought her hand up to her mouth. Tears instantly came to her eyes as she couldn't look away from the person in front of her. Kid, she cried, but no sound came out.
Jed and Emma instantly attached themselves to their mother, worried over the tears they were seeing.
"Mama, what wrong?" Emma asked, her bottom lip quivering in worry. She relaxed a little as she felt her mother's reassuring hand soothing her hair like it always did when she'd gotten hurt or had a nightmare.
"Mama, know him?" Jed asked, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to show who he was talking about, just in case his mama couldn't figure it out on her own.
Touching her son's shoulder, Lou smiled through her tears and said, "Yeah, Jed, Mama knows him. Mama knows him real well in fact." Her children let their arms release her as they seemed to hear something comforting in her voice.
If this was a dream, it was the best one she'd had in four long years and she hoped she'd never wake up from it.
"Lou," Kid said softly, his voice breaking.
It wasn't a dream, it was real. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Not taking her eyes off her husband, afraid if she did that he might disappear, she said to her son and daughter, "Actually, Jed, you and Emma have never met him but you do know him, from the stories Mama tells you and you see his face around here each and every day. It's the last face I say good night to and the first one I say good morning to each day."
Kid kept his eyes glued to his wife's, not believing what he was hearing. She'd talked about him so his children would know him. How could he thank her for such a gift, let alone for giving him these two precious little beings in front of him?
Curious about what his mother had told him, Jed moved until he was standing under the man in the doorway. He looked this man up and down from head to foot and suddenly realization struck him and he started jumping up and down again.
"Emma, Emma, we know him. It him, he home now. I show you, come on." He grabbed his sister's hand and pulled her toward the stairs. Just as fast as he'd moved, he stopped and came back to Kid. He held up his hand and ordered, "You 'tay here." He then went back to Emma and together then ran up the stairs and out of sight, making a lot of noise in the process.
"I hope you're staying here," Lou said, finding her voice.
"I ain't goin' anywhere," Kid told her, echoing the exact words she'd said to him that afternoon out by the creek after he'd lost his childhood friend, Doritha. It had been the first confirmation that there was a future for the two of them together. He wanted her to know that now as well.
Tentatively, she raised her hand and held it out to him, just like she'd done that day so long ago. She smiled as Kid grinned at her and grasped her tiny fingers into the palm of his large, calloused hand. She prayed he never let go again.
Both turned at the sound of footsteps barreling down the stairs. Jed was very excited as he showed Kid what he'd brought with him. Kid knelt down to see it, glad that his son would give him the opportunity to get this close to him, then looked back up at Lou. It was their wedding picture. He held onto her hand tighter, knowing it was a strain in the positions they were in but not caring.
"You him with mama," Jed told Kid. "He our daddy." Jed showed Emma the picture then pointed to Kid again and again.
"That's right, Jed, he's your daddy." She hated not writing him that she was expecting but she wanted him to come home on his own, just as he had tonight. Lou hoped he would understand why she had done things this way. She paused then addressed Kid, "I bet you never expected a welcome party this big."
"I couldn't have asked for anything better," Kid said standing.
She heard the love in his voice and with the way he was smiling at the children, she knew he accepted what she had done.
Kid had his hand on Jed's shoulder and with the other one, pulled Lou toward him. "Lou, they're gorgeous. You did real good by them." He gingerly released her hand and brought his up to caress her cheek.
She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. It had been so long. "I always wanted to thank you for your going away presents," she told him as she looked at him then indicated the two heads below them.
Kid stared as he realized what she was telling him. "Well I'll be damned ... I mean -"
"Daddy, that bad word," Jed informed him, tugging on his hand, trying to bring his newfound father down to his level.
"That it is, son, that it is. Your mama taught you well." He smiled at his boy, loving the familiarity that played across the youngster's face. Suddenly he felt a small hand on his other arm and turned to see his daughter beside him.
Ever since the two of them had come bounding down the stairs, Kid had noticed that Emma had held back. She appeared a lot more shy than her outgoing brother and Kid didn't want to push, afraid he would scare her off.
"And it's very nice to meet you, Emma," Kid said quietly, smiling at the beauty next to him. "I"m sorry I haven't been here for you, for both of you, but that's about to change. If you'll let me, I'd like to stay here for maybe forever, how does that sound?"
Emma's face radiated with the biggest smile ever and instinctively, she threw her arms around her father's shoulders. "It sound good, Daddy, right, Mama?"
Lou watched at Kid engulfed the little girl into his big arms, arms that she knew were so gentle to the touch. She then laughed as she saw Jed trying to squirm his way into the hug. Kid ended up losing his balance and landed on his bottom on the hard floor. He grinned up at her as their two children made themselves comfortable on his lap, pushing each other aside in their effort to get the best seat possible.
Lou knelt next to her family and said, "It sounds real good, Emma baby, real good indeed." She reached out and caressed Kid's cheek, noting the scar above his ear but that was a topic for another day. Inching toward him, she paused when her mouth was an inch from his and whispered, "Welcome home, Kid, I mean, Daddy."
Kid laughed then reached out and captured her lips with his. She fell onto him, smothering the children in the process.
"Mama! That hurt," Jed cried out.
Ignoring the squirming going on beneath them, Lou mumbled against Kid's mouth, "You better get used to it, son, I've got lots of time to make up for." She giggled as Kid kissed her harder.
Two heads peeked out from the tangled arms above them then they wiggled their bodies out into the open. Standing up, Emma looked at Jed and said proudly, "That my daddy!"
"That my daddy!" Jed challenged, facing her with hands on his hips.
"That my daddy!" Emma defended, taking on the same stance.
"That my daddy!"
"That my daddy!"
Kid pulled Lou onto his lap now that it was vacant. Nodding toward the stand off in front of them, he asked, "So, how long will they keep that up?"
"Longer than you could ever imagine so you better get used to it right away," Lou sighed, knowingly.
"Welll it sounds like music to my ears," Kid told her. He smiled, listening to the tiny voices as they raised in anger, then he turned to the woman in his arms. "Now where were we?" He grinned as she showed him, both becoming oblivious to the shouting around them. They were only interested in greeting each other at the moment, everything else could wait.
The words still echoed in her head. “A man at the door.... a man at the door...” So many ways that it could have meant a bad turn of events.... maybe it still could. Sitting here before the window she didn’t know what else to think. It was going to be different, that’s all she knew. Little Thomas was outside, climbing in the trees. She couldn’t see him, but the bend and sway of branches and leaves told her exactly where he was.
To him, this would be a great adventure. Something he’d been looking forward to forever.
Laughing softly to herself, Callen wiped at a stray tear. Forever... forever to Thomas was the span of a single night. He’d taken the news that they’d be leaving like the young saplings he was now climbing in, springing up with equal and joyous force. A move... a move.... how exciting for a little boy, how terrifying for her.
Buck had been a shock to see at her door. She expected another visit from the man at the bank. The irate butcher down the street. Even that preacher from the new church, but not Buck. Not a man from a happier time.
The heavy jolt and jangle of a hired team barked through the open window and brought her to her feet. Time to put this place behind her. Time to put the hiding behind her.
As the team pawed to a halt beside the gate Callen took one last look in the clouded mirror beside the door. Mouse brown hair, eyes a bit too wide apart for classic English beauty, a scar concealed behind unruly chin length hair. She wasn’t a prize for any man, but he... her heart tripped against her ribs... he had treated her like a queen.
Clasping her satchel to her side Callen opened the door and strode down the steps, giving Buck a winning smile. “You’re early.”
“Wanted to get an early start.” There was a matching smile on his lips, but his eyes were tired ... worried.
The reminder set her thoughts in a whirl. “Yes.. yes.. perhaps we had better.” She accepted a hand up and looked back to check on Thomas. He sat atop their meager pile of bags, his face tilted up to the sun.
“He looks just like him.” Buck’s words filtered through her thoughts and brought her around from the haze of her worries. “It will do him well to see-”
“Yes,” answered Callen, “Red Bear will be happy to see his son... but what of me, Buck? Will he be happy to see me as well?”
“Not now, Louise... please, sweetie? Just give Mama a moment to calm down.”
The little girl didn’t understand the rebuke.. didn’t understand her mother’s tears or her shaking hands. She only understood the pain and confusion of her own heart.
She closed the door behind her and climbed onto the bed with Jeremiah. His coppery curls usually gave her hours of enjoyment. She could comb it over and over again, just to watch them spring back against his head like some fine lady’s coils of hair. Jeremiah wouldn’t let her do much of that when he was awake, so it was moments like this that she stole with him.
His thumb was pulled far into his mouth, soft lips latched on around it as he slept on. How he had slept through the yelling, Louise would never know. How he had avoided the crying and the mean words... words about him.. words even about herself.
Her hands balled up in fists, twisting her night gown into whirls of fabric while the voices tore into her head.
“I don’t want the girl.”
“You can’t have either.... you can’t have either of my children.”
“My children! They are mine! The boy will carry on the business. He needs to learn from his father.”
“He’s barely two!” The denial was raw from her throat, “A little boy who doesn’t like loud noises.. guns? He’d cry-”
The slap had silenced her mother’s protests for a moment, and Louise had bitten into the back of her own hand to keep from crying out. She wasn’t supposed to be awake... she wasn’t supposed to be watching... but that didn’t stop the tears she wanted to cry. It was the memory of that hand striking her own cheek that kept her voice silent in the night.
“He will learn. The sooner the better, I think. With you-” there had been a moment of wavering softness in his voice. Then in a wink of time, it was gone. “With you,” he’d sneered, “he’d only become soft... a waste... a girl.. crying and clutching at your hem.” He moved closer like the cat when it was hunting the mice in the livery, “I’ll come back next month and you will give him to me. It doesn’t matter what you want, Mary. I don’t give a damn what you think about how I bring him up. A boy is supposed to be with his father.”
“And Louise? Will you take her, too?” No, of course not... not a girl... girls cry.
“I said no!”
Somehow I knew my brother was too young and pig headed to know that when Mama said no... by gosh, she meant no.
“He said they were looking-”
“Yes.. yes, Billy. They were looking for young men to sign up for the army.”
“Well,” he began, his best winsome smile expertly placed, “I’m a young man.”
Their mother dropped her wooden spoon into the batter and threw her hands into the air. “Billy!”
“Ma?” His laughter set the girls to giggling.
“Really, Ma... did you see the braid on his uniform? It was pretty wasn’t it?”
“Yes,”she nodded, “it was very nice, but-”
“If I joined.. I could probably bring some of it home for you. When I’m home for the holidays.. they said they got holidays home-”
“Think of all the nice things I could get for the girls when I get my money for serving!”
“Dolly!” chimed in one of the others.
“A lace fan,” called another.
Now, Mama had her hands full. I watched her... holding out her hands, trying to stop the ruckus, calm them all down, and there was Billy... knee deep in it, as always. I don’t think he saw it in her eyes... Billy didn’t see much beyond the light of his own enthusiasm. I saw it in her barely hidden tears as she grabbed him into a huge hug, nearly making him disappear in her skirts. Papa was gone and presents like the others wanted were... impossible with the money she could make, but she too could dream.
“I could get them for you Mama... pretty things for you... bright and shinin’ stuff for you to wear on your dresses.”
“Oh, my dear sweet.. sweet Billy. You’ll be a man and leave us soon enough... can’t you just be your mama’s little boy for just a little while longer?”
I’m sitting here with my kids and my wife
He sat in the soft lamplight in his study, his worn fingers tracing over the crisp, thick paper of the envelope. The night air had a chill, but he made due without a fire tonight. It had been three weeks since he’d received Louise’s letter, two since he’d shared with Nicolette he had a son, and just over a week since his eldest child had arrived with her family. When Josephine’s letter arrived, telling them they planned to visit, he selfishly allowed the preparations for her arrival to push all thoughts of Lou’s letter out of his mind. Then he was so busy chasing grandchildren, or entertaining them with his stories that he would fall into bed exhausted, content to fall asleep holding his wife.
But tonight, sleep had eluded him. The house was quiet, the lively and energetic sounds of the children non-existent as they rested in preparation for the new day. His wife and daughter had finally gone to bed, no longer sitting in the parlor chattering away like blue jays. All alone in the silence, there was nowhere to run to escape the thoughts of the letter he’d seen earlier in the day. A letter he hadn’t answered, and still had no idea of how he should.
Louise had invited him to visit. Their son lived in town with his family; Cody could come meet him and they could tell him the truth together. If that’s what he wanted to do.
The trouble is, he didn’t know what he wanted.
A part of him desperately wanted to meet his son. He and Nicolette had never been blessed with a son – who survived. He loved his three daughters fiercely, and he would always mourn the son who had been born still, unable to even take a single breath. Here was the opportunity to have what he’d always wanted, the dream that Nicolette grieved she couldn’t give him.
And it was because of the family he did have that he was reluctant to claim his son. Would it hurt his wife, more than it already did, if he got to know the son that another woman had borne him? Would the children he had known from birth, carried and rocked in the middle of the night, tended scraped knees and kissed goodnight after he’d read them a story, feel that they were somehow less in their father’s eyes if they knew he’d finally gotten his son? And would it dishonor the memory of his son, the son that had been buried under his name, if he suddenly embraced a living one?
It had been a devastating loss he and Nicolette had barely recovered from when William Jr. was stillborn. Years had passed after their second child, Marie, was born and they wondered if their family was meant to just be them and their two little girls. When Nicolette told him she was with child a third time, he and the girls had been so excited. He hadn’t said it to her, but he hoped that this time he would get his son. A boy he could play with, teach all his tricks of roping and riding to, and mold into a fine young man that would have made Teaspoon proud. The labor had been long, and the delivery extremely difficult, and when no cries filled the air after his wife’s screams had stopped he’d been filled with dread. When the doctor slowly came downstairs and informed him of the news, he’d crumpled to the floor while a neighbor ushered the girls outside and off to her house to stay for several nights.
They’d buried him beneath the large oak on the property, and the family walked around in a haze for a while. They’d been forced to go one for the sake of Josephine and Marie, but there were many nights after they’d gone to bed that he would search the house, only to find Nicolette lying on the ground next to their son’s grave as she cried. Many a night his tears had joined hers before they walked exhausted back to the house and fell into bed so the routine could start all over again in the morning.
It was a year later when she’d approached him with no small amount of trepidation and told him that she was expecting again. They’d been cautious, a bit fearful, and extremely anxious in the months preceding the birth, and neither one had said it, but they both hoped for another girl. The entire birthing process with Antoinette, or little Annie, had been vastly different from William’s, and the entire family cried tears of joy and relief when her loud wails filled the house.
He had the family he always believed he was meant to have, and had come to terms with William’s death years ago. He wasn’t sure he wanted suddenly to have a new son thrust into his life.
Nor would it really be fair to Louise’s son to suddenly show up and tell him that his entire life had been a lie and the man he’d called dad, had buried and mourned, wasn’t his father at all. He understood Lou’s offer, and even her need, for the truth to come out. But maybe it was best to leave the past where it was, and just move forward with their lives.
Reaching out he extinguished the lamp, and picked up the letter and slipped it back into his desk drawer before standing. His heart felt lighter, and his mind quieter and he knew that he’d be able to sleep again. He knew what needed to be done, what would be best for everyone involved in this tangled web, and now he just needed to carry it out. But it could wait until his family left in a few days. If he was lucky, the kids would sleep in just a bit this morning, but he wasn’t counting on it to happen.
He stopped on the hill overlooking the farmhouse. His horse, tired from the long journey, was perfectly content to stand still while he studied the scene below.
Everything looked so peaceful. Smoke curled lazily from a chimney in one corner of the two-story white house, and he knew that would be the kitchen – he’d helped lay the stone for the hearth. Outside, a few sheets still fluttered on the line in the evening breeze.
The barn looked bigger than before, with a large wing added on one side. The corrals had been expanded too, and a few horses milled quietly inside the fences. The growth should be a good sign, he figured – a sign that the farm had prospered while he’d been away.
Could it really be almost five years since he had been here?
He remembered the first time he’d seen this land. The Pony Express had been winding down, their little family disbanding. Ike and Noah were dead, Cody was in the army, Jimmy was likely to be joining the Union cause soon. As far as anyone knew, Kid still hadn’t decided if he was going back to Virginia, which left Lou’s future unsettled too. And as for himself – well, he was wondering again if he would ever really belong anywhere.
Until that day . . .
Buck looked up from the harness he was trying to repair. “Hi, Kid.” He waited, sure that Kid’s opening greeting had indicated a question, but Kid just stood there, nervously shifting his weight. “Something wrong?”
Kid took a deep breath, looking off into the distance. This could well be the most important decision of his life. He’d been so sure this morning . . . “Buck, you got time to go for a ride?”
Buck stood up, studying his friend. It was obvious something was bothering Kid, but he wasn’t sure how much he should push. Everyone had been very careful not to do anything that might push Kid back toward Virginia. Well, everyone but Jimmy, that was – their arguments about the war had become a nearly every day occurrence. He finally shrugged and nodded. “Teaspoon’s not expecting me until after dinner,” he answered. He and Jimmy had been filling in as deputies while pondering their future courses.
“Thanks,” Kid said quickly, and then he hurried into the barn to saddle Katy before Buck could ask any questions.
Buck laid the harness aside and followed Kid into the barn. They saddled their horses in silence, and then Kid led the way as they headed out of town.
The silence continued as they rode. Buck just followed, letting his mind wander to his own future. He’d find out what was bothering Kid when Kid was good and ready, so there was no sense trying to guess about that.
He just hoped Kid wasn’t really riding out to head to Virginia without telling Lou – and expecting him to do that job. Friend or no, Buck wouldn’t want that task.
It was beautiful around Rock Creek, he decided. Not that it was the first time he’d noticed that, of course. But it was one of the things he considered when he thought about where his path in life might lead. He’d definitely miss the land if he left.
But if he stayed, then what? He was perfectly willing to help Teaspoon on a temporary basis after the two previous deputies joined the army. But that wasn’t what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, or even with a very large part of his life.
Who else in town would hire him?
Of course, Tompkins did have a HELP WANTED sign in the store window . . . and just thinking about walking in there and applying for the job made him grin.
His horse stopped suddenly, and Buck almost slipped out of the saddle. Chiding himself for not paying attention, he realized that Kid had stopped. His own horse had stopped just short of running into Katy.
They were sitting on top of a hill, looking down onto a meadow of dried, dead prairie grass, tufted here and there with a patch of early snow. There was a good open field, surrounded by some gently rolling hills. A stream flowed through on the far end of the meadow.
Kid seemed to be staring intently at something here, but try as he might, Buck couldn’t see what it might be. He waited, then finally prompted, “Kid?”
“Just a little farther,” Kid said softly, starting forward again.
This time Buck rode alongside, trying to read his friend’s face. Kid almost looked as though he was in pain. Still, he decided to give Kid a little more time to start talking on his own.
They crossed the stream and topped the next hill, and then the hill after that. The stream had wrapped around and now flowed off to the east. Finally, after the third hill, the scenery changed. There was a small house below them now, with a corral and a barn off to one side.
Again, Kid stopped in silence.
This was too much. “Kid, what exactly are we looking for?” Buck asked. He knew where they were now. This farm had belonged to Ed Warton. He’d only met the man once after they moved to Rock Creek, before the word came that Ed had just dropped dead one day.
“Lucinda Warton sold the place to the bank and moved back east,” Kid said. “I heard about it the other day when I was in the bank.” He looked around at the property. “It’s good land, isn’t it?”
“It’s great land,” Buck confirmed. Could this mean . . . “Kid, are you thinking about buying the place?”
Kid nodded slowly. “You’ve all been right – you, Lou, Teaspoon, hell, even Jimmy,” he added with a grin. “Virginia isn’t my home any more. My place is here, with my wife – but that means we need a place, and a way to make a living.”
“Kid, that’s great!” Buck said. He couldn’t even begin to express his relief that Kid wasn’t headed east himself.
Kid just nodded again. “I guess I just needed someone else to look at it, and I value your opinion.” He sighed and looked around again. “With what Lou and I have, I figure we can afford the house and about half the land,” he said. “I wish I could afford the whole thing. That meadow back there would be a perfect field for wheat and corn – and it would be great to have a house there between the hills and the stream. But half will have to do.”
Buck was never quite sure where his response came from – he only knew it was absolutely the right response. “Tell them you want the whole thing,” he said. “I’ll give you the money.”
Kid just shook his head. “Buck, I can’t . . .”
“I want to do this, Kid,” Buck cut in. “You’re right, this place is perfect – the whole thing. I want to do this for you, and for Lou. And I have the money.” He paused and grinned. “I guess that was one benefit of Tompkins not wanting me in his store – I didn’t spend much.” Actually, a lot of merchants hadn’t seemed to want his money.
Kid was just staring at Buck, almost as if in shock at the offer. He finally turned Katy so that he was looking right at his friend. “I could only accept that if you stayed on as our partner,” he said. “This place would be your home too, and a third of any profit would be yours.”
“Kid, you need a place to raise a family,” Buck protested, even though a little voice in the back of his mind was telling him to accept.
“Well, you’re as much family as anyone,” Kid insisted. “And that’s the only way I’d accept the money!”
The little voice got louder, telling him to say yes. And wasn’t this exactly what he had been looking for, a sign as to whether he should stay in Rock Creek or leave? Still, there were questions. “You need to talk to Lou, Kid,” he said softly. “She might not want . . .”
Buck absently rubbed a hand across his chest, remembering that day. He’d been back at the bunkhouse, getting ready to relieve Teaspoon, when the door flew open and Lou stormed in. She’d marched right up to him and pounded a fist against his chest. “How could you even THINK I wouldn’t want you to stay?” she’d demanded.
His feeble protests that they might want to be alone got him nowhere, and by the time Lou left, he’d agreed to the partnership.
That first winter had been a challenge. Ed Warton hadn’t been much of a carpenter, and they’d had a lot of repairs to make. But spring arrived, and they had survived. That was when they raised the house he was looking at now – larger, and more fitting for a young family. Lou’s brother and sister had arrived from St. Joseph shortly after that, making the family complete. Buck had taken the smaller, older house, finding it didn’t take much improvement to meet his needs.
It was easy to smile about all of the work they’d put in that first spring and summer – easy to smile now, that was. Smiles had been few and far between at the time; they simply didn’t have the energy. Splitting the profits from that first season hadn’t taken much effort – it was hard to divide zero. But everything was paid for, and they were set for the next season. Lou gave birth to her first child that winter, a little girl named Mary Grace, and her arrival seemed to portend good fortune.
That second season had indeed been wonderful. The weather cooperated, and they had a good crop. The first foals from their own horses were born, setting the stage for the future. And Buck had figured that future looked pretty bright.
Until the day the letter came . . .
Movement from the tiny bundle in front of him reminded him that he wasn’t alone. And he also noticed that it was almost dark. It had been five years, and Kid and Lou didn’t know he was coming, so it would probably be better to get there while there was still some daylight left. He’d heard plenty of stories about things still being unsettled in Nebraska, even three years after the war. No sense taking chances, especially not with the boy.
Most definitely not with the boy.
“Momma, there’s a man at the door.”
Lou glanced up from where she was changing baby Henry’s diaper. She looked over to where her oldest child stood near the door. “Who is it, Mary Grace?”
“I don’t know,” the girl answered. “He’s just getting off his horse.”
Lou snapped the pin into place and picked the squirming infant up. She headed toward the door, wondering briefly if she should stop to grab the shotgun from above the mantle. But she bypassed the gun – trouble didn’t usually ride quietly up to the front door. Still, there was no sense in taking too many chances. “Take care of Henry,” she said, handing the baby to Mary Grace. “I’ll be right back.”
She went to the door and opened it slowly. Just as Mary Grace had reported, there was a man right outside her door. He was just setting something on the ground, with his back toward her. There was something familiar about him, but she couldn’t . . .
He stood up then, turning slightly in profile – and she knew. “Buck!”
He turned just in time to catch her as she launched herself into his arms. He would have even greeted her, but she didn’t give him a chance.
“Buck, where have you been? We haven’t heard from you for months! My last two letters got returned saying you weren’t there. I’ve been worried sick!”
“Good to see you too, Lou,” Buck finally managed to say when she had to pause for a breath.
She grinned. “You know we’re glad to see you,” she said, a little more calmly. “When Mary Grace said there was a man at the door, I never dreamed it would be you.”
“I should have written,” Buck admitted. “The last few months, I don’t know, I’ve been moving around a lot.”
“Well, you’re here now, and that’s what matters. Kid took Jeremiah and Theresa into town to pick up some supplies, but they’ll be back soon. Oh, Kid’s going to be so happy to see you. He’s . . .” Her voice trailed off as she looked down for the first time. There were two little arms wrapped tightly around Buck’s right leg, hanging on as if for dear life. And two big brown eyes peeked out from around his thigh. “Buck, is that . . .”
Buck smiled and picked the little boy up. “This is Coyote Moon,” he said softly, fatherly pride evident in his voice. “My son.”
The boy was silent, just staring in wide-eyed wonder at the strangers. He clung tenaciously to his father’s neck, peeking out from under Buck’s chin.
Looking at the boy, even in the fading light, Lou thought she would have recognized him as Buck’s son even without that acknowledgement. The child had the same soft brown eyes, hair almost the exact same shade of deep brown, and the same sculptured face as his father. She smiled and stepped forward. “Well, aren’t you a handsome little boy?”
The boy jumped in fear and scrunched himself even tighter against his father’s shoulder. Buck leaned toward him and whispered something in his son’s ear, then he turned to Lou again. “He doesn’t know much English,” Buck said. He sighed and added, “And I’m afraid he hasn’t had many good experiences with white people.”
“Oh, Buck.” Lou stood where she was, wanting nothing more than to hug the precious little boy, but knowing this wasn’t the time. “I guess you’ve got some story to tell, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess I do,” Buck answered. He looked down at the little boy who was now yawning on his shoulder. “Lou, we’ve been traveling all day. Is my old house still there? I can . . .”
“Buck Cross, you are not going anywhere!” Lou replied. “Jeremiah’s kept up repairs on the other place, but there’s nothing in the house – no blankets, no food. You’re staying right here.”
Buck just grinned. “Did I ever win an argument with you?”
Lou grinned in return and shook her head. “Nope. And don’t think I’m going to let you start now!”
“We’ll stay,” Buck agreed. “For tonight anyway.” His son deserved that. Hell, maybe he even deserved it himself – he’d been away from this family too long.
Lou reached over and took Buck’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll get Coyote Moon fed and settled in bed, and then you have to tell me the whole story.”
“When Kid gets here,” Buck countered, as they started up the steps. There were some parts he wasn’t sure he could tell even once tonight, let alone twice. “Then I’ll tell you everything. I promise . . .”
Author’s Note: This is a scene from a longer story idea that’s sitting in my “write it someday” file. If anyone thinks it’s worth it, the rest of the story might get written . . . someday . . . maybe . . .