Topic #30: Word List - Spirited, Knife, Whisky bottle, Water trough, Rocking chair
|Filling the Void
||Let Him Fly by: Liz Ryan
|Close Call by: Donna Ree
||A Friend in Need Part II by: Sameena
|Dinner for One
||Wrong Place, Wrong Time
|The Day’s Little Occurrences by: Michelle
||Live and Let Live by: Vicki
|Two-bit Thoughts by: Cathy
Rachel wrapped her robe tighter around her as she pushed aside the lace curtain and looked toward the barn once again. There they were, the two deputies, just as they had been all afternoon. Even with the sun setting and the shadows that fell across the yard as a result, she could make out their smiling faces as they leaned against the *water trough*. She knew there was another deputy guarding the back of the house. They had all been in the house at one time, making sure it was free of any guns or that no *knife* was hidden anywhere that could be used against them later.
House arrest. That's what the sheriff of Blue Creek had called it as he came to say she was under arrest for the murder of Tom Browning. If the town doctor hadn't been there as well, the sheriff would have dragged her off to the jail. But the doctor had forbidden it - her body had undergone too much stress and she needed rest. So the deputies were placed outside and she was given forty-eight hours to recover.
Rachel slowly went to the sofa and settled down on it. She pulled a quilt over her, warding off the chill she kept feeling. Thanks to Thad Browning not wasting any time in getting her arrested, Rachel was still lying out in the yard when the sheriff had arrived with the doctor. By the time he got there, though, there was nothing for the doctor to do except check her over. The damage had already been done.
The doctor had ordered her to bed but she just couldn't, it was their bed. How could she, knowing that Henry wouldn't be joining her?. He'd never lie beside her again. She didn't know which pained her more, the thought of never seeing him again or the emptiness she now felt in her stomach.
She covered her face with her hands, trying to erase the thought but when she brought her hands down, a sob escaped her lips at what she saw in front of her. Sitting across the room from her, almost as if it was haunting her, was the gift Henry had so happily surprised her with just last week. It was a beautiful *rocking chair*. He'd said that since she was starting to show, it was time for him to begin buying things they would need once their little one arrived. He kept saying that he was looking forward to the day when she'd be sitting in that chair rocking their baby to sleep.
Rachel turned her head so she couldn't see it anymore. She wrapped her arms tightly across her chest as she felt herself begin to shake. If he could see her now, he wouldn't recognize her. Henry had always said she was the most *spirited* woman he'd ever met, that nothing got her down. Well he was wrong, wasn't he? she thought, shaking her head. How could everything have been so perfect, so happy, just a few hours ago? The two of them laughing and carrying on out on the grass, kissing and talking about when they would become a family of three.
Now she was back to being a family of one again. It wasn't even a family, it was a dream gone so wrong.
Rachel wiped at her eye as a lone tear escaped. It was then followed by another then another. Try as she might, she couldn't seem to stop the tears from coming. She reached onto the side table next to the sofa, trying to get the handkerchief she knew was there. Her hand paused in the air as it came in contact with something else.
She slowly lifted the object and brought it to her. She had no idea how it had gotten there in the first place but right now it didn't matter. Occassionally, she and Henry would have a drink in front of the fire. Was this the *whiskey bottle* he would take the liquor from? She never knew because as she went to slip into something more comfortable, he would take care of pouring the glasses for them.
Rachel looked at the tall bottle, tracing the outline of the label with her finger as she read the words on it over and over again. As she leaned back against the arm of the sofa, she brought the bottle up to the light. She watched the liquid as she gently moved the bottle side to side; it swirled inside it's glass enclosure, touching every bare spot around it. It was mesmorizing to watch, taking her away with it, away to a time of warmth and hope. Maybe it would help her get back there again.
She pulled the cork out and brought the bottle up to eye level for one more look at it's contents. Catching the rocking chair out of the corner of her eye, Rachel raised the bottle toward it and toasted, "Here's to what almost was."
Rachel then closed her eyes and brought the bottle to her lips.
From a creaky *rocking chair* that’s got to be older than I am, I sit looking through the dingy window out onto the muddy street as I write this. I’m not even sure how I got here. But then again, I am. And then I’m not. It’s funny; things seem clear as the blue sky one minute, and clear as mud the next. My good sense seems to come and go like the rain we’ve been gettin’ this spring – and like my tears.
I knew I had to leave Rock Creek when I started cryin’ in Tompkins’ Store. Right there in broad day light. It’s getting close to Thanksgiving, and Tompkins was showing me a new carving *knife*, and I just clouded right up and busted into tears. Me - the girl that used to be so strong. Rachel said I was still strong, that I’d get through this, but I’m not so sure. If I’ve got any strength left, it’s hidden so deep I don’t know where to look for it.
Actually, that wasn’t the day I knew I had to get away for a while. I guess the real day was two days later, when I hadn’t been able to stop cryin’ yet, and the tears showed no signs of stoppin’. I left a note for Kid, and one for Rachel, and headed in whichever direction my horse chose for us. Eventually, we wound up here.
Thank God for split skirts. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be ridin’ around in a skirt like a proper little lady, but I guess that’s what marriage does to you. One of the many things marriage’s done to me. Was it marriage that changed me so much, or was it Kid? I don’t know. I didn’t even realize it as it was happening. I didn’t know that Lou was disappearing and the Louise I was becoming was unrecognizable as anything I’d ever been before.
I remember our wedding day. I was so happy and excited. I thought all of our problems were behind us forever, and that it didn’t matter what we did or how the world treated us as long as we had each other. I understand now that there were a lot of things I overlooked, including the *whiskey bottle* that Kid started carrying with him after the Express broke up. Teaspoon says that love is blind, but I don’t think that’s really true. I don’t think I was blind to the quirks in Kid’s personality that have helped bring me here today, no more than I was blind to the quirks in my own personality that also brought me here.
I agreed to marry the Kid, and followed through with it, with my eyes wide open. I knew he was human, and flawed, and in some ways, very, very scared, but I always thought that as long as we were willing to work things out together, we’d be able to make it through anything the world had to throw at us. I didn’t realize, however, or maybe I did and chose not to see, that the man who will drown you in words on practically any small issue can’t bring himself to confront the issues that really stand in his way.
I always thought it would be Jimmy who wouldn’t be able to confront his demons. That Jimmy was the one who’d never get out from under the dark cloud of his past that hung over his head. I didn’t think it would be Kid, sweet, sensitive Kid – Kid with the blue eyes that can light up an entire room when he smiles – who would ultimately decide that the demons he knows are more comfortable than the happiness he could have if he’d just reach out and grab it.
Maybe I ignored too much. I just always knew that, for my part, the good outweighed the bad, and the bad habits and dark moods were far less important to me than the good times. And we’ve had so many good times.
The sun’s startin’ to set behind the mercantile across the street as I sit here and write this, and I find myself wonderin’ at my own silliness. Why am I sittin’ in a hotel room in a town that’s not my own, when my husband is sittin’ in a hotel room in Rock Creek, unwilling or unable to come home and stick to the commitment he made those years ago?
Sometimes I wonder if things would have turned out any different if we’d had children. Would he be more willing to stay, to talk, to be honest with himself and with me, to fight for us, if we had babies? Some times I think so, but I think I’m more glad that the Good Lord didn’t see fit to bless us with children, because I’d hate to be puttin’ them through this right now. I know I couldn’t deal with little faces and their endless questions right now. And if I can’t, there’s no way Kid’s temper would stand the test.
Rachel says’ hindsight’s perfect, whatever that means. She says she knew I overlooked a lot of signs I maybe shouldn’t have. She’s not the only one who’s told me that recently. I sure wish someone had seen fit to mention some of these “signs” along the way, rather than nod and smile and reassure me that it was normal to be nervous before I got married and that everything would be just fine afterwards. “You’ll see,” everyone told me. I’ll see, all right.
I wish Mama was here, but then I don’t. I can’t help thinkin’ she’d be as disappointed in my as I am in myself. But I can’t help wishin’ she was here right now to wrap her arms around me like she did when I was little and tell me everything was going to be all right. I don’t think things will ever be all right again.
Kid drifted away from me a little bit at a time, in steps so small that I didn’t notice most of them. In steps taken so slowly that I was blind to the cumulative affect of them all. Blind until the night I realized I couldn’t even sleep in the same bed with him any longer.
He pulled away from me by degrees. First, he quit holdin’ my hand at night when we sat on the swing after supper. Then he quit placin’ his hand in the small of my back when we were out in town. He still opened all the doors, and helped me out the wagon, and was always as polite as ever, but somewhere along the line his eyes stopped shinin’ when they looked at me. And he quit touchin’ me when he didn’t have to. It seems so obvious now, but I never really noticed at the time.
I knew he was staying away more, but that was fine with me. He was working hard, and his temper was always so short when he came home, that I really didn’t mind the fact that he started working more and more hours. I had the house to myself for several hours every evening, and would already be in bed when he came home most nights.
As long as I was sleeping, he didn’t try to talk to me, just kissed me on the cheek and went in to get the supper I left for him. Then he’d come to bed and curl me up in his arms like he’d always done. Even when it’d been a while since we’d actually spent any time together, and even longer since we’d…acted as a couple who publicly admitted they wanted children would…it always felt so comfortable there in his arms. It felt so much like home. And he always said that coming home to me was the only thing that got him through the long days, so I never questioned he’d ever want to be anywhere else. I never knew he was coming to realize that despite his love for me, he was not going to be able to be married for long.
When he finally told me he wanted to move away from Rock Creek, it took me a few minutes to realize that me meant he wanted to move away without me. So that’s why I’m here this evenin’, tryin’ to figure out how to build a life that doesn’t revolve around Kid.
Rachel gave me this lovely journal and suggested I write down everythin’ I’m thinkin’ – in what ever order the words tumble out. She said that when she lost Henry, writin’ her thoughts down helped her figure out what she wanted to do next. She said that once she made up her mind to move on and put the words down on paper, that she could look back at what she’d written and feel a little stronger.
Well, here’s what I’m thinkin’ right now: I’m thinkin’ that I know what the skin in the crook of his neck smells like first thing in the morning. And that every day for the last two years of my life he’s gotten up every morning to go to work before I had to, and was always so careful not to wake me until he was ready to go, when he’d wake me up and kiss me so gently before he left for the day. I know what it feels like to come home at the end of the day, knowing that he’ll be along a little while later and that I need to rustle up somethin’ for supper so it’ll be ready when he gets home. I know what it’s like to sleep late on those rare Saturdays when neither of us had to be anywhere early. Those rare, wonderful days when we could wake up and smile to each other because we didn’t have to get up until we felt like it, and could curl up in each others’ arms and cat nap the morning away.
I’m thinkin’ I know what he sounds like when he snores, and how his lips feel, and where the calluses on his hands are, and which chair he always throws his trousers on at the end of the day. I’m thinkin’ I’ve become so wrapped up in everything about him that I don’t know where Kid ends and Louise begins any more. And I’m afraid to find out.
And I’m thinkin’ I’m furious with myself for ever gettin’ to this point. How did I lose so much of myself – how did I give so much of myself away – that I don’t know anymore what I’ll be without him?
Even the spare shirt draped over the bed, the only fresh piece of clothing I grabbed in my mad dash out of town, was a gift from Kid. Everything in my world revolves around him, reminds me of him, was a gift from him. There’s no talkin’ to him anymore, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I know how to get along without him. I thought if I just kept going and pretended not to see the shadows on his face, that he’d work his way through whatever what was eating at him. Trying to talk to him didn’t help, just started an argument. So what choice did I have but to let him work through it in is own way, in his own time?
Until I realized that nothing was ever going to change, because Kid didn’t want to change. Not really, even when he said he did. That is, nothing was going to change until I changed myself. So, I packed my bags, and I wrote a couple of notes, and I left. And now – what? Where do I go from here? How do I even start to put my life back together?
“I’ve seen you before, missy.” The stranger announced to everyone within hearing distance.
Lou was taken back. Dressed in her typical boy’s garb, she didn’t know how the stranger knew she was really a girl. She had only stepped into the saloon to get a sarsaparilla and a sandwich, not to walk into trouble.
“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, mister. And I ain’t no ‘missy’.” She said, purposely keeping her voice as low as possible.
The stranger’s arm snaked around her waist and he pulled her onto his lap. His hands sought out her chest to prove to all his buddies she was indeed a girl and not making it up. If he was wrong his friends would all think he was interested in young boys instead of women. He couldn’t have that.
He was rewarded with one round breast in the palm of his hand. He had the audacity to wink at her. “Told ya’. I’ve seen ya’ before in town dressed much better than ya’ are now.”
Lou’s heart sank to her stomach. She remembered now. A few weeks back her and Jimmy had been on a ride together to this town and she had put on the dress he had bought her in Willow Springs. But how this drunken man would have seen her, when they hadn’t stepped foot anywhere near the saloon, she had no idea. Of course he could just be some ordinary citizen of the town that just happen to be in the saloon today.
‘Just my luck.’ Lou thought to herself. She’d have to make sure she never had a delivery to this town again, else she could lose her job with the Express if word got out they had a woman working for them.
“So how come you’re dressed like that? Shame to hide what God gave you under all those men’s clothes.”
Lou tried in vain to wriggle free of the man’s lap, but his hold was too strong.
“*Spirited* filly ain’t cha?” The drunken man replied to her efforts to break free. His friends all laughed. At least she hadn’t had to answer his question about her clothes. He must be more drunk than she thought. But damn him for his sharp mind and memory of her.
Desperate to get away from him and out of this town, she reached for the first thing she could grab, the empty *whiskey bottle* on the table. She threatened the man she’d smash him on the head with it if he didn’t let her go. Sobering up, but not quite believing she’d do it, he still let her go.
“Hey, don’t want no trouble here little missy. You can go.”
Not quite believing her good fortune, she moved off his lap and out of the saloon as quickly as she could. But her luck was short lived as the man followed her out to have it one-on-one with her away from his buddies.
He pulled a *knife* on her, demanding she accompany him to his room over at the hotel. Knowing she wasn’t going to get any help in the immediate future and she wasn’t sure she’d have time to draw her gun before the man did something drastic with the weapon he held, she used a move that Buck had shown her to use just in a case like this. Successfully disarming him, she raised her boot and sent him flying into the *water trough* face first.
The sheriff, sitting in his *rocking chair* from his post across the street, had seen the whole incident and laughed aloud at the antics before him. He’d grown concerned when he saw ole Jerry draw his knife on the boy, but his alarm quickly grew into laughter when he saw the young boy could handle his own.
Lou quickly untethered Lightning from the hitching post and mounted him as fast as she could.
The man was sputtering and hollering like a stuck pig and just raising himself out of the trough as she rode out of town.
Vowing to tell Teaspoon about the incident so she wouldn’t have to end up in the town again, she smiled to herself. Jimmy would be proud at the manner in which she handled herself and she’d have to thank Buck for teaching her how to disarm her opponent so quickly. Of course Kid would have a fit when he found out, but she’d just have to tell him where he could stick it because she was more than capable of taking care of herself. And despite the danger she had just delivered herself from, she’d never felt more alive.
Jimmy frowned as he moved to a corner of the Washington home. It was a small home, cram packed with things - tables, chairs, boxes, books, oh so many books and children. He had no idea how many were actually running around because they were moving so fast. He wasn’t sure if he was seeing the same ones over and over or if they were different ones.
A few moments later, a tall thin man with spectacles perched on the end of his nose walked into the room and took a seat in a rocking chair. He waved his hand and the children, much to Jimmy’s shock, paid no heed to him. Bedlam still reigned.
The gray-haired man sighed, his shoulders drooping visibly, as he seemed to be resigned to his fate. “Priscilla,” he said loudly. Silence.
“Priscilla,” he called out once more.
Jimmy smiled as he saw Priscilla Washington appear. She had light brown hair pulled back into a knot and the prettiest blue eyes he had ever seen. She walked into the room, not even glancing in Jimmy and Cody’s direction and Jimmy could not help but grin broader. Something about that girl always brought a smile to his face.
Cody thought he had to pay Jimmy for escorting Priscilla, but Cody did not know everything. He knew exactly who Priscilla Washington was and he was looking forward to this dance.
But it seemed as if Priscilla was not. She sure wasn’t dressed for a dance, he decided, as she was wearing a housecoat. As Jimmy’s eyes ran down the length of her slim form, he noted that she was wearing boots, poking out from underneath her robe. Boots which could be considered dressy.
“Yes?” Priscilla said crossly.
The older man, who Jimmy recognized as the father of the Washington brood, waved a hand helplessly in the air. “Please.”
Priscilla glared at her father for a brief instant before clapping her hands. The sound was greeting by a chorus of aww’s.
“Now,” Priscilla commanded.
Jimmy could count the children now, now that they were still. There were three girls and a small boy, all shuffling towards Priscilla. “Grace, you see that John gets into bed,” she continued in a stern voice.
The tallest girl nodded. But before they all left the room, Priscilla dropped a quick kiss on each head that passed by her. “Sleep tight,” Jimmy heard her whisper. As the children filed out of the room, Lorna Washington pushed her way through the same narrow doorway.
“Good night,” Lorna whispered to each child. Jimmy laughed to himself as one of them told Lorna, “No kissing this time.”
Lorna, who was now a very pretty shade of pink, pushed the child out the door as she stepped into the room. She bestowed a magnificent smile on Cody before turning her smile to her father.
“Father,” Lorna said formally, “you know William.”
Mr. Washington nodded gravely at Cody. “Yes, I remember.” He eyed Cody sternly. “And I can see from his friend’s presence that he remembers me.”
Cody’s head bobbed up and down vigorously. “Yes, sir.” He motioned Jimmy closer. “This is James Hickok. He will be taking Priscilla to the dance.”
“I see,” Mr. Washington began.
“Father,” Priscilla said shrilly, “I told you he would just find some guttersnipe to escort me.”
“Guttersnipe,” Jimmy sputtered.
Priscilla glared at him. “He is a gunfighter,” she announced dramatically. “Being with him would not be safe.”
Jimmy’s mouth fell open. Judgmental and vindictive were never words that he associated with her. *Spirited* and feisty yes but he certainly never expected this kind of vehement reaction.
“Now hold up,” Cody interjected.
“Father.” Priscilla ran to her father’s side and knelt beside his chair. “You can’t do this, can you?” she asked softly.
Lorna hurried to the other side of her father’s *rocking chair*. “Oh Daddy,” she wailed, her eyes filling with tears. “She is being difficult again. She hates the fact that I can go out and enjoy myself and she wants to punish me. I did everything she asked of me today. And I did as you said. I told Cody I can’t go out alone with him and he found Priscilla an escort, but now she wants to spoil it all.”
“But Lorna,” Mr. Washington began again.
Lorna glanced quickly at Jimmy. “She is being hateful, judging this young man and she knows nothing about him,” she countered, obviously knowing her tears were having no effect.
“Hickok,” he mused aloud. Mr. Washington turned his head and looked at Jimmy. “They are just dime store novels,” he said slowly.
Lorna nodded furiously. “And you always say no one should read such trash.”
“That is true, Priscilla,” Mr. Washington said.
“But -” Priscilla began.
“We should make our own judgments,” Lorna interrupted. “Isn’t that right?”
“You are a Pony Express rider, correct?” Mr. Washington asked Jimmy. “You work with William?”
“And Mrs. Shannon knows both boys,” Mr. Washington said, glancing at Priscilla. “She wouldn’t keep them on if they were troublemakers.”
“But look at him!” Priscilla exclaimed.
“Judge not ye be not judged,” Mr. Washington said firmly and Priscilla sighed loudly, knowing she had lost.
“Fine,” she snapped, whipping off her robe and dropping it to the floor. She stood before her father, glaring at everyone in the room. Underneath the robe, as Jimmy had suspected, was a dress, a dark blue dress with lace around the collar. She grabbed her hat. “Let’s get this evening over with.”
“Listen,” Priscilla told Jimmy once they had reached the dance. She reached up and grasped his shirtsleeve, pulling him short before they could enter the hall. Cody and Lorna went inside without so much as a backward glance, both of them eager to spend time in each other’s company.
“Let’s just make the best of this situation,” she said curtly. She ignored Jimmy’s frown. Why didn’t he get the message? She had refused to engage in the bit of small talk that he had attempted to bring up and she brought up no subjects of conversation herself. So why did he look at her like that? Like he was disappointed or something.
Deciding to make it a bit easier on him, she continued, “You go your way, dance with all the girls you see fit and I’ll go my way. Okay?”
“Priscilla,” Jimmy called out as she turned away from him, hurrying toward the hall.
But she ignored him, rushing into the building and running straight into Mike Phelps. Mike was an acquaintance from way back. His ranch was north of the Washington home.
“’Cilla,” Mike said, “I was wondering how Lorna got here without her shadow.”
Priscilla groaned inwardly. Yes, that was the only way she would be out anywhere, so Lorna could be there and everyone could enjoy her company. “Get out of my way, you oaf,” she snapped, marching away.
Mike scowled at her back. “Too good for us, as always,” he muttered to himself. A slow smile crossed his face and he stepped toward the punch bowl.
“What are you doing,” Mike’s friend, Ned, said, moving to his side.
“Adding some life to this stupid dance,” Mike replied. He removed a *whiskey bottle* from his coat and emptied the contents into a cup.
He grinned at Ned as he ladled out some punch into the cup. “Watch and see,” he said. He walked to where Priscilla was standing in a corner, scowling at everyone.
“Here,” Mike said generously, “a peace offering. I should have said howdy Cill, how are you first.”
Priscilla nodded. “Thanks.” She took the cup from his hand and took a deep drink. It was hard fighting with everyone all the time. But she did it. Boy, did she do it.
Jimmy watched as Priscilla let out a loud guffaw. For someone who just wanted to be left alone, she sure was attracting a lot of attention with her loud behavior. But the strangest thing was seeing Priscilla surrounded by a bevy of suitors. Jimmy had never seen her with another man before, just her family and maybe once or twice a woman friend.
She was certainly making the most of the attention. One of the young men seemed to be bragging about something and Priscilla poked him in the arm.
“Hush up, Warren,” she said loudly. “You aren’t any good with a gun and you know it.” She pointed at Jimmy. “If you were, you would have taken him on long ago.”
She laughed again as Jimmy narrowed his eyes at her. She had better not go there again. Once again he felt a flash of bewilderment. He never would have thought Priscilla the type to shoot needless digs about his reputation at him. And he hated knowing that her obvious contempt of him cut through him like a *knife*.
He hated being judged and Priscilla Washington knew nothing about his life, absolutely nothing. But here she was, going on and on about who and what he was. Like she actually knew, he thought contemptuously.
Warren shrank visibly as he caught sight of who Priscilla was pointing to. He mumbled something and removed himself from the circle of men around Priscilla.
“He is the man who killed Gabe Caulder,” she cackled gleefully.
That was it, Jimmy fumed. He went to Priscilla’s side and grasped her by the arm, dragging her outside. “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” he said between gritted teeth.
“Let go of me, you fool,” Priscilla snapped, trying to jerk her arm free. She finally broke loose and stumbled, almost falling into a *water trough* behind her.
Jimmy caught her before she fell. It was then he smelled the liquor on her breath. She was drunk!
She sighed as she reached into the cupboard for the plates and glasses. Two plates, two bowls, two glasses, along with two each of fork, *knife* and spoon. Same as she always set the table, same as she probably always would. He wasn’t interested in more children, and they never had company.
Dinner was simmering on the stove and sending up delicious aromas. The smell of her cooking used to call him into eat, long before she did. Now…she didn’t think that the smell would carry all the way to town.
At first, she understood why he headed off to town and drowned his sorrows in a *whiskey bottle*. The pain of their baby’s death had ripped a hole in her heart she didn’t think would ever heal. She knew she withdrew into herself, cried mournfully over the loss. But he couldn’t seem to crawl up out of the bottle. Or maybe he just didn’t want to anymore.
Eyeing the table, she turned and gathered up one of the place settings and put it away. He wasn’t coming home tonight. And she was tired of the tears and the anger that came when he’d finally drag himself in around dawn to sleep it off before doing it all over again. She was tired of feeling abandoned by her husband, and feeling sorry for herself. The first step was to acknowledge that he just wasn’t coming. If she stopped setting his place, she’d stop setting herself up for nothing but disappointment.
When dinner was over, she washed and put away the dishes. She didn’t even bother fixing a plate for him. Determination felt good.
She sat down in her *rocking chair* by the fire, taking up her sewing basket. She wanted to finish hemming a new skirt for herself. His shirt that needed patching in the elbow was first ignored, then tucked into the bottom of the pile. When she finished the other things that needed doing, then she’d focus on something of his. He hadn’t focused on her needs in quite a while, why should she worry so much about not upsetting him because she hadn’t fixed his shirt right away?
When her eyes felt heavy and tired, she gathered up her work and set it aside for another evening. Banking the fire, she made the circuit of the house ensuring the doors were locked. She already knew the barn was shut tight. Hopefully if he came home, he wouldn’t leave the door open and subject the animals to the winter’s draft. More than likely, he’d stay in town; maybe even find a sympathetic ear willing to listen about how his wife just didn’t understand him. And then find a warm place in her bed. He certainly wouldn’t find warmth in his own.
Picking up the lamp, she made her way down the hall, not going into the nursery like she had on previous nights. Her baby was gone. Taken by illness. But she was still alive, and she needed to start remembering that. She would always mourn for her child, but she couldn’t let it consume her as it had.
The room was chilled, and she dressed quickly, anxious to find solace under the thick quilt. Securing the end of her braid, she reached over and extinguished the lamp completely. No more leaving it on softly in case he returned. Burrowing into the warm cocoon of the bed, she sighed wearily in the night, a sound only partially borne of exhaustion.
Perhaps he’d show up in the morning, maybe he wouldn’t. But she was no longer pinning her dreams on the man who’d promised to love her. He no longer existed and realizing that sad truth was the first step into reclaiming her life. She’d lived before Evan Crandell, and she could learn to live again without him.
Buck guided his horse slowly up the gentle hill, taking time to enjoy the crisp fall day. In contrast to the normal Express runs that were made at a breakneck pace, this special courier run that Teaspoon had sent him on was relaxing. Even cutting cross-country, and not changing horses, he could make Fort Bridger by tomorrow before midday, he figured. But the man he was supposed to meet with the message wasn’t even due in on the stage until two days after that. So, there was no rush. He could take the time to appreciate the bright blue sky, the high white clouds, the wide-open space . . .
He stopped suddenly as horses and riders appeared from the other side of the hill. The men were dressed in the dark blue of the United States army.
The soldiers saw him at the same moment, and spurred their horses forward. Buck took a deep breath, quelling his natural inclination to run. He was outnumbered twenty or so to one, and he could see long-range rifles hanging from several saddles. And he wasn’t on a fresh horse.
Besides, he hadn’t done anything wrong.
He stayed where he was, holding his *spirited * horse in check as the animal pranced nervously, not appreciating being surrounded. Of course, Buck was feeling much the same way, so he certainly couldn’t fault the horse. He shouldn’t have been daydreaming . . .
“It’s an Indian, Cap’n!”
“Must be one of ‘em.”
“Hold it right there!”
“Get your hands up!”
Buck slowly raised his left hand away from his gun and knife, resisting the urge to point out that he couldn’t both not move and raise his hands at the same time. He held his right hand out, the reins dangling loosely from his fingers.
“Thought you was so smart, didn’t you?” the first soldier said as he rode up to the prisoner. He quickly took the other man’s gun and knife, and then spit in his face.
Buck winced as the spit hit his cheek, but he managed to hold his temper. He even kept his mouth shut as a second soldier rode up and struck him in the ribs with the stock of a rifle. He stifled a groan and kept his eyes on the officers who were riding closer. He could always hope the man in charge would listen.
“Cubbins, leave the prisoner be!”
Buck studied the officer in front of him now. The soldier was young, probably not much older than he was himself. Long, unruly blond hair hung down on his shoulders. He found himself staring into strong blue eyes -–eyes that held both anger and reservation. But at least he didn’t see the same sort of rabid anger in the officer that was evident in some of the men, so there was some hope. “Lieutenant, my name is Buck Cross. I’m a rider for the Pony Express, out of the Sweetwater station. I’m on a special run to Fort Bridger to deliver some documents.”
“Lieutenant Calvin Ostland,” the officer said, studying his prisoner. “Who did you say the documents were for?”
Buck bit back the retort that he hadn’t said in the first place. This wasn’t the time or place to antagonize the situation any further. “The package is addressed to a Mr. Frederick Diggory.”
“Nobody by that name at Bridger,” one of the soldiers declared.
“That story ain’t gonna excuse you for the attack on that homestead!” Other voices joined in with similar assertions.
Amid all the angry voices, Buck had to admit he was starting to get a little nervous. Whatever had happened, it had a lot of men very angry. But he didn’t know enough about what he was being accused of to even try to answer. And right now, the safest approach seemed to be not to ask. “Mr. Diggory is due in on the stage from San Francisco in three days,” he said, trying to keep his voice even.
“Ain’t three days from here to Bridger,” one of the men pointed out angrily. “Plenty o’ time for you to be up to no good, even if the rest is true.”
Buck looked at the last speaker, noting the sergeant’s stripes on the man’s sleeves. “We ride hard pretty much all of the time, Sergeant,” he tried to explain. “Sometimes it’s nice to actually have time to look around.” He also figured Teaspoon had planned it as a little time away for him after the recent events with Sally and Jennifer Tompkins. At the time he’d left Sweetwater, he thought the extra time was a good idea.
“What’s going on here?”
The cluster of soldiers parted, revealing another officer riding up. This one had more gold braid on his sleeve, Buck noted – enough to make him a Captain.
“Caught one of them savages what attacked the Perkins place,” the sergeant reported. He handed over Buck’s gun and knife to the officer.
“We’re not sure about that,” Ostland cautioned. “He says he’s a rider for the Pony Express, on a special run to Fort Bridger.”
“Is that so? Captain Marcel Beaumont,” he said, riding closer. “And you are?”
This man’s eyes were just hard, Buck decided, as the officer turned to glare at him. The man’s neatly styled hair and precisely trimmed beard also served to give him something of a cold look. “Buck Cross,” he answered. “I ride out of the Sweetwater station.”
“Well, now, Sweetwater’s quite a ways from here,” Beaumont said, his southern heritage evident in his voice.
“Yes, sir, it is,” Buck agreed. “I was asked to make a special run to deliver some papers.”
“To someone who don’t even exist,” the sergeant sneered.
“The recipient is a Frederick Diggory,” Ostland explained. “Sergeant Gimble doesn’t believe there’s anyone by that name at the Fort.”
“There ain’t!” Gimble replied.
“He’s due to be arriving on the stage in three days,” Buck explained again. “I’m supposed to meet him.”
“Interesting story,” Beaumont remarked. “And unfortunately for you, one that we can’t verify.”
“You can verify it in three days,” Buck pointed out. He was definitely getting nervous now – and he didn’t even want to think about what might happen if Diggory had missed the stage.
“Don’t get smart with me, boy,” Beaumont warned, his voice hard. “Now, what kind of documents are you carrying?”
“I don’t know,” Buck replied, hoping that sounded very non-smart. “The town marshal, Teaspoon Hunter, gave me the package. He brought it back with him after meeting with the Territorial Governor at Fort Laramie.”
“Why didn’t he just send it with the real Pony Express then?” Gimble demanded. “Get there a lot faster.”
“It’s too heavy,” Buck answered. “A lot more weight than the horses usually carry when they’re running all out.” He didn’t like the rumblings coming from the enlisted me surrounding him. “The package is in my saddlebags.”
At a nod from his superior officer, Ostland rode up and opened the bags, pulling out the package. “It is addressed to the name he gave us,” the officer confirmed.
“Still, anyone could have made up that name, couldn’t they?” Beaumont mused.
“They could have,” Buck agreed. “But I’m telling you the truth.”
“We’ll see,” Beaumont said. “Just what kind of Indian are you?” he asked, riding closer. “You’re not even a full-blood, are you?”
“”I’m half Kiowa,” Buck answered. “And half white.” Of course, he knew the assumptions that admission was bound to trigger – and the increased volume of angry remarks confirmed that.
Beaumont just smiled – but the look was anything but friendly. “Had some trouble with the Kiowa a bit south of here a couple of months back.”
“I read about it,” Buck said carefully.
“He read about it!” Gimble said sarcastically. “More like you was in on the war parties!” He rode up even closer to Buck and added, “We lost some good men there.”
Buck breathed a sigh of relief when Ostland brought his horse between him and Gimble. There was a definite threat in the sergeant’s voice. “I left the Kiowa when I was thirteen,” he said softly. “I’ve lived in the white world since then.” Well, there was no sense mentioning that he had offered to go back in exchange for Ike’s life . . .
Buck’s words did little to deflect the anger written on most of the faces around him. The tension on the hill grew, but just then a voice called out from the other side. “Captain, you’d best come here, sir!”
Beaumont hesitated just a moment, then he nodded toward Ostland. “Bring the prisoner,” he ordered.
They rode over the hill, Beaumont leading the way, followed by Ostland and Buck, and then the other soldiers following behind. As they topped the rise, Buck could see a wagon on the flat land below. A young soldier was standing outside, glancing frequently into the back of the covered wagon.
“What is it, corporal?” Beaumont asked as they approached.
“The pain, it’s real bad,” the soldier answered. “I don’t know what to do.”
Beaumont turned and glared at Buck. “This is what you people do,” he said angrily. “You wound people with those blasted arrows, and then leave them to die a slow, painful death.” He pulled aside the covering on the back of the wagon. “I suppose we should be grateful at least that you didn’t stop for scalps this time!”
Buck looked into the back of the wagon, instantly sickened by what he saw. A young woman lay in the back, her face covered with sweat and contorted by pain. Her right leg lay outstretched, her skirt pulled up around the arrow that was embedded in her thigh. Congealed blood was crusted around the shaft, and the skin was purple and red. “When did this happen?” he asked.
“You know damn well when,” Gimble grumbled.
“The Preston farm was attacked just before dawn this morning,” Ostland supplied. The more he heard, the less convinced he was that their prisoner had had anything to do with the attack. “Captain Beaumont, Sergeant Gimble, and a few of the men were on a reconnaissance mission. They came upon the scene shortly after the attack and sent for the rest of us. This is Emily Preston, the only survivor.”
Buck looked up at the sky, judging the time. It was late afternoon now, so the arrow had been in there for close to twelve hours. “That arrow needs to come out,” he said. Taking advantage of the fact that Ostland was next to him, blocking most of the angrier men, he slowly dismounted and walked to the back of the wagon. Closer up, he could see that the tip of the arrowhead was just barely breaking the skin on the back of the woman’s leg.
“It’s best to wait until we get to the fort,” Beaumont asserted. “Then she’ll have proper care from the army surgeon.”
Buck turned back to address the officer. “With this wagon, you’ll be lucky to make the fort by tomorrow night,” he pointed out. “That wound is going to get infected. She could lose that leg, and maybe die. The arrow needs to come out.”
Ostland dismounted and went to stand next to Buck. He had to admit that the woman didn’t appear to be doing too well. “We’d like to help her,” he said. “But the arrowhead didn’t go all the way through. None of us know how to get it out.”
Buck pulled himself up into the back of the wagon next to the woman. He was vaguely aware of Ostland blocking a couple of soldiers behind him, but he didn’t turn around. He looked directly into the woman’s eyes, seeing the mixture of fear and pain reflected there – and a slightly glazed look that he feared might indicate a fever. "Ma'am? I might be able to help.”
She just studied the man for a moment, not fully able to focus. “It hurts so bad,” she finally whispered, her voice trembling as another wave of pain wracked her body.
“I know,” Buck said softly. He reached over and turned her leg just enough so that he could clearly see where the arrow point was. When the woman moaned he pain, he winced with her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Then he turned back to Beaumont. The officer was still sitting on his horse, an expression that Buck could only describe as bemused on his face. “Captain, I’m sure I can get that arrow out.” Well, actually he wasn’t sure at all – but under the circumstances, sounding certain was probably his best bet.
“Wouldn’t need that if you hadn’t put an arrow in her to begin with,” Gimble grumbled.
“I had nothing to do with the attack!” Buck snapped.
“Well, that remains to be seen,” Beaumont drawled.
“Captain, Miss Preston is in a great deal of pain,” Ostland pointed out. “And it is still some distance to the Fort. If this man can help her, perhaps we should allow him to do so. She does obviously need medical attention – regardless of how that arrow came to be in her leg,” he added, glaring at Gimble with his final words, thereby cutting off the sergeant’s protest.
“Assuming he really knows what he’s doing,” Beaumont replied. He finally got off of his horse and went to the wagon. Without even getting very close, the seriousness of the wound was obvious. He considered his options quickly. He wasn’t keen on letting the Indian do this – but arriving at the fort with a dead woman wasn’t in his best interest either.
Arriving with a wounded but living homesteader and a prisoner would be much more heroic.
“I’ve seen this before,” Buck said. In fact, it looked much like a wound his brother had suffered on a hunting party many years before. Red Bear’s father and the tribe’s medicine man had removed the arrow, cleaned the wound, and Red Bear had suffered no lasting ill effects.
He only hoped he could be so lucky now.
Ostland leaned into the wagon. “Miss Preston, it seems you should have some say here. This man says he may be able to take that arrow out. Now, we can’t be sure he can, but it will be at least another day before we can get you to the surgeon at the fort.”
Emily Preston looked into the eyes of the man who said he could help. In her fevered state, she wasn’t following everything that was being said. Had someone actually said that this man had been one of the attackers? But looking into his eyes, she didn’t see that. She reached out a trembling hand, grabbing onto his shirt. “Take it out, please.”
Buck put his hand over hers, dismayed but not surprised to feel the heat in her skin. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. He turned back to the soldiers. I’ll need a few things,” he said. “Water, the cleanest cloth you have, my *knife* . . .”
“What, so’s you can finish killing her?” Gimble demanded, loudly.
Buck glared at the sergeant but didn’t respond. “Do you have any whiskey?”
Gimble snorted. “So now we’re gonna have a drunk Indian putting his hands on a white woman?”
Buck turned to Ostland, who so far seemed to be the most rational man there. “It’s not for me,” he said softly.
Ostland turned to Beaumont, looking for some guidance. He wasn’t sure why the senior officer wasn’t taking charge here. Surely part of the army’s mission out here was to help civilians, like Emily Preston, however they could. When he finally got a nod from the captain, he started giving orders. “Sergeant Gimble, take the troops and set up camp,” he commanded. Somehow, he couldn’t imagine that the woman would be ready to travel on tonight after going through having the arrow removed. “Corporal Tanner, break out the whiskey from the supplies. Stevens, you and Smith get some fresh water from that creek we forded about half a mile back.”
Buck just sat back and watched as the soldiers sprang into action. At least having direct orders to follow seemed to take their attention off of him for a while. Ostland himself had climbed into the wagon and was pulling out the cleanest spare shirts and towels he could find. The other supplies arrived in short order as well.
Buck used the water to wash away as much of the blood as possible, then he picked up the *whiskey bottle* that had been provided. “Can you help hold her still?” he asked Ostland.
“Of course,” the lieutenant replied. He scrambled around in the small wagon, working his way behind Emily Preston so that he could hold her shoulders.
Buck reached for one of her hands. “This is going to hurt,” he said softly. “But I promise, it’ll hurt a lot less once the arrow is out.” When she nodded in understanding, he opened the bottle and poured some of the alcohol over the wound. He shivered at the moan of pain that escaped Emily’s lips – but he knew what had to be done. He turned toward Beaumont and held out his hand. “My knife.”
Beaumont reached down for the knife and held it out – drawing his gun at the same time with his other hand. He cocked the pistol as he put the knife into Buck’s hand. “You just remember, I’ll be watching.”
Buck just took the knife, not acknowledging the threat. He poured some of the whiskey over the blade and then handed the bottle to Ostland. “You might want to see if she’ll drink some of this,” he suggested.
Ostland took the bottle and held it to Emily’s lips, helping her take a couple of gulps. She coughed as the fiery liquid went down, moaning in renewed pain as the movement increased the discomfort.
Taking advantage of the fact that she was distracted by the whiskey, Buck used one hand to grab the arrow just above her leg. He gripped the knife firmly in his other hand and sliced the shaft in two, letting the fletched end fall away. Then he gently helped Ostland roll the woman to one side before he straddled her injured leg, using his knees to hold the leg in place. “Hold her now,” he said softly to the young officer. As Ostland nodded and complied, Buck turned his knife to one side and put the flat of the blade against the cut end of the arrow. He held it there with his left hand, and then he hit the other side of the blade as hard as he could with the heel of his right hand.
Emily Preston screamed as the arrowhead finally broke all the way through on the other side of her leg. The additional pain finally made her pass out as Buck pulled the shaft through.
“What’d he do to her?”
“Cap’n, you want I should take care of the Indian?”
Buck tried to ignore the angry voices outside as he picked up the other piece of the arrow and laid it aside. His hands were trembling as he reached for the whiskey bottle and poured more of the liquid over both sides of the wound.
“The arrow’s out, Captain,” Ostland reported. He took a deep breath, surprised to find that he had actually been holding his breath through the arrow removal. “Miss Preston is passed out, but she’s all right.”
Buck tore strips from a shirt and used them to bind the wound. Finally, he sat back, reaching into the water bucket to scoop up a handful of water. He let the cool liquid run over his neck and shoulders as he concentrated on breathing deeply.
He hoped his hands would quit shaking soon.
“Well, looks like you done all right,” Beaumont said. He held the pistol up again. “Now you just hand that knife out here, real easy like.”
Buck just sighed and reached for the knife. He turned the handle away from him and pushed it slowly toward the back of the wagon.
While Beaumont was busy putting the knife away, Buck reached for the two pieces of the arrow and slid them to Ostland. “Hang onto these,” he whispered. “It’s important.” At least, it could be important if he lived long enough to see Fort Bridger and a fair hearing.
Ostland glanced out at Beaumont, and then back to Buck. He shouldn’t be keeping secrets from his superior officer.
But something told him it was the right thing to do in this case.
The young officer nodded and slid the pieces of the arrow under the blanket he had wrapped around the unconscious woman. Still, he was curious. “Why?”
But Buck just shook his head. Beaumont was back at the wagon. He might have trusted Ostland with an explanation – but not the captain.
“Out of the wagon,” Beaumont ordered, his pistol still at the ready. As Buck slid out of the wagon, the captain turned to his sergeant. “Sergeant Gimble, secure the prisoner for the night.”
Buck stumbled as his arms were pulled roughly behind him and he was pushed toward some trees. He felt the ropes being tightened around his wrists as he walked.
This was going to be a long night . . .
Fort Bridger came into sight the next night long after the sun had set and the final rays of light disappeared beyond the western horizon.
Buck shifted his shoulders, still stiff from being tied up for so long. He’d even spent most of today riding with his arms pulled behind his back. Ostland had finally convinced Beaumont after their last stop that it was highly unlikely the prisoner could get away from all of the soldiers, even if his hands were tied in front of him.
He wondered if he was imagining the reluctance in Beaumont’s voice as the officer finally gave his approval.
He wasn’t happy about being tied up, of course, but at least with his hands in front he had a little better balance. And he did have to admit to some relief that he was actually going to make it to the Fort. The way Gimble and some of the other men had been talking the night before, he’d had a few doubts.
Now all he had to do was find a way to convince the army that he’d had nothing to do with the attack on Emily Preston’s farm.
Fortunately, she seemed to be doing well. The one time he’d seen her today, she was awake and looking much less pained. Ostland had confirmed that she was feeling better and that there was no sign yet of any infection.
They rode in through the gates, and there Beaumont split his troop. He sent the wagon and several men toward a building with a sign that identified it as the infirmary. He sent some of the men off to the barracks to get cleaned up and get food. And the rest of them headed to the guardhouse.
The low, squat building looked anything but inviting. Heavy bars covered small windows near the front; there were no windows at all on the back half of the building, at least not on the side they were approaching.
The riders reached the front of the guardhouse. Several of the soldiers dismounted and then they pulled Buck roughly from his horse. He stumbled as his feet hit the ground, banging his leg painfully against the *water trough.*
“Bring him inside,” Beaumont ordered.
Just then, the door to the guardhouse opened and two men came out. The first was an army officer. His coat hung open, as though he had just pulled it back on. The insignia on the uniform identified him as a Colonel.
It was the second man, a civilian, who really caught Buck’s attention though. “Sam!”
“Buck?” Sam stepped around the colonel. His eyes quickly took in several things – the angry looks on the faces of the soldiers, the huge bruise on the side of Buck’s face, and the ropes binding his wrists. “What the hell is going on?”
Beaumont stepped forward, ignoring the civilian. “Colonel Breiler, sir,” he said, saluting. “There was an Indian attack on a homestead northeast of here. We apprehended this man not far from the scene.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Buck said.
“Of course he didn’t,” Sam agreed.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to catch him in the act,” Beaumont continued smoothly. “However, his Indian blood is obvious. And his explanation for being there is, shall we say, somewhat unsubstantiated.”
“Where was this attack?” Breiler asked.
“The Preston homestead, near Green Creek,” Ostland supplied.
“And there’s no doubt it was an Indian attack?” the Colonel queried.
“None,” Beaumont replied quickly. “There were arrows from the savages everywhere. The house and the barn were burned, the livestock driven off. All of the men were dead, a couple of children too. One woman did survive, though injured.”
“It wasn’t Indians,” Buck said softly. At least with Sam there, his words might get heard – even if not believed by all.
“If Captain Beaumont says he found arrows, that seems fairly convincing to me,” Breiler said.
Buck turned to Ostland, hoping he’d been right about the young officer. “Do you have the pieces of that arrow?”
The lieutenant nodded and went to his horse, pulling out the pieces. He noticed the frown on Beaumont’s face, and guessed he’d probably be in for a lecture later.
“Sam, that’s the arrow I removed from the woman who survived the attack,” Buck explained. “It wasn’t made by any Indian.”
“I don’t see how you could know that,” Beaumont scoffed.
“I know because I grew up out here,” Buck answered. “My people traded with the other tribes. I know what signs they apply, the techniques they use to make the arrows.”
Sam had taken the pieces of the arrow from Ostland and was studying them himself. “Buck, there have been several attacks in this area recently. That’s why I’m here.” He paused, glancing over at Breiler, then back to Buck. “I have some arrows and other evidence from some of the attacks. If you looked at them, you think you could identify them?”
“Of course,” Buck replied confidently. Now whether his word would be believed by anyone but Sam – well, he wasn’t as confident of that.
“Colonel, this man is a prisoner, suspected of murdering innocent people,” Beaumont said. “I must protest if he is to simply be set free.”
“I’d assume you’d want to make sure you had the right man, Captain,” Sam said. “And I can tell you right now, you don’t.”
Ostland reached back into his saddlebags and pulled out the package Buck had been carrying. “The prisoner says he was sent here to deliver this package. But the man it’s addressed to isn’t here yet. He’s supposed to be arriving on the stage in two days.”
Breiler took the package and looked at the name, then he handed it to Sam. “I don’t recognize the name.”
Buck didn’t answer right away. He thought he might have seen a flicker of recognition in Sam’s face as the lawman read the name. But Sam remained silent, so Buck finally said, “Colonel, I ride for the Pony Express. This was a special run, and that package came from a meeting with the Territorial Governor. The man it’s addressed to should be here in two days.”
“Two days,” Breiler repeated. “Well, we’ll wait two days then,” he said, taking the package back from Sam. He turned to Beaumont. “Lock the prisoner up,” he ordered.
“Now wait a minute,” Sam said quickly. “I know this man. He had nothing to do with any attack!”
“I’m afraid I see enough circumstantial evidence here that says he may have been involved,” Breiler responded. “He’ll be held for two days until the stage arrives. If this Mr. Diggory is, in fact, on the stage, perhaps we’ll have some answers then.”
“Then I’ll take custody of the prisoner,” Sam said quickly. “After all, the attack was on a homestead, not on the military. That makes it my jurisdiction.”
Breiler scowled, considering that. He wasn’t happy at all about sharing authority with civilian lawmen – but he did have his orders. “There’s no civilian jail here,” he pointed out.
“Don’t need one,” Sam responded. “You release Buck in my custody, and I guarantee he’ll be here when the stage comes in.”
Breiler considered his options. If he insisted on locking the prisoner in the guardhouse, it could be seen as failing to cooperate with the civilian law, as he had been ordered to do. On the other hand, if he left the prisoner in Cain’s custody and the man did escape – well, that certainly couldn’t be blamed on the army. He stepped up right in front of Sam, staring the lawman in the eye. “If he’s not here in two days, I’ll have your badge,” he warned. “And it’ll be you locked in the guardhouse.”
Sam didn’t flinch. “He’ll be here.”
Breiler looked over at Beaumont. “Have the prisoner escorted to the Marshal’s quarters,” he ordered. Then he turned and went back into the guardhouse and slammed the door.
Beaumont scowled at the closed door for a moment, then he turned to Gimble. “Sergeant, escort the prisoner,” he said curtly before he turned abruptly and headed off.
Gimble stood where he was for a moment, fuming. He couldn’t believe the army was losing control of this prisoner! Finally, he started to move. “Let’s go,” he growled, shoving Buck forward. He reached out to push Buck again – only to have his arm caught up by Sam’s hand.
Sam squeezed as hard as he could, glad to see the other man wince. “Your orders were to escort,” he said quietly – though there was no mistaking the underlying threat in his voice.
Gimble just glared at the lawman, resisting the urge to rub his wrist when it was finally freed. Still glaring, he gestured angrily ahead of him.
Sam stepped out next to Buck as they walked, staying just far enough to one side that he could keep an eye on the Sergeant. “Good to see you making new friends, Buck,” he muttered.
Buck just rolled his eyes. He hated the idea of being in custody – but being with Sam was worlds better than being locked up in an army jail.
They walked toward the far side of the Fort. Finally, the path turned toward the rear wall. Looking forward, Buck could see two buildings directly in front of them. One was little more than a lean-to, sheltering two horses that he could see. The other appeared to be a small house. As they got closer, he could see a *rocking chair* on the porch in front of the house. And then someone got up from the chair, stepping out into the moonlight . . .
She dropped the quilt she’d had tucked around her and rushed off the porch. “Buck?” She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him – only to pull back when she realized his hands were bound. “Sam?”
“It’s a long story, Emma,” Sam said, sighing. In fact, there might be several long stories to be told tonight.
“I’ll tie the prisoner out here and set a guard,” Gimble said, pointing to where the horses were stabled.
“You’ll do no such thing!” Emma declared, putting herself between Buck and the soldier. No matter what was going on, that was not going to happen around her.
Sam stepped up, blocking Gimble as well. “This man is in my custody,” he said. “I think your Colonel was very clear on that.”
“He was very clear on what would happen if the prisoner escaped,” Gimble pointed out, not quite making a threat.
“Well, that’s my problem,” Sam replied. “Now get out of here.” For a long moment, he thought the soldier might refuse. But finally the soldier gave one nod and walked slowly away.
Sam turned around and found Emma working to release the knots on the ropes binding Buck’s wrists. Reaching into his vest pocket, he retrieved a pocketknife. He pulled the blade open and quickly sliced through the ropes, revealing raw, red skin underneath. “Damn,” he swore softly.
“I’m fine,” Buck said, flexing his hands to get feeling back. “Sam, what’s going on?”
Sam looked over his shoulder to where Gimble and a couple of other soldiers were lurking in the darkness, just far enough away so that he really couldn’t say anything. Turning back to Buck and his wife, he put one hand out to each of them, steering them toward the house. “That’s a big question, Buck,” he said softly.
They reached the porch and Sam turned back again, taking one more look at the dark shapes of the soldiers lurking in the shadows. “Let’s get inside,” he suggested. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
To be continued . . .
Jimmy couldn’t help but snicker to himself when he thought of the occurrences over the last couple of days that had happened between himself and Lou. They were havin’ a great ride to Willow Springs, and then everything went haywire. He honestly thought he was goin’ crazy there for a while. One minute he was laughin’ like a crazy man and the next moment he was worried sick . “How can one woman do this to a man?”
That’s when he felt her hand grip tighter on his, bringing him out of his revelry. “Lou?”
“Ughhh…what hit me?”
Jimmy just stared down at her with relief and in amazement, “You don’t remember?”
He could see that her eyes were a bit clouded, but she was honestly tryin’ to remember that day’s happenings. Slowly she sat up in bed and held a hand to her head.
Laying back down she closed her eyes tryin’ to keep the room from movin’. Jimmy leaned closer towards her, tryin’ to see if he could help.
“You ok Lou?”
“Yeah, I just need to stop the room from spinnin’.”
Without even blinking an eye, Jimmy slid his hand behind her back and helped her sit up, all along thinkin’ how amazing a woman she was. Once he helped her sit up she opened her eyes back up and looked into his.
“Am I crazy, or am I actually rememberin’ a *whisky bottle* hittin’ me over the head at the saloon?”
“Nope. You ain’t crazy Lou. That’s definitely what hit ya.”
Snickering, Jimmy gazed at her. She could see the warmth, caring and pride in his eyes as he looked upon her, making her stomach do little flips. He started leanin’ a bit closer as she did the same, when suddenly he winced.
“Jimmy?!” Forgetting all about her own injury, Lou grabbed onto him as he started to fall forward onto her knees.
Noticing that he was breathin’ heavier than normal she started checking him over for any wounds that she hadn’t seen when she woke up. She pulled back hi s jacket and that’s when she noticed blood seeping from his right side.
“Jimmy! You’re bleedin’!”
“I’m fine. Now don’t you start frettin’ about me. You’re the one that got hit in the head, that’s worse than this little cut.”
“Jimmy, I ain’t gonna argue with you right now. Now let me help you.”
Lou slowly crawled off of the bed, watchin’ the room spin before her. She had to hold onto the night table just to keep from fallin’ over.
“Lou? I said don’t worry. I’ll be fine, it’s just superficial.”
“Jimmy, I’ll be the judge of that. Now let me help you over to the *rocking chair* over here in the corner.”
Once she was able to get the room to stop spinnin’ for a second she gently pulled him from the bed she had been lying on and guided him towards the chair. He winced a bit, trying to not show that it hurt more than he was lettin’ on.
She slowly and gently pushed his jacket off his shoulders the rest of the way while she inspected his wound.
“Jimmy? How’d this happen? Or maybe I should ask what did this?”
“Owwww!” Taking in a big breath he tried holdin’ in his cry of pain.
Feelin’ awful for hurtin’ him, she pulled back quickly. “Sorry.”
Just tryin’ to maintain breathin’ at a normal pace he answered her, “I was just grazed by the *knife* that coward was carryin’.”
Tryin’ to keep his mind off of the pain while she started cleaning up the wound and tryin’ to keep her head from poundin’ she tried to keep the conversation going as best as she could.
“You mean one of those boys was carryin’ a knife? I thought they were only carryin’ guns.” She seemed genuinely surprised.
Breathing through his clenched teeth, while she hit a particularly sore spot, he continued with the story.
“So you remember we’re here in Willow Springs, right?”
Absent-mindedly she answered him, “Yeah.”
“Do you also remember that this all started because you and I tied up our mounts by the *water trough*?”
She looked up at him in amazement, “You mean to tell me that those fools were all riled up because we tied up there?”
“I know,” breathing in quickly he winced again. “Sounds stupid doesn’t it?”
“I’d say. Anyways, accordin’ to the Marshall, these fellas havin’ been causin’ trouble here for a while now and it just happened to be that you and me walked right into the middle of it.”
Quietly giggling, Lou finally finished up her ministrations on his side and let him sit up a bit more. “Well next time we ride into town, let’s just skip the cheese sandwiches at this saloon.”
“Sounds good to me.” He smiled at her.
“What happened to them? I mean they were all turned into the Marshall weren’t they?”
Sobering up a bit, Jimmy looked into her eyes. “The guy that hit you with the bottle, ended up goin’ with the Marshall. The guy that got me didn’t end up so lucky. He got me and then went after you, but you were already out.”
Jimmy looked up at her, finally feelin’ the pain he had been experiencing subside. “Let’s just say that he didn’t win in the end.”
Putting his hand up to her face, she leaned into his palm. Finally realizin’ that he was going to be fine she relaxed a little. The pain in her head was still goin’ ten full, by she was just pleased as pie that Jimmy was goin’ to be ok. She didn’t know what she’d do if she lost him. Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears as the thought had crossed her mind, but she refused to cry over somethin’ that didn’t happen. If it’s one thing she had learned from Jimmy, it was that ‘what ifs’ don’t count.
“Thanks Jimmy. For watchin’ out for me when I was out.” She gently kissed him.
Feelin’ a bit flustered he sat back, tryin’ to keep himself under control. “Thanks Lou. I told you I’d be fine. It’s just a scratch.”
He leaned up a bit and kissed her on the forehead.
“Now why don’t you go back and lie down? I’m gonna go and get some more water for the pitcher, since you used most of it on me.”
He helped her back over to the bed, as she lay back down. “Get some rest darlin’. I’ll be right back and then I’ll finish fillin’ you in on the rest of the story.”
“Okay.” Her head was still poundin’, all be it not as hard, but enough to make her tired enough to want to take a little nap.
Normally Lou would put up a fight if someone had told her to do somethin’ like that, she was definitely like a *spirited* filly when it came to bein’ told what to do if she didn’t agree with it. That’s one thing Jimmy had learned from watchin’ her and Kid argue all the time. It’s also one of the big things that Jimmy admired in her. She could take care of herself and save all their sorry hides at the same time, and never blink an eye. She cared so much for all of them, and she would take it to heart if anything ever happened to any of them. He definitely felt lucky to have her in their corner and as his.
She let her eyes close slowly as she watched Jimmy leave the room to get more water for the pitcher. She was so thankful that everything turned out ok. She needed Jimmy, he wasn’t only her best friend, but has turned out to be much more. He always held a special place in her heart, and now that Kid and her were over, she felt that maybe endin’ things with him wasn’t so bad. She would always have a special place in her heart for Kid, but Jimmy was a match for her. He took her as she was and never wanted to change her. She loved him for that and was so thankful to have a second chance at love. With that final thought, she closed her eyes fully and fell into a gentle slumber.
When Jimmy came back up stairs he walked into the room and quietly set the pitcher down on the dressing table. He then walked over to the rocking chair and sat back down in it, watching her sleep. She seemed so peaceful, somethin’ that he hadn’t seen her be in a long time. He loved her with all his heart for a while now, but had let guilt stop him from actin’ on it. But after the fight that broke out in the town they were in today, he wasn’t willin’ to sit back and let guilt stop him from lovin’ her. But for now, he was goin’ to let her sleep and then they’d talk about it later.
With that he closed his eyes and fell into a light slumber himself, knowin’ that life was always gonna be an adventure with he and Lou together. Whether it was workin’ together, as friends or more, or all of ‘em, he was happy.
The old homestead looks the same. The same as it did last winter, when I told myself I’d never return. And the same as it did the summer before that, when I’d made the same promise.
Now it’s summer again, and a riot of wildflowers has sprung up against the fence, almost covering the busted wagon wheel still slumping against the crooked slats. The freshly white-washed boards of the house gleam in the early afternoon sunshine, and the dust kicks up in gritty clouds and hovers around my boots as I tether my horse near the *water trough* and swing open the gate and enter the yard. The gate still squeaks, too.
Then the porch door thumps open and a whirling dervish streaks across the sandy ground, launching herself into my arms in a flash of red gingham and rosy cheeks and scarlet ribbons. I toss Molly into the air, her braids flying behind her, and catch and hug her close as Becky winds her way around my legs, giggling, crying out “Unky Jimmy! Unky Jimmy!“ impatiently, chubby arms outstretched, anxious for her turn.
They smell of gingerbread and untouched meadows and fruit fresh from the vine.
I raise my head at the squeal of un-oiled hinges to see Lou on the porch, wiping her hands on a flour-splattered towel and watching me silently. I put Molly on the ground and skim my fingers across Becky’s mop of shaggy hair and wait.
“Jimmy,” Lou finally says.
Strange how a man can practice what he’s going to say for a hundred miles, and when it comes down to it all that comes out is “hey Lou”. But no stranger than a man undertaking a 100-mile journey and denying that he’s doing it the whole time, I guess.
“Well.” She shakes out the cloth, squinting down at me standing in the sunlight with her children scampering at my feet. “Well,” she says again. And then she smiles. “What are you waitin’ for? Come on, and get washed up. It’s almost time for supper.”
I grin back and let the girls take my hands and lead me inside.
It’s good to be home.
* * *
Trail dust has got a way of burrowing into a man’s hide, and nothing but a good, long, hot soak in a tub was going to erase all traces of it from my skin. But I do the best I can with the little washtub in the spare bedroom, and take a few extra minutes to slick back my hair and shave off the straggly growth that’s covered my face. When I’m done, I almost don’t recognize myself in the mirror.
I blink away the water dripping into my eyes from my hair as I study my reflection. Almost a stranger. But of course, that makes sense. Because it’s Jimmy looking back at me now.
Then Lou’s calling me for dinner, and I don’t have time to think about that any more.
* * *
The table is filled to bursting with food, and I load up my plate without embarrassment. First, Lou and Kid are family. Second, a man spends as much time travelling as I do, he learns to take advantage of a nice home-cooked meal when he gets it.
The table is filled to bursting with chatter, too, and I sit back and shovel food into my mouth and just let it flow around me like water from a crystal clear stream. Molly talks about her role in the school play, and Becky about the cookies she helped to make, and the baby squirms for her own bit of attention amidst the hustle and bustle. Kid teases Teresa about her crush on the new bank clerk, and I bite back a laugh when Teresa darts a look at me from under long lashes and turns bright red. She’s got to be 14 or 15 now, and pretty as a willow tree. Not much younger than Lou was when she joined the Express, and if that’s not a sobering thought I don’t know what is. Only Jeremiah doesn’t partake in the conversation, watching me instead with dark eyes and lips set in a grim line. Probably he remembers what happened last winter. Probably he heard the raised voices and knows one of them was mine.
“That’s what you need, Jimmy,” Kid says.
I glance up to find Kid grinning at me, and realize the conversation has gone on around me while I’ve been dwelling on the past.
Kid snorts in exasperation at my blank expression. “A woman, Jimmy! Somebody to put you in your place when you need it, and hold you at night when you need that too.”
Kid looks over lovingly at Lou, and she meets his eyes with a soft, tender smile. He reaches over to stroke her hand, and Jeremiah makes that noise of disgust that’s particular to young men seeing their parental figures acting like love-struck kids, and even the baby stops squishing peas between her tiny fingers to watch the display. I duck my head to my plate, my fork skating over the mashed potatoes, and try to pretend that the last woman who shared my bed wasn’t a two-dollar whore with bad teeth who wanted me to sign her copy of “The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok” when we were through.
Kid’s looking at me expectantly, so I shrug. “Maybe someday, Kid.”
It’s the answer he wants. But my eyes meet Lou’s before she gets up to start clearing the plates, and we both know that it’s a lie.
* * *
“Stop fussin’ over me, Kid!”
Lou, *spirited* as ever, swats at Kid’s hands, but the Kid wouldn’t have survived this long in the marriage game without learning his way around that. He resolutely leads her to the *rocking chair* and gives her a teeny push, plopping her backwards into the chair before dusting his hands in front of him, as if he’s just completed a particular loathsome chore. He rocks back on his heels, only slightly favouring his left leg, and I remember him riding back into town in the spring of ‘62, looking gaunt and pale and lurching from his horse like he was half-dead. He probably was. Looking at him now, lean and muscled from working the fields, with just the hint of grey starting to creep into his hair, and you’d never guess he almost didn’t make it.
“Now you know what the doc said, Lou,” he begins, and I feel my eyes get wide.
“Again?” I squeak out.
Lou laughs at my dumbfounded expression, and for the first time I notice the little marks around her eyes. Crow’s feet, is what my mama used to call them. Seeing them on Lou makes my stomach flip a little. She’s getting old. Hell, we’re all getting old, and I know she’s got children of her own now, but in my mind’s eye she’s still the pretty little girl who danced with me in the streets of Willow Springs. Guess that won’t change.
Lou pats her flat stomach. “Again! We just found out last week.”
“Well, I’ll be. Guess I’m goin’ to be an uncle again. Bet you’re hopin’ for a boy this time, huh Kid?”
Kid smiles down at Lou before crossing to the fireplace and taking a seat in the other chair. “Naw. I’m happy with another girl.” Then he repeats the mantra of all prospective parents, the one I’ve heard three previous times from him now. “As long as the baby is healthy--”
“That‘s all that matters,” Lou and I chorus along with him.
Kid laughs along with us, and the talk turns to what I’ve been doing. I falter, grasping for something to tell them. I figure they don’t want to hear about the gunfight in Reindeer Falls, or the time I had to shoot that card player that drew on me at the table in Virginia City. I figure they don’t want to hear about the musky hotel rooms or grimy saloons in which I live my life.
“Got up to Montana this spring,” I finally light on something to say. “Buck’s doing well.”
Kid laughs. “I never figured Buck for a rancher, that’s for sure.”
I close my eyes, picturing the snug cabin, the green grass swaying in the breeze, the sheep milling about doing whatever it is that sheep do, and shrug. “He’s making a name for himself up there. He’s even goin’ courting.”
I open my eyes to meet Kid’s gaze evenly. “White woman. People don’t care so much in Montana, he says. It’s hard enough just to make ends meet and get by, why give your neighbours more trouble? It’s live and let live, he says.”
* * *
The mattress in the spare room is lumpy and smells faintly of liniment, but I snuggle down into it all the same. I stare at the ceiling overhead, puffing lightly on a cigar, and try to shut my mind off long enough to get some shut-eye.
But the craving started after dinner, and it’s steadily worming its way from my gut to my head to my chest. Giving me a headache and stealing the breath from my lungs till it’s all I can think about. I try to concentrate on the moon hanging outside my window, the cool breeze waffling the thin lace curtains, the lingering scent of lavender on the hairbrush on the table, the laughter and smiles of Lou’s daughters as I helped tuck them into bed.
None of it helps, and after an hour of tossing and turning I slither from beneath the cover and slink down the stairs, careful to avoid the third riser from the bottom with the tell-tale squeak.
It takes some stealth, but I find the whiskey bottle hidden behind the strawberry preserves at the back of the pantry. I upend it and swallow and sigh in relief as the tremors subside. I replace the bottle, pretend I never found it, and if she checks it in the morning, Lou will pretend that it’s not three-fingers emptier than it used to be.
I’ll ignore the guilt, and she’ll ignore the pain.
I fall asleep thinking of Willow Springs, and JD Marcus, and wedding dresses, and a little log cabin surrounded by bleating sheep.
Live and let live, he’d said.
* * *
“You want to give me a hand out in the fields today, Jimmy?” Kid asks around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
It’s a courtesy he gives me every time I visit, even though he doesn’t have to. We both know my working in the fields -- hauling in crops, sweating in the heat, getting blisters on top of blisters -- is the way I pay Lou and Kid for letting me stay in their home and eat their food and bond with their children. But Kid does me the courtesy of asking, just the same.
“Can’t,” I tell him, just for the fun of watching his mouth drop open in shock. The cooking noises Lou’s been making behind me at the stove stop abruptly, and the only sound in the sun-drenched kitchen is the hiss of bacon sizzling in the pan. I glance over my shoulder and smirk at Lou. “Better get that ‘fore it burns to a crisp.”
Her movements are jerky as she tugs the frying pan away from the fire. I stride over to the counter and nab a slice of bacon before Lou can swat me, feeling a little bit ashamed for playing with them, but feeling pretty darned smug just the same.
“I ain’t stayin’ this time,” I tell them, crossing my arms at my chest.
“Oh?” Lou’s voice is cool, her eyebrows raised to a sharp point on her temple.
Lou and Kid exchange glances, communicating in that creepy way that married couples do. I decide to put them out of their misery.
“I’m goin’ back to Montana,” I say. “See if Buck can use a hand on that sheep farm. Figure there’s always need for a good hand or two. Granted, I don’t know nothin’ about raisin’ sheep, but it can’t be much different from horses.”
Kid snorts out a laugh. I glare at him, but he only laughs harder.
“Kid!” Lou scolds before laying an hand on my arm. “You sure about this, Jimmy?”
It’s the mama in her coming out, sure enough, little worry lines creasing her brow. It isn’t that she don’t believe me, I know that. If I say I’m going to Montana, she’ll believe I’m going to Montana. It’s the stuff she figures I’m not telling her that makes her bite her lip and press her warm, calloused fingers into my forearm.
I wish I could explain it to her. Explain how I woke up this morning, the clouds passing over the sun and making dancing patterns of sunlight on my quilt, and how I just lay watching the shapes form into fanciful animals and strange faces. How it felt, waking up for the first time in a long while and discovering that my first thought wasn’t “whiskey”.
I wish I could make pretty pictures with words, to describe the place where Buck lives. The stubby green grass everywhere, and the red clay in the mountains, and the ruts in the soil that gave the only indication where a road should be. It was a hardscrabble life, a hardscrabble place, a place that “civilization” had only grazed, and the people there eked out a living through hard work, long hours, and relying on each other.
It was a place where a half-bred Kiowa could pay court to the miller’s daughter, and nobody gave it a second thought. It was a place where Wild Bill Hickok could die, and Jimmy Hickok could be reborn.
But I don’t have the words. So I just close my hand over her fingers, and squeeze. “I’m sure, Lou,” I tell her. “I’m sure.”
* * *
Molly and Becky wend their way through my legs, holding up tiny faces for good-bye kisses, and even the baby tucked onto Lou’s hip manages to get enough slobber onto my cheek to constitute a kiss. Teresa lets me peck her chastely on the cheek, blushing as I do so, and Jeremiah shakes my hand, and Kid pulls me into a rough bear hug. Finally, Lou hands off the baby to Kid and cradles my face in her hands.
“You take care of yourself on the trail,” she begins.
“I will, Lou.”
“Stay out of trouble.”
Lou smacks my arm before pressing her lips quickly to mine. Then she quicksteps back to Kid, retaking the baby as his arm snakes around her waist.
“You come back and visit us,” Kid says.
“I will.” I duck my head and grin up at them, looking so happy together, and try to fix the image in my mind so I can describe it just perfect to Buck. “I’ll have to come back to see my new niece, after all.”
I heave myself into the saddle and turn the horse in the direction of town, my head already working on what supplies I’ll need to pick up for the trip. I head out at a brisk pace, but I keep looking back over my shoulder until the old homestead is nothing but a speck in the distance.
Yeah, I’ll be back. That’s one promise I intend to keep.
The only thing that stood between Jimmy Hickok and his next poker game was a half-empty *whiskey bottle,* an empty glass—and Sheriff Dave Madison. He hadn’t planned to stay in this little one-horse town more than the hours it would have taken him to clean out the few farmers and townsmen who considered themselves “gamblers.” Shoot, he’d only gotten a hotel room because he knew he’d be drinking and wanted someplace to sleep it off before moving on.
Instead, about two hours into the game, a *spirited* “argument” broke out over Jimmy’s remarkable luck and before he knew it one of the farmers had pulled a *knife,* demanding that the stranger empty his pockets. Jimmy’s pistols, backed up by his reputation for using them, had settled things down quickly but the sheriff had confiscated all the money on the table until things could be sorted out.
Hickok had argued the point, of course—something the sheriff hadn’t taken kindly to. Madison hadn’t been intimidated by “Wild Bill’s” reputation. With the help of a few overly eager townspeople, Jimmy had found himself the sole occupant of the local jail.
The night hadn’t really been all that bad. He’d had a cot to sleep on instead of the ground, a clean blanket and some pretty good food the sheriff had ordered sent over from the restaurant. Hickok had seen worse places, far worse unfortunately.
The only thing wrong with the night was that, once the sheriff had fallen asleep in his chair, Hickok had had no one to talk to—and far too much time to think. And as usual, his thoughts had gone back to a time when he had actually believed he could have been something more than a gambler and a drunk.
Morning had finally come and, with it, his release. Madison had told him to come back after the bank opened again to get his money and then to move on. Back at his hotel room, the bottle had called to him and he’d answered, as usual.
Now pleasantly inebriated, his thoughts had picked up where they left off in the jail. He’d gotten lost in the memory of Sweetwater and Rock Creek and everything he’d once had but left behind.
Fourteen years—God had it really been that long? The Pony Express should have been a stopgap at most—a way to make some money before he moved on to bigger and better things. Who would have believed it would have turned out to be a time in his life when someone had actually cared about him and he them.
Teaspoon Hunter had become almost a father to him—a somewhat unusual father but more than Jimmy had had in a very long time. From the first time he’d met the older man, rising out of the *horse trough* like a deranged salmon, he’d realized he was in for the ride of his life—and not just as an employee of the Pony Express.
The eighteen months that followed had been full of highs and lows. He’d learned a lot from the grizzled old former Texas Ranger and the rest of the young people who had shared his life. Whether they had been riding hell-bent-for-leather to deliver the mail or just sitting in *rocking chairs* on the station’s front porch talking, he’d never felt as much a part of anything.
With a sigh, Hickok realized he hadn’t felt that way since. Everything had gone to hell in a hand basket after the Express had shut down. His “family” had split up to go off to fight their respective battles. He tried to be a soldier but it hadn’t worked out. Instead he’d ended up where he was now, what he was now. Just another gunslinger with a reputation to defend far too often, just another drunk in a two-bit town hoping to get a few bucks from the locals and move on to another two-bit town with even more locals to fleece.
The mantel clock chimed eight times. Jimmy shook away the thoughts the booze wouldn’t silence. Standing, he moved to the bed to pick up his single case. Maybe he’d head up towards Deadwood he decided spontaneously. There was always something going on up that way.
As he left the hotel, he stopped to look at the calendar on the wall. August was almost on them. Shaking his head, he wondered where the first half of 1876 had gone.