Topic #43: Phrase - "Cantankerous"
|Blicksnert by: Ty
||Men, Children, It's All the Same by: Jo
|'Tis The Season by: Lori
||Epiphany by: Cindy
|The Simple Request by: Dede
||Oh! For Pete's Sake by: Amara
Jimmy had owned several horses since losing Sundance two years after the Pony Express closed, but he'd never owned one that he had been as fond of as he had been of Sundance, until this one. He was a gunfighter and a gentleman gambler now. Men like him didn't become fond of their horses. Horses where a commodity; bought and sold, won or lost
So why was Jimmy so fond of this particular horse? Because it remind him of better days, Pony Express days. It wasn't the horse's color. Sundance had been a golden-palomino while this one was a smutty-buckskin. It wasn't the horse's disposition. This bad-tempered horse wasn't anything like Sundance. Each morning when he mounted, Jimmy was just as likely to be thrown, as allowed to ride. The ornery horse's lope was easy enough but nothing like the smooth ride he'd had on Sundance. There was no logical reason this horse should remind him of those days but it did, thus Jimmy was unusually fond of him. Jimmy had even given the cantankerous horse the name Blicksnert in honor of the Express family.
As Jimmy rode toward the next town, he thought about the day he and the horse had crossed paths. It had been a little over a year ago. It had been a hot, muggy day, Jimmy had ridden into some small town; he couldn't even remember the name anymore.
Jimmy had just finished putting his horse up at the livery when he heard the commotion in the back corral. A horse's screams of pain, terror and hatred rang out, along side laughter and the crack of a bullwhip. The sound of the whip reminded Jimmy of Noah, but Noah would never have used his whip on a horse.
As he turned the corner Jimmy got a view of the corral, he was appalled at what he saw. The corral was ringed by about ten men, all of their attention was on the horse in the center. The horse was not only snub tied to a post, but his left hind leg was tied up so he stood on only three legs, unable to move let alone fight back. Two men, each with a whip, stood on either side of the horse taking turns inflicting pain on the poor beast, enjoying the creatures suffering. Jimmy wasn't sure what color the horse had been originally, blood red was now the predominate color on the animal's back, neck, rump and flanks.
Jimmy had drawn his guns before he had even thought, firing both, one at the feet of each of the men. Jimmy's voice was cold as ice when he spoke. "Gentlemen, who is the owner of that horse?"
"Who wants to know?" snarled a third man who stepped forward from the side of the enclosure.
"Wild Bill Hickok!" Jimmy replied with a voice even colder then before. A murmur ran through the crowd as the name was recognized. Jimmy had never liked the name, but sometimes it helped get him what he wanted.
"Well Wild Bill what do you want with the owner of the horse?" the man sneered, he was afraid of the legend standing before him but he didn't want to show it.
"I have sixty, quarter eagle gold pieces, that I'll trade for that horse." Jimmy said as he holstered the gun in his left hand, while lowering the one in his right.
The shock on the man's face was undeniable. "You want that sorry excuse of a horse, and you're willin' to pay me a hundred and fifty dollars for him?"
"As is, while you and your men walk away." Jimmy said as he holstered the remaining gun. He knew he was the proud new owner of a horse, one he would probably have to shoot, just to put it out of its misery.
"Ya can't ride him, but he's yours. May you have as much luck with him as I have." the man offered sarcastically as he held his hand out for the money.
Jimmy reached into his pocket drawing out a bag of coins handing them to the man, saying "Now you, and them..."with a nod towards the men with the whips "...leave."
"Come on boy's, let the man have his horse." the three men laughed maliciously as they walked away from the corral.
Jimmy turned to the remaining crowd "I don't need an audience." he said, the tone of his voice making his meaning clear.
As Jimmy entered the corral, the rails emptied as fast as water running out of a broken bowl.
He approached the horse carefully, speaking with a gentle voice. He started to reach out to pat the horse but found no resting place for his hand that wouldn't cause more pain. "Easy boy, let me get you untied." As he removed the snub tie, the horse's head came up so fast that Jimmy was almost knocked to the ground.
"Easy fella, no one's gonna hurt you again if I can help it." Jimmy said catching his balance, as he spoke the horse's head swung towards him, ears forward, listening. Almost as if understanding what was being said, he quieted, allowing Jimmy to rub a small place on his nose.
The ropes on the leg were more difficult to remove, because the horse's movements during the whipping had tightened the knots. Cutting the rope was the only option. Fortunately for the horse, Jimmy carried a knife. "Easy boy, this is gonna be painful." Jimmy said. As he cut the rope the leg dropped with a thump, jarring the horse causing a snort of pain, but much to Jimmy's surprise the horse didn't jump away, instead he stood looking at Jimmy as if to say. 'So what do we do now?'
Jimmy slowly reached for the halter to lead the horse to a stall in the livery. The horse seemed to know that Jimmy was no threat and did his best to follow. The stall wasn't far, but Jimmy knew the pain the horse was feeling must be excruciating. However the horse was determined.
As they entered the barn a young boy stepped out of the shadows, his eyes wide, "Are you really Wild Bill Hickok?" he asked in awe.
"Some folks call me that, and you are?" Jimmy responded almost absently.
"Folks call me Zac." the boy responded boldly.
As Jimmy led the horse into the stall he said "Well Zac, I have a quarter eagle for you too, if you'll go fetch the doctor for me." before the words were completely out of his mouth, the boy was on his way.
Obviously, the doctor's office wasn't far because Zac was back with the doctor before Jimmy had gotten the horse settled.
"Here ya go." Jimmy said as he flipped the coin to the boy, who caught it with alacrity.
"Doctor Guy Mundorf," the man introduced himself, offering his hand.
Jimmy took it "James Hickok," then he motioned to the horse "Do what you can for him, Doc."
Looking from the man to the horse, and back to the man, the doctor asked, "Are you sure?" he was amazed that a man with such a reputation would be worried about a horse. A horse that he had just bought according to the boy.
"He'll make it Doc. He just needs a chance and a little help." Jimmy said with confidence.
"Then I'll help." the doctor said as he rolled up his sleeves, "But I'll need your help, if you're willing."
"Just tell me what to do, Doc." Jimmy replied with a smile.
Zac, who had been watching silently all this time chimed in with an "I'll help too." for which he received two smiles and nods of appreciation.
Over the next few hours, while the boy fetched and carried what ever was requested, both men worked side-by-side cleaning and dressing the wounds. Both men flinching in sympathy each time one or the other inadvertently inflicted pain. However, the horse stood stoically through the whole procedure. Jimmy was sure that the morphine was partly responsible, but something in the horse's eye told Jimmy that even without the drug he would have attempted to endure.
At one point the doctor had sent Zac to get a sheet, which Jimmy and the doctor had cut and tied to fit over the horse's back and sides to help protect the wounds from dirt, dust and straw.
"Well that's all we can do for now." The doctor said as he unrolled his sleeves.
"Thanks Doc." Jimmy said as he scratched the horse between the eyes.
"He's not out of danger yet, but as long as nothing gets infected he should be alright in about a month. However I wouldn't try riding him for another month after that." the man warned.
"Looks like I'll be staying in town for a month or so. Can you recommend a place to stay?" Jimmy asked.
The doctor was beginning to like this man. He knew a cold-blooded killer when he met one, and Mr. Wild Bill Hickok was not cold hearted. He wondered just how much this man deserved the reputation he was carrying around. "Well Mr. Hickok, I have a room over at Mrs. Reynolds boarding house, I think she has an extra room. I'm sure she will let you have it, if I recommend you to her."
"I'd appreciate that Doc, but call me Jimmy." he said as he offered his hand again.
"Only if you call me Guy." the doctor responded taking his hand in return.
"Zac, I want you to call me Jimmy too, so long as you promise to let me know immediately if anything happens to my horse." Jimmy smiled as he offered his hand to the boy.
"I will Mr. ... I mean Jimmy." Zac said he shook Jimmy's hand.
"Let's go get you a room, Jimmy" The doctor said as he headed for the door.
By the end of the first week, it was clear that the horse was stubborn, ornery and bad tempered but he didn't have a mean bone in his body. He just liked doing things his way and it took a while for him to change his mind, Jimmy and the horse butted heads a few times but on the whole the two got along extremely well
By the end of the second week, every time Jimmy looked at the horse he remembered his Express family. It didn't make any since but Jimmy decided he might as well take advantage of it, so he named the horse Blicksnert; yes, it was a strange name, but each letter represented someone from his Express days, someone who was closer to him then his blood kin: Buck, Lou, Ike, Cody, Kid, Sam, Noah, Emma, Rachel and Teaspoon.
By the end of the third week, Guy told Jimmy that the horse was healing nicely and that it appeared there was no permanent nerve damage. Many of the whip marks would disappear with time but some would never fade.
By the end of the month, the wounds were healed enough for the horse to travel, and Jimmy was ready to move on as well. So he said his good-bys to his new friends Zac and Guy, and headed out for another town with Blicksnert on a lead line.
Another month saw Jimmy's first attempts to ride Blicksnert. Jimmy spent more time on the ground than he did in the saddle the first two days. Jimmy was sure the horse had laughed at him several times. On the third day Jimmy got quite a surprise, he was allowed to ride without even a bunny-hop of protest. But Jimmy soon learned that when riding Blicksnert the first five minutes was a game: sometimes he let Jimmy ride, sometimes he didn't. But the horse also seemed to know when not to play the game, there were times when Jimmy needed to ride fast and Blicksnert never fussed when it was really important.
Jimmy had come to trust the cantankerous horse implicitly; he was the first creature that Jimmy had trusted fully since Sundance and the Pony Express family.
"You know boy, it's been five years since the Express closed, and I ain't been back to Rock Creek or Sweetwater in all that time. I wonder if anyone is still around. What do you say about takin' a little trip into the past?" Jimmy asked the horse.
Blicksnert's head bobbed up and down several times and he snorted. Jimmy would have sworn the snort sounded remarkably, like 'About time!' but it must have been his imagination.
“Aloysius Hunter and Buck Cross you get in this house this instant!” Rachel’s voice rang out loud and clear across the door yard to the corral where the two men were grumbling about the cold drizzle.
Buck and Teaspoon exchanged glances, shrugged and headed for the house. They both had a good idea why they were being summoned; bad moods.
It had all started when Lou and Rachel decided to go all out for Christmas. It was bad enough the town was all decked out for Christmas. There were wreaths on all the shop windows; pine garlands covered the posts holding the awnings and overhangs along the sidewalk. The school children had made red paper ribbons for the windows of the school and church. The whole town was busy getting ready for the holiday and the Christmas dance that would start the week long celebration. They asked Teaspoon to play Santa, Lou was going to play his elf. The weather even looked like it was going to add to the festivities and the drizzle was slowly changing over to a pretty light snow.
Teaspoon had liked the idea at first and Rachel began his costume. He bristled when he asked if she was leaving room for a pillow and she told him he didn’t really need one. That’s when Teaspoon’s mood began to go sour. He’d grumped around all that day and even refused his dessert the last two nights; Cody took advantage of the situation and ate both his and Teaspoon’s on both nights. Teaspoon had stubbornly refused to try on the costume earlier that day. He’d stomped his feet and left muttering to himself as Rachel fumed.
Lou had decorated the bunkhouse with paper streamers and pine garlands and made stockings for all of them to hang on Christmas Eve. A huge brightly decorated tree stood in Rachel’s parlor which Lou had enlisted the boys to help decorating;. She was insisting they each take part in the activities the town was planning. Cody, Noah and Jimmy were going to play the three Wise Men in the Nativity play. Kid and Lou were playing Mary and Joseph. Rachel and Lou were making the costumes for all of them.
Lou had tried to involve Buck in the holiday but he kept insisting it wasn’t his holiday so not to bother… He was also the only one who was alone, but no one noticed. It seemed everyone else was happily anticipating the holiday; this just added to Buck’s misery. Cody was seeing the minister’s daughter Maryanne it appeared to be a serious relationship, the young woman could cook as well as Rachel. Jimmy was seeing a stunning redhead with a temper to match, she was perfect for him. Noah had Cassie and they were planning a spring wedding about a month before Lou and Kid. Rachel and Teaspoon were becoming very close and he was escorting her to the dance; after he got out of the Santa costume; provided she got him into it.
Buck’s normal moodiness was growing worse by the day. He was banging things around slamming stall doors and scaring the horses. His dinner conversations were nonexistent or single word answers. He grumbled whenever he was asked to do anything beyond his normal chores. He’d pushed Rachel too far when he snapped at Lou over the stocking, stating he didn’t want one and to take it away. Everyone else had laughed at him when he stormed out of the bunkhouse.
Teaspoon and Buck mounted the stairs to the house like men marching to the gallows. Rachel was really angry with them. She stood at the doorway hands on hips waiting for them to enter the house. “Today would be nice, Gentlemen” she muttered sarcastically. When they finally entered the parlor she pointed to the sofa and said “SIT.”
They sat. They both hung their heads and looked at their feet. She stood in front of them and waited, taping her foot, until they looked up at her. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves. Are you two grown men or two cantankerous, obnoxious, belligerent little children? Both of you have done nothing to help around here to get ready for Christmas, in fact, BOTH of you seem to be doing everything you can to try and ruin it for everyone else.”
“I’m sorry Rachel, I just felt like you were saying I was fat. Ain’t San Tee Claus supposed to be really round? I’m a bit plump but….” Teaspoon didn’t get to finish the sentence.
“You didn’t even give me a chance to tell you what I was planning. You just got all hot and bothered and walked out. I think the only reason you’re even going to the dance with me is to keep an eye on Jimmy and Cody and Karl. Were you afraid if you didn’t ask me to the dance he would? I happen to want to go with you although at the moment I’m not sure why. And since you’d rather play Mr. Scrooge instead of Santa, Mr. Tompkins has agreed to play Santa so you’re off the hook…..”
“Now wait a minute Rachel, I didn’t say I didn’t want to be San Tee Claus I just thought I should have a pillow to make me fat. And what about Lou wasn’t she going to be my elf?” Teaspoon whined, Rachel smiled inwardly but grimaced outwardly.
“Will you at least try on the costume?” Teaspoon nodded. “Lou bring it in here.” Rachel called into the kitchen. A moment later Lou appeared dressed all in green. She had on a little green jacket over a green thigh length tunic and tights. She had a green, red and white pointed hat on her head with funny pointed ears that covered her own. She jingled when she moved because there were bells on her hat and green curly toed shoes. She was carrying the Santa costume.
“LOU?” Both Teaspoon and Buck said at the same time.
“Wow, you look, err, um, GREAT!” Buck stammered as he stared at her legs. Teaspoon gave him a hard elbow to the ribs which left him gasping for air.
“Lou, you are adorable but isn’t that costume a bit, err, short?” Teaspoon wisely kept his eyes on the two women’s faces.
“Other than us no one knows she’s not a he! The town folk will think they are watching a boy play an elf…. Now if you think you can get one of the boys into the outfit, be my guest.” Rachel quipped taking the Santa suit from Lou and handing it to Teaspoon.
Lou smiled at Teaspoon and thanked him for his complements and concern, she ignored Buck totally.
While Teaspoon left to try on the suit Lou sat down in a chair across from Buck. Rachel watched the Kiowa bow his head and study the floor again. She knew he was hurting still over Ike’s death but there was no excuse for his recent behavior. “As for you young man.” Rachel began and Buck slowly brought his eyes up to meet hers. “You owe Lou an apology at the very least and your whole attitude needs to change. Lou has tried to make this an enjoyable holiday for all of us and you’ve been uncooperative at best. You made Lou cry tonight when all she tried to do was make you feel like you were a part of this family. If you don’t want a stocking fine, it’s gone, and I suggest that you find something else to do Christmas morning when everyone else is opening theirs. I don’t want your miserable attitude ruining the holiday for everyone else. You are welcome to join in if you want to be here but if we’re offending you by celebrating Christmas go read a book somewhere, go for a ride or take a walk but don’t make us miserable just because you are. We want you here with us, opening presents, including your stocking, and eating dinner with us as part of the family. I know you don’t want to go to church or the play and I won’t make you but…..” She stopped speaking when she noticed a lone tear running down Buck’s cheek. “Honey, what’s really bothering you?” Rachel sat beside Buck and put a comforting arm around him.
Buck shrugged and looked up at Lou; another tear ran down his cheek. He quickly wiped it away, took a deep breath and began, “I’m sorry I was so mean and nasty, you’ve done a lot to make everyone feel happy and I’ve messed it all up. I’m sorry Lou, and you really do look great and elflike in that costume.” Buck turned to Rachel. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I guess if I’m angry or mean at least I can feel something… I’m all empty inside. I’m sorry. I’ll stay out of the way of you all so I won’t ruin it for you. Don’t worry about me.” He stood to leave but just then a shadow filled the doorway.
“HO, HO, HO, MERRRRYYYY CHRISTMAS” Teaspoon’s voice filled the room and a jolly fat red suited man with a white beard stood in the doorway. The suit fit him perfectly and had extra padding sewn into the suit in all the right places! “What do you all think….Rachel I think you should tell Tompkins he’s lost his job as San Tee Claus.” Everyone was smiling, including Buck.
“You look great Teaspoon!” Lou gushed as she hugged the old man. “I’ll be right back.”
Rachel hugged Teaspoon and stood back to admire her costume, making him turn around a few times. Buck just stood there wishing he could be part of something but not sure what. He was about to excuse himself when Lou came in with something hidden behind her back.
“OK, I was going to give you this for Christmas but I think you need it now. Which one first, right or left?” Lou looked at Buck trying to read his emotional state.
“Left, I guess….” Buck answered softly not sure what to expect. Lou handed him a wrapped package from her left hand. Buck looked at it, then her, Lou nodded and he began to open it. He gasped when he realized what it was. “I thought I lost this. Where did you find it?” His eyes lit up and he hugged Lou tightly kissing her head. Rachel and Teaspoon exchanged glances. They finally caught sight of the object in Buck’s hand, it was the picture Ike had drawn of himself, framed.
”It was under Kid’s bed behind his trunk. It was all crumpled up so I stuck it under some books and forgot to tell you about it. I wanted to get you something for Christmas and the frame needed something in it so….” She didn’t get to finish before Buck hugged her tightly again. “Don’t you want what’s in my right hand?”
Buck nodded and Lou handed him a book. He’d seen this book before it was Ike’s journal. He’d looked for it after Ike had died but couldn’t find it. “I found it last week Buck, in the hay loft wedged between two beams. I haven’t read it and I think you should have it. I wanted to give it to you when I found it but you wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“I’m sorry Lou, I just feel so left out and alone. I tried to get someone to go to the dance with me but we both knew that wasn’t going to work; I hate dances. I always got forced to celebrate Christmas at the mission school and Ike would always stay with me and make it bearable. It’s just not what I believe. Now he’s gone and I felt like it was being shoved down my throat again…. I’m sorry for the way I behaved, Rachel, Lou…” he hugged both women and turned to leave clutching Ike’s picture and journal tightly.
“Rachel, do you think this costume would fit Buck? You never had San Tee Claus at the mission did you?” Buck shook his head. “The beard, eyebrows, glasses and hat should cover most of your face and Rachel can put makeup on your nose and cheeks to make them look redder, like from the cold. A pair of gloves and no one will know it’s you…. What do you think Buck? You’ll be the most loved and wanted man at the dance!”
“Hmmm, I don’t know…. HO, HO, HO, MERRRRYYYY CHRISTMAS! What do you think?” He raised one eyebrow and grinned.
They all laughed “That’s great son! Lets change you into this so Rachel can make a few adjustments; I think you’ll need the pillow!” Buck and Teaspoon headed to the other room to change while Lou and Rachel stood there smiling….
“Ok Rachel how did you pull that off? They’re both happy, Teaspoon will be with you the whole night and you even got Buck to play Santa, but what is Mr. Tompkins going to say? I guess we shouldn’t tell him until after it was Buck who took his place…” Lou shook her head in amazement.
“Its the magic of Christmas, it can turn even the most cantankerous of kids into angels! By the way… I never asked Bill to play Santa” Rachel winked.
“James Butler Hickok.”
Funny how three little words could send fear into the heart of a grown man. But those three little words, said by his wife, in a tone that was sure to put ice on the creek even though it was July, caused Jimmy to pause, and then look at the doorway his wife was framed by. He tried not to look guilty, or uneasy, tried to project the same confidence and neutral expression he possessed whenever he faced down a criminal; he tried and he failed. Miserably.
“Just what in the world are you doing?” she demanded, letting go of the doorframe and crossing her arms over her chest. If she cocked her hip out to the side he was a dead man. Hips straight; so far so good.
“Well?” she pressed as her hip shifted to the side and jutted out. He used to think that move was so sexy when they were courting and she’d playfully look up at him and tease him about something. His blood could still be stirred by the gesture. But usually that was when they were in their bedroom and she was in her nightgown and the oil lamp was casting a faint glow across her skin. When she was dressed and in the cold light of day, he was usually in trouble when she made that move. As he clearly was now.
“I was feeding the kids breakfast,” he said calmly.
“Uh-huh,” she nodded slowly. “Since when did breakfast consist of horehound candy?”
Since the kids were wild and out of control today and wouldn’t be quiet while he worked on the pancakes. Becky didn’t want pancakes today, she just wanted eggs; Seth didn’t mind if they had pancakes, but he wanted some of the blueberries in the jar above the stove added to the batter – because that’s how momma knows he likes his pancakes; and two-and-a-half year old Jordan did not want blueberries – blueberries are yucky – he wanted his pancake shaped like a little boy. The way mommy makes it. The only problem was, mommy had still been asleep when Jimmy started cooking breakfast for their brood.
Daddy had been unable to wake Mommy when the first rays of sunlight began to creep into their bedroom. He nudged her, gently shook her, and when those methods failed to rouse her, he pulled the covers back and said – right by her ear – that it was time to get up. She grunted at him, rolled over, buried her head under the pillow and he thought he heard a faint snore escape her lips. Mommy clearly wasn’t getting up.
So Jimmy had dressed, and then began to get their children up. He dressed them quietly, no small accomplishment with a sullen six year old who protested that he didn’t tie the ribbons in her hair right, or a two year old who thought it was just the funniest thing in the world to squirm out of his father’s grasp every time Jimmy tried to wrestle his arms and legs into his clothes. At this rate, the boy would still be naked when Jimmy took them over to Rachel’s house and begged the former station mother to watch them while he went to work and Karen still slept. Clearly his wife wasn’t feeling well, she had barely eaten supper last night and then had fallen asleep shortly after putting the kids to bed. A day sleeping and she’d probably be back to her normal self.
The candy had been a bribe to get them dressed, satisfied with their appearance and the fact that they were having just regular ol’ pancakes for breakfast. It also kept them quiet while he cooked so that they wouldn’t wake up their mother. Either it hadn’t entirely been successful, or Karen has simply woken up and come out on her own.
“It was just a small piece,” he protested. “I’m still gonna make them eat their breakfast, so there’s no real harm.”
“Except Jordan has the piece of candy stuck in his hair,” she snapped with impatience at him. “I’m never going to be able to get that out of his hair now, Jimmy. I’m going to have to cut his hair.”
“Might not be such a bad idea,” Jimmy shrugged as he went back to tending the pancakes.
“Bad idea?” she nearly shrieked at him and he turned to face her. His eyes widened slightly at her tone, and the fact that she no longer looked angry, she looked hurt.
“Well, sure,” he shrugged again, not seeing what the big deal was. “He’s two now, if his hair gets any longer – especially with those curls – people are going to think he’s a girl. They’ll wonder what we’re doing dressing our daughter up in pants and letting her play out back in the dirt. If his hair wasn’t so long, you wouldn’t be constantly having to wash it to get the food out after he smears it in it.”
“I like his curls,” she protested in defense.
“You like having to wash his hair nearly every day, or look at him go around with his hair stuck together because he’s acting his age and making messes with his food?” He sighed, “just last night you were upset that you’d had to give him another bath because of his blasted hair.”
He turned back to the stove and lifted the pancakes off onto a plate and said something he’d been holding back for a while now. “Besides, he looks ridiculous. I want people to be able to tell he’s a boy. You need to cut his hair.”
The cold tone was back and when he placed the plate on the table and dished up the children’s pancakes, he noticed Karen’s hip was cocked at an alarmingly exaggerated angle. Quickly he put on the syrup, ignoring his wife’s cold glare, cut the golden delights and left his children to their meal. Then he advanced on his wife and steered her back into their bedroom so the children wouldn’t witness any more of their parents’ argument.
“What?” he asked in exasperation.
“Are you ordering me around?” she demanded. “Telling me what to do with my son?”
“He’s my son, too,” Jimmy pointed out. “And, yes, I’m telling you that I think you should get his hair cut. It’s summer, it’s hot, shorter hair will be cooler. It will also be a lot easier to deal with and you can stop being so overworked as you complained about yesterday. You know his long hair is getting ridiculous, you said so yourself last week.”
“But he’s my baby,” Karen protested.
“He’s two,” Jimmy snapped. “He’s no longer a baby.”
“I love his curls.”
“He’s a boy. The curls are ridiculous at this point. If you don’t want to cut his hair, then I’ll take him down to the barber myself after I drop the other two off at Rachel’s. I’ll have time to do that before I have to be at work today.”
Karen’s eyes were bright with moisture as she wrapped her arms around her middle. “Fine,” she sniffed. “Do whatever you want. Obviously you’ve got it all worked out. I wonder why I bothered to even get up today.”
“Karen,” he said softly, reaching out to place his hands on her shoulders. She shied away from his touch and he counted to ten, then twenty, so he wouldn’t snap at her again. “Honey, you weren’t feeling well last night and I just thought that maybe if you slept today and didn’t have to worry about watching the children you’d be able to get better faster. You know Rachel loves to watch the kids, they’ll play with her children, you’ll be able to rest…I was just trying to help you out.”
She turned away from him, and he thought he saw her shoulders shake, but he couldn’t be certain if she was crying. When she spoke, her voice was thick, but that could have just been her choking back her hurt. “Fine, Jimmy,” she sighed. “Finish feeding the kids breakfast, take Jordan to the barber, let Rachel watch them. I’m going back to bed.”
He’d been dismissed and he knew it; he wanted to say something so she wasn’t quite so angry, but instead he just turned and left their bedroom to hurry the children along so they could start on their day.
By the time Jimmy reached the marshal’s office, his foul mood had turned decidedly worse. He’d taken Becky and Seth to Rachel’s and then gone to the barber’s with Jordan. The little boy had cried as he sat in the big chair for the first time, and watched with terrified, wide eyes as the scissors came closer. Jimmy did his best to calm his son down, and when it was all over, he’d held the little boy and tried to curb his sniffles. It was definitely easy to tell now that the youngest Hickok child was a boy, but Jimmy oddly found himself missing the curls that had ringed the boy’s head.
He knew, without a doubt, that Karen would take one look at him tonight and cry. She had always hoped a child of theirs would inherit her natural curls. Jimmy had to admit, loving them as he did, that he’d hoped so as well. He’d just hoped it would have been Becky, and not one of their sons.
When he took Jordan to Rachel’s, he could tell she was surprised by the change in Jordan’s appearance, though she didn’t really comment on it. Seth and Becky weren’t so tactful. They stared at their younger brother for such a long time, and then finally Seth said, “He don’t look like Jordan. Jordan has curls.”
All the way to the office, Jimmy had grumbled under his breath. At his children, at Karen, at himself…he was just ready to find fault and blame in anyone. So when he tromped through the door and Teaspoon looked up and beamed at him brightly, Jimmy’s already dour mood turned decidedly bleak. Apparently Teaspoon was having one of those days. When the old marshal was jovial and happy and he’d do everything in his power to pull the reason for Jimmy’s dark mood from him, and then promptly try to cheer him up. It was not what Jimmy wanted to face.
“Mornin’, Jimmy,” Teaspoon said brightly.
Jimmy ignored him, poured a cup of coffee, and then sat down at his desk. He picked up a stack of papers and made a great show of looking through them, hoping Teaspoon would back off and not press him. When he heard the old man chuckle, he knew he wasn’t going to be granted his wish.
“My, my,” Teaspoon said and Jimmy could hear the grin in the man’s voice. “Someone’s acting like a bear who just woke up in the spring.”
Jimmy just ‘hmphed’ and doggedly kept on reading. Even though the words made no sense. The papers were taken out of his hand and he looked up to glare at Teaspoon. But the other man’s eyes just held an infuriating twinkle. “Son,” he shook his head, “might help to have the papers right side up if you’re gonna actually read them.”
He sat down, but didn’t hand the papers back. “Or you could just tell me what’s botherin’ you. Save us all a lot of headaches today.”
“Nothin’ to talk about,” Jimmy said, sounding like a petulant child. “I’m just fine.”
“Uh-huh,” the marshal nodded his silver-maned head. “Son…”
Jimmy had never been able to resist the piercing look Teaspoon was now directing on him. And he really didn’t want to. He wanted someone to listen and tell him that his wife was being unreasonable and cantankerous and that he was justified in his bad mood. So, he laid out the whole scenario, from last night until this morning, while Teaspoon sat back and just quietly listened.
“So Jordan’s curls are gone?” the older man asked wistfully. “I’m sure he looks very different now.”
“Yeah,” was all Jimmy said.
“I can see your point,” Teaspoon said as he tipped his head to one side. “Boy wasn’t lookin’ much like a boy. As beautiful as Karen’s curls are on her, I can see where you wouldn’t want ‘em on your son. ‘Specially as he got older. Was bound to be teased.”
Jimmy was about to beam, glad that Teaspoon understood exactly where he was coming from. But then his boss and friend sighed and tipped his head to the other side. “On the other hand, I can see why Karen’s upset. Jordan’s her baby, his curls kept him looking that way. With his haircut, I bet he looks more like a little boy, than the babe she used to wrap up in a blanket. She seen him yet?”
Jimmy shook his head absently, his mind playing over several things. Teaspoon could have kept on talking, but Jimmy didn’t know. Instead, he was using his well-honed mind and reviewing the facts.
Jordan was their baby, even though he was five months away from his third birthday. Their children were almost exactly two years apart, and they’d looked well on their way to continuing that trend, until Karen suffered a miscarriage a little over a year ago. The loss had been hard on both of them, but she most of all. And afterwards, she clung even harder to Jordan, almost as if she refused to see him grow up. As the months passed, and she didn’t become pregnant, she held all the tighter to her baby. Almost as if she was afraid she wouldn’t have another one. No wonder she didn’t want to see his hair cut, and watch him turn into a definite boy. She wouldn’t be able to call him her baby anymore if his curls were gone.
Then, Jimmy began to review the most recent days. Karen had been looking tired, run-down, but Jimmy just assumed it was the heat of the summer and the fact that Becky was no longer in school. Seth would be starting school in the fall, but September was still a ways off. It was hot, the kids were bored, filling the house with their boisterous play when it became too hot to play outside, and since this was the first year Jordan could keep up better with his siblings, Jimmy had merely presumed that it was just the normal exuberance of children that was wearing his wife down. He’d tried to get home early so that he could take them outside to play with them and tire them out, giving her a bit of a break, but she was still always tired.
She also wasn’t feeling well. Turning away from food she normally loved, eating less, and sometimes even being ill. Jimmy wondered how he’d missed all the signs. She had exhibited the same behavior with each of the past four pregnancies. Did she know yet and wasn’t telling him? Did she suspect and didn’t want to get their hopes up? Was she scared they’d lose this child as well, if there was a child?
Abruptly he stood, startling Teaspoon who leaned back in the chair he was in and questioning, “Son?”
“I have to go,” was all he said, as he grabbed his hat and strode out of the office.
Quietly, Jimmy opened the door to the house, not wanting to disturb Karen if she had gone back to bed. He walked slowly through the room, not seeing his wife anywhere, until he reached the bedroom. His hand hesitated for a moment, before finally latching onto the doorknob and turning it.
He pushed the door open further and looked in at his wife who was lying down in bed, looking pale and wan. “Hey,” he smiled briefly. “I was being quiet in case you were asleep.”
“I couldn’t sleep anymore,” she shook her head. “At least not right now; probably this afternoon.”
He sat down on the bed beside her and reached out for her hand, grateful when she didn’t pull it away from him. “Karen?”
“Did you get Jordan’s haircut?” she asked before he could continue on.
He nodded mutely, his throat filling with a lump as his wife’s eyes brimmed with tears. “He must look so much older now,” she fairly whimpered.
“He does,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I was being silly. I didn’t want to admit he was growing up.”
“Karen,” he said, his voice tender yet hesitant. “I…I was thinking, and remembering. Are you…are we…”
“I saw Doc Miller the other day when Teaspoon came over to make ice cream for them. You were on duty and he told me to take a walk, go down to Tompkins’ if I wanted. I saw the doctor.”
“And?” he asked, almost afraid to hope. Her face gave nothing away and he had to take his cues from her. Only she wasn’t giving any.
Karen’s eyes flooded with tears and a weak smile crossed her face. “We’re going to have another baby.”
She nodded, her smile brightening, and he felt the tightness in his chest loosening and a smile covering his own face. “Oh, Karen.”
“I’m scared, though, Jimmy,” she admitted and they both dimmed somewhat.
“I know,” he reached out and pulled her up to cradle against his chest. “What did the doctor say?”
“That everything should be fine, just to rest when I could. There’s no reason to think that I’ll lose this one as well.”
“Then we just have to be positive,” Jimmy said firmly, hoping to instill her with a confidence he wasn’t sure he felt himself yet. “Maybe this time you’ll get your girl with curls.”
“I hope so,” she whispered. “Mostly, I just want it to be healthy.”
“It will be,” he promised her. “I am going to take such good care of you, you’ll probably beg me to leave you alone.”
“Never,” she laughed.
“We’ll ask Rachel to help out until school starts and by then, hopefully, you’ll be feeling better and you can watch Jordan while Seth and Becky are at school. I’ll ask Teaspoon if I can rearrange my schedule a little bit until you’re back on your feet. Karen, I know they’ll be glad to help out.”
“Thank you,” she sighed against his shirt. She pulled back slightly and peered up at him. “Are you ready to do this again?”
He thought for a moment, and while he knew Karen would be uncomfortable for a little bit, he was excited about the future. And he nodded his head as he told her, “I wouldn’t miss this time for the world.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” she chided him. “When I’m sick and fat and can’t reach things.”
“When you’re beautiful and glowing,” he shook his head. She yawned and he smiled. “Get some rest, Karen. I’ll stop by and let Rachel know, ask her if she’ll help out.”
“Alright,” his wife mumbled sleepily, and as soon as she settled her head on the pillow she was asleep.
Jimmy watched her for a moment, and then stood and closed the bedroom door softly behind him. Another baby. While he would admit to himself he was a little nervous, mostly he was excited. He once believed he would be alone forever, not wanting to have a family when people would be hunting down Wild Bill. But he loved having his children around. People would probably laugh if they could see his goofy smile and how much he loved being domesticated as Teaspoon once said. And to know that another baby was on the way…it was the best news he could hope for. And he was certainly a lot happier than he had been the last time he left the house.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
Tompkins reached for more tins of molasses, angrily stacking them higher and higher on the display. The pile teetered precariously for a moment when he bumped his hand against it. He glared at it, almost daring it to topple over; it would be a fitting end to his day, he decided.
The pile refused to go over, however, and after a moment he reached out, a bit more gently, and straightened the offending tins. Then he finished stacking the remaining receptacles on top.
Satisfied that that task was finished, he stalked over behind the counter and picked up the broom. Then he busied himself with whisking it roughly across the floor, nearly upending his remaining customers in the process.
The shopkeeper looked up, his scowl deepening when he recognized the speaker. “What is it now, Filmore?” he demanded.
Marcus Filmore glanced down, shuffling his feet as he hesitated. Dealing with Rock Creek’s shopkeeper never seemed to be much fun – and it would be even less so today. He took a deep breath, straightened up to his full, though admittedly short, height, and took off his hat. “Well, it’s just, I know we owe you money . . .”
“You’re damn right you do,” Tompkins cut in angrily.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Filmore agreed quickly. “And I have a buyer for two cows coming next week.”
“About time,” Tompkins huffed. He was distracted for a moment when the door opened – but when he recognized the two men who came in, his anger rose even further.
“I know,” Filmore admitted, his voice and hands now shaking. “It was just . . . well, I was wondering . . . I mean, it is Christmas . . .”
“I ain’t extending any more credit.”
Filmore looked over to one corner of the store, where his wife and three young children stood. He took another deep breath and leaned in closer, lowering his voice. “It’s for the children, you see. Just enough to get them a small treat for Christmas. And I can pay you in a week . . .”
“In a week? I gotta pay people myself, in two days,” Tompkins countered. “I ain’t runnin’ a charity here. It’s a store, and that means I gotta pay suppliers, and customers gotta pay me!”
He knew it was a mistake, but Kid couldn’t help himself. Even having barely made it inside the store, he’d heard enough. “Mr. Tompkins, it is Christmas Eve. If he can pay you next week . . .”
“If it’s one thing I don’t need, it’s Pony Express riders tryin’ to tell me my business!” Tompkins yelled. “Bad enough I gotta give you credit all the time.”
“Our account is paid up,” Kid reminded the shopkeeper. He’d come over himself with Teaspoon just three days earlier and seen the ledger paid off. And he figured this wasn’t the time to point out that the Pony Express had been defunct for nearly two months.
“For now,” Tompkins admitted grudgingly. Then he turned his attention to the other rider. “What the hell are you doing in here?”
Buck stood his ground, waiting a moment before answering. “Rachel sent us for a few supplies,” he said quietly, refusing to meet the shopkeeper’s wrath with anger of his own.
“And she had to send you,” Tompkins raged. He reached into the pocket of his apron and pulled out an envelope. “Like you haven’t ruined my day enough already!”
Buck leaned away from the hand that was waving something nearly in his face. “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know what that is.”
“This?” Tompkins waved the envelope again, then clenched it in his fist. “It’s a letter from Jenny, that’s what it is!”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Kid asked carefully. He couldn’t imagine why a letter from his daughter had the shopkeeper so upset.
“It would be, except it’s the first one I’ve had in nearly a year.” Tompkins whirled back toward Buck. “But she’s been writing to you!”
Buck nodded slowly. “She has.”
“She’ll write to a no account half-breed, but not to her father!” He stepped forward, getting right into Buck’s face.
Buck didn’t flinch, meeting Tompkins’ rage with absolute calm. “She writes to me because I’m willing to listen to her,” he said quietly.
Tompkins felt his hand balling into a fist, and then his arm was coming up, seemingly of its own volition. “Why you . . .”
Kid quickly stepped in between. “Mr. Tompkins, we didn’t come here to fight.”
Taking his cue from Kid, and the faces of three frightened children, Buck took a step back. “I’ll be outside, Kid,” he said, turning toward the door. But on his way he reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins, pressing them into Maria Filmore’s hand as he passed by. “Get something for the children,” he whispered before he headed outside.
Kid took advantage of Buck’s departure to get away from Tompkins. They might have averted an immediate fight, but the shopkeeper was no doubt still fuming.
Tompkins just stared at the now-closed door for a moment, then he tossed the broom to one side. “Get what you’re buying,” he growled, “and then get out. I’m closed.”
“But it’s only 5:00,” Missy Prewitt pointed out, her arms full of cloth she’d been admiring. “You’re open until 6:00.”
“Well, not tonight,” Tompkins said. “It’s my store, I can do as I please. And tonight I’m closed at 5:00!”
“You’re sure you don’t mind watching things?” Teaspoon asked – again.
Buck shook his head. “It’s really fine. You don’t have to worry.”
“It ain’t that I’m worried. Just don’t seem right, leavin’ you here alone on Christmas Eve.”
“Teaspoon, it’s only while you go to the church service. And you said you wanted to go.”
“Well, I do like the singin’ on all them Christmas songs,” the older man admitted.
“Then you should go,” Buck said. He brushed his fingers absently over the Deputy Marshal badge on his jacket. “I’ll take care of things.”
Teaspoon sighed and pulled his hat on. “All right. We’ll see you in a bit then.”
Buck watched as Teaspoon joined Rachel, Polly and the other riders, and he waved as they headed down the street toward the church. And then he finally exhaled in relief.
Oh, normally he wouldn’t have minded going to the church service. Despite the nuns’ best efforts at the mission school, he’d never really fully accepted the white man’s religion over what he had been raised with. But like Teaspoon, he did appreciate the music, especially at Christmas. And he definitely liked spending time with his family.
But this year was just different. Noah was dead, Cody was gone with the Army, and . . .
And it was the first time in many years he’d be spending a Christmas without Ike. Ike had believed in the God the others were going to worship now – except that hadn’t done Ike any good, now had it?
He shook his head, trying not to go down that line of thought. He’d promised himself that his grief over the loss of his best friend was in the past . . .
Of course, it was easier to say that than to live it.
Buck turned back toward the Marshal’s office. Maybe if he went inside and studied Wanted posters or something it would take his mind off of the empty feeling in his gut.
But just as he reached the door, shadows from across the way caught his attention. He looked over toward the general store, letting his eyes drift up to the private quarters on the second floor. A lamp was lit inside one of the rooms, and he could see someone pacing back and forth.
He stood there for a moment, just watching. It just seemed like he could never do anything right in Tompkins’ eyes. Thinking about the shopkeeper’s reaction earlier that evening, Buck just had to shake his head. He’d spent months, and countless hours of writing, trying to convince Jenny to write to her father and give him another chance. And then when she did just that – well, somehow Tompkins was mad at him about that too!
No, there was just no way to win . . .
Bill Tompkins stomped across the bedroom floor, struggling with his tie. Somewhere deep inside a little voice was whispering that maybe if he’d stop pacing, and calm down, the tie wouldn’t present such a great challenge. But he refused to listen.
He paused just long enough to swallow another swig of whiskey, then resumed his pacing, again trying to get the tie knotted. Outside, he could hear the church bells starting to ring, so the service was going to start soon. He planned to be there, but the stupid tie . . .
He stopped suddenly and flung the offending cloth across the room. Being soft, it didn’t produce a satisfying thunk as it landed, so he kicked off a boot and threw that, nodding as it clunked loudly against the far wall. He swallowed the rest of the whiskey in the glass, then kicked off the other boot and threw that as well.
If he couldn’t get the tie on right, he couldn’t go to church. And if he wasn’t going to church, he might as well be comfortable.
To be comfortable tonight, he needed more whiskey.
He reached for the bottle and poured another glass, drained it in one swig, and poured some more. This time when he put the bottle down, it swayed and finally tipped, spilling some of the contents over the dresser and onto the floor.
Swearing loudly he placed the bottle upright and used his sleeve to mop up some of the spill. And that’s when he saw the letters again.
Soaked now in whiskey, they lay there on the dresser, taunting him again – just as they had all day, ever since the stage had come through and delivered the mail.
Tompkins picked up the letters and stumbled as he turned away from the dresser. He resumed his pacing, staring at the top letter.
It was from Jenny – his Jenny.
It should have been a happy time – he hadn’t heard from her in so long. When he’d first seen her writing, he had been overjoyed. But inside the letter she ruined everything. All she could talk about was the Indian and how he had said this or that.
The half-breed had ruined things again!
He hadn’t even been able to finish reading her letter.
Already irate, he’d opened his second letter of the day, only to have things get even worse. Allegedly from some fancy eastern insurance company, it was another letter demanding money to ‘guarantee’ that his shipments got through to Rock Creek safely.
Pay money to get his own shipments? He’d already turned them down once before, but obviously they hadn’t understood. And now this letter said that some associates would be visiting him to explain things.
Well, someone would do some explaining when they got there!
He went back to the dresser and filled the glass again. Intent on the contents of the glass, he didn’t hear the door opening behind him.
Buck was just turning to reach for the door handle to go inside when something about the shadows in Tompkins’ quarters changed. He stared at the window, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and hearing.
The church bells stopped for a moment, and he could hear raised voices. And then he could clearly see at least two more figures outlined against the windows in the lamplight. He couldn’t make out features, but as he watched one of the figures reached out and struck another one.
Buck started across the street, debating whether he should go to the church first and get some help. But just then he noticed that the light in the room had changed. It was brighter now, flickering . . .
The drapes on one window burst into flames just then, and that made his decision for him.
He ran toward the store, yelling as he went. “Fire! Someone help. Fire!” But even as he ran he could hear that the organ had struck up the first hymn, so he didn’t know if anyone could hear him.
Racing toward the back of the store, he rounded the dark corner and started up the outside steps just as the door at the top opened and two men came out. Buck reached for his gun, but one of the other men already had a pistol in his hand and a shot rang out.
Buck saw the gun, and he tried to stop his forward momentum, but everything happened very fast. Before he could fully react he heard the shot and felt the impact of a bullet high on his right leg. The force of the shot threw him off balance and he fell back against the railing, which collapsed underneath him.
The shock of hitting the ground, plus the gunshot, left him dazed for a moment. He heard footsteps coming down the steps and then heading away, followed by the sound of horses running.
He tried to get up, only to fall back again, dizzy. He waited a moment and then tried again, slower this time.
On the second try he was able to sit up, and then he slowly pulled himself to his feet. His right leg hurt like hell, as did his head and back, but at least he was up.
He looked around for his gun, happy to find it had landed on the steps; he wasn’t at all sure that bending down would have worked well at all just then.
Buck paused for a moment, listening. The sound of the retreating horses was long gone, but he also didn’t hear anyone headed that way. The town’s new organ must have masked the gunshot as well as his own cries.
Now he was torn. With a bad leg, it was going to take several minutes to get to the church and get help. But he had clearly seen someone get knocked down.
It had all been shadows . . . but he was pretty sure.
That meant someone might still be upstairs, in trouble, with the fire.
His head was pounding so loud he couldn’t tell if the organ was still playing at the church or not. Knowing he needed to take a chance on getting some help he raised his gun and fired off all six rounds. But he couldn’t wait to see if his signal had been heard.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Buck slowly started up the stairs. Smoke was already billowing out of the open doorway when he got to the top. He paused a moment to tie Ike’s bandana over his nose and mouth and then he slowly moved inside, feeling his way along the wall.
The fire seemed to be coming from the room that faced the street – just where he would have seen things happening from his position down below. He’d certainly never been invited to Tompkins’ quarters before, but from what he could see through the smoke, the space looked like a bedroom. And with curtains and bedding, the flames had found ample fuel. The whole room was nearly engulfed in fire.
The smoke was so thick that he had trouble seeing anything. Buck finally dropped to the floor, groaning as his injured leg complained. The room looked empty . . .
No – there! He was almost sure he could see a pair of feet sticking out from the other side of the bed.
Dragging his right leg, Buck crawled into the room. He reached the end of the bed and felt along the floor until his hands closed on something firm. By feel he could tell it was definitely a foot, though the smoke was so heavy now he had no way of seeing whose foot.
Coughing from the smoke, he closed his eyes, wrapped his hands around the foot and pulled. Slowly but surely, stopping after each pull to move his own injured leg back, he worked his way toward the doorway.
It seemed to take hours to move the few feet, but he finally reached the hall – but he found it by bumping the doorway with his bad leg. The pain that washed over him made his head spin again, and it took a moment before he could move. But the flames were getting nearer, the smoke was getting even heavier, and he knew he had no choice.
Making sure his right leg was clear of the door, Buck gave a mighty pull. He cleared the bedroom door, and the body came with him.
In a brief moment where the smoke lifted, he could see that he had pulled Tompkins out of the room. But there wasn’t time to see if the other man was even breathing before the smoke closed in again. Orange flames flickered close to the door.
With strength he didn’t know he had left, Buck got to his feet and reached for Tompkins’ arms. He pulled the other man up onto his shoulder and stumbled toward the doorway that led to the stairs.
As his hands felt the open door and he stumbled outside, Buck thought he heard voices. But the smoke and the pain overwhelmed him just then and he fell onto the landing at the top of the steps.
There might have been someone coming up the steps, but blackness overwhelmed him.
The first sensation he was aware of was pain. The second sensation was that of choking, and he reached for his throat, coughing as he tried to sit up.
The third sensation was dizziness, and it struck suddenly. With a groan he fell back, still coughing.
He heard his name even as he felt soft hands behind his head, and a glass at his lips. He opened his mouth automatically and gulped at the fresh, cool water that eased the scratching in his throat.
Finally, the glass was pulled away, along with whispered words to take it easy, drink slowly. He finally opened his eyes. Polly was leaning over him, holding the glass. Teaspoon, Rachel, Kid, Lou, and Jimmy were standing around him. And off to his left . . .
To his left, Bill Tompkins lay quietly on a bed. Clint Farrell, the town’s new doctor, stood next to him.
“Buck. How ya feelin’ son?” Teaspoon stepped up closer, concern etched on his face.
Buck took a moment to consider the answer to that question. His throat still felt like it was on fire, his right leg ached, and his head was pounding. Slowly, the events that had led to his condition came back to him. “Everything hurts,” he finally whispered. Those two words triggered more coughing, and he gratefully accepted more water from Polly.
“Don’t wonder at that,” Teaspoon said. “You remember what happened?”
Buck nodded, swallowing more water before he tried to talk again. “I saw shadows over the general store,” he said slowly. “It looked like someone got knocked down, and then I saw fire.”
“We should have been there to back you up,” Jimmy said.
“I shouted, but the organ was playing,” Buck replied. “Didn’t think anyone heard me.”
“How’d you get shot?” Lou asked.
“I went around the back, to the steps,” Buck answered. He closed his eyes a moment, picturing the scene. “Men came out the back door – two men, I think.”
“It was two men,” Tompkins confirmed softly.
“I went for my gun,” Buck continued, “but one of them shot first.” He reached for his leg, rubbing near the wound. “I got hit, fell through the railing to the ground.” He paused, shaking his head. “They ran right by me, but I just couldn’t do anything.”
“Don’t worry none about that,” Teaspoon said. “You get a good look at either of ‘em?”
Buck shook his head. “Sorry. It was too dark.”
“I know who they are,” Tompkins said. All eyes turned toward him and he found himself uncomfortable under the attention. “Well, I don’t know their names, but I know who they work for.”
“Tompkins woke up just ‘fore you did, Buck,” Teaspoon explained. “We’d just started hearin’ his story.”
“I got a letter yesterday, some group from St. Joe callin’ itself the Freight Security Company. Askin’ for money to make sure my shipments got through.” The shopkeeper paused and shook his head. “I knew right away what was really going on. If I didn’t pay, they’d make sure something did happen to my shipments. Knew that from the first letter.”
“They’d written you before?” Teaspoon asked.
“Yeah, once, a couple of weeks ago,” Tompkins replied.
“And why didn’t you tell me anything about this?” Teaspoon demanded.
Tompkins looked around the room, seeing the faces of people he hadn’t always treated in the most friendly way. “Didn’t figure you’d care,” he finally admitted.
Teaspoon’s hand went to the badge on his jacket. “Tompkins, it’s my job!”
Rachel stepped forward, deflecting some of the Marshal’s anger. “Mr. Tompkins, did these letters threaten you?”
“The first one just asked for money,” Tompkins answered. “I wrote back and said no. Then the letter yesterday said that some ‘associates’ would be stopping by to explain things to me.”
“The men last night,” Kid supplied.
“Yeah,” Tompkins said. “And when I still said no, one o’ them hit me with his gun.”
“That’s what I saw in the shadows,” Buck said.
“They start the fire too?” Jimmy asked.
Tompkins sighed and shook his head slowly. “I think I actually did that,” he said softly. “I was pretty mad last night, and I’d been drinking some. When the guy hit me, I stumbled more’n I might have otherwise. I bumped the table, knocked the lamp over.”
“And those men just left you there to die,” Rachel said.
“Good thing Buck was there,” Polly pointed out softly.
Tompkins turned his head to look at the man in the other bed – the man he had so frequently tormented and maligned.
The man who had saved his life, at obvious risk to his own.
“Yeah, real good thing,” the shopkeeper whispered.
There was silence in the room for a few moments. Except for Farrell, who was relatively new to town, the others all knew what had gone on between the two injured men.
Buck finally broke the silence. “Teaspoon, we need to find those men. If my leg’s feeling better in the morning . . .”
“You’ll do absolutely nothing in the morning!” Farrell decreed. “That bullet somehow missed the bone and any major vessels, but you will not be riding tomorrow!”
“Started snowing while we were fighting the fire anyway,” Kid said.
“Yeah, between all the people workin’ on the fire, and snow, won’t be any trail to follow anyway,” Jimmy added.
“Won’t matter,” Teaspoon said firmly. “Soon as them fellas find out Tompkins ain’t dead, they’ll probably contact him again about protection. And this time he’ll let us know so’s we can be ready for ‘em.” His tone of voice didn’t encourage any debate.
“I’ll let you know,” Tompkins said. The near brush with death had opened his eyes to a few things.
“Well, now that that business is done, my patients need their rest,” Farrell said. He waved his hand theatrically, cutting off protests from both Buck and Tompkins. “You’ve both suffered head injuries, and you’ve both swallowed a lot of smoke. Neither one of you is leaving tonight.”
“Sounds like a smart idea,” Polly said. She helped Buck with a little more water, then set the glass down beside him and leaned over to gently kiss his forehead. “We’ll bring you some Christmas dinner tomorrow if you can’t come home.”
“I won’t even open your Christmas present,” Jimmy said with a smile, shaking his friend’s hand.
“We’ll make sure he doesn’t,” Lou said, waving farewell.
“See you tomorrow, Buck,” Kid said, heading for the door.
“Merry Christmas, Buck,” Rachel said. She stopped to squeeze his hand and kiss his cheek as she left. “I’m real glad you’re all right.”
“Me too,” Teaspoon said, with just a slight catch in his voice. He hated seeing any of his boys hurt, especially doing his job. “Me too.”
When the room finally cleared, Farrell turned back to his patients. “You both mainly need rest,” he said. He picked up a bell and put it on the nightstand between the two beds. “I’ll just be in the next room, and I’m a light sleeper. Either of you needs anything, just ring.”
The night was quiet, the room dark except for a sliver of muted moonlight coming through the window.
Tompkins couldn’t sleep.
No matter how he tried, he couldn’t keep from thinking about things. Thinking about how he should have reported the threats to the law. About how he should have read all of Jenny’s letter. How he maybe should have listened to her back in Sweetwater. Or how he should have listened to Sally, before it was too late.
He thought about the man in the next bed – the man he’d hated from their first meeting, and the man who had saved his life.
The man who had friends who cared about him, worried about him, loved him. Yeah, the others had all been in the room earlier because of Buck Cross, not because of Bill Tompkins.
It left him with a clear realization of how lonely he had forced his life to be.
“Buck, you asleep?”
“No.” There had been too many things to think about – and somehow the whispered words didn’t come as much of a surprise.”
“Well, I wanted to thank you.”
Buck looked over toward the door where his jacket hung. The moonlight was playing off of the badge still pinned there. “It was my job.”
Tompkins looked at the jacket too, then asked another question. “That the only reason you did it?”
“No,” Buck replied immediately. “I would have done it anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Tompkins sighed, making a decision. “You know, I decided I hated you from the first time I saw you, because you represented what I blamed for ruining my life. You were Indian, Indians took my wife and daughter. That’s all I needed to know.”
Buck took time to consider his words before replying. “In a way, I understand. For a long time, I was mad at all white men for what one of them did to my mother. But then I found out there were good white men too, and I couldn’t go on hating them.”
Tompkins nodded, swallowing against a big lump in his throat. “You learned that way easier than I did,” he said. And then, even softer, he continued. “What happened to Sally and Jenny, it was my fault anyway. I talked the guide into going across that burial ground.” The sob escaped from his throat, getting past his defenses.
Buck eased himself slowly onto one elbow, not wanting to risk the dizziness again. This confession was more than he’d ever expected to hear, and he didn’t want to ruin the moment. But it was a chance he might never get again. “It’s not too late to make it right with Jenny,” he said softly. “That’s why she wrote to you.”
Tompkins wiped angrily at a tear on his cheek. “I never finished her letter,” he admitted. “I saw her mentioning your name, and I just got mad. And now . . . now, the letter’s all burned up.”
“Then write to her, tell her you want to see her,” Buck urged. “Tell her that you love her for who she is.” That’s all Jen had ever told him she wanted from her father.
“Yeah, I will,” Tompkins replied firmly. After his brush with death, that decision seemed entirely clear to him now. “They told me they got the fire out before there was much damage to the store, but it’ll be a few days before it’s open again. I’ll have time to write.”
Buck knew he might be pushing his luck, but he decided it was now or never. “You could get some help with the store,” he suggested. “St. Louis isn’t really that far away.” And Jenny would be waiting.
“Maybe I’ll just write first,” Tompkins said. “See how Jenny really feels.” Especially since he hadn’t even finished the letter she had written. “But I’ll think about the rest.”
The church bells started ringing again, this time signaling that Christmas Day had arrived.
As he considered that, Tompkins realized he’d been handed one of the season’s miracles. His life had been saved, his daughter might not be lost forever after all – and his eyes had been opened.
“Merry Christmas, Buck.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Tompkins.”
A/N: I'd like to thank plumbing problems for this. d;-)
It was a simple request - really it was. Rachel had just wanted someone to check the bunkhouse water pump. Simple. Make sure everything was okay, but did anyone listen to her. No.
The problems began just over a week ago.
"Teaspoon Hunter!" Rachel hollered as she marched over to the corral where Teaspoon and the riders were playing at breaking in the new horses. They weren't very successful but they continued playing.
"Shhhhh." Teaspoon motioned, with his finger to his lips. "You'll startle the horse."
Rachel glanced over in time to see the mount in question throw Cody for what was probably the third time. She looked back at Teaspoon, hands on hips, refusing to be swayed from her mission.
"Teaspoon," she said, trying very hard to keep the whine from her voice, "when are you gonna' find out what's wrong with the pump?"
"Now Rachel," Teaspoon began, not getting very far.
"Don't 'now Rachel' me," the irate woman scoffed, crossing her arms defiantly over her chest. "It's been two days since I told you that it was hard to pump that thing." She squeezed her upper arms, massaging some life into them. "And I've about pulled my arm loose in the process."
Teaspoon heaved a weary sigh. Why didn't she just understand that it was a simple case of an air bubble getting in the line? He tried again to explain.
"Now Rachel," he said again, holding his hand up to stop her rebuff. "It's just a bit of air, that's all. It'll work its way out soon, you'll see."
By now, the riders had joined Teaspoon and Rachel, all of them nodding their heads and murmuring in agreement with the stationmaster. Rachel pursed her lips looking at each one. Well of course they'd agree with him since one of them would be doin' the work. She knew she wouldn't get anywhere with them so she gave a quick shake of her head and turned to go back to getting water - or trying to - for supper.
Everything was okay for another day. Okay in the fact that Rachel was building up a wonderful set of upper arm muscles due to her now using both arms to pump.
Then the dirt appeared.
"Teaspoon!" Rachel found the man in the barn, working on the harnesses.
Teaspoon looked heavenward, hoping upon hope that this was about anything but the pump.
"Just look at this water!"
Teaspoon looked into the pot that Rachel unceremoniously shoved under his nose.
"Do you see it?" She was shrieking and she knew it, but she just couldn't stop.
"Um, well, if you pull the pot back just a bit I may be able to, right now it's too close and I'm 'bout crossed-eyed." Teaspoon lightly pushed the pot from his face.
He peered into the depths of the pot of water and concentrated until his eyes blurred. Switching tactics, he cocked his head, fixing his good eye on the contents. Knowing he would regret this, but not knowing what he was supposed to see, he asked, "What exactly am I lookin' for?"
"DIRT!" Rachel screamed. She was livid. She took pride in her meals and was not going to serve dirt to her charges.
Teaspoon stared at Rachel, nonplussed. The woman was agitated over a little dirt. So little that he couldn't even see it. He glanced over at Jimmy and Buck, who were trying very hard to be inconspicuous by the stalls they were mucking out. Rachel's eyes widened with the realization that she and Teaspoon weren't alone.
"Fine, you boys are here, you come look at this...this...filth," Rachel stammered, thinking maybe, when both of these boys saw the dirty water, they would be disgusted at the thought of eating anything made in it and would agree with her that the pump problem needed investigating.
Jimmy and Buck exchanged a nervous glance. Both thinking that this standoff was already getting old, even if they did think Rachel was being a bit silly. Teaspoon, grudgingly, waved them over. "Come look at this dirt, boys."
Rachel glared at Teaspoon but willingly held the pot of water out so the boys could inspect it. Just as Teaspoon had done, they stared and stared and stared some more. Jimmy shook his head, blinking his eyes quickly, trying to replace the moisture. Buck just shrugged his shoulders, looking up at Rachel with a sympathetic smile.
"I don't see anythin'," Buck said, somewhat apologetically.
"Neither do I." Jimmy rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. They still felt dry and scratchy. "Feels like the dirt's in my eyes."
Rachel's shoulders slumped, defeated. She couldn't believe they didn't see the dirt at the bottom of the pot. She swirled the water around, causing the sediment to rise and flow in the water. She held the pot out again, "See?"
Again, similar glances were exchange and all three men looked into the pot. Raising their eyes to Rachel's face, the expressions were the same. They still didn't see what she saw.
"I don't believe this." She shook her head.
"Now Rachel," Teaspoon said, for what, to him, was the hundredth time in just days, "a little dirt never hurt nobody." He chuckled as he placed his arm around the woman's sagging shoulders. "'Sides, the boys are used to eatin' dirt ev'ryday while ridin'." Jimmy and Buck joined Teaspoon in the laugh. Teaspoon added his trademark wink that Rachel would normally, at any time, find endearing - this wasn't one of those times.
Rachel dumped the water out, narrowly missing the three sets of feet. "Well, then I suppose you all can choke on it." She whirled around and headed back to the bunkhouse to finish her dirt stew.
The final straw was the hissing. That happened the day after the dirt situation. Startled, Rachel thought a snake was in the house and screamed. Lou came running in and, after calming the older woman down, she helped Rachel look for the snake.
They noticed that as they walked farther away from the sink, the hissing grew faint. Both women concluded that the snake was the pump.
"Sorry Rachel," Lou said, knowing that Rachel had been trying for days to get someone to discover what was wrong with the pump. The young woman, thankfully, had been out on a run, just getting back the day before, and had missed most of the confrontation. However, she still didn't understand why they didn't just see if there was a problem.
Rachel smiled a smile that was positively beatific, yet the most chilling thing Lou had ever seen. "Where is Teaspoon?"
"Um, well, last time I saw him, he was in the barn with Cody, Jimmy and Kid," Lou said, hesitantly. She wasn't sure that Rachel wouldn't go and shoot the man.
"Thank you, Louise," Rachel smiled the same smile, not really looking at Lou. She hummed as she walked out of the bunkhouse, scaring Lou even more.
Rachel wandered into the barn where Teaspoon was imparting one of his many long-winded lessons on the boys - a captive audience since they were fixing the stall rails from where the new horses, the ones that still weren't broken in, had kicked through.
She had a thin thread of control left and did her best to keep her tone even because she'd experienced the glances and patronizing smiles when her voice was shrill. She found this amusing since the only time it went that high was when she'd asked them to do something so many times that whatever the request was, was now obsolete because whatever damage could have happened had and whatever the problem had been was no longer a small maintenance job, but was now a huge repair job.
Teaspoon closed his eyes, slightly miffed at being interrupted at a key point in his lecture, but he still plastered a smile on his face. Before he turned, however, he caught the expressions on the boys' faces. They almost looked fearful. But that didn't make sense, after all it was Rachel. Though her tone of voice was a bit unnerving.
"Yes ma'am?" Teaspoon turned, still wearing the fake smile, only to have it fade quickly after one look at the expression on Rachel's.
"The pump is hissing."
Teaspoon fought to swallow the groan that tried very hard to force its way from his lips. He succeeded. "Now..." he stopped, deciding that wasn't the best course of action. "Well, let's see, what would cause that?" Teaspoon walked over to a bale of hay and plopped himself down. "Boys?"
"Well, sometimes changin' weather can do it," Kid volunteered. He glanced at Jimmy who just stood, shaking his head. "What?" Kid whispered to his friend as Teaspoon was adding his take on Kid's explanation.
"I'd stay outta' this if I was you," Jimmy quietly said, "you ain't been here to see her get riled."
"Naw, you're wrong," Kid said, looking back at the newest station mistress. Though, when he really looked at her face, the smile seemed a bit off. He glanced back at Jimmy, nodding in agreement.
"So, with the days bein' so hot and the nights gettin' right cold, the pipes are reactin' to the changes," Teaspoon finished up, in his own interminable way.
"Yeah, or it could be that air that was vexin' ya' finally escapin'," Cody added helpfully. He had disregarded Jimmy's warning.
"Water pumps can get that way," Teaspoon drawled. "They can be a might cantankerous at times."
Rachel understood that she was still new here, being that only a few months had passed since her arrival, and that she was still getting used to everyone's quirks and personalities, especially Teaspoon. But describing a pipe as "cantankerous" and using it as an excuse not to do anything was just too much for her. Thus, her smile faded and she turned, walking away, without a word.
Teaspoon resumed his words of wisdom, prodding the boys to get back to work.
Stopping just short of the barn door, she announced over her shoulder, "Until something is done about that pump, I'm not going to step foot in that bunkhouse."
"But my food," Cody moaned, dropping the hammer, which landed perfectly on Jimmy's foot.
"Ow!" Jimmy yelped, "You fool!" He smacked Cody upside the head, though it didn't seem to faze the blonde rider.
Cody was still staring at Rachel's back not believing what she said.
"Now Cody," Rachel said, using the same tone Teaspoon used with her. "I'll still cook, but in the main house. You boys may come get your food." That said, she continued out the door.
"Those pipes aren't the only thin' 'round here that's cantankerous," Jimmy grumbled, sitting on the ground, boot off, rubbing his sore toe.
Two days had passed since Rachel had set the decree. Lou had reported that the pump was still hissing and it was louder. So loud, in fact, that everyone but Cody was sleeping anywhere but the bunkhouse. Cody had said it was an almost soothing noise, blocking out everything else. The other riders just thought Cody was crazy.
Rachel hummed as she prepared lunch. She knew it wouldn't be much longer. Just as she placed the ham biscuits on the plate it happened.
A huge explosion.
Rachel smiled to herself and walked over to the window, staring at the bunkhouse. There it was, a spout of water shooting from the bunkhouse. She watched as the boys fell over one another to get out of the building and out of the way of the spray.
She walked out on the porch, laughing hysterically. She doubled over as she saw the boys, soaking wet, sprawled around the yard. She wiped the tears away, trying to calm down. Her laughter subsided to a snicker only to start up again, with vengeance, when Teaspoon stumbled out of the bunkhouse, looking like a drowned cat.
The older man, water dripping down his face, fixed a squinty-eyed, but good-natured, stare on the giggling woman. Her lips curled slowly into a cat-in-cream smile.
"Now that's cantankerous!"
That Stubborn good for nothing rascal... He just had to do it. Had to do it.
"I'm giving you to the count of three." Jimmy's voice rang out over the noise from the gun fire in the saloon as he hunkered down behind the bar and dodged breaking bottles and liquor spilling all over him. The bartender with him ducked down with his hands over his ears and eyes closed, clearly praying.
"You're out numbered, out gunned, and purely out of luck Hickok!" came the reply.
"It doesn't have to be this way!" Jimmy screamed back, ducking a falling bottle of whiskey as he crouched ready to rise over the top of the bar and fire again. "Like I said, you got to the count of three to drop your weapons."
Jimmy checked his weapons counting his shot. He had exactly six left. Three from each gun. Being that there were six of them and one of him that posed a problem. He couldn't afford to miss.
"I love pressure," he muttered somewhat sarcastically to himself as he rolled his eyes in frustration.
This whole mess could have been avoided. What should have been a friendly card game turned ugly when Jimmy was accused of cheating. He couldn't help it if these guys couldn't play to save their lives. At any rate the accusations had flown and Jimmy just had to start the fight. He didn't know when the guns were drawn and now he was just reacting, trying to survive. He was due back at the station tomorrow and he hoped this whole mess was cleared up by then and he was still alive.
"One," Jimmy called out readying his guns to fire again. A shot sounded and another bottle broke spilling its contents over the pale bartender. Jimmy looked from the cowering man to the top of the bar closing his eyes with a loud sigh. "Back DOWN!"
"Not a chance." The reply seemed like a slap in the face. Jimmy didn't want this. He didn't want to have to kill them but they weren't giving him much choice. He should have just walked away.
"Two." Jimmy breathed in a few deep breaths catching movement from the corner of his eye in the mirror over the bar. One of them was trying to angle around to get a better shot on him. "No one has to die here," he warned, hoping the man would stop, but he didn't.
"Three!" Jimmy screamed it out and was met with six shots in reply. He swore under his breath as the glass showered over him and the now whimpering bartender. "Don't say I didn't warn you," he whispered to himself, not caring if they heard him or not. He rose to his feet one gun trained on the man who had moved in on him and the other on the leader of the group. He fired both guns simultaneously and saw both men fall as he cocked the guns again and changed the position of his arms to target two more men out of the group who were readying to fire. He got the next two shots off and, as before, both men fell to the ground. He ducked back down as the next two shots from the survivors rang out. He felt the sting of the bullet catch him in the right shoulder and cursed.
Jimmy looked down at the crimson fluid spreading out over his shirt. He gritted his teeth trying to get a bead on where the other two were. The bartender was now huddled up in a ball, sobbing like a baby. He moved the shoulder that had been hit around a few times making sure that he could support a shot from it accurately before he raised up one more time. He spread his arms out not able to keep his eyes on both targets and fired. They went down and he stayed there out of breath scanning the saloon for any other threat. When none came he lowered his weapons.
This is not going to help my reputation, he thought to himself as he looked back to the bartender.