Topic #45: Phrase - Daddy ??????
Her Daddy by: Ty
I'll Be Home by: Cindy
Noah by: Ty
Who's Yer Daddy by: Okeshala
Family Man by: Debbie
Dilly of a Pickle by: Dede
It's Buck's Problem Now by: Dede
Papa Duck, Ike by: Jo
Her Daddy
by: Ty

"Why, daddy?????" she called quietly into the night.

She had been awakened by a nightmare only to find out the nightmare was true. She hadn't wanted to wake the others, so she walked a little way away from the fire. She had found a large rock that was suitable for a chair and now sat staring out into the night. Had it only happened yesterday? It seemed like a lifetime ago, or maybe it felt like that because she knew her daddy had died a long time ago. That man wasn't her daddy because her daddy had been a good man. Her daddy wouldn't have left them alone for so long. Her daddy wouldn't have been anything like that man was. Her daddy wouldn't have tried to shoot her. Her daddy wouldn't have had to be killed by her friends. That man just looked like her daddy.

"Good-by daddy, I'm glad you're dead." a sad voice whispered softly into the night.

I'll Be Home
by: Cindy

A/N: Continuing the story of Buck and Jane from previous Quick Fics (Going Home, Starting Over, and Oh Night Divine.)


BANG! BANG! BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG BANG!

The sound of horses racing away, heading out of town, finally brought the gunfight to an end. Teaspoon quickly stepped out into the street, but the escaping outlaws were already beyond the range of his pistol. Swearing softly to himself, he holstered his gun and went out to check on the damage to his town.

Just a quick glance showed the front window of the bank blown out, shattered when Clem Koskie was shot and fell through the glass. Fortunately, a couple of men had Clem on his feet, and they were slowly making their way toward the doctor’s office.

Over in front of the general store, Buck and Tompkins were helping someone else. At first, Teaspoon was surprised and rather pleased to see the two men working together – but then he got a look at who they were helping and pleasure turned to terror. “Lou, you all right?” he called, hurrying toward them.

Lou just nodded, teeth gritted in pain, as Buck and Tompkins got her to her feet. One hand was clamped against her left side, blood trickling through her fingers. “It’s not bad,” she managed to say. “Just got nicked a little.”

Teaspoon looked to Buck, who nodded in agreement. “Looks like the bullet might have hit a rib,” he said. “But it went clean through.”

Nodding in relief, Teaspoon turned to Buck, noticing for the first time the blood covering the younger man. “You hurt?”

Buck shook his head. “The blood’s not mine,” he answered softly. “Bob Cates was over by the livery with me. He took a round right in the chest.” He paused, shaking his head again. “He’s dead.”

“Damn,” Teaspoon swore, slapping at his gun. The outlaws had hit without warning, turning a sunny, quiet, late summer day into a bloodbath. He looked around again, studying the faces as the people of the town ventured outside to take stock of the damage. “Where’s Kid?”

“He went to get a wagon to get Louise here to the doc,” Tompkins replied.

“Told him I could walk,” Lou grumbled.

Teaspoon was about to reply when he noticed one particular worried face in the crowd. He reached out to touch Buck’s shoulder, and then pointed behind the younger man.

Buck turned just as he heard his name being called. His eyes quickly found his wife, just coming out of her jewelry shop. He headed in her direction.

Jane Benedict Cross stepped into the street, keeping her eyes on the top of Buck’s head as he made his way through the crowd toward her. She was relieved beyond words that he seemed to be all right, but she needed to feel his arms around her to really believe it. She fought her way toward him.

The blood made her stop in her tracks. “Buck?” she gasped.

“It’s not my blood,” he said quickly. “I’m fine.”

She fell against him then, not caring at all if she wound up bloody as well. “I was so worried,” she whispered. But now, feeling his strong arms around her, she could feel the worry fading away.

“I know,” he whispered in return, holding her close. For all the times he’d put himself in harm’s way, this might have been the time that had scared him the most too. And he figured that had to be because he had so much more to lose than he had in the past. He not only had this remarkable woman, whose love made him feel whole. No, there was also . . .

He grinned as the baby chose that exact moment to kick and squirm, making its presence known.

Jane smiled, rubbing at her swollen belly. “He was worried about his daddy too,” she said.

Buck placed his hand next to hers, marveling, as he always did, at the life they had created. “Or maybe she’s just going to be a lot like her momma.”

Jane’s smile widened. “Two of us to keep you in line. I like that idea, Mr. Cross.”

He leaned in to kiss her. “I’m sure you do, Mrs. Cross.” Boy or girl, it didn’t matter – he was just so excited about being a father. And with Jane in her eighth month of pregnancy, they’d know soon.

“Buck?”

Buck turned away from Jane to find Teaspoon standing right beside them. Lost in thoughts about his wife and their child, he hadn’t even heard the marshal approach.

Teaspoon tipped his hat. “Jane. You all right?”

Jane took a step back from her husband, moving to stand at his side. “I’m fine,” she answered. “How bad is it?”

“Well, looks like we got three townspeople dead,” Teaspoon replied. “And a few more wounded over at Doc’s. We also got four dead outlaws, and a whole bunch of money stole from the bank.”

“Do you have any idea who those men were?” Jane asked.

Teaspoon shook his head. “Been hearin’ about a few gangs workin’ these parts. But I don’t recognize the dead ones, and I couldn’t get a good look at the ones what got away.”

“I didn’t either,” Buck added.

“I’ve got a couple of men getting’ a posse together,” Teaspoon continued. “I sure do need you, Buck.”

Buck looked back and forth between Teaspoon and Jane, torn between conflicting loyalties. He didn’t want to disappoint Teaspoon, and he wanted to catch the outlaws himself, but he also had a pregnant wife to consider.

It was Jane who spoke first. “You go on,” she said.

Buck reached his hand out to her belly again. “Jane . . .”

She took his hand, kissed his fingers. “Buck, I was just at the doctor yesterday. You know he said I was doing fine, and it’s probably at least three weeks before the baby comes.”

“Rachel will look in on Jane,” Teaspoon said. “And Lou’ll be back on her feet soon too.” At least he hoped that was true. Lou was nearly four months pregnant herself – and he could only hope that the bullet hadn’t hurt the baby. She really shouldn’t have put herself into the gun battle.

Of course, he wasn’t sure who of them could have told her that and made it stick.

“It’s really important for Rock Creek that those men get caught, Buck,” Jane said. “I know you can track them, so you just find them fast and bring them to justice. And you’ll be home in plenty of time.”

Buck knew they were right – Jane was healthy, he was the best hope they had of tracking the outlaws and finding them quickly, and there was no reason to think they couldn’t get that job done and be back in plenty of time to be there when the baby arrived.

Reluctantly, he pulled his hand away. “I’ll be home as soon as I can,” he whispered – and he just hoped that Rock Creek appreciated the sacrifice he was making.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The outlaws led them on a merry chase across the Nebraska territory. But the Rock Creek posse stayed on their trail. Led by a very determined tracker, the posse traveled late and rose early, closing the distance on their quarry. Still, it took nearly a week to run the outlaw gang to ground. Following a fierce gun battle, the posse arrested the three surviving gang members and headed for the nearest territorial court at Fort Kearny.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane looked up from her work as the bell over the door tinkled, heralding the presence of someone entering the shop. When she saw who it was, she smiled. “Lou, are you all right?”

Lou returned the smile and nodded. “Doc says I’m healin’ fine.”

“And the baby?”

“The baby’s fine too.”

“You were so lucky!”

Lou nodded in agreement. “I know.” It was hard to admit, but running into a gun battle while pregnant hadn’t been her brightest move. “I’m surprised Kid even left on the posse.” And he certainly hadn’t left without a long lecture.

Jane rubbed her own pregnant belly. “I understand. Buck sure didn’t want to leave me either. But I’m fine, and I’m sure he’ll be home in plenty of time.”

“I know he’ll do everything he can,” Lou agreed. “He’s so excited about being a daddy!”

“He’ll be a wonderful father,” Jane said.

“I know he will,” Lou said. Movement outside the window just then caught her eye and she hurried into the corner. “Uh, Jane, is it all right if I stay here and talk for a while?”

Jane was studying the scene outside of the window herself, noticing Rachel looking around. “Hiding from someone, Lou?”

Lou sighed. “Rachel doesn’t think I should be out of bed yet,” she admitted.

“What did the doctor say?”

“I didn’t actually ask the doctor.”

“Lou?”

“Jane, I’m fine, really. And I’m going crazy cooped up in the house, just staying in bed!”

Jane just laughed and pointed at a chair. “Well, sit down at least so we can say you’re resting.” Since she’d been distracted all day worrying about Buck, this visit might be just what she needed too. “I could use someone to talk with today.”

She felt the kicking again as she returned to her own chair. The baby was certainly a lot more active these last few days. It wouldn’t be long now.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“What do you mean a week?”

Teaspoon reached a hand out, pulling Buck back. “Now Buck, just calm down.”

Captain Withers just shrugged. “The judge left on some rounds,” he explained – again. “Won’t be back to Kearny for a week. You’ll just have to wait and see him then.”

Buck pulled away, shaking his head. “Teaspoon, I can’t wait a week.”

Teaspoon considered his options for a moment. With the outlaws well in hand, he’d sent Kid back to Rock Creek with most of the posse. Teaspoon, Buck, and Pete Wells had continued on to Kearny with the prisoners. “Any reason you’d need all of us here?” he asked.

The army officer shrugged. “Guess not,” he replied. “Unless you seen somethin’ the others didn’t,” he added, looking at Buck.

Buck took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves. “I did the tracking,” he said slowly. “I suppose I have to testify . . .”

“Pete an’ me seen the same trail,” Teaspoon said. And in truth, the outlaws had left a pretty clear trail – for the most part. There were only a few places where Buck’s careful eye had been required to get them back on the right track. “An’ them men had the bags from the Rock Creek bank when we caught up to ‘em. That should be enough.”

“Probably true,” Withers agreed.

Buck looked out the window of the fort’s jail. The western skies were darkening with an approaching storm, but it wasn’t on top of them – yet. “I can still get a few miles in if I leave now.”

“Now, hold it,” Teaspoon commanded. “Buck, you’re staying here tonight.” He waved off the younger man’s attempted protest. “You’ve been in the saddle for the better part of the last week. You need rest, and so does your horse. ‘Sides, with that storm movin’ in, don’t look like it’ll be a fit night for man nor beast out there.” He put his hand gently on Buck’s shoulder. “Won’t do Jane no good if’n you drown on the way home.”

Buck sighed and nodded. Everything Teaspoon said was true – he was tired, and so was his horse. And it truly wouldn’t be a good night to be out, not if the storm was even only half as bad as it looked like it would be. He’d stay the night, get some rest, and leave the next day.

After all, Jane wasn’t due for another couple of weeks yet. One day wouldn’t make a difference.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane lay awake, listening to the storm pound through the sky outside the window. It had to be right on top of Rock Creek now, she figured, with the nearly continuous booms of thunder.

She reached her hand out, touching the empty space in the bed next to her. Not for the first time, she wished Buck was there with her. Having his arms around her now would make being awakened by the storm not nearly so difficult, or lonely, to bear.

But since having Buck there wasn’t an option, she wrapped her arms around the baby and curled up under the blanket, trying to ignore the vicious pounding outside. The baby would be here soon, and so would Buck.

He’d promised.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

”What do you mean the horses are gone?”

Paul Tevins shrank back a step, mopping at his sweating, balding head as he faced the angry man. “Well, seems like Timmy, the boy what works for me, left the barn door open last night,” he stammered.

Buck just stared at the liveryman. “All the horses are gone,” he said. He knew he was stating the obvious – but what else could he say?

Tevins nodded nervously. “Well, see, I left the paddock gate open,” he explained. “The horses shoulda been locked in here, so that shouldn’t o’ mattered.”

Teaspoon put a hand out, holding Buck back. “This ever happened before?”

Tevins nodded again. “Only twice,” he hastened to say. “I’m sure they’ll find their way back. It was just that storm, it spooked ‘em.”

Buck just stared at Teaspoon in disbelief.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane straightened up, holding the small of her back as the muscles protested the movement. The storm had created quite a mess in town, with branches and other debris strewn all about. Fortunately, the windows of the jewelry shop faced away from where the wind had been blowing in from, so nothing had broken. But she’d still had quite a bit to clean up.

“Jane, are you all right?”

“Oh, I’m fine, Rachel. Just not quite in shape to be doing a lot of lifting.”

Rachel came toward the shop, her school books clutched in her arms. “Well, I was on the way to school,” she said. “But I’ve got a few minutes, if I can help.”

“No, really, I’ve got most of the debris picked up,” Jane answered. “And the shop windows didn’t break, like happened down the street.”

“Well, that was lucky,” Rachel said.

“Looks like some paint got rubbed off here,” Jane said, pointing at some spots near the door. “But Buck can fix that when he gets back.”

“I’m sure he’ll be back any time now,” Rachel replied.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“The horses aren’t back.”

Tevins shook his head – something he’d been doing a lot of that day. “Timmy’s been out lookin’ for ‘em,” he said.

Buck bit back the retort that if Timmy had just locked the door in the first place, he wouldn’t have to be looking for the horses now. “Is there anywhere else around here to get a horse?”

Tevins just had to shake his head – again. “Most o’ the folks round here just got maybe one old plow horse,” he replied. “Unless maybe the army’s got one you could borrow.” Anything to get the angry man out of his livery!

It was Teaspoon’s turn to shake his head. “Already checked on that,” he said. “Cavalry all rode out at first light this morning, takin’ all their horses. Most o’ the wagon horses are gone too to support the troops.”

“Eastbound stage comes through tomorrow,” Tevins suggested nervously.

“The stage?” Buck turned to Teaspoon. “I’m going to go look for the horses.”

“Where ya gonna look?” Teaspoon asked. The heavy rain had wiped out any chance of finding tracks.

“I don’t know,” Buck admitted. “I just gotta look.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane lay on the bed, trying to get comfortable. The baby was kicking up a storm, and seemed to be pressing right on a nerve near the top of her leg. Her back ached, and her feet were so swollen she’d had trouble getting her shoes off.

All in all, it was the most uncomfortable she’d been since the morning sickness that had marked the early weeks of her pregnancy.

She sighed, reaching for the other pillow. What she really needed was for Buck to be here, and reassure her in his quiet voice that everything would be just fine.

His pillow was a poor substitute.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tired and muddy, Buck stumbled back to the fort. Treading gently on a sprained ankle, he climbed the back stairs at the hotel and made his way to the room he was sharing with Teaspoon.

He opened the door, finding Teaspoon and Pete engaged in a game of cards at the small table near the window.

“What in tarnation happened to you?” Teaspoon asked as he watched the younger man limp in.

“I slipped in the mud by the river,” Buck replied. He grabbed his saddlebags and began rummaging for clean clothes.

“Did you find the horses?” Pete asked.

The question just earned a glare from Buck as he gathered up his clothes and headed out to find a bath.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She just couldn’t get comfortable. If she stood, it hurt. If she sat down, it hurt. If she walked, it hurt.

Deciding that she just couldn’t deal with customers that day, Jane put the CLOSED sign on the door and slowly climbed the stairs back to her apartment.

It hurt lying down too – but not quite as much.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The stage jolted along the bumpy trail, made even worse by the heavy mud. It was raining again, making progress even slower.

Buck shifted in his seat ever so slightly, trying to find a position that would ease the pain in his ankle. The doctor at the fort had confirmed that it was just a sprain – which was better than the broken bone Teaspoon had feared.

It still hurt like hell.

Fortunately, there were only three other passengers on the stage, so the seats weren’t too crowded. And he was on his way to Rock Creek, which was the most important thing.

He settled back in his seat, pulling his hat down lower over his eyes. The other passengers actually seemed friendly enough – he just didn’t want to talk to anyone.

He closed his eyes, hoping to sleep . . .

CRACK!!!!!

The snapping noise brought him fully alert – just in time to reach frantically for a handhold as the stage stopped suddenly and tipped precariously to one side. He managed to catch the woman next to him as she tumbled, but the man across the way flew off of his seat, and right onto Buck’s sore ankle.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Buck helped the woman find something to hang onto, and lifted the man off of his ankle. Then he climbed out of the window, which was now pointed almost directly up.

The scene that greeted him was not encouraging. The stage lay nearly completely on its side. One of the four horses was down, tangled in the harnesses. Another of the horses was clearly favoring a leg, and a third was bleeding on its flanks.

He looked around, finally finding the driver on the ground a few feet from the stage. The man was moving, albeit slowly, so at least he was alive.

Buck turned his attention back to the stage. With a bit of effort he got the now-crooked door open and helped the other passengers climb out. And then he went over and knelt down by the driver. “How bad is it?”

The driver had his left hand over a cut on his forehead, trying to stem the blood that was running over his face. “Hit my head,” he said, his voice slightly slurred.

Buck figured he could have guessed that much, but there was little sense in pointing that out to the injured man. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

The driver took a moment to move the other parts of his body before answering. “Don’t think so,” he said. “Anyone hurt inside?”

“Nothing serious,” the man who had fallen on Buck’s ankle answered. “What happened?”

“Axle snapped right in two,” the other man from inside the stage answered, bending over the broken coach.

“What do we do now?” the woman asked.

“Ain’t gonna be able to fix that out here,” the driver replied. “Guess I’ll try to make it into the next station . . .” He tried to get up, only to fall back to the ground when the world spun around him.

Buck had moved over to the horses, freeing them from the harnesses. The horse that had been on the ground lumbered painfully to its feet once freed, which he took to be a good sign. But there was only one of the four animals that wasn’t obviously injured to one extent or another. “You’re in no shape to go anywhere,” he said, limping back toward the driver. “One of the horses seems to be all right. I can take the horse to the next station, send back help.”

“Those are draft horses, mister,” the driver objected. “They ain’t used to bein’ rode.”

“I can manage,” Buck replied, trying to conceal the desperation he was feeling. He just had to get back to Rock Creek. “Look, I rode for the Pony Express. I can ride just about anything. And I know this trail.” Granted, he’d only come this far a couple of times, but that would do.

“Ain’t got no saddle,” the driver said.

Buck decided this wasn’t a good time to point out his Indian heritage – he didn’t want to scare anyone, or fight. But he’d grown up riding with no saddle, so that was no obstacle. “I can manage.”

“Well, guess you’re the best bet then,” the driver agreed. “Old Harry at the next station, he’ll be able to help.”

“I’ll send him out as quick as I can,” Buck said. And then, before anyone could raise any other objection, he recovered his saddlebags from inside the stage and went over to the horse. The animal was taller and broader than anything he’d ever ridden – but a horse was a horse. He wound his left hand into the horse’s mane and leapt up, wincing at the extra pressure he’d had to put on his ankle. But the effort landed him squarely on top of the horse.

The animal looked back, unsure about this unfamiliar weight on its back. But it responded to Buck’s urging, and soon they were on their way eastward.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“You’re coming home with me, and no argument!”

“Rachel, I’m fine . . .” Jane doubled over as pain shot through her back and leg, and her voice trailed off.

“Of course you are,” Rachel replied. She went to the younger woman and helped her out of the chair. “You’re staying with me, at least until Buck gets back.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

All his years of riding hadn’t prepared him for the miles on the draft horse. The horse had already been pulling the coach for a while, and apparently it had hurt its leg in the accident because a slight limp manifested itself along the way. That made the going even slower. By the time the station came into view, the muscles of his legs ached from straddling the broad back for so long. But he was several miles farther along on his way toward home, so the pain was worth it.

It was late afternoon as he rode into the station yard, and the horse’s limp had gotten worse. He watched in relief as an older man came hurrying out of the house.

Buck slid off the horse and waited as the man approached. “Hello. Are you Harry?”

The man nodded slowly. “Harry Potts. And who are you?”

“Buck Cross. I was a passenger on the stage. The axle broke a ways back.”

“Oh, lordy. Was anyone hurt?”

“Nothing real serious. But they’re stranded.”

Harry nodded in understanding. “Well, I’ll have to get right out there. You wanna come back out with me?”

“I really need to get back to Rock Creek,” Buck replied. “My wife’s pregnant, almost due.”

“Well, ain’t that nice! You do have to get back then.”

Buck just nodded, relieved that the man seemed to understand. “This horse is a little lame. Would you have another I could borrow – or buy?”

Harry shook his head. “All I got is the horses for the stage. The army came through and bought up all the other horses a few weeks back, an’ I ain’t had a chance to get nowhere to buy any replacements.”

Buck could feel his hopes fading. “Is there anywhere around here I could get a horse?”

Harry thought about it for a moment. “Well, the widder Hopkins might still have one,” he suggested. “Don’t think the army took it, and might be she’d like the money.”

“Could you take me out there?” Buck asked, his hopes starting to rise again.

But Harry was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, but I work for the stage company, and I got a duty to them people stuck out there.”

Buck sighed – it wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he could understand. “Where’s the Hopkins place?”

“Well, ‘bout three miles that way,” Harry said, pointing to the northeast.

Buck looked in the indicated direction – at least it was somewhat headed the right way. “Good luck with the stage,” he said.

“And good luck with you too,” Harry said. “Hope you make it back to your wife real soon.”

But Buck was already limping on his way.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane paced back and forth, one hand pressing hard against the small of her back. Just a few days ago she’d been so happy that she wasn’t haven’t any trouble with her pregnancy. And now . . . now, it was nothing but trouble. Every hour seemed to bring a new type of pain.

She turned and headed back the way she’d just come. Oh, when would Buck get back?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He heard the wagon coming up slowly behind him and turned to meet it. The sun was setting, and it was almost directly in his eyes, but finally he could make out a small buggy. And as it got closer, he noted the mule in the harness, and the older woman driving the wagon.

Buck shaded his eyes and tried to look very non-threatening – and non-desperate – as the wagon approached. “Good evening, ma’am.” He tipped his hat, smiling.

“Evening,” she replied, her voice somewhat suspicious. “You ain’t from out this way.”

“No, ma’am. I’m looking for the Hopkins place.”

“I’m Lottie Hopkins. We got business I don’t know about?”

“My name is Buck Cross, ma’am. Harry Potts from over at the stage station sent me to talk to you,” Buck explained. “He said you might have a horse to sell.”

Lottie’s face broke into a smile. “Why, that was right nice of Harry! I surely do have a horse I wouldn’t mind selling.”

Buck breathed a sigh of relief. “Those are welcome words, ma’am. I really need to get back to Rock Creek.”

“Well, you just climb up here,” Lottie said, patting the seat next to her. She waited for Buck to comply. When he was seated she flicked the reins and the mule started slowly forward again. “What’s the hurry to get to Rock Creek?”

“My wife, Jane – she’s pregnant, due any day now,” Buck explained.

“Why, ain’t that sweet!” Lottie reached over to pat his leg. “Guess that is real important.” She flicked the reins again. “Get up now, Myrt!”

“It’s just turned out to be a little more trouble getting home than I would have thought,” Buck said. But if he could get the horse quickly, he could still get a little riding in before the full darkness of the night settled in. And he figured they had to be close to Lottie’s home, given how far he had walked.

“This your first?” Lottie asked.

“Yeah, it’s our first.”

“I remember my first, just like it was yesterday,” Lottie said, a faraway hint to her voice. “O’ course, it’s been a while. Steven’s in San Francisco now – a lawyer.”

“You must be very proud,” Buck said. Of course, he’d met some lawyers who probably wouldn’t make their mothers very proud. But he wasn’t going to do or say anything to jeopardize getting that horse!

“Oh, yes. He writes all the time, telling me about his work. Wants me to come out there and live. Says he doesn’t like me livin’ here all alone, now that his pa died last spring.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, me an’ Gus, we had a good long time together,” Lottie said, turning the mule onto a narrow track running to the north.

They topped a small rise, and then Buck could see a farmhouse down below. A small barn and a chicken coop rounded out the yard, with corn and wheat growing in fields beyond that.

“Well, here we are,” Lottie said as she guided the mule toward the barn.

Close up, Buck could see that the house and barn both needed some work. A couple of shutters were loose, and the barn door was hanging crooked. Under other circumstances, he would have offered to stay for a day or so and help – but not just now. Maybe he’d come back in a few weeks . . .

“Home sweet home,” Lottie said as she pulled the mule to a stop. “It ain’t much, but it’s all mine.”

“Looks like some good land around here,” Buck commented. Her crops looked very healthy.

“Oh, that it is,” Lottie agreed. “Just a lot of work for one old woman alone.”

Buck hopped down from the wagon and turned to help her. “I’d offer to help,” he said. “But I really do need to get back to my wife.”

“Well, of course you do!”

Buck smiled, pleased that she understood. “If I could just see the horse, we can decide on a fair price.” And he could get going . . .

“Oh, Bessie ain’t here,” Lottie said. “I keep her at the stable in town. One reason I’d be lookin’ to sell – that Mr. Juskin charges so much to keep one old horse there!”

Oblivious to the stunned look on Buck’s face, Lottie reached into the back of the buggy and pulled out a few packages. “Now, if you’ll just see to Myrt, I’ll go get us some supper started. It’ll be so nice to have someone to talk to! Then you can get a good night’s sleep, and in the mornin’ we’ll go into town and see about that horse.”

Buck just stared in disbelief as she disappeared into the house with her shopping.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane slowly climbed the back steps, stopping just outside the door. The baby had finally moved so that she wasn’t in such pain any longer, and that was really good news.

The bad news was that the baby now seemed to be doing some kind of dance right on her bladder, and that meant running to the outhouse frequently.

She reached for the door handle and then stopped as the feeling of pressure hit again. With a sigh she retraced her path back down the steps toward the outhouse.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The horse bore little resemblance to the fleet steeds he’d ridden as a Pony Express courier. Old and swaybacked, the mare looked almost ready to fall over, and he could understand why Lottie was so happy to be rid of the equine.

But the mare was sturdier than she looked at first. He quickly learned that she was not about to run, but she plodded on and on and on, and they put miles behind them.

Until she threw a shoe . . .

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It had been a long day, filled with alternating pain, and multiple trips to the outhouse. Jane was standing now on the porch, staring toward the west, hoping to see a certain rider coming.

But the horizon stayed agonizingly empty.

She turned to go into the house, and then stopped suddenly, grasping her abdomen. Wide-eyed, she looked down at the water puddling by her feet.

LOU!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The station finally came into view. Buck limped down the hill, leading Bessie behind him. They’d both been walking since she’d thrown the shoe, quite a few miles back.

But now he’d finally made it. This was the last way station before Rock Creek, one he’d changed horses at so many times. The Walkers knew him well. He’d be able to leave Bessie here and borrow a horse to get back home.

He waved as he saw Alice Walker come out of the house, followed by her husband Albert. She returned the wave and came toward him, smiling as she recognized the visitor.

“Why, Buck Cross, it’s good to see you. We don’t get many visitors these days, what with the Express gone,” she said.

“It is good to see you, Buck,” Albert added, and then he grinned. “But what is that you been riding?”

“This is Bessie,” Buck said. “And how I came by her is a long story, which I’d be happy to tell you some time. But right now, I really need to get to Rock Creek. Can I borrow a horse?”

From the look Alice and Albert exchanged, Buck was sure he wasn’t going to like the answer.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Doc Forbes stepped out into the hall, wiping his hands on a towel. “She’s doing fine,” he said softly to Rachel and Lou. “But she’s asking for Buck.”

“He’s not back from Fort Kearny yet,” Lou said.

“Should be any time,” Rachel added.

“Well, he’d best hurry,” Forbes said. “Or he’s going to miss the baby coming.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was hard to believe that not so long ago he would have made the short ride in about an hour.

The army had bought all the horses from the Walkers as well, so they had none to lend him. But they did have Brutus.

The ride on the mule was, if anything, even more uncomfortable than being on Bessie. And he quickly learned that Brutus had two speeds – slow, and slower. Without a bad ankle, he probably could have walked the distance faster. But like Bessie, Brutus kept moving forward, and that’s what was important.

The sun had set, with just a faint orange glow left on the western horizon, when the Rock Creek station came into view. Almost as though he could sense the end of the trail, Brutus actually seemed to pick up some speed, and soon they were in the station yard.

Buck dismounted near the barn, stretching his stiff muscles. He’d get Brutus settled in the barn, then go and find Jane.

“Boy, what the hell are you ridin’ there?”

Buck froze at the sound of the voice. He dropped the reins and turned slowly around. “Teaspoon?”

“You look like you seen a ghost,” Teaspoon laughed as he stepped off the porch.

Buck shook his head. He was tired, and it had been a long trip – but it hadn’t been that long. “You’re supposed to be in Kearny, waiting for the judge.”

“Oh, that.” Teaspoon waved a hand in dismissal. “Turns out the judge wasn’t gone as long as he’d figured. Came back the day after you left.”

The day after . . . “The horses?”

Teaspoon chuckled. “Seems like they all showed up in a farmer’s pasture after they spooked and run from the livery. Man was comin’ to town the next day, so he brought ‘em in. Got there maybe ‘bout an hour after you left on the stage. Your horse is in the barn.”

Buck found himself just staring in disbelief. He finally sighed and said, “I need to get to Jane.”

“You sure do,” Teaspoon agreed. He reached for the mule’s reins. “She’s upstairs.”

Buck’s eyes automatically looked to the second story. “Here? Is she all right?”

“She’s doin’ fine,” Teaspoon assured him. “But you’re gonna be a daddy any time now.” He was going to say more – but Buck had already run for the house.

He ignored his sore ankle as he hurried into the house, stopping only when he met Kid in the parlor doorway. “Buck, I’m sure glad you’re back,” Kid said.

“Me too,” Buck replied, trying to get by the other man. “I need to get upstairs . . .”

“Oh no you don’t,” Lou said. She was coming out of the kitchen carrying a pot of boiling water. “Doc and Rachel are taking care of things.”

“But . . .”

“But nothing,” Lou said firmly. “I’ll tell Jane you’re back, but you stay down here ‘til you’re called!”

“I wouldn’t argue,” Kid said, as both men watched Lou start up the stairs. “You won’t win.”

“Good advice,” Teaspoon said as he joined them. “Besides, you’d best get cleaned up a little. You’d scare Jane the way you look right now.”

From Buck’s point of view, time seemed to have almost stopped. Kid and Teaspoon finally gave up trying to engage him in conversation, which left the silence only punctuated by the occasional screams of pain coming from upstairs; each scream seemed to tear right into his heart, and there was nothing he could do.

He was vaguely aware of letting Teaspoon lead him to get cleaned up, and at some point Kid brought a clean shirt that he changed into. But his attention was only on the sounds coming from upstairs.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, there was a new sound.

WAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH.

The baby’s cry finally seemed to snap Buck out of the feeling that time had stopped. He headed for the stairs, only to meet Lou coming down.

“You’re a daddy,” she said, a huge smile on her face. “It’s a girl.”

“A girl?” Buck leaned against the railing, trying to process that information. He had a daughter . . .

“Well, ain’t that somethin’,” Teaspoon said. He moved up to stand behind Buck, who was looking none too steady on his feet.

“Congratulations, Buck,” Kid said.

Buck nodded his thanks, then turned his attention back to Lou. “Jane?”

“She’s fine, Buck. Doc says you can come up in a few minutes.”

The minutes seemed like hours, and then the bedroom door opened.

“You can come up now, daddy,” Rachel said with a smile. When Buck reached her she held his arm for just a moment and kissed his cheek. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Buck whispered. He turned to the doctor, who had also stepped into the hall.

“You’ve got a fine, healthy daughter,” Forbes said. “And Jane is doing just fine.”

Buck shook the doctor’s hand and went on by. He stopped in the doorway for a moment, just looking. Jane lay on the bed, propped up by some pillows. She looked exhausted – and yet there was a smile on her face. And the smile was undoubtedly for the small bundle cradled in her arms.

Just then Jane looked up, and her smile widened. “I was scared you wouldn’t get here,” she said softly.

Her words finally got him to move. “I told you I’d be home for this,” he said as he sat down on the bed.

Jane studied her husband’s face for a moment. “Are you all right, Buck? You look . . .”

“I’m fine,” he said quickly. “How are you?” Further explanation of his travels – and travails -- could wait.

“I’m so tired,” Jane admitted.

“You should sleep.” Buck turned and lay down next to his wife, reaching one hand out to pull the blanket back just a little revealing his daughter. She was sleeping, her tiny little face scrunched up as though in great concentration. “She’s so beautiful,” he whispered.

Jane just smiled as Buck settled in next to her. Now the family really felt complete. She snuggled in as his arm slid under her shoulders.

Buck put a protective arm across the two women in his life. Finally able to relax, he could feel the exhaustion of the last few days taking over. He reached out with his free hand to touch the fingers of his daughter’s hand, smiling as her fingers closed around his finger. Everything he’d been through to get here faded, and all seemed right with the world.

“She’s going to need a name,” Jane whispered. She didn’t get a reply right away. “Buck?” Still receiving no reply she looked down – and smiled at the peaceful look on her husband’s sleeping face.

Jane brought two fingers to her lips, then pressed the kiss lightly onto Buck’s cheek. Then she placed her hand over his arm and whispered, “Welcome home, daddy.”

Noah
by: Ty

Noah looked around puzzled, had someone called his name? No. There wasn't anyone around, he had the bunkhouse to himself. Buck and Kid were on a special run for Teaspoon, Ike and Cody were on relays, and Jimmy had gone with Lou to visit her brother and sister.

He went back to reading his book.

Softer than a whisper, "Noah" there it was again. It didn't sound like it was coming from outside, the sound was right next to him. Abandoning his book, Noah slid off his bunk to take a look outside anyway.

Opening the door he saw only the blackness of the night. Noah waited allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark. No, nothing unusual in the yard, even the house and tack-room were dark. Rachel and Teaspoon must have gone to bed.

Closing the door, he turned back to his bunk. He must have imagined it, but as he placed his hand on his bunk: "Noah."

Alright, he wasn't imagining things someone was calling his name, but whom?

Turning to face the room he said "Hello? Is anyone there?" he felt ridiculous asking the question, he knew there was no one there.

Thin and airy, "Noah, you will find him in the cave below the rapids." The sound drifted around him.

"What? Him who?" Noah scanned the room uneasily. Where was that voice coming from?

"In the cave below the rapids." The thin sound became even weaker as it reached the conclusion.

"Who's in the cave?" Noah asked, becoming unnerved.

The room was silent, strangely so, even the normal sounds of the bunkhouse seemed to be missing.

"Hello?" Noah called. He received no response. Abruptly all the normal sounds returned, causing him to start in surprise.

Shaking his head in bewilderment, he returned to his bunk, picking up the book, he glanced at the title: 'Hamlet'. Grinning ruefully at his own thoughts he announced to the room, "Mr. Shakespeare, I don't believe in ghosts." Placing the book back on the small shelf, he decided to turn in for the night. Blowing out the lamp, he began removing his shirt, stopping when he heard the steady beat of a horse approaching the station.

Re-buttoning the shirt he opened the door, he saw Teaspoon coming out of the tack-room, obviously he too had hear the approaching rider, and joined him in the yard.

It was Barnett "Teaspoon! You have to go help! She needs your help Teaspoon!" he called as he rode the horse into the yard.

"Barnett, slow down. Who needs my help?" Teaspoon said, as he watched his deputy almost fall off the horse trying to dismount.

"Mrs. Wilson," Barnett replied as Teaspoon helped him untangle himself from the stirrup.

"And what service can I be to Mrs. Wilson?" Teaspoon asked trying not to show is exasperation with his deputy's ineptness.

"Oh, Mr. Wilson and their son Isaac are missing. Isaac's only five years old. They went out hunting yesterday and they should have been home earlier today," Barnett said happily, as if he was proud that he had remembered the story.

"I'll get the horses, Teaspoon," Noah called as he headed for the barn. While saddling the horses Noah decided Barnett probably had a right to be proud, he'd actually remembered the story all the way from town this time!

As Noah led the horses out of the barn, he heard Teaspoon say, "Barnett you go back to town and tell Mrs. Wilson that Noah and I are out to look for Joe and Isaac."

As they headed away from the station, Noah remembered the voice in the bunkhouse earlier. He felt uncomfortable mentioning it to Teaspoon, but something in the back of his mind said it would be the right thing to do.

"Aah Teaspoon. .... This is going to sound a little strange, but I think he might be in a cave below some rapids," Noah said hesitantly.

"I know where that is. Why do you think we should look there?" Teaspoon asked, hearing the hesitation in Noah's voice.

"I'd rather not say right now Teaspoon. It sounds just too crazy," Noah said sheepishly.

"Alright, but if we find him there, I want to hear why," Teaspoon said giving him a questioning look.

"Don't worry you will, because if we find him, I'll have lots of questions myself," Noah said ruefully.

"The rapids are about two and a half hours from here in daylight, maybe three in the dark. Let's ride!" Teaspoon said as he nudged his horse into an easy lope.

Surprised and relieved that Teaspoon hadn't asked him more, Noah followed his lead.

**********

Almost exactly three hours latter, Teaspoon and Noah turned a bend in the trail and came upon the rapids.

All through the ride, Noah had been feeling uncomfortable and apprehensive. He'd never been in this part of the country, how had he known about the cave and the rapids? He didn't remember hearing about them before. He felt on edge and very nervous.

"The trail to the cave is only just around the next bend," Teaspoon said as he slowed his horse to a walk.

As they rounded the bend, the horses became jittery and started prancing; Teaspoon and Noah instinctively calmed the horses but knew that something wasn't right. Stopping the horses, Teaspoon pulled a lantern out of the saddle pack and lit the wick.

Something a few yards away flashed with the reflection of the light. Investigating the two men found the body of Joe Wilson, it looked like he had slipped on some loose shale, fallen and struck his head on a large protruding rock as he went for water.

Teaspoon said, "I don't see any sign of the boy, maybe you should go up and see if he's in the cave."

Wondering how Teaspoon was going to react to his news, Noah tentatively said, "I've never been here before, I don't know how to get to the cave."

Teaspoon gave him a quizzical look but reply, "Follow the trail it will take you right to the cave, see if you can find the boy. I'll stay here and take care of Joe," Teaspoon ended regretfully.

Noah wondered at Teaspoon's calm acceptance of the strange coincidence of his knowing about the cave but not how to get to there.

Noah followed the trail right to the mouth of the cave. Not really expecting an answer Noah called as he entered, "Isaac? Are you in here?"

"Daddy?????" called a scared little voice, from within the cave.

Jumping in anxiety Noah tried to calm his voice for the boy's sake. "No son, my name's Noah. I ride for the Pony Express and heard you might need some help getting home," he finished as the boy ran out to meet him.

"Daddy told me that if I stayed here in the cave he would get someone to come take me home," Isaac said as he let Noah pick him up to carry him back to the horses.

Noah felt a chill run down his spine, 'Why would Joe have told his son such a thing before he died, but how could he have told him after? And how did I know where to find Isaac?'

Teaspoon had found Joe's horses and gear a short distance away from his body in a makeshift corral. He had already wrapped Joe's body in a piece of canvas and tied him onto one of the horses, before Noah had returned with Isaac.

"Hello Isaac, I'm Marshal Hunter," Teaspoon offered his hand for Isaac to shake, "but most people call me Teaspoon, your mommy sent me and Noah here to get you. Do you want to ride with me or Noah on the way home?"

"I'll ride with Noah," Isaac said, putting his arm back around Noah's neck.

Once remounted Noah, with Isaac in front of him, lead the way home while Teaspoon followed leading both the canvas draped and the pack horse.

Noah knew he was in for a very uncomfortable ride home. He would be thinking about the little problem of the voice from the bunkhouse being right about where the boy was.

**********

They had turned the body over to the undertaker and had escorted Belle Wilson to her sister's place on the other side of town, before the night’s sad duties were over.

Dawn was just peeking over the horizon when Noah and Teaspoon arrived back at the station.

Once the horses were bedded down, they walked out of the barn together.

"That was a long night. I suggest we try to get a few hours sleep," Teaspoon said as he moved toward the tack-room. "But first, do you want to tell me how you knew where to find the boy?" Teaspoon asked.

"Not really," Noah stated, ill at ease. "But I guess I need some questions answered too. Earlier tonight while I was reading in the bunkhouse I heard a voice tell me, 'You will find him in the cave below the rapids.' I thought I was hearing things, but under the circumstances..." He shrugged his shoulder in bemusement. "How did I know that he was in that cave? I couldn't have really heard what I thought I heard. .... Could I?" Noah asked, bewildered.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Noah, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Teaspoon mis-quoted.

"Teaspoon, how did you know I was reading 'Hamlet' last night?" Noah asked, clearly as perplexed at Teaspoon's answer as he was about his own knowledge of the cave.

"I didn't," Teaspoon replied with a wink as he closed the door to the tack-room.

Who's Yer Daddy
by: Okeshala

Chapter 1

Lou was busy cleaning out the stalls, enjoying the peace and quiet of just being by herself, when she heard someone coming up the road toward the station. Emma and the boys can't be back this soon. Not with all the things they yapped about doing in town today. She walked out of the barn to see a man who looked to be around Emma's age riding up in a black carriage.

"Teaspoon, we've got a visitor!" Lou shouted as she moved toward the newcomer.

"Good afternoon, does a man named Teaspoon live here?" the gentleman asked.

"Yeah, he works this Waystation." Lou replied guardedly.

Before she could call for Teaspoon again, she heard the cry of a young child. The man reached over to pick up a small toddler wrapped in worn blue blanket. The crying grew incessantly louder despite his efforts to quiet the hysterical youngster.

"Excuse me, I hate to bother you, but could you please help me with her? She's really hungry, I 'm afraid I ran out of sandwiches and milk about 5 hours ago," he begged, passing the squiggling child down to the young rider.

"Uh...yeah I guess," Lou said uncomfortably. As Louise took the young girl into her arms the crying seemed to slow down a bit, but as soon as the blond haired cherub saw her new caretaker she began to cry even louder. "Teaspoon!" Lou yelled in desperation.

"What's so all bothered important Lou? Is the dang'd barn on fire or sumpthun? Ya'd think…." He stopped as he saw that they had company. "Oh surry bout dat, dinna know we had a visitor," Teaspoon blustered as he walked down the steps from the house.

"Teaspoon, this gentleman's been asking after ya."

Hearing the screaming child, the express manager leaned down to look at the small bundle. "Well, what we got here? A mite small fer an express rider, ain't it?" he chuckled.

"She needs something ta eat, so I'll go see what I can find..." Lou walked toward the house carrying the screaming tot.

"Teaspoon Hunter at yer service Mr…?” Teaspoon prompted, holding his hand toward the man in the carriage. He noticed that the fellow wore a fancy black dress suit and matching hat, the kind folks who live in the big city usually wore.

"Mr. Henry Wherley, sir." He shook the older man's hand. "I'm a member of St. Paul's church out of St. Joe, Missouri. There was a train wreck nine days ago about ten miles outside of the city and many of the folks on the train were injured. I was sent to bring the little lady to her father."

"Well I think somthin ain't quite right, cause none of my riders have any children. Why they’re jus’ kids themselves." Teaspoon frowned.

"Yes, well I was told that the mother is being given care in one of the homes in St. Joe. But before she lost consciousness, she begged us to take the little girl to her father. She was hysterical about her daughter and from her ramblings we learned that the child's father has no knowledge of the baby. We tried diligently to learn her name but all the young woman kept mumbling was your name and Sweetwater Station. We have no other documents as yet, but volunteers have begun to comb through the wreckage in an effort to find more information on those injured or dead. Many of the members of our church volunteered to take the healthy folks to their nearest relatives and here I am."

"It's a worrisome problem we have here and we'll have ta look into it, but fer now why don't you come on in and have somethin’ to eat. We have a room fer ya to stay in as well, until we can figure out this here mess," Teaspoon said while helping the gentleman from the carriage.

Nodding tiredly, Wherley said, “Thank you Mr. Hunter, but there are many more people that need my assistance. I will thankfully stay the night but I must leave at first light to return to St. Joe."

"I hope we can take care of this by this afternoon, when most of my boys'll be here."

****************

Louise sat in the old maple rocker feeding the tiny child in her arms. She was a cute little thing with hair the color of moonlight which curled around her chubby pink face. When her eyes weren't closed, Lou could see that they were a bright cobalt blue. The little girl drank the milk so quickly that Lou had to pull the cup from her mouth to be certain she was breathing in between gulps. Louise didn't want her getting sick from drinking too quickly. Her sister Theresa used to do that when she was little. It was nice to touch her cheek and feel its smooth silkiness. Unfortunately, along with these warm feelings came the unwanted memories from her past, which were threatening to rise up out of a place where she had long since locked them away.

Lou looked up as Teaspoon walked in with their visitor. "I've put some bread, cheese and milk on the table for ya. Sorry I couldn't get more but she wouldn't let me put her down."

Teaspoon patted Lou on the back "S'all right Lou, we'll get to the bottom of this when the boys return."

"Get to the bottom of what, Teaspoon?" Lou asked curiously.

"Only wanna say this once, so we'll wait fer the others ta get back from town. Go on Mr. Wherley, have a seat and hep yourself."

"Teaspoon, I have the next run after Buck and I haven't finished cleaning the stalls." Lou said desperately.

"It'll be taken care of. I'll have the boys finish the stalls and Emma should be able ta handle this little'n."

"Ok" she mumbled. The little girl in her lap reached up to touch Lou's cheek saying "Mama." Then she snuggled her tiny head into the young woman's shoulder as her eyes slowly drifted shut. Lou blushed looking over at their guest to see if he had seen through her disguise.

"Sorry about that son. The child has been shaken up pretty badly by the accident and I guess she's mixing you up with her Ma,” Mr. Wherley apologized.

"It's alright,” she mumbled, being certain her voice sounded like the boy she was pretending to be.

The sound of the buckboard and the boys laughing told of their return home. Jimmy tied his horse to the post and turned to grab some of the supplies from the wagon. "I don't care what you say Cody, the Peterson twins are not following you around. It's more like they’re trying ta hide from you. I think they were really trying to get Kid's attention myself. ’Which ribbon do you think I should buy the blue or green one?’” Jimmy mocked the twins in a falsetto voice.

Kid looked over at his friend, frowning. "Knock it off, Jimmy."

Cody patted Jimmy on the back. "Aw, Jimmy you just don't understand the subtleties of a woman." He then offered his arm to Emma so that he could assist her up the porch steps.

"Why Mr. Cody I never knew you had such vast experience with women." Emma laughed, accepting the rider's arm.

Jimmy looked toward the barn wondering why Lou hadn't come out to join them. He noticed a strange buggy tied up near the barn and pointed it out to Ike who was picking up the 30lb-flour bag from the back of the wagon. "Teaspoon? Lou?" Jimmy yelled while quickly moving toward the front door.

Teaspoon went out onto the porch to meet them. "Boys, get yurselves in here ‘cause we got us a little problem. Be certain ya help Emma bring those things inside first."

Jimmy and Ike were the first through the door. They stopped when they saw a man they had never seen before sitting at the table. "Hello," Jimmy said while Ike nodded his head. Both of them froze when they saw Lou in the corner rocker, a small child wrapped in a blue blanket sleeping in her arms. She gave them a warning look and gently shook her head.

"You're blockin the door boys," Emma laughed. "Keep movin’ so the others can get inside."

The two young men placed the foodstuffs on the sideboard and sat slowly down on the bench next to the table, all the while staring at Lou. Emma, Kid and Cody came through the door next, stopping to take in the sweet picture that the young woman and child made. Kid and Cody put the supplies on the kitchen table and walked to the other side of the room waiting to hear from Teaspoon what problem he was talking about.

Kid couldn't seem to take his eyes off of Lou. 'Who was the child in her arms? Did Lou know this man sitting at their table?' All he knew was that she looked so beautiful holding the golden haired babe on her lap.

Cody looked around wondering what was going on. "Lou?" he asked, confused.

"I think I'll let Teaspoon answer your questions ‘cause even I don't know what's goin on."

Teaspoon came across the room, "Mr. Wherley this here is Mrs. Emma Shannon. She's the one who actually runs this here station. I only bang these boys’ heads together every once in awhile ta keep um in line" he explained. “Mr. Wherley here brought this young lady,..Um...by the way what's this lil filly's name?" Teaspoon asked.

"I'm sorry we really don't know. Unfortunately, we were only told that her father works at the Sweetwater Station,” his guest replied.

"What?" Lou, Emma and the boys shouted.

"What's he talkin about Teaspoon?" Jimmy burst out.

"Well, seems there's been a train accident up 'n St Joe and this little lady's ma was injured. Her last words before she passed out were to take this lil angel to her father who works at the Sweetwater Station."

"My goodness Teaspoon, these boys having a child that's about two and a half years old? I can't imagine that." Emma pondered as she looked around the room at each of the boy's faces.

The guys all looked stunned by Teaspoon’s announcement. "Heck, I know that I wasn't with anyone two and half and ago" Cody bragged.

"Well, Cody that's just great because if she is two and a half then the fun part of makin her would have taken place over three years ago, or did ya forget it takes nine months before they’re born? Lou asked sarcastically. A stunned look came over her face. This little girl could be one of the boy's daughter. "Emma, could you take her? Buck's due in soon and I'm up for the next run," Lou asked her voice trailing off nervously.

"But she looks so happy. Maybe one of the other boys could take your ride?" The boys all volunteered, in the hopes of getting away from this sticky situation.

"I'd rather go cause I know that she isn't mine. I'll leave you all to figure out who her father might be,” Lou chided. Running her hands through the toddler's tiny curls, she knew that it was best to get some distance between herself and this child. If this was Kid's little girl, she knew he would do the proper thing and marry the mother if only for this little one's sake.

"I guess that'd be alright," Teaspoon agreed.

"It's only a day run so I'll be back tomorrow Teaspoon in case these Lotharios need me to make a run for them so they can search for answers.”

"What's a Lothario?" Cody asked.

Lou just rolled her eyes. "Uh, Emma, I've kinda been calling her Angel ‘cause I didn't know what else ta call her and she seemed ta like it,” Lou said as she passed the sleeping child to the other woman. The little girl opened her eyes for a quick second, touched Lou's face and once again called her "Mama." Lou glanced over at Kid, Jimmy, Ike and Cody. "Good Luck,” she said as she all but ran out of the house.

"Now anyone who's fer certain the lil guppy here isn't theirs just step forward. But you best be certain," Teaspoon said, his left eye squinting.

"I have to think about it. Three years is a long time ago Teaspoon," Jimmy answered with a confused look on his face. " I mean, we're not exactly sure how old she is are we?" Jimmy looked across the room at Emma with the little girl. Could she really be mine? Fear ran through Jimmy as he thought about how many men wanted to take on Wild Bill Hickok and what that would mean to a young child.

"How bout the rest of ya? Right, then boys go and get yurselves ready to go to the lodge. We're all gonna have ta think fer a spell and there's nothin like goin fer a sweat ta hep ya figure things out."

The boys were deep in thought trying to remember the women from their past.

"Get movin, we ain't got all day!" Teaspoon ordered.

“Don't ya worry Mr. Wherley we'll git ta the bottom of this here sitiation. By the way, you don't happin ta know whose home the mother is stayin at in St Joe do ya?"

"No I'm sorry, our church members were not the only folks who offered their homes to the injured." Mr. Wherley replied.

"If we could've just had the boys go and visit the little lady it sure would'a made things a mite easier," the station manager pointed out.

"If the mother does recover, I will be sure to send her here to reclaim her daughter, Mr. Hunter."

"Well, I best get ta the lodge and help these boys ta figure out which of um could be this angel's daddy. Emma, could you see that our guest gets some supper and a room fer the night? He needs ta be up bright an early to return to St. Joe." Teaspoon said as he started for the door. “Oh, near forgot, when Buck shows up will ya send'm right out to the sweat lodge?"

"Sure Teaspoon,” Emma promised."I'll see he gets there and I'll explain the situation to him before I send him out. First I've gotta put this little one ta bed."

Lou sat waiting for Buck to return from his ride. She sure wished he'd hurry. Being around that little girl made her think back to things that she'd rather not face right now. The sound of an incoming rider brought her back to the task at hand. Buck saw Lou ready to go and handed her the pouch saying the usual," Ride safe, Lou." Lou turned to him smiling and returned, "Good luck, Daddy" as she raced toward the next station. Buck looked at the female rider's back thinking he must have misunderstood what she said. He thought he heard her call him daddy. Shaking his head he moved toward the barn with his horse.

***********************************************************

"Alright now, not a one of ya can say fer certain that that lil girl can't be yers? What ‘bout you Buck?"

Buck shook his head. looking at his feet. "No sir, I can't say for sure she isn't mine."

"Well then I guess yer all gonna havta visit the young lady or ladies you were uh… friendly with ta find out fer sure. Do I make misself clear?" the old codger threatened.

"We can't all leave the station at once. Who'll deliver the pouch?" Jimmy asked, still trying to get his mind around the fact that he could be a father.

"Yer right Jimmy. We'll jest have to rotate the riders so that ya each get a chance ta find out which one of ya is that lil girl's pappy."

"Teaspoon, Ike and I could go together tomorrow to Scott's Bluff. Ike's ride is on the way and we were there a lil over three years ago doing a little prospecting," Buck volunteered.

"Alright Buck. I'll leave y'all to work the details out in order to solve this here mystery. 'Til then, well you're all that little girl’s daddy and you'll take turns carin’ fer her when yer not workin’.

"But Teaspoon…" they whined in unison.

Teaspoon held his hand up. “That’s all the talkin I'm gonna do, understood?"

"Yeah… Yes sir," they replied.

"Now Buck, pour some more water over them rocks, will ya. I think y’all need a real good sweat ta help ya figure things out and a small prayer or two wouldn't hurt at all neither."

***************************************************************

Chapter 2

As the sun rose like a burnt penny on the horizon, Ike and Buck prepared their horses to deliver the pouch to Needle Rock station. Afterward they would continue on toward Scott's Bluff. Buck noticed that Ike seemed pretty edgy. I guess looking into the past didn't make him all that comfortable either.

"You alright, Ike?”

Ike looked at Buck and shrugged. * I guess I'm a little afraid. I mean what if that little girl is mine? How can I take care of her when I can't speak? * His agitation was visible in his hand movements.

"Ike, you'll be a great father. Look how well you care for the foals and I don't see that there is much difference between them. All you need to do is give them love."

* What about the mother? The women we were with that night were… *

Buck mounted his horse. "Ladies of the evening? I don't know what will happen, Ike. I only know we have to begin with finding out if either one of us is the father first, then we'll worry about the rest. Ok?"

Ike nodded as he mounted Tempest. They rode hard as if desperate for the answer to their dilemma.

Arriving at the Scott's Bluff, they could see that the blustering gold mining community had changed a great deal. The once booming town had shrunk to a mere shadow of its former glory days. Many of the buildings were now boarded up and instead of the noisy atmosphere they remembered from the past, they only found the creaking of an old mercantile sign.

'Where are the droves of people quickly moving down the street in the hopes of getting rich?' Buck thought. The two riders slowly meandered their way toward the Golden Nugget Saloon.

"Well at least the Saloons still open," Buck said.

* Yeah, but there aren’t many people here. * Ike signed.

Buck tied his horse to the hitching post. "Well I'm ready if you are. That saloon is where we have to start."

* Yeah, the sooner the better for me. *

Ike looked around as they walked into the bar. He saw three old timers sitting at the bar talking. Behind the bar was a dark haired man with a moustache wearing a patch over his right eye.

"Can I help ya folks?" the bartender asked.

"Yeah," Buck said as he moved closer to the man. "We're lookin for a couple of women who worked here about three years ago; their names were Andrea and Corrina.”

"I didn't work here back then but Sara did, I think she's been here since the original owners unlocked the doors. Ya might wanna ask her." He nodded toward the woman across the room.

"Thanks. Could we have two sarsaparillas?" Buck asked.

The bartender smiled. "Sure boys, I'll bring um over ta ya." They heard the other men at the bar laugh as they crossed the room toward the older woman.

"’Lo gentlemen" Sara smiled. She was a petite woman of around forty. Her naturally black hair had some gray scattered throughout and her makeup was pasted on in an effort to make her appear younger.

Buck coughed out, "Are you Miss Sara?"

"Yep, that's me, old Sara Baker. What can I do fer you boys? You lookin’ for little fun for the night?" She grinned up at them.

Ike began to sign frantically at Buck. * No way! That's how we got into this mess in the first place! *

"No Ma'am. My friend and I came looking for two women who used to work here a few years ago. Their names were Andrea and Corrina.”

"Well now, haven't heard anyone ask after them fer years." She frowned. Ike took out two bits and laid it on the table. "Hmmm... I think I remember them now. Cute lil things they were too," she said as the barkeep came over and placed their sodas on the table. Buck thanked him and handed him some money.

"About three years ago Andrea caught cholera and died. It was so sad to see such a sweet thing die so young. She's buried at St. Francis' churchyard at the edge of town."

Ike dropped into the chair across from Sara. The shock from the news was apparent on his face. He had trouble breathing for a second or two. He hadn't expected to hear she was dead. Moved on to a new town or married maybe but not dead. He remembered her so vividly….

*********************

About three years ago

"You guys ain't never had a woman. A half breed and a dummy could never get no girl!" Michael Reily teased.

Buck ran at the boy knocking him on his butt. "Come on Ike, let's go."

Walking down the street away from their tormenter, Ike looked at Buck * I'm tired of them always after us cause we never done it with a woman before! I want ta know what it's like. All the girls do is either stare at me like I have a disease or hide from me because they're afraid. I'll never know what they keep talking about. Can't we just do it this once? Please Buck? *

The young Kiowa could see this was really important to his friend. "Alright, we'll go the saloon. I guess we did pretty good in the mines this week. It's not really how I want to spend my money but just this once."

The two young men walked into the saloon, sat at a table and ordered a couple of beers. Their eyes were drawn to the many women who wore garish short skirts with tops that showed their cleavage in order to draw a man's attention. Ike saw an older girl looking at him. 'She's so pretty with her brown hair all up in curls around her face and her dark brown eyes.' Ike thought. As if reading his mind, she smiled as she walked toward their table. The young man nervously looked down at the table while playing with his drink.

She came over and sat next to him. "Hi, my name is Andrea. What's your name, handsome?"

Ike looked at Buck for help. "My friends name is Ike. He can't talk, but he can hear you."

"Oh that's alright. You didn't come to talk, did you Ike?"

Ike was mesmerized by her as he shook his head, amazed that she wasn't afraid of him.

Taking his hand she began to lead him toward the stairs. "Why don't we go upstairs and visit fer awhile. Corrina! There's a young man over here that would like to get to know you a little better," she called to a blond haired girl leaning on the bar.

Ike looked at his friend and signed. * I'll see you later. *

Ike couldn't seem to breathe and his heart was pounding so hard in his chest that he didn't think he could make it up the stairs. Andrea led him to room at the end of the hall. Pulling the key from her brassiere, she unlocked the door and led him inside. An oil lamp on the dresser in the corner lightly lit the room. The bed seemed to draw Ike's eye.

She led him over to the bed and gently pushed him so that he fell, sitting on the edge. "I promise I won't bite," she smiled noticing the young man was sitting so stiffly as if ready to dash out of the room. The older woman cupped his face in her hand and kissed him gently on the lips. "Ya nervous? He nodded. "You’re doin’ just fine," her voice like a gentle breeze.

The lady began to slowly unbutton his shirt and helped him take it off. They moved back and forth like a slow dance with her removing a piece of her clothing and then one of his until they were both naked. She started with small little kisses on his eyes and face as she slowly worked her way down to his chest. Closing his eyes, he felt like he was floating and then falling, lay back on the bed. He opened his mouth frustrated that he couldn't tell her how she was making him feel but she seemed to understand. "I don't mind that you can't talk," she smiled at him. She wrapped her arms around him pulling their bodies together. "I kinda like doin most of the talkin for once ……...”

**********************************

Return to present

Buck looked at Ike worriedly. "What about Corrina? Is she still around? "

"No, Corrina left here about a year ago. Not enough money ‘round here for a fast mover like her. She went to Sacramento last that I heard, where the towns are bigger and full of action."

Buck's heart began to pound. He was afraid to ask the question he had traveled so far to find the answer to, but he knew he had to know the truth. He would never turn away from a child that was his, never. "Do you know if she had any kids?"

The older woman began to laugh. "Corrina, have kids? Goodness no. That girl was all about herself. Doubt she'll ever have any kids if she could help it," Sara said as she got up to walk over and get a drink with the money she had just earned.

Buck sighed in relief but saw that Ike was really sad about Andrea's passing. "Ike!" he shook his friend who seemed to be somewhere else. "What's the matter Ike? You look so sad. Is it because you're not the little girl's father?"

* No, It's because Andrea was not just the person I had danced with. She knew I couldn't talk and that I had never... you know, done it before. She was so gentle to me. I thought it would be hard because I couldn't tell her all the things girls like to hear. She just smiled at me and said she liked doin most of the talkin. She... it's like she's a part of me in here * he pointed to his chest. * I know I didn't love her but she gave me a gift that day. The gift of knowing that a woman could touch me, love me even knowing how different I am. * Slow tears fell from Ike's eyes down his cheek.

"I'm sorry Ike. I guess I never thought about how hard it is for you. Not only do people tease you but they don't take the chance to get to know you. I guess we've been friends so long that I don't see you as being different."

He smiled. * I know and that is why you are my best friend because to you I'm not different. I 'm just Ike. *

"I have an idea. You finish your drink and I'll be right back." Buck said as he quickly left the saloon. Ike sat drinking his soda deep in thought.

Buck touched Ike's shoulder, he asked, "Why don't we go visit Andrea and you can thank her and give her these?"

Looking up, Ike saw his friend had returned with a huge arm full of wildflowers.

*Thanks Buck. * They went out, mounted their horses and rode toward the churchyard gate.

**********************************

Kid was patting Katy's neck waiting for Lou to bring the Mochila for him to carry on to the Seneca station. Jimmy and Cody were waiting for Lou to return from her ride too. They were at the end of their rope, they were on "daddy duty," and they had been trying to stop the lil tike from crying for at least twenty minutes.

"I thought takin’ her for a walk was a stupid idea in the first place, Cody. She's too little and walkin’ just makes her even more cranky," Jimmy complained.

"Well I don't see you comin up with any bright ideas. What ya gonna do, teach her how to load a colt?"

"Very funny, Cody." Jimmy complained.

"I got an idea," Cody said as he picked the toddler up under her arms and began swingin her in circles. “Wee," he said as they turned round and round. The little girl giggled. "Hey she likes it! Wee," he repeated and she giggled again.

They both looked up to see Lou come in and hand Kid the pouch. Kid leaned over and said, "Lou, when I get back I think we need ta talk."

A sad look came over her face. "We'll see. Ride safe Kid."

"I mean it Lou. You can't run away from me forever," he shouted.

Lou looked over to see Cody swinging Angel around. "I wouldn't do that too much if I were you," she said, leading Lightning into the barn.

"Why not? She likes it. I think I just might know a little more about women than you think, Lou," he bragged.

Lou quickly walked over to a stall, tied the reins to the post and then removed Lightning's saddle. "You did a great job today girl. How about some corn?" Patting her mount's neck, Lou heard Angel screaming at the top of her lungs. Visions of the child injured by Cody's game sent her running into the yard. Cody stood holding the screaming child as a white liquid dripped down the front of his shirt.

"Ew, what’d ya do that for? Well don't just stand there, Jimmy, do something!"

"What do ya want me to do? I think you've done enough already don't you?"

"Told ya," Lou said, turning to go back to her horse now that she'd seen that the child wasn't hurt.

"Mama!" Angel screamed, wiggling to get out of Cody's arms. Cody looked towards Lou, an evil smile coming over his face.

"Don't you dare, Cody! I'm filthy from my ride and you're in charge of her, DADDY!"

Cody set the child down on the ground. "I can't help it. She's squiggling so hard I 'm afraid I'll drop her." Angel took a few stumbling steps across the rough ground and in her haste fell hard on her bottom, causing her to wail even louder.

Lou's resolve broke at hearing Angel's heartbreaking cries. Glaring at Cody, she walked over and picked the toddler up. "It's alright sweetheart. Did you fall down?" Angel buried her head into Lou's chest and the screams turned into tiny sobs.

"I'll kill you for this Cody. I haven't even finished takin’ care of Lightning and on top of that now we're both filthy."

Jimmy came over with an apologetic look on his face. "Sorry Lou. I'll take care of your horse and Cody here is gonna go and set up the bath for you and Angel. It's the least he can do after upsettin’ her like that."

"Alright, I guess getting my horse cared for and a hot bath is worth it. What do you think Angel? Wanna take a bath?"

"Baf," the little girl replied, sniffling.

Lou walked toward the bunkhouse. "First Lou," she said pointing to her chest, "is gonna get some clean clothes. Jimmy, could you bring my stuff ta the house? I bought her a coupla things ta wear since she only had one dress."

"Sure Lou." He watched how she gently brushed the lil girl's hair out of her eyes and hugged the child protectively. He could imagine her holding a different child: their child.

"Jimmy, sometime today!" Lou said impatiently as she walked toward the outhouse to see if she could get the child to use it before their bath.

**************************************************************

Cody and Jimmy kept looking at the stairs. They heard Angel's giggles and splashing water as Lou played with her in the bath. The thought of Lou in the tub sent all kinda images through Jimmy's mind.

"Well who's next to go searchin’?” Teaspoon asked.

"I thought I'd set out as soon as Ike and Buck get back," Jimmy replied, pushing his stew around on the plate.

"Oh no, Jimmy. I should go next because I was the last to ride and you’re due up before me," Cody argued.

"Teaspoon...” Jimmy began.

Teaspoon held his hand up. "Alright, I can see we got us an impasse."

"A what?" Cody asked.

"An impasse. That means ya both want yer own way bout this," he explained as he pulled a coin from his pocket. "We'll handle this fair and square. Heads or tails Jimmy?”

Jimmy gave him an impatient look.

"Ya want ta ride out tomorrow or not?"

"Heads." Jimmy ungraciously gave in.

"Well that leaves tails fer you Cody," Teaspoon stated and with a flip of his hand the coin floated up into the air and then back into his work worn hand. "Sure sorry Jimmy, it’s tails. You leave first light Cody and no lolly gaggin. You all've been wearing poor Lou out tween coverin rides and baby care. I want this settled as soon as possible."

"You’re right," Cody answered somberly. "Guess I have been takin Lou's kind nature for granted. It can't be easy thinkin’ we're a bunch a waistals."

"Just be xtree nice ta her both of ya and you get home as soon as possible."

Jimmy kept lookin at the stairs waitin for her to come down so he could apologize. Cody left to get some shuteye before leaving early the next morning. After about 20 minutes he began to worry that something might have happened to them.

"Emma ya think Lou and Angel are alright? Ya don't think they drowned in the tub do you?" Jimmy asked nervously.

“Ya know it has been some time since I heard anything form upstairs. Maybe I best go up and check on them," Emma said, clearly concerned.

"I'll go up and check if that's alright with you," Jimmy suggested.

"I guess it'd be ok. Just be sure ta knock before you go in, understand?"

"Yes Ma'am." He carefully listened for any sound as he crept up the stairs, but he heard nothing. When he got to the bedroom he lightly tapped on the door. "Lou?" he whispered softly. He tried again, knocking a little harder.

Now fearful of what he might find, he forcefully opened the door to see Lou and Angel asleep on the bed. Lou was on her side facing him while the small imp was snuggled within the young woman's arms. How could anyone not have seen this part of the woman he had come to know? He would bet when she was younger she would have taken care of Theresa the same way she was caring for Angel.

He walked over and picked up the patchwork quilt that hung on the back of an old Windsor chair by the window and placed it over the two of them. His hand hovered just an inch from Lou's face. He wanted so desperately to touch her but he knew he shouldn't. He picked up the dirty cloths on the floor by the tub and started toward the door. Taking one last glimpse at the both of them, he wished it was him lying in her arms. He couldn't believe he was jealous of a small child. A child that might be his, he thought as he closed the door and returning to the kitchen to tell Emma that they were just asleep.

To be continued . . .

Family Man
by: Debbie

Grace Lamont, now Grace Cross, stood in the shadows of the front porch of their new house. Since getting back from her trip to town, she'd been anxiously waiting all afternoon for Buck to finish up and come inside for the day. But she knew Buck wouldn't quit until he was forced to; he and Kid had been busy for days. First they had torn down the old corral then after buying the wood they would need, they had eagerly begun work on a new, bigger corral.

She had been told that when Kid and Lou first got married and found a place of their own, Buck had spent all his free time helping Kid get the place ready for raising horses. Before they'd moved in, Lou had found out that she was expecting so she had left it to the men to get the ranch in working order. Now Kid was over each day helping them get their place situated.

Grace found her hands wander to her own stomach, a smile crossing her face as it had repeatedly since receiving the blessed news earlier that day. She had met Buck, Kid and Lou months ago so she'd been around to witness the expansion of Lou's middle. She now couldn't wait for that to happen to herself.

Brushing a wisp of hair away from her eyes, Grace watched as Buck pushed his own hair behind his ears as it obviously kept getting in the way of him seeing what he was doing. She would have to make sure he brought a piece of cord out with him tomorrow to tie it back. The sight of his hair made her think about the differences in their appearance; she was as fair as he was dark. Surely their child would be as dark as him and she would welcome it gladly as she had welcomed him into her life. He had given her so much: hope, joy, love, just by being a friend to her and this was a way for her to give him something in return. Of course she hadn't done it all by herself, a thought that caused her to almost blush as the memories of what a passionate man her new husband was came across her mind.

Well it was time to get rid of Kid and get her husband alone. She felt she was going to burst if she didn't tell him soon. She used that as the excuse but knew it was the activity going on inside her that was responsible for the fabric of her dress pulling on her middle and chest.

Grace crossed the yard, her arms folded in front of her. Once the men noticed her approach and stopped their work to wait for her, she said, "I just wanted to inform you that dinner is ready. Of course I would have thought your stomachs would have told you that already considering how long you've both been out here." She leaned on the new section of the corral fence and looked up at them.

Buck walked up to her and placed his hands over her arms. "You know we can't get any horses until this corral is done so I didn't want to stop until forced too. I'm tired of Kid having all the fun of keeping and training the horses the ranch is putting up for sale." He grinned teasingly at his business partner. The house and barn he and Grace now called part of their home were on an extension of land off of Kid and Lou's property. The four of them were in business together; the three ex-riders offered enough horse sense into the mixture to hope to have one of the most successful horse ranches in the area while Grace kept things grounded by being a teacher in town alongside Rachel and being the bookkeeper their business so desperately needed.

"Well you'll be doing it soon enough," Grace told him with a smile. "Kid, you want to join us, there's plenty?" She was pleased that she sounded as gracious as she did when all she wanted was for him to leave.

"Nah, thanks but I think it's time to head home and see my wife and son. I'll be back early, Buck." He slapped his friend on the shoulder as he walked around the rails they'd put up. He jumped on Katy's back and rode off toward the slope that led to his own home.

Buck watched him ride away as he came around the fence to put his arm around Grace's shoulder. He shook his head, grinning. "You should hear him, Gracie, all day long all he does is talk about what baby Noah's doing. He's the proudest daddy I've ever seen." There was a hint of envy in his voice as he found himself excited for the day when he would know what Kid was feeling.

Grace bent her head as she tried to hide the smile she felt surfacing. "I'm sure you'll be able to outdo him soon enough," she mumbled.

"What did you say?"

"I said he's got a right to be proud and when your time comes, he'll listen with as much interest as you show him. None of us have had it easy and things are finally going right for them. Next is our turn and you'll understand what he feels then. Now come along, the food's getting cold, and I happen to know we both need our strength for the coming months." She reached out and offered her hand to him.

"Oh yeah, you need a lot of strength to deal with those children you call students, do ya," he teased as he took her hand.

"Oh they're easy; it's the little one that you're responsible for that is going to wear me out."

"What does that mean? I have nothing to do with those kids you teach."

"I'm just saying that Kid and Lou won't be the only one with their hands full for much longer. I'll tell you all about it over dinner, daddy." She tugged at his hand as she began to head toward the house.

Buck's hand slipped away from her fingers as he didn't move. "What did you say?" His mouth hung open in confusion.

Grace went back to him and once more pushed his hair out of his face. "I said Kid and Lou have their hands full."

"No you said something else; you called me something."

She looked into the face of the man she loved and smiled. "Oh that," she said nonchalantly, "well, that's just the customary word you call a man who has fathered a child."

"So why did you call me that?" he asked in confusion. His thoughts were spinning like a cyclone but nothing was making sense.

"Because that's the customary word you call a man who has fathered a child," she told him slowly as she waited for what she was saying to sink in. She waited for his response, suddenly nervous that he would think this was too sudden or that they weren't ready for this undertaking.

Buck's mouth moved several times but nothing came out. He opened it and shut it before finally pushing sound through his lips. "Fathered a child? Daddy; you called me daddy?!"

"Well I'm sure it will have more meaning when he or she says it." She rubbed her stomach in emphasis.

Buck's eyes followed her hands. He now looked at her with wide eyes. "He? She? Daddy?"

"Remember our wedding night when you told me that day officially started our family?" She paused to wait for him to nod. "Well you don't know how right you were."

"Daddy?!"

Grace laughed then turned serious. "You were forced to become a man long before you should have and I know it wasn't easy, but now you can be the type of man you were meant to be, a family man."

Buck smiled at his wife as everything she'd said the last five minutes sunk in. He suddenly let out a whoop and scooped her up into his arms. He spun her around, planted a solid kiss on her lips then headed toward the house. "Come along, this daddy-to-be has a lot to do tonight so we better get started early ... mama."

He gave her a longing look that would have made her knees buckle if she'd been standing. "Well then what are you waiting for, daddy? Move it!"

"Yes ma'am." He brought her closer to his body as his hand moved onto her stomach where his child lay. She'd given him the life he'd only dreamed of and now she was giving him the last dream he could have wished for.

Dilly of a Pickle
by: Dede

A/N: This is a continuation of the story "In a Pickle."

Teaspoon watched as Jimmy paced the sitting room floor.

He's gonna' wear a hole clean through that rug, the old man chuckled to himself.

"Why don't you jus' sit down?" He indicated the chair next to him.

Jimmy glanced at the seat but his attention quickly turned to the stairs. "Did you hear that?" He walked three steps in that direction before Buck blocked his path.

"Don't think so, Hickok," Buck said, smiling as he shook his head.

Jimmy glared at his supposed friend.

"Son, sit down," Teaspoon ordered.

"But Teaspoon," Jimmy whined, angry that he sounded like a child wanting a toy. Changing his tone to sound more in charge, he added, "Didn't you hear that? She needs me."

"There wasn't a sound. And you are the last thing she needs right now," Teaspoon said, laughing at the scowl on Jimmy's face. "So...sit...down."

When Jimmy turned for the sofa, Teaspoon and Buck exchanged an amused look behind the young man's back.

"But," Jimmy began, turning back to the stairs, only to have Teaspoon raise his brow and point at the sofa. Realizing Teaspoon wasn't going to relent, Jimmy plopped down on the cushions, an added 'humph' for good measure.

The quiet was unbearable. As the time passed, he wiggled on the sofa, changing positions a dozen times. Though he didn't like the waiting, it was the silence that Jimmy couldn't stand. Or so he thought, until the first scream punctuated the air.

"I'm going," Jimmy said, "and you can't stop me." He lunged toward the stairs.

Buck had been rocking in the chair he'd stationed by the stairs, when they heard the scream. He'd almost tipped over, until he saw Jimmy barreling toward the steps Buck was supposed to be guarding. Regaining his balance quickly, he rose to tackle Jimmy, but Teaspoon was faster.

Teaspoon was in front of Jimmy in an instance, thwarting the stubborn young man's plans. "No you ain't." He placed his hand flat on Jimmy's chest to prove his point. 'This is gonna' be a long night,' Teaspoon thought wearily.

Jimmy looked down at the offending extremity and tried to swat it away.

"Teaspoon, you can't keep me from my wife," Jimmy argued, trying desperately to keep the whine from his voice.

"Watch me." Teaspoon just smiled.

"Teaspoon..."

As Jimmy opened his mouth, drawing out the last syllable, Teaspoon did the only thing he could - he stuck a pickle in the opening.

"Chew on that fer awhile," Teaspoon grumbled. "That'll keep ya' busy."

Jimmy choked, removing the preserved cucumber from his mouth. Coughing, he replied, "What am I gonna' do with this?"

With his trademark squinty-eyed stare, Teaspoon looked at his deputy. "Well, what have ya' been doin' with them things since God knows when?"

A grunt was the only response Jimmy could come up with. He knew their house smelled like brine. It had for, well, nine months or so. The cravings had taken him over from the time his beautiful wife announced they were going to be parents. Those cravings just got worse when he found out they were having twins.

They'd ended up keeping a few small pickle barrels so Jimmy didn't have to make so many trips to Tompkins' store. Well, that's what he told himself. The fact was he hated the smug looks the annoying shopkeeper gave him every time he came in to buy more pickles.

Sighing, Jimmy walked over to the couch, reclaimed his spot and quietly nibbled on his makeshift pacifier.

Buck waited for a moment, making sure Jimmy was staying put, before he righted his chair and resumed his watch. He yawned, shaking his head to stay awake.

Teaspoon, pleased that Jimmy was finally minding him, heaved a sigh and settled into the comfy armchair. Jimmy was admiring his handiwork on his pickle when another scream pierced the air. Dropping the pickle, Jimmy was up in a flash, heading, once more, for the stairs.

Teaspoon had been dozing and was jerked awake by the cry. Since the man was slightly disoriented from the abrupt wakeup, Jimmy had gotten by him but had not been able to get by Buck.

Buck and Jimmy were practically wrestling as Teaspoon grabbed Jimmy by the collar pulling him back.

"Git back in that seat," Teaspoon growled, "b'fore I..." He left the threat opened.

Jimmy shrugged out of Teaspoon's hold, adjusting his shirt, and walked back to the sofa. He picked up his pickle and looked it over, verifying that it was still edible. He shoved the remaining piece in his mouth and chomped down with more force than necessary, glaring at his mentor the entire time.

Time passed and the screams from upstairs came more regularly, accented by grunts and groans. Jimmy couldn't stay seated, and knew he couldn't get past both Teaspoon and Buck, so he paced back and forth, chomping and chewing on pickles with every step.

Buck watched the scene, amused. He couldn't remember when Jimmy didn't have a pickle in his mouth. There were times when Buck would find half-eaten ones on any one of the desks at the office, in the cells and a number of other places that Buck didn't want to think of. He looked over at Teaspoon, who was keeping an eye on Jimmy as well.

Having the feeling of being watched, Teaspoon glanced over at Buck. He smiled when Buck nodded toward Jimmy. He was sure Buck was thinking the same thing he was; Jimmy and those dang pickles. He laughed to himself, remembering how the father-to-be would try to finagle Buck into going to Tompkins to get some more pickles. Buck never fell for it but, then again, the Kiowa always seemed to have a pickle or two when he got back from his errands.

Jimmy chomped and paced and paced and chewed. As he realized the only thing he'd had to eat all day were pickles, a new sound broke through. It was the wail of a newborn. Followed by a second one.

Jimmy ran to the stairs but hesitated going up. Rachel appeared at the top, nodding to Jimmy. That was all he needed and he took the stairs two at a time.

Teaspoon walked slowly over to where Buck stood at the bottom of the steps. The two men stood there quietly, taking in the sounds of babies' cries, parent's laughter and women's chatter.

Soon the group upstairs - except for the new mama, who was sleeping soundly - joined the two men downstairs and both Baby Girl Hickoks were passed around. The new parents were still unsure about names.

Jimmy walked over to Buck and Teaspoon, glowing with pride.

"Ain't they beautiful?"

"Yes they are," Teaspoon agreed, slapping Jimmy on the back. 'Jimmy with two daughters...' The older man shook his head at the thought.

Buck nodded and said, "They really are beautiful." Leaning over, he retrieved a treat from one of the small barrels. Smiling, he turned to Jimmy.

"Pickle?'

"No thanks," Jimmy said, wrinkling his nose. "Can't stand the things."

It's Buck's Problem Now
by: Dede

A/N: A continuation of QF #44: The Problem.

"Kid," Buck said, doing his best to sound calm. "Are you sure you should be goin' to town?"

"What?" Kid absentmindedly asked. He was busy making sure he had everything he needed for the trip.

"Well, with Lou being so far along," Buck said, trying to be as delicate as possible.

"Buck," Kid said, "I already told you, Lou's got three more weeks b'fore she's due." He smiled a strained smile because this was really the sixth or seventh time he'd told his friend since the night before, when he'd announced he was going into town.

"Yeah," Buck grumbled, "but how do you know the baby can tell time?"

Kid laughed and put his arm around Buck's shoulder. "Lou's gonna' be fine. You're gonna' be fine. Ev'rythin's gonna' be fine." He slapped Buck on the back and walked off toward the house.

Buck shook his head as he watched his friend. He just didn't have a fine feeling.

*~*~*~*~*

Buck was busy in the barn, mucking out the stalls, fixing some loose railings and just general maintenance, trying to keep busy. Kid had been gone for a couple of hours but Buck really didn't want to be around Lou.

He knew that was wrong but she'd started acting strange the last couple of weeks. She'd taken to cleaning the house from top to bottom everyday, sometimes more than once a day. Buck didn't feel comfortable going inside anymore for fear of what he might track in.

She'd scolded him and Kid just the other day for getting some strands of hay on the rug in the sitting room. Of course, Buck never looked at the middle of that rug the same now. He still had that vision stuck in his mind.

Shaking his head, hoping to clear it of that memory, he continued his work.

"Whatcha' doin'?"

Buck jumped. He couldn't believe a pregnant woman had snuck up on him.

Lou laughed. "You okay Buck?"

"Fine."

It seemed to Buck that he'd either used or heard that word an awful lot in the past several months.

"Um, are ya' hungry?"

"Not really," Buck answered truthfully, though he knew that Lou was just lonely.

"You could take a break, ya' know," she said, sounding more than a little annoyed.

"Lou, I really want to get this done b'fore Kid gets back." Buck put on his best apologetic face, hoping it would work. He was in luck.

"Alright Buck," Lou said, her tone now gloomy. "I don't mean ta' bother ya'." She turned to walk away.

Buck groaned. Softening, he replied, "Look, let me finish these two harnesses and I'll be in. We can sit, eat and talk. How's that?"

Lou's face brightened. "Only if you can spare the time."

Buck rolled his eyes. "You know I can." He smiled and waved her away. "But you better leave me alone or I won't."

"See ya' in a few." Lou waddled off, laughing.

Buck sighed. He just couldn't say no to Lou. And it had nothing to do with her being pregnant. He turned back to the harnesses and was soon lost in repairs.

*~*~*~*~*

After washing up and making sure nothing was sticking to any part of him, Buck walked up to the house. He was actually looking forward to having a good meal and nice chat with Lou. It had been too long since the two of them had just talked.

Opening the door, the first thing Buck noticed was the smell of something burning. Rushing over to the stove, he grabbed a dishcloth and pulled the skillet off the burner. Placing it in the sink, he pumped some water over the charred food. He wasn't quite sure what it had been.

"Lou?" he called out. When he received no answer, his call was more desperate. "Lou!"

He ran through the downstairs but found her nowhere. Taking the steps in long strides, he hurried to the main bedroom. There he found Lou. And he wasn't exactly sure he was happy about it.

Lou was clutching her stomach with one hand, the other arm wrapped around the bedpost. Buck could see the puddle at her feet.

"I told Kid," Buck mumbled to himself.

"Buck," Lou gasped. "I'm so sorr..." That was all she got out before she made a strained groaning sound.

"Lou, it ain't your fault," Buck assured her, going immediately to her side. 'It's your husband's and when I get my hands on him...' Buck didn't finish the thought because he had more important matters to attend to.

"Lou, I really should get the doc," Buck pleaded, wanting to be anywhere but there.

"Buck," Lou growled, "You've done this b'fore so you ain't goin' nowhere."

"Yeah, but it wasn't you."

Lou sniffed, dismissing Buck's protests.

"Try to get in bed," Buck suggested, maneuvering her around so she could climb up.

"Right," Lou snapped, looking at Buck like he'd lost his mind. "Do I look like I can climb on up there?"

"Um, well," Buck mumbled, "no, I guess not." He looked around for anything for Lou to lie on.

"The floor!" Lou yelled. "Help me down."

She was already in the first stages of labor; she could feel it. All she wanted to do was lie down and push.

Buck helped Lou to the ground and grabbed the blankets and pillows from the bed, placing the pillows under her for support. He sat back on his heels, not sure what to do next.

"Buuuuuck!" Lou groaned, as she pulled up her skirt.

Buck's eyes widened and he realized he'd never wanted to flee a place more than right at that moment. But he couldn't, he had to take care of Lou.

"I'm going to get some water and rags," Buck explained, needing to do something other than what he should. "Wait here."

Lou looked up at him incredulously. "Where would I go?" she gritted out.

"Oh, yeah, um," Buck stuttered.

Just as he turned to leave, Lou shrieked.

"Buck, there's no time," she gasped. "Pleeeeeease!"

Her plea was all it took. Buck went into action, surprising himself. He pulled the sheets from the bed, ripping them up quickly. With Lou's help, he got her ready.

"Okay Lou," he said, looking into her beautiful eyes and smiling, "here we go."

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!"

*~*~*~*~*

As the sun was setting, Buck sat, exhausted, on the front porch. He hadn't even had the energy to wash; he'd just wiped off his hands. He'd left mama and her new baby boy upstairs.

At the sound of a wagon approaching, he got unsteadily to his feet. It was exactly whom he thought it would be - Kid.

Kid drove the wagon to the barn and jumped down from the seat. He stretched as he walked over to where Buck was standing.

"Boy Buck am I bushed! Colsen was in town and I set up..." Kid's voice faded as he saw Buck's appearance.

"Welcome home, daddy," Buck said, smiling. He couldn't help it. He should be furious with Kid but as with the last time he'd seen this, Buck was just amazed at the miracle that had happened.

"Wha..." Kid wasn't sure he'd heard Buck right, but just then a cry from upstairs clarified it for him. Kid ran up the steps, pulled Buck into a bear hug and continued into the house to see his family.

Buck plopped down on the porch steps. Suddenly, it began to dawn on him how uncomfortable he felt, being wet, bloody, sticky, and desperately in need of a bath. Rising again, this time more secure on his feet, he headed over to his small house, formerly the bunkhouse. Lost in thought, he started laughing.

"I'm not ever going to be alone with Lou again!"

Papa Duck, Ike
by: Jo

It was a bright sunny lazy late spring day and Buck and Ike were cooling off by picking Cat tails for a salad. They had their pant legs rolled up and their socks were stuffed inside their boot on the shore. Ike spotted the nest first and approached it cautiously. He used a stick to prod both the duck and the snake; both were dead. He stood and tossed a rock near Buck to get his attention.

*Look what I found.* Ike motioned to Buck to come over to where he was standing.

“Are there eggs in the nest?” Buck asked? He surveyed the scene before him.

Ike was gesturing and making guesses about what had happened. *The mother duck fought the rattlesnake for her eggs. The rattler caught her in the bill and when she died she fell into the water. The snake’s tooth was stuck in the bill and he drowned.* Ike felt sorry for the mother duck.

“Yeah it kinda looks that way…Hey what are you doing?” Buck watched as Ike lifted the duck and snake away from the nest.

*I want to check the eggs.* Ike signed leaning in to the nest.

“They’re probably all rotted by now. Come on lets get back to the station with the greens for the salad Rachel’s making.” Buck turned back toward the shore and their boots when Ike pounded on his chest again. “What, Ike?” Buck was being impatient.

*I can feel the chicks moving, you take my tails I’m going to bring the nest with me.* Ike handed an exasperated Buck the tails.

“And I suppose you’re going to hatch them, too?” Ike looked at Buck with a sad face. “Oh alright, bring the nest back but don’t keep it in the bunk house. Promise me it will stay in the barn.” Ike nodded smiling and Buck rolled his eyes.

Buck didn’t see much of Ike the next few days and even took a run for him after much begging and a not so small bribe.

On the seventh day after they had found the nest Buck was brushing down his horse when he heard peeps. He followed the sound and there was Ike feeding five very ugly, almost featherless birds. “Ike they are the funniest looking things I’ve ever seen. What are you doing? You can’t keep them…..” Buck gave up his argument when Ike tossed his head and ignored him.

Three days later they were all called outside by Lou. “Kid, Jimmy, Rachel, Cody, Buck, ya’ll gotta come see this…”

There in the yard was Ike, doing his regular chores and where ever Ike went the Ducklings, who were now cute, yellow and fuzzy, followed peeping loudly.

“Ike, what in the world?” Rachel started laughing and everyone else joined in.

“Hey we can fatten ‘em up and have roasted Duck!” Cody was already hungry.

Ike stopped dead in his tracks, so did the ducklings, *Sorry Cody I already named them and you can’t eat something you name….* Ike tossed his head back and walked proudly into the barn, his brood followed, peeping indignantly.

Rachel was still laughing and shaking her head when Teaspoon came out of the barn looking behind him at the parade he’d just passed. “I knew one of you would become a daddy soon I just never figured it’d be Ike.”

“Daddy Ike!” Jimmy was almost in tears laughing.

Buck looked at Jimmy trying not to laugh himself right off the porch. “Uncle Jimmy!”

The End

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