Topic #46: Word List - Soldier, Howled, Trench, Flower, Mystery, Rocking Chair, Quilt, Guilty. (Use at least 5)
Saga of a Soldier by: Leah
Whatever Happened to Captain Fancypants by: Ty
Watching, Waiting, Hoping from Afar by: Peanut
A Soldier's Return by: Jo
Cody's In Love - Again by: Dede
Faith Renewed by: Cindy
Saga of a Soldier
by: Leah

The *soldier howled* as he fell into the water filled *trench*, that Ike had so painstakingly dug, and landed on a prickly *flower* with a *mysterious* scent. Kid hearing the infured man as he rode back from town threw him on the back of his horse and brought him to Emma. She wrapped him in a *quilt* and sat him in a *rocking chair* where he waited with a *guilty* expression as Emma tended his wound.
Whatever Happened to Captain Fancypants
by: Ty

Note: This is a follow up story to the Group Story written under the title of "Bunkhouse"

"*Soldier* you're as *guilty* as sin, and it's a *mystery* to me why you ain't pushing up a *flower*." *howled* the Judge, as he glared down from the bench.

Captain Marcus Billings was the recipient of the Judge's scorching remarks and glare. He had been put on trial for multiple crimes: 'Dereliction of Duty' and 'Intentionally Endangerment Of Life' were only two of the many listed.

The Judge still red faced and agitated, gathered himself and continued in a more professional tone. "This court finds you, Marcus Billings, guilty on all accounts. You will forthwith be stripped of all rank and privilege. You will be incarcerated at the Territorial Prison for a minimum of thirty years. And Heaven help you if the Territorial Marshal or his friends decided to make your life Hell, they have every reason to attempt retribution. Had I been one of the men or women involved in this mess you would be deader than a fish hung for week on the sunny side of a barn. Had I had it in my power to have you tortured, I would. Fortunately for you my principals are in control of my emotions right now."

Many might have questioned that last statement had they not been present for the evidence brought to the trial, by Lieutenant Rikells, Private Pete Masters, Private John Rivers and Private Daniel Gibson all former members of the Army Detachment that Marcus Billings had been responsible for during the Anderson/Matheson crisis several weeks ago. Corporal David Danders', who had also been involved, was scheduled for trial later that afternoon but those present had little doubt that his sentencing would be much different than Billings.

Watching, Waiting, Hoping from Afar
by: Peanut

The lone *flower* stood *soldier* straight, daring the dusty ground and dry air to drown it in its drought. How it grew was a *mystery* to the few that crossed paths with it, but obscure in its location, those that did notice it didn’t dare pluck the daintiness from the scorched earth. It remained there, the first seam in a *quilt* of hope, ready to blanket the land. If only the wind would carry its seed.

A ghostly hum echoed on the breeze, and the creaking of a solitary *rocking chair* *howled* eerily in accompaniment. But no one sat there. Not anymore. Like the rest of the town, like the rest of the nation, a *guilty* conscience crept in and smote the simple pleasure of rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, as if simple pleasures themselves had more important things on their minds.

Lost in the *trench* of warfare, the country held its breath, shrouded in darkness and death.

Casting a shadow over this flower, the solitary figure smiled as a new sprout had broken its way through the packed dirt.

The second seam.

And the flower remained, a lifeline, a tributary of hope in an ocean of drought

A Soldier's Return
by: Jo

It was raining, a cold, chill your body to the bone type of rain. The road was muddy with puddles deeper than his ankle boots. The *trench* dug beside the road for drainage was full and he knew if he fell in, he’d drown in the murky water. His feet were nearly frozen but he was determined to reach the small house he could now see in the distance. He hoped the she still lived there; five years was a long time. He’d left over five years ago to fight for what he believed in; right or wrong. The last year he’d been in a prison camp in Maryland. It was the best year of the war for him. He’d been wounded at Manassas and again in Fredericksburg. The last battle at Sharpsburg he’d been wounded, captured and spent the rest of the war in the camp. Her letters had stopped finding him early on and he hadn’t heard anything about her since.

The house was slowly becoming larger as he trudged forward. He could see a large barn with a corral beside it. The main house had a large porch with a swing to the right of the door. There was a well tended *flower* garden on both sides of the stairs and the bright colours of the blossoms was a stark contrast to the gloom of the day. He had almost reached the outer edge of the property when the barn door opened and a familiar figure emerged. He was a little shocked. He expected to see Jimmy. The next person to exit the barn surprised him even more, a little light haired boy reached for Buck’s hand.

Kid brought his hand to his mouth and the sudden movement attracted the attention of the two males. “Papa look is that a *solider*? The small child asked innocently.

Buck scooped the little boy up and turned toward the mud soaked man. “Kid! Is it really you?” Buck had reached Kid’s side and threw his free arm around his friend. “You’re shaking, come on let’s get you in the house and out of these wet things.” Buck began to lead his old friend toward the house when Kid stopped walking and peered curiously at the child.

“Maybe this was a bad idea Buck. If it’s all the same to you, can I wait out the storm in your barn and then be on my way?” Kid looked intently at the blue eyed child in Buck’s arm. “You have a fine boy there.”

“My name is Jed and this is my Papa and you are all dirty! My Momma’s gonna make you take off your shoes before she’ll let you in!” The little boy prattled on but Kid didn’t hear much else, he looked at Buck.

“Still want to go to the barn?” both men heard the door latch lift and looked at the house. “Too late, Kid.” Buck smiled.

“OH MY GOD! KID!” Lou *howled* as she rushed down the stairs mindless of the mud and rain. She flung herself into Kid’s arms and hugged him tightly. “I thought you were dead. Your letters came back unopened. Oh Kid, I can’t believe it’s really you!” She took his hand and practically dragged him to the house.

Lou reached the porch and reached for her son. I’ll take Jed inside and dry him off you take Kid to the mud room and get him out of those clothes before he catches his death of cold. I’ll put the water on for a bath and start dinner.” Lou hustled her son into the house and Kid caught a glimpse of another small dark haired child just inside the door.

“Did your son say his name was Jed? Why Jed? I would have bet money that you’d name your first son Ike.” Kid let Buck lead him to the mud room and gratefully stripped out of his worn uniform. Buck was shocked to see how gaunt Kid had become. Buck handed Kid an old *quilt* to wrap up in and then set up the tub.

“You’d win the bet, if I have a son I will name him Isaac and call him Ike. I have a daughter.” Buck let the words hang as he went into the house to get the hot water.

Kid sat heavily on the old milking stool and waited for Buck to return; the words “if I have a son and I have a daughter” ringing in his head. “Buck, are you saying….” Kid didn’t know what to say.

“That’s enough water to start I’ll bring out another kettle in a few minutes. Here’s everything I think you’ll need. I’m afraid my clothes may be too big for you right now but they’re clean and warm. We’ll talk later, once we get you settled, all three of us…..” Buck left Kid to his own thoughts.

Two hours later Kid was sitting at the kitchen table warm, clean and full. “Lou, I haven’t eaten a meal that good since the last one I ate at Rachel’s table. Thank-you.”

Jed was falling asleep in Buck’s arms and the other child, a little girl about two years old, sat sleepily listening to her mother read her a story while the rocked gently in a *rocking chair*. “I’m going to take Jed up stairs now I’ll come back for Mary.” Buck kissed the little boy’s head as he lifted him gently and carried him upstairs. He was down a few minutes later and did the same with his daughter.

“Let’s go into the parlor, we need to talk and it’s more comfortable in there. Would you like more coffee Kid? Buck?” Lou began walking to the stove but Buck cut her off.

“I’ll get it. You need to let me do more for you, you heard the doctor, rest a little.” Kid’s head snapped around and he looked at Lou closely.

“Are you sick?” She looked OK to him. She’d filled out in all the right places and now had a very feminine figure. Why did I ever leave you? He asked himself.

Lou let the question ride until they were all seated in the living room with steaming mugs of coffee and a warm fire burning in the hearth. Kid sat on the sofa and much to his surprise Lou sat beside him while Buck took a chair.

“I guess you’ve guessed that Buck and I are married and that Jed is your son.” Lou held Kid’s hand. When you left and refused to marry me I held out the hope that you would change your mind. I wrote to you often and I don’t know how many of the letters actually reached you because many of them were returned. I wrote to the army and requested information about you when I found out I was pregnant and this is what we got back.”

Lou handed Kid a well read letter. There were water marks on the letter and the ink was smudged in places. It read: We regret to inform you that the solider you referred to as Kid was killed in action at Manassas. Kid looked up and saw tears in Lou’s eyes. Buck stood up and came over to her; sitting on the floor at her side.

“She was pregnant, scared and alone. I asked her to marry me so the child would have a last name and a father. We thought you were dead. I’m sorry.” Buck looked just as sad as Lou. “It didn’t start as a real marriage we even had separate rooms but about six months after Jed was born he caught the fever and we almost lost him. That’s when we realized we loved each other. As you can see he pulled through and we now have Mary and another on the way. I’m so sorry Kid.” A *guilty* look passed over Buck’s features as he took Kid’s other hand.

“We’ve always told Jed about his real father and he’s always asking questions. He rides Katy all the time, she’s his horse now. She’s still doing well and I’m so glad you didn’t take her with you. What are your plans Kid? Do you have anyplace to go?” Lou was fighting tears. Buck had one arm around her waist; his head rested on her thigh.

“I figured you’d be married to Jimmy actually. I was hoping there would be a place for me out here so I could start over. I’m very happy for you, I really am and a bit relieved too. What are you going to tell Jed now?” Kid looked happier but a tad worried.

“We’ll introduce you properly to him tomorrow. We have a couple of extra rooms and I could sure use a hand here on the ranch. Please stay with us, at least for awhile.” Buck and Lou were both nodding as Buck spoke.

“Ummm, Before I say yes to your offer I need to tell you something then we can discuss the future. I was shot and woke up in a prison camp but they were good to me there. I met someone, a nurse, and asked her to marry me. She’s waiting for me to send for her. I needed to see you before I did that; I left you crying and it always bothered me. I also need your permission to marry this young lady, Lou…. it’s someone you know……Her name is Teresa.”

Lou’s hand had shot to her mouth and she bit her nails. Buck sat back waiting for the reaction, not knowing what it would be. Lou moved quickly and threw herself into Kid’s arms. “You ARE the solider she met, Seymour!”

Buck and Kid exchanged glances they had no idea the sisters had been in contact with each other.

“Seymour” Buck asked raising his eyebrow, “Really?”

Kid shrugged and smiled slightly!

“Er, Honey you never mentioned this to me, why?” Buck turned to Kid “You will be living with us I can guarantee that! Did Teresa ever talk to you about us?” Kid was shaking his head when Lou answered.

Laughing Lou kissed them both. “Well, we McCloud girls like to keep our men guessing!”

The End

Cody's In Love - Again
by: Dede

A/N: Biblical passages are Revelation 20:10 and Psalm 11:6 respectively.

"And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever."

Cody's head snapped upright, as his eyes popped open. Blinking quickly, he looked around, trying to remember where he was. Church. Emma had threatened the boys with bodily harm if they didn't show up to church this special Sunday. Lou had been the lucky one; she'd had the ride. Cody stifled his yawn.

"Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest, this shall be the portion of their cup."

'Who in the world...' he thought as the preacher bellowed his sermon. Cody stared toward the pulpit but saw no one. 'Where's Reverend Thomas?' he wondered, again trying to find the owner of the deep voice.

Soon he spotted the source. A frail, elderly man sitting in a *rocking chair*. A rocking chair? Cody put his hand to his mouth hoping to stop the laugh he felt growing. He then remembered that there was a visiting preacher that the reverend had invited to speak.

"Ike, I'm glad we ain't got this one all the time," Cody whispered, nudging his friend sitting beside him. "Don't think my ears could take much more. Ya' think he's always like this?"

"Well, actually he is," a sweet female voice whispered back.

Cody's head whipped around and he found himself face to face with a beautiful, flaxen haired angel.

"Um, I'm truly sorry miss," Cody stammered, as he glanced around, wondering where his friends were. 'They were sittin' in this same pew, right here b'side me,' he thought angrily. Realizing his voice had risen, he whispered, "I didn't mean no disrespect."

"Why that's alright Mister..." She paused, waiting patiently for Cody to provide his name.

"Oh, um, ah, Cody," Cody answered, giving his head a quick shake. "William F. Cody, at your service." Since he couldn't perform his trademark bow and kiss the back of the young lady's hand, he settled for a nod of his head and a friendly smile.

"Well, Mr. Cody," she said quietly, returning his smile, "I'm Betty Lou Blandish and that's my grandpa, The Reverend Ezekiel Blandish."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Blandish," Cody said, still wondering where his friends were. He'd seen that Emma, Sam and Teaspoon were in the same seats they'd been in since they'd arrived, about three pews up on the right.

"Likewise, I'm sure," she said. Noticing he was searching for his friends, she added, "If you're looking for those other boys, well, they left before The Reverend started."

"Oh, really?" Cody grumbled. 'Well, Emma'll have a few things to say 'bout that,' he thought, pleased that he would be the one getting the praise.

"Mr. Cody," Miss Blandish whispered, "if you aren't too busy, it would be delightful if you'd stay after for the small picnic that we are havin'." She blushed, adding, "Of course, that is, if you aren't too busy."

Cody smiled his slow, charming smile, "Why Miss Blandish, it would be a privilege and an honor to attend."

Settling back to listen to the fervid reverend, Cody thought, 'Food, a pretty girl and no chores - perfect.'

*~*~*~*~*

Returning late in the afternoon to the station, Cody maneuvered his horse easily towards the barn. Soon, the other riders came out of the bunkhouse, all wearing amused looks.

"Well, Cody," Jimmy goaded, "did ya' have a good bible lesson?"

The others snickered in response. Teaspoon had passed word to the boys that, since they'd been good during Reverend Thomas' sermon, they didn't need to stay for the guest preacher and were free to go back to the station. The riders had known the real reason - Teaspoon wanted them gone before they got antsy and caused a ruckus. Of course, when they'd vacated the pew, no one deigned it necessary to wake Cody and tell him the news.

"Now, Jimmy," Cody said, as if speaking to a small child, "I believe that studyin' the bible is like feedin' your soul. And that's as important as feedin' your stomach."

"What?" Buck asked, grinning. "Since when did you think that?"

"Buck," Cody said, sighing. "I value the Lord's word. It's important to include it in your day."

The other riders exchange very confused, yet very amused looks.

"So, you didn't mind us leavin' without you?" Kid asked, still not believing what Cody was saying. He was sure his clever friend was just trying to talk his way out of being the patsy.

"I feel you missed some valuable lessons," Cody sagely responded.

Emma placed her mending on her seat and walked down from the porch. She'd been listening to Cody impart some of the wisdom of his years. Smiling, she approached.

"Well Cody, it's good to see you finally came home," she said. "Did you get Miss Blandish back to the hotel?"

"Miss who?" the riders said in unison.

"Oh, Miss Blandish is the granddaughter of the visitin' preacher," Emma explained. "She'd invited Cody to the small picnic that the church had for some of the townsfolk." A big grin spread across her face, as she added, "Of course, Mr. Spoon and I went to this picnic too and I've been back, for what," she glanced at Buck, "going on three hours now, right?"

"Really?" Buck crossed his arms over his chest, as he nodded to Emma. Smirking, Buck said, "So, a girl is behind the *mystery* of Cody finding religion. What a shock." He looked over at Ike.

*So, tell us about this Miss Blandish,* Ike said, exchanging a glance with Buck.

Everyone had been taking bets as to how Cody would take it out on them, especially Ike, since he'd been sitting next to the sleeping rider. Of course, this scene wasn't among the ones they'd thought up.

"Emma," Cody sighed, he really hadn't wanted the others to know. They never understood when he fell in love. "Look, it's really nothin'. She invited me to stay after and I, bein' the gentlemanly sort I am, thought it would be downright rude to refuse. So..."

Cody saw his four friends standing in front of him, arms crossed, all wearing looks of amused skepticism. Kid was even shaking his head.

"It's the truth," Cody grumbled. He really didn't want to tell them the real truth. He'd met the girl of his dreams.

"Oh Cody," Emma said, as she turned for the house, "I believe you. You are definitely a gentleman." She glanced over her shoulder, adding, "Supper'll be ready shortly."

The boys watched Emma disappear into the house and then the attention was back on Cody.

"So, Miss Blandish," Kid pestered, walking up to Cody.

"I don't got time," Cody muttered. "I've gotta take care of Soda here." Cody grabbed the reins and hurried toward the barn.

"Oh, I know you can talk while you do that," Jimmy said, as he, Kid, Buck and Ike quickly followed their prey.

"Would you fellas just leave me alone," Cody whined. He didn't want to talk about it, this time it was real. He hid behind Soda as he unsaddled the horse.

"You're in love again," Buck said, shaking his head.

Cody felt four sets of eyes on him, even with the horse in front of him. He peeked over the animal's back and sighed.

"You're right, Buck my friend," he declared, as he stepped around Soda, "and this is it."

*You fall in love with every girl you see,* Ike said, *You're crazy.*

"*Guilty* as charged," Cody said, holding his hand over his heart. "Crazy in love."

"Good grief," Jimmy said, rolling his eyes, "you stayed in that church all that time 'cause of some girl?" He threw his hands up and turned toward the door.

"I knew you wouldn't understand," Cody grumbled. "None a' ya' ever do."

"Cody," Kid said, trying to defuse the situation. "Why don't you explain so we do." He looked over at Jimmy, who was walking back toward the group.

"Well," Cody hesitated, he knew Jimmy would make fun of him but he didn't care, "it's like she dug a *trench* in my heart that no other woman can fill."

"A trench," Buck repeated. He pursed his lips, trying very hard not to laugh. He knew Cody was serious, but, then, his friend was always serious about a girl, until the next girl showed up. "Well, that sounds...nice." He looked at Ike for help but only received a shrug in response.

"Right," Cody said with more enthusiasm. "Her love has woven a *quilt* around me, makin' me feel safe and warm."

"That's it," Jimmy announced, turning again for the door. "He is crazy and it ain't got nothin' to do with love."

"You just don't understand love, Jimmy," Cody yelled at the retreating rider's back. "She's my *flower* and I'm her..." Cody stopped because he knew the next thing he said his friends would tease him mercilessly for.

"You're her what?" Jimmy asked, turning back. This had taken an interesting turn and, right now, he wanted nothing more than for Cody to finish his sentence.

"You'll make fun a' me," Cody said, a slight pout on his lips.

"We won't," Kid assured, because he, like Jimmy, really wanted to know. "Promise."

Cody looked at each one for confirmation. When he received four adamant nods, he continued, "Her Codybear."

It was quiet for just a moment until Buck couldn't contain his laughter and snorted. That was all it took. Jimmy was laughing so hard that he sat right where he'd been standing. Ike's shoulders were shaking and he wiped a tear from his eye. Kid was the last one to give in as he went over to Cody and put his arm around his friend.

"Um, Cody," Kid said, his voice trembling with contained laughter. "That's really...sweet." That was it. Kid joined the others as they all *howled*.

Cody continued to take care of Soda, trying very hard to ignore the jocularity at his expense. "Well, you'll see," he muttered, knowing he wouldn't be heard over the noise, "this is the real thing."

The boys were still laughing when Emma rounded them up for supper.

*~*~*~*~*

It had been three weeks since Cody had announced his love and, much to the other boys' dismay, he'd seen Miss Blandish almost everyday since. They'd also learned that The Reverend Blandish, and his Traveling Gospel, was seriously thinking of traveling no more.

They were just about to admit they were wrong, when, in town to pick up supplies, Jimmy spotted Miss Blandish across the street. He walked over to where Buck and Cody were loading sacks of grain.

"Um, Codybear," Jimmy said, "isn't that your flower walking on the arm of that *soldier*?" He and Buck looked at each other, not sure how Cody would handle the news.

"Oh, yeah," Cody said matter-of-factly, only giving a cursory glance at the couple, as he tried to hand Buck the next sack. "Buck, keep goin'."

"But Cody..." Sitting in the wagon, Buck refused the sack and just stared at him.

Cody humphed and leaned on the edge of the wagon. "Seems The Reverend changed his mind and is headin' out to Fort Laramie to preach. Got a big invite from some colonel. Guess that soldier's one of the escorts."

Bemused, Buck and Jimmy again exchanged glances.

"And you're alright with this?" Buck asked, bewildered.

"Well..."

"Good mornin', Billy," a sweet female voice said.

Cody turned and found himself face to face with an auburn haired beauty.

"Mornin' Mary Sue," he drawled. Noticing she was laden with packages, he casually pushed off from the side of the wagon, as he continued, "Now, it looks as though you need some help. I'd be remiss in my duties as a gentleman if I didn't offer my services." Glancing over at his two gapping friends, he winked. "See you boys back at the station."

Jimmy and Buck watched their friend collect Mary Sue's packages and escort the pretty young girl down the boardwalk.

Jimmy sighed, "I'll never understand him."

"Well," Buck sighed, "Cody's definitely not one of the lovelorn."

Turning back to the task at hand, both realized that Cody had left them, again, with the rest of the supplies to load and then unload when they got home.

Faith Renewed
by: Cindy

“You sure you’re feeling up to doing this?” Teaspoon asked, genuine concern in his voice.

“I’m fine,” Buck replied, his voice soft, and the words just a bit too fast to be totally convincing. He looked down, returning his attention to cinching the saddle on his horse.

“Maybe I should send someone else,” Teaspoon suggested. “You just take a few days off an’ relax.”

Buck laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “And do what? Go where? The whole town thinks I’m *guilty* of sending that army patrol into an ambush.”

“Not the whole town,” Teaspoon argued. “We’re part of the town, and no one here ever believed that.”

“I never should have gotten involved,” Buck said, shaking his head. “Teaspoon, I know Colonel Curtis was your friend . . .”

“Yes, he was my friend,” Teaspoon said. “And he was a damn fine *soldier* at one point too. Sometimes . . . well, sometimes people change, and there don’t seem to be a reason why.” He sighed and shook his head. “Maybe I shoulda seen . . .”

“No, it wasn’t your fault, Teaspoon. He’s the only one who was responsible for what he did.”

“An’ you’re the one what’s payin’ for it,” Teaspoon replied.

“I’ve been spit on before,” Buck said sadly. He straightened up and turned to face the older man, forcing a smile onto his face. “Teaspoon, really, I’ll be fine. I think it’s just best if I get away for a few days and work.”

“Well, all right,” Teaspoon agreed. “You go on up to the house an’ get the food Rachel was packin’ up. I’ll get the other stuff ready.”

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

It was good that he had gotten away from the station, Buck decided, as he stopped his horse on top of a small rise. He reached for his canteen, uncapped it, and took a long drink.

The special delivery Teaspoon had requested to Green River had gone well. He’d had no trouble on the ride there, and the man he’d been sent to meet had turned out to be very friendly. In fact, he’d even invited Buck to his house for a home-cooked meal and a night in a real bed.

So far the return ride had been uneventful as well. And it was a beautiful day, with a bright blue sky speckled with high, white clouds. He felt relaxed, and refreshed.

He capped the canteen, hung it back on the pommel, and then he started forward again. The mountains stretched before him, a majestic wall reaching into the clouds. Already the path was leading him toward South Pass, the wide road that would give him passage to the other side of the range.

Back to Sweetwater.

He wondered what things would be like when he got back, if the heated anger would have passed.

And he wondered what he would do if it hadn’t . . .

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

“Well, Marshal, I thank you for your time.”

“You figure you’re done investigatin’ then?” Teaspoon asked.

General Lucas Scott stood up, straightening his uniform jacket. “I believe so. Your testimony, as well as statements by the men under Matthew Curtis’ command make it fairly clear what happened.” He paused, shaking his silver-maned head. “I worked with Curtis. I never thought he’d panic in a battle.”

“I fought with him,” Teaspoon said softly. “I guess we all got a point where it’s too much. An’ Matthew admitted it all on that last ride out to meet the Sioux.”

“Yes, well, I suppose it’s just good that an all-out war was avoided,” Scott replied. “We didn’t have enough soldiers in the area to handle that.”

“It’s a war we shouldn’t have come close to in the first place,” Teaspoon said.

“I’ll see that Washington sends someone else out to talk to the Sioux,” Scott said. “There’ll be a treaty, one way or another.”

Teaspoon figured he knew how little that treaty would be worth, at least for the Indians – but he also knew Scott wasn’t the one to debate that with. “You figure you’ll be headin’ out soon then?”

“I’ll have the troops on the way back to Fort Laramie in a few days,” the general replied. “Unless you feel I should leave a small group, to protect the town?”

“No, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Teaspoon answered quickly. Sweetwater needed to heal, and the presence of soldiers wouldn’t help. But there was something the general could do to help that healing. “There is one thing you could do, before you go, general. It’s about my rider.”

“Oh, yes.” Scott shuffled through the papers he had been gathering. “This Cross fellow.”

“Buck Cross. He’s a fine young man. Risked his life to try an’ keep that war from happening. But folks here just know what Matthew said.”

Scott considered that for a moment. Telling the people of Sweetwater that an army officer had panicked in battle and then tried to blame someone else wasn’t projecting the image the army wanted. But Lucas Scott had always believed in playing it straight. “Let me write up my report,” he said. “Maybe you could see about calling a town meeting day after tomorrow.”

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

The sun was starting to set, turning the western sky a brilliant red, when Buck admitted there was something wrong. His horse had been acting skittish for a good ten minutes or so, but he hadn’t been able to pinpoint anything.

The *mystery* only deepened as he rounded a bend. The mountain road here was fairly steep, and not very wide. In the shadows created by the steep wall of rock behind him, he couldn’t see very far ahead. But then the twilight revealed something – a clue to something definitely not right.

He stopped and dismounted quickly, studying the broken brush at the edge of the trail. It didn’t take much tracking skill to realize that something big had crashed through the bushes – and since there was a steep drop on the other side, that probably wasn’t good.

He heard the sound then, a low, deep moaning.

Straining his eyes in the growing gloom, he could see something white down below, and then the moaning came again.

Making a quick decision, Buck grabbed the rope hanging from his saddle. He looped the reins over the branch of a small tree, and then he tied the rope off to the tree as well. The tree was growing out of the side of the cliff, and it didn’t look as secure as he would have preferred. But a quick inspection of the area showed nowhere else to anchor the rope.

He gave the rope a strong tug and leaned against it, putting his weight against the knot, testing the anchor. Deciding that it seemed as secure as possible, he stepped to the edge of the cliff where the brush was bent over and started down the side.

It wasn’t easy to make his way through the brush and amongst the boulders strewn along the way, but he made progress. After dropping over the edge and letting his eyes adjust, he could see that the bottom was about twenty feet down – and there was definitely a covered wagon tipped on its side.

Buck scrambled down the rest of the distance, tossing the rope aside when his feet hit flat ground. He pushed his way through some additional brush, aiming toward the wagon.

The moaning came again, and now he knew it was from one of the oxen still trapped in the harness. One of the four was obviously dead, but he bypassed the others for now. He’d check on the condition of the other three later. His priority now was to find the people who had been with the wagon.

With any luck, no one had been in the wagon, or walking alongside next to the drop. Maybe the wagon had gone over, but the people were even now walking back along the trail toward South Pass . . .

That thought was dashed as he rounded the wagon and saw a body lying face down on the ground. Buck dropped to his knees next to the prone man, but the unnatural bend to the neck told him the man was dead even before Buck’s fingers touched the cold skin. Still, he rolled the body over – and caught his breath as he recognized the dead man.

Unseeing eyes looked up from the face of Edwin Marrell. Marrell and his wife, Barbara, had arrived in Sweetwater the previous fall. Traveling with her sister, Muriel Leska, they had been with a wagon train on its way to Oregon. But Barbara’s pregnancy was causing her problems, and they had stayed in Sweetwater for the winter.

Buck recalled hearing that the Marrells had decided to go on this spring. But Muriel was being courted by the town’s blacksmith, and she had elected to stay on in Sweetwater.

Of course, if he’d found Edwin Marrell, the odds were that he’d find Barbara here as well – and the baby.

Buck could feel a lump building in his throat as he renewed his search, moving quickly around the wagon. Most of the wagon’s contents had been dumped out and he had to push things aside as he looked. At one point he found a *rocking chair* standing almost upright, with a *quilt* spread over it, almost as if someone had set it up that way.

But when he finally found Barbara, it was obvious that she hadn’t set the chair up.

He almost missed her in the rapidly fading light, but a slight movement caught his eye. The body of the wagon had hidden her, but now he could see her lying on the ground, pinned by a large rock that must have been dislodged by the wagon sliding down the cliff.

He stood there for a moment, staring, unable to move. But then he saw her arm move just a bit, and that finally spurred him to action. He dropped to his knees next to her, grasping her hand. “Mrs. Marrell?”

Her eyes fluttered open, trying to focus. “Is someone there?” she managed to whisper.

He squeezed just a little harder. “Mrs. Marrell, it’s Buck Cross. I’m one of the riders for the Pony Express.” He caught his breath as her head turned toward him – but he could tell she wasn’t really seeing him.

“My baby . . . Betsy . . .”

“I’ll find her, ma’am.” Buck looked around again, searching for any little clue he had missed. He’d seen no sign of the baby.

“There . . .”

He followed the finger she pointed – directly toward the wagon. The top had been ripped off, and most of the contents scattered. He really didn’t think he could have missed a baby. But one glance back showed a woman whose breathing was barely there. Even if he could get the rock off right now, he knew it was too late.

And he could tell that she knew it too.

“I’ll find the baby,” he promised, getting to his feet. He placed her hand gently by her side and walked to the wagon.

Working around one side of the wagon, he lifted everything, even items that were too small to hide a child, but there was no sign of the baby. The shadows were full now in this deep crevasse, and he was working mostly by feel. He’d set aside a lantern, and just now he’d found a can of kerosene. It was probably time to stop and get some light. With the deep brush and trees, the baby could be right under his foot and he wouldn’t see it.

His hands brushed against the bed of the wagon as he used the wood to guide him to where he’d left the lantern. From where he started, it was actually quicker to keep going around the wagon, so now he climbed over the tongue at the front. He reached the next corner and started around . . . and then stopped suddenly when he felt something soft under his foot.

Crouching down, his fingers searched and found soft material – like a blanket. He tugged on it, and it didn’t budge. Setting his feet, he tried again, pulling harder. This time there was a little movement . . . followed by the loud wail of an unhappy infant.

Dropping to his knees, Buck felt his way along the cloth with one hand, bracing himself with the other. But as he inched forward, the ground dropped away, and his searching fingers found a depression. On his belly now, his hands found a *trench* running under the wagon, cut over thousands of years by water running down from the mountains. It was dry now, but the trench seemed to deepen as he inched farther in.

The baby was still crying, so he worked forward as quickly as he could. Still, he had to be careful as he pushed under the wagon. But the bed held steady as he kept tracing the blanket into the trench. His shoulders bumped against the sides of the trench, and his back was against the wagon above him, so he couldn’t slide his body in any farther. So he shifted slightly, his right hand reaching forward.

And then his fingers brushed a kicking foot . . .

Working more quickly than ever, he used his right hand to feel around. He found where his previous tugging had pulled the baby up against a brace on the wagon – probably what had awakened her and started the crying.

Actually, the crying was awfully loud, down here in the enclosed space. But as long as the baby was crying, she was alive, so he’d take the wailing.

He tried pressing his back up against the wagon, hoping that he might be able to lift it just a little. But the weight wouldn’t budge. He had no idea how long it would take to find a sturdy tree limb to try and lift the wagon, or even if he could lift it alone, or if he could lift it, how he’d get the baby out without dropping the wagon back on top of both of them.

Besides, he couldn’t leave this little girl now that he’d found her.

It took some maneuvering, but he finally managed to push and pull a very unhappy infant until she was clear of whatever had blocked her before. As gently as he could he tugged on her feet, pulling her slowly toward him. She seemed to be sliding on something, and his fingers finally touched the rim of what he figured was a basket.

“So that’s how you did it, little one,” he whispered, hoping the sound of his voice might help calm the baby a bit. “You were in your basket, and you just slid in there when the wagon fell.” He started to shake his head at the odds the little girl had beaten, but he stopped quickly when he banged his head against the wagon bed. “Yeah, you were real lucky,” he continued, trying to ignore the pain throbbing in his skull.

Inch by painful inch he pulled back, bringing the baby with him. Finally, he was able to get both hands in to help pull, and then his head cleared the wagon. He scrambled to his knees and reached down, finally pulling the baby into his arms.

She had been crying so hard, but now she seemed to be running out of strength even to cry. Her tiny body heaved now with short little sobs.

Buck pulled her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her to try and calm her – and himself. He could feel his whole body shaking. “Shhhhh, it’s all right now,” he whispered. He got slowly to his feet. “I’ll take you to your mama.”

But when he approached Barbara Marrell, he knew she was gone. He reached down and felt for a pulse, a breath, but he knew.

Buck weighed his options as he turned away from the body. Climbing out in the dark was out of the question. It would be hard enough alone; with a baby, it bordered on the impossible.

He looked down at the little girl in his arms. Her crying was down to an occasional soft sob now, as if she was totally worn out.

Well, if he couldn’t climb out, that meant they were spending the night – and that meant they’d need warmth and food.

The warmth he could handle. There was plenty of dry wood on the ground, and lots of rocks to make a fire pit.

As he’d been moving everything, looking for the baby, he’d found plenty of food too. Food for him, anyway.

He had no idea what he’d be able to do for the baby . . .

Betsy.

That was her name, Betsy. Probably the last word her mother had spoken.

“Well, Betsy, it’s you and me tonight,” he said softly, smiling as he looked down. The infant had one hand wrapped firmly in his shirt, her little fist closed tight. The thumb of her other hand was in her mouth and her eyes were closing.

She hasn’t learned to hate yet, he thought.

He moved closer to where he had first come down, a little bit away from the wagon. Along the way he picked up the quilt and, after spreading it out, he very carefully untangled Betsy’s fingers from his shirt. She stirred a little as he put her down, but then, with a big sigh, she went back to sleep.

With both hands free again, it didn’t take long to make a ring of stones and get a fire going. Once that was done he filled the lantern with kerosene and lit that, using the light to sift through the supplies. He set aside some jerky and hardtack for himself. He found a frying pan and some bacon, and set that aside for morning. He found coffee and a pot too.

He’d found the box with the baby’s supplies. So he had a stack of diapers and, thanks to the baby that had been left at the way station one time, he almost knew how to use them. He also had two baby bottles.

What he didn’t have was something to put in the bottles for a baby.

When he found the dried fruit he finally had an idea for Betsy. He’d seen the water barrel earlier, the top cracked but still basically whole. He took a kettle and filled it with water, and then added some sugar and some of the fruit. It certainly wouldn’t be a perfect substitute for mother’s milk, but hopefully it would get them back to Sweetwater.

Finally, he righted the rocking chair and set it next to the pile of wood for the fire. He bent down and picked Betsy up, and he grabbed the quilt too. Then he settled into the chair, held Betsy close to his chest, and pulled the quilt over both of them.

Just over the top of the mountain, he could see a full moon rising. This far down, the disk didn’t shed much light, but it was comforting to know it was there. And somewhere in the distance a wolf *howled,* announcing its presence to the night.

In the light and warmth of the fire, Buck knew they were safe. He wrapped his arms carefully around the sleeping infant, and they slept.

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

Arm muscles straining, Buck pulled himself up along the rope. On his back, in a makeshift carrier, Betsy squealed and pulled on his hair. Trying to ignore that little distraction, he repositioned his hands on the rope for the last part of the climb.

Finally the firm footing of the trail was under his feet, and he breathed easier. He untied his horse, grinning as the animal ignored him to move a few feet off, where a patch of sweet grass sprouted out of the rocks.

Buck eased the ropes off his shoulder, gently lowering Betsy to the ground, well away from the cliff edge. Then he went back to the rope and began pulling. Tied at the end was a package of food and supplies, all wrapped up in the quilt.

When he had the supplies safely up, he paused to look back on the scene below. He’d buried the Marrells, their resting place covered by rocks to keep the scavengers out, and marked by a simple cross made of two branches.

Besides the one ox that had been killed in the fall, one of the others had two broken legs, and Buck had been forced to shoot the animal this morning. The other two animals seemed a bit bruised but basically healthy, and so he just set them free. One end of the crevasse they were in didn’t look too steep, and he figured they’d eventually make their way out.

Buck bent down to unwrap the supplies so that he could get things packed on his horse and get going. He had to smile at the item on top. It was a *flower,* a tender pink blossom. He’d found it right next to the wagon bed, on the edge of the trench that had saved Betsy’s life. And so he kept it for her, a small reminder of how precious life was, and how fleeting it could be.

He stuffed diapers into his saddlebags, hung the extra canteens with the sugary fruit water on the saddle, and tied everything else on back. Finally, he picked Betsy up, earning a squawk when he pulled her away from putting a brightly colored caterpillar in her mouth.

He picked the flower up and put it between layers of her blanket. And then he mounted, turning toward Sweetwater.

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

He rode into Sweetwater, exhaustion touching every muscle in his body. It hadn’t really been such a hard ride, but being responsible for a baby made it seem much tougher.

Buck’s plan had actually been to stop at the way station, and ask Emma to bring the baby to her aunt. Everyone loved Emma, and there wouldn’t be any trouble.

But the station had been puzzlingly empty. It wasn’t that often that everyone was gone. He checked the bunkhouse and the house, but he didn’t find a note or anything else to explain where everyone had gone – or when they’d be back.

And so he continued to town, Betsy alternately sleeping and squirming in his arms.

But even the town seemed to be deserted.

The streets were quiet – too quiet. There should have been people out in the street. Even the marshal’s office was empty.

Buck stopped in the middle of the road, looking around. Shop doors were bolted, with CLOSED signs in the windows.

He finally heard another horse, and he urged his own mount forward. As he got to the other end of town the church came into view, and he could see a number of horses and wagons surrounding the building.

Now he had been gone for a few days, but he was very sure it wasn’t Sunday.

Beyond the church the army encampment spread out, tent after tent. But even there he didn’t see anyone moving about.

He rode past the blacksmith shop, hoping to see Betsy’s uncle-to-be, but the forge was unmanned.

He got to the church and dismounted, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It was the first time he’d been back in Sweetwater since leaving the town with Teaspoon and Colonel Curtis . . .

That meant it was the first time he’d be facing the people who had believed him to be a traitor, the people who had spit on him . . .

He shook his head to clear those thoughts. He had to think of Betsy, what was best for her. And that was to find her aunt.

Still, he couldn’t help wondering what kind of reception awaited him on the other side of that door.

He finally took a deep breath, adjusted the quilt wrapped around the baby, and walked toward the church. He made it up the steps in front, hesitating only briefly when he reached the door. He could hear voices inside now, though he couldn’t make out any words. For a moment he was seized with the fear that the talk was about him, and he considered leaving the baby on the steps. But one look at the innocent little life in his arms spurred him on and he turned the handle.

The sound of the door opening brought the conversation inside the church to a quick halt, and it seemed to Buck that everyone inside the building turned to stare at him. He glanced around quickly looking for someone friendly. There was an older army officer up front, so he didn’t hold out much hope there. He saw Jimmy and Kid, also up front, and not very close. But then his eyes found Teaspoon. The marshal had been standing in the back of the church, and he was already heading Buck’s way.

Teaspoon’s eyes noted the exhausted look on his rider’s face – but his attention rested on the baby squirming in the younger man’s arms. “Buck, what happened?”

“I came across the Marrell wagon on my way back,” Buck replied, keeping his voice very low. “It had gone over the side on a narrow part of the trail.”

“Edwin and Barbara?” Teaspoon asked, even though he figured he already knew the answer.

Buck shook his head. “It looked like Edwin broke his neck in the fall. Barbara was alive when I got there, but just barely.”

“Oh, lordy,” Teaspoon whispered, shaking his head. He turned to look back at the people in the pews. “Her sister’s here somewhere . . .”

But Muriel Leska was already making her way toward the back. “That’s my sister’s quilt,” she said. “What happened?”

Buck juggled the baby so that he could free one hand, and he pulled off his hat. “Ma’am, I’m very sorry. Their wagon went off the trail and dropped down over a cliff. There was nothing I could do for your sister, or her husband. But Betsy’s all right.” He held the infant out toward her aunt.

Muriel brushed a tear from her cheek and reached out to take her niece. She looked behind her, where John Nevins, the blacksmith, was standing. “Oh, John,” she managed to say, and then she started to sob, falling against his strong arms.

Nevins held his fiancé for a moment, then he held out his hand toward Buck. “I thank you for finding the baby,” he said. He looked back at the people gathering closer behind him, and then added, “It seems we all owe you some thanks.”

Teaspoon suppressed a grin at Buck’s confused look. “General Scott was just tellin’ everyone what really happened with the Sioux,” he explained. “How it was Matthew what caused the trouble, not you.”

Before Buck could say anything, he found another hand thrust toward him. He let go of Nevins’ hand and found himself shaking hands with the army officer he’d dismissed earlier as a friendly face.

“Lucas Scott,” the officer said shaking hands. “Marshal Hunter and I were setting everyone straight about what happened with Colonel Curtis.”

“Everyone knows what you did to keep that war with the Sioux from happening,” Lou said, appearing at Buck’s side. Her hand slipped into his, squeezing tight.

Buck looked at Teaspoon. “They really know what happened?”

Teaspoon nodded. “Yup. Everything he told us on that last ride.”

“The army will be sending someone else out to talk with the Sioux,” Scott said. “I’d like to tell them you’d be willing to help establish a real peace.”

Buck’s first instinct was to refuse outright. But something in the officer’s voice stopped him. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

Muriel and John had been whispering together, and now she stepped forward again. Tears were still glistening on her cheeks as she spoke. “We are so grateful to you for saving Betsy, Mr. Cross. Would you join us for dinner tomorrow? I think I’d like to talk about my sister.”

“I’d like that,” Buck replied, smiling as Betsy reached out her hands toward him, gurgling happily in her aunt’s arms. He took one tiny hand and brushed his lips against the baby’s fingers.

“That’s good,” Nevins said, his hands going to Muriel’s shoulders. “We’ll take the baby home now, but it’ll be good to talk.”

Buck watched the young couple leave with the baby, and then he turned back toward Teaspoon. Except it wasn’t just the marshal standing there now, it was most of the town. And while not all of the people looked exactly friendly, no one was spitting on him either.

“Why don’t you come tell us what happened,” Teaspoon said. “I think everyone’s real interested to know.

Buck nodded, and let himself be led toward the front of the church. In front of him, the crowd parted, letting him pass.

When he reached the front and turned around, it struck him – for the first time, it really looked like the people of Sweetwater wanted to hear what he had to say. And they might even believe him.

“I was on the way back to Sweetwater from Green River . . .”

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