Topic #51: The end of my rope
The Argument by: Miss Chrissy
The Search by: Cindy
Somnambulism by: Jo Who's Walking Who? by: Dee
Revenge by: Miss Raye
Snap by: Lori
The Argument
by: Miss Chrissy

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” Cody said looking up from shinin’ his boots.

“And why not?” Jimmy asked lookin annoyed, he was tired, he dirty, and he had a crummy run.

“Kid and Lou,” Buck answered. I just can’t understand Kid’s problem, Buck thought to himself. Lou was capable she’d proven it over and over again.

Jimmy rolled his eyes as he finally picked up on the words that where coming from inside of the bunkhouse. “How long have they been at it?” Jimmy asked Buck.

“About an hour,” he replied, shaking his head. Jimmy walked over and joined them as they tried not to listen but couldn’t help it.

“I don’t think you’re hearin’ me,” Lou roared, her temper was becoming apparent but Kid didn’t care.

“It’s dangerous,” he told her, he was concerned, he didn’t want anything to happen to her, why couldn’t she understand that.

“So is what we do everyday,” she shot back. Why won’t he let this drop, can’t he see that her mind was made up, Sam had written her asking for her help and she was going.

“Exactly that’s the other thing, we’re going to be married so why are you still working for the Express?” he asked straight forward.

Lou wanted to scream, she wanted to smack him, that’s what she wanted to do.

“Cause I have a right just like you to work here,” she yelled at him. “Kid I’ve got to get ready to meet Sam,” she told him sternly.

“Lou please don’t do this,” he begged.

“Nothin’ you can say is going to change my mind, I am capable of taking care of myself, and handling myself,” she told him. “And anther thing, don’t you ever try and tell me what I should or shouldn’t do Kid, I’m a grown woman capable of lookin’ out for myself,” she told him in a matter-of-fact voice.

“I’m just tryin’ to protect you,” he told her softly.

“I know, but Kid what are you going to do lock me away and a closet keep me from the world?” She asked him.

Kid brushed his fingers through his hair and let out a sigh. “Please don’t go,” he begged her.

“Kid I’m goin’,” she told him and angrily opened the door and slammed it shut.

Kid watched her helplessly ride out into town, “damn it,” he muttered.

“Kid when are you going to give her the respect all of us give her?” Jimmy asked him.

“You’re just lovin’ this aint ya?” Kid accused him.

“No I am not,” he replied defensively. He honestly didn’t love this, he wanted Lou to be happy and if Kid made Lou happy than he was going to make sure everything worked out.

“Sure,” Kid replied snidely.

“Kid I’m tryin’ real hard not to loose my temper but you’re makin’ it mighty hard,” Jimmy warned him.

“I think what Jimmy is tryin’ to say is that we all love Lou and we all worry about her, but she has proven time and time again that she is very capable of handling herself,” Buck chimed in, trying to keep peace between the two.

“Lou,” Teaspoon said. He’d been expecting her.

“Teaspoon,” She simply responded.

“You ready?” He asked her.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” She answered, he noticed the strain in her voice.

“Lou you alright?” He asked her.

“Not really, Kid and I had a fight,” she said glumly. Tears shimmered in her eyes.

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked her as he put a loving arm around her.

“He doesn’t want me to go and help Sam. Teaspoon I’m at the end of my rope, with the whole situation,” she cried.

“He loves you, and just doesn’t want anything to happen to you,” he responded.

“I know, but he’s suffocating me,” she told him. “Teaspoon you treat me like an equal,” she told him.

“True, you’re like a daughter to me,” he responded to her, and it was true once he found out that Lou was a girl he respected her more than before, and that’s why he never gave her any special treatment. And she preferred it that way.

“You love me, but you treat me as an equal, why can’t Kid do the same?” she asked, he could her torment in her eyes; he wished he could take it away.

“I don’t know Lou, we don’t know Kid’s background, maybe there’s somethin’ that we don’t know, don’t be so hard on him,” he told her.

“I know,” she replied. “Do you have a paper and pencil?” She asked him?

“Sure do,” he replied with a smile.

Lou took the pencil and paper and wrote a quick note, “Teaspoon can you see that he gets this,” she asked him.

He smiled, “I’ll make sure that he gets it,” he told her, “you better get to Blue Creek to meet with Sam,” he told her, she smiled said goodbye and mounted up.

Lou knew Teaspoon wouldn’t look at the note, she wasn’t sure how Kid was going to handle what she wrote, and she had to live her life. “I need this time apart,” she told her horse, after her business with Sam was done she’d stay on with him and Emma try to work out what she was feeling, she just hoped Kid would understand.

The Search
by: Cindy


”HELP!”

Barnett woke with a start, his feet slipping off the desk, as the terrified voice reached his ears. He pushed the chair back from the desk, got his feet tangled in the mop bucket he’d been using earlier, and finally managed to get up. He grabbed his hat and gun belt, put the gun belt on his head, switched hands to put his hat on his head instead, and ran toward the door, fumbling with the belt as he went.

He almost made it . . . when suddenly the door was flung inward. He was hit broadside in the chest and flung backward, banging his head against the railing and finally winding up sitting on his butt in the middle of the floor.

Shaking his head to clear the stars spinning before his eyes, Barnett pushed his hat back and looked up. His vision cleared and he could finally make out his distressed visitor. “Miz Easton. Somethin’ I can do for you?”

Luella Easton stood for a moment in shocked silence, hand to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she finally managed to stammer. “It’s just . . . I’m so scared . . .”

Barnett scrambled to his feet. “Now Miz Easton, you just tell me what’s wrong,” he said, trying not to sway.

Luella sobbed. “Oh, it’s Lilly! I can’t find her!”

Lilly . . . Images of a dark-haired little girl finally formed in Barnett’s mind. “Your little girl is missing?” He shook his head again, trying to clear the last of the stars and the ringing in his ears. “When?”

“I . . . I was hanging out the wash,” Luella replied, her voice soft and unsteady. “It was windy, and I was having trouble with the sheets. I wasn’t watching her as closely . . .” Her voice trailed off as she sobbed.

“Now, Miz Easton, we’ll find her,” Barnett said assuredly. But then he realized there was no “we” to promise. Teaspoon had ridden over to Blue Creek on some business. Which meant it was his responsibility to find the little girl . . .

“I didn’t turn away for very long,” Luella whispered. “She was there, playing with her doll. And then she was just . . . gone.”

Barnett turned away and swallowed hard. The Easton farm wasn’t far outside of Sweetwater – but it was far enough for there to be a lot of dangers. They’d had many reports of prowling wolves in the area, as well as mountain lions – either of which could have dragged a little girl off.

And just to add to the potential problems, the sun was starting to go down.

For all the times he complained about Teaspoon deputizing his Express riders, right about now he would have been grateful for the help.

Just then some activity outside of Tompkins’ general store caught his eye. There was a familiar wagon out front, and, as he watched, the smallest rider, Lou, came out of the store carrying a box. And Lou was followed by . . .

“Buck!” He started across the street, then remembered Mrs. Easton. He turned back, took her arm, and started again.

Buck laid the box he was carrying in the back of the wagon and walked around to the front, watching as Barnett and a woman came hurrying toward them. “Barnett?”

“Buck, I need your help,” the deputy said, totally foregoing any preamble.

“With what?” Buck asked, studying the woman with Barnett. It was easy to see she looked terrified.

“Well, this here’s Miz Easton,” Barnett explained. “Her little girl done disappeared.”

Buck looked from Barnett to the woman and back again. He couldn’t exactly say that he and Barnett were friends, but they had come to something of an understanding during the time Teaspoon had left the two of them in charge of the town’s safety. So he would have helped anyway – but the fear and sadness in the woman’s eyes really roped him in. “What happened?”

“I was hanging laundry, and I looked away,” Luella replied. “It wasn’t long at all, but when I looked back, she was gone. I tried to find her, and I called and called for her, but she didn’t answer.”

“You see anyone else around?” Lou asked as she came around the wagon to join them.

The other woman shook her head. “No one. I’ve seen no one for days. But when I couldn’t find her I came to town for help.”

“You done the right thing,” Barnett assured her.

Luella looked at Barnett and tried to smile, then she turned to Buck. “Please, do you think you can help?”

“Buck’s the best tracker around,” Lou said before Buck could answer. “If anyone can find your little girl, he can.”

“I’ll sure try, ma’am,” Buck said. “Can you take us out and show us where you were?”

Luella nodded. “Of course. My horse is just there over by the marshal’s office.”

“Guess I’ll go get my horse too,” Barnett said as he turned to follow Luella.

Buck watched them for a moment, then he started toward his horse which was tied behind the wagon. “Lou, you take the wagon out to the station.” He held up his hand to cut off the protest he knew was coming. “We might be needing help with this, so see if anyone else is back yet, and then bring everyone to the Easton place. I’m pretty sure it’s the one out by that curve in the river, right near Devil’s Gate.”

Lou nodded and climbed onto the wagon, then turned back. “Buck you don’t think . . .”

That the little girl had fallen into the river? He finished the thought silently, not wanting to say the words out loud. “I need to get out there and see what tracks I can find before it gets dark,” he said, avoiding the question. “Just hurry.”

“Right.” Lou flicked the reins and started the wagon toward home.

Buck watched her for a moment, then he mounted his horse. Mrs. Easton was waiting in front of the jail, and just then Barnett came out from behind the building. Without wasting time on any more words, the three of them headed out of town.

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

Small four-year-old girls don’t leave very distinct footprints, especially when the ground is hard and dry from a long period of no rain. But when they drag a doll behind them, that makes the trail a bit easier to pick up.

Until the trail reaches rock, and disappears altogether.

The fading sunlight was a concern, and Buck cast a quick glance at the reddening horizon as he circled, looking for any sign of the girl. Under other circumstances, he would have considered it a beautiful sunset – but now it was an enemy.

“Anything?” Barnett asked, shifting his feet nervously. He hated just standing around – but he knew his tracking skills were slim at best. He could help best by making sure he didn’t scuff over something that Buck could pick up on.

Buck shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, mainly for the mother’s benefit. He wanted her to know they weren’t giving up. “Mrs. Easton, do you have any lanterns?”

“What?” She looked up as if startled out of some deep private thought. Her brown hair hung loose now, and she had given up the nervous pretext of trying to keep it in a bun. She wiped at a tear on her cheek and then nodded. “Lanterns. Of course. There are two or three back in the barn, I think.” She gestured back toward the farmyard at the bottom of the hill.

“Maybe you could get them,” Buck suggested gently. “It’s going to be too dark for me to see soon.”

Luella hesitated. “Oh, but I . . .”

“We’ll keep looking while you get them,” Buck assured her.

She hesitated again, but then nodded. “All right,” she said as she turned and hurried down the hill.

“What do you think, Buck?” Barnett asked after she was out of earshot.

Buck shrugged and returned to checking the ground as he widened his circle. “She was just walking, nothing to indicate there was anyone else here.”

“And, uh, she wasn’t dragged, like by a wolf or nothin’?” Barnett continued.

Buck shook his head. “That would leave a definite trail.” Not to mention blood.

And just because he hadn’t found a trail like that yet didn’t mean he wouldn’t find it over the next rise.

Barnett seemed to have no more questions for the time being, and Buck took the opening to walk a little faster. He also widened his circle even more. He wasn’t going to find anything on the rocks, and he needed to use every bit of the remaining daylight to his advantage. It was all well and good to ask for lanterns, but the artificial light was a poor substitute for sunlight.

He climbed to the top of an outcropping of rock, smiling to himself as he saw dirt and underbrush on the other side. Even from where he stood he could see crushed twigs and bent grass. “Up here, Barnett!”

Barnett scrambled up onto the rocks. “What do you see?”

“There.” Buck pointed to the broken brush. He took a few steps and then crouched down. When he stood up again he held something in his hand. “Mrs. Easton said Lilly was wearing a pink dress, right?”

“That’s right,” Barnett agreed, hurrying forward.

Buck opened his hand to reveal a torn scrap of pink fabric. Feeling a renewed energy after this find, he turned back and scanned the ground for more signs.

The shadows deepened, and Buck slowed his pace again. At least he had something to follow now, and he didn’t want to lose it.

For a few minutes there was just the sound of the gentle night breeze rustling the grass as Buck moved carefully but steadily forward.

“Mrs. Easton just came out of the barn,” Barnett called.

Buck just nodded, his attention caught by something just up ahead. Stepping carefully over the trail he leaned down and reached into some brush. When he stood up, he had a doll in his hand.

“What do you think happened?” Barnett asked as he saw what Buck had.

“I don’t know,” Buck answered, studying the ground again. “She dragged the doll all this way.” He edged forward. “Why would she . . . WHOA!”

Barnett rushed forward as he saw Buck seemingly start to disappear into the ground. He threw himself down and reached for Buck’s hand.

Buck had managed to catch hold of a rock to keep from slipping farther, but his grip was anything but secure. It wasn’t until he felt Barnett grab his other arm that he relaxed at all.

Together, the two men struggled for a moment until Barnett was able to pull Buck forward enough so that Buck’s entire body was visible again.

“Buck, what happened?”

Buck just lay still for a moment. He realized he had been holding his breath, and now he took a deep breath that came out sounding more like a gasp.

“Buck? You all right?” Barnett leaned in closer, genuine concern on his face.

Buck finally nodded, “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks, Barnett.”

“So what happened?”

Buck got to his knees and crawled very carefully back to where he had just been. He pulled some brush away, revealing a gaping dark hole.

“Whew!” Barnett whistled. “Buck, you don’t think . . .”

Buck nodded slowly. “It was covered by brush – she wouldn’t have seen it. And I found her doll right there by the hole.”

Barnett inched a little closer. “There was some mining companies up here, back ‘fore the Eastons bought the place. Guess it might be a shaft they dug.” He paused shaking his head. “Miz Easton, she just lost her husband to the fever last year. If her little girl . . .”

“We don’t know that she’s not all right,” Buck said quickly, not wanting to think about the other option – at least not until he had to. He leaned into the hole and yelled. “Lilly!”

But all he heard as the echo of his own voice.

“Lilly?” Luella came running over the hill. “Did you find her? Lilly?”

Buck caught her before she could stumble into the hole.

“Oh my God,” she sobbed, looking into the darkness. “Is she . . .”

“We don’t know anything for sure,” Buck said quickly.

“Buck found her doll right at the edge,” Barnett added.

“The hole was covered by brush,” Buck continued. “No one would have seen it.”

An uncomfortable silence followed as Buck took one of the lanterns from Luella Easton. Without even really seeming to know what she was doing she held out a box of matches and he took those as well. He set the lantern down, using his body to block the growing evening breeze, and then he lit the wick.

The soft yellow glow lit up the crest of the hill – and revealed three very worried faces.

Almost afraid of what he might see, but understanding they had to know, Buck edged back toward the hole He dropped to his belly and held the lantern out over the gaping darkness.

All he saw beyond a few feet of light was more darkness.

“Do you see her?” Luella whispered.

Buck edged carefully back from the hole before he turned over and sat up. He shook his head slowly. “We’re going to need some rope.”

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

While Barnett and Luella Easton gathered supplies, Buck made a careful circuit of the area around the hole. He didn’t want to be going down into that blackness if it turned out the girl had gone around.

Unfortunately, he found no sign of her passage anywhere other than leading up to the shaft.

He looked up as the sound of wheels got closer, and he saw Barnett leading two horses, encouraging them to pull the heavy farm wagon up over the last bit of rise before they reached the top.

Buck held up his hand, stopping Barnett well back from the hole. “That’s close enough,” he said. “We don’t want to risk caving that hole in.”

Barnett nodded and pulled the hand brake on the wagon. Then he reached into the back. “We brought the rope from the barn like you said.”

Buck took one of the lengths of rope and started to unroll it. He checked carefully for any frayed or worn areas, since this would be all that was keeping him from falling to the bottom of the shaft. But the rope seemed to be whole and strong. He nodded to Barnett and bent down to tie one end off on the wagon.

Barnett swallowed nervously and looked over at the shaft. “Buck, you, uh, you want me to go down there?” he asked nervously. He really didn’t want to, but he felt like he had to offer.

Buck waited a moment before answering. Part of him really didn’t want to be the one to go down into that blackness – and even more, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be the one to find what might by lying at the bottom. But he also knew he had to do it. “No, I’ll go,” he answered. “But thanks, Barnett.”

Buck stood up and threw his weight backward, testing the knots holding the rope. Everything seemed secure – except for his nerves. The palms of his hands were sweating and he almost lost his grip.

He took a deep breath and tossed the rope into the pit. The end disappeared into the darkness almost immediately. Then he took his gloves out of his jacket, tossed the jacket aside, and pulled the gloves on. Hopefully the soft leather would provide a secure grip as he descended.

Buck picked up a second rope and handed it to Barnett. “Tie a lantern to one end,” he instructed. “Then run the rope over that branch I put across the opening. That should keep the lantern from banging against the walls.” At least, that’s what he hoped.

“You got it, Buck,” the deputy agreed.

Buck turned toward the pit and found Luella Easton standing right in front of him.

“Find my baby,” she pleaded. “Please.”

Buck took her hand and nodded. “I will,” he promised. Alive or dead, he wasn’t sure – but he was confident that Lilly Easton’s trail led directly to that hole and nowhere else.

He stepped up to the edge, now cleared of all the brush that had previously hidden the danger. Then he picked up the rope, got a good grip with both hands, and stepped over the edge.

Even though he had a secure hold on the rope, there was still a feeling of falling as he found himself dangling just inside the opening.

He swung there for a moment, getting his bearings and adjusting his grip on the rope. And then he braced his feet against the wall and began to lower himself down into the darkness.

After a few steps he paused and looked down. But he realized he couldn’t even see the rope beneath his feet.

When he looked up, the edge of the pit was just a dark blur.

He’d never been afraid of the dark – but this was a darkness like he’d never experienced before.

“Barnett, the lantern!”

“Right here, Buck!”

Buck breathed a little easier as he saw the light up above. It came slowly toward him, dangling in the middle of the shaft.

“That better, Buck?”

“Yeah, it’s fine, Barnett,” Buck replied. Now he could at least see a few feet past his boots. “Just keep lowering it real slow.”

He started down again, and it didn’t seem quite as bad now that the bobbing light was there to keep him company. The lantern’s light cast eerie shadows on the walls of the pit, revealing the uneven surface.

A ledge appeared just below and Buck took the opportunity to put his feet there, taking some strain off of his arms. Already his shoulders were aching – and he still couldn’t see the bottom.

Barnett was following orders and lowering the lantern very slowly on the second rope – but now after his little rest the light was below him. Buck considered calling up to have Barnett stop for a few minutes, but then thoughts of a little girl pushed him back into action.

It wasn’t long before he was seriously questioning his entire plan. The muscles in his shoulders burned in pain from holding his weight, and his fingers were so tightly cramped around the rope that he wondered if he’d ever be able to open them again.

But the light kept going on its way downward, and so he did too.

Until he slid his left hand down for his next handhold on the rope and his fingers closed against thin air.

Swinging wildly for a moment, dangling with only one hand on the rope, he scrambled for a foothold against the side of the shaft. Finally, he felt his feet catch against an outcropping, and he managed to get his left hand up and around the rope again.

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed that way, clinging to the side of the shaft. Buck struggled to get his breathing under control. When he finally felt like his heart rate had slowed back down to normal, he carefully looked over his shoulder and down.

The lantern was well below him now – and still he couldn’t see the bottom.

“Barnett!” His voice echoed as he hollered up to where the opening was now barely lighter than the total darkness surrounding him.

“What is it Buck?” The voice came echoing down.

“Stop the light!”

“Are you at the bottom, Buck?”

“No,” Buck called back. “But I’m at the end of my rope!” Of all the luck, his rope had run out while the light kept going.

“We got longer ropes, Buck!”

That was a different voice, Buck knew. “Jimmy?”

“I’m here, Buck,” came the reply. “Me, Teaspoon, Ike, Lou, and Rachel are here.”

“Can you hang on where you are, son?” Teaspoon called.

Buck shifted his weight on the small outcropping, easing the pressure on his aching shoulders. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“We’re sending down another rope!” Jimmy yelled. “Let me know when you see it.”

“Pull the light up a little,” Buck replied. “I can’t see anything.” The light came up until it was nearly even with him. “That’s good!” It was better to see again.

“Here comes the rope!” Jimmy called.

Buck looked up, watching. Finally he saw the end of the rope dangling closer – but on the other side of the shaft. “Jimmy, I’m on the other side.”

Almost immediately the rope swung around the hole, coming around toward him. Buck braced himself again, and when the rope came around he grabbed onto it with his left hand, then carefully switched his right hand over as well.

But when he looked down the end of the rope barely extended three feet beyond his boots.

“Jimmy, the rope’s not any longer!”

“Yeah, it is, Buck,” Jimmy replied.

“You just grab on,” Teaspoon added. “We’ll help lower you down.”

That sounded like an improvement, Buck decided – as his shoulders protested at taking his weight again. “Go ahead.”

He felt the rope start to go down, so he concentrated on just holding on. He kept his feet against the wall, walking down, keeping pace. His friends at the top kept the rate slow and steady.

He looked down again – and then leaned over to stare harder. The lantern had gotten a little bit ahead, and in the dim glow he thought he saw something.

Something pink.

He debated about calling out, but decided to wait until he knew for sure. It might not be Lilly – or she could be dead.

Now the pace seemed achingly slow, but he was still too high up to jump safely. But the image got brighter, and pinker, as he got closer.

Finally, the wall of the shaft seemed to suddenly stop, and he found footing under his boots. It was soft and springy, and as he knelt down he realized that years worth of brush was lining the floor. At least the girl had had something soft to land on, which gave him some hope.

“I’m down!” he yelled. From the echo, he wondered if his voice would even carry back to the surface. But the lantern stopped moving, swinging lightly in place a few feet away.

Right over a tiny figure in pink.

He crawled to her, holding his breath. The light from the lantern cast an eerie glow in the close darkness. Her right leg was bent at an unnatural angle and he could see blood along her temple. In the shaky light he couldn’t tell if she was breathing, so he slowly slid his hand near her face . . .

And felt a breath!

Buck slid closer, brushing his fingers lightly against her cheek to push the girl’s hair out of the blood. He was rewarded by seeing her eyelids flutter, and she whimpered softly.

“Teaspoon!”

“What ya got, Buck?”

“She’s here – unconscious, but alive!”

“Lilly!”

That was Luella Easton’s voice, Buck knew. And then all he heard was a murmuring as the words exchanged on the surface didn’t carry down to the bottom of the shaft.

“Buck, what do you want to do?” Jimmy called down.

“I need to splint her leg before I try moving her,” Buck replied. “And maybe a blanket to wrap her in.”

“On the way!” was Jimmy’s reply.

It wasn’t long before Buck could make out a shape coming down toward him. He stood up to grab it before it could hit the little girl. His fingers could feel the material of a blanket, and he pulled the bundle closer to the lantern. He untied the rope and opened the bundle. Inside he found sticks and strips of cloth for a splint, a canteen – and the doll he had found up top.

He tucked the doll into Lilly’s arm, and then he used some of the water from the canteen to wash away the blood on her face. He gently straightened the broken leg and strapped the sticks tightly against the appendage to hold it in place. In the dark he couldn’t really tell if he got the bone exactly straight, but they could deal with that once he got her back to the surface.

Finally, he wrapped her in the blanket and used his knife to cut off the end of the rope that had lowered the bundle. He used the rope to tie the blanket securely in place.

“Buck, you ready?” Jimmy called.

“Yes,” Buck replied. “Can you pull her up without hitting the sides of the shaft?” And it was none too soon to be ready, he decided, as the lantern began to sputter, low on kerosene.

There was a moment of silence before he got his answer.

“Buck, you tie the rope onto you, and carry the little girl,” Teaspoon said. “We’ll pull you both up.”

Buck grabbed the end of the rope he had come down on. He wrapped it several times around his waist, then tied it off securely. Then he picked up the bundle that held Lilly Easton and tugged on the rope above him. “Ready!”

Just then, the lantern sputtered one last time and went out, leaving him in absolute darkness.

But before he could even worry about that, he felt the tension on the rope pulling him upward. He tightened his grip on Lilly and worked his feet onto the wall, walking up as those above pulled. With one arm holding the little girl, and the other on the rope, going up was actually easier than coming down had been.

Soon he could see light up above, and he knew someone was waiting with a lantern there. He put his trust in the people up top, and didn’t worry about the darkness where he was.

They were moving steadily up, toward the surface.

Toward friends and family, and the end of a successful search.

Somnambulism

By Jo

The sound of galloping hoof beats woke Buck. He’d overslept, again. What was wrong with him? He’d been taught from as far back as he could remember that he was supposed to be up with the sun if not before. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and glanced out the window. The sun was well above the horizon and the only other person in the bunkhouse was Cody, who was sleeping soundly.

At least Cody had an excuse; he’d ridden in well after midnight after delivering an urgent dispatch for Teaspoon. Buck had been in bed and sleeping long before Cody got home. Sure he’d woken up when Cody came in, they all had, quiet and Cody were not often used in the same sentence. Buck couldn’t recall staying awake long after that so he must have gone back to sleep.

Buck glanced over at Ike’s bunk, while getting dressed, and again it appeared to have been slept in. Ike would never sleep in it again though, who was doing this? His gaze lowered and he noticed the knees of his longjohns were dirty and wondered for a second how that might have happened. The question left his minds only seconds after he had it and as he finished dressing was about to pull on his boots when he noticed his socks were filthy again. He grabbed his last clean pair of sock from his trunk, pulled the boots on and made both his bunk and Ike’s. He glanced out the window when he finished and saw Rachel bringing the riders’ breakfast over and hurried to open the door for her.

“Why thank-you Buck, you were up early this morning….” Rachel stated as she placed the food on the table. “Can you help me set the table or do you have something else to do?”

“Um, no, sorry, I mean, sure I’ll take care of the table.” Buck, thinking she was chiding him for his tardiness, quickly got the dishes, utensils and napkins and placed them on the table where each of the riders sat. Rachel had gone back to the house to get the coffee and call the others for the meal. Buck had finished setting the table and the smell of food had awoken Cody by the time everyone arrived.

“Where are you going, young man?” Rachel asked as Buck tried to duck out without eating, he hadn’t set a place for himself. “You sit right there and eat, you are going to make yourself sick not eating like this.”

“I’m fine, I’m just not hungry, I’ll eat lunch, I promise….” Buck closed the door quickly before she could respond.

“I’m worried about him, Teaspoon, he’s lost weight and he’s working himself to the bone. He was up before the sun again.” Rachel shook her head and spooned more scrambled eggs onto Cody’s empty plate. “You saw him he’s exhausted….is he sleeping at all?”

“He gets up and does all the chores that him and Ike used to do then goes back to bed. It’s really weird.” Kid stated as he reached for a slice of toast.

“He brushed down Ike’s horse too and all the tack is in perfect order.” Lou spoke between bites.

“Sampson’s stall is always clean with fresh hay and water when we get into the barn so he’s taking care of him too. That donkey was Ike’s pet wasn’t it?” Noah asked no one in particular.

“Yeah more or less, Ike loved that donkey. Maybe its just Buck’s way of coping, Ike really was the only family he had left after his brother told him to leave.” Cody added.

“Yeah I guess.” Rachel shrugged.

“I’ll keep a closer eye on him if and when he gets up tonight, will that make you feel better Rachel?” Teaspoon asked. Rachel nodded and the conversation turned to other matters.

Out in the barn Buck was miserable. Once again someone had done all of his chores, and the ones Ike used to do. He looked around and noticed that the hay cribs were getting low so he started filling them. He worked all morning trying to make up for oversleeping and not doing his fair share of the work. His body ached, there were blisters on his hands, and his head was pounding by the time he finished. He walked back to the bunkhouse to clean up when he saw Rachel hanging the wash and struggling with a heavy quilt.

“Let me get that…” Buck grabbed one end and soon the quilt was hanging in the sun to dry.

“Lunch is almost ready Buck go on ahead and clean up, I’ll be right in.” Rachel thanked Buck.

Ten minutes later everyone but Buck had begun eating their lunch, he was nowhere in the house. Lou offered to go over to the bunkhouse and check and found him sound asleep, his head resting on his folded arms at the table. She woke him gently. “Buck, Buck come on Rachel has lunch over at the house and you promised you’d eat.”

Buck lifted his head, blinking, eyes slightly unfocused, and ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry Lou; I don’t know why I’m so lazy lately, I’m just so worn out.”

Lou took one look at the exhausted rider and changed her mind about making him eat. There were dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. “Don’t worry Buck, sorry but, you look like hell. Why don’t you lie down and take a nap, maybe it’ll help.” Lou gently but firmly guided Buck to his bunk and made him lay down. He was asleep in seconds. Lou tucked a blanket around his thin shoulders.

Lou returned to the house and told the others what she’d found. “This is at least second week in a row that he’s been doing this, he gets up before dawn, lies in Ike’s bunk for awhile then goes out does all his and Ike’s chores and then goes back to bed.”

“I tried talking to him the other night ‘cos he woke me up, and he acted like I wasn’t there.” Jimmy offered.

“The same happened with me.” Kid and Lou both said.

“Does he get dressed or does he go out in his longjohns?” Rachel asked. Buck’s underclothes had been filthy as had his sheets the last few weeks.

“Come to think on it, no, he don’t get dressed. He just goes out in whatever he went to bed in. The other night when it was raining he came back in all soaked and muddy and just got in bed.” Lou looked at the others. Rachel and Teaspoon looked very worried, she remembered those sheets well.

That night Buck forced himself to eat something for dinner and went to bed at the same time as the others. Lou woke up much later to the sound of rain and in time to see Buck climbing into Ike’s bunk. He seemed to be asleep and was soon snoring quietly, she turned over and fell back to sleep.

Once again Buck awoke late in his own bunk and saw that Ike’s bunk had been slept in. He was just getting ready to leave the bunkhouse when Rachel entered. “Buck can I have a word with you?” She asked as she walked over to his bunk and pulled back the blankets and sheets.

“Sure, but I need to get to my chores….” Buck stopped as he looked down at the muddy mess where his feet had been in bed, the rest of the sheets were soiled as well. “What? How?”

“That’s my question to you mister….it was raining last night, now I don’t mind that you get up and do your chores in the middle of the night, I don’t even care if you choose to do them in your birthday suit but at least put on your boots. I’m sick and tired of scrubbing your sheets because you track in mud and dirt then just get into bed. I’m at the end of my rope as far as doing your dirty laundry, please be a bit more considerate. Oh Buck, for heaven’s sake……” Rachel was really angry when she tossed a mud clod out of Buck’s bed onto the floor. “I’d appreciate it if you’d sweep this floor too. I’m sorry Ike died and I’m sorry you’ve taken this so hard but you have to stop making life hard on the people around you. And I just washed this floor yesterday because of all the dirt on it”

Buck hung his head and turned to get the broom. “Yes, Ma’am, I’m sorry…I don’t know who’s been doing my chores but I’ll make it up to them I promise. I’ll scrub the sheets and my other things if that will help….”

The others had heard Rachel yelling at Buck through the open door of the bunkhouse and had gathered around to listen. They exchanged confused glances when he said he didn’t know who was doing his chores. Teaspoon heard Buck’s last statement and everything became clear. He mounted the steps to the bunkhouse and cleared his throat. The others gathered around the door.

“Son, I think I know what your problem is, Rachel, don’t be too mad at the boy, he can’t help himself. Buck you are the one doing your chores and Ike’s and a good deal of the others too. You don’t remember any of this, do you?” Buck shook his head. “Do you remember me telling you to take your socks off before you went in the bunkhouse this morning? Look at the tracks you left.” Buck knelt down and studied his footprints, they looked like bare footprints until you looked close; the faint outline of the sock could be seen.

Buck looked up, confusion written all over his face. “I have no memory of this, not any of it….what’s wrong with me?” He sat heavily on the bench by the table putting his head in his head in his hands. He appeared confused and dejected.

“You’re sleepwalking son….I’ve seen it happen to soldiers after they lost a close friend or brother in battle. Now don’t worry, I know just how to cure you….” A collective groan could be heard from the riders and Jimmy grimaced remembering the ground pig’s feet Teaspoon had given him for his toothache. Teaspoon shot them all a look and they became suddenly mute. They all knew Buck was in for a rough few days but they also knew he’d get through it.

Teaspoon put his arm around Buck’s shoulders and led him from the bunkhouse in the direction of the sweat lodge. As he passed Cody, Teaspoon handed him the broom Buck had been holding. “I believe you know how to use one of these Mr. Cody….”

“Does this mean we have to do Ike and Buck’s chores too?” Cody groaned.

“It means you’ve had it too easy the last few weeks, now get to sweeping.” Rachel laughed.

Who's Walkin' Who?
By Dede

A/N: This is dedicated to all fuzzballs everywhere. And especially to my particular 90 lb. fuzzball, Cody. d;-)

Jimmy felt as if his arm was coming out of the socket. He tugged back.

"Daddy can I pleeeeeease keep him?" Joshua pleaded with his father. "I swear I'll take care of him. Honest!"

"Right," Jimmy muttered. "So who's the one that feeds the monster? Huh? And who's the one out walkin' the thing? Or more like being dragged down the street of Sweetwater." He ignored the odd looks in his direction.

"Oh, it's precious," Lou exclaimed. "Look at how cute and cuddly it is." She hugged the squirming ball of fur. "Oh it won't get that big, just look at him."

"Right again," he grunted. "Not that big, yeah. Try the fact that it weighs about as much as a small horse." He tried to slow down. "And eats about the same amount." Again, he tugged forcefully on the rope - nothing.

"Now Jimmy," Teaspoon said, about to impart all the wisdom he knew about dogs, "Takin' care of a dog really ain't that hard. And he'll be a darn good guard for Lou and my gran'children."

"Guard?" he spat. Jimmy almost tripped because he was walking so fast. He refused to run so he tugged at the rope again. What was he saying..."Oh, guard? If the meanest outlaw came ta shoot me, this mutt would lick his face and prob'ly help him do it." He pulled once more on the rope, again with no results. "I think Buck knew somethin' about you," he said to the dog, "but wouldn't say anythin'...the fox."

As Jimmy kept up a constant grumbling, the dog turned towards the marshal's office. Jimmy tried pulling the dog in the other direction, not wanting to hear Teaspoon's or Buck's comments. Unfortunately, the dog was the winner. Trying very hard to stay on his feet and actually walk to the building, Jimmy gripped the rope and tugged with all his might. The dog didn't budge.

"Well, now," Teaspoon said as he sat up in his chair outside the office, "look who's come for a visit. Howdy Hickok."

The dog was so excited to see Teaspoon that he pulled so hard, dragging Jimmy to his knees. Giving up, Jimmy tossed the rope towards the marshal. Buck had come out the door just in time to witness the scene.

"Ah, Jimmy, you still having troubles?" Buck asked between laughs.

"Ha, ha, ha," Jimmy grumbled as he stood up and wiped the dirt from his pants.

"Hello Hickok," Teaspoon gushed over the dog as the dog covered the man's face in slobbery doggie kisses.

"His name ain't Hickok!" Jimmy snapped. "Dang thing should be named Cody for all the help he is and as much as he eats."

"Well, that's the name Joshua gave 'im," Teaspoon said, enjoying the sour look on Jimmy's face, though he did agree that Cody would have been a good name too.

"Yeah, that's what Lou said too," Buck chimed in being his ever helpful self. He had known how big the dog would get and had mentioned the fact to Teaspoon but the older man had said, 'Far be it from us to burst a young boy's dream.' And Buck had agreed - quite happily.

"Alright, we gotta go," Jimmy griped, leaning over and picking up the dog's rope. "Time to get Josh..." That was all Jimmy was able to get out. At the mention of his master's name, Hickok took off, pulling Jimmy behind him.

"Whoa!" Jimmy yelled, trying desperately to stop the dog from pulling him, face first, down the dirt road.

Doubled over with laughter, Buck could barely speak but still called after his friend. "I don't think that command works with dogs Jimmy!"

And Teaspoon, in as much of a fit as Buck, added, "Who 'xactly's walkin' who?"

Revenge
by: Miss Raye

“Where is your friend, Missy?”

He was met with frosty silence.

“Hmm…. Cat got your tongue?” Lifting his flask he unscrewed the cap, holding it steady between his teeth and turning it with his hand; open, he lifted it into the air. “Maybe if you have a taste of this we can sit down as friends. What do you say?”

She still didn’t answer. He downed a long swig and put the flask down on a stump and slowly got to his feet.

Hopkins walked a wide circle around her. He’d learned his lesson alright. While he’d been supervising his hired help tying up the girl, she’d found the opportunity to give him a little sample of her anger.

He reached up with one hand and touched the raised welts just under his ear. Hissing out a breath he gave her a glare. “Don’t get any ideas, girl. My horse isn’t much for noise. Skittish little thing.”

Looking at her exposed arm he grinned. “Cold, eh?” He came around to the front again. “I would have offered you my coat, but,” he nodded at his missing arm, “I doubt you’d have fit the …ah... proportions.” The laugh started as a dull mirthless chuckle that came up from his throat and then continued on, rolling through his body to finally explode from his mouth.

The horse nickered and took a few steps forward. The noose tightened around the girl’s neck and she had to rise up on the balls of her feet to keep some control of her position.

“Oh….. Sorry, didn’t mean to spook the old girl… looks like Hickok better hurry up, huh?”

“You ain’t gonna walk away from this, Mister. You should let me go now before he gets here; it’s the only way you’re gonna live.”

He laughed, cold and hard like ice. “You ain’t the first woman to warn me away from Hickok, but if I have my way today, you’ll be the last.”

They both turned as the sound of hoof beats interrupted the near silence of early morning. “There he is now.”

Snap
by: Lori


A/N: Dedicated to my own little thread breaker. A continuation of sorts of QF #43 and 44

“That’s it!”

The house went silent and four pairs of eyes stared at her in stunned wonder. From the oldest to the youngest, they all regarded her with disbelief. Until eight month old Emma opened her mouth and burst out with squalls. The baby’s cries set off Jordan who had just passed his fourth birthday and was very sensitive to his sister’s tears. From there it was a chain reaction to Seth and finally Becky who couldn’t help join in with her brothers and sister. Karen closed her eyes in tired frustration. What was worse; four kids squabbling and yelling or all four crying?

She loved her children, but she would give anything for a few moments of peace. Of solitude. Of being able to sit down for longer than two seconds without hearing a cry for momma. All she wanted was to eat a meal without it growing cold first. She wanted to sip a cup of tea without having to settle a dispute. She wanted to be able to go to sleep without having a major production every night of stories, glasses of water, trips to the outhouse, diaper changes, nightgown changes, telling her children that they needed to sleep in their bed until she just gave up in exhaustion and let everyone pile into hers and then tried to get a couple of hours of sleep in between being kicked, poked and woken because the baby was hungry.

Most of all, she wanted her husband back.

She was going to hurt Teaspoon for this latest trip. He sent her husband out on a manhunt? Her, who had four children at home under the age of nine, one of which was a baby under a year. Why couldn’t he have gone, or better yet, why didn’t he send the newest deputy? The single deputy who didn’t have a wife who could use his help with the children. Teaspoon knew she wasn’t happy with him because Grandpa hadn’t been by to visit since he sent Daddy away. Three weeks ago. Two new teeth ago. One lost tooth ago where Becky had cried because Daddy always was there when she lost a tooth. One black eye ago. One trip to the schoolhouse ago because even Rachel couldn’t overlook Seth’s unruly behavior.

Karen dropped the spoon back into the pot on the stove and wrapped her apron around the handle. Dinner was ruined, there was no way she could salvage it. It was late, everyone was hungry, everyone was tired, and everyone missed Jimmy.

“Seth, stop pushing your little brother,” she snapped at him, not wanting to have to deal with another black eye on her youngest son because he’d fallen down due to his older sibling’s roughhousing.

“Becky, get the baby,” she sighed, making sure the stove was banked. “We’re going out.”

“To the rest’rant?” Seth perked up.

“No,” she shook her head. “Someplace better.”

Someplace where she could get a little tea and sympathy. Someplace where she could get a little help. Someplace where they could get a home cooked meal that they didn’t have to pick burned parts off. Someplace where she could get a little revenge.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Polly took one look at her tired and bedraggled brood when Karen knocked on the door and let out a cluck of empathy. She immediately reached for Emma who was crying in her mother’s arms and cooed over and ruffled the hair of the other three who were crowding around her, hugging whatever space they could and crying out for ‘Grandma’.

“It’s been a rough day, hasn’t it, Sugar?” she asked as Karen walked through the door, feeling like she was dragging a dead horse behind her. “I’m not surprised. Rachel told me about Seth the other day. I figured we’d be seeing you sooner rather than later.”

“I’m sorry,” the weary mother apologized. “We haven’t eaten yet, I burned the stew and biscuits and they…they just wouldn’t stop squabbling or squallin’.”

Polly ushered them all into the house, making sure to sit Karen down and telling her to sit and not move from the davenport until dinner was ready. Then she turned and called out in her voice that would brook no opposition, “Teaspoon, get out here and entertain your grandchildren.”

The weathered marshal appeared in the main room, his steps a bit hesitant even when he was met with cries of “Grandpa!”

The children swarmed him, pulling on his arms, his suspenders, whatever they could grab hold of to demand his attention. Polly handed over Emma to him and told him to entertain the children because she had to fix dinner and Karen was [i]relaxing[/i]. He looked a bit chagrinned, but sat down to try to corral the unruly brood. The minute he sat down, perching Emma on one knee the older three began shoving each other trying to claim his free leg as they sent up a chorus of “Horsy rides, Grandpa. Horsy!”

Karen watched him through half-closed eyes as he tried to ensure everyone had a turn while Emma didn’t get shoved off in their exuberance. Once horsy rides were done, they wanted to have magic tricks done which were difficult to do with one hand wrapped around a crying baby, but that didn’t daunt or sway her children. They wanted what they wanted and they were determined to have it. She had been putting up with such stubbornness ever since Jimmy left and it was time Teaspoon got a dose of it. He usually had the children when they were thrilled to see Grandpa, ready to play and then head back home; now he was finding out what she had been dealing with.

“Grandpa?”

Teaspoon paused in his attempt at a trick to please Seth and Jordan and looked at Becky. “Yes, darlin’?”

“When’s Daddy coming home?”

“Yeah,” Seth demanded. “He’s been gone so long.”

“I miss him,” Jordan sniffled, his large brown eyes filling up with tears.

“He’s not there to read us stories,” Becky declared with all the hurt feelings of an eight-year-old disappointed by not having her way.

“Or tuck us in,” Jordan whimpered.

“And Momma’s always tired and she cries at night when she thinks we’re asleep,” Seth supplied with brutal honesty that sent Karen’s cheeks flaming in shame. She didn’t know her children had heard her, and she didn’t want Teaspoon to know that part of the past two weeks.

“He’s never been gone this long before,” Becky said, her grey eyes watery as well. “Momma says you sent him away on a job but…but what if he never comes home?”

“What if he’s forgotten about us?” her four year old voiced.

“Or what,” Seth’s voice broke and shook. “What if he decides he doesn’t want to be our daddy anymore and doesn’t come home?”

By now Karen was looking the other way, tears streaming down her cheeks as her children broke her heart. She knew they missed their father, but she never knew the depths of their fears. Not wanting to have her children witness her completely breaking down, she stood and blindly stumbled for the door, ignoring Polly’s entreaties. Spilling out into the cool night she swiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand as she clung to the porch post for support. Now she was really going to hurt Teaspoon for causing her children to cry and doubt their father returning.

Gentle hands placed a shawl around her shoulders and Polly’s soothing voice whispered in her ear. “It’s alright, Sugar. Just let it out.”

“They…they think their father ran off.”

“They know Jimmy loves them and they don’t really believe that. Children voice their fears all the time, it just hurts to hear it,” the older woman’s voice caressed her just like her hands over Karen’s hair. “As soon as their daddy’s back, everything will be right in their world again and they’ll forget they ever had these thoughts.”

“I hope so,” Karen sighed, leaning against the porch rail.

“Sugar, why don’t you let the kids stay here tonight? If it’s just you and Emma tonight you’ll be more relaxed and maybe both of you can sleep better. Besides,” she grinned, “I don’t think Grandpa’s had nearly enough time with his grandkids, do you?”

Tired and awfully tempted, Karen still hesitated. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Oh, they won’t bother me,” Polly chuckled. “I’ll tell ‘em they get to have a sleepover with Grandpa and they all can bunk down in the front room together.”

“Thank you, Polly,” she said as she turned to hug the older woman who had become her surrogate mother. “I appreciate you being here tonight.”

“We’re always here to help. Now, let’s go get your children fed so that they can get ready for their night with Grandpa. And maybe if you’re really lucky, Emma will sleep through the night for you.”

“At this point,” she sighed, “I’d settle for her only waking up once.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Karen balanced Emma on her left hip while holding onto Jordan with her right hand as they walked down the street towards the school. She was going to get Seth and Becky and head over to the marshal’s office; it was part of their daily activity. Ever since showing up at Teaspoon and Polly’s house last week, drained, exhausted and ready to snap at her children, Polly had insisted on this new ritual. Grandpa, who was still in the doghouse with his wife for sending Karen’s husband away for a month, got to take the children for several hours while Karen went home. She could sit for a few moments, take care of chores which were harder to do with a toddler and a baby underfoot and get started on dinner so that when the children were returned by Teaspoon and Polly, she was able to help them with their homework, feed them, and get them ready for bed without wanting to break down into tears.

She really loved Polly.

Especially since Grandma thought that Grandpa owed it to the children to provide them with several hours of fun activities. And sitting in the marshal’s office sorting through wanted posters didn’t count.

After collecting her two oldest, they turned for the office and a bit of a spring entered Karen’s step. Emma hadn’t napped very well today and was a little fussier and the dishes from breakfast weren’t even clean yet. She was actually looking forward to simply being able to clean up the kitchen which had proved nearly impossible while holding her unhappy daughter. Yet, as they rounded the corner, a familiar sight made them all pause, then rush forward. Jimmy’s horse was tied to the post outside the marshal’s office.

Seth nearly tore the door off the hinges and Becky was right behind him, not even stopping for her younger brother as she pushed inside screaming, “Daddy!”

Jordan escaped her grasp which made it easier to hold onto Emma while she ran, in a very undignified manner, up the porch and into the building where her husband was being swarmed by his children. He was trail worn and dusty, but his joy at being home was unmistakable. He looked up as she stopped in the doorway, tears filling her eyes, and stood, the children hanging off him like ornaments on a tree. Crossing the room, he wrapped an arm around her and swept her into a kiss. A month of missed ‘goodnights’ was poured into it, and it was only when Teaspoon cleared his throat and their children pretended to gag did they remember where they were and pulled back.

“Welcome home,” she whispered through her tears. “I missed you.”

“We missed you, Daddy,” their little ones added to the chorus and he bent down and picked them all up, hugging them tightly.

“Let’s go home,” he told them. Looking over his shoulder at Teaspoon, he told his boss, “I’ll fill you in on everything later.”

Teaspoon merely nodded. Karen knew he wouldn’t dare contradict Jimmy; not today, not after last week. As they were getting ready to leave, Polly swept into the room and stopped when she saw the reunited family. Her face threatened to split with her smile and she looked over at Karen. The younger woman’s joyous eyes conveyed just how happy she was to have her husband back, and Polly winked.

As the family passed through the doorway, Polly placed her hand on Karen’s shoulder and said, “How ‘bout you let Grandpa and Grandma take the kids this weekend? They can hang out with us after they’ve spent a couple of days with Daddy. I think that Grandpa had something special in mind for them, didn’t you, Grandpa?”

Everyone turned to look at Teaspoon who looked like he’d just been administered castor oil. He managed to put on a decent smile and nodded, “Absolutely.”

The children gave a muted cheer, their delight in Grandpa’s treat overshadowed by their father’s return. But Jimmy looked at Karen, a questioning brow quirked as he asked, “What’s all that about?”

She shook her head, as she wrapped her arm through his, “I’ll tell you about it later.”

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